The Triumph of Profligacy Over Prudence

34

By ALEX OTTI

“The ability to extract maximum value from resources while creating minimum waste is a profitable skill to have.”
― Hendrith Vanlon Smith Jr, The Wealth Reference Guide: An American Classic

“The former administrations wantonly wasted the state’s resources. Just to go to Abuja, they spent N50m. It is there on record….. If you take N50m times four, that is N200m. You can’t do any project” Bala Mohammed, Bauchi State Governor, May 30, 2020.

Before going into the main issue of the day, permit me to delve into a story that will serve as its backdrop. The story has to do with the trials and triumphs of a very well-known Nigerian public figure, Peter Gregory Obi. Love him or hate him, many people agree that Peter Obi is one of the few leaders of the country that has his head properly screwed on his neck. He and I may not belong to the same political party, but then political parties in Nigeria do not operate on the basis of ideology, thus making it difficult to really differentiate one from the other. As different as the political parties are, one factor that knows no political party is truth. On Peter Obi, the truth is that he is a true example of excellent leadership and accountability in today’s world where such attributes are in very short supply. He may not be the most politically-correct public figure and this had led him into fighting several political battles even till today. He stood for election in Anambra State under the then nascent political party, All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) in 2003 and won. His victory was however, stolen by the rival PDP and he went to court where he battled for three years before reclaiming his mandate. Not too long after he assumed office, he was ‘impeached’ and that made him return to court where he won yet again and returned to his seat on February 9, 2007. He was to return to the court for the third time when an election was conducted in 2007 terminating his tenure, which in fact began just a year earlier. That election was declared null and void and he returned to complete his first four-year tenure on June 14, 2007. At the expiration of his first term, he was returned for a second tenure which started from March 17, 2010 and ended with an elaborate ceremony on March 17, 2014.

Peter Obi came into governance well prepared. He was coming with several certifications from some of the best schools in the world and had under his belt, cognate experience in the private sector. He was once the Chairman of Fidelity Bank Plc, amongst other positions including Chairman Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission. He was therefore not one of the “chartered politicians” who had no alternate address. Despite all the land mines laid for him, he was able to navigate them and left the state, a lot better than he met it. He had no godfather and truth be told, he could not have had one as he had all the ingredients to be a godfather himself and therefore could not have beholden to anyone. That may as well be one of his major problems. Most godfathers have something in common. They would only support those who are dependent on and inferior to them so that when they asked such a stooge to jump, the inevitable response would be, ‘how high?’

As Obi took over from his predecessor, he was determined to chart a new course for the then badly managed state. This column must at this point also quickly acknowledge the excellent work done by Dr. Chris Ngige, the current minister of Labour and Productivity, who in spite of the ferocious onslaught by the self-assumed godfathers in the state, was able to massively attack the major problem of the state at that time which was access roads. He built a lot of roads within the period he was Governor and indeed set the stage for Peter Obi to open up even the interiors of the state and make transportation within the state a relatively easy and affordable undertaking.

Peter Obi fully understood that one cannot have one’s cake and eat it. He was therefore deliberate about what was important and what was not to his people. He focused on cutting drastically, the cost of governance. Amidst dwindling resources, many of our leaders do not realise that the cost of governance can be reduced quite significantly. This realisation and the resolve to implement it, set Peter Obi apart from his peers. The history of governance in Nigeria shows that most of our leaders tend to continue to live a life of profligacy and extravagance, when, their states are insolvent and wallow in debt.

The question then is how did Peter Obi achieve that feat in a state that was reputed to have been owing civil servants and pensioners? How did he manage to clear all debts and leave funds for his successor ? He had put on record the fact that he left a whopping N75 billion for the future generation of the state. Like yours truly had done in the past, one can attest to the fact that some $155million was invested in the tier two capital of three Nigerian banks with maturities of about 5 years at interest rates of up to 9% per annum to the credit of the State. As at the time the investments were made, the Naira equivalent of the funds was about N25b. If those funds were rolled over at maturity in 2019, they would be worth about N62b today. If interest is assumed to remain at 9% for the past 6 years, an additional N33.5b would have accrued to bring the present value of the investments to over N95b. This is one of the advantages of prudence and financial literacy.

Peter Obi realised from day one that running a large government was undesirable. The first thing he did was to rationalise the size of government and therefore, expenditure. He also lived a frugal life. All the extravagance of leadership had no place in his government. Some people would argue that he overdid it, but it worked. You would always find him in the economy cabin of planes, he would travel alone most of the time, carrying his bags, he would refuse to stay in high-brow and expensive hotels, preferring to stay in cheaper hotels where he would negotiate the rates to the bare bones, he would not be seen in a long convoy, he would refuse to do lavish entertainments at the Governor’s lodge and elsewhere, and most importantly, he would refuse to give the proverbial “blood tonic” a euphemism for sharing government money to people who are mere parasites and contribute nothing positive to the development of the state.

