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Friday, 14 October 2016

Stop those silly public holidays

Punch Editorial Board

WHEN the Federal Government declared Monday October 3 a public holiday, it was in keeping with a national culture of indolence and frivolity in high places. Accustomed to a life of leisure at public expense, officials bribed Nigerians with an extra day, though the 56th Independence Day fell on Saturday, October 1. Past governments, awash with petrodollars, could be excused for indulging in mass idleness; but a government of change grappling with financial adversity should be more serious.

The October 3 holiday was surprising – and disappointing. Activities to mark the national day were duly undertaken on Saturday. Other events such as religious services were held prior to the public holiday; since the next day, Sunday, is normally a work-free day, what was the government trying to achieve by declaring another day as a holiday?

It is a goofy pattern that should change today. Observers trace the injection of frivolity into our national life to the early 1970s, coinciding with the first oil boom when the country became awash with oil revenues and government embarked on a spending spree, initiating a pattern of consumption that found expression in luxurious living for public officials and an import-dependent population. A corollary was the love for holidays as production gave way to simply importing goods and “enjoying” on paid holidays. Nigerian governments took to awarding generous work-free days to bribe a growing population, just as the quality of public service fell progressively. In lieu of infrastructure, social services, jobs, self-reliance and a productive, diversified economy, successive governments awarded extra holidays anytime a scheduled public holiday fell on a weekend.

Worried by this trend, the then outgoing military junta, in January 1979, made a law, now codified as the Public Holidays Act, seeking to instil common sense into the public holidays system. The law clearly stipulates that where two days appointed as public holidays fall successively on a Friday and a Saturday, “only the Friday concerned and no additional day in lieu of that Saturday shall be kept as a public holiday.” It further provides that “if any day appointed to be a public holiday falls on a Saturday or a Sunday, only the Saturday or Sunday concerned and no other day in lieu of either of such days shall be kept as a public holiday.”

To erase any ambiguity, the law says that where two days appointed as public holidays fall successively on a Saturday and a Sunday, only those two days concerned and no additional day or days shall be kept as a public holiday. And where two designated public holidays fall successively on a Sunday and a Monday, “only the Monday concerned and no additional day in lieu of that Sunday shall be kept as a public holiday”.

More than ever before, we should be a country organised for production, with an emphasis on innovation, industry and knowledge-driven enterprise. In July this year, frivolity gave way to the ridiculous when the traditional two-day Eid-el-Fitri holiday stretched to three days: almost an entire work week lost! Earlier, the May Day had fallen on Sunday, only for the government to grant the next day as holiday. Not content with that, May 29, commemorated since 1999 to mark the return to civil rule, fell also on a Sunday and our government promptly awarded the next day, Monday, as a holiday.

If we indulged in this silly, wasteful pastime in times of plenty, we should be more serious in the midst of recession. The economy, rebased in 2014, briefly became Africa’s largest at $510 billion: now it is barely $300 billion following the exchange rate crash. In Oyo State, where paying salaries has become a challenge, the government, which has asked its higher academic institutions to fend for themselves, nevertheless, awarded a holiday to mark the World Teachers’ Day and another one to mark the start of the Islamic lunar calendar. Some state governors, like Abia’s Okezie Ikpeazu, could even declare holidays for political reasons.

Declaring impromptu holidays disrupts business activities and entrenches Nigeria’s notoriety as an unattractive investment destination. To raise productivity in the wake of its economic slow-down, Portugal, with per capita GDP of $19,122, in 2012, revoked four public holidays. But no one knows how much Nigeria, with $2,758 per capita GDP, loses from its numerous rest days (including Saturdays and Sundays) calculated at about 120 days by Issa Aremu, a veteran labour unionist, but a report said N138 billion in scheduled treasury bills auctions was lost to impromptu holidays in July this year.

The task before the Buhari government is urgent and requires utmost seriousness. The leadership should eschew precept and lead by example. With the economy taking a battering and all aspects of national life in retreat, the message should be that all should roll up their sleeves and get to work to revive the economy, education, health and infrastructure. You don’t foster a sense of urgency by awarding holidays and disrupting the operations of the enterprises that are withstanding the heavy winds of closures.

Change as a concept of renewed vigour should be given expression by eschewing frivolous holidays and obeying both the letter and the spirit of the law on public holidays.

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