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 Hello Venezuela!!! 

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It is not news that Nigeria is rapidly sliding down a slippery economic slope to where Venezuela is, today.  It is not also news that Nigerians are living in denial of this obvious fact; a rather defeatist disposition. The projection is that if the current trend is not halted and reversed, Nigeria will sink into bankruptcy by 2026. Where is Venezuela and in what situation is she? Located on the northern coast of South America, Venezuela consists of a continental landmass and many islands and islets in the Caribbean Sea. It has a territorial extension of 916,445 km2 flanked on the east and west by Guyana and Colombia, respectively, with its southern neighbour being Brazil. Venezuela has an estimated population of 29 million; Caracas is the capital and also its largest city.
Venezuela has the world’s largest known oil reserves  and has been one of the world’s leading exporters of oil. Previously, Venezuela was an underdeveloped exporter of agricultural commodities such as coffee and cocoa, but oil came and dominated exports and government revenues. Poor public policy conceptualisation and implementation and brazen corruption resulted in the collapse of Venezuela’s entire economy. Currently, Venezuela is in decay and has been declared in default by credit rating agencies. The crisis in Venezuela has contributed to a rapidly deteriorating human rights situation, including increased abuses such as torture, arbitrary imprisonment, extrajudicial killings and attacks on human rights advocates.
The severity of the shortages and socioeconomic and security challenges have led to more than three million Venezuelans fleeing the country, leading to the largest refugee crisis ever recorded in the Americas.
From the above background of Venezuela, we note the following commonalities with Nigeria: (1) originally, great exporter of agricultural produce, (2) then, oil entered with stupendous wealth, (3) abandonment of agriculture (4) poor leadership resulting in faulty conceptualisation and implementation of public policies leading to (5) corruption, (6) widespread poverty, and (7) social disorder and insecurity In our insistent and persistent drive towards Venezuela, Nigeria earned N970.3 billion from oil, N1.6 trillion from non-oil taxes [more revenue than oil] and N2.8 trillion from a cumulative of other sources in 2021.
In total, the country’s revenue amounted to N5.5 trillion. Now, put on your seatbelts for a bumpy analytical ride: out of that N5.5 trillion revenue, N4.2 trillion was spent on servicing (repaying) debts incurred from January to November. This leaves a balance of N1.3 trillion obviously, this balance is inadequate to run the country because in the 2021 national budget, the nation needed to run on a total of N13.57trillion. Elementary arithmetic shows that there is the need for an extra N12.27 trillion which can only be obtained in the global money market by BORROWING with stifling interest and strangulating strings attached. In the same year Nigeria spent N12.56 trillion (most of which were borrowed) on salary, fuel subsidy, LOOTING, etc., which are things that do not bring money back. Nigerians do not seem to realise how critical 2023 election is.
That is why political office seekers do not focus on issues that matter and, tragically, the generality of the electorate have failed to insist on issues-based campaign rather than empty political sloganeerism and politicisation of religion and ethnicity. The point remains that Nigeria desperately needs a president with proven disposition and competence to nurse the ailing and hemorrhaging economy to recovery.  Nigeria has been ranked 103 out of 121 countries in the 2022 Global Hunger Index, a position that signifies that the nation “has a level of hunger that is serious.” Within one year alone, the Naira has declined from N415/dollar, which was already very bad at the time, to a whopping N820/dollar, and still declining. In a satire, a financial analyst captured Nigeria in a metaphor of a man who earns 100k per month and borrows N5 million monthly to pay utility bills and run the household. Not only does this man borrow like a crazy person, he has no savings for emergencies such as ill health etc. The rule is that no country should  borrow more than 40 per cent of its GDP and, currently, Nigeria is at 36.9 per cent, which leaves the marginal room of 3.2 per cent after which the alarm clock will go off. Persistent revenue drop as the economy is experiencing and unrelenting borrowing spree will, sooner than later, bring the nation to 3.2 per cent and tip the economy over the 40 per cent of GDP milestone. It will then be “Hello Venezuela!!!” Meanwhile, the finance minister thinks that what we have is a revenue problem – and not a debt problem and if we sell more oil we will be alright.
Since the economic crisis in Venezuela, 7.5 million Venezuelans have taken refuge elsewhere.Given a National population of 28.2 million, 7.5 million reflects approximately 25 per cent of Venezuela population. Apply this percentage to Nigeria and we will contend with 54 million Nigerians seeking refuge outside. Now, the population of Nigeria’s neighbours, moving clockwise from Benin Republic is as follows: Benin (12.8 million), Niger (26.2 million), Chad (17.5 million) and Cameroon (28 million). These figures add up to 108.1 million, which is slightly below fifty percent of Nigeria’s population of 217.8 million. Sticking with the comparison with Venezuela, if 25 percent of the Nigerian population (54 million) spills into the neighbouring countries, that will precipitate huge refugee crisis in the West African subregion.
The tragedy is that whereas the United States of America, in its magnanimity, has opened its doors to streams of thousands of Venezuelan refugees, Nigeria’s neighbours are incapable of accommodating the deluge of refugees that such socioeconomic crisis will belch out. Obviously, xenophobia (Nigeria-phobia) will be instantaneous.  In a 1984 hit song that captured the state of confusion in the nation, Sunny Okosun rhetorically asked “Which way Nigeria?” Today, we are obviously more confused than we were almost four decades ago when that thought-provoking question was asked. February 25, 2023 provides a veritable opportunity for Nigerians to decide which way to go. Nigerians should know that once a decision is made that day, we will all live with the realities of its outcomes for four years.

