KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future
THE IMPARTIAL OBSERVER
Time to unbundle Nigeria’s governance morass
Sunday, 22 January 2012
Within government proper, civil servants have mastered how to circumvent full discussion of any policy that warrants the Federal Executive Council’s approval, by unilaterally seeking anticipatory approval from the President. Such acts bypass the FEC granting of the authority to incur expenses; obfuscate illegalities and obviate any checks and balances.
This week, several Nigerian national dailies carried headline pieces wherein Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told Farouk Lawan’s House of Representatives ad-Hoc Committee on Subsidy Management that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) was never authorized and never had the mandate of the Ministry of Finance to deduct subsidy cash before remitting funds to the Federation Account. This revelation speaks to the urgent need for more transparency in governance and, particularly, of the need to unbundle the insidious bureaucracy that hobbles inter-governmental relations. If we really intend to graduate Nigeria from low-income to a middle-ncome nation, such unbundling has become imperative. So far, two pieces of enabling legislation that ought to have made a difference have not: the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) is still languishing in the National Assembly, and the Freedom of Information Act was finally passed on 24 May, 2011 after six years of waiting.
What were even more revelatory as it was perplexing were Okonjo-Iweala’s assertions about the origin, oversight, and the indeterminate approving authority of the fuel subsidy withholdings. Her exact words: “This has been a practice that was kicked in rather than any authorization. We have actually been looking into this issue to find out who gave the authorization. We have not been able to come up with an answer. It was a practice that was developed. I’m afraid I can’t go further than this except my colleagues will add something, I can’t give you that answer.” Shucks!
Governance in Nigeria and especially inter-agency agency relations are interminably paradox-ridden and often bedeviled by egregious acts and lack of accountability by public officials. Often, checks and balances are presumed to be in place, but hardly does anyone ask hardheaded questions anymore. Soon enough, presumption gives room to precepts and presumptive fraud becomes real and hardcore malfeasance.
It is on this premise that the Nigerian saying, “government business is nobody’s business’’ finds its currency. Similarly, as is now the case with the authorization of fuel subsidy, ownership of policy -- or mistakes relating to policy -- is rare. That some opaqueness is commonplace in the officialdom is hardly ever surprising. It is in this context that one can begin to comprehend the present post-subsidy crisis recriminations. For their part and as if to reaffirm a dubious distinction, Nigerian leaders have yet again done what they do naturally – apply ad hoc measures and band aid to a critical national question that demanded compelling, intrusive and unequivocal solutions.
The abrupt and ruptured end to the fuel subsidy and the related week-long anti-fuel subsidy demonstrations via an executive fiat that did not spell out the details of the understanding between the government and the labor unions, marked the arrival at a critical juncture of yet another unfinished national business. We can expect absurd inquiries and investigations into the oil subsidy saga, and reports, which ironically like many previous public inquiry reports, will end up on several desks and shelves gathering dust.
Unwittingly, the federal government’s unilateral action, lack of good faith, and the labor unions’ inexplicable acquiescence merely added to the prevailing level of cynicism and distrust. The only way this crisis should have ended correctly, justifiably, and productively was through a mutually acceptable outcome reached through collaborative negotiations. That was not to be. Ironically, policies resulting from knee-jerk reactions are neither productive nor sustainable.
Whatever be the case, Nigeria’s long term interest has not been served by the arcane and labyrinthine ways government conducts public and governance business. If there is one thing that is not in debate, it is that the Jonathan administration has handled the fuel subsidy issues badly. In the wake of such bungling, evidence of perfidious and egregious acts in managing our petroleum resources emerged. The only surprise is the hefty scale of the thievery.
But this piece, as the title suggests, is about unbundling our national governance morass. As things stand, Nigerians know that the government has unilaterally pegged petrol price at N97. What does this mean? Has the withdrawn subsidy been partially restored along with the arbitrary and unilateral N97 per liter price? Are we still importing oil to offset the laggardly domestic production? If so, who is presently authorized to import refined oil and how much?
The most critical question however, is this: Who in the name God speaks the truth to Nigerians about the nations true oil and fiscal policy? Who do we believe and who has knowledge of the full picture? As the Finance Minister told the lawmakers, “We have actually been looking into this issue to find out who gave the authorization.” This contention speaks volumes about the level of opaqueness and insidiousness of policymaking, implementation, and monitoring in Nigeria. This is even worse in a multidisciplinary sector like oil, which is the lifeline of the nation.
The Nigerian Customs Service also testified to the National Assembly that NNPC never paid taxes and tariffs on imported goods. This is reminiscent of why Nigeria Airways went under: staff, their family members, consultants, and contractors of the airline were all flying first-class and gratis. Similarly, government agencies -- including the Presidency -- never bought tickets with cash, rather they charged them with the so-called warrants, which were never redeemed.
Today, Nigerians applying for passport abroad are confronted with inexplicable double billings that only give rise to graft. In the US, an applicant must pay $65 online to the Nigerian Immigration Service’s centralized account and an additional supplementary fee of $20 in money order to the Embassy or Consulate. The latter, which is revenue outside the budget, is called operational cost and the explanation is that neither the Immigration Service nor the Foreign Ministry provides consular officers with funding for such operational activities. This is perplexing since there is only one federal government and the issuance of passports is statutorily a federal responsibility.
