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Kano's hisbah police

Nigeria’s struggling states

Running out of road

The end of state-sponsored marriages is just the funny bit

Weddings do not come cheap, as Kano’s state government has found out. Over the past four years its Islamic morality police, the Hisbah, has arranged, and helped pay for, marriages for more than 4,000 lonely ladies. Yet even the most pious can put a price on love. As Nigeria’s economy heads into recession, the state now says that it cannot afford to pay bride prices or to fill marital homes with furniture and cooking kit. Ten thousand disappointed daters have been left to find love and marriage the normal way.

They can hardly be so aggrieved as Nigeria’s 36 state governors. Most of them have little in the way of either local industry or foreign investment, meaning that they are incapable of providing for themselves. They borrowed heavily when oil prices were high, and also rely on monthly allocations from the federal government to keep afloat. But two years of low oil revenues have eaten nastily into those disbursements (see chart), leaving them unable to service their debts or pay their inflated workforces.

Out of the window have gone more pricey programmes, such as pilgrimages sponsored by Niger. This state (not to be confused with the country) generated monthly revenues of 500m naira ($2.5m) in 2015, while running up a wage bill over four times that. “Other equally people-oriented demands” must now take precedence over journeys to Jerusalem and Mecca, Governor Abubakar Bello said recently. Politicians in Bayelsa, a southern state that has a reputation for oil and alarming kidnap rates, waved goodbye to a five-star hotel which has been over a decade in the making. Good riddance, many said. The 18-storey monstrosity cost the governor 6 billion naira before he shelved it.

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More important investments in roads and schools have long since dried up, according to BudgIT, a fiscal analysis group in Lagos. Civil servants no longer hope to get their salaries on time, and in some places their already meagre pay has been slashed by half. Osun state, which previously splurged on six stadiums, is now surviving without a cabinet. Governors best known for fast cars and love nests are suddenly professing restraint. In Niger state, Mr Bello has said he will cut spending on housing for officials by at least 80%; an easy promise to make, given that his books are not made public.

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This points to a general problem within federal Nigeria. With a couple of exceptions, its local and state governments do not publish budgets, so they can spend at will. It is no surprise therefore that they failed to cut spiralling costs as oil prices fell. Or that the governors squandered the 660 billion naira federal bail-out package intended to pay salaries last year. In just one mysterious transaction, Imo decided that 2 billion naira might be put to best use on the government accommodation account.

Having frittered away this lifeline, they are now asking for a new one. Last month Nigeria’s finance minister agreed to lend the states 90 billion naira, provided they start publishing audited accounts. That is a start. Meanwhile, the governors will take hope from a resurgence in their gross June and July allocations (thanks to higher federal tax collections). But in Kano, the Hisbah is looking for a quicker solution: private sponsors for mass weddings. “Stopping it altogether [is] unthinkable,” its director-general said. Recession be damned.

This article was first published in The Economist

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