By: Jason Osai
Prof. Osai lectures in Rivers State University

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Opinion

Rescuing Local Government From Limbo

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The local government system is one of the three tiers of government, set up by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to discharge different levels of social contracts with the Nigerian people. These governments – the federal, state  and local,  draw funds monthly from a pool of the nation’s commonwealth which accrues through the federation’s  account to enable them  function.  While the other two tiers independently articulate their respective affairs to pursue various governance goals and objectives, the local government has over the years remained under the dictates of the second-tier when in the real sense, the local government,  being the closest to the grassroots, should be the most important government level. Moreso, the local government area has the advantage of uniformity in ethnic, linguistic and cultural harmony, which enables for greater understanding, acceptability and mutual trusts, as against the polarising diversity encountered by the wider tiers.
It is therefore, unfortunate that the local government found itself  hamstrung by the actions of state government, the inadvertent acquiessence of the federal government, as well as by the pliability of some local government officials. The unhindered functionality of local councils should have created the vital governance connections needed between Nigeria’s leaderships and its peoples, as well as form  the foundations from which local officials, groomed in good governance affairs, are raised for both state and federal duties. It was therefore cheering when the news filtered that the federal government, through the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Prince Lateef Fagbemi, had filed a suit at the Supreme Court against the 36 state governments to demand full autonomy for all LGAs in the country. It should be recalled that the National Assembly during the past regime of President Muhammadu Buhari had passed a bill for full local government autonomy but the process got stalled by non-ratification by state houses of assembly. The present National Assembly is also working on a bill that would empower the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), rather than governor-controlled State Independent Electoral Commissions (SIECs), to conduct local government elections. These are trail-blazing reforms, and deserve some  commendations.
In the latest onslaught by the Federal Government to ensure that democratically elected governments run the local councils, it has secured a Supreme Court order “restraining the governors, their agents and privies, from receiving, spending or tampering with funds released from the Federation Account for the benefits of local governments when no democratically elected local government system is put in place in the states,” with a further order stopping state governors from embarking on unilateral, arbitrary and unlawful dissolution of democratically elected local governments, while permitting that funds in the credits of local governments be directly paid to them from the federation account in line with the provisions of the constitution as against payments to joint accounts with state governments.  The court went further to bar governors from further constituting caretaker committees to run the affairs of local governments, as governors like Prof. Charles Soludo of Anambra State is bent on doing. Prof Soludo, having come from outside the usual pack of Nigerian politicians, his case has become the most bizzare, infamous and disappointing  for a prominent economist who supposedly knows the impacts of micro and macro economic policies, and had promised during his swearing-in on March 17, 2022, that “We will conduct local government elections. No doubt, the uniform local government system as the third federating unit is one of the contesting features of our federalism, but we must make the best of a bad system by unleashing the potential of governance at a lower level.”
Despite these reassuring statements, Prof Soludo rather broke the records by infamously appointing seven regimes of local government Transition Committees in just two years, each serving a tenor of three months. Yet, he has just dissolved the seventh set of committees to appoint an eighth, before recent court orders. Actions by the likes of Governor Soludo are capable of disorienting local government officials to the point of being inadequate in the discharge of constitutional duties. As part of outcries elicited by Governor Soludo’s baffling intransigence, member representing Ogbaru Federal Constituency in the House of Representatives and Labour Party’s House of Representatives Caucus Leader, Hon. Afam Ogene, in a press statement condemned the move while saying that, “This puppeteering style of leadership, which toys with the destiny, aspiration and desires of the grassroots, must be resisted and not allowed to continue to shrink the development potentials of the LGAs”. While emphasising that local councils should not be at the whims of state governors, Hon. Ogene said that, “Such undemocratic practice of appointing LGA administrators, rather than democratic election, is an enabler of impunity and lack of democratic accountability and also hurts transparency in the local government  and   state as a whole, as those so appointed would only scramble for personal interests during the three months of their stay in office.”
In a similar move, a lawyer, Chukwuebuka Mmeni Esq, in a suit filed against the Anambra State governor at an Abuja High Court secured an order, restraining the Accountant General of the Federation and the Federal Ministry of Finance from further remitting funds due to the 21 LGAs of Anambra State to the Soludo-led state government. The era when governors see monthly local government allocations as windfalls that grease their political ambitions should not be encouraged. When the local governments eventually get their full autonomy, it would enable them decisively tackle the challenges of poor basic educational infrastructure, disfunctional primary healthcare systems, poor environmental sanitation and erosion controls, rural markets, town planning and building developments, rural agriculture and sports development. It is pertinent at this point to note that local councils had greater freedoms ab initio, much of it during the military era, but due to failures to regularly pay the salaries of staff, especially primary school teachers and primary healthcare officials, state governments seized the opportunity to form joint accounts with which payment of council staff salaries have been somewhat regular, yet much staff still suffer stagnated promotions.
That incursion by state governments has created opportunities for impunity on the parts of many governors, leading to greater alienation of municipal administration and the neglect of its other crucial roles. Therefore, in the genuine pursuit of restoring full local government autonomy, a guiding framework should be put in place to forestall a repeat of the mistakes of past local administrations. The opportunity to undergo the learning process of state building at the basic level of society is, however very vital.

