Well-Done Mr. President, Allex Oti

By Okey Ikechukwu

The two striking, and commendable, developments for our consideration today are: (1) The Presidential Directive inflicting a temporary foreign travel ban on public officers, covering Ministers and heads of MDAs, and (2) The signing into law of a bill by the Abia state governor, Alex Otti, stripping all former governors and deputy governors of the state of pensions and other perks. The two interventions are significant policy investments in responsible management of public resources.

It is now left for the legislative arm of government, the biggest and probably the most shameless drainpipe of our democracy, to take notice and do and take similar measures – if it ever will. There are genuine concerns that the National Assembly is carrying on as if its profligacy is something to show off with.

The directive banning all public-funded foreign trips for Federal Government officials from April 1, 2024, is obviously intended to compel a conscious commitment to reducing the overall cost of public administration. More than that, it is designed to curb avoidable forex outflows. In addition, the overall effect will induce what can best be described as greater backward integration, if it is strictly monitored and well managed.

Many of our MDAs are ever so ready to prance off to foreign lands for training and capacity building programmes that are available here in Nigeria. Meanwhile, over 90% of the trainings that are choreographed outside the country are not only available locally, but are actually carried out by Nigerian consultants. So, there may be uproar, as the DTA and other perks go up in smoke for the next three months. There will be media drivel about why a blanket ban is wrong and how ministers must travel out to make things happen for us and for Nigeria. But no matter. This is a three-month suspension, after which I imagine there would be a review to determine the impact, gains and lessons learnt.

So, it is time for greater realism on the part of those who operate as public functionaries without paying attention to the economic realities around them! Since it is the president that must approve every outward movement of ministers and similar ranking public officers, the new development imposes on the presidency the task of being more careful in its assessment of the reasons behind every request for foreign trips. It is also expected that the new presidential directive will not affect critical trips, certified to be so, in the national interest.

Coming less than two months after the president cut back on his own local travel costs and that of government functionaries, this is both commendable and instructive. Commendable because it spread the notion that the presidency is sensitive to feedback from its operating environment.  It is instructive because, coming after the public outrage that greeted the massive entourage to Lagos last December, it suggested a new resolve to better manage state protocol and security officials.

The January cutback on the presidential entourage for domestic and local trips, to no more than 25 persons for foreign trips and no more than 20 persons for local trips made a lot of sense. And then this clincher: Presidential local security is to be managed by agents at his destination, instead of him ferrying people from Abuja for capacities that exist everywhere all the time. Now, to Otti’s wise move.

Otti’s Intelligent Totality

The Abia State House of Assembly passed into law a Bill for a ‘Law to Repeal the Abia State Governors & Deputy Governors Pensions Law No 4 of 2001 and for other Matters Connected Therewith.The state governor, Alex Otti, signed the “Abia State Governors and Deputy Governors Pensions (Repeal) Law, 2024” into law 48 hours later. With his signature on the document, the payment of pensions to former Governors and their Deputies in Abia State was scrapped for good.

Hear Alex Otti on the matter: “Even before this new law came into place, a lot of people who have followed our views in national discourse understand that we were not going to continue the practice of paying pensions and allowances to this set of former government officials. So, it’s all about governance, it’s all about stewardship of our people and I believe that a leader who believes that leadership is business has lost his way. If you want to take up all the resources that belong to the people you are leading, I am not sure that is morally correct. We all know that it is not the best for the country, for this state and for workers who are hitherto owed for months; for pensioners who are still struggling to defray several months and years of arrears from 2014”.

In reaction, former governors of the state, including Orji Uzor Kalu, Theodore Orji and Okezie Ikpeazu, have since announced that they had so far not benefitted from the law. Some of them have even described the new law repealing the pension provisions as unnecessary, since the law itself was not being implemented.

But here they err. Otti did the right thing in repealing a law anyone can easily invoke in future to declare that he is being owed a backlog of arrears as a former governor, or former deputy governor. A naghi ama ama!

In this connection, let us consider the case of Yari a former governor of Zamfaara State Government. On October 17, 2019 he wrote his successor on: “Grant of Pension and Other Allowances for Former Governor, Former Deputy Governor, Former Speaker and Former Deputy Speaker of Zamfara”. The letter said: “I wish to humbly draw your attention to the provision of the law on the above subject matter, which was amended and assented to on the 23rd of March 2019. Yari’s complaint was that he was paid the monthly upkeep allowance of N10 million and a pension, equivalent to the salary he was receiving while in office, for only two months.

