Our Eternal Obsession with Aso Rock

01 Sep 2013

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Simon Kolawole Live!: By Simon Kolawole,

What a delight, I’d say. The governor of Osun State, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, has just inaugurated a garment-making factory in the state capital. Built at a cost of N1.2 billion, the factory is said to be the biggest in Africa and will directly employ between 3,000 and 5,000 workers. The Omoluabi Garment Factory, set up by Sam & Sarah, has the capacity to produce 50,000 uniforms a day, and will service the free school uniform programme of the state government. As I read the story, a lot of things jumped at me. I was glad in one sense and sad in another. Just give me a few minutes and you will understand my chosen topic today.

The state government is not putting one kobo into the establishment and running of the factory. It is a private concern. But the government has provided infrastructural and institutional support to the company. The state wants to give free uniforms to public school students, and the private company will produce them. In other words, government is doing some public service and is, in the process, supporting private business. Finally, jobs are being created. Any state that is able to take 3,000 to 5,000 Nigerians off the unemployment list is on the right path. Imagine what that means to the economy of Osun State. I was glad.

But I was sad. It reminded of a news story I read a while ago. I can’t remember the headline, but it was something like “World Bank Indicts Jonathan over Poverty and Unemployment in Nigeria”. I read through the story several times and did not find Jonathan’s name mentioned anywhere in the World Bank report. So I kept asking myself: how did the writers come to the conclusion that Jonathan was solely responsible for poverty and employment in Nigeria? Then it dawned on me: mentally, many Nigerians harbour this idea that the Federal Government is responsible for everything good and bad in Nigeria. I was sad.

Simply put, we think it is only the Federal Government that should be blamed when there is unemployment or poverty, even when we know that we run a federation where every tier of government has duties and responsibilities. The road in front of the house is bad? The hospitals are not working? The schools are in bad shape? There are beggars on the streets? Refuse has piled up? There is corruption? It must all be blamed on the Federal Government. With this mentality, states and councils are getting away with murder. (To be clear, when I say Federal Government, I am not referring to the government of President Goodluck Jonathan. I refer to any government in Aso Rock – past, present and future.)

Now, let us reason together. There are four major things that states and councils are not allowed to touch: monetary policies, defence, security and foreign affairs. Many of us don’t seem to know that states and councils are empowered by the much-maligned 1999 Constitution to make life better for Nigerians. States and councils are allowed to build roads, equip hospitals, create jobs, tackle poverty, fight corruption, and put policies in place to attract investment. States and councils are also permitted by the derided constitution to make as much money as they can make without having to rush to Abuja every month for federal allocation.

We keep proposing or opposing the motion for “true federalism” simply on the basis of federal allocation. Yet, with thinking governors, good policies can attract private investment and drive up economic activities that will generate tax revenue. A state can be collecting N2 billion federal allocation and making N10 billion internal revenue. Go through this our “bad” constitution again. It does not put a limit. It is a pre-programmed mentality, fuelled by laziness of mind, that is damaging us. We have been programmed to put every blame at the door of the Federal Government.

I know somebody is reading this and saying: No, Simon, you are wrong; the Federal Government takes the Lion’s Share of the revenue; the Federal Government holds the lever of power; the Federal Government makes the economic policies; the Federal Government controls the regulatory institutions; therefore, Simon, the Federal Government should take the blame for Nigeria’s stunted development. Oh yes, I have no objections to that. In fact, I hold the Federal Government, or Aso Rock, responsible for Nigeria’s underdevelopment. If it has been giving the right direction all along, our country would have been a far better place by now. I agree.

But I disagree. Every state and council collects its own share of the federal allocation every month. The Federal Government does not help them spend the money. They decide what to spend the money on. For whatever reason, though, we think it is only the Federal Government that should be held accountable. We complain about the recurrent budget in Abuja but say little about the recurrent budgets of states. We highlight the jumbo pay of the National Assembly but never bother to scrutinise how much state lawmakers allocate to themselves. We focus on how much has been budgeted for food in Aso Rock, but what about state governments? How much do they spend on phone bills? How much do they spend on chartered jets?

Habitually, the blame for corruption in Nigeria is often heaped on Aso Rock. If Transparency International rates Nigeria as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, automatically it is the Federal Government (or Obasanjo/Yar’Adua/Jonathan government) that has been indicted! Yet, how many commissioners have been fired and put on trial for corruption by the states? The State House of Assembly is empowered by the “bad” 1999 Constitution to impeach a governor for corruption without the help of the EFCC, but how often does that happen? Aso Rock has to take the blame for every act of corruption in Nigeria.

I will conclude by going back to Osun State. States are allowed to come up with policies that will create jobs and alleviate poverty. There is no law against it. If not for our federal allocation-based federalism, states should be thinking up policies to attract investment. For instance, there are over 120 million mobile phones in Nigeria. We import every handset. A thinking state government could create a large industrial area and give incentives to companies to set up phone assembly plants on its soil. Imagine what that will do in terms of jobs and poverty alleviation. Imagine the impact on local economic activities, the multiplier effects. Imagine the tax revenue from economic activities to be generated around that.

But our obsession is forever with Aso Rock. That is part of what is fuelling the tension and discord in the land. Nigerians have been so brainwashed – or have so brainwashed themselves – to think that the world starts and ends with Aso Rock. For emphasis, I will say again that I am by no means absolving the Federal Government of blame in the underdevelopment of Nigeria. In fact, I allocate at least 60 per cent of the blame to Aso Rock. But I object to our refusal to hold states and councils responsible for poverty alleviation, job creation and infrastructural development.  You won’t believe it, ladies and gentlemen, but this “bad” constitution also allows states to fight corruption.

And Four Other Things...

Each time I read about the drama in Taraba State, I worry more and more for Nigeria. Governor Danbaba Suntai is evidently not in the right shape to return to office after his near-death air mishap. There is, therefore, a fierce tussle between those who want him quickly swept aside and those who want him to hold on to power till 2015 so that he can handpick a successor. The House of Assembly seems to have come up with a better option: go back and complete your treatment. But Suntai’s supporters are afraid that this may be a prelude to declaring the man incapacitated in order to remove him. Politics.

Is Nigeria getting better or worse? Are we ever going to start taking ourselves seriously someday? Last Wednesday, all clearing operations by the Nigerian Customs Service were put on hold because the Comptroller General, Alhaji Abdullahi Dikko, was coming on a visit to Lagos. People’s businesses and livelihoods were put on hold. Clearing of goods was put on hold. Economic value worth billions of naira was put on hold. Because somebody was visiting! The irony is that the man did not show up until evening. Dear God, when will Nigeria finally join civilisation? When will this nonsense be enough in this country?

I’ve never been a fan of Festus Odimegwu, former CEO of Nigerian Breweries Plc, because I believe he talks too much. When he was made chairman of the National Population Commission (NPC), he should have realised that this was a sensitive job. He didn’t need to start attacking previous headcounts. He should just go ahead to do an honest and credible census in 2016. It is alleged that previous census exercises were contrived to favour the North. That notwithstanding, Odimegwu needs some tact and maturity to do the job. 

The world is changing, isn’t it? The prospects of a military strike against the Syrian government, for allegedly using chemical weapons against the citizens, are not looking bright at all. The UK Parliament has voted against military action. Germany is reluctant to go to war (irony). I think the West has learnt bitter lessons from the misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan which cost trillions of dollars as well as the lives of thousands of soldiers. The Syria scenario is more complicated because the government is backed by Iran and Hezbollah, while some of the rebels are aligned to Al Qaeda. Head or tail, it is a tough call.  

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