Saving money is important but delivering value to the populace is even more important. Peter Obi understood this. He improved the quality of education in the state to the extent that it came into strong reckoning as it ranked Number One both at NECO and WAEC for several years during his tenor. He returned missionary schools to their original owners and gave them financial support to run those schools. He built a University at Igbo Ariam and built and equipped several hospitals. The state became “smaller” in terms of travel time as he connected most communities by building very good roads. He also understood that the only way to sustain the growth of the state was to support the private sector. He supported the establishment of one of the few if not the only vehicle manufacturing company in Nigeria, Innoson Motors and patronised the company. He promoted “Made in Anambra” by patronising products manufactured in Nnewi, Onitsha and Awka. Interestingly, with all these feats, Anambra was the only non-indebted state as at the time he left office in 2014.

As stated above, the governor of Bauchi State revealed that on the average, his predecessors spent N50m on every trip to Abuja. These trips, we all know, could happen once every week or even more frequently. This situation is obviously not limited to Bauchi State and it is clearly one of the ways through which state treasuries are looted. According to the concerned Governor, he has now reduced that cost to between N3m and N5m per trip. In Peter Obi’s governance model, such an amount is still too much. We must commend Governor Bala Mohammed for the courage not only to depart from the past, but to expose it. Gov. Hope Uzodinma of Imo State has just signed a bill abrogating payment of “pensions” to former Governors, Deputy Governors and Speakers of the state. This very ridiculous practice was put in place by self-serving former governors in states for no other reason except looting the states’ treasury even after their tenor. It is surprising that someone does a job for 4 or 8 years and allocates to himself, humongous payments in perpetuity while salaries and pensions of people who genuinely worked for 35 years in the civil service may remain unpaid for several months.

The only reason Profligacy seems to have triumphed over prudence in Nigeria is that the citizens condone and accept it. The saying that every society gets the kind of leadership it deserves, cannot be truer. We can at least demand accountability from our leaders. But to do this, we must first begin to show interest in the issues. We must also pay attention to how leadership emerges in our little corners. When you do not show interest, you are then asking for the wrong leaders. Elsewhere, before one aspires to an office a few issues must be resolved, and an agenda set out for the electorate and the aspirants to engage in a public discourse. A situation where a few individuals sit down and decide who they want to impose hardly brings the right kind of leadership. After all, everything succeeds and fails on the altar of leadership. Like it is said, the fish gets rotten from the head. It therefore behooves on all of us to consider the following six critical issues and ask important questions before we allow anyone to lead us.

In considering the critical elements in leadership, the first issue is Character. Character is indeed everything. We must be sure of where the prospective leader is coming from in terms of his upbringing, his past experiences and his morals. It is our opinion that a verbal agreement with a man of character is more enforceable than a written contract with a thief. In banking, the most important factor to consider in lending is character. Ability to pay is not as important as the willingness to pay.

The second issue is Capacity. A popular Latin dictum has it that ‘nemo dat quod non habet’, which means that one cannot give what one does not have. We have situations where we choose leaders who do not have the mental capacity to understand what is expected of them. So, for those kinds of leaders, they miss the plot from Day One. For them, it is all about what they can grab and not what legacy they can leave behind. In a society like ours that hardly holds leadership to account, it is easy for them to get away with it. Posterity does not seem to matter much to people today even though it will judge all of us in the final analysis.

The third issue is that of Culture. Simply defined, we are talking of how we do our things and what our expectations are. This is important because what we sow is what we reap. If we accept a situation where someone pays for everything including our votes, it becomes difficult for us to have the moral basis to hold them to account when they do not perform. After all, they have paid upfront and must recoup their money. Little do many realise that the pittance they received to vote for the wrong leader is the reason why our roads are never built, why hospitals and schools are not equipped and why salaries remain unpaid.

The next issue to focus on is Construct. This refers to the structure and the frame of the leadership we expect. Some people come into governance without promising anything. They hardly have an idea of what they have come to do in governance. If you are not promised anything, then do not expect anything. If you do receive anything at all, then it is a bonus.

The fifth issue is Conscientiousness, also known as Diligence. This is one of the most important factors in the leadership selection exercise. A leader must be someone who desires to serve not one intent on looting his people. Collecting humongous security votes and travel allowances when your constituents are going to bed hungry and sick can only happen when such a person lacks conscience. Owing workers who have put in equal day’s work for months does not show leadership. Not equipping hospitals where the people would go for medical attention is an example of the kind of people not to be found around leadership. And there are a lot of other examples to give here. It is sad that some of our leaders will squander state resources on hedonistic pursuits, when what such endeavours cost them in a year is enough to set up at least one hospital that will provide much needed service to even themselves and their families.

The last one is Competence. To aspire to leadership, it is expected that one should have distinguished oneself in an area of human endeavour. One of the problems we have is that we have become so lethargic that jobless people who call themselves career politicians have invaded the political scene and we seem to have condoned it. Elsewhere, you must have credentials before presenting yourself for leadership at any level. In so doing, our focus should be on merit rather than primordial considerations like ethnicity, religion, or gender.

It is because of the wrong choices we had made in the past that we are in this unfortunate situation where the entire country appears helpless in just a few months of lockdown. Covid -19 once again provides us an opportunity to re-examine ourselves and our choices. As we battle the pandemic, leaders who have refused to invest in infrastructure and public health are stuck with the populace and there is nowhere to go. Somehow, the old natural law holds true, ‘You cannot cheat Nature’.