By Jerome-Mario Utomi
As a nation, Nigeria and most of her federating states are currently faced with serious socio-economic issues/survival dilemmas.
Although this in my view has been on overtime as a nation that plays politics with everything, we have been living in denial. But as it currently stands, it has gotten to the brim and the nation/states are faced with either confess or collapse options.
According to media reports dated September 16, 2021, the nation’s public debt stock stood at N35.465 trillion as of June 30, as the Director-General of the Debt Management Office (DMO) Ms Patience Oniha, disclosed.
The total public debt comprises the domestic and external debt of the federal government, the 36 state governments and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
Nigeria’s total public debt stock was N33.107 trillion or $87.239 billion as at March 31, 2021.
FG owes 29.5 trillion, states owe N6 trillion. World Bank Group, AfDB group dominate creditors’ list. Bilateral creditors include China, France, Japan, Germany, India.
Essentially, in my opinion, it is not a bad idea to borrow especially when such borrowing is development targeted/focused. However, mindless borrowing, as we have recently witnessed, can only but depletes the borrower’s economic creative prowess, dwindles the propensity to achieving self-reliance and has the entity exposed to further socio-economic vulnerability.
As a nation, we appear to have forgotten that one of the negative attributes of borrowing is that once you start, it becomes your character. This borrowing habit of ours has succeeded in weakening our states to a sorry level.
The consequence of such development (thoughtless borrowing) becomes a worrying/worrisome one when one remembers a similar report that the federal government made a total of N3.25 trillion in 2020, and out of which it spent a total of N2.34 trillion on debt servicing within the year. This means, the report underlined, that 72 per cent of the government’s revenue was spent on debt servicing. It also puts the government’s debt servicing to revenue ratio at 72 per cent.
Within the year, debt servicing gulped N2.11 trillion. This puts the federal government’s debt servicing to revenue ratio in 2019 at 54.66 per cent. This means that between 2019 and 2020, the federal government’s debt servicing to revenue ratio jumped from 54.66 per cent to 72 per cent.
Now, this piece will keep issues where they are.
First, there exist reasons why state governors are reputed for not looking inward on how to make their state financially independent/self-sufficient. Most fundamental of the reasons is the feeling by some that Abuja is there to provide the needed financial succour. This has rendered most of our governors lazy and uninterested in carrying out self-introspection on how to improve their state’s internally generated revenue (IGR). Instead, they prefer to borrow, not minding that every opportunity to borrow as provided comes with a looming risk.
With the exception of Lagos, Delta, Rivers and a few other states that are still active in sustaining their states via internally generated revenue, the rest share a common denominator; Abuja dependents. This also points to the fact that our problem as a nation is more of leadership as
‘The strength of every state is a direct result of the strength of the leaders’.
To further support the above point as advanced, it is factually backed that our colonial overlords before independence devised very seamless ways of generating revenues. These methods include but are not limited to penetration of all the nooks and crannies of the nation’s geography to ensure that all paid their taxes.
So, if that could be done by foreigners years ago and in an era devoid of enhanced information technologies, the question may be asked; what is wrong/going on with our present crop of leaders? Why can’t they replicate the same or devise more creative means to make the state/nation financially viable? What is alluring about borrowing that they (leaders) consider as the only credible/efficient alternative?
Without a doubt, our leaders know how to mop up our commonwealth for their personal aggrandizement while abandoning the poor masses to mop up their tears. They (public office holders) are specialists in seeking foreign loans.
But in doing this, one point they fail to remember is that no one takes a government that governs with a beggar bowl approach seriously and no nation becomes strong or great by living on borrowed funds.
In the same token, they (leaders) must also remember that the people are watching closely, especially the youths. They should remember that in a period such as this, people watch with rapt attention, noting every move they make, learning what they really believe as opposed to what they say.
Similarly, most of our pensioners have given up hopes and have resigned to fate banking on their age-long religious teaching that their reward is in heaven.
