Nigeria Only Needs 6 Ministers. Sack The Other 30! – by Dr. Joe Abah

hat got your attention, right? Preposterous idea, isn’t it? Or is it? Well, proponents of the Minimalist State argue that Government should only focus on Security, Health and Education, and leave everything else to the private sector to do.

They will say “Let’s allow government to only have Ministers for Health, Education, Defence and Interior. That’s all! Everything else should be private sector run! Oh, alright then, let’s be generous and allow them Finance and Petroleum Ministers to make it 6, but we must really sack everyone else! Given the state of our economy, we really cannot justify spending money on Ministers. We understand that it costs at least N1 billion per annum to maintain each Minister. That is criminal! Total Recurrent expenditure MUST NOT exceed 40%.”

Of course, statements like those above can often be made out of genuine patriotism, but also childlike naivety. Push the minimalists a bit and they may allow Government a Foreign Minister. “Ok, we will grudgingly allow a Minister for Solid Minerals too because we want to diversify the economy, but no more after that, really. Did you say Minister of Budget and National Planning? Oh we need that! The budget is of intense interest to us Minimalists! Oh yeah, we do need an Attorney General and Minister of Justice. Trade and Investments? Erm…”

I think they may have angrily left the conversation in utter disgust well before you get a chance to show them Section 147 of the Nigerian Constitution that commands Mr President to appoint at least 1 Minister from each of the 36 states, whether or not he wants to and whether or not he needs to.

“What about legislators? Why we cant we just have 36 Senators and 36 Members of the House of Representatives and sack all the rest? What do they do anyway? Can’t we sack some judges too? They are all corrupt and a drain on the common purse! We really must bring down Recurrent, so that we can focus on Capital!”

Incidentally, the proposition to cut the number of Ministers, Legislators and Judges to reduce recurrent expenditure is not one that you will hear very often from Minimalists. The target of attack is more likely to be their favourite punching bag: the Civil Service. Oh, and dont bother with definitions. Everybody in agencies and parastatals is a civil servant. So are policemen, soldiers, university lecturers and health workers.

For the avoidance of doubt, “Federal Civil Servants” in Nigeria are the 93,744 officials that work in Ministries to support Ministers. They are only recruited by the Federal Civil Service Commission and would normally follow a career path that could see them become Permanent Secretaries. They are supposed to be thoroughbread bureaucrats that can help develop and advise on policy. Their job is often not to deliver any service directly. Service Delivery is the job of agencies and parastatals.

As for the term “Public Servant”, everyone that draws a salary from the public purse is a public servant. These include Mr President, Vice President, Secretary to Government, Chief of Staff, Special Advisers, Senior Special Assistants, Personal Assistants and other aids, Ministers, Legislators, Judges, University Lecturers, Doctors and Nurses in public health institutions, Soldiers, Policemen and women and so on. Remember, I said everybody that draws a salary from the public purse. Of course Civil Servants also draw their salary from the public purse and are therefore Public Servants. So, all Civil Servants are Public Servants, but not all Public Servants are Civil Servants. Get it now? Good!

So when the Minimalists say “sack Civil Servants”, who exactly do they mean? The 93,744 only who earn about N121,000 per month on average, sometimes after 30 years of service? Or also police personnel, soldiers, judges, lecturers, doctors, nurses, fire officers, or regulators and other officials of agencies and parastatals, like the Federal Inland Revenue Service or the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency or the Nigerian Immigration Service?

Of course, as a developing country, we need to cut Recurrent expenditure and spend more on Capital. We need to do so in the realisation that every item of Capital expenditure has recurrent implications. Every new school or hospital needs to be staffed by people. Their salaries come out of the Recurrent budget. You also need to run a functional state that has a law making function and a judiciary, and you need to maintain law and order and secure your territorial borders. You may even need more soldiers to prosecute a war against terror. These costs are Recurrent in nature.

The Civil Service can be maddening at the best of times and many Ministers tolerate them as a necessary evil. A Minister is only there for a short period of time. In Nigeria, the average is 2 years, except for Ministers of Finance and the Federal Capital Territory that tend not to be changed as often as others. Given the short time they have, Ministers will therefore flood their offices with aids from the private sector or consultants funded by donors, to avoid the civil service which they perceive as useless, corrupt and obstructive. Eventually, they leave with those aids and the new ones come in and the cycle continues. The civil service sits back and waits for their Ministers or their aids to make a mistake. It knows that it always wins in the end. “Soldier come, soldier go, barrack remains.”

