THE decision of the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) to employ the next tranche of payment from the London-Paris Club loan refunds to offset the backlog of salaries and pensions stretching back a year in many cases has not come a moment too soon.
The first tranche was expected to be utilised for that very purpose. But constancy, especially in discharging their obligations to public employees and the public at large has, rarely been an attribute of the governing authorities. Some powerful figures in the Senate reportedly finagled $3 million from the fund, and a mystery “consultant” surfaced to claim a good slice for services that few could explain and fewer still could justify.
To the best of our knowledge, no governor has gone unpaid at the end of each month, despite the trainload of compensations accruing to them for all manner of expenditures. The same is true of members of the Federal Executive Council. And yet, without remorse and without empathy, they watch public servants and teachers go unpaid month after month; they see retirees who had given the best years of their lives to public service languish in acute want.
There was a time when delays in payment of salaries were few and far between. Now, they have become the rule rather than the exception. Even when payments were regular, they hardly kept pace with the cost of living. Now that payment is rarely guaranteed, living has become more precarious. The toll on health and nutrition and expectations is incalculable.
How the average Nigerian trapped in these circumstances finds it within himself or herself to carry on with equanimity and even occasional cheer remains one of the best-kept secrets of the national experience. It is certainly worthy of sociological inquiry.
The governors forum must honour its pledge and ensure that the refund is used for no other purpose than offsetting the backlog of unpaid salaries and pensions.
But even after the payment has been effected, the problem will still remain. Another round of reimbursements is not guaranteed. Given global trends, no dramatic improvement in Nigeria’s economic fortunes can be expected anytime soon. Unpaid salaries and pensions will pile up again, and they will have to be addressed.
There is no short-term answer.
The long-term solution will have to be sought in restructuring the Nigerian state to institute, at the very least, fiscal federalism. The present 36-state structure, in which no more than four states are financially viable, is unwieldy and unsustainable. It is a subversion of the federal principle for the component states to subsist on handouts from the Centre, which appropriates unto itself a disproportionate share of national resources.
A uniform pay scale across the public service is just as subversive of the federal principle. Unity should not translate into uniformity. Each state should pay its employees and political officials what it can reasonably afford. It follows that each state will keep the bulk of the revenues it generates.
Restructuring will unlock the creative energies of the states. It will make accountability more local and hence more inescapable, since salary delays and discontinuities in service delivery cannot be blamed on a distant, uncaring Centre. It will raise the threshold for creating new states and ensure that only those that pass the test of viability are entrenched.
Restructuring is not the frivolous demand of a self-seeking political elite. It is the key to Nigeria’s survival. Those erecting barriers against it are unwittingly undermining that survival.