As an incentive to change this state of affairs, it is worthy of note that Nigeria may have overtly shown remarkable improvement in their culture and civilization. That notwithstanding, for the fact that after almost 60 years of independence, the country is not only indebted to many institutions, nations and organizations but continually look up to others for aid, covertly tells a story of a nation lacking in capacity for taking responsibility for its actions and initiatives for values.
As a response to the above realities, it is my submission that there is the need for our leaders to imbibe a saving culture as this attitude of eating with our ten fingers is not in any way supporting our economic growth or sustainability.
Finally, the state governors should remember and take into action the fact that the shortest way to the bright future we seek lies in a creative approach.
Therefore, let the governors defocus on Abuja and focus on increasing their state’s internally generated revenues, working in a collaborative manner with development minded/focused Nigerians. This process, who knows, may provide a lasting solution to the nation’s nagging financial challenge.
Jerome-Mario Utomi, Programme Coordinator (Media and Public Policy), Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), writes from Lagos via email@example.com or 08032725374.
Widows’ World and the Catalysts for a New Order
By Jerome-Mario Chijioke Utomi
That their surnames (Okowa and Okonta) sound similar and familiar could be enough incentive for one to hastily allege the existence of a biological family line. But in the actual sense of it, this particular occurrence was but a sheer coincidence or betters still, a natural order of things.
As we know, Governor Ifeanyi Ekumeme of Delta State hails from Owa Alero, Ika North East Local Government Area of Delta State. He is the first Anioma son to lead the state. Anioma, designated Delta North Senatorial district, means the ‘good land’ with 9 local government areas. The area is Igbo speaking and blessed with a population of about 2 million, excluding her diasporic communities.
Also, going by information in the public domain, Dr Isioma Okonta, on his part, is the Senior Special Assistant (SSA) to the Governor on Social Investment Programmes and State Coordinator Widows Welfare Scheme. He is from Abavo, Ika South Local Government Area of the state.
Despite this distinctiveness, there exist also big similarities. Aside from the fact that they typify the proverbial saying like minds that think alike, particularly in the areas of human capital development, and belong to the same political family with Okowa occupying the political father figure and Okonta, the son, they are social investors. In them, passion met efficiency and commitment.
Historically also, they are both Ika indigenes.
Quoting Emeka Esogbue, scholar, Anioma Historian and author of over four books on Anioma contemporary history/conversations, the name Ika was widely used to describe the whole of the area that we know as ‘Anioma’ and was made to appear in the compound word of ‘Ika Ibo”. Nevertheless, within time, the name Ika became narrowed down and limited to the present people of the Ika that it describes today.
Further demonstrating their resemblance is the new awareness that both have an unalloyed passion for improving the life chances of the poor and the vulnerable in the state. It was in fact, this ceaseless effort to bring succour to the widows and valuable people in the state that explains why the Governor created the Office for Social Investment Programmes/Widows Welfare Scheme. And to achieve this objective, he, in his wisdom, appointed Dr Isioma Okonta, as the Senior Special Assistant (SSA) on Social Investment Programmes and State Coordinator Widows Welfare.
Today, following the success of this office, stakeholders in the state are not only in agreement that the state government has performed the traditional but universal responsibility of provision of economic and infrastructural succour to the citizenry which the instrumentality of participatory democracy and election of leaders confers on them, as well as gone extra miles to touch the untouchable.
The passionate praise, by participants at a recent one-day conference in the state, showered on the state government and plea for government-private sector collaboration for sustainable development of this programme underscores this assertion.
Essentially, they were unanimous that the widows’ project in the state remains a right step taken in the right direction and calls for sustainable partnership and collaboration among all development-focused organisations/institutions. It was clearly stated that the scale and ambition of this agenda call for smart partnerships, collaborations, co-creation and alignment of various intervention efforts by the public and private sectors and civil society. The conference was jointly organised by the state government as part of programmes lined up to celebrate International Widows Day 2022 in the state.
Different speakers present at the event brought to the fore the urgent need for all to appreciate as well as support the state government’s efforts in this direction. They called for creative and innovative thinking by all strata of the society-public and private sector and civil society to promote sustained and inclusive economic growth and social development of the poor and the vulnerable in the state and beyond.
