GUEST COLUMNIST BY RENO OMOKRI
On Friday, May 20th, 2016, Dr. Yemi Kale, the Statistician General of the Federation and head of the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS), revealed that Nigeria’s economy had not grown in the first quarter of the year but had rather shrunk to its lowest level in 25 years! Since the announcement was made, there has been various reactions with pundits pointing at this or the other as being the cause of this setback. But I am convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that this negative trend owes more to President Muhammadu Buhari’s utterances on our economy and polity than to any other single causative factor.
In the last 11 months, the president had traversed the globe and has spoken about Nigeria’s economy as if he was the chief undertaker of our polity rather than the chief marketer that he is meant to be. Of what benefit is it to the president’s agenda or to Nigeria’s economic well being for him to go to foreign nations and instead of highlighting the positive things that are happening in Nigeria, he begins to regale his hosts with the most unsavoury stories about Nigeria. And some of the stories the president tells are just that-tales. They are not factual. At best they are arguable.
You go to India for a summit where other world leaders are competing with you for the attention of venture capitalists and foreign investors and while your counterparts are talking about how great their countries are, you tell the audience how everybody in your country is corrupt except you and oh, can they come and invest in your country? Only a foolish investor would go and invest in a country whose president thinks his citizens are ‘criminals’ (as the president said to the Telegraph of UK in February) and whose officials are ‘fantastically corrupt’ (as the president said in agreement with British PM David Cameron when questioned by Sky News).
The president speaks on the Nigerian economy and polity without any filters and his comments are causing his chickens to roost with devastating consequences for all of us. Never in the history of Nigeria has there been such a divestment of investment as we have seen in the past year. Truworths has pulled out of Nigeria, Virgin Atlantic has closed up shop, Iberia is pulling out, RenCap is pulling funds from Nigeria, both Alquity Investment Management Ltd. and Duet Asset Management Ltd. are divesting their Nigeria holding.
Zenith Bank laid off 1,200 staff, FCMB let go 700 employees, Ecobank sacked 50 per cent of its top management staff. The President of the Abuja Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mr. Tony Ejinkeonye, revealed that in just two months, 50,000 staff were laid off in Abuja alone. The results are telling. A little over a year ago, Nigeria was projected by CNNMoney to be the third fastest growing economy in the world behind China and Qatar, yet just two weeks ago, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released its World Economic Outlook and Nigeria is not even among the top 15 fastest growing economies in Africa let alone the world!
And when you try to raise the alarm, the refrain from the government and its horde of unofficial spokesmen is that the downturn is caused by the fall in crude prices. Yet this logic is flawed. The government’s own economic monitoring agency, the NBS itself reported that the exponential growth Nigeria enjoyed especially from 2012 to its 2014 climax (when our economy overtook South Africa to be Africa’s largest economy) was spurred not by the oil sector, but “this growth was largely driven by improved activities in the telecommunications, building and construction, hotel and restaurant and business services” to quote the NBS.
Yes, oil accounts for something like 90-95 per cent of our foreign exchange revenues but it only accounts for a mere 15 per cent of our GDP. The service sector and the commercial and real sector are the engine or used to be the engine of our economic growth. But these sectors are heavily capital and technology intensive and require cooperation with foreign investors and when you consistently bad mouth your economy and its regulators investor confidence tanks and the result is what we are seeing today. I support President Buhari’s anti-corruption war but it should not be a substitute for sound economic ideas or policies.
And the way the president has carried out his anti-corruption crusade is in itself self sabotaging and feeds the narrative of those who say that Nigeria is far too complex and dynamic a country to be run by someone who should be quietly collecting his pension. And President Buhari’s behaviour is flowing down the pyramid. There is a contagious effect in the utterances of major figures in his administration.
For instance, when Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo tells the world that the Goodluck Jonathan administration looted $15 billion in security contracts, many people in the West who like to read such stories to justify their hidden opinion that the Black man cannot govern himself, will clap for him. Coming from the nation’s own vice-president, the Western press will report the news as a fact. At that level, such a statement carries the weight of an admission. But then ask yourself, what was the entire security budget for the five years that Jonathan was president of Nigeria?
In 2011, defence and security had a budget of N348 billion or just over $2 billion. In 2012, it skyrocketed to N921 billion or $5.7 billion. It grew to N1.055 trillion in 2013 or $6 billion. In 2014, N968 billion was budgeted for defence and security or $5.8 billion. The 2015 budget was passed in April and President Jonathan handed over to President Buhari a month later so I cannot see how the previous administration could have ‘chopped’ that money. So of the $19 billion budgeted for defence and security while former President Jonathan was in office, how could $15 billion have been looted when more than half that amount went to paying salaries?
Did Vice-President Osinbajo think this accusation through? The president and his deputy with their cabinet and their political appointees are not a court. They cannot convict anybody. As such, when they speak this way, what it amounts to is propagandised activity. In an anti-corruption war, one must separate activity from results. Results are convictions from a court after due and diligent prosecution. And when you look at it from that perspective, this administration has been delivering activity and not results.
For instance, then candidate Muhammadu Buhari and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), had called the subsidy payments made by the Jonathan administration a fraud! They claimed that the amount was too high at N1.1 trillion in 2014. Well if fuel subsidy had been a fraud, the first thing that should have happened naturally when President Buhari took over was that the amount should have reduced, but it DID NOT reduce. As a matter of fact, Nigeria spent over $5 billion on fuel subsidy in 2015 and President Buhari was in power for most of that year!
The point I am making here is that the elections are over. President Buhari and his administration should stop tarnishing the image of Nigeria in the mistaken belief that they are rubbishing the person of former President Jonathan. The president should take in the big picture and realise that you need to be below somebody in order to pull him down. One year has come and gone and has seemingly been wasted pointing fingers in blame instead of at solutions. The time for blame games have gone.
Only last month, Buhari complained that the Sahara desert was advancing southward. He should also realise that that is not the only thing going south. The Nigerian economy is going south at perhaps a faster rate and blaming others for it will never stem the tide. The president should focus on marketing his plans and policies when he travels abroad instead of de marketing the plans and policies of former President Jonathan’s administration. It has been said that if you want a conversation with a habitual complainer to end abruptly, just ask him how he intends to fix the problem. That is the question Nigerians want answered by President Buhari.
Under former President Jonathan, Nigeria’s economy exploded and became the largest economy in Africa and the 24th largest economy in the world. Let it not be said that under President Buhari that economy collapsed like a pack of clouds because the hand that should have steered the ship was too busy pointing an accusing finger.