Paying Political Office Holders to Promote Poverty

Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige


Public office holders in Nigeria enjoy economic appurtenances unheard of in civilised political economies. These benefits apart from helping to drive economic and social inequalities also help to promote and sustain poverty. Nosa James-Igbinadolor reports

It is quite obvious, after all, that public office holders in Nigeria, especially those, who hold high offices of state, perceive the country’s treasury as one massive grilled Ostrich delicatessen at their culinary disposal that must be cut into palatable pieces to satiate their gluttonous appetite.

It is no more mind numbing or conscience searing in most homes in Nigeria to hear and read of unspeakable heist of the country’s economic patrimony by office holders; it has become the accepted tale.

In his analysis of the relationship between prebendal politics and federal governance in Nigeria, Mr. Rotimi Suberu opined that, “The fragmentation of Nigeria into a multiplicity of centrally funded, subnational state and local governments has vastly expanded and multiplied the access points and conduits for the individual and sectional appropriation of public power and resources. Indeed, the Nigerian federal system operates almost exclusively as a mechanism for the intergovernmental distribution and ethno-political appropriation of centrally collected oil revenues. In short, the system abets, and is enmeshed and subsumed in an overall context of, prebendal, neo-patrimonial politics.”

Occupants of public offices, especially political offices at federal, state and local levels in Nigeria no doubt believe that their positions permit them unimpeded access to public resources which they use to not only satisfy their own material wants, but also service the wants of plebeian clients. According to Segun Ayobolu, this kind of criminal diversion of public resources for selfish private ends starves the polity of funds for development, increases poverty and inequality, and intensifies an unhealthy rivalry and competition for public office that triggers pervasive instability.

Earlier in the year, the Court of Appeal in Abuja described as morally wrong the payment of severance allowances to elected or appointed public office holders, stating that such payments “cannot be justified in the context of our present social realities.” Justice Emmanuel Agim, who read the lead judgement of the court asserted that, “The political appointees and elected public office holders who do not work as long and as hard as career civil servants quickly get paid huge severance allowances upon leaving office, in addition to the huge wealth they acquired while holding such offices and without having been subjected to any contributory pension schemes.”

The Justice further berated public office holders’ insatiable taste as “not morally right to pay an elected public officer or political appointee pension and gratuity or severance allowance for holding such an office for three to eight years as the case may be. It cannot be justified in the context of our present social realities; it amounts to gross social injustice”

Among the most sordid of indefensible salaries and allowances is that paid to Nigerian federal legislators, who, we now know are entitled to compensation packages unseen in most places except in very few deified spaces in the highest levels of the more competitive private sector.

An erstwhile Senator from Kaduna state, Senator Shehu Sani, had in what was probably a pang of conscience in 2018, broken from the code of ‘omerta’ prevalent amongst legislators when it comes to their horizonless pay and announced that the salary of senators is N750,000 per month plus allowances of N13.5 million per month; total package of N14.25 million per month. What this simply means is that the Nigerian legislators who exert very diminutive labour in a very uncompetitive, inefficient and ineffective legislature, take out some N7 billion every month out of the nation’s lean treasury as renumeration and compensation and a whopping N84 billion every year to preen and prune themselves in a country making little progress in eliminating poverty.

The situation is no different at the sub-national legislative and government houses, where governors and state lawmakers allocate obscene compensations to themselves.

The 2019 global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) that sheds light on disparities in how people experience poverty beyond income as the sole indicator for poverty, revealed that in Nigeria, even though the proportion of people, who are multidimensionally poor has remained constant at just over 50 per cent over the past decade, the actual number of people, who are multi-dimensionally poor increased from 86 million to 98 million over the same period. Also, important to note from the report is that when compared to the national poverty line, which measures income/consumption, a larger proportion of Nigerians (51per cent) are multidimensionally poor than those that are income poor (46per cent).

