Beyond streamlining overseas trips for ministers

ON Wednesday, in a move touted as being geared towards achieving fiscal prudence, President Muhammadu Buhari reduced the number and duration of foreign trips for ministers and other categories of government officials. In a statement signed by the Director of Information in the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Willie Bassey, the president also removed travel allowances known as estacode, while cutting down the number of persons permitted to travel with ministers and other government officials for official trip. Buhari however approved the use of business class for ministers and economy class for lower categories of government officials, indicating that approval for such trips must be sought through the office of the SGF or Head of the Civil Service of the Federation.

The statement was quite detailed: “In a bid to curb leakages and ensure efficiency in the management of resources of government, President Muhammadu Buhari has approved for immediate implementation, additional cost-saving measures aimed at instilling financial discipline and prudence, particularly in the area of official travels. Henceforth, all Ministries, Departments and Agencies are required to submit their yearly travel plans for statutory meetings and engagements to the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and/or the Office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation for express clearance within the first quarter of the fiscal year, before implementation. Also, when a minister is at the head of an official delegation, the size of such delegation shall not exceed four, including the relevant director, schedule officer and one aide of the minister. Every other delegation below ministerial level shall be restricted to a maximum of three.”

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The president permitted ministers, permanent secretaries, special advisers, senior special assistants to the president, chairmen of extra-ministerial departments and chief executive officers of parastatal agencies to continue flying business class, while other categories of public officers are to travel on economy class. Also, travel days will no longer attract payment of estacode allowances as duration of official trips shall be limited to only the number of days of the event as contained in the supporting documents to qualify for public funding. The statement added that only trips that would benefit the country must be embarked upon by the affected officials, noting also that ministers and other categories of government officials must not travel more than twice within a quarter of a year except with the president’s permission.

To the extent that the president’s latest directive is aimed at reducing the overall cost of governance, it must be seen as a commendable step. Time and again, we have pointed out the contradiction in increasing recurrent costs while carrying out little or no capital expenditure. For the most part, the Buhari administration has, while mouthing the need for paradigm shift, actually toed the same discredited and prodigal path of its predecessors with its poor and often unconscionable handling of public funds. Nevertheless, if only in the acknowledgment of the fact that current practices in the Presidency as well as the various ministries, departments and agencies cannot engender fiscal prudence and thus the overall vision of a leaner and less costly governance, the latest directive has to be seen in positive light.

In reality, though, cutting costs should go beyond streamlining foreign trips. For instance, the Presidential Air Fleet (PAF) which the president promised to reduce prior to his ascension to power is still criminally large; it has nine aircraft. If the president is really desirous of cutting the cost of governance, there is no better place to begin than the PAF. Besides, it is incongruous that the president wanted to cut costs, yet he created four new ministries. Worse still, the ministries were asked to source for fresh staff while they could have been staffed by transferring workers from the already overpopulated extant ministries. It is also strange that a government intent on reducing the cost of governance has only just announced the appointment of six new special advisers for the office of the First Lady, an office which, let us recall, the president promised to abrogate.

Besides, a substantial part of the budget of ministries, departments and agencies is devoted to meaningless local and foreign training programmes. These training programmes, often no more than a grand scheme to siphon public funds, must be reduced to the barest minimum.The foregoing is of course not to suggest that cutting costs should be the exclusive preserve of the executive. Quite the contrary. On current evidence, even the legislature and the judiciary need to cut costs. For a long time, Nigerians have had cause to complain about the remuneration package of lawmakers, and the National Assembly’s case is not helped by the retort that it has over 4,000 civil servants on its payroll. Truth be told, there is no valid reason why the National Assembly with 109 senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives should have such a large number of staff on its payroll.

We welcome President Buhari’s move to cut governance costs. But we urge him and his team to look inwards and eliminate all forms of leakages in the system that enable the wastage of public funds. They must do more to earn public trust and confidence. Nigerians certainly have a right to expect a government dedicated to their welfare, not a superstructure erected on, and profiting from, their agony and pain.

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