They concluded that the state under Governor Okowa’s administration has dropped Delta State from a point where the roads are not pliable to a point where there is a massive construction of roads everywhere. He has touched the youths in Delta State through several programmes. ‘He has made sure that programmes for the girl child have emanated in Delta State where the girl child is no longer dependent on her parents. Business opportunities have been provided for them. Okowa has made sure that there is peace in all those areas. He has done well’.
Making this development a reality to celebrate, they stated, is the fact that this is happening in the state, even when widows across the world going to the United Nations, are invisible in society. They are scattered across the globe, owing to their condition and the enormous challenges, reproach and shame the majority of them are undergoing. For widows to secure expectations by keeping their hopes alive by way of feeding, providing accommodation and qualitative education for their children, they must assume the position of their dead husband who happened to be the breadwinner.
Indeed, looking at the content of the welcome address by Elder Okonta, during the Seminar organized by his office in conjunction with the state government to mark this year, 2022, international world widows day, it is obvious that the United Nation and of course relevant stakeholders in the state may not be wrong in their opinion about the Governor’s performance in this direction.
In that speech, Okonta said; The Governor of Delta State has taken important measures at taking care of the most vulnerable in our society. The most notable of these measures is the widows’ welfare scheme. The Delta State Governor created the widows’ welfare scheme in the year 2018 aimed at alleviating the suffering of the very poor and vulnerable widows in the state. The governor has established an enduring structure that administers the payment of stipends monthly to these widows.
As from having the state coordinator, Okonta stressed that the structure set up by the Governor, also has 3 Senatorial Supervisors, 6 Assistant Senatorial Supervisors, monitors\ aides for the Federal Constituencies and 2 coordinators in each of the 25 Local Government Areas as members of his team. These coordinators are saddled with the responsibilities of administering the affairs of the enrolled widows at the L.G.A. levels. It is pertinent to note that Delta State is the only state out of the 36 states in the Federal Republic of Nigeria running this unique programme.
The widows’ welfare scheme, he explained is non-political and it cuts across religious divides. Although the names of the widows enrolled in this programme were derived from a list collated and verified by the community leaders, religious leaders, civic leaders and traditional rulers and institutions, however, today there is an electronic database of widows that were registered and enumerated by the Consultant, Mr Clive Amuta, MD of Verschoesk Consult and Integrated Services Ltd. This database has over 50,000 widows and is currently part of the state social register.
Only the verified poor and vulnerable widows residing in Delta State are enrolled in the scheme.
A widow who is a civil servant or financially stable is not eligible. Currently, there are 5607 widows enrolled in the delta state widow’s welfare scheme. These windows have been benefitting from the scheme since 2018. The widows enrolled are predominantly aged, illiterate and have difficulties with financial independence. They are drawn from the 25 local government areas of the state and the 270 wards across the communities. The widows receive N5,000 as stipends and free health care services carried out by the Delta State Contributory Health Commission.
The widows, he observed, can access health care benefits through accredited hospitals and primary health care centres in their localities. These poor and vulnerable widows can also undergo surgical operations at accredited health facilities, free of charge.
Because the Governor has the economic interest of these indigent widows at heart, the state government through the office of the widow’s welfare scheme has distributed 900 melon shelling machines and generating sets to some widows in the three senatorial districts of the state to empower these vulnerable widows to be financially independent. While showing appreciation to the Governor, Okonta finally announced to the gathering that the governor has graciously approved the purchase of Stater packs for about 500 widows in the 25 L.G.As of Delta State.
Today, the state is witnessing a new frontier in Social Investment Programmes. His Excellency the Governor has also approved that 5500 Widows that have been enumerated and data captured as part of the Widows welfare database should be enrolled in the widows’ welfare scheme for the monthly payment of stipends and access to free health care. This will bring the total number of widows enrolled in the scheme for payment to 11107.
