Economy and the Gathering Cloud - THISDAY
BY Eddy Odivwri
Mr President and his cabinet members just ended a mid-term assessment retreat. It was a stock-taking gathering. The aim was to see how the government had fared in the discharge of its responsibilities, including the fulfilment of its electoral promises.
Not unexpectedly, the retreat ended with a verdict of resounding victory and applause for the Buhari administration. The summary of all the submissions was given by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr Boss Mustapha. One newspaper headline captured Mustapha’s summation as “Buhari’s Administration has Been Productive and Remarkable”. Nobody truly expected an appointee to pass a vote of no confidence on his appointor, if he yet wanted to continue in his job. So, many have seen the clap-for-yourself verdict of Mustapha on his boss as not only self-serving but indeed truth shy.
Beyond the bland and sweeping verdict of “productivity”, was the re-echoing of President Muhammadu Buhari’s promise that not only will he ensure Nigerians will smile, but that the 2nd Niger Bridge as well as the Lagos-Ibadan road will be completed before the end of his tenure in 2023.
By promising that Nigerians will have cause to smile either now or later suggests that Mr President knows that Nigerians are anything but smiling at the moment. Certainly, not the normal and natural smiling. If there are those smiling, it must be the “suffering and smiling” clan, described by late Fela Anikulapo Kuti. We have really been a “suffering and smiling” people over the years.
But Mr President has said Nigerians will smile. It will not be a faith-induced smile, not the type they tell you in church. That means that Nigerians are either groaning or grumbling right now. Only those going through pleasant experiences have cause to smile.
That means that President Buhari is planning to make life much more pleasant for Nigerians. But would he? How would he do it? What would he do to make Nigerians happier and less grumpy? Is Buhari going to run the government differently? Would his policies be friendlier and more people-oriented? Just what would he do differently in the next two years to elicit smile and possibly laughter from Nigerians?
Or could it even be that Mr President was simply being ironical? Did he really mean smile or smell (their noses)?
How can Nigerians who do not know where the next meal would come from, smile? How would Nigerians who now go to market with truck load of Naira only to buy pocket-full of goods smile? How can Nigerians exchanging one US dollar for over N570 smile? The Naira is on a free fall. Nothing is sure. \
How can Nigerians who now spend all their life savings to buy hitherto cheap farm produce smile? How can Nigerians who are scared of the farms and the forests for fear of being kidnapped by bandits and Fulani herdsmen smile? How can Nigerians hearing that very soon, petrol will sell for over N250 per litre smile?
How can Nigerian women harassed by the soaring price of cooking gas smile? Have the marketers not hinted that the price of 12.5Kg cooking gas may hit N10,000 by December?
How can Nigerians who do not know where the next meal would come from, smile?
How can they smile? Just how?
Not even Ali Baba with all his comic allures would make the hungry, scared and terrified Nigerians smile, let alone laugh.
Mr President waxed strong about completing Second Niger bridge and Lagos-Ibadan road before 2023. Great! Those were projects inherited by the Buhari administration. They had practically become drain pipe projects over the years. The Lagos-Ibadan road, for instance, was begun under the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, with the contractor, Bi-Courtney owned by Wale Babalakin who had the notorious penchant of dragging on with the job so he can always put in for upward revaluation. It had become a perennial project in Nigeria. Babalakin was holding the government to ransom until the present Minister of Works, Babatunde Fashola brushed aside his (Babalakin’s) legal shenanigans and resumed the reconstruction of that road. And today, the road is nearly completed to the shame of the likes of Babalakin and co. But it is noteworthy that most recovered loots from outside the country have been claimed to have been channeled to completing the two projects. But they never get finished. But under the Buhari administration, the two projects had been given serious attention resulting in their near completion state. So, it will be a soothing departure from the years of waste and empty promises if the two projects actually get completed and delivered.
But that is where that hope ends.
Needless to say that Nigerians are suffering. It doesn’t matter how many people serving in government will argue very strongly against this. More than ever before, even the rich are also crying now. Perhaps profusely. Only people whose bills are picked and serviced by government funds will not understand what Nigerians are going through.
The SGF talked about a “productive and remarkable” administration. Really? Remarkable? Yes. But in what sense. That something is remarkable does not necessarily mean positive. But to say that the Buhari administration is productive will be a big debate.
What is it that has been produced? Even the things we ordinarily take for granted in past years like food sufficiency, is now such a luxury and a mirage. Does Mustapha know the average cost of a tuber of yam today? Or even a bowl of beans? Didn’t we think and used to say “it is as cheap as beans?” Can any Nigerian truly say that today?
