Memos to Ambode: No 1- Build the Three Flyovers Lekki ‘Expressway’ Desperately Needs

By Abraham Abiodun Idowu on Jun 14, 2015 at 5:57 PM

Mr Governor, welcome to Nigeria’s second hottest executive desk. I would like to start what I hope will be an eight year series of engagements by sharing my thoughts on possibly the most contentious issue in the Lagos political space in the last five years. I want to propose to you and the residents of Lagos, who you are sworn to faithfully serve, a low hanging solution that will resolve the contention over provision of equitable and efficient transport infrastructure to the Lekki Peninsula.

Your government’s land use master plan for the peninsula anticipates 3.4 million residents and 1.9 million transients on 26,000 built up acres. Achievement of this projection, which no one doubts considering the ever accelerating pace of development in that axis, will make this part of Lagos one of the largest cities in the world beaten in the US by only New York City and Los Angeles and in Europe by Moscow, London and St Petersburg. Obviously the Lekki master plan envisages the creation of a very substantial planned metropolis which will be part of Lagos but will pose unique developmental challenges and opportunities. The actions of the Lagos State Government (LASG) to date however belie any intention to systematically overcome these challenges and exploit the opportunities. Nothing showcases this governmental failure as much as the often discussed and lamented Lekki – Epe ‘Expressway’ (LEE).

Faced with an unconstrained road corridor LASG blanched and failed to think big in any way comparable to its own population projection for the Peninsula or its grand plans for it which include an international airport, Nigeria’s first deep sea port, the most promising free trade zone in the country and possibly the largest refinery in the world. Instead of building the first of several modern multi-lane highways to move five million people and service its grand ambitions for the axis, all LASG could deliver was the expansion of the existing dual carriageway from four to six lanes for part of its length. Beyond Sangotedo the much vaunted LEE would offer no more lanes than have existed for decades serving but a fraction of current and projected population and activities. To compound its lack of vision LASG decided to prove it also lacked compassion or any sense of equity by insisting that its ‘expansion’ of the sole artery serving this vital part of the state must be tolled. For a state that proclaims land is its oil and that recognizes the Peninsula as its main urban land bank that contributes significantly to the state’s internally generated revenue via land use charges and consent fees, it was highly insensitive that its only major road would be the test bed for extreme capitalism which is what the whole idea of tolling roads is. Citizens and residents pay taxes precisely to enable governments provide infrastructure and services which include roads for the efficient evacuation and accessing of all parts of the realm. Governments go further and charge car license fees, which are grossly inadequate in Nigeria’s case but that is a different discussion, to provide more revenue targeted at road infrastructure. Peninsula denizens arguably have a higher than average per capita income within Lagos state and pay higher than average taxes too. How then, in God’s name, can it ever be considered equitable that the only arterial road for more than three million people must be tolled? Berlin, Paris, Houston and Chicago each have fewer than Lekki’s master plan population, which is in danger of being overtaken by facts on the ground, and is any of them served solely by a part six lane and part four lane road which is then tolled?

While it is totally unconscionable for a government to add one lane per side for 25 kilometres to an existing road when a suburb becomes a significant economic contributor to the commonwealth, it totally beggars belief to witness the hash that has been made of this attempt to extort the people. In the 14 kilometres between the first toll gate and the infamous Ajah roundabout, LASG’s engineers approved the creation of 10 roundabouts in an apparent effort to minimize the cost of the road and presumably make surplus funds available for other, hopefully licit, purposes. I walk 14 kilometres in 140 minutes but I am rarely able to drive that distance on this nightmare ‘expressway’ in anything less than 180 minutes, at least not without venturing onto the coastal ‘road’ or discovering the inner streets of Lekki phases 1 and 2. On the coastal road I pay another two tolls of N100 each to area boys, over and above the toll paid on the LEE, even while the waves lap the tyres of my car whenever the ocean feels a bit energetic. Despite my willingness to expose myself to danger from both criminal and natural elements, even this option has been snatched from me presumably by agents of LASG who blocked the coastal road over a week ago. The government wasn’t embarrassed by the fact that tax and toll payers were driven to risk lives and limbs with criminals and the Atlantic. LASG didn’t think of how to make the coastal road a truly viable alternative for tax payers not willing to spend up to six hours each day on LEE. It simply shut the option down.

