T HE simple definition of insolvency is when an entity is unable to pay its debt as they fall due. Going by this definition, the Federal Government and most states of the federation can be adjudged insolvent. Workers and pensioners across the land are owed many months of unpaid salaries and pensions, with little prospects of these arrears ever being paid unless there is a dramatic improvement in government revenues. Government contractors have fared even worse; unable to service their loans or pay their creditors, many have laid off hundreds of thousands of workers. The bitter truth is that the money is simply not there. Nigeria is broke. Crime is rampant everywhere, fuelled by youth unemployment, which is believed to be up to 50 per cent.
Apart from perhaps progressive states like Lagos, and a few others like Anambra, work in the public sector has virtually ground to a halt because of non-payment of salaries. The impact of this state of affairs on the economy cannot be overstated, with tenants unable to pay their rents and businesses unable to sell their wares due to lack of customers. Inflation is spiralling out of control because of the rising cost of inputs, stifling economic activity. Even those in work are begging for money. Wherever you look, frustration is palpable; there is hunger in the land. The Federal Secretariat, Abuja, the heart of government, is said to be without power most of the time because of the paucity of funds to maintain generators. With lifts not working, staff in high-rise buildings unable to climb many flights of stairs are forced to stay at home, including ministers.
How did we get here? At the height of the oil boom, when oil was trading at over $100 a barrel, Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is part, invested their oil wealth in public infrastructure. They built roads, modern railways, power stations, world class health facilities and one of the world’s largest airlines. In Nigeria, the opposite was the case; the establishment literally “shared the money.” What they could not steal, they paid themselves in outrageous salaries. A minister in the last administration was reportedly earning as much as N15m a month, more than the combined salaries of the US president, the British prime minister, the French president and the German Chancellor. Like scoundrels, the treasury was looted with reckless abandon.
So how do we get out of the current economic quagmire? First, the government must listen and learn. The President, Muhammadu Buhari, desperately needs good seasoned economic advisers, wherever he can find them. The current Governor of the Bank of England was recruited from Canada. We need a think tank of very smart people to advise government on economic direction. We must improve our budgeting process and implementation system at both the federal and state tiers of government to make budgeting smarter and more accountable. Government must “follow the money” and ensure that budgets deliver the right choices. It is puzzling, as someone who has led the budgeting process in public sector institutions, why Nigerian governments think it is acceptable to start the implementation of the budget half-way through the fiscal year. It shouldn’t take weeks to check if budgets have been “padded.” There are accounting softwares that can perform this exercise at the press of a button. As a country, we must learn from past mistakes and not excuse them. Whilst, for instance, it took Theresa May, the new British Prime Minister, less than 24 hours to appoint her cabinet, it took President Buhari seven months.
It is not enough for ministers to just tell Nigerians that things will turn around at the end of the year. Where is the plan? Where is the strategy? Where are the timelines setting out government proposals for addressing our power issues and other deep challenges? What is the strategy for creating jobs and growing the economy? What is the strategy for improving the current tax system to increase revenue generation and collection? The government must articulate its plans, with deliverables and timelines. It is scandalous that rich people pay little or no taxes in Nigeria?
Many states are poorly run and plagued by corruption. The answer to funding gaps in states is not more Federal Government bailout. Any request for bailouts should be predicated on the production of a robust zero-based budget showing how the state proposes to live within its means. Anambra State is riding the storm because of the competence of successive governors that have governed the state. Longer term, fiscal federalism must be the way forward for Nigeria.
To address our current economic challenges, the government will need to embark on a massive infrastructure building programme, unprecedented in our history. This would create millions of jobs and involve the construction of thousands of kilometres of roads; the building of at least a million units of social housing; and the revamp and modernisation of our entire railway network. This will inject the much needed liquidity into the system.
We need to move away from the lazy dependence on fossil fuel and solid minerals we simply dig up from the ground and send abroad for others to process, with no value added. Industrialisation must be the way forward for Nigeria. We need to create industrial zones that government can support with grants, low cost loans and 24hr power. The academia thus far has served Nigeria poorly. We have the greatest need for power and should be building the world’s largest solar assembly plant here in Nigeria and leading the research on solar technology.
President Buhari must hold his ministers accountable not only in matters to do with corruption but on competence and performance. The deliverables and performance of every ministry, including targets and milestones should be published in their respective websites as a live document so that we the people can hold ministers accountable.
- Nwachukwu lives in London.