Nigeria News

NIGERIA: 160 Million Degrees of Separation

According to the theory of Six Degrees of Separation it takes no more than six introductions for any two people on earth, with its population in excess of seven billion, to be connected to one another through their network of friends. Using Mr A and Miss B as examples, the theory – developed by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy in 1929 – says that by the time Mr A taps into his group of friends each of whom taps into his/her group of friends each of whom taps into his/her group of friends amongst others, Mr. A and Miss B would have been connected by or before the time Mr A contacts his fifth group of friends.
An experiment conducted by Facebook in 2011 to test the theory among its 721 million users at the time discovered an average distance of only 4.74 introductions between any two users, thereby demonstrating the power of technology in bridging geographical and social divides.
It is easy to see how formidable a tool the theory can be in the hands of policy-makers. By observing its underlying principle, the effectiveness of government policies can be measured against the extent to which they improve living standards throughout a country. Therefore, those who govern have no excuse for being disconnected from the governed. Unfortunately, the disconnect in Nigeria has become so severe that nothing short of a total overhaul of the mindsets and practices of elected public officials will put things right. The process must begin from the Presidency, not just for its symbolism, but because change that does not start from the top is usually futile.
Rather than purposefully setting out to narrow the gap between rich and poor, Nigerian policy-makers are fixated with macroeconomic variables like Gross Domestic Product and the level of foreign investment. Admittedly, macro yardsticks are critical for national planning, but while economic growth is the ultimate objective of economic policy, the primary concern of government policy as a whole should be economic and social development. This should extend to big cities and remote villages alike; certainly not the case in Nigeria today. Our legislators continue to luxuriate in air-conditioned, sartorial and bejewelled comfort, while telling the electorate to make sacrifices, to be patient and patriotic – in a country where the National Bureau of Statistics and The World Bank agree that over 60 per cent of the population are poor.
It is general knowledge that an obscene proportion of the federal budget is spent on legislators’ salaries and allowances. This is compounded by the longstanding cat-and-mouse game they and the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC), the independent body that sets the pay of political office holders, have been playing with the electorate vis-a-vis disclosing how much legislators earn.
They make it seem as if we are being presumptuous by requesting information we are entitled to have. Information readily available to all and sundry in other democracies where government websites disclose earnings of heads of government and legislators, including allowances on domestic and foreign assignments – almost to the last kobo. Why should Nigeria be any different? The truth of the matter is our legislators are feasting on what is, in effect, a “24/7 eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet” at the expense of Nigerians. The list of allowances they receive, including the ironically-named “hardship allowance”, is as long as the Third Mainland Bridge; and both scandalous and immoral in its entirety.
The cost of governance in Nigeria should be an open book, accessible to all, and not veiled in secrecy. Over the years, all manner of requests to our legislators for a breakdown of the National Assembly’s budget have received short shrift. These include requests made under the Freedom of Information Act. Our legislators obviously do not understand that they work for the electorate and are therefore answerable to them. When we request information, legislators do not have the option of responding if or when they feel like it. Such high-handedness has no place in a democracy where openness and transparency are indispensable safeguards against abuse.
At the end of 2013, the average salary plus allowances of heads of government of G-8 countries, the club of the world’s eight largest economies (excluding China), was US$313,988. This ranged from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s US$180,585 to US President Barack Obama’s US$569,000. Somewhere in between were the likes of French President Francois Hollande (US$241,929), Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany (US$407,672) and premiers of other countries with economies seven to 13 times bigger than that of Nigeria. In each of those countries, there is a common relationship between their leader’s total pay and their citizens’ standard of living. While Nigerian legislators are believed to earn, in total, several hundred times Nigeria’s GDP per capita of US$1,555 (N248,800), G-8 leaders’ total pay averages just 7.6 times their GDP per capital, while there is full disclosure on how their pay is calculated.
For example, the total salary of Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada was US$320,400 last year. This comprises a base amount of US$160,000 paid to all Canadian members of parliament. Additional compensation is then paid to principal officers (Prime Minister, Speaker, Leader of the Opposition, Cabinet Ministers amongst others, entrusted with additional duties and responsibilities – with the Prime Minister receiving the largest amount. This information is on the government website. Interestingly, Canadian legislators’ salaries, which are reviewed annually, were increased by a mere 1.6 per cent in January 2013 after a three-year salary freeze as part of austerity measures.
Austerity is something Nigerian politicians talk about with great aplomb but seem to have difficulty putting into practice, other than cosmetically, if it affects them directly. This is where their lack of sincerity towards the people of whom they demand selflessness and patience is so glaringly exposed. After all, our elected officials see clear signs of poverty in their respective constituencies, no matter how heavily tinted their car windows are. They would be best advised to learn from Pope Francis, arguably the most popular leader in the world today.
Last month he was voted Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2013, just nine months after his election. Since then he has literally torn down barriers between him and the people. Firstly, he opts for a simple white cassock instead of the gold-stitched garments worn by his predecessors. He has foregone the opulent papal apartment of the Apostolic Palace in favour of a Vatican guesthouse where he sleeps in a modest single room and eats his meals with other residents in the cafeteria. He pays his own bills and carries his own bags. The papal limousine, motorcycle outriders and long convoys have been replaced by a solitary second-hand Ford Focus. He does not receive a salary (his expenses are covered by the church) and preaches against the “idolatry” of money and the uncaring nature of capitalism which he describes as “a new tyranny.” Little wonder he is called the People’s Pope.
If he is truly a man of the people, President Jonathan must urgently bring to a halt the high-speed gravy train that the executive and legislature have been gorging themselves on while the majority of Nigerians live in poverty. As 2014 kicks off, his aides should advise him to lead by example. His combined salary and allowances should be reduced to a reasonable multiple of Nigeria’s GDP per capita since the Federal Government should ordinarily meet his expenses. Members of the PDP, the opposition and the smaller parties would be expected to follow suit, by benchmarking their earnings off those of the President, in order not to incur the wrath of the electorate. Details of his and other elected officials’ earnings should be posted on the RMAFC’s website. The requisite constitutional amendments to make those changes binding would then catch up with the President’s act of moral suasion. Thereafter, he should immediately address other indefensible examples of excess like the presidential fleet of aircraft and money squandered on national celebrations, particularly during a global economic downturn. Nigeria’s centennial year should mark a new beginning for open, responsible and forward-looking government – at all levels.
It was a very wise man who said that public service is not about making a living but making a difference. Pope Francis has shown what a huge difference it makes when people in positions of authority humble themselves. When they remove as many degrees of separation as possible between them and the people they are supposed to serve. However, because our elected officials have distanced themselves in both word and deed from so many Nigerians for so long, instead of borrowing just a leaf from the Pope they may have to hire earth-moving equipment and uproot the entire papal garden.

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