In designing LEE the government was apparently driven to keep it cheap and deny users access to any viable options despite its avowals to provide alternatives when the initial idea of both privatizing and tolling the road were announced. To keep the road cheap it was limited to only three lanes per side up to Sangotedo after which it reverts to the existing two lanes. For the great boon of adding one lane for 25 kilometres our benevolent government planned to erect only three toll gates. A ten lane road like Ikorodu Road (IR) is didn’t strike LASG as apt for what will be Lekki’s spine but that isn’t the only lesson that wasn’t learnt from IR. Ikorodu Road offers one five options for a u-turn and they are all flyovers and an underpass which we have at Jibowu, Anthony, Maryland, Ketu and Mile 12 and these are the most vital design features that keep that indispensable road flowing at all hours no matter how heavy the traffic is. We can imagine how totally unmanageable IR traffic would have been had anyone dared to afflict it with ten roundabout the way LEE has been. The need for flyovers over LEE is rather obvious and no rocket science so one can only wonder why the engineers who designed this road and the politicians who approved its construction as is failed to see the obvious but we shall not delay ourselves here with conspiracy theories for there is a road to fix and lives to be saved.

The Lekki – Epe ‘Expressway’ urgently needs the provision of three flyovers if the last part of its name is to stop being a morbid joke. A bridge at the Admiralty roundabout, another at Jakande and the last at Ajah would suffice for now. All the roundabouts would of course then be closed and the options to reverse direction on this 14 kilometer stretch would be limited to going under these bridges. This would transform a Law School to Ajah trip from a four hour crawl to a 10 – 20 minute dash as the trip would be an unbroken drive soaring over what today are spots notorious for two kilometer tail backs that take an hour each to navigate. Aba Expressway in Port Harcourt is plagued with similar gridlock for the same reason of multiple superfluous intersections. Oil Mill Junction used to be the most notorious traffic black spots on that road until an overpass was built on it. Today only long time Port Harcourt residents remember those nightmarish traffic snarls. Similarly closing off the intersection beside Shell’s Residential Area on the Aba Road permanently eliminated the traffic challenges at that spot. While the government in Rivers might lack the vision and / or courage to apply this solution along the entire stretch of Aba Road, I can only hope that you will instantly grasp the obvious and will not lack the courage to do that which is necessary.

In addition to garnishing it with abundant roundabouts, LEE is barricaded for most of its length by fences and deep storm water drains designed to break linkages to the minor roads that could have provided ways around traffic chokepoints. These barriers to free ingress and egress to LEE must be eliminated to enable the entire road network of the Peninsula work as an organic whole. On the Mainland it is possible to get off Eko Bridge at Ijora and go all the way to Fatai Atere Way without once returning to the main road. Similar time saving detours are possible on Ikorodu Road and all major highways in Nigeria. Why has LEE been chosen for this weird experiment in regimented road usage?

If your new government can build these bridges, eliminate the roundabouts and restore links to side streets which have been broken, lives currently lost to traffic stress induced heart attacks and stroke would be saved but the benefits go well beyond that. Fender benders and worse that constantly occur at the roundabouts and in the jostling for advantage while stuck in immobile traffic will save even more lives, limbs and property. The worst pollution from motor vehicles and the least efficient engine time is when vehicles are standing still in traffic. A close second cause, when it comes to pollution and engine inefficiency, is the need to slow down to navigate a roundabout even when traffic is light. Handled right, LASG might just be able to claim carbon credits for building these bridges which could offset the cost of the bridges. But there is more. The real estate market in the peninsula has been grossly distorted by the great cost in time and stress for each additional kilometer you move away from Victoria Island. Generally a property in Lekki phase 1 will cost up to six times what the equivalent property will cost just 10 kilometres away, five minutes away if LEE were an Expressway in reality. A concrete example is Lekki Gardens which currently sells its four bedroom semi detached duplex at Ajah for less than half the price it sells the same unit off Chevron road which is just six kilometres away. Such distortions, apart from destroying value for citizens, do not promote the efficient use of what LASG has rightly identified as its oil reserve.

Ultimately LASG must do more than just put up flyovers and eradicate roundabouts. To truly turn LEE into an Expressway and future proof it certain other steps, not all as urgent as the need for flyovers and roundabout closures, should be taken. The first such additional step is the creation of proper bus stops with sufficient room for buses and passengers to safely interact and without trammeling the free flow of traffic on the road. The current idea of expanding the road by a mere smidgen and sticking a ‘bus stop’ sign into the ground is the second most important reason for heinous traffic jams on the road at all hours of the day and night. Often buses both big and small take over two of the three lanes in order to drop and pick up passengers while all other traffic is relegated to just one lane. As early as 5.30am this causes up to 30 minutes of delay and tailbacks between Ajah and VGC on the Victoria Island bound side stretching beyond one kilometer. The Peninsula is still wide open and there can be no excuse for not providing LEE with generously proportioned ‘furniture’. Seriously one cannot help but wonder just what the agenda was when this road was designed: punishing the people or undeclared financial rewards?

