• Wednesday, April 24, 2024
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Oronsaye report: Nigeria needs root-and-branch reconstruction

Oronsaye report: Nigeria needs root-and-branch reconstruction

There was much hoopla when the Bola Tinubu administration recently announced that it would implement the 12-year-old report of the Stephen Oronsaye committee on the rationalisation of federal parastatals and agencies. The extensive media coverage and public commentaries suggested the announcement was a game-changer.

Sadly, it is yet another evidence that Nigeria majors in the minor and minors in the major; that it leaves leprosy to treat rashes. While Nigeria desperately needs root-and-branch structural changes, it always tinkers at the edges of reforms. The Oronsaye report is too peripheral in the face of Nigeria’s acute and deep-seated structural challenges, and the much-hyped plan to implement it is a distraction.

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But we must start with the irony of Tinubu’s purported commitment to cut the cost of governance by implementing the Oronsaye report. Here’s a president with the largest cabinet in Nigerian history; a president who led the world’s third-largest delegation to the UN Climate Change Conference, COP 28, last year; a president who recently led 38 people, including two of his children, on a “state visit” to Qatar.

Surely, this is a profligate, big-state president, not one who cares a hoot about the cost of governance. In defending his large cabinet, Tinubu said, “Many people are getting employment, and we should not see it as over-bloated.” So, how come he now wants to merge or scrap government agencies, which, if credibly implemented, must lead to job losses?

The history of the Oronsaye report shows that its implementation was a political hot potato for previous presidents. In 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan inaugurated the committee and, a year later, received its report. The committee identified 541 federal agencies and recommended scrapping or merging 220 of them; it also recommended reducing the statutory agencies from 263 to 161. But in its White Paper, the Jonathan administration rejected or merely “noted” about 90 percent of the recommendations. In 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari promised to implement the Oronsaye report, citing “dwindling resources and rising costs of governance.” But despite setting up three different committees, Buhari did not implement the report before he left office last year.

Now, Tinubu has vowed to succeed where his predecessors failed. On February 28, Tinubu ordered “full implementation” of the Oronsaye report and, subsequently, on March 7, set up an implementation committee, giving it 12 weeks to submit its report. As I said earlier, President Buhari set up three committees: one, led by Goni Aji, reviewed the Oronsaye report; another, led by Amal Pepple, reviewed agencies established from 2014 to 2021; and the third, chaired by Ebele Okeke, published a white paper on the reports of the first two committees in 2022. Given the work done by the Buhari committees, the Tinubu implementation committee should not start from ground zero. Thus, the real questions are: Can Tinubu “fully implement” the Oronsaye report? And even if he could, would that make a huge difference to Nigeria’s acute cost-of-governance problem and structural challenges?

Let’s start with the first question. By promising “full implementation” of the Oronsaye report, Tinubu has given fortune hostage. “Full implementation” means scrapping or merging 220 of the 541 federal agencies identified by the Oronsaye committee and reducing the statutory agencies from 263 to 161. Surely, that’s a tall order. But even worse, according to CivicHive, an outfit of BudgIT, the budget transparency NGO, there are currently 929 ministries, departments, and agencies (MDAs) in the Federal Government budgetary structure. So, what would Tinubu’s “full implementation” mean considering the astronomical increase in the number of federal parastatals and agencies since the Oronsaye report was published 12 years ago?

Q: “While Nigeria desperately needs root-and-branch structural changes, it always tinkers at the edges of reforms.”

Of course, the real battle ahead lies in scrapping or merging the statutory bodies, which requires legislative changes. Many federal legislators are already engaging in special pleadings, arguing that certain agencies should not be abolished or merged. They will fight tooth and nail to protect those agencies if a bill to scrap or merge them goes to the National Assembly. The truth is, once a statutory body is created and powerful vested interests emerge around it, abolishing the agency would be highly politicised and difficult.

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Several years ago, in 2005, I was contracted to write a report for the Nigerian Ports Authority to promote the government’s port concessioning programme to international investors. In researching for the report, titled “Port and Harbour Development in Nigeria,” I found that there were 29 government agencies operating in Nigerian ports. President Obasanjo issued an executive order to reduce the agencies to five. But the order was largely ignored because most of the agencies were statutory and could only be scrapped or merged through legislative changes.

Nearly 15 years later, in 2018, the Buhari government purportedly ordered that only eight agencies should operate at the ports. It also ordered all MDAs at the airports and seaports to merge their departure and arrival counters into one single customer counter. But all the Executive Orders were more honoured in the breach than in the observance because the agencies claimed that they had statutory rights to function and had powerful interest groups behind them. As a result, the problem of multiple agencies at Nigerian seaports and airports remains endemic, imposing huge costs on businesses and other users.

So, despite the hype, Tinubu can only, at best, partially implement the Oronsaye report. He will not reduce the original 541 agencies, let alone the current 929 MDAs, drastically. He will not reduce the number of statutory agencies or do so significantly. Yet, partial or shallow implementation of the Oronsaye report would simply amount to scratching the surface of the cost-of-governance problem. But that brings us to the second, more fundamental, question: Even if the Oronsaye report is “fully” implemented, is that the ultimate solution to Nigeria’s cost-of-governance problem and structural challenges?

When President Buhari promised to implement the Oronsaye report in 2020, I wrote a piece in this column titled “Nigeria is administratively over-governed; the Oronsaye report is not the solution” (BusinessDay, June 29, 2020). Today, I maintain the argument in that piece, namely, that Nigeria is administratively over-governed and structurally defective, and that unless the administrative and structural defects are formally addressed, the cost-of-governance problem cannot be decisively tackled.

For instance, as discussed in this column last week, does Nigeria need the costly presidential system that everyone accepts is the main cause of the large, expensive, and corrupt government in Nigeria? Does Nigeria need a bicameral or full-time National Assembly whose members are among the highest-paid legislators in the world and whose members are padding budgets by trillions of naira? Does Nigeria need 36 mostly unviable state governments, each with its own vast and expensive ministries, departments, and agencies? These are structural problems that cannot be addressed within the narrow scope of the Oronsaye report.

Truth be told, it would be utterly futile to ‘implement’ the Oronsaye report without restructuring Nigeria. Remember that it wasn’t only the Oronsaye report that was submitted to the Jonathan administration; the report of the National Conference on Restructuring Nigeria was also submitted to the government. Why is all the focus on the Oronsaye report while nothing is said about the National Conference report? Any attempt to isolate the Oronsaye report from the National Conference report and other restructuring reports is merely tinkering with an existential problem.

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Rationalising government parastatals and agencies must be seen in the wider context of political restructuring. The Oronsaye report doesn’t strike at the heart of Nigeria’s deep-rooted cost-of-governance and structural problems. Only holistic restructuring can result in genuine consolidation of administrative and governance structures in Nigeria, not implementing the peripheral Oronsaye report. At least, not doing so in isolation!