…Thoughts on Suswam’s economic and fiscal management, By Hussaini Hayatu

imageHow do you run ambitious development plans in a state that is mostly under-provided with infrastructure and whose population of some 4.3 million, mostly agrarian, engage in primitive farming? How do you turn around a state’s economy from being among the worst indebted to being among the least indebted and still meeting up with commitment to real growth?

In Benue State, one of Nigeria’s 36 states, Governor Gabriel Suswam and his economic team have been able to keep fiscal deficits at arms-length; sustain monetary discipline; fulfill the administration promises to the people while embarking on massive development projects.

The crux of this matter is a 2007 working document produced by Suswam’s economic team titled ‘Our Benue, Our Future’, designed to guide the implementation of fiscal and monetary policies; and encourage speedy execution of developmental projects that will ultimately impact on the people.

Governor Suswam’s economic blueprint, perhaps, the most ambitious development plan since the creation of Benue State in 1976, was designed to address the dysfunctional economy he had to contend with at the onset of his mandate. The entire framework was premised on a flexible monetary policy, heavy investment in education, roads and other sectors.

All these were predicated on the achievement of consistency and rationality in government policies and actions; loyalty and commitment of the bureaucracy; transparency and accountability in the governance process; a strong reporting and feedback system; a participatory and complementary action by the populace; due recognition of merit and professionalism; and adequate and sustained funding.

Between 2007 and 2014 the Suswam’s administration recorded 11% reduction in government expenses; employment within key public sector institutions rose by 10%, agriculture output grew by 35% and road projects linking rural areas and urban centers grew by 55% in terms of funding and actual work executed; while urban infrastructure development, inclusive of township roads, street lighting and housing, grew by well over 85%).

In a country where government has gained notoriety for being high on rhetoric and low on achievements, Suswam’s critics would concede to him some successes in balancing earnings and expenditures; more importantly, in making governance to bear some of the toughest nuts that have undermined economic growth-infrastructural development, education and agriculture.

Benue State rates high in education within North-Central Nigeria, but sustained steady growth remained a challenge and have weakened the potential for improved literacy and generation of high-skilled manpower over the years.

Suswam’s economic policy targeted secondary and higher education with heavy investment to breed marketable skills. Governor Suswam has also succeeded in checking the debt profiles of the state through a mix o prudent fiscal measures. While Lagos, Kaduna and Cross Rivers States are top on the list of the states of the federation that are indebted to foreign institutions, Benue, Borno, Anambra, Delta and Taraba States, make up the least indebted states as at first quarter of 2011, according to the Abuja-based Debt Management Office (DMO), the government agency tasked with the responsibility of tracking the county’s domestic and foreign debts.

Expenditure is tightly controlled by the Benue State Ministry of Finance and non-priority projects are routinely denied space in favour of priority projects.

Cleaning up the state’s finances has meant a complete reorientation within the Ministry of Finance to put speed and efficiency in government’s processes.

The result was a budget system that is electronic in nature allowing for better accountability and transparency in transactions. The implementation of e-budget was part of a larger framework for e-finance under which the U-Pay roll system was introduced, a unified e-payment window that facilitates the payment of workers’ salaries real-time and eliminated the ogre of ghost workers that bloat government’s wage bills in several states of the federation.

Low debt profile has not meant that growth margins have narrowed in the agrarian economy of Benue, where over 80% of the population farms for a living. However, the Suswam administration’s economic policy has influenced a gradual transformation from primitive to mechanized farming stoked by the distribution of about 1,276 tractors and millions of tones of fertilizers through local government councils at 67% subsidy rate. In the pre-Suswam government, fertilizer allocation, scarce and unaffordable as it were, was used as an instrument of political patronage.

Touted as the ‘Food Basket of the Nation’, Benue State under Suswam, backed by his economic team, aimed to build an economy still largely agrarian but with capacity for full scale industrialization. To that end, about 23 operation units of Benue Tractor Hiring Agency have been reopened to aid mechanized farming across the state and consolidate on Benue’s position as a top agricultural state.

One can start a tour of the Suswam transformation through Makurdi, the state capital, take a walk on the tarred roads that were once not there and at night stand under the streets lights that have added colour and life to this city of some 740,000 people (the 1991 census gives a figure of 226,198).

The transformation of Makurdi is symbolic of the change that Suswam government has brought to the urbanization process in Benue whether in Gboko, Otukpo or Katsina .

On a normal day, Makurdi is serene with a poetic ambience. The River Benue, sleepy during dry season and wakefully roaring at the rainy season, is one of the defining features of the state. The sprouting number of new buildings, roads, brand new shining cabs and rising visibility of banks with other financial houses paints a city in transition and steadily grappling with the challenges of urbanization.

In the last eight years, Makurdi has experienced increased economic activities marked by the massive construction of urban roads with street lights gradually erasing the rustic image of Makurdi.

Since 2007 when the administration of Rt. Hon. Gabriel Suswam took off and started implementing a conscious urbanization agenda under its Economic Development Blueprint tagged ‘Our Benue, Our Future’, Makurdi, Gboko, Otukpo and several other towns have featured prominently in the grand design to urbanize the state and open fresh economic activities to some 4.3 million people who make up the population of the entire state.

However, as the Suswam administration is finally coming to an end after eight years in office, the expectation is that the incoming administration should build on the successes of the outgoing government and expand the frontiers of growth; only then can the process of developing Benue State continue its journey and its assured leap into the super league of developed states.


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