Another step that needs to be taken to secure the future prosperity of the Peninsula is to expand the road to ten lanes all the way to Epe. This is the only way we can ensure that land use will be efficient with a more gradual and rational price gradient for properties in the axis. Additionally this will delay significantly the need for another expensive arterial road. It is important that this be embarked on now while the necessary space is still available.

Lastly the Green rail line that is projected to go from the Marina to the Export Processing Zone needs to be prioritized. Considering the economic profile of the Peninsula it would be one of the more attractive lines for the private investors expected to build all the remaining rail lines. You should pull out all the stops to make this a reality even before 2019 when you will need the ever increasing votes of the Peninsula’s residents. These steps in addition to the obvious need to get rid of the nuisance toll gates will secure your place in the people’s hearts. You cannot stop any Lekki resident who pays his taxes but provides his own power, water, estate roads, security, sends his kids to private schools and uses private hospitals only to be asked to pay a toll to get into and out of his home from wondering just what your government has ever done for him. Surely LASG is to serve a purpose and that purpose cannot be impoverishment of our lives and pockets. This is the time you must decide how you want to fight the next election: you can start from today by doing what is right and equitable to all residents of this great state or you can count on regents, godfathers and your party to somehow get you another four years in power in spite of whatever the voters feel about you and your service. May God guide you in leaving 20 million lives better than you met them.

Abraham Abiodun Idowu

June 14th 2015

Memos to GMB: No 2 – Revenue

After my initial memo to you on ways to cauterize the life threatening hemorrhage of government income through corruption and inefficiency I feel the next most fundamental issue is how to raise the government Revenue that will make everything else possible for even the good book says that money answereth all evil and our backwardness in virtually every index of modern life will require copious amounts of money to fix.

One of the convergence criteria of the ECOWAS Monetary Cooperation Program (EMCP) is the stipulation that Taxes should constitute no less than 20% of total GDP. In the last 15 years only three countries, Gambia, Cape Verde and Ghana, have, intermittently, met this critical benchmark. Ghana, for example, fell below 20% when it rebased its GDP recently. Nigeria never got beyond the low teens but even this poor performance has further worsened to a Tax to GDP ratio of 6.1% after the much hyped rebasing of the GDP in 2014. We must bear in mind that crude oil, by far currently the biggest contributor of Taxes to Nigeria, is Taxed at 85% (87% when we add in Royalty) and this should ensure that Nigeria easily outperforms the 20% benchmark set by ECOWAS yet we don’t even get halfway! This abysmal record cannot stand if we intend to pursue an aggressive program of socioeconomic rebirth. Below are steps that, if pursued diligently, should at least triple the percentage of GDP that accrues to Nigerian governments as Taxes.

The most blatant hemorrhaging of Revenue and Taxes is in the oil and gas sector where losses happen at every stage from the production facilities and pipelines, where bunkering drains about 20% of what is rightfully Nigeria’s, to NNPC’s often criminal handling of the national patrimony not just in the way it dissipates Revenue unlawfully but also in the delinquent way it discharges its regulatory roles viz licensing, bloc auctions, subsidy management etc. Considering your stints as Federal Commissioner for the Petroleum ministry and Head of State and the pertinent experiences of close allies like Professor Tam David-West and Emir Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, I believe it would be immodest of me to think I can add anything to what you know about this sector and how you plan to sort out the mess.

One of the widest segments of the tax net is the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) window through which employers of labour deduct appropriate taxes from the salaries of their employees and remit same to the coffers of relevant, mostly state, authorities within 30 days. This process requires minimum effort from government and should ordinarily work flawlessly apart from minor misunderstandings over limited grey areas especially as the Personal Income Tax (PIT) law in Nigeria is straightforward and has little room for misinterpretation.

Unfortunately this simple and elegant device that should work even more smoothly than the Value Added Tax system has been corrupted by most employers in the nation. Apart from blue-chip foreign companies and a severe minority of local employers, other corporates, which act as agents of the state by determining and deducting the right amount of PIT from emoluments paid to their employees for onward transmission to relevant governments, have corrupted the process. This perversion of a vital tax channel starts from the way salary packages are structured by local banks, insurance companies, manufacturers and the like. Often, when I take a look at employment contracts of friends and relatives, I find that the Basic component of the pay is as low as 10 while the rest of the emolument is described as allowances ranging from Transport and Housing to Dressing, Lunch and Diesel. How an employer decides to structure its pay package isn’t of much interest to us but the purpose behind this lopsided structure is criminal and vitally important to Fiscal authorities.

