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Nigeria: The state of the states

By Eromo Egbejule in Calabar
Posted on Tuesday, 24 July 2018 10:40

President Muhammadu Buhari’s government and its opponents agree on one thing: that Nigeria’s system of federal government is broken. Although the central government allocates just less than half of national revenue to the state and local governments – far more than any other system of devolved power in Africa – this has not resulted in good public services or more accountability. Our ranking of Nigeria’s states – with Lagos at the top and Yobe at the bottom – highlights which states are fighting poverty, providing access to electricity, facilitating business and raising local revenue.

In fact, few of them are doing any of these things. Although states and local governments are responsible for primary and secondary education, basic healthcare, water and sanitation, and feeder roads, the standards of these services are falling. More people are stretching their budgets to send their children to private schools and clinics. Two-thirds of the 36 states have been unable to pay their employees on time.

Neither has federalism opened the door to more open or accountable government. Most state governments are at least three years behind with their audited accounts; most also refuse to answer questions about how they are spending public funds.

Today’s division of labour between the federal, state and local government dates back to the 1999 constitution. Every government since then has promised to rewrite it but failed to get a consensus for change. The two main parties – the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – fighting the 2019 election say they want true federalism.

At the minimum, this would give states that produce oil, gas and minerals a greater share of the revenue they produce. That is something that makes most politicians in Abuja nervous, whatever they say at election time.

The biggest fight will be over money and who controls it. Two years ago, 24 state governments appealed to the federal government in Abuja for a bailout because they could not pay civil servant salaries. Almost as many state governments were unable to service their debts, owed mainly to local commercial banks.

Although the immediate cause of the crisis was the crash in the oil price, which halved Nigeria’s export revenue, the bigger causes are structural. Like the federal government, state governments are critically dependent on oil revenue. But states are even less accountable than the federal government.

Spending the bailout

Like the president, governors enjoy immunity from prosecution while in power. The ­national assembly can provide checks and balances, even when the president’s party has a clear majority in both chambers. Governors typically rule supreme in their domain. In most cases, they dominate the election process, ensuring that state houses of assembly and local government authorities are filled with their own allies, controlling them with patronage from public funds.

Faced with demands for a bailout from the indigent state governments in 2016, finance minister Kemi Adeosun offered a package worth N1.75trn ($4.8bn). Adeosun said that there was an agreement with the governors that at least 50% of the first tranche would be used to pay arrears on salaries and pensions. Within days, seven governors were said to have used the funds for other purposes. The bailout did not help much either. According to BudgIT, a civil society monitoring group, the cumulative domestic debt of the 36 states rose by N1.64trn between December 2014 and December 2017.

For the country’s information minister, Lai Mohammed, this gets to the heart of the clash between the centre and the states: “The constitution allows allocations to the states, but there are no constraints on how they spend the revenues.” Under the 1999 constitution, the federal government gets 52.68% of the federation account – which is funded by a mix of oil and gas revenue and national taxation – and it has exclusive powers over foreign policy, defence, the central bank and debt management, customs, air transport and seaports. The states get 26.72%. Local governments are meant to get 20.6% via the state governments. Together, they are responsible for education, basic healthcare, water and agricultural services.

Some of information minister Mohammed’s colleagues want the strict rules on spending and debt that apply to the federal government to be extended to states in a new version of the Fiscal Responsibility Act. They want tougher rules on disclosure and spending, and audits on state-owned enterprises. But most state governors push back hard at such moves.

Donald Duke, a former governor of Cross River State and a presidential contender in the 2019 elections, wholeheartedly supports constitutional restructuring that would give more financial power to the states. The resource-rich states, such as his own oil-producing state, would keep most of their own revenues, but he argues that states without natural resources can find solutions: “Look at what Kebbi is doing with rice. If all Kebbi did was focus on rice […] Kebbi alone can fill half of Nigeria’s rice needs, and the state will be rich.”

Kelechi Udeogu, an aide in the Rivers State governor’s office, is also a fan of more local control of the money. “If we had fiscal federalism, we would have become an advanced and developed economy,” he says. “This ‘mama put’ federalism we practice has ruined this country with corrupt, lazy and irresponsible leaders. I’d propose that states manage their resources and pay a percentage of this to the federal government. States should also manage internal security. These are the two most important [issues].”

Camouflage cash

The federal government doles out amounts averaging N500m monthly to governors in their capacity as chief security officers of their states. This money is not publicly accounted for and has often been used for political patronage. A joint investigation by the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre and Transparency International found in May that the federal government had paid an annual average of $579m in so-called ‘security votes’ to state governments in 2016 and 2017. The organisations called the transfers ‘camouflage cash’, arguing that they fuelled corruption.

Certainly, the security votes are doing little to dampen down smouldering conflicts. In many states, the federal government has deployed the army to deal with insurgents, militants and – sometimes – cattle-rustling gangs.

Most of the country’s security problems – including Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency in the north-east, the herder-­farmer clashes in the Middle Belt and north central states, secessionist agitation in the south-east and militancy in the Niger Delta – have been shaped by political fights, often between the federal and state governments.

After vice-president Yemi Osinbajo made several peacemaking trips to the Niger Delta and the government boosted the budget for the amnesty of former militants by N35bn, attacks in oil-producing areas fell off. But, according to Saatah Nubari of the Nigerian Nationalist Youth Movement, which defends Ogoni rights, “there is a growing disaffection from Ogoni to Efik, Ibibio, Itsekiris, Ijaws and other ethnic groups. There are many militia groups forming underground. If any oil company tries to explore any well in Ogoniland before the elections, that might cause violence that could spill over across the Niger Delta.”