Let’s be a little provocative: The civil service supported Mr President to run the country for 6 months before Ministers were appointed. The world did not collapse. Look at the topic of this article again and allow yourself a chuckle!

You see, our real enemy is inefficiency and waste! The supreme law of the land, the 1999 Constitution, enshrines a culture of inefficiency and waste in our governance system. It was written at a time where it could probably never have been envisaged that the Nigerian economy will ever slide into a recession, or that Nigeria, blessed with virtually all natural resources known to man, will have to borrow to pay salaries. Our Constitution gives primacy to having a large state, with a focus on ensuring that all parts of the country share in that largesse. This is our real enemy.

A review of the Constitution should raise certain fundamental questions, not the ones that the National Assembly has focused on lately. Can we really afford a Presidential system of government? Should we have such a large Federal government that consumes 52% of all resources? Can we really afford to run 36 states and do we need to name them in the Constitution? Do we need a fulltime bicameral legislature? What is this State of Origin nonsense and for how long can we afford the divisiveness that it brings? Can we afford to run 774 Local Governments and do we really need to name them in the Constitution.

Do we really need three tiers of government when the local governments are under the total control of governors? Do Local Government Chairpersons need to be elected “Executive Chairmen”? Or should we just dispense with that and have governors appoint them on merit, perhaps through open and transparent competition in which all Nigerians, irrespective of where they come from, can apply?

Virtually everyday, the National Assembly has one bill or another to create yet another new agency or parsatatal. Politicians, on the other hand, have been slow to implement recommendations to scrap, merge or commercialise agencies and parastatals. Until we tackle these, issues, I think it is intellectual lazy and frankly dishonest to pick on the lowly civil servant, just because she is forbidden from answering back.

We should desist from plucking ratios for Recurrent to Capital expenditure, or appropriate staff numbers out of the air. We must first decide the type and size of State we want to have and create a Constitution that makes it possible. We should then be clear what government wants to achieve and set that out in a credible long-term plan, from which should come medium term plans and budgets and medium term expenditure frameworks. These should then determine the human resources we need to deliver government targets in the type of State we desire.

In the meantime, we must continue to tackle our common enemy: Waste. Already, the Federal Government has banned foreign training and restricted foreign travel. An analysis of Overhead part of our Recurrent expenditure by the Efficiency Unit of the Federal Ministry of Finance shows that the biggest costs have been Travel (up to 21%) and Training (up to 12%). We have reduced sitting allowances for Board Members and reduced the frequency at which they sit. We have banned conference bags and souvenirs and virtually banned all printing. I actually not sure that there is much else to ban! In the meantime, efforts are being made to make bulk purchases of things like vehicles, stationery and internal flights, with significant discounts expected from government’s large buying power.

However, it is my view that until the fundamental systemic issues are addressed, any efforts at reducing the cost of governance will be limited in value and effectiveness. We need a new Constitution. We need to find the political will to rationalise and restructure agencies and parastatals. We need to find the political will to sack civil servants that are unable or unwilling to work. Conversely, we need to increase the number of police officers we have. We need more doctors, nurses, teachers and tax collectors. We need to make it easier to do business and make the public’s experience of government, whenever they come in contact with it, better. We need to use information technology more to improve service delivery.

To argue for more intellectual sophistication in the discussion of these matters does not make one a statist supporter of big government. The goverment we have must be fit-for-purpose. It cannot be until we define that purpose!

Until we have stable electricity, we will continue to buy diesel. When electricity charges go up in the country, the money that government needs to pay it with would have to go up. With rising inflation will come rising Recurrent costs. Persisting with a lack of sophistication in discussing these matters could mean that one day, expenditure on Diesel may well be classed as Capital expenditure, just to please the Minimalists. The civil service is sophisticated and experienced enough to appropriately classify and “retire” the expenditure on Diesel as Capital, while we continue to deceive ourselves.

I have used the title of this article in order to grab the readers attention and make a point. However, I will not be surprised if the lazier parts of the press misinterpret it and produce a screaming headline: “DG ASKS BUHARI TO SACK MINISTERS!”

Dr. Joe Abah  is Director-General of Bureau of Public Service Reforms.

This piece is republished here with the author’s permission.