NGOZI Okonjo-Iweala has two designations. She is Nigeria’s Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy. Without intending to be perverse, I wonder what the differences are between both titles. What would a Finance Minister of a country such as ours be doing if she is not responsible (call it coordinating, managing, overseeing or whatever) for the entire economy?
Could the tautology of these titles be the Jonathan administration’s way of telling would-be adversaries, be it in the Central Bank, the Internal Revenue Service, etc, that the authority of the Minister of Finance on economic matters cannot be questioned?
This should be understandable as ours is a strange country in which supremacy battles are quite routine among public office holders. The era of the Super Permanent Secretaries belonged in the 1970s. This might be the epoch of the Super Ministers who must be above the Ministers who are in turn above the Ministers of State. More on this in the third part.
But Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has told us this past week that government cannot afford the N92 billion (ASUU says its N87 billion) that striking university teachers are demanding as ‘earned allowances’. Her joining the Gabriel Suswan-led Federal Government negotiating team, which Suswan thought was very important as it would give a clear picture of the economy, has truly changed the tempo and tenor of the negotiation between the Academic Staff Union of Universities and Abuja.
The change Okonjo-Iweala brings to the discussion is however not so fundamental, for the song she’s singing is an old one that has left Nigerians jaded. It ranked top of the chart of past ASUU/government negotiations. Like a repeating clock, we shall be back here again soon when the contrived truce that would eventually end the ASUU/Government disagreement again breaks down for non-implementation. Even if the strike is called off as I write this, the damage to the academic calendar is already done.
It’s obvious Okonjo-Iweala’s message won’t sell in the ears of ASUU. And it can’t and shouldn’t sell when it’s clear that the same economy that we are told cannot sustain the lecturers’ demand somehow takes care of the claims of a grossly bloated government of seat-warming executive and legislative officials; so-called democracy that is by universal assent the most expensive and, one might say, irresponsible in the world.
It’s unfair, as the minister has observed, that the country’s revenue should be spent entirely on recurrent expenses of just three per cent of our entire population of 160 million. Nigerians have made a lot of sacrifices, smiling and living in a state of want and squalor amid the nauseously ostentatious and unearned living of public office holders, people who construct two-kilometre roads and drill a few boreholes that are powered by generators in city centres and roll out the drums in celebration.
Nigerians have borne the tragedy of seeing the promised transformation of their country’s potential at independence remaining just mere potential in nearly 60 years. They’ve seen their hopes go up in bursts of wind so often they now turn on one another in hateful ethnic strife and contest of superiority, measuring poverty against poverty in a bid to determine which ethnic group has helped itself most to our fast diminishing resources. Indeed, Nigerians have played the fool when they could very reasonably have demanded more of their leaders. We are all witnesses to the roiling ethnic battles and inanities that are being waged in the media over the deportation/integration and dismissal from service of persons of different ethnic groups in the last couple of weeks.
Matters that have stared us all in the face long before now but about which we have done and said nothing until we have become victims of their suppurations. We’ve taken hardened positions of recrimination and counter-recrimination in contest for scarce resources following the mismanagement and looting of the little that is available by persons in authority and their cronies in the private sector.
It’s now a zero-sum game that has turned us all enemies of one another. It’s in the midst of this that the same government is calling for more sacrifices from lecturers who belong in one of the most abused and neglected sectors of the polity.
Of course, university lecturers are not entirely blameless in the rot engulfing the land. But let’s be clear on one thing: If more sacrifices are to be made by Nigerians, they must commence from Abuja down to the states and local governments where public office holders, civil servants, legislators and members of the executive arms continue to squander the resources and wealth of this nation in criminal and inhuman neglect of the vast majority.
The mantra of ‘we cannot afford earned allowances’ of lecturers, as are other services and duties that responsible governments the world over execute on behalf of their citizens, would take nobody anywhere. It can only polarize the country along sectarian and ethnic divides, deepen the fissures of suspicion among the different religions until it blows up in our collective face.
In ‘The ICPC Report on the Nigerian University System’, two-part editions of this column that ran on 10 and 17 April this year, I ex-rayed the report of the outcome of the survey conducted by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission on Nigerian universities and the problems confronting them.
These two-part series had been preceded by a series titled ‘The ICPC/NUC report and sexual harassment in Nigerian universities’ which was published respectively on 20 and 27 March 2013. These March editions of the column had reacted to a statement which turned out to have no basis in the report it supposedly emanated from, credited to Mr. Ekpo Nta, the ICPC chair, to the effect that sexual harassment ranked ‘extremely high’ among corrupt practices in our universities. The statement, reported by the Punch had prompted an editorial in the newspaper.
I had in my submissions in these articles called attention to the more fundamental problem of decayed infrastructure or non-existent infrastructure including ill-equipped laboratories, libraries filled with outdated books, crowded classrooms, dinghy offices, poorly trained and poorly motivated personnel, teaching and non-teaching alike, etc.
These problems, I argued, create the condition that make it possible for mischievous and irresponsible lecturers to perpetrate criminal acts including ‘sexual harassment’ and irresponsible students and their criminally-minded parents to seek to pervert standard academic procedures for their own benefits. But the gist of my submissions was that our universities as they presently exist are far from being able to meet their statutory obligations of teaching and research.