The Middle Belt, meanwhile, has been the focus of escalating clashes between herders and farmers. A violent flare-up in June resulted in the deaths of 87 people. Shrinking Sahelian grasslands are forcing herders to move south in search of grazing land for their cattle, and grazing areas and livestock paths set out in law before the civil war in 1967 have been supplanted by roads, residential settlements and factories.

Some states have endorsed a new anti-­grazing law to establish ranches for the herders and to reduce clashes with the farmers. It is due to be implemented later this year, but defence minister Mansur Dan Ali has asked that implementation be suspended.

Ali’s request, rejected by the Senate, raises questions about the military’s role. “The armed forces are not neutral,” retired general Theophilus Danjuma told a meeting at Taraba State University. “They collude with the armed bandits to kill people.” The herder-farmer crisis could swing opinion sharply in next year’s elections, as the clashes spread northwards and southwards from the Middle Belt.

The ferocity of those clashes has triggered calls to establish state police forces. At present, control of the police is an exclusively federal power. This year, vice-president Osinbajo has started discussions on reform.

In fact, many states have already set up what are effectively local security forces. These can vary from trained uniformed officers to a more informal youth force with a much looser agenda. This year, Lagos launched its Neighbourhood Safety Corps; Ekiti, Rivers and Kogi have followed suit. Anambra, under former governor Peter Obi between 2007 and 2014, claimed to cut kidnapping by using community policing.

Political violence

A previous governor of Anambra, Chinwoke Mbadinuju, brought in a gang known as the Bakassi Boys to join what he called the Anambra Vigilante Squad. But they quickly got involved in political violence. Stanley Achonu, of the Open Government Partnership Nigeria secretariat, says: “This country won’t stop electing crazy people, so the fear [is] that some governors will abuse [state police].”

Apart from the lack of state policing powers, former Cross River governor Duke says that Nigeria is ­under-policed: “With a country of almost 200 million people, the police force should be two million. That’s one policeman to 100 people. That’s the international standard.” The country has an estimated police force of 370,000 for a population of around 196 million.

A direct result of the unaccountable power amassed by state governors is that they can become dominant political figures in their region and beyond, long after they leave office. Many ex-governors are referred to as political ‘godfathers’. “By the time the patron becomes governor or a federal lawmaker,” says Abdullahi Gwarzo, a former lecturer at Kano State Polytechnic, “there’s a support system behind him […] and he has to continue finding money to keep them happy.”

Being governor provides a powerful platform to build a political career. Former governors, such as Bukola Saraki of Kwara and Rabiu Kwankwaso of Kano, now represent their states in the legislature. Although both Kwankwaso and Saraki are still members of the APC, they have presidential ambitions, greatly strengthened by the networks they built up as governors. Other former governors, such as Babatunde Fashola in Lagos and Rotimi Amaechi in Rivers, have traded influence in their states to take on ministries in the federal government.

Bola Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos State, is the quintessential godfather: he has political influence on a regional and national level, as well as plenty of enemies. Under Tinubu Lagos boosted its revenue by ratcheting up income and property taxes. It was a matter of financial necessity: Tinubu’s Action Congress of Nigeria was fighting it out at the centre with the ruling PDP, which cut funding to Lagos as political punishment.

One of the latest political battles between the states and the centre is a bid by the federal government to control national water resources. Ekiti, Rivers and Cross River states, all run by the opposition PDP, oppose it.

Federal literacy boost

Sometimes states and the federal government can work well together. Although state and local governments are meant to run secondary and primary schools, the federal government has intervened with its universal basic education programme to boost literacy levels. With an average adult literacy rate of 59.6% – and rates far lower in the north – there is much work to do. Boko Haram (which means ‘Western education is forbidden’) has targeted schools, killing and kidnapping students in the north-east over the past decade.

Nigeria’s governors offer a microcosm of the country’s politics. Some of them are making personal sacrifices and leading by example, while others get rich and make noise. In Gombe in the north-east, governor Ibrahim Dankwambo has inaugurated three tertiary institutions since his election in 2011. In 2017, his family house was demolished to clear the way for a block of classrooms. In Kaduna, in the north-west, governor Nasir El-Rufai says he is determined to raise the performance of state schools. Last year, he fired 21,000 teachers for failing a competency test. His government hired 25,000 others who passed a fresh test and in February, he increased their salaries by 32.5%.

The government of Aminu Tambuwal, governor of Sokoto, has recently built 800km of access roads and 90 new primary healthcare centres. Sokoto’s annual budgets for 2016 to 2018 have focused on education and healthcare.

Those policies have made Tambuwal one of the most popular governors. Some insiders say he could be a serious presidential contender. In River State, governor Nyesom Wike – another first-term governor – has focused on revamping healthcare, with new maternity clinics and a new medical college.

In charge of one the worst-performing states in our ranking, governor Abdulazeez Yari of Zamfara State claimed that an outbreak of meningitis was divine punishment for immorality. “There is no way fornication will be so rampant and God will not send a disease that cannot be cured,” he told journalists in April 2017.

Zamfara, together with Sokoto and Katsina, accounted for more than 80% of the 1,166 deaths from the disease in the course of six months. In Gader Zaimer, a hamlet on the border with Kebbi, The Africa Report met meningitis patients convalescing in the heat of the sun and mothers who had delivered babies on bare stone floors due to a lack of beds.

Whether states are run by reformers such as Gombe’s Dankwambo or the likes of Zamfara’s Yari, they are likely to get more power over revenue and policy through the next constitutional review. On that, all parties are agreed. Yet unless this devolution of power brings far higher accountability, making governors answerable to financially independent assemblies, the state governments’ generally poor performances could continue until the next fiscal crisis forces more fundamental change.

This article first appeared in the July/August 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine

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