Nigeria’s Final Burst

The raining season is here, at last, to give us some relief from the searing heat of the dry months. But the relief will be soured by the torrential economic woes that have enveloped the country. Indeed, Nigerians are in for a very hard time, caught between the terror of the coronavirus pandemic and the suffocating death spirals of an economy that has plunged into a black hole.

It is not surprising that the pandemic is already spreading exponentially all round the country. The Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 is simply overwhelmed and we don’t have the tools and the medical resources to deal with the aftermath of the virus spreading out of control. The figures of infection, recovery and deaths from the virus are not just dodgy but comical. With very little testing going on, nobody has any idea how many people have been infected. Especially more so when many infected people can be asymptomatic for long.

Long before the pandemic upended the global economy, Nigeria was already an economic basket case. The country was broke. The economy was being kept alive by all the governments – federal and state – binging on loans. Over 80 percent of local commercial banks’ loans have been going to them. In addition, the federal government has been borrowing offshore every year in the last five years. Just before the global economic recession began, the National Assembly had approved the government’s request to borrow almost $30 billion for infrastructure development and, wait for it, turning NTA into a world-class competitor of CNN, BBC, and Al-Jazeera.

But given the current global economic turmoil, the borrowing plan is now aborted. Fortunately, the IMF has rushed some significant financial band-aid of $3.4 billion to our coffers. However, that is not going to take us anywhere. At best it will help us delay the inevitable burst, and this could be terminal.

The economy is panting dangerously for breath and is now marooned in intensive care. Unlike a coronavirus victim that can be helped with an electronic ventilator, the economy needs a special kind of financial ventilator to keep it from collapsing – massive infusion of money. And that we don’t have.

Nigeria never saved for the raining day nor invested in developing the infrastructure to kickstart real economic growth and development. We spent all we earned extravagantly with nothing concrete to show for all the petro-dollars that have been flowing seamlessly into the national treasury since the end of the civil war in 1970.

During the first heady years when our treasury was being swollen by easy money from crude oil, General Yakubu Gowon, then the head of the military government, had declared, out of excitement and naivety, that Nigeria’s problem was not money but how to spend it.

Gowon got a lot of flak for making what has turned out to be a very honest and prescient statement. We got money alright, lots of it. But we have been extremely imprudent in spending it. And when he made the statement, we had only 12 states and the national capital city of Lagos. From 12 states then to 36 states, 774 local council areas, and a brand new federal capital territory of Abuja. All created by military fiat and solely dependent on oil receipts to fund.

If Nigeria earned an average of $30 billion per annum from export of petroleum resources, that means that in the last 40 years – between 1980 and 2019 – about $1.2 trillion (one thousand, two hundred billion dollars) passed through the national treasury. So, how do we explain the terrible mess the country has become?

The answer to the puzzle is clear: irresponsible and poor leadership. As Professor Chinua Achebe said in his book, The Trouble With Nigeria, so long as Nigeria continues to field its third eleven as the first team of leaders, the only way for the country to go is down. Compounding the poor, irresponsible leadership is a public that is docile, deprived, and divided by ethnic and religious differences promoted by the ruling class.

Although it may be deemed absurd to compare Nigeria with Norway, but doing so will expose the sheer incompetence and irresponsibility of our leaders. Yes, Norway is a developed, industrialized country with just 5.3 million people. And it is rich in carbon deposits of oil and gas like Nigeria. In 1990, the leaders decided to save all monies the country earns from oil and gas exports. It created a sovereign wealth fund for the benefits of the country’s future generations.

That far-sighted initiative has been a roaring success. Today, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is worth a whopping $1.1 trillion, the largest of its kind in the world. In 2019, the fund earned about $180 billion as interests from the many smart investments the managers have deployed it for.

In 40 years, Nigeria earned an estimated $1.2 trillion. But our sovereign wealth fund, established only in 2013 by President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, is worth only $1.5 billion. And it has stayed at that level ever since without any additional investment in it. The investment arm of the fund has only $500 million.

Our present predicament ought to concentrate the minds of our so-called leaders to now begin to think out of the box and do things very differently. Same for the followership who should start demanding accountability from those preying on our commonwealth.

That, of course, is not going to happen. So, the country is screwed and we all are just waiting for the denouement. And that will not be pretty. The one million naira question is: who and what will save Nigeria from the impending catastrophe?

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