The World Poverty Clock, a project of the World Data Lab which tracks income levels for individuals around the world, showed that more than 90 million Nigerians are now living in poverty. This is the second year in a row Nigeria has landed in the top spot of the World Poverty Clock. In May 2018 the country overtook India as the country with the most people living in poverty. World Poverty Clock defines poverty as living on less than $1.90 per day.

Thus, while 90 million Nigerians live on less than $1.90 per day, 469 Nigerian legislators shockingly live on $1,357 per day!

One of the major drivers of this scandalous poverty level is the misallocation of resources as exemplified by the outrageous remuneration of certain cadre of public officers. In a 2018 critique of Nigeria in its Commitment to Reducing Inequality index report, a global ranking of governments based on what they are doing to tackle the gap between rich and poor, Oxfam International noted that, “Nigeria has the unenviable distinction of being at the bottom of the Index for the second year running. Its social spending (on health, education and social protection) is shamefully low, which is reflected in very poor social outcomes for its citizens. One in 10 children in Nigeria does not reach their fifth birthday, and more than 10 million children do not go to school. Sixty percent of these are girls. The CRI Index showed that in the past year, Nigeria has seen an increase in the number of labour rights violations. The minimum wage has not increased since 2011. Social spending has stagnated.”

The report further noted that, “Poverty and inequality in Nigeria are not due to a lack of resources, but to the ill-use, misallocation and misappropriation of such resources. At the root is a culture of corruption combined with a political elite out of touch with the daily struggles of average Nigerians.”

Former US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. John Campbell, in an analysis for the Council on Foreign Relations noted that, “A member of the National Assembly in Nigeria, one of the poorest countries in the world, can largely spend his allowances anyway he sees fit. Not only is parliamentary compensation in Nigeria massive compared to the overall wealth of the country, it is also largely unregulated and subject to abuse.”

He contrasts this abuse of resources by Nigerian legislators to their US counterparts, when he asserts that, “The Nigerian politician lacks the resources available to a U.S. member of Congress, such as the fully-developed Congressional Research Service or the Library of Congress. That being said, the resources at the disposal of a U.S. member of Congress are closely governed by law and regulation.”

He concluded by aptly postulating that “levels of parliamentary compensation in Nigeria are so high that there is an understanding that service in the National Assembly is an aspect of patronage/clientele relationships and should be rotated between ethnic group, local region, and religion. This is one reason why, following each national election, more than 60 percent of parliamentarians are new.”

With the adoption of a new minimum wage of N30,000, public office holders will also expect a further augmentation of their already gargantuan pay, the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission, which is charged with determining the remuneration appropriate for political office holders now has to sensibly deal with expanding the pay of about 1,500 political office holders, which include the President and his deputy as well as ministers, special advisers, special assistants, legislators and parastatal heads in a way that would not exacerbate the already dire income and social inequality environment.

For a country that spends more of her annual budget on recurrent expenditure and less on capital spending, reining in the public wage bill will certainly continue to defy government efforts. What this means is that as more government revenue is spent on taking care of the primitive needs of public officials, little will be left to spend on infrastructure which is more critical for economic growth and development. Projections in the 2020 budget, show that the government expects to spend as much as N3 trillion on personnel salaries and pensions, while capital spending is projected to be just 24per cent of the budget.

There is an urgent need to prune the rising cost of governance in Nigeria. Former President Goodluck Jonathan in August, 2011, set up a Presidential Committee on Rationalisation and Restructuring of Federal Government’s Parastatals, Commissions and Agencies. The committee, which was headed by former Head of Service of the Federation, Dr. Stephen Orosanye, made some far-reaching recommendations that, if considered will go a long way in reducing the bourgeoning spending by government on non-growth enhancing activities.

As the unbridled heist of the country’s treasury through unrestrained allocation of compensation packages as well as outright theft of public resources becomes a directive principle of state policy, it is no wonder that a country with so much potential remains mired in poverty. As Richard Joseph noted in his op-ed for the Brookings Institution in 2013: “The crippling consequences of dysfunctional governance are experienced in all areas of life in Nigeria. There is a fundamental contradiction between prebendalism and the provision of efficient public services.”