Lyrics: “Da, da, da, da, da, da,/Sufferin’ in the land/It is a pain to see we’re in a terrible situation/ Sufferin’ in the land/Nearly half of the world on the verge of starvation/Sufferin’ in the land/And the children are crying for more education/ “Sufferin’ in the land…The rich get richer and the poor get poorer/ Sufferin’ in the land/
-Jimmy Cliff (1969)
In November 2012, Vladimir Hernandez, as a correspondent writing for BBC Mundo, Montevideo in Uruguay, South America came up with an attention-grabbing article titled: ‘Jose Mujica: The world’s ‘Poorest’ President’. It focused on the austere lifestyle of the then president who lived “on a ramshackle farm and gave away most of his pay”. He was protected by only two policemen.
Back then, Mujica outrightly shunned the luxurious house that the Uruguayan state provides for its leaders. Instead, he opted to stay at his wife’s farmhouse, off a dirt road outside the capital, Montevideo.
Asked about his uncommon decision to live a low life, he stated that:
“I’ve lived like this most of my life,” he said while sitting on an old chair in his garden.
“I can live well with what I have,” he added.
Furthermore, he donated 90% of his monthly salary, equivalent to $12,000 (£7,500), to charity. That meant that his salary was roughly in line with the average Uruguayan income of $775 (£485). His charitable donations benefitted the poor people and small scale entrepreneurs. That is patriotism.
Similarly, in August 2019, one Abraham Darius Dillon, who was then a Liberian lawmaker, out of his own volition asked for a pay cut. While his colleagues were earning about $15,000 Dillon decided to be paid $5,000 monthly. He offered the remaining $10,000 to foster the stability of Liberia’s tottering economy. That of course, is patriotism.
Also, in February 2021, the then new Prime Minister of Italy, Mario Draghi, decided to waive off his salary, sacrificing €115,000 annual income as his contribution to finding a way out of the wood of the economic crisis his country was battling with. That is not only patriotism but leadership by example. But what do we have here playing our on our political landscape in Nigeria?
The answer stares us all in the face. In fact, not long after the swearing in of President Ahmed Tinubu in May this year, the Revenue Mobilization, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) came up with the spurious idea of increasing the pay packages of political taskmasters by 114%! Yes, you read that right. But as soon as the media and concerned Nigerians raised outrage the president denied any knowledge of such a move.
But soon after, 360 members of the National Assembly decided to spend, (or is it waste) a whopping N160 million each, totaling N57.6 billion, on Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs). How do we justify such conscienceless and cruel act in a country that the World Poverty Clock, 2023, warned was gravitating towards the world capital of poverty, with 71 million people living in extreme poverty?
How do we accept that in a country that UNICEF warned that 25 million citizens suffer from food insecurity? That was back in January 2023. The root causes listed as the key drivers of this alarming trend include continued conflict, climate change, inflation and rising food prices. But that is not all.
The huge pay package of our self-serving political leaders remains the bane of our socio-economic development. If not, how do we explain that decision to buy luxurious cars, when a total of 133 million Nigerian citizens are currently classed as multi-dimensionally poor, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) data, as at June, 2023?
How would we, as learned Nigerians justify that to the millions of citizens groaning with inflation figures of 26.72% on the average, and a high food inflation rate of 30.6%? Inexcusable, one would admit.
In fact, while marking the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on October 17, 2023 analysis by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) found that some 165 million people fell into poverty between 2020 to 2023. It was traced to debt servicing which crowded out expenditures in critical areas such as social protection, health, and education.
Yet, our lawmakers decided to do the unthinkable while legislators in Germany, with the world’s fourth biggest economy, make sacrifices and are comfortable with a little over $10,000 per month. Are you surprised therefore, that Obiageli Ezekwesili, the former Minister of Education decided to call them, “Incorrigible Bunch of Law Breakers”?
But lest we forget, they are not the only ones culpable in the squander mania of the public funds. Some state governors are! It would be recalled that the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) sent an open letter to the then President Muhammadu Buhari, on October 6, 2020, urging him to use his “good offices and leadership position” to urgently instruct the Director-General and Board of the National Pension Commission [NPC] to stop the state governors’ borrowing spree.
Back then, the 36 state governors were working towards withdrawing the huge sum of N17 trillion from the Pension Fund, claiming that it was meant for infrastructural development! Subsequently, in December 2022, the World Bank noted that states’ debts would rise above 200 per cent of the revenue generated in 2022 and 2023. Furthermore, it warned that there was an increase in debt servicing expenditures of states.
Similarly, the World Bank on February 13, 2023 reported that thirty state governors who were going to leave office on May 29, 2023, or seeking re-election had increased their states’ debts to N4.8 trillion and that Nigeria’s debt-revenue ratio was 80.6% in 2022, which was far higher than the 22.5% recommended for developing countries by the World Bank.
The pain in all of these escalating economic crises is that there are no empirical evidences on ground to support the borrowing spree. Many states still lack good access roads, stable electricity supply and job creation strategies. Yet, government is still being run to overtly favour the rotten-rich politicians. The bitter truth therefore, is that we cannot trudge on this wobbly path for long. So, who will wipe off our tears?
Concerned, committed and courageous Nigerians have to rise up to the occasion. Indeed, the media, non-governmental organizations and seasoned analysts should bell the cat of the much-needed political re-engineering. Our leaders must be held accountable for every kobo that comes in from crude oil sales, Value Added Tax (VAT) and other sources of revenue.
The led majority must free themselves from the mental slavery of thinking that the wealth of the country is meant for their political leaders. They should stop kowtowing to them for the insulting peanuts and rather, ask that the right things be done, in line with the constitutional provisions. The jumbo pay packages of the kleptomaniac class are no longer sustainable.
As yours truly has clamoured for eons, now is the time for the politicians to make the needed sacrifice. While Senator Aliyu Ndume has called for legislators to be placed on half-salary, one is calling on them to be placed on equivalent of civil salary scale. We need Volunteers in Government, more than ever before.
If ‘Jose Mujica of Uruguay, Darius Dillon of Liberia and Mario Draghi of Italy could sacrifice their salaries to stabilize their countries’ economies why not our political helmsmen, including the president, state governors and lawmakers? Whether they want to admit it or not, we are currently sitting on a keg of gun powder because there is suffering in the land!