Last week I listened to or read the speech of at least a dozen newly elected governors, and I must confess they were full of hazard warning signs ahead. Citizens have only one option – brace up before going on a roller coaster ride at the sub-national level worse than they experienced in the last eight years. I estimate that about 80% of the inauguration speeches of the dozen newly elected state governors I listened to were uninspiring, and none captured the changing demographics of the states, how to harness new technologies, potential impacts of new federal legislation, prevailing and persistent challenges faced by the people, innovativeness and original thinking that should define the road ahead for sub-national governments at this time.
Apart from a few that dealt with anything meaningful, most new governors spent half of the time praising their predecessors, who at best had disgraceful legacies, with a commitment to continue the same purposeless and rudderless path. Worse still, they did not bother addressing some of the states’ most pressing challenges. I will list a few common to most states – high debt profile, too many unviable and uncompleted projects, low internally generated revenue, poorly equipped and demotivated civil service, humongous outstanding salary commitments, challenging security situation and the dearth of social services.
The commitment of loyalty expressed to their predecessors and not the state is a new development peculiar to our democracy. It may be traced to the absolute power conferred on them by the 1999 constitution, and as far back as 2004, the Financial Times of London identified the overbearing influence of governors as the root of poor governance at the subnational levels. Governors, who are chief executives at the subnational level, act as emperors. They quickly appropriate the state legislature, and the judiciary is often at their mercy. In practice, they have made the legislative arm an extension of various state government houses. These subnational strongmen rule without checks and balances, no transparency, and no accountability, as they are above the law and enjoy endless immunity. The democratic checks and balances in our constitution are stronger at the federal than the state level. This lax has allowed governors to operate like lawless brigands.
A typical pattern in 2023 is that of the 18 newly elected governors, as many as 11 or 12 of them were selected and sponsored by outgoing governors. Selecting, not electing, and sponsoring preferred candidates to become governors may not be the worst offence against the people, but the quality of governors and governance keep depreciating. Institutions of democracy are also weakened or captured, and accountability to the people disappears in favour of “accountability” to the new godfathers – former governors. The phenomenon of state capture by outgone and former governors is present and real and constitutes a danger to the development and aspiration of the people. The new godfathers will definitely become virtual remote-control emperors of the state.
The challenge before us now, with new godfathers in town and new governors who owe them loyalty plus an assembly of handpicked Oh- yes-men, is how do we hold our new governors accountable? How do we ensure budgets are made for the people, not the new godfathers? How do we guarantee that citizens enjoy services rather than state governments serving outgone governors and new godfathers? This is a new phase in our nascent democratic journey, and it is a challenge worth giving attention to if you go by fiscal development in our various states.
A report by the Guardian newspaper of 17 April 2023 shows that of the 18 governors that have completed their constitutionally allowed two tenures plus Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State, who could not secure re-election, will pass on a whopping over N3.2 trillion debt to the new state handlers. Overall, the affected 18 sub-national entities’ debts rose by 232 per cent, from N947.4 billion outstanding in December 2014 – a few months before the outgoing state chiefs took the reins. The amount owed to local and foreign institutions and individuals has ballooned by N2.16 trillion to hit N3.1 trillion at the close of last year. This is a bobby trap number one for the incoming governors. Aside from this debt exposure, most of which we cannot account for their applications, are outstanding salaries, pension and gratuity issues running into few trillions at the subnational level.
It is a no-brainer that the road ahead for the new state governors in Nigeria is filled with challenges and opportunities. The many difficulties will require a strategic and focused governor to tackle and overcome these challenges. Unfortunately, very few governors seem prepared with knowledge about their states let alone strategies for developing them as revenue generating and social service centres. It is no time to make excuses about these challenges because the governors knew about them before vying for the office of the governor, and most campaigned on these challenges and have fanciful solutions for them in their campaign manifestos. It is time to walk the talk. These challenges are not insurmountable, but they require these governors to think deeply, out of the box, be creative and be innovative to solve them. It requires a total commitment to serve the people and not tolerate much interference from any overbearing former governor or godfathers.
