Rethinking the Definition of Waste

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SIMON KOLAWOLE LIVE! By SIMON KOLAWOLE, Email: simon.kolawole@thisdaylive.com

The middle-aged man sprinted in my direction, seized my suitcase and began towing me to his cab. I was startled by the aggression, but I played along, like a sheep heading for the slaughter. After all, I would still need a cab out of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, and somebody would have to do the job.
“Oga, if they ask you any questions, tell them you called me from Lagos to come and pick you up,” he instructed.

“Why?” I asked, still wondering what this game was about.
“I will explain to you later,” he vowed, and as we entered his cab, he started thanking me.
“I’ve been here for three days, no passengers. If you didn’t allow me to pick you this night, that means I would be here till tomorrow. This N6,000 you’re going to pay me now, I will just hand it over to my wife when I get home. She will go to the market tomorrow and we will finally have food in the house. Thank you, oga.”

I was downcast. This is a familiar story in Nigeria these days. It got me thinking for a long time, and I finally asked him: “By the way, why have you been here for three days?”
I was not impressed with his initial explanation.
“There are too many cabs at the Abuja airport,” he said, lamenting that “we are more than 800 waiting to pick passengers everyday”. It was affecting “market”, he said. So I asked him something similar to a rhetorical question.

“Let’s say there are 5,000 passengers landing in Abuja everyday, and 800 of them need to take airport cabs to get to town, would you still say 800 cars are too many?” I asked.
I knew where I was going.

“No. But when will 5,000 passengers start coming to Abuja again? These days, there are no events, no conferences, no seminars, nothing. It is affecting everybody,” he replied, hitting the nail exactly where I wanted. No events, no business. Simple.

Let’s do simple economic arithmetic, the type we were taught in primary school. Let’s say the ministry of trade and industry is organising a three-day conference in Abuja on, say, “Creating a Manufacturing Hub in Your Village”. And let’s say I want to come and attend. Now let us look at the chain of economic activities that the three-day conference can stimulate or generate — and how many jobs will be created, sustained or saved in the process.

First, I buy an air ticket. That is income for the airline. I take a cab to the Lagos airport. Income for the cab driver (plus his wife and his children, and the market woman). I pay passenger tax to FAAN. Income for government. The airline charges VAT on the ticket. Income to the federation account. The airline keeps flying and keeps people employed. That’s income for employees and employers, and income for the aviation fuel marketers. At the end of the month, the airline’s employees pay PAYEE and pension contribution, as well as income tax to the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS). You may also be aware that marketers have hundreds of employees and pay all kinds of taxes too.

My flight touches down in Abuja. The cabman picks me up for N6,000. He has already paid N200 “gate fee” to FAAN to gain entrance to the airport, so that’s another income for FAAN. He takes me to the hotel. I pay for three nights. That is income for the hotel, the employers, the employees, the government, and the entire string in Abuja. The ministry of trade and industry rents a conference hall from a hotel. That is another chain in the income trail. The ministry advertises the event in newspapers. Income for newspapers and advert agencies, who also have employees. The ministry engages event organisers, who hire ushers and bouncers. Another link.

I’m not done yet. Somebody makes the banners and the backdrops. Income. Somebody prints the souvenirs such as T-shirts, conference bags, notepads and pens. Income. NTA dupes you to report the event. Income. After three days, the conference is over and I return to the Abuja airport. I take a cab to get there. I buy another flight ticket. I pay another FAAN passenger fee. The airline buys fuel again. The airline, I almost forgot to say, pays a caterer to supply snacks on the flight. I get to Lagos. Take another cab home. Income, income, income all the way. Income for small businesses. Income for medium businesses. Income for big businesses. Income for government.

Ladies and gentlemen, to me as a villager, that is the economy at work. All the talk about job creation is not that government should set up a national carrier or a bakery and employ people. It is not simply about dishing out N5,000 a month to “unemployed” graduates. It helps, sure, but to what extent? It is not simply about recruitment into the civil service. How many people can the government employ? The major focus should be about what the people can do by themselves. And how government can stimulate the people to do these things by themselves. Give Nigerians a space and watch them move the world.