Yes, the Buhari administration has approved the award of 878 contracts in the last six years and the FIRS, in the first nine months of this year generated N4.2 trillion, the crying question is: how has this improved the life and living experience of the average Nigerian on the street? I little care about the statistics economists generate to arrive at what they call GDP. The base concern should be: are Nigerians happier and more comfortable today than they were in 2015? Or weren’t we all tearing the Jonathan administration apart for ruining the economy and showing no sign of knowing what to do to rescue it? Six years after, how better has the Buhari administration performed? What are the indices on the streets of Lagos, Kaduna, Port Harcourt, Zamfara, Warri or even in my Orogun community? What are the messages on the faces of people, even in Mustapha’s Adamawa State? Does Mr Mustapha interact with the people? Or are they all so ensconced in the cosy comfort of prized power chambers that their sights have become blurred and their feelings benumbed as to declare the years of scorch and scarcity as years of productivity?
Perhaps, the only sector that has shown bright prospect is the Railway sector which has been radically revitalised. Today, the rail mode of transport traverses many parts of the country. But critics also express worry over the huge borrowings to facilitate the rail way services, even as I agree that borrowing for capital project is not a bad economic move.
Here is a country with five refineries, yet we revel in the importation of refined crude, simply because it pays some persons to continue in that ill order. I have never been able to understand the silly and confused exegesis of why and how our five refineries cannot refine our crude so we can stop this importation binge. Hey, how long did it take the Obasanjo military administration to build some of these refineries? Why does it now look like such a complex technology which cannot be decoded today?
Who would have thought that given the supposed no-nonsense mode of President Buhari in 2015, that Nigeria would still be importing refined crude, six years after? And today, we are entangled and bed-straggled with all kinds of economic incubus by way of paying trillions of Naira to subsidise petrol and other petroleum products. Little wonder the NNPC has been crying that the subsidy holiday would soon be over. And then Nigerians would bear their own cross as far as the price of petrol is concerned.
Today, instead of Nigeria rejoicing that the price of crude oil is rising in the international oil market, (over $80 per barrel), which should mean that Nigeria would/should earn more money (foreign exchange), all of those gains are wiped off by the silly fuel subsidy regime. Last April, I had written a column titled: Rising Oil Price: When a Blessing Turns to a Problem. It is even much truer today. One reason the dollar is weighing heavily against the Naira is the unfavourable balance of trade. Apart from the crude oil, what else really is Nigeria exporting to earn foreign exchange? Are we not importing virtually everything?
The Director General of the World Trade Organisation, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who also spoke at the retreat challenged Nigeria to brace up with the task of meeting up with even the West African market window, as most West African countries want to dress like Nigerians, sing Nigerian music, dance Nigerian dances, watch Nigerian movies etc. What have we done to feed this need from our neighbours?
But Mustapha says it is a productive administration!
Right now, Diesel is costing over N320 per litre. And with the enigmatic power situation in Nigeria, most companies rely on diesel-powered plants to run their organisations. All of that plus other major cost elements, no doubt shoot up production cost. And Nigerians bear the brunt.
It is either Mr Mustapha is myopic as not to see the gathering cloud in the economy or he is simply playing a game to delude his boss with the all-is-well assessment.
Here is a government that promised the creation of three million jobs per year. That should translate to 18 million jobs in the last six years. But rather than create 18 million jobs, I should think over 18 million persons have lost their jobs. The economy is shrinking. Companies are shutting down and others relocating out of Nigeria. SMEs are hemurrhaging and gasping.
You may blame it partly on the advent of COVID 19 pandemic. But the truth is that ever before COVID-19 came, Nigeria had been on the squeeze. Even then, proactive governments across the world are already rising from the drawbacks of the Corona Virus plague.
I am aware that during the Obasanjo administration there was the FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) office under the presidency. Its main duty was to go on a drive to attract foreign investors to the country, which expanded the economy, created jobs, etc.
Today, I do not know if that agency has not been scrapped, as I no longer get a whiff of its activities. All we hear today are tales of banditry, kidnapping, killings, terrorism, open grazing debate (in the 21st century) fear and poverty all interwoven. But Mustapha says it is a productive government!
True to the claims of the SGF, the Buhari administration has indeed been productive and remarkable. No other government has produced as much fear, insecurity, blood letting, poverty and public angst as that of the Buhari administration. Few days from today, we shall be marking the first anniversary of the deadly #EndSARS protest against bad governance and police brutality. Surely, the Buhari administration is remarkably remarkable!
All said, I believe that President Buhari and his team players deserve to be told the truth. They cannot reasonably be the judge in their own courts. That will surely compromise the ethos of justice.
In the remaining two years or less, the Buhari administration can actually reformat the template of his governance module and introduce deliberate incentives and packages that can make Nigerians truly and broadly smile.