Nigeria Matters

How Not to Loot a Rural State

It is that time of the year again when Nigerian politicians make bogus promises which they intend not to keep once elected into office. Lies, double speak and vain talk like “Agent of Change”, “Hope of the common man” among others is being thrown around like they are going out of fashion. The season of hubris is here again.

The rural electorates (states that have no oil, do not border a large city like Lagos, Kano or Abuja and have no commercial/industrial base like Ibadan, Aba and Jos) particularly fall for this farce. Year after year, their returnee sons and daughters from the cities, show up promising heaven and earth. Of course, no sooner are the elections over that these prodigal sons and daughters soon relocate to Abuja (if they won) or Lagos (if they lost) and forget their sacred promises.

One governor in 1999 promised to transform Ekiti into little London. Another in Osun swore by making Osun the Dubai of Africa. God have mercy; twelve years later, Ekiti is as backward as any state can be and goodness; Osun is still dependent on federal allocation. Sometimes, when such sons get elected to the governor’s mansion the policies emanating from the state house only make cry for such states. One recently went on stadium building binge; as if stadiums are what a state sorely in need of diversified economy base need. The current governor of Ekiti is making sharing government cheques to ex-political appointees a priority, like it is social security!

Half of these prodigal sons who become governors sometimes permanently relocate to Abuja or overseas, becoming governors in absentia! In my own rural state, we had a governor that was present three out of twelve months during the budget session. Even then, most of his times during those rare periods of presence were spent at the only pepper soup joint in the state capital where he feasted on poor university girls with his entourage.

The sad aspect of this development is that the media is turning a blind eye. In fact, one has to suspect that the media has been bought off by these rural governors who have since mastered the art of public relations. Brown envelopes and white elephant project tours to mesmerize journalists have now been transformed to stuff of legend by these rural governors which every media house cannot afford to miss. It appears everyone have given up on rural states. The purse of state is now a piggy bank for public relations, overseas trip, official whoredom and white elephant proposals and projects designed to waste public funds and achieve no meaningful development.

Before we proceed, what are rural states? Rural states are small, landlocked and without unlimited natural resources to subsidize physical development. Oil states like Bayelsa even though rural in the most elementary sense are heavily subsidized with derivation funds, and as such have a deliberate path out of rural poverty and don’t qualify for the “pure rural” status. In our pure rural states, not only are there a paucity of resources- they also experience paucity of human capacity due to rural-urban drift and always seem to attract their worst citizens back to participate in state development (truly sad).

At least half of Nigeria’s thirty-six states will qualify as rural states in the purest term. These true rural states have limited hope to break off the federal allocation addiction, and lack the resources to do so on their own without devising creative strategies. However, if the strategies discussed are carefully applied, the redevelopment of Nigeria’s true rural states can spark the engine of national economic renaissance.

Here are few pointers for those still dreaming of truly rescuing their rural state:

1. Reorganize Government: Since rural states tend to get pittance from federal allocation, government in these states have to be more agile and responsive to modern need. The number of ministries should be limited and appropriate for regulatory and overhead operations of essential services like Justice, Health, Education and Agriculture alone. Capital projects should be executed out of a single independent agency with a transparent tenders committee. This agency should report directly to the governor since this allows for better monitoring of projects, nimbler execution, and use of modern professional talent outside the civil service utilizing modern methodologies, technology and processes (cutting red tape).

2. Budget Smartly: Rural states essentially suffer from a limited revenue profile and have a sore need to enhance such by investments. This will require investments (in capital projects and incentives to industry) instead of expenses (salaries, pensions and other overheads). In order to develop, rural state must be overweight in capital outlays and cut their overhead to the bone (3 to 1 suggested). This may be painful in the short run, but will be beneficial over the long run. It may however be politically risky since civil servants are really the only employees in these states.

3. Identify a national need & invest: Beyond developing infrastructure like roads/bridges, public water systems and hospitals/schools where needed (which will more than offset the political damage of overhead cuts), smart rural state governance will dictate investing in key sectors of national need, where the state have some reasonable competitive advantage by leveraging. Leveraging will mean seeking bond funds on the capital market to invest in these for-profit projects while ensuring repayment with a dedicated portion of the capital budget. In choosing these sectors of need, states will need to get creative (definitely focusing on the cliché sectors of Tourism and Agriculture is not creativity). Nigerians will pay for good quality private education, good private healthcare wherever available, and electric power regardless of where it is produced. These are sectors around which rural states can be first mega-movers in partnership with overseas investors, and their Diaspora. Cutting red tape & corruption will go a long way in promoting a friendly pro-investment climate in these states as well.

4. Use Aid & Grants to Cushion Cuts: The consequence of action 1 & 2 is better latitude to attract the ton of free monies that exist in the aid grants and development universe. Smart governance in rural states will mean creating a second independent agency that reports to the governor directly focused on writing proposals, attracting sorely needed aid to pad the cuts in the budget (to social needs like education and health) and help prioritize such needs. Such agency is also a veritable machinery to promote the state to the world as an epitome of smart governance.

5. Attract Diaspora for Talent & Taxes: Most rural states are net exporters of talent and labor not just to Lagos and more industrialized urban areas within Nigeria but overseas. However these sons and daughters abroad tend to be emotionally attached to their various states (and do return for festivities and build mansions) and are very likely to want to contribute if properly organized. Smart governance means attracting key individuals to return and contribute in technocratic capacity; while evolving policy that capture the talents and monies of the Diaspora. A creative development levy system or “new” property tax levied on the mansions and feel good structures of Diaspora may enhance the revenue profiles of most rural states.

These strategies are no brainers to any serious candidate that truly want to transform the lives of rural Nigerians. For far too long, two-thirds of our population have been forgotten while their state house have turned to breeding ground for white elephant projects, fly by night consultants and charlatans. It is time to get real about uplifting Nigeria’s rural population.

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