Such companies deliberately misinterpret the old PIT Act, that allowed up to N210,000 in various allowances to be excluded from taxation, to now exclude as much as 90% of the total emoluments of their employees from taxation. This willful law breaking is compounded when they ignore the fact that the amended PIT Act, that has been in effect since mid-2011, has eliminated the exclusion of allowances from taxation and now all emoluments, in cash or in kind (e.g. official car, quarters, driver), are subject to tax. This egregious abuse of the tax code leads to governments, mostly state, losing more than half the revenue that should accrue from this vital income stream. It also leads to well-paid bankers and others falling into poverty when they are retrenched or retired as their gratuities and pension are calculated on the back of their Basic pay but that is a well-deserved own goal that shouldn’t delay us here. What matters to the public is the size of the loss to state coffers and what is keeping governments, even in states that employ tax consultants, from stopping such a blatant scam. All that needs to be done is for a few well-known corporations to be made examples of and their fellow travelers will promptly cough out the stolen taxes.

When she last resumed national duty, the outgoing Finance Minister, Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, declared rampant import duty waivers as one of the most significant drains on national revenue. She promised that she would ensure their strict limitation under her watch and said that any waivers given in future would be offered to entire industrial sectors and not individuals who just happened to be close to those in power. Many believed that a Daniel had come to judgment and things would change but all hopes were dashed as duty waivers have run at hundreds of billions of naira annually in the last five years without any clear benefit in the area of industrialization or any other public good while the usual suspects continue to corner the bulk of the benefit. Blocking this drain pipe once and for all will not just accrue billions of dollars to the national kitty but will ensure a level playing field for business people.

Fuel subsidies do not just cost us trillions of naira annually but they often are without any enabling budgetary allocation and notoriously deliver phantom cargos of refined products. Then we have the perverse incentive offered to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) to not revive the four refineries under its care since dubious gains accrue from the import program. We should not only eliminate all subsidies on petroleum products but should move to the level where all crude oil produced in Nigeria must be refined and, ideally, sold regionally and further afield through Nigerian downstream oil companies the way Mr Dangote intends to do with the excess (to domestic demand) production from his 650,000 barrels a day prospective refinery.

Not only should crude oil not be exported without value added but Nigerian gas should be purposed primarily towards generating electricity until national and regional power demand is satiated. Currently the more than 2bscf amount of gas being fed to the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) company daily could generate well in excess of 10,000MW of new power. Even if the NNPC’ missing $14b dividends from NLNG over the last decade had been received into the federation account that would still be incomparable to quadrupling power supply, moving away from a diesel powered economy and really kick starting the industrial revolution that will absorb all the spare human capacity roaming our streets idly. Indeed $14b doesn’t even cover the cost of importing diesel and petrol for generating power in Nigeria since the first NLNG plant went on stream. The focus should be gas for power and chemicals and not gas for export. Our proven gas reserves of 187tscf, if used at 20bscf per day to generate circa 100,000MW, which is around what an efficiently industrialized Nigeria would need, would last less than 25 years. This is hardly enough for the long term industrial sustenance of a nation projected to top 700m souls by the end of this century. The world doesn’t need 700m farmers but we can hope to become the world’s last big workshop after India has supplanted the Chinese in that role. The Bonny NLNG plant must be the last LNG export plant we build if we are not to strangulate a great industrial future while it is yet aborning.

Nigeria boasts of more than 10m motorized vehicles on its decrepit roads with road construction and maintenance being one of our most significant budgetary lines but we have failed to match the Taxes generated from these vehicles with the cost of building and maintaining the roads they ply. Nigeria’s annual vehicle license renewal fee is among the lowest in the world at less than $10 thus raising barely enough to build one new road per year. This rate should be raised to at least $100 per vehicle per year in the first instance and raised ultimately to rates comparable to what obtains in Europe and the US, which are hundreds of dollars per year, if we expect to have the funds for building world class road infrastructure.

A related funding issue is the general lack of Taxation of transport sector workers and entrepreneurs in Nigeria despite the enormous public resource required to keep the sector ticking. While governments fail to effectively Tax the sector it is a notorious fact that transport workers and employers ‘unions’ collect thousands of naira per day from every vehicle that plies Nigeria’s roads and waterways. In some states there is a veneer of public sanction and acting as government agents covering the whole affair but even in such domains, Lagos being an example, the bulk of the billions generated ends up in private pockets to fund extravagant lifestyles of union leaders, pad the pockets of government officials elected or otherwise, constitute the main reason why transport union elections are almost always do-or-die affairs and weld the union leaders to the interest of the enabling state governors for whom they essentially constitute a private army. An indication of the scale of funds garnered from our motor parks and roads on a daily basis is the recent case of the NUTRW chieftain who was accused of diverting N7.4b of NUTRW funds to his personal use. The BBC in its documentary ‘Law and Disorder in Lagos’ showcased how bags and bags of raw cash were moved around like farm produce and the lavish lifestyles of union officials the cash funded. This is a cash stream that should be formalized and harnessed by the state governments. Every commercial vehicle on Nigerian roads should be Taxed on a daily basis at standardized rates through credible and transparent structures. To avoid creating a significant pool of unemployed ruffians overnight, the NUTRW structure can be used to collect the revenue but with clear benchmarks, based on the number of licensed commercial vehicles, established to ensure there are no leakages beyond the fraction allowed to the union as commission for acting as government revenue agents. This repurposing of a social blight at one stroke cleanses our motor parks and brings millions of transport workers and employers into the Tax net. The revenue from this and the increased vehicle license fees should be enough to cover the bulk of the budget for transport infrastructure going forward and, when taxes on fuel are eventually added to the mix, the transport sector should be entirely self-funding, even generating a ‘surplus’ for the rest of the economy.