He wanted his arrears; and went out of his way to educate his successor; that the law (which he, the former governor, hurriedly made before leaving office) did not see the pension and upkeep allowances as privileges that could not be paid, hence, the need to request him to kindly direct the settlement of the total backlog of the pension and upkeep as provided by the law.”

Abdul’aziz Yari Abubakar wrote his successor, Bello Matawalle, because of the law and also because he believed that he was within his rights. The entitlements were his priority, warranting an angry letter, in a state where he left no commendable legacies and where he did not perform any miracles in the payment of the paltry entitlements of pensioners while he was governor. So, Alex Otti’s law has vitiated the possibility of any former governor, or deputy governor, from Abia state trying to do an Abubakar Yari on the state in future. 

Just so that we see the extent of the folly that now passes for sanity in elite political circles, the letter from Yari came from the “Office of the Former Governor.” Is there such an “office”, recognized by law? Is this office, if it exists, a creation of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria? Is the office of the former governor an elective, appointive, or presumptive one? What are the duties of a fomer governor, since he has a letterheaded paper to that effect. Is the action of the former governor, of a private citizen putting the national Coat of Arms on his private stationery, and using same as the crest for his private correspondence, not a criminal act?

It is easy for us to see Yari’s letter as an attempt by a private citizen to secure personal advantages for himself under false pretenses. But it is not easy to know what was on the man’s mind as he signed his letter in the red ink colour of officialdom. This singular fact is a more serious matter than what the former governor said in his letter to the state government, demanding his presumed entitlements.

Beyond Zamfara state, several other state governments have similar post-service legislation for governors and their deputies. Jigawa lawmakers said that the huge severance packages provided for their former office holders was a way of discouraging them from corrupt self-enrichment while in office.

Akwa Ibom State, under governor Godswill Akpabio, provided N200 million annual pay for ex-governors. This was in addition to life pension, a new official car and utility-vehicle every four years, one personal aide, adequate security, a cook, chauffeurs and security guards at a sum not exceeding N5m per month. The governor and spouse are also entitled to free medical services for a sum totaling N100m per annum, as well as a five-bedroom mansion in Abuja and Akwa Ibom.

Gombe State offered a N300 million executive pension benefits to its ex-governors. Kwara State included 300% of salary as furniture allowance, as well as two cars and a security car replaceable every three years. That is in addition to a well-furnished five-bedroom duplex, five personal staff, three State Security Services personnel, free medical care and much more.

For Edo state, the “Pension Rights of the Governor and Deputy Governor Law of 2007”, gave a former governor a 200-million-naira house, plus 100% of the salary of the incumbent governor for life. This is in addition to an officer not above Salary grade level 12 as Special Assistant, a personal secretary not below grade level 10 who shall be selected by the former governor from the public service of the State.

Former governors and former deputy governors of Osun State have their pension at the rate equivalent to the earning of the respective incumbent office holders. Lagos State, under its Lagos Pension Law, gives a former governor two houses (one in Lagos and another in Abuja), estimated to cost between N500m and N700m, respectively. It also gives him six brand new cars every three years, furniture allowance of 300% of annual salary every two years, among other frills.

While Rivers offers 100% percent of annual basic salaries for ex-governors, one house anywhere of his choice in Nigeria, three cars every four years, 300 per cent of annual basic salary every four years for furniture and 10 percent of annual basic salary for house maintenance, among other frills. Kano State provides 100% of annual basic salaries for a former governor, a furnished and equipped office, a 6-bedroom residential house, free medical treatment within and outside Nigeria where necessary, two drivers and a provision for a 30- day vacation within and outside Nigeria. We say nothing about other states. We also say nothing about the entitlements of deputy governors and principal officers of the state houses of assembly.

Alex Otti’s move is a wise preemptive strike at the lovers of plunder. Why would he not get rid of a law offering perks to people for whom the revenue mobilization and fiscal allocations commission already made adequate provisions?

Let the other tiers of government follow the president’s example on travel costs, even as we look forward to a further downward review of the current national budget. Let other states of the federation follow Otti’s example of weeding out looting opportunities – for a better Nigeria.

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