Tolling Bells, By Bisi Daniels. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org,
Busted Joe started on a confident note: “You are welcome to the court of public opinion, gentlemen. You are all very busy guys, so we appreciate your time here.”
He cast a self-assured look around the green and white meeting room and continued, “One quick thing: I hope you are not appalled by my faded shirt, it has been burned by the sun; and my shoes are worn out from pounding the streets. That is how I got my name. I have been busted by the poverty, I have suffered”.
He paused to lick his thick red lips and lowered his tone, “I represent the masses but I have a degree in Sociology and an MBA, - Sociology first and when they said I was unemployable, I went back for my MBA. . On my right is Falany, a friend on the masses; he has grayed rapidly since the death of Gani Fawehinmi.” That was greeted with controlled laughter.
“Okay, we go straight into action”, Joe cut the jokes. “The gentlemen from the International Monetary Fund, to be called IMF here will start”.
The tall, lanky man with a heavily tanned and freckled skin stood up and put on his glasses. “I’m sorry but our position is public knowledge. It was widely reported by the media. The naira should be devalued.”
“That is correct, but kindly recap as a warm-up exercise. Maybe your presentation will make it less harsh. You know, I have always believed that the Fund’s communicators need some PR lessons on how to break bad news”.
IMF laughed. “The potency of a drug has nothing to do with its taste, and this PR issue is old, sir. We have since moved on…..”
“But you can see the level of resistance to your current report,” Joe cut in. “Reminds me of what Joseph Stiglitz said. Remember he said”, Joe pulled a piece of paper from his folder and read: “The IMF likes to go about its business without outsiders asking too many questions. Sometimes the IMF dispenses with the pretence of openness altogether and negotiates secret covenants. Sometimes in a period of days or, at most, weeks, they are charged with developing a coherent programme sensitive to the needs of the country. Needless to say, a little number-crunching rarely provides adequate insights into the development strategy for an entire nation”.
“Interesting!” Falany said. “Remind me that guy’s name.”
“He was chief economist and vice president of the World Bank from 1997 to 2000, when he was dismissed under circumstances we don’t have time to go into now", Joe said, licked his lips again and continued. “He won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2001.”
“Excuse me,” IMF said. “We are talking about 2000. While I reserve my comments on that, it must be noted that organizations undergo regular transformation no matter how conservative they look.” He removed his glasses to look around the room and continued. “I suggest we deal with the issues at hand.”
“Good. Please, recap your case for the devaluation of the naira,” Busted Joe said.
“Yes, I notice that the problem is our position on the value of the Naira, otherwise, we said many good things about the economy. We noted that the economic outlook remained positive, risks were generally balanced, and that the country’s economy is projected to grow by seven per cent this year...”
“Yes,” Joe said. “But the noise on devaluation has drowned all that.”
“You see, you accuse us of PR blunders but maybe the government should have taken time to savour the credit first,” IMF said.
“Noooo,” Falany shouted. “Not when some of us dispute government’s economic achievements. The Fund has always been a pain in the neck of the masses. I still remember SAP and I am sure Mazi does….”
Mazi Ohuabunwa smiled but said nothing.
Busted Joe stood up. “Mr. Falany, as a friend of the court, I am not sure you should get emotional about the exchanges.”
“I can’t agree with you more, Mr. Joe”, IMF said. “I always remind people that the Fund is not the tool of a few countries to oppress or mislead others. Of course, Nigeria is only one of the over 185 members of the Fund that oversees the global financial system by following the macroeconomic policies of its member countries”.
“That is PR bullshit,” Falany shouted.
“Please, mind your language,” Joe warned him. “You will burst your blood vessels o.”
“Okay,” Joe looked at his watch and said: “Gentlemen, let’s save some time. The issue is the Fund’s position that the naira was overvalued and that more exchange rate flexibility, including devaluation is required to prevent the CBN from running down foreign currency reserves”. He looked at IMF and then Sanusi, and asked, “Right?”
