Fiscal prudence, not for Tinubu alone

It first started on January 9, 2024. That was when Ajuri Ngelale, presidential spokesperson, announced that President Bola Ahmed Tinubu had slashed the number of officials accompanying him and other top government officials on any foreign trip.

This, according to Ngelale, is part of “massive cost-cutting measures.” Speaking while briefing State House correspondents at the Presidential Villa (then), Ngelale said the cost-cutting exercise affects the entire apparatus of the federal government including the office of the President, Vice President and First Lady.

According to the new policy, Tinubu directed that local security agencies should be used for his protection whenever he travels to any state instead of travelling with a high number of security details from Abuja. He also stated that the same measure should be adopted for his vice, Kashim Shettima, and first lady, Sen. Oluremi Tinubu.

“Additionally, when any international travel is being approved, the following limits have been placed on all ministers of the Federation. Four members of their staff, appointees and the like will be allowed to travel with a minister on an official trip,” Ngelale said.

Equally, the presidential spokesperson said henceforth, heads of government agencies will be limited to only two members of staff on any trip. Giving a further breakdown, Ngelale said for any international trip, his principal directed that no more than 20 individuals will be allowed to travel with him.

“That number will be cut down to five in the case of the First Lady. Additionally, the number in the entourage on official international trips for the Vice President will be cut to five, the number that will be placed as a limit on the wife of the Vice President is also five,” he said.

In terms of local trips, Ngelale said Tinubu “approved a new limit of 25 members of staff to accompany him on domestic trips within the country. The Office of the First Lady is now limited to 10 staff members to accompany her on official trips within the country. The Vice President will be limited to 15 members of staff on official trips within the country, while his wife will be limited to 10 members of staff”.

Next was on March 20, 2024. On that day, Tinubu ordered a ban on all foreign trips by his ministers and other government officials. He gave the directive via a letter by his Chief of Staff, Femi Gbajabiamila, addressed to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, George Akume.

In the letter, dated 12 March 2024, Mr. President directed an embargo on all foreign trips. However, according to the letter, exemption could be given to “trips deemed absolutely necessary”.

In the letter, Tinubu expressed concerns over the rising cost of foreign trips embarked upon by government officials amid Nigeria’s dire economic situation. According to the letter, the ban will last 90 days in the first instance and will come into effect on 1 April, 2024.

It is instructive that Mr. President’s directives were aimed at pruning the cost of governance. However, Tinubu, since his inauguration (it must be said), has been ‘globe trotting’ (sorry, embarked on several official and investment trips) with large delegations.

Last November, he faced a backlash during and after the 28th edition of Conference of Parties (COP28) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Citizens, regardless of their political, religious and ethnic affiliations, harangued the FG for sponsoring over 600 officials to accompany Tinubu to Dubai – COP28’s host city.

Delivering the inauguration lecture of then President-elect Tinubu; Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), in May last year, decried the ‘gargantuan’ cost of governance in Nigeria, which he noted is way too high. Hence, it should be drastically reduced to free up more resources for development.

“Nigeria is spending very little on development. Today, Nigeria is ranked among countries with the lowest human development index in the world, with a rank of 167 among 174 countries globally, according to the World Bank 2022 Public Expenditure Review report,” he disclosed.

Available data estimated that our beloved fatherland can save as much as N12 trillion annually, by the time government Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs) with overlapping functions are merged.

Acclaimed newspaper editor, Martins Oloja, in a piece titled, “Cost of governance and our leaders’ lifestyle,” wrote that in last year’s budget, Nigeria spent N14.2 billion on the Presidency alone, while the budget of National Assembly, NASS, was pegged at N228.1 billion. “Former President Buhari between 2016 and October 2022, spent about N81.80 billion on the Presidential Air Fleet (PAF) maintenance and foreign trips.

“The colossal figures include N62.47 billion for the operation and maintenance of PAF, N17.29 billion for foreign and local trips, and N2.04 billion earmarked for related expenses.

“Under Buhari’s administration, the government created more agencies, including the Nigerian Diaspora Commission (NDC), North East Development Commission (NEDC) as well as the Nigeria Data Protection Bureau (NDPB), amongst many others. In 2020, the federal government had to borrow the sum of N2.8 trillion from the central bank via the Ways and Means provisions.

“Debt servicing gulped N3.2 trillion in the same year, while Nigeria spent a total of N5.6 trillion on recurrent non-debt expenditure in 2021. The money was spent on personal cost for MDA’s rising from N2.8 billion, in the 2020 budget to N3 billion in 2021 budget. Personal cost for government-owned enterprises (GOEs) also more than tripled from N218 billion (2020) to N701 billion, in 2021,” Oloja noted.

A news story by Business Day also revealed that in our dear country, “a serving minister may have up to 10 cars, 10 special assistants, five personal assistants or even more. Every special assistant also has an assistant; every special adviser has an executive assistant and a retinue of officials and cars”.

Surprisingly, the United States, whose democratic/federal system Nigeria is copying, has only 15 secretaries (equivalent to our ministers) piloting the affairs of over 250 million Americans. In the same vein, Senegal, our West African neighbour, has since abolished its senate to save cost. While India introduced e-governance to reduce the cost of running its government, other countries like Ethiopia, Thailand, Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda have officially put a ceiling on the number of political appointees their presidents will pick for their cabinets.

Why so? It is to make their governments efficient in the management of meagre resources. But in our dear Naija, successive governments did not give a hoot about reducing the massive funds used to conduct the affairs of our public offices.

In this regard, Mr. President deserves our sincere commendations for displaying courage in tackling Nigeria’s governance cost crisis. I am elated that Tinubu, a few weeks ago, also said that some MDAs will be merged and scrapped as recommended by the Oronsaye report. Let him walk his talk, and ensure the merger and scrapping are done, without much ado. As part of reducing Nigeria’s burgeoning governance cost, the federal government should discontinue providing houses and vehicles to public officials, whose allowances are already monetised.

Again, the executive, legislature and judiciary should deliberately pursue and see to the implementation of cost reduction policies, by their officials. Periodic auditing of the personnel/staff of government MDAs is also necessary. This is to help eliminate ghost workers and fake staff in government payrolls.

For the federal MDAs, I will also suggest the deployment of e-accounting and e-auditing systems when handling issues around public finance. They are essential for guarding against unauthorized and wasteful spending by government officials. It is time for us as citizens, and not only President Tinubu and other government officials to imbibe fiscal prudence.

The nation’s economy is in its devastating and ailing condition. Being extravagant, with the scarce financial resources at our disposal, will rather aggravate our individual socio-economic woes, instead of ameliorating them. A word, they say, is enough for the wise.

Mahmud, deputy editor PRNigeria, writes via [email protected].