Is This Change? By Senator Ben Murray-Bruce

Two weeks ago, the Chairman of the Senate Committee of the Federal Capital Territory, Senator Dino Melaye, made a startling revelation that shook me and many right thinking Nigerians to our foundation. At a time Nigeria is going through a daunting economic recession, it was revealed that we plan on spending the sum of N250 million to build a gatehouse for the Vice President of Nigeria.

Whenever I think of the budgetary provision of N250 million to build a gatehouse for the vice president, I am moved by the inequities and inequalities of Nigeria.

There is no urgency or importance in building a new gatehouse for the vice president’s already over priced house, but if even we need to build such a house can we not build it with less than 10% of the cost?

At the black market rate (which is the most commonly used rate in Nigeria) N250 million is equivalent to $500,000. At the official rate, it is worth almost a million dollars. With that type of cash you can buy a mansion in Washington DC and a well developed property in London. Isn’t it a pity that all it can buy the Nigerian government is a gatehouse?

Now we want to borrow $30 billion from other nations and foreign financial institutions. But why should any other nations or foreign financial institutions lend us money when we have not shown prudence in managing the little that we have?

I can assure you that I did my research and not one of the ten richest nations in the world is spending the equivalent of 250 million for something as inconsequential to the well being of a nation as a vice president’s gatehouse.
Why should America, Britain or China lend Nigeria any money when the gate man of our Vice President is living in a house that only a millionaire in their own country can afford?
Should they lend us $30 billion so we can build more luxurious and befitting gatehouses for our other public officials?
Is this the change we promised Nigerians?
With a minimum wage of N18,000 the N250 million to be spent on the Vice President’s gatehouse can pay the salaries of 13,888 Nigerians!

How many staff are being owed salary by the federal government? How many staff are being owed salary by state governments? How many pensioners are dying while waiting to collect pension that never comes?

How many internally displaced persons are dying of hunger while we budget N250 million for a gatehouse? N250 million can feed one million people for a day and 200,000 people for a week.
Recently, I was driving on a federal road in the South-east and a portion of that road was so damaged that it was a death trap. I wonder how many people have been killed on that road. Certainly, from my estimation as an entrepreneur who has built several malls and other real estate projects across Nigeria, N250 million will be sufficient to repair that portion of the road, but no! We have to build a gatehouse for a VIP!

Nigeria has some of the worst maternal and infant maternity rates in the whole world. 10% of all the women who die in childbirth are Nigerian women according to the UN. Meanwhile Nigeria only has 2% of the world’s population.

The main challenge we have in reducing maternal mortality is funding and we are approaching international aid organisations to help us raise funds to help reduce death amongst our pregnant women. Can you imagine how unserious we look to them when they read that we are spending N250 million on a gatehouse while begging them for money?

We really must make better use of our scarce resources at this time. We cannot expect others to lend to us from their own hard earned resources when we have demonstrated a propensity to squander the little we have.

What we have demonstrated in Nigeria, especially within the last two years, is a strong propensity to major on the minor and minor on the major.

With the way we in government treat Nigerians, I sometimes suspect that our people will prefer to go to hell if our leaders are found in heaven!

And another thing, for a nation that wants to come out of recession, Nigeria is not spending enough on education. The proposed allocation for education is N50 billion, which is only a third of the proposed allocation for defence.

There is a reason why LEARN and EARN rhyme. If a nation wants to earn more she must first learn more. This budget proposal does not take that into account.

We are still working with an obsolete Industrial Age thought process that operates under the wrong notion that nations become rich because of what they have under their soil.

I have got news for the executive: today’s nations can only grow rich by what is between the ears of its citizens! We are living in the knowledge worker era.

Apple, Google, facebook and yahoo are now more valuable than Exxon-Mobil, Shell BP, Chevron and AGIP. The world is changing and we must change with it.

I have been studying Anambra State for a while. This used to be one of the most educationally disadvantaged states in the South. But since the era of former Governor Peter Obi till today, the state made education its priority and allocated the bulk of its budget to education and the more Anambra budgeted for education the more their economy flourished.

They do not borrow. They did not participate in the federal government’s bailout to states. They have one of, if not the best subnational economies in Nigeria. Nigeria as a whole is importing food, Anambra as a whole is exporting food.

