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Coronavirus: A tale of two wars

Published by The Nation on Sat, 23 May 2020


Segun AyoboluSeveral world leaders and analysts have likened the raging Coronavirus pandemic to the equivalent of a war waged by an invisible organism against humanity.Virtually all nations of the world are on a war footing and Nigeria is no exception. Indeed, with the onslaught of the virus, the country is in an emergency situation akin to the civil war of 19671970.The onset of the civil war caught the Federal Government as unprepared as the current insidious Coronavirus blitzkrieg has found both the federal and state governments, like rich and poor nations alike, napping.In a public lecture delivered at the University of Ibadan in May 1970, the then Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council, Federal Commissioner for Finance and mastermind of the countrys public finance management during the conflict, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, made the point that Consequently, at the outbreak of the civil war on 6th July, 1967, apart from lack of adequate military preparedness on our part, the finances of the federation were neither mobilized nor deployed on proper war footing, let alone for the long, protracted and expensive military campaign we had to conduct.Thus, the army had to be expanded considerably in response to the emergency; military expenditures ballooned phenomenally while the federal government still had to strive to meet its other obligations to the citizenry.The pressure was no less severe on the part of Biafra, which faced great odds in funding its military, innovating admirably particularly in the areas of science and technology while also having to mitigate the effects of a punishing federal blockade.Although in his Ibadan lecture, Awolowo expounded extensively on the various strategies through which the finances of the country were managed during the period such that the war was prosecuted without any external borrowing, our concern here is his emphasis on the federal governments fiscal discipline and prudent management of resources.In his words, Throughout the war we did our best to economize. Ministries, other than those of Defence and Internal Affairs, were enjoined to make 1 per cent savings in their approved estimates of expenditure for 1967/68; and to their credit, they made genuine efforts to comply.For the succeeding years, we endeavoured to keep all the Ministries concerned to the level of their 1967/68 appropriations minus 1 per cent thereof.At the same time, all capital projects, in respect of which the Federal Military Government had not irrevocably committed itself, were postponed indefinitely.The countrys situation is no less dire with respect to the current pandemic. International crude oil prices have dropped abysmally following a virtual shut down of the global economy with deleterious effects for the finances of the federal and state governments.All levels of government have been compelled to make drastic downward adjustments in their 2020 budgetary revenue and expenditure projections.Yet, unanticipated colossal sums of money have to be expended on the health sector to contain the rampaging virus, critical sectors of the national economy have been practically paralyzed while government has also had to commit substantial resources to providing palliatives to vulnerable sections of the citizenry most hard hit by the crisis.But are leaders at all levels of government approaching this crisis as if the country is indeed at war or is it still largely business as usual especially with regard to cutting avoidable wastage in governance' Some governors have taken tentative commendable steps in this direction.Governors Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State, Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State and Seyi Makinde of Oyo State, for instance, have cut the salaries and emoluments of political appointees in their states by at least half.But is this enough' Many analysts do not think so. The real source of wastage in governance is not the official salaries of the affected officials and this remains largely unaddressed.In the same vein, not many are impressed by the gesture of national legislators in donating part of their salaries for specified periods to the war against the pandemic.The members of the 9th National Assembly have been criticized for not addressing the issue of drastically cutting their age-long over bloated and opaque allowances even in the face of severe pressure on public finances as a result of the pandemic.It has been pointed out that they did not hesitate to take delivery of their imported exotic official vehicles in spite of the health emergency when even a resort to locally assembled vehicles to substantially cut costs would have shown some degree of patriotic empathy with the people in these trying times. Surely, it cannot continue to be business as usual in a season of virtual warfare.As for the state governors, it is inexcusable that they have not seized the moment to address the issue of the humongous security votes that they reportedly expend with little or no accountability.This issue assumes greater poignancy in the light of a news report in this newspaper last Sunday that a former governor of Abia State, Senator Theordore Orji, admitted to spending the sum of N38.8 billion as security votes during his tenure between 2007 and 2015.In an astonishing statement to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the former governor who now represents Abia Central Senatorial District in the Senate, claimed that he shared much of the money with members of the State House of Assembly, security informants and agencies as well as traditional rulers.According to the report, In a tell-it-all statement to his interrogators, the former governor said he gave successive members of the State House of Assembly N5.7billion, at N60 million per month, in the eight years.He also claimed to have paid N75 million monthly to security informants in 15 of 17 local government areas of the state within the period. The yet-to-be identified informants allegedly pocketed a total of N7.200 billion between 2007 and 2015.Some of the security agencies, according to him, received N2 million per month. However, he told the interrogators that he does not have a comprehensive list of all the beneficiaries of the largesse because the Government House staff who used to disburse the cash is no more.He gave the mans name as Felix. Orji said he did not ask for the list from Felix at the expiration of his tenure as governor.Senator Orji will surely have his day in court. But certainly no country where humongous public funds are allegedly routinely expended in such an opaque and cavalier manner can have the quality of health care infrastructure that can effectively respond to attacks of guerrilla-type viruses.Neither will such countries be able to elevate the vast majority of their people above the level of poverty that has made it existentially impossible for large numbers of Nigerians to abide by hygienic and social distancing guidelines necessary to curtail the spread of the Coronavirus.How much do state governors receive as security votes and how is this fund expended' Is there any legislative oversight over this expenditure' How can this source of stupendous wastage in governance be eliminated or drastically curtailed' This is of course only one example of waste that the Coronavirus experience must compel us to address decisively.The virus of corruption, avarice and waste continues to rampage across the length and breadth of the countrys public service defying the Buhari administrations valiant efforts.Let me end this piece with another quote from the inimitable Awo in a wide- ranging interview he had with the late academic philosopher, Professor Akin Makinde, in Lagos on Saturday, April 4th, 1987.According to the sage: What you may not know is that government makes money every day, probably more than it can spend on each day.In this sense, government is never broke unless some funny things happen. What a good government like that of the Western Region under my leadership should do is to keep an eagles eye on the nations treasury, its incomes and expenditures.He continued: You must see government as big business where the shareholders are happy at the end of the year when good profit is declared and good dividends are paid.A business that indulges in frivolous and unproductive spending is not likely to satisfy its shareholders at the end of the yearI think government should not be run as if it is nobodys business, where everybody will like to steal and steal public money to no end. It is abominable, it is wicked!
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