Accountability to the people and developing people-centric policies and programmes must be the guiding principles of the new governors. Time is transient and waits for no man. Four years may seem a long time, but they should ask their predecessors how their time flew past – those eight years of tenure blew past as if it started yesterday. They must learn from that. The time to plan, execute and evaluate is now, not tomorrow. The governors should adopt bespoke approaches to solving the state’s problems and bringing about developments that will positively touch citizens’ lives. This is not a time to witch hunt or fight ephemeral battles that will only force governors to lose focus on more important things.
I will articulate some key areas that state governors should focus on to drive development and improve governance. Most Nigerians know these must be done to improve the state; however, the problem is in the desire and ability of the governors to implement these ideas.
Economic diversification is crucial for each state. Many Nigerian states heavily rely on money from the Federal Government based on oil revenues, making them vulnerable to fluctuations in global oil prices. State governments should prioritise economic diversification by promoting sectors such as agriculture, solid minerals, manufacturing, tourism, and technology. This will help create jobs, boost revenue generation, and reduce dependence on oil.
State governments must explore innovative ways to generate revenue and reduce dependence on federal allocations. This can be achieved through tax reforms, improving revenue collection systems, exploring public-private partnerships, and attracting private investments. Additionally, state governments should adopt fiscal discipline by prudently managing resources, reducing wasteful spending, and implementing adequate budgetary controls.
Infrastructure development lays the foundation for a better quality of living for citizens. Improving infrastructure is crucial for economic growth and social development. State governments should invest in constructing and maintaining roads, bridges, airports (seaports and railways in collaboration with FG), power plants, and telecommunications networks. This will enhance connectivity, attract investors, and facilitate trade and commerce. However, there is no need to embark on white-elephant projects that will have little or no benefit for the state. State governments must complete already started projects by the former governments and build on what is on the ground rather than abandoning old projects to start new projects. We should stop the public eyesores abandoned projects have become in many states.
Improving education and healthcare lays the foundation needed for development. Investing in education and healthcare is essential for human capital development. State governments should prioritise improving the quality of education by upgrading school facilities, training teachers, and promoting vocational and technical skills. Similarly, healthcare systems need to be strengthened by building more hospitals, improving access to quality healthcare services, and investing in healthcare professionals.
Agriculture is a crucial sector in Nigeria, and state governments should prioritise agricultural development to ensure food security and reduce dependence on food imports. They can support farmers by providing access to credit, modern farming techniques, improved seeds, and irrigation facilities. Additionally, state governments should invest in agro-processing industries to add value to agricultural products and create employment opportunities.
Transparency, accountability, and the fight against corruption are critical for effective governance. Unfortunately, states constitutes the weakest link in this respect. State governments should promote good governance practices, establish anti-corruption agencies, implement public financial management reforms, and encourage citizen participation in decision-making. This will help build trust, enhance service delivery, and attract investments.
Ensuring the safety and security of citizens is paramount for socio- economic development. State governments should work closely with federal security agencies to combat criminal activities. They should invest in equipping and training security personnel, strengthening intelligence gathering, and promoting community policing.
Collaboration and synergy among neighbouring states can lead to shared development and enhanced regional competitiveness. State governments should explore opportunities for collaboration and cooperation in areas such as transportation, infrastructure development, security, and economic integration. This can be achieved through regional development commissions, joint projects, and policy harmonisation.
Embracing technology and promoting innovation can drive development and improve service delivery. State governments should invest in digital infrastructure, promote e-governance, and encourage technology startups and entrepreneurship. This will enhance efficiency, transparency, and citizen engagement.
Overall, the road ahead for state governments in Nigeria requires strong leadership, effective governance, and a commitment to inclusive and sustainable development. By addressing these key areas, state governments can contribute significantly to the overall progress and prosperity of the country. Governors must roll their sleeves and deliver service.