“Busted Joe!” Falany shouted again and stood up. “Let IMF say what he said in his own words o!”
Sanusi and Mazi exchanged looks, then burst into controlled laughter.
IMF cleared his throat for attention and then spoke: “I think that is a fair representation of the Directors of the Fund. In response to pressure on the currency, the CBN sold reserves rather than raise interest rate or let the exchange rate depreciate.”
“Okay, Sanusi over to you. Just summarise your position,” Joe said and stretched out his hand towards him. “And note that you speak here as Governor of CBN, unlike at the National Assembly, where you spoke as Sanusi Lamido Sanusi.”
Sanusi smiled and adjusted his bowtie. “We all know that devaluation is a sensitive issue in this country, as would been noticed from the flurry of reactions to the Fund’s suggestion....”
“It’s because devaluation never worked in Nigeria, and it has already caused do much panic,” Falany said.
Sanusi ignored him. “What I have said is that the fundamentals for the Fund’s decision are inaccurate. Oil prices are up; output is up, the demand for reconstruction and rehabilitation of structures is not where it was, the power reforms are going on, so we do not see any fundamental reason at this point in time for an oil producing economy when oil prices and output are going up, for us to depreciate or devalue".
He adjusted his tie again and continued, "we are not in a desperate situation and when people say that the Naira is overvalued, I ask them in relation to what?”
“I am beginning to see the missing link. We talk about that later,” Joe said. “Now, Mazi take your turn. You represent the Nigerian Economic Summit Group and not just manufacturers. You people are laying off the masses in droves…..”
“Ah!” Mazi exclaimed and stood up. “With devaluation the situation will be much worse because our already challenged operating environment will worsen. I honestly do not think for any reason that economy needs that bitter pill………”
That generated a round of laughter after which he continued, “You guys are laughing because I manufacture pills. Well, my point is that with the rising oil prices and the strong fundamentals currently in place, the Nigerian economy is not under any pressure to warrant further devaluation of the naira. We should not be deceived by season of electioneering, it is transient.”
“Gentlemen,” Falany said and stood up. “On December 15, 2008, the CBN told the Senate that it was deliberately allowing the Naira to depreciate. Although it assured that the economy was robust enough to withstand the fall of the currency, it was obvious that the Naira was under pressure and they also needed to make more naira for local transactions.
Another round of laughter, which made Busted Joe consult his watch again. “This is the way I see it,” he spoke slowly. The naira and foreign reserves may have been under pressure at the time the Fund’s staff visited for their report. But, with oil prices heading for the ceiling, it is no longer the case, and devaluation of the Naira may no longer be necessary now”.
He continued in the ensuing silence: “Having said that, I do not in any way believe that for an import-dependent country with inelastic demand, the volume of imports will reduce because of devaluation…”
“Inelas… what?” Fanaly asked. I thought you said you are of the masses.”
“Yes o, but the masses have to raise their game so that we are not cheated always by the elites. The masses fight cyber wars now and the social media is a favourite weapon. You see…….” He paused to swallow.
“And if devaluation is to make our exports cheaper for more to be demanded from Nigeria, pray, where are the commodities to export? Is it oil, which faces quota restrictions? Our supply of exports is also inelastic…”
“Another round of laughter rented the air.”
“The announcement effect of devaluation alone, shoots prices of even garri and chewing stick sky high…”,Falany said and turned to look around. “Oh, there is no government person here, I would have said devaluation in an election year is suicidal.”
IMF smiled. “Yes, I see that some of the reaction is plain political stuff”, he said.
“Yes. But sorry, sir.” Joe said. “I don’t want to sound like Joseph Stiglitz, but the Fund’s drugs should not be administered like those drugs sold in Molue buses in Lagos. Devaluation will kill Nigerians, rather than save them and I think the Funds directors should understand our circumstances. I beg o o!.
That generated so much laughter my alarm clock must have been very loud to wake me up. I was in dreamland yet again!