Joseph Nwankwo

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Opinion

Build The City, Also Build People

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The effectiveness and relevance of a government is measured by its impacts on the people. Projects and Programmes not having direct bearing on the welfare of the people is to say the least, a waste of public funds. Every project must be consequence of the felt-need of the people. Looking at Governance in Rivers State in the last 24 years of unbroken democracy in Nigeria (May 1999 – May 2023), the governments of Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi and Sir Dr. Peter Odili have done well in terms of selfless services and putting the people first. Others have also performed according to what their perspective about governance is. A Leader can only deliver by dictates of vision and mental capacity. They can only take the State to the place of their mental picture and their preferred destination. So development is a function of Leaders’ vision. Every society rises and falls on the vision of the leader. Rotimi Amaechi and Dr. Peter Odili balanced governance between infrastructure and human capital development. For instance, not only did Rotimi Amaechi built 105 health centres, 350 state-of-the-art primary schools, about 23 Model Secondary Schools, roads etc, he also built thousands of people. He initiated the Greater Horizon and Opportunities Programme (GHOP) to avail the less privileged in the 23 Local Government Areas of Rivers State the opportunity to be developed in capacity through the Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA). Thousands of Rivers’ people were given fully paid educational scholarship to be trained outside the shores of Nigeria. The eligibility for the overseas’ scholarship, under Amaechi’s administration was devoid of partisan, ethnic/tribal, religious, and nepotistic sentiments. That was why children from poverty-riddled background could travel outside the shores of Nigeria to study courses of economic value and foster development of Rivers State.
Unfortunately, the immediate past administration of Chief Nyesom Wike did not see the merit to sustain the laudable and lofty human capacity development programmes of his predecessor. Not only did he not kill the programmes in preference for project-infrastructure: roads, bridges, housing, Chief Wike also disbanded the Rivers State Sustainable Development Agency (RSSDA) who midwifed and drove the implementation of the human capacity development programmes. The immediate past administration in the State did not consider the harsh socio-economic implications of his actions on the staff of the RSSDA and their dependants. Staff of Demonstration Schools of State owned tertiary institutions and the Rivers State Transport Company (RTC), non payment of bursary to students for eight years, non promotion of civil servants and denial of increments for eight years are eloquent testimonies and testimonials of apathy and utter neglect of the immediate past administration to human capacity development. Value was disproportionately placed on capital projects  rather than human capital development.
In the words of the Russian Philosopher and educationist, Lao Russell, “In vain you build the city if you don’t first build the man”. The reason is not far-fetched: the man that is not built can become savage and destroy the magnificent city: the roads, bridges, houses, etc. Economists hold the view that in the value chain of production, manpower, not capital is the most critical factor of production because   inefficient workforce will inevitably translate to ineffective, unproductive, failed corporate goal and moribund institution. Humans are invaluable assets, they create wealth, drive implementation of government policies and programmes.
It is good for government at all levels to embark on capital projects but it is better to build the people. Capital projects should not be done at the expense of workers’ welfare. Peter should not be robbed to pay Paul.
Consequently, the neglect and sacrifice of human capital in preference for infrastructure has become a norm in Nigeria. This explains why negotiations for an upward review of acceptable wage regime is more often than not, deadlocked and fraught with incessant arguments that were settled by threat of, or industrial dispute between government and the central labour unions: Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC).
While workers-friendly governors such as Godwin Obaseki of Edo State has increased minimum wage of workers of that State from N40,000 he was paying workers ( as against the Federal Government’s N30,000) to N70,000 without pressure from labour unions in Edo State, the Federal Government under President Bola Ahmed Tinubu that assured Nigerian workers of a “Living Wage”  is offering a paltry N60,000 despite the harsh socio-economic challenges posed by  a depressed economy. It is baffling that a Federal Government proposing N60,000 minimum wage on the ground of economic challenges is spending heavily on frivolities: N6 billion Abuja car park, N90 billion Hajj Subsidy and several other programmes that are outrageous and wasteful.
It is being speculated that some government prefer spending on capital projects  to human capital because the former serves as a conduit to siphon public funds and corrupt enrichment.
It does beat my imagination how some governors could acquire with impunity, properties and make investments for personal use with public funds.
Government at all levels and the organised Private Sector should prioritise workers’ welfare and human capital development to drive development of the society.
The struggle will continue if infrastructures are built but humans are not built. Society exists for the people, if the people are neglected, the infrastructure will suffer decay and destruction.

Igbiki Benibo

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Tinubu’s “Living Wage”: A Dashed Hope?

