The failure of President Jonathan’s government to pay states their money in the past months is paralysing the country
We are, as a nation, in a peril. But it appears, from the grandstanding of the Federal Government henchmen, including the president, all is well.
For at least three months now, the states have not received their constitutional financial allocations. And it has implications for governance. But when the president held his routine chat, which has turned into a charade for presidential defiance and bullying, he became defensive, and took the tack that Nigeria is not broke.
If Nigeria is not broke, how come it cannot pay its bills? How come the state commissioners for finance all across the country, were unable to return to their states with the cheques due to their states from the national coffers?
The first loud outcries in this regard came from two governors. The first was the governor of Ogun State, Ibikunle Amosun, who in a public forum sounded the ominous note that the state may not pay its bills if the Federal Government did not pay. Following that came the umbrage from the Rivers State governor, Rotimi Amaechi, who took on the finance minister over the discrepancy between what the Central Bank received from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and what the Federal Government claimed it received. The Federal Government said it received $700m while the CBN claimed it should be $2 billion.
The consequence of this is deep. In a country where virtually all the states depend on the allocation from the centre for their well being, depriving them of their monthly allocations resembles forcing them outside the oxygen zone. Death pangs precede actual giving up the ghost.
The Federal Government gave them some money, less about N150b. So the states rejected the cheques because of its shortfall, which was immense. It was disingenuous of the federal authorities not to explain to the states the full financial working of the NNPC, and expect the states to accept that the nation did not have enough money to pay them.
This is irresponsible. A huge and criminal opacity clouds the finances of the NNPC, and neither the minister of petroleum nor the president has shown any visible concern over this obnoxious trend. The finance minister also acts as though it was a routine matter and the absence of money to pay the states did not mean a disruption in the system. The oil minister simply has shrouded herself in indifferent silence. On his part, the president says the country is not broke.
This imposes a conundrum. If the country is not broke, we can say the president may be right because the price of oil in the international market is well above $100 per barrel while the bench mark set in the budget is far below that at $75 per barrel. That means that we are nowhere near the danger zone. Yet, the argument has been advanced that we have a high incidence of oil theft, which may have cast a damper on the enthusiasm of abundance. We have always had the high incidence of oil theft though, and there is no data to prove that the volume of theft today so outweighs previous ones as to cancel the advantage of the bench mark vis-à-vis the prevailing oil price.
Put in balance, we should have enough money to pay the states their entitlements. So, why are we not paying them? One, the NNPC has morphed into a deity in the Nigerian system, an untouchable institution that feels that it is larger than the country that gave birth to it. We cannot understand why the president should allow a minister of petroleum, with her highhandedness fuelled by incompetence, to preside over a ministry that holds the jugular of our economy. Worse still, the president has planted a rampart of defence for this incompetence by explaining away, in terms of politics, the failure of his obligation to pay the states. He said the country is not broke. Mr. President, if the country is not broke, pay the bills!
The states have a lot of obligations to the average Nigerian. The most important and urgent one is the payment of salaries. This threat also overhangs the federal ministries. The majority of our work force are government workers. President Jonathan should ensure that this dire peril is handled quickly and effectively.
If the ministries stop receiving their salaries, we can be sure that we are moving gradually into a breakdown of the whole society. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has grounded the universities for over three months across the country, and the Federal Government under President Jonathan has shown neither imagination nor resolution to resolve the crisis. Yet, another one looms, and if state after state downs tools and cripples essential services, we may be veering towards paralysis, if not anarchy.
The other consequence is the inability of the states to execute projects. Whether it is infrastructure, hospitals, education or even power, the contractors will stop to pay their workers and the governments cannot deliver on their promises. Governor Amaechi made this point in his outcry less than a month ago.
What we shall have is not just a broke but a broken country where nothing works. The United States shut down its government over a debacle between the Obama administration and the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives over debt ceiling and the president’s health care programme. A sense of urgency has pervaded the country, and a mere 10 days of shutdown has generated disquiet among workers, even as urgent entitlements have not been paid. Now sanity has returned to the political arena and negotiations have resumed to stave off a major financial meltdown, not only in the U.S but around the world.
It is that sense of urgency we need, not some bluster by a defiant president or the vacuous rancour from a finance minister or a corrosive indifference from the petroleum minister. The nation is in bad enough shape as it is. Those in charge owe it to those who put them in power not to make it worse.