And their secret is education. They have consistently featured as number one in WAEC and NECO results.

If we want Nigeria to earn more money, that cannot be achieved by selling more oil. It can only be achieved by learning more to earn more.

As a nation, we are spending N49 billion maintaining about a 100 embassies and consulates. What do we get in return? That expense is a drain and not an investment.

We can spend only a fraction of that amount. Do we need a consular in every nation to issue visas? Several nations that are richer than Nigeria are doing away with consulars in preference for entry point visas.

Turkey has a policy where you pay $40 and you get your visa online. It is reducing their recurrent expenditure because now they maintain only a skeletal staff in their embassies and it is increasing their revenue because without the bottleneck and hassle of getting visas through the traditional means, people are flocking to countries like Turkey, like the UAE and other countries that have online visa policies.

Instead of N49 billion, we can spend only 10% of that and use the balance N45 billion to build infrastructure and educate our people. In fact, we can be like the UAE and Turkey that can afford to use the millions they get from online visas to run their embassies.

Two months ago, the presidency released a statement announcing that they have recently weeded out 50,000 ghost workers from the pay roll of the federal government.

If that is true, then why isn’t that being reflected in the budget for recurrent expenditure? If you have weeded 50,000 ghost workers from the system then there must be a massive drop in our recurrent expenditure. Something is not adding up.

Recurrent expenditure in the 2017 budget is N2.98 trillion. Let us just call it N3 trillion. Recurrent expenditure in the 2016 budget was N2.6 trillion.

Are we sure that the executive did not make a mistake and instead of weeding 50,000 ghost workers from the system it actually added 50,000 ghost workers because the recurrent expenditure has increased.
Has minimum wage increased? No? There are too many ambiguities that need to be cleared up.
And on housing, certainly we can do much more than what the 2017 budget proposes to do.
The American psychologist, Abraham Maslow, theorised that our most basic human need is for shelter. Let us relate this to Nigeria.

Nigeria has a 17 million housing deficit. If Abraham Maslow is correct, it stands to reason that lack of shelter, among others, is one of the single largest drivers of corruption in Nigeria today.

Civil servants and politicians steal largely because they have no hope of ever owning a home and they do not want to be destitute after their retirement. This is why the EFCC seizes a lot of houses from corrupt people.

If home ownership represents man’s basic need, then no government has succeeded in meeting this need. After all, what is the essence coming to power if the most basic need of the electorate cannot be addressed?

Nigeria needs to solve this challenge because if we do, we will go a long way to improving the human development index of Nigeria and reducing the misery level as well igniting the type of economic activity that will ease our current recession while also fighting corruption.

There is no way government can build 17 million houses. At best, the budget of the ministry of housing can build a couple hundred thousand houses annually. If we are to plug this deficit, we have to rely on the private sector just like developed nations.

We have over N6 trillion of our pension funds sitting in financial institutions. Let us deploy these funds into productive sectors of our economy.

The naira gets devalued and the return from investing pension assets in government treasury bills and bank deposits is less than the rate of inflation. Real estate is one of the few investments that outstrips inflation. The safest investment anywhere in the world is real estate.

Why don’t we use these funds to fund our real estate development and end our housing deficit?
We can and we should use the pension funds to stimulate the housing market while the government subsidizes the mortgage rate for low income earners so that they can borrow at single digit interest rates.

Promoting home ownership will lower corruption and what else could be a safer investment for our pension funds? After all, no one can run away with a house. They can run away with a car or with cash, or with shares, but a house is immovable and best of all it largely continues to appreciate in value. It only makes Commonsense to use pension funds in this way.

And I do not even see why government has to sell land to property developers and private housing estate builders in the first place. In my opinion, if you want to build houses for the masses, government should give you land free of charge!

Of what use is the land when it has no property or farm on it? At least if you allow people build on it government can charge them property taxes.

Our president and governors live in houses paid for by tax payers. It is time we return the favour to the taxpayers and the masses. It is time we begin running Nigeria in a businesslike manner and provide our people the dividends of democracy. It is time we deliver on the promised change.

Article by Ben Murray-Bruce, Senator representing Bayelsa East in the National Assembly

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