Lagos state has one of the most structured processes for valuing and taxing real estate via its annual Land Use Charge (LUC) but this critical Revenue pipeline has severe demerits as currently operated. Foundationally we find that properties are generally valued at less than 20% actual market rates and this is in a state like Lagos where the property market is the most liquid which makes accurate valuation relatively easy. To compound the undervaluation of properties, we find that the LUC rate for even properties occupied by 3rd parties is just 0.394% in 2015. This rate is less than a third of what obtains in the United States with the 2007 average stated at 1.38% by the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/10/business/11leonhardt-avgproptaxrates.html?_r=0. If all states in the country properly and regularly value properties and peg LUC at even half US rates this Revenue stream can be easily quintupled.

For about a decade a key blocker of the economic integration of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been the relatively low Value Added Tax (VAT) rate in Nigeria when compared with other ECOWAS states. Nigeria charges VAT at 5% while other ECOWAS states charge VAT at 10% or more. This has stalled the open borders program as the low VAT rate is seen as conferring undue advantage on made in Nigeria goods. Beyond trade and regional integration though is the very significant Revenue that is lost to our governments. The incoming government must go beyond talking about a doubling of VAT rates to actually doing so. In addition to at least doubling rates, the distribution of the VAT proceeds needs to be rejigged so it more faithfully reflects the actual consumption patterns in the country instead of population being such a dominant factor in allocating the income.

For five decades Nigerian government coffers have been filled largely by hydrocarbon Revenue and it now takes a significant mental effort to recollect how the country was run before oil began dominating our economy. The good news is that those economic spheres, largely agricultural, that built the foundation of this nation are still in existence. The bad news is that four decades of neglect have marginalized them in all aspects ranging from employment generation to Revenue generation. In the short term agriculture cannot but be a part of the answer particularly in employing the idle hands that currently turn to robbery, kidnapping, bunkering, terrorism and the other ills that have brought Nigeria to its current state of near anomie. Large scale agriculture has long been a pastime for our retired generals with General Olusegun Obasanjo being the most prominent farmer-general with well over 10m chicken being conscripted and discharged from his army annually. Lately Mr Aliko Dangote has acquired the itch for large scale farming with his fruits, sugar and tomato ventures. Each venture, on the back of the billions he can afford to throw at it, requires well over 10,000 square kilometers (100,000 hectares) of arable land. In our already choked nation this is too much land to hand over to any individual especially when we note that such large tracts are typically transferred by government fiat to mega farmers without adequate compensation to the thousands of families deprived of what is often their sole significant assets. This is the path to more disgruntled rural hordes finding salvation in the messages of messianic religious leaders who promise to lead them to paradise once the nation-state is dismantled. If we hope to deprive Boko Haram, MEND and their like of the cannon fodder they cannot operate without, we must industrialize agriculture in a more equitable and socially sustainable way. Dangote for example can achieve the same large scale production not by acquiring the land and employing the erstwhile landowners as labourers but by applying out grower programs which have sustained some of the largest agro based enterprises like the British American Tobacco company (BAT) over the years. It is gratifying to note that this is the approaching Dangote is using for the tomato venture but it must go beyond an initiative emanating from the goodness of the big farmer’s heart to state policy enshrined in our laws.

Beyond large scale farming we can help current farmers to prosper and bring in fresh blood by actually delivering all that governments and agriculture ministers have claimed they delivered in the last few decades. The reality is that very little of those talking points are actually visible on ground and I should know as a farmer. One particularly striking point for me over the last 15 years that I have owned a farm is the constant barrage of offers to sell farmland to me by landowners on every side of my farm. Almost every acre around me is fallow while the few plots under cultivation are being used by tenant farmers. The main trade of landowners in my particular area is to give out land to sand diggers who pay about N60,000 per acre to despoil the land. Without tractors to hire, improved seedlings to plant, fertilizer to apply, extension workers to teach or roads and power to make farms accessible and habitable agriculture has been turned into a pastime for the truly desperate or deep pocketed. If the missing ingredients are provided this sector can yet again employ the bulk of our people and provide significant government revenue and foreign exchange earnings.

