Everything about our lives today is a cliché. That people stole our money is a cliché. It’s nothing new that a Speaker padded his budget, or a fellow legislator blew the whistle. It’s nothing new that we flushed with dollars once and we did not prepare for lean times. We know that from the ‘lean time, fat time’ story of Joseph and his brothers.
It’s nothing new that it is a time of financial fraud. One governor carted away a billion, a minister two billion, an ex-party leader rotten billion hides beneath blossoms on his farm, or the head of state sets up a machine to track down the thieves.
Yet, when they happen we raise perfidious or righteous eyebrows and yell, “Jesus” or “Allah.” We say it as though we have just erupted on this earth. The cycle of financial horror and empty treasury continues to surprise us. That is what makes us human. We lament the depredations of Aleppo today, but we also mourned over Boko Haram yesterday, and Nazi’s holocaust before that and slavery before that.
Even though we know Jonathan and his cohorts splurged on our money, we act as though our funds are bottomless. We glowed to the refrain: Let the good times roll. But we also know about the plummeting oil prices, the market glut, Saudi Arabia’s intransigence on supply. We show our own intransigence. We shout foul in the states when we hear that about 27 states cannot pay salaries.
Labour would hear none of it. Labour rolls up its sleeves, brandishes its signs, stamps its cacophonous feet on the streets, chants truculently, curses ecclesiastically, hollers and threatens Armageddon. But that is the way of humans. We have to act emotionally. We have to vent. We have to scream at an errant establishment. It is the end of reason.
Two examples of the show of emotion call for consideration. In the Southwest, we have followed the trajectory of Governor Abiola Ajimobi and his joust with Labour. Up North, we have seen Governor Tanko Al Makura tango with Labour in Nasarawa State.
In Nasarawa State, the governor bares the account to the people and says the citizens cannot live the way they used to. He says at a time when oil gurgled in waves of hard dollars, the country had to raise wages. It did not happen in Al Makura’s state alone. It was a nationwide bonanza of sorts. Salaries rose as high as 200 per cent. It was an act of justice. If we have money, we share. Salaries go up, lifestyles change, appetites widen. Crude oil turned crude men and women among us into urbane. Money answers all things. As the Bible also says, “in times of prosperity, rejoice…”
Look at some figures in Nasarawa State, for example. A grade level 8 civil servant earned N17,731.36 in 2006. But in 2011, the same fellow pocketed N55, 515 when salaries had to go up in tandem with oil price rise. The grade level 16 civil servant jumped from a salary of N41, 750 in 2007 to N183, 140 in 2011. While the grade level 8 worker had a 213 per cent leap, the Grade level 16 had a 339 per cent soar. The price of oil was over 100 dollars per barrel. To paraphrase the poet Wordsworth with a whiff of exaggeration, it was “bliss that dawn to be alive.”
Well, things changed, oil stumbled in a giddy fall from the stratosphere of 100 dollars per barrel to as low as 35 dollars. The great heft of state allocations also was crestfallen. So, there was not enough to pay salaries of the good times. Al Makura had to embark on a pay cut. In spite of that, from January to May this year, Nasarawa needed N11.3 billion to meet its salary obligations. Yet, it made N9.7 billion in that period in allocation.
In the midst of this financial turmoil, Labour erupted. The governor’s plea was fruitless. How is the worker who could buy a shoe and pay a rent on the basis of the pay raise now deal with a pay cut? Reason does not work in such circumstances. Only emotions, it appears. But emotions cannot reverse the price of oil, or bring back all the money stolen by the Jonathan era. That is why I say, it is the end of reason.
But only reason can come to the aid of emotion run amuck. The same story happened under Governor Ajimobi. Eventually after Labour stamped their feet and uttered imprecations, they settled down to the reason of the governor. Once, Ajimobi turned Ibadan into a modern city when money flowed. He paid salaries and gave education high-octane energy. When things turned, he explained. Was it not the same teachers who did not go to work everyday in parts of the state that are looking to be paid for work not done?
“In times of adversity, consider…” said the Bible. So, Ajimobi has said that some civil servants have skill and want to work, some have skill and don’t want to work and others have no skill and do not want to work. How sapient. Yet he has said he will not fire anyone. That is politically wise, and that also calls for understanding when pay is not as high and regular. Hard times are here.
It is not a time for emotion, but for imagination. It’s time for the protesters to hold their tongues and freeze their rebellious feet, and open their minds. Thomas Jefferson once said, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” This was the soft-spoken volcano of the American Revolution. He knew that protest had its limits.
What we need now is to work for a revived economy, and that is why I have always recommended that the Buhari administration resort to what economists call quantitative easing. They have to pour money into the system, in infrastructure, power, health and transportation and education. Larry Summers who was the treasury secretary under Bill Clinton has been vindicated over his call for pumping more money. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman railed at Obama for not pumping more money as part of strategy to revive the economy. Perhaps that explains what some see as an anaemic recovery.
Fears of inflation will disappear if the money is turned into productive use. Imagine Lagos-Ibadan Expressway now under construction in massive transformation, or the railways roaring across the country and building sprouting and equipment buzzing in all the hospitals.
It calls for courage. And it can be done. That should be prelude to freeing the states to tackle the problem of taxation and representation. I believe if everything is taxed in every state, each state will not only have enough but the governments will be forced to account for every penny.
In her Nobel prize-winning novel, The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck makes a contrast between famine and flood. Famine gives little for the imagination, so people flee Rural China. But flood comes, and the people have too much water, yet they were able to identify some hard ground and use water. One extreme trumps the other. So is the case for quantitative easing.
The problem is not with the governors like Ajimobi and Al Makura. It is because we need to free the states and use our common strength. Oil has failed. It’s time for imagination to win.