I was flabbergasted a while ago when President Muhammadu Buhari banned government agencies from printing souvenirs because they are “a waste”. What??? He instantly dealt a heavy blow on many SMEs — the sort of businesses government should be actively encouraging with incentives and patronage. Every N1 spent by the government could end up generating economic activities worth N5, as I have illustrated in my fictitious three-day conference. The best thing the government could have done was to cut the budget for souvenirs or set standard prices to contain over-invoicing. With this “no souvenirs” decision, thousands of jobs were wiped out effortlessly.

I am fully with Buhari on cutting waste in government — in fact, I have been campaigning for this all my adult life and I am certain Buhari is the man to do it. But I would like to raise two points. One, we must define “waste” within an economic context. What “waste” is harmful? What “waste” in helpful? When government officials hold a training programme in Paris, I would call that harmful waste. Most of the benefits will go to the French economy, not ours. But if a similar programme is held in Nigeria, that is not a harmful waste. Even if you want to call it a waste, we are at least creating economic value with the “waste”. I’d cheekily call this “waste to wealth”.

Two, there is something wrong with the notion in Nigeria that government expenditure that oils an economic value chain is a waste. Even in many developed countries where the private sector is flourishing very well, government is still the largest spender and the stimulator of the economy. For instance, the single largest consumer of goods and services in the US is the government. One American economist put it this way: “If the government actually stopped spending, our economy would collapse.” In Nigeria, we take pride in starving the economy of public funds when there are uncountable life-changing, economy-stimulating projects to be done!

Back to my point: government has to rethink its definition of “waste”. Any spending that will positively stimulate economic activities should not be classified as waste. One day, I was shocked to see some “good” roads being repaired in the US, and someone explained to me that it is part of keeping people working and keeping income flowing. Meanwhile, chartering flights with state funds to attend political rallies should be classified as “harmful waste” — not because economic value is not generated, but to what end? The money is better spent on “wastes” like giving uniforms to pupils and keeping textile merchants, button sellers and tailors, in business. Helpful.

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AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

THE U-TURN
Just as I was dancing “azonto” that Ghanaian president John Mahama had finally conceded to Nana Akufo-Addo, Gambian president Yahya Jammeh rained on my parade by making a U-turn after initially congratulating Adama Barrow. Why did Jammeh summersault? Barrow, according to reports, had been threatening to probe and prosecute Jammeh. This, I believe, is the major reason why many African presidents refuse to leave office — the fear of humiliation. They would rather be “late president” than “ex-president”. Unfortunately, when you say probe should not be priority, you are accused of supporting corruption. I do really fear for Gambia. Ominous.

ALMIGHTY LAWMAKERS
The National Assembly has been having fun in recent times proposing all kinds of laws and seeking to wild all kinds of power. There is currently a bill that will allow them to insert their so-called constituency projects into the budget, even if these are not in the bill sent by the executive. Not so long ago, they sought to put the Code of Conduct Bureau and Code of Conduct Tribunal at the beck-and-call of the National Assembly — apparently in response to the perceived persecution of Senate President Bukola Saraki by President Muhammadu Buhari. Hopefully, these lawmakers will one day realise that you make laws for posterity, not for selfish reasons. Foresight.

JUNGLE JUSTICE
Generally, Nigerians love public lynching — both verbal and physical — as we see on social media everyday. However, the video of a young boy being lynched, recently, for “stealing” has raised, yet again, the issue of jungle justice in this animal kingdom that we live in. It revived the traumatic memories of the UNIPORT students who were lynched years ago following what turned out to be a false alarm. People say they don’t trust the police, so they take the law into their hands. Just shout “thief” and the next thing is death — even if there was no stealing. In a society where government truly values the lives of its citizens, jungle justice would have ended long ago. Sadistic.

UNWISE SOLOMON
On a second thought, it would appear President Buhari deliberately picked some characters as ministers in order to give us comic relief while we pass through this economic downturn. There are quite a number of entertainers in his cabinet. Comrade Solomon Dalung could well have been minister of youth, sports and comedy, given the kinds of things that come out of his mouth anytime he opens it. Speaking on government’s failure to pay the Falcons their allowances despite winning the African Women’s Cup of Nations (AWCON), he said nobody expected them to win — as if failure was his target. Nigeria is killing the spirit of these ladies. Outrageous.