At the end of the day, no matter how much Revenue government raises, if there is no discipline in spending there will never be enough money. The size of government at all levels must be reduced. Indeed the number of government levels should be reassessed. Do we really need 57 local governments for the 3,577 square kilometers that make up Lagos state? Would we need a government for every 63 square kilometers in Lagos if each LASG ministry did its job well instead of just filling its Alausa secretariat with do-nothing, bribe-seeking drones? I had the unpleasant duty of visiting the Lagos Land Ministry last year to collect a decade overdue Certificate of Ownership – C of O after having resisted an invitation to pay an N800,000 bribe for the C of O seven years earlier (for land purchased from the state government!). We went through two offices and met about six officers with none doing anything productive. One had a couple of kids at his desk playing games on his computer, another was playing videos on his computer, a 3rd was gossiping etc. If they were just experiencing a lull in activities that would have been maybe understandable but, when we made enquiries about our reason for being there, we soon discovered that it was more of shirking the tasks that were on ground as none of the first five officers we engaged was willing to lift a finger to earn his pay. At that encounter and every encounter in virtually every government office in Nigeria it is obvious that there are more people than tasks which counter intuitively results in nothing being done as each person pushes the little that needs to be done to the next desk.

There must be a rigorous examination of government employment needs IN OFFICES. While we need more policemen, soldiers, agriculture extension officers, rural health workers, rural teacher, sanitary inspectors, traffic wardens, waste management officers etc we do not need more benchwarmers which only justify the building of ever more grandiose government secretariats which are sometimes the only significant achievements of state governments. We must right size and refocus the civil service if the Revenue raised will not forever be spent almost exclusively on Recurrent expenditure while our infrastructure remain firmly stuck in the 19th century. The Steve Oransaye panel report on the Restructuring and Rationalisation of parastatals, commissions and agencies should be unearthed and implemented as faithfully as current realities permit. We really do not need and cannot afford thousands of government boards to which members must be appointed and paid to do next to nothing. General Mohammed Buhari has said repeatedly that he intends to run an ‘efficient’ government. Such a government must be lean at all levels with even non APC led state governments expected to take a cue from Aso Rock once the gains are obvious to all.

Nigeria can be great again and has been blessed with the resources required to run the greatest catchup race ever but we shall need discipline and clear focus not only in garnering those resources but in using them if we are not to waste this last great opportunity and end up as the largest failed state of the 21st century.

Abraham Abiodun Idowu

April 28th 2015

Memos to GMB: No 1 – Corruption

 

In August 1985, though I had completed my final examinations at the then University of Ife, Ile Ife, I happened to be on the school’s campus when your removal from office as military head of state was announced on television. In the Awolowo Hall main ‘buttery’, where students gathered to watch television back then, I was amazed that most of the students were quite happy that your austere face had been replaced by one with a permanent smile plastered on it. They seemed to think that was the Change Nigeria needed at that time even though it was a pretty obvious ruse in my view. Nigeria had been blessed with your necessarily stern leadership for 20 months and we all could see the difference you and your crew, particularly Babatunde Idiagbon your deputy, had made though some incorrigibly ‘indisciplined’ people had chosen to fixate on your unsmiling miens as if leaders take office to laugh at our problems or ease our burdens with their bonhomie. Even as a youngling I knew the citizenry would soon regret it but I wasn’t a good enough prophet to realise that it would take us three decades of pretty chequered history, an uninterrupted downhill slide and perennial dicing with national suicide to regain the leadership that we so cavalierly tossed aside when we first had it.

 

Though the odds were stacked against you I was happy to enthusiastically support your run for the Presidency spiritually and financially in 2011, the first time it was possible for the man on the street to chip in his widow’s mite. Knowing what you represented I wasn’t surprised that you could not pass through the eye of the needle. I am one of those who still believe that you either won that election in reality or lost by a much narrower margin than the landslide engineered by unprecedentedly high voter ‘turnout’ in some regions and a notorious backroom deal made in another region. The courts thought otherwise when you appealed to them and most Nigerians, at least in the Southern part of the country, agreed with them. We thank God that you kept your faith in the system and that you backtracked on your threat never to contest office again if you lost in 2011. Since you did not really lose in 2011 in the view of some of us it could be argued there has been no volte-face.

