Looting, Salary Arrears And Other Stories

Casmir Igbokwe

First published in The Union, May 22, 2015

Bipasha, an Indian belle, was an air hostess with Lufthansa.  Sometime in 2006, the young lady engaged me in a discussion about my country, Nigeria. It was in London. She presented Nigeria almost as a place where jungle justice rules. In broad daylight, she said, people could be seen moving about with guns. But that is not all.

Nigerians, according to her, are too greedy. Each time their flight touched down in Lagos, cleaners who were brought in to clean the aircraft would end up also cleaning out the remaining food items inside the flying bird.

Of course, I did try to defend my country. I told Bipasha that her name should have been spelt Bi-partial; that her assessment of Nigeria and Nigerians was incorrect and biased. I informed her that only uniformed security men could hold guns in Nigeria and that she could not speak authoritatively about a country she saw merely from the air. “Nigerian men are strong and muscular,” I added, “and their muscular arms could resemble machine guns especially if one is looking at them from the air.”

Though I quickly diverted the talk to something else, I kept thinking about the cleaners rushing after free food inside aircraft. I remembered how area boys and area girls fight over food at social functions. My mind also went to government functionaries who clear every kobo in the coffers before leaving office. And I wondered whether it is we who do not understand what is happening to us or that what is happening to us does not understand us.

As we say in this part of the world, awoof dey run belle.  A few days ago, there were media reports that Senators and House of Reps members were looting the property of the National Assembly. The report has it that the lawmakers were carting away public property inherited from their predecessors. The legislators aides also reportedly got a good chunk of the property – televisions, computer sets, rugs, tables, chairs, refrigerators and so on.

Something must be inherently wrong with our genes. Are these not the same legislators who collect jumbo salary and sundry allowances? Why still take away mundane things that they could easily afford without much stress?

Legislators are not the only culprits. In football administration, in states and local governments, in ministries and parastatals, it is the same story.  For instance, the President of the Nigeria Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick,  last Tuesday, lamented that he inherited liabilities from his predecessor in office. “We are going through difficult times. People hear all kinds of stories of money or the other, yet nobody has asked where the federation is funding the participation of almost all the 13 national teams in international competitions,” he noted.

We have heard stories of people settling themselves with unspent budget of their ministries. A few years ago, this caused some furore in the nation when some high ranking officers of the Ministry of Health were accused of being  culprits in this case.

This is probably part of the reasons some state governments are owing backlog of salaries. From Osun to Oyo, to Cross River, civil servants are agitated. They are yet to get their salaries, in some cases, up to four months. And they are threatening strike. Do you blame them?

For most of our public officers, it is loot first, then pay salaries later. About two years ago, a report of the Senate ad-hoc committee on national planning, economic affairs and poverty alleviation identified high rate of corruption such as misappropriation and misapplication of public funds as well as abuse of immunity clause by some state governors as part of our problems. The report, which was a follow-up to the labour policy report 2011 of the Nigerian Governors Forum, also decried the incapacitation of the anti-graft agencies.

What prompted the reports was the revelation that 27 states of the federation were financially incapacitated. Only a few states like Akwa Ibom, Anambra, and Abia were declared viable. Currently, the majority of the states face insolvency and bankruptcy arising from huge wage bills and declining revenues.

Senator Olubunmi Adetunmbi succinctly put it this way, “The bulk of the revenue of these states is currently financing payroll of the civil service which constitutes less than four per cent of the total population in all states. If this trend continues, many of the states would become financially insolvent and increasingly handicapped to finance real sectors and drive  economic growth, jobs and improved livelihoods.”

That is what is happening now. States and the Federal Government are passing the blame game, accusing each other of being responsible for the economic downturn.

While that is going on, some breadwinners are losing their jobs. Some of those still working cannot get their salaries. Burial ceremonies have almost become the greatest money spinners in the villages. Yes, sale of coffins is booming. Undertakers are smiling to the banks. A lot of people now depend on the food they eat at funeral ceremonies for survival.

It is disheartening that despite the hardship many Nigerians are passing through, the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission has reportedly approved N200m severance package for two-term governors in Nigeria. This is not only insensitive, it is unbelievable.

There should be reduction in the cost of governance at all levels. I don’t see why we should have senior special assistants and special assistants for the same portfolio. It is also clear wastage, for instance, to have Minister of Education and Minister of State for Education. Legislators should only be paid sitting allowances. Security votes for governors and the President should be abolished.

Besides, states should diversify  their sources of revenue. Oil is not the only business we can do. Tourism is there. Agriculture and solid minerals are waiting to be tapped.

Above all, public officers should declare their assets on assumption of office. By the time they are ready to leave, we should be able to determine whether the awoof they have taken will qualify them for the prisons or community service. If we equitably distribute our national wealth, Nigerians will not have to rush remnants of food inside aircraft.

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