Overall, what we have is policy confusion all aimed at creating avenues to rip off the nation. Within the government, the din of the recriminations is growing, even among the ministers. The EFCC has raided the office of the PPRA, but only so at the behest of the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Allison-Madueke, who recently set up the Dotun Sulaiman-led eleven-man special task force on Governance and Control in the NNPC and other parastatals within the Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources. In truth, however, she ought not to be the one instituting such an investigation considering how deeply steeped her ministry is in the present morass. Furthermore, as the oversight body for national oil policies, who says that the Ministry itself should not be investigated over the oil subsidy scandal? There is an obvious attempt here to head off criticisms and an obvious conflict of interest. For a meaningful overall review, she should have included in the EFCC's Terms of Reference a review of the role of her ministry and a determination of any complicity or culpability.
If such evident intergovernmental disconnect are possible, it is for one reason. Within government proper, civil servants have mastered how to circumvent full discussion of any policy that warrants the Federal Executive Council’s (FEC) approval. They do so by unilaterally seeking single-line anticipatory approval from the President. Such acts bypass the FEC’s statutory role in granting the authority to incur expenses (AIEs), obfuscate illegalities, and obviate any checks and balances. This process explains how several Nigerian parastatals were privatized without the FEC’s approval.
One critical point seems lost. The long simmering national outrage over corruption and the government’s insensitivity may have been put in abeyance but is hardly over. Yes, though the restiveness has been doused, there are still some smoldering embers that could reignite the tinderbox. Apropos the conundrum created by the fuel subsidy withdrawal, it is clear that the policy was not based on lessons learned. Unquestionably, subsidy withdrawals are matter-of-factly always contentious. Policymakers should have known this, drawing lessons from events in Venezuela in the 1990s, in Indonesia in 2008, and in Bolivia in 2010. Not properly handled, subsidy withdrawals are contentious and cause for grave national restiveness.
For now, Nigeria’s governance candle burns from at both ends; the government seems at the end of its wits considering that public officials continue to promote and pursue self-serving policies against the backdrop its reform and transformational agenda -- all in the name of national interest. Additionally, various challenges and some vexing national issues unresolved. Most will endure and continue to cause resentment and angst, insofar as there are no clear remedies and a remarkable shift toward equitable resource sharing, good governance, and faithful implementation of purposeful public policies. For the Nigerian masses and the broad segment of the national population trapped in the poverty peonage, the band of extreme poverty plays on, without a redeeming Piper in sight. Inevitably, Nigeria’s paradox of poverty amidst crass affluence endures and will not end until the Nigerian people really assert their sovereignty and extricate themselves from the debilitating tyranny of the ruling minority elite. They came close to doing so last week before the demonstration waned.
Meanwhile, there are many national questions in the realm of policymaking and implementation begging for answers. One topical issue is the recent escape of an alleged Boko Haram bomber. It is incomprehensible as to why the Nigerian police rather that the State Security Services (SSS) continue to have jurisdiction over the Boko Haram terrorist bombings. The recent arrest of the alleged mastermind of the Madalla bombing, Kabir (Sokoto) Umar, along with a serving air force officer at the Borno State Governor’s lodge in Abuja, should have placed the jurisdiction of the case under the SSS and the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI). Umar’s eventual escape from police custody points to the prevailing level of lack of effective coordination between various arms of the security agencies. In fact, the reported plan to search of Umar’s home should have been a combined joint task, between the police, SSS, and DMI.
It is noteworthy that though government has the responsibility for maintaining peace and security as well as law and order, it was egregiously wrong for the government to deploy the military in places like Lagos State to perform what are civilian police duties. Recriminations between the Nigerian military and the Lagos State government as to who initiated the deployment also points to a lacuna in inter-governmental relations. Needless to say that such extremism in the use of the military bodes ill for the government, for the population and more so, for the Nigerian Police, which by such seemingly innocuous acts is cast as unreliable. Ironically, in using the military to brace up his embattled administration, President Jonathan seem to have overlooked the fact that he has opened the Pandora’s Box and allowed the genie to slip out of the bottle. The military on Nigerian streets is never a good omen.
Any intended governance reform and the transformative agenda must of necessity consider the nexus between the blurred lines between having statutory authority and flawed implementation of policies, as well as its contribution to corruption and official malfeasance. The salutary but unintended consequence of the fuel subsidy withholding policy and the fuel subsidy withdrawal policy is that they have both unearthed for the Nigerians to see how the national wealth is mismanaged without clear lines of authority and legislative mandate. Such composites of bad governance must come to an end immediately. It is time to unbundle Nigeria’s governance morass.
With neither anger nor partiality, until next time, keep the law, stay impartial, and observe closely.
Hank Eso is a columnist for Kwenu.com. His observations on Nigerian, African and global politics and related issues, has appeared in various print media, journals and internet-based sites.
© Hank Eso, 22 January 2012.
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