 

From the get go in the 2015 race I promptly joined you again in the fray with the same mix of support even though your new partners made street level financial support less crucial. As I told many, we should generously support you just to prove to your new friends that they didn’t solely bankroll your effort and should never dream that they thus own you. We should with our pocketbooks express our oneness of purpose with you so that, in the difficult decisions you will often have to make in the next four years, you will remember that, while you had rich supporters, those who made the greatest sacrifices for you were those who gave much of the little they had and you thus must keep their interest paramount at all times.

 

Today we are here, on the cusp of history and a new Nigerian, nay, African Renaissance. I have long held that if four or five key African countries could break out from the defects Africa is so well known for then the continent’s future would be assured. Nigeria has always led the pack of Egypt, Ethiopia, Congo and, a late joiner, post-apartheid South Africa. This selection was never hubristic but based on the realities of this stage of world development where size is almost everything. The many examples of European countries who preceded the United States of America (USA) in commerce and technology but are now essentially satellite states to this relative behemoth is a classic case in point. As antidote, Europe tried the European Union and the Euro but khaki isn’t quite the same as leather as we say in these parts. While we have had fitful moves towards rebirth in the other large African countries Nigeria has remained an unrelenting source of sobering news for the past three decades reaching its nadir in recent months when Chad, Niger and Cameroon had to enter our territory to help extirpate a miserable bunch of miscreants allowed by a severe leadership deficit to grow into a regional menace. Bad enough that these relative minnows had to save the ‘giant of Africa’ from itself but much worse that we weren’t even able to take over recovered territory from our helpers thereby upping the risk of becoming a nation occupied by foreign armies which would have been just the icing on the fact that, at almost 200 million strong, we were paying mercenaries from all corners of the world to do our Army’s work for us while the Army itself was deployed for crucial election stealing assignments. We were that close to becoming Congo, ravaged for five decades by much smaller regional forces and now with Chinese mining interests joining the rapine melee. We thank God and all who kept faith with you that just in the nick of time you came riding up on your white charger aptly named Integrity to combat the greatest force that has crippled us since 1960 – Corruption. It is thus apt that the first of many intended memos from me to you is on how the fundamental war against Corruption that you pledged can be effectively fought in ways that will be easily sustained when you must leave us again be it four or eight years from now.

 

About seven years ago I was at an Africa wide anti-corruption workshop in Tema with the then Federal Inland Revenue Service chairman as one of the resource persons. Come question time I asked her three questions:

  • If it was true that a Human Resource and Payroll software company had been investigated by her agency for implementing payroll software that concealed parts of the salaries paid to staff that should have been subject to tax thereby criminally shortchanging mainly state governments all over Nigeria,
  • If the outcome of her investigation had led to any sanctions on the software vendor or its clients that chose to make use of these ‘extra’ services,
  • Why the ‘corruption fighting’ federal government that she had been a part of had failed to push the long pending Whistle Blowing legislation through both houses of assembly.

 

On the first two questions she responded that indeed such an investigation had happened, the malfeasance had been confirmed but she had curiously determined that the companies involved, most importantly banks and insurers, had acted ‘innocently’ to steal billions of dollars in taxes from state governments thereby corruptly enriching themselves and their employees. That left me aghast but my jaw hit the floor when she answered the last question by saying it was the citizenry that had the duty to push the Whistle Blowing legislation through the assembly despite the volume of noise the Obasanjo regime that appointed her had made about seriously fighting corruption. My week would have been ruined had then Malam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi not taken the podium and wowed us all with his forthright presentation. I was able to buttonhole him for about an hour during lunch time and had my faith in Nigeria restored because I realized like Elijah that indeed God had preserved millions in Nigeria to fight the patriotic cause and they weren’t even all ‘Christian’!

 

The point of this anecdote is to point up the urgent need for a progressive and empowering Whistle Blowing Act in Nigeria. Countries like Ghana and the United States of America not only ask citizens to blow the whistle on acts of corruption they have witnessed but actually reward them with a fraction of recovered funds which can run into quite significant amounts. For example in 2014 the US Securities and Exchange Commission announced the award of more than $30m to a whistleblower http://www.sec.gov/News/PressRelease/Detail/PressRelease/1370543011290#.VR4hlPzF9QE

 

N6b for performing a civic duty! Now that is serious encouragement. In Ghana I reported a tenant for bypassing the meter on two phases on which he installed all his power hungry devices. One of the first statements I heard from the Electricity Company of Ghana representatives was that I should expect a fraction, 30% if memory serves me right, of any amount recovered from him.

 

Encouragement of whistleblowing is pretty common in the corporate world even within our shores and two recent examples we have are the Institute of Charted Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN) whistleblower fund that provides N50m for the protection of ICAN members and the public who are assailed for performing their civic duty in this area. Just yesterday I heard on the radio an advert by Dangote Cement asking the public to blow the whistle on any of its trucks seen carrying non Dangote cargo. A handsome reward was on offer. I have myself implemented a whistle blowing program in a regional gas transport company while functioning as its Internal Auditor and I was gratified by the enthusiastic response of the multinational staff body.