Utomi Jerome-Mario is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Public Policy), the Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA). He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org or 08032725374
VP Slot: SMBLF, Okowa’s Decision and Our Nation
By Jerome-Mario Chijioke Utomi
One of the major booby traps placed on Nigeria’s political route to a hyper-modern nation that will require masterly innovative/creative strategies to waltz through is the fact that each time electioneering season approaches in the country, the issue of where the presidential candidate and his running mate come from takes the centre stage instead of the capacity of the candidates to perform. More often than not, it is usually between the North and the South.
Take, for instance, on Tuesday, July 16, 2013, Ango Abdullahi, a professor and secretary of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), addressed a press conference where he, among other things, stated that it was time for the North to take back the presidency.
He said: “I want to make it absolutely clear to you that the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) and all these other groups that have emerged in the recent past are committed to the interest that underlines Northern interest.”
Before the dust raised by such comments about 9 years ago could settle, another that qualifies more as something new and different recently came up. This time around, it was generated by the Southern and Middle Belt Leaders’ Forum (SMBLF) via a statement jointly signed by Edwin Kiagbodo Clark, leader of SMBLF/PANDEF; Ayo Adebanjo, leader of Afenifere; Pogu Bitrus, President-General of Middle Belt Forum; and Prof George Obiozor, President-General of Ohaneze Ndigbo Worldwide.
The group in that statement berated the Governor of Delta State, Ifeanyi Okowa, for accepting his nomination as the vice-presidential candidate to Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the forthcoming 2023 general elections.
The statement said in part, “It is unspeakable and quite disappointing that Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, who is currently Chairman of the South-South Governors’ Forum, and a native of Owa-Alero in Ika North-East Local Government Area (one of the Igbo-speaking areas) of Delta State, would exhibit such barefaced unreliability. It bears recalling that the 17 Governors of the Southern States of Nigeria, both of the PDP and the All Progressives Congress (APC), under the chairmanship of the Governor of Ondo State, Rotimi Akeredolu, met in Asaba, the capital of Delta State on May 11, 2021, and took far-reaching decisions, including that, based on the principles of fairness, equity and justice, the presidency should rotate to the south at the end of the statutory eight years of President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure. And this very Governor Okowa was the host of that historic meeting.”
Taken peripherally, no sane Nigerian will listen to this concern expressed by these fine groups/elders, without throwing his/her weight behind them particularly, as their analysis in the present circumstance appears as an objective concern.
However, there are also, in the opinion of this piece, reasons for concern this time around that what we are experiencing may no longer be the first half of a recurring circle but rather, the beginning of something new and dangerous. For one thing, if this ideology which openly qualifies as a war against our nation-building quest is not arrested, I predict that it will last for the rest of our lives.
To support the above assertion, this piece will highlight the errors as well as spread out the particulars that render an assault on reason, the latest declaration by SMBLF.
First, as rightly observed by the group, the meeting and decisions reached in Asaba by the Southern governors were applauded by all, given its significant representation and the gravity of the outcome. That fact notwithstanding, one point the association failed to remember is that we live in a country where the supremacy of political parties is in full operation.
Viewed from this prism, an important distinction to make is that decisions by political parties on issues such as this (zoning/power shift) stand superior to that of the umbrella association called the Southern Governors Forum.
Political parties as we know are not just another platform that can be controlled at will. Rather, it is a platform for pursuing policy objectives and decentralized creation and distribution of ideas. Just the same way the government is a decentralized body for the promotion and protection of the people’s life chances, even so, is political parties a platform, for the formulation of policies that every member/politician must not vilify but partner with- PDP not an exception.
From the above flows another vital point that Nigerians, of course, SMBLF, need to understand and appreciate. It was the party (PDP) and not Governor Okowa or any other Governor that jettisoned the power rotation arrangement.
Following the party’s decision, a presidential primary was a while ago conducted in Abuja, where Atiku Abubakar emerged as the party’s presidential standard-bearer and as part of the nation’s political requirements and in the spirit of justice, equity and fairness must pick a candidate of southern extraction as his running mate.
Going by the above, it can no longer hold water the argument that Okowa betrayed the trust reposed on him by his colleagues; the southern governors, the entire good people of southern Nigeria and all well-meaning Nigerians, and has made himself persona non grata, not only, with SMBLF but all citizens who treasure our oneness and hopes of a more united and peaceful Nigeria.
