24 June 2013

Nigeria: The Seeds of Impunity


The newspapers last week, were full of plaints by a senior minister (at the centre). The main charge? Apparently, successive attempts by the central government to set up a "rainy day fund" have been up-ended by the state governors. Worse, these same dastardly types were responsible for the rapid draw-down of the balance previously salted away in the Excess Crude Account (ECA) and the piffling sums we eventually managed to start up the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) with.

This, of course, is a woeful turn of events. Every one of us, at least in our private capacity, is reconciled to the incongruity of eating all that we kill. Something, however little, is required to be kept away, in the event that our best laid plans for tomorrow go awry. Hunger, maybe, but not immediately. Even the most subsistence of farmers recognises the need to set aside some of the current harvest in order that s/he might have seedlings for the next planting cycle.

At the national level, our most recent history justifies recourse to savings at just about every level of government. There is the bit of any savings (today) that will just be a natural response to the privations of the lean years -- every time, since the 1970s that the global price of crude oil (our main export) has fallen so much that we were unable to meet the obligations of governance on an on-going basis. There is also the economic argument for saving by government. By spending less than it earns, or what is the same thing, increasing national savings, government drives up several economic levers: the quantum of domestic funds available for lending, and investment. It also reduces both the domestic cost of lending and net public debt. The economy is healthier, in essence. More so where domestic impediments to entrepreneurship are limited.

So, on balance, it is good to save. What then could the governors' gravamen be against such a self-evidently beneficial course? Supposedly, the senior minister claimed, our state governors "allege" that all deductions from the federation account into the rainy day funds (especially the ECA) are illegal. The way the minister put it, this conduct is downright despicable.

The more I thought about the minister's complaint, the more I am persuaded that this is where the nub of the argument over the nature of our government is. There is common agreement that the primary nature of our constitution, its main flaw if you will, is its focus on sharing. It basically provides that all accretions to the federation account should be shared amongst the constituent parts of the nation. We may disagree with this provision. We may even be right that the route to economic success goes through the savings that we make from any extra the country earns. But until we arrange to remedy the flaws in our constitution, it is the law.

I am not therefore sure that what we confront is a question of the governors "alleging" that deductions from the federation account into the "rainy day funds" are illegal. I think, instead, that once government is allowed to decide on which laws to abide by, and which to thumb its nose at, we confront the thin end of a giant wedge whose stockier end bears the rubric "impunity" in bright red letters.

The moral equivalent of each of us being allowed to decide which of government's many laws and rules to obey. To illustrate, I think the law banning private glasses on cars, for example, is particularly daft. But I will on account of this being the rule of the land refrain from buying a car with private glasses on it. A sufficiently concerned number of us citizens could then arrange to have a private members bill go to the national assembly for the repeal of this obnoxious statute. Until then it would be illegal not to obey.

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