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It is  more than one year today, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu assured Nigerian workers that his administration will correct the anomalous hardship workers in Nigeria faced because he was irrevocably committed to doling out a “Living Wage” to them.
Nigerian workers under the two central Labour organisations: Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), and Trade Union Congress (TUC) were captivated in an euphoria of Mr. President’s mouth watering promise. President Tinubu has whipped up the pleasant sentiment and sensation of workers to believing that at last a messiah in his person (the President Tinubu) has appeared and the era of the litanical, “ aluta, struggle continues” will be  consigned to history. Workers heaved a sigh of relief that a corrective and workers’ friendly regime that never was, is in the saddle at the centre. President Tinubu (then President -elect) had told workers in his goodwill message on the May 1 Labour Day, “In the Nigeria I shall have the honour and privilege to lead from May 29, workers will have more than a minimum wage. You will have a living wage to have a decent life, and provide for your families.
“On this special day as your President-elect, I extend my hand of friendship to Nigerian workers through the two central Labour unions- Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress. In me you will have a dependable ally and a co-labourer in the fight for social and economic justice for all Nigerians, including the working people. Your fight will be my fight because I will always fight for you. My plans for a better welfare and working conditions are clearly spelt in my Renewed Hope Agenda for a Better Nigeria. It is a covenant born of conviction and one I am prepared to keep”. In Nigeria today, can Mr. President say without iota of doubt that N54,000 is a “Living Wage”?
Today the  Mr. President’s covenant with workers is a mirage, it is translating to a delusion .
Workers under the President Tinubu seem to have suffered more hardship than in past administrations, civilian or military. Hope for a “Living Wage” seems dashed.
Considering the protracted dialogue on what is supposed to be a marked departure and turning point from previous  minimum wage regimes, Nigerians and workers can now decide if Mr. President really meant to give a Living wage to workers with the present Federal Government’s position on N54,000 against Trade Union Congress and Nigeria Labour Congress’ N500,000 as minimum wage.
When the nation’s House of Representatives proposed a N100,000 minimum wage many workers were dissatisfied with the proposal which they said was pre-emptive of the 37-members Minimum Wage Committee report. Workers had hoped the outcome of the negotiation would be more than N100,000 proposed by the House of Representatives. I believe workers can realize that the Representatives are empathetic and in touch with the plight of  Nigerian workers better than the Presidency.
It is crystal clear that  President Tinubu never meant what he said about a “Living Wage” for workers. While the Federal Government hinges its decision to pay workers on sustainability of new wage regime because of economic challenges the nation under the present leadership faces, one wonders how a nation grappling with multi-dimensional socio-economic challenges will be enmeshed in frivolous expenditures. For instance, the recent approval of N6 billion for a car park in Abuja, the N90 billion Hajj Subsidy, barefaced looting of public funds by some public officers, myriad of corrupt practices that are associated with some of those in Government and the extravagant expenditures by members of the National Assembly, some State Governors political office holders, clearly show that the Federal Government is not committed to a ‘Living Wage” to ameliorate the plight of workers.