This piece also views as draconian the group’s declaration that they cautioned political stakeholders from the South, including serving and former governors, ministers, senators, etcetera, not to, on any account, allow themselves to be appointed or nominated as running mate to any presidential candidate, if the presidency is not zoned to the south and that we will work against such person or persons.
If the above directive was allowed to fly, it will further elicit the following questions; what becomes the fate of citizens’ freedom of expression and expression enshrined in the nation’s 1999 constitution as amended? How come it took these elders this long a time to come up with this asymmetrical position even when it was obvious that the party’s standard-bearer indicated his intention to pick a southern over a week ago? Why didn’t they raise an objection at a time when the names of three southern governors were pencilled down for the position? Could they have been ignorant of such developments? Why is it that such a vanguard/threat is coming at a time when Governor Okowa was finally picked as the preferred candidate?
Why is the group coming up with such an argument laced in sentiment and coming at a time when the country has never been as divided as we are today or witnessed such magnitude of mistrust of ourselves and of our nation? Why must we promote such a position in a season when no nation-best typifies a country in dire need of peace and social cohesion among her various socio-political groups than Nigeria as myriads of socio-political contradictions have conspired directly and indirectly to give the unenviable tag of a country in constant search of social harmony, justice, equity, equality, and peace? Why must we continue to think along these deformed political, ethnic and religious divides against considerations such as merit and leadership competencies?
Must we continue to live in a disunited Nigeria as well as fail the future generation by leaving them a nation more diminished when compared with what we inherited from our forbearers? As Okowa rightly argued, could we have expected that Atiku would be the candidate from the North and also have a vice-presidential candidate from the North? Will that not have led to further division?
While answers to the above are being expected, this is what this piece proposes; ethnicity, religion and all the other primordial sentiments which our elders have whipped up in the past to sway the choices of the people during election times must be hurriedly discarded as we prepare for the 2023 general election so that credible and competent leaders may rule the nation and advance our democracy.
Utomi is the Program Coordinator (Media and Politics) for Advocacy for Social and Economic Justice (SEJA), Lagos. He can be reached via email@example.com/08032725374
Refugee Day 2022: Between War, Natural Disaster Made Refugees and Government Failures Induced Refugees
By Jerome-Mario Chijioke Utomi
It is no longer news that the world on Monday, June 20 celebrated the annual event tagged Refugee Day, an international day organized every year by the United Nations to among other aims celebrate and honour refugees from around the world. It is equally common knowledge that the day was first established on June 20, 2001, in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees.
However, as the world celebrated, what is in some way newsy is that while over 100 million people worldwide going by reports, find themselves displaced by wars, natural disasters and other forms of hostilities and unable to return home, and other refugees were forced to flee their homelands at a moment’s notice, with little more than the clothes on their backs, there were even a larger number of people in today’s world and Nigeria in particular that unmindful of the fact that they have fallen into this troubling refugee bracket/category, not as a result of war as currently witnessed in countries such as Ukraine, Sudan, Afghanistan, and other areas currently faced with a violent crisis or natural disaster-induced displacement. But as a result of factors that has to do with the government’s failure to adhere strictly to the dictates of the global call for the implementation of the right to adequate housing which of course, is both a human right and one of the basic needs of a man borne out of a desire for security, privacy and protection from negative impacts of the environment.
Take Nigeria’s case as an example, separate from powerful statistics which made it abundantly clear that Nigeria is currently faced with over 17 million housing deficit and may require about 700,000 new houses annually to close the gap, a September 2019 report findings and recommendations on Nigeria’s housing challenge/deficit by Ms Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, made shocking revelations that every Nigerian of goodwill should be worried about. The report glaringly supports the belief in some quarters that we are not only casualties of housing deficit, but rather, in an applied sense, the majority of Nigerians even with roofs over their heads, still qualify as refugees in their home country.