 

An effective and progressive whistleblower’s law must be the first order of business after May 29, 2015 as it is one of the strongest foundation stones we can build a sustainable war against corruption on.   

 

We have all heard your assurances that your government will be forward looking in all regards including the fight against corruption. This was the correct position to take for many reasons considering the ‘peculiar mess’ we have gotten ourselves in. However we cannot simply ignore the fact that anything up to one trillion dollars has been stolen from this nation in the last 55 years. Indeed, if the USA and Europe were to grant to us free use of their anti-crime agencies for the rest of this decade and your first term in office, we would barely scratch the surface of this long running plunder. We however cannot afford to appear to pat the corrupt on their heads and say they should simply sin no more. In most world religions genuine repentance is evidenced by some restitution. A law should be made to encourage voluntary restitution by those ‘who just happen to find state money in their pockets’. Such volunteers must describe the ‘accident(s)’ that led to state resources winding up in their coffers and the amount realized. A major fraction, defined in the enabling law, of the money that ‘missed road’ should be the minimum acceptable reparation after which such ‘custodians’ of state assets should be granted immunity from prosecution for any related offences. However any undeclared and unremediated accidents would still be open to prosecution if evidence EVER becomes available.

 

In addition to the voluntary restitution program there should be a law enabling induced restitution. Where the EFCC has credible and sufficient evidence that financial crimes were committed in the PAST the perpetrators should be approached with a restitution program. Where this is rejected or agreement cannot be reached the EFCC should prosecute such suspects to the fullest extent of the law. We cannot create a moral hazard where those inclined to be corrupt in the new dispensation feel only an accident of timing differentiates them from those who stole our resources before May 29, 2015 but were told to simply go but sin no more. None of us would manage our homes with such spurious distinctions and we must start to apply the same wholesome standards to public office and decision making as we would apply in our homes and private businesses.

 

All future cases of corruption (or stealing if you like) should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and expeditiously. Special financial crimes courts should be set up to avoid the logjam of the general legal system. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation should be invited to resume its partnership with the EFCC.

 

It is scriptural that the labourer is worthy of his wage yet we have for too long paid government employees peanuts but expected better than monkey behavior. A minimum wage of less than $100 a month is simply unconscionable especially in a country that no longer provides free medical care or education and simply requires any worker intent on surviving and having any degree of comfort in his life to make money in creative ways. Unfortunately most of the alternative ventures employees go into are ultimately in breach of the law. Even more unfortunate is the fact that many Small and Micro Enterprises don’t pay even the minimum wage. We must review what workers are paid in the public sector and enforce the minimums in the private sector. It would be more productive if we have half the public servants currently employed but paid at twice today’s rate. None of us can claim not to know at least one government agency where possibly 80% of the staff seem to have nothing to do or simply choose to do nothing until palms are generously greased.

 

I am not however counseling an overall reduction in the size of government. There are so many things left undone at state and federal level especially outside the offices of our MDAs and these must be the focus of the government. We don’t need more benchwarmers but we do need more forest rangers, rural doctors and midwives, traffic controllers, waste collectors, sanitary inspectors, agricultural extension officers etc. It is a well-known fact that some states created tens of thousands of jobs simply by setting up agencies like the Lagos State Traffic Management Agency (LASTMA) and no matter how many times each of us has had a run in with them we still feel relief when we see them in the thick of some unholy traffic snarl. In Lagos most of us feel the impact of LASTMA more than virtually all other state agencies combined. Similar value is derived from the street cleaners. They are the lowliest of government employees yet they impact us all most directly and powerfully. Those are the kind of value adding government jobs that need to be created.

 

The social security net your government is proposing will be another useful plank in shifting our social paradigm in ways that will make corruption something that is once again exceptional and frowned on by the vast majority of us.

 

Your personal example and the examples of those you choose to surround yourself with will be most critical for the fish rots from the head and a cacophonous or malign tone from the top will achieve nothing more than cosmetic change to Nigeria’s corruption burden. Choose wisely who you prefer in your government as that is Nigerians greatest worry about your ascendancy. Buhari we know and trust but we hope and pray that your fire will not be quenched by adding too much deadwood to the firebrand.

 

I hope to publish more memos to you, between now and your swearing in date, on the various aspects of governance that that will determine if Nigeria finally is able to lift off from the developmental Launchpad. May God guide you and us and may the   sycophants that have ruined virtually every ruler of Nigeria find no purchase in your government.