Let me start with saying I loathe big government and in almost every way, Nigeria personifies big government: there is a government agency for about everything and in many cases, there are two or three agencies for same thing. The Nigerian government is also fond of creating committees and panels to look into problems for which an existing ministry, department or agency could have handled as well. All of these put together are a big drain on our financial resources and take a huge chunk of our recurrent expenditure.
This is why whenever there is talk of reducing the number of MDAs, I get excited. Sadly, that has barely ever come to pass.
It was in the light of this that when the idea of a North East Development Commission for the development of the North-East region, the poorest in Nigeria and the most hit by the Boko Haram insurgency, I was at odds with myself over what to think.
So far, the bill for the formation for the commission has gone far in both chambers of the National Assembly, passing second reading and with public hearings having been conducted by the Senate and House of Representatives.
It enjoys a lot of support, with the House of Representatives version being sponsored by a person no less than the Speaker, Hon. Yakubu Dogara and 31 others, and the First Lady, Hajia Aisha Buhari personally attending the hearing. It also ties in with the Federal Government’s goal for restoring the North-East region.
In many ways, opposing the bill feels like standing in front of a fast-moving train.
It cannot be denied that the North-East needs all the help it can get: even before the start of the insurgency, it was the worst region in the country in terms of almost all human development indices – 69% of its people under the poverty line, 44.8% of secondary school children out of school and with only 8.72% of those who finish secondary school graduating with the minimum of five credits including Mathematics and English.
If then the North-East was only years behind the rest of the country, the Boko Haram insurgency has taken it decades behind, especially in states like Borno, Yobe and Adamawa where it was most active, as it burnt down schools and buildings besides the indiscriminate killing it carried out. As such, accelerating the development of the region in every way has to be a priority. Without it, even if the Boko Haram sect ceases to exist, the conditions that made their emergence possible will continue exist and it might not be far away before another similar sect appears on the scene.
However, there is also the real possibility that the NEDC will:
- Duplicate the federal government and the state governments in the region seeing as it will be working on projects those ones are likely to work on at the same time;
- Become an avenue for dispensing patronage through appointments to the board of the commission and the award of contracts, likely to politicians and their associates;
- Increase recurrent expenditure through the employment of staff that will be beyond what the commission needs;
- End up becoming another chapter in Nigeria’s long history with government corruption through misuse of public funds.
These fears are not misplaced – if we are desirous of learning from history, we will see that all of these is what has happened with the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) established in the year 2000 by former President Olusegun Obasanjo for the purpose of fast-tracking development in the Niger Delta region. However, its record has been far from impressive despite the huge allocations given to it.
But how can we achieve the accelerated development of the North-East, possibly through the commission?
- Rethink the Commission: Rather than making it a commission that will exist in perpetuity (until a law repealing it, at least), why not make it an intervention fund that will exist for a defined period? The advantages of an intervention fund is that it will only spend on defined projects that meet certain criteria either alone or in partnership with the FG or states, it will have far fewer political appointees (no need for members of the commission) and it will be better focused than a commission. These projects should also be those that will bring clear benefits and multiplier effects to the people. r
- Set a funding target for it: One thing that I like about the bill in its current form is that it has an excellent funding plan. With the commission idea reworked as a fund, it will be ideal to set a target for how much the fund intends to spend over the period of its existence.
- Keep its staff size small: Like I said earlier, my natural tendency to not be excited by the creation of such MDAs is that they increase our recurrent expenditure and are almost always overstaffed. Such a fund should keep its staff size small and ensure that its recurrent spending is kept at as much a minimum as possible.
- Ensure strong accountability processes: It will be great to have an un-Nigerian government initiative for once where over-invoicing of contracts, mismanagement and diversion of funds will not become the norm. However, merely wishing for one won’t make it happen unless there are strong accountability processes in place.
- Continuously monitor and evaluate: The projects and initiatives by the Fund should be tightly monitored and evaluated for performance in order to extract the best value for money. Not only that, the lessons learnt from each project can be applied across the entire Fund, both in terms of what to do and what not to repeat.
- External oversight needed: It will be necessary for the Fund to have an independent board in charge of it and to which the management of the Fund will report to.
An excellent model for such a fund is the Victims’ Support Fund that was set up by former President Goodluck Jonathan and has raised over N50 billion for the support and transformation of victims of terrorism.
With such a model, I am more assured that the goals of the Commission (or hopefully, Fund) will be met.