The report, which has a goal of assessing, the housing conditions of people in Nigeria using international human rights law and standards, and to determine if governments are meeting their obligations in this regard, was based on housing-related data, laws, jurisprudence and policies in several communities in three major urban centres: Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt and focused on vulnerable populations whose rights are most precarious,
It did confirm what has been on the minds of Nigerians as it describes the conditions met in the informal settlements visited as inhumane and an assault on human dignity.
That was not the only sad commentary.
The report also confirmed the following; one, that economic inequality has reached extreme levels in Nigeria. Secondly, Nigeria’s housing sector is in a complete crisis and there is no current national housing action plan or strategy. Thirdly, coordination and communication between federal and state governments seem lacking and private market housing is unaffordable for most, rental housing is scarce, requires tenants to have one to two years’ rent in advance and there are no rent control or caps.
The report further established that in Nigeria, as in many other countries, real estate is used as a convenient place to launder corrupt money, park excess capital and as a means of financial security for the wealthy.
Leilani also remarked that the Nigerian government does not fully appreciate the nature and extent of the crisis on their hands, noting that internally displaced persons living in an informal settlement in the Federal Capital Territory live in appalling conditions. With over a hundred children attending a tiny, overcrowded one-room school run with little resources by an NGO despite living half an hour drive away from Abuja’s city centre and the Federal Ministry of Education.
This inequality underlined by the report was widely attributed to several factors, including corruption and mismanagement of public funds and a failure to implement just tax policies, whereby low-income earners pay disproportionately more taxes than do high-earning corporations. Less than 6 per cent of registered corporate taxpayers are active, and only between 15-40% of the Value-Added Tax (VAT) is collected.
Separate from the report’s expression of concern that state governments routinely ignore the rule of law in right to housing cases, what is in some ways an even more troubling manifestation of how seriously off track successive administrations have taken us as a nation, is the report’s remark that Nigeria is blessed as one of the largest economies in the world, just behind Norway and well ahead of countries like Singapore and Malaysia-and considered as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, albeit, reliant on the precarious oil market.
Yet, unable to meet the standard as set under international human rights law, which demands that states should spend the maximum of available resources toward the progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights including the right to housing-this includes collecting and imposing taxes and developing mechanisms to prevent corrupt money from landing in residential real estate or other assets domestically or internationally.
This disgraceful treatment suffered by the vast majority of the vulnerable Nigerians in the hands of their leaders has created not just deep resentment and hurt the feelings of the nation but rendered all her citizens outside the government circle (corridors of power) as refugees.
Consider this example reported in-depth in the report.
There is a consensus that the legal framework for land administration, especially the Land Use Act (LUA), is exacerbating the pressures on the housing sector. The manner in which the LUA has been used has resulted in severe consequences for the enjoyment of the right to housing. The LUA vests State Governors with significant management and administrative power. Governors can grant rights of occupancy and also revoke them based on an “overriding “public purpose”. ‘I received many reports of Governors abusing their land administration powers, including granting occupancy rights to family members and friends; defining public purpose in a manner that results in forced evictions of impoverished communities inconsistent with international human rights law, including for luxury developments that often stand vacant – unsold or unused. The LUA also makes land title registration cumbersome and extremely onerous to perfect.’
The report observed something else.
None of the homes visited had running water, boreholes or portable water, thus most families have to pay high prices to access household and drinking water. Those who could not afford fresh water were using contaminated floodwater, resulting in cholera and other health issues. ‘I saw a few houses with latrines.
According to UNICEF, diarrhoea kills more than 70,000 children under five years old annually in Nigeria, most of it caused by poor access to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene. Nearly one-quarter of Nigerians defecate in the open,’ the report stated.
Going by the above, it may, in my view, be said that; there may be a sincere desire by the government to develop the political and socio-economic situations in the country.
However, it may also be thought audacious to talk of creating a better society without the government; whether state or federal, studying this report. Government must in addition tackle the problems of a battered economy arising from corruption, social vices, decayed institutions and homelessness. This must be done not for political reasons but for the survival of our democracy and nation.
Utomi is the Program Coordinator (Media and Policy) for Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), Lagos. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org/08032725374
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