Workers under the present administration of President Tinubu have suffered loss of purchasing power. In less than one year of President Tinubu-led administration, the prices of petroleum products have been increased several times. Today, premium motor spirit is about N900 a litre. And this unfriendly price regime rubs off negatively on every Nigerian, because at the centre of commercial and economic activities is petroleum products. For the first time in the history of Nigeria, prices of food items are outrageous, outside the reach of the common man: a  basin of garri sells for N18,000, rice, beans etc are food the rich only. House rent has gone up. A self contain that was between N60,000 and N80,000 is N250,000.
The adverse  social-economic realities informed the Labour’s insistence on N615,000, which they have reviewed downward to N500,000.
Breaking down the figure the National President of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Joe Ajaero said the N615,000 was a fair demand considering the socio-economic realities of the country.
Discussion on another minimum wage regime, therefore, should not be an exercise in futility, because since  the N30,000 Minimum Wage became a legal document in April 18, 2023 most State Governors and Local Government Area chairmen across the country, have refused to implement it. And the Federal Government could not enforce compliance.
It is also speculated that some governors who claimed to have implemented the National Minimum wage only paid the difference of what their predecessors were supposed to pay  workers consequent on the shortfall of financial benefit due workers.
With the veiled liberalisation policy of the National Minimum Wage which mandates the Labour unions in the State  to negotiate with their various State Governments on what is feasible for States to pay, based on their financial capacity, State governors now have the power to determine how much to pay their workers based on outcomes of negotiation with the workers under their umbrella bodies. That is why Labour-friendly Governments of Lagos, and Edo, among other States of the Federation have approved  N70,000 National Minimum Wage with effect from May, 2024, at a time some State Governors, such as Soludo of Anambra are foot-dragging to pay the old wage which expired April, 2024.
It is mind boggling that while elected officers and political office holders go home with mouth watering salaries at the end of every month and severance benefits, the civil servant wage is paltry, a peanut and they have to wait for years to access their gratuity and pension which cannot be compared to political officers salaries. Some never received after all. They died while waiting for their benefits.
While the Nigeria Labour Congress and its Trade Union Congress counterpart negotiate with the Federal Government’ on increase of Minimum Wage they should ensure that no stone is left unturned towards achieving a “Realistic” living wage.  A Living Wage, according to “investopedia” is “a theoretical income level that allows individuals or families to afford adequate shelter, food and other necessities.
Though the N500,000 minimum wage proposed by Labour is not realistic considering the economic realities in the country, the  least minimum wage the Federal  Government should consider is N100,000 proposed by the House of Representatives.
Most State Governors have refused to pay the expired N30,000 minimum wage on the unacceptable reason of unavailability of funds.
But if the looting instincts, leakages and frivolous spending of public funds were checked, an upwardly reviewed  wage could be paid with ease.
A situation where elected public officers build estates and leave  trans-generational assets for their children after eight or as the people’s mandate last, while the civil servant retires home after 35 years with virtually nothing, is repugnant to good conscience, equity and morality. In fact it is heartbreaking.
Both elected public officers and civil servants are exposed to the same socio economic realities.

Igbiki  Benibo

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