Sexing up the Figures

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BEHIND THE FIGURES

BY IJEOMA NWOGWUGWU 

Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, Nigeria’s finance minister, was quite pleased to inform the public last week that the federal government had released a total of N1.6 trillion for capital spending tied to the 2017 budget. According to her, the amount was the highest spent by any administration on capital projects. Of the N1.6 trillion, the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing got N523 billion, accounting for 33.10% of total releases, Defence and Security – N197.6 billion (12.50%), Agriculture and Water Resources – N149.5 billion (9.46%), Transportation – N126.3 billion (7.99%), Health and Education – N98.2 billion (6.21%) and Others – N485.7 billion (30.74%).

For those of us in the THISDAY-ARISE Media Group, the minister was not telling us anything new. At our request, she had made the same figures available to Sunday and Daily Desks of the newspaper last month. Indeed, THISDAY, the Sunday Newspaper published a front page story on the information she had made available to the newspaper. I, on the other hand, rejected it on the grounds that the N1.6 trillion lump sum provided by her office was opaque. I told her as much, to which she promised that a detailed breakdown would be made available within a week. Her excuse at the time was that her ministry needed to undertake some reconciliation with the ministries to provide the breakdown that I needed, which I found rather befuddling given that it is the finance ministry that handles the disbursements to all the ministries, departments and agencies of the federal government.

Eventually, it took Adeosun one month to release the same figures to the public, but again fell short of providing a detailed breakdown of what each ministry’s share was of the N1.6 trillion. When I asked her again a few days later why she had failed to provide more information per ministry, her excuse this time was that the releases included figures allocated to the department and agencies under the eight subheads (or ministries) she had provided. My response to her was if her ministry cannot provide the breakdown, she and the federal government which prides itself on fighting corruption and promoting transparency were sexing up the numbers, as there was no evidence that N1.6 trillion had been released to the MDAs.

The public, I informed Adeosun, had no way of verifying what each MDA got and would not be able to ascertain if the so-called monies released to them were utilised in accordance with the provisions of the 2017 Appropriation Act. Even on a micro level, the fate of thousands of federal government contractors that are employers of millions of Nigerians is tied to the information or lack there of, provided by her ministry. Besides, the minister’s attempt at putting a spin on the so-called N1.6 trillion as being the highest ever to be released by any administration for capital funding was deceptive. I am certain she knows that when the same figure is adjusted for inflation, what this administration has supposedly released may not be far off from that of its predecessors, in real terms. Defensively, Adesosun has for the second time promised to be transparent by providing more information on the capital releases from her ministry. On this, we shall hold her to her promise.

Just as disappointing was the absence of information from Adeosun and the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) recently on why the federal government was so far off from meeting the revenue target of $1 billion (N305 billion) it had set for itself under the tax amnesty programme. When the Voluntary Assets and Income Declaration Scheme (VAIDS) was introduced last year, Adeosun had said that the government had set a preliminary target of $1 billion during the nine months amnesty window given to defaulters to regularise their status and pay their taxes. The scheme, she said, was aimed at ensuring that defaulting individuals and corporates paid their taxes, increasing the tax net, and raising Nigeria’s tax to GDP ratio from 6% to, at the very minimum, match that of other African peers.

But despite all the hype over VAIDS and the three months extension of the amnesty period set to expire on June 30, all the federal government has been able to recover from defaulting tax payers is a mere N30 billion, less than 10% of the target it had set for itself. To be fair, the government did manage to expand the tax net by 5 million individual and corporate tax payers, but I doubt if the N30 billion recovered would make much of a difference to the tax to GDP ratio, a salient fact it was loudly silent on and the holistic reform measures needed to broaden the country’s tax base.

But it is not just the finance minister that has cultivated the habit of sexing up the figures that it provides to the public. Her counterparts in the power, works and housing ministry as well as the information ministry – Babatunde Fashola and Lai Mohammed – equally play fast and loose with the truth in the hope that the public would not notice. Fashola, for instance, has maintained for months that the power stations in the country can generate 7,000MW of electricity, a figure regurgitated by Mohammed last Thursday in Abuja at the IPI World Congress. The power, works and housing minister equally maintains that the wheeling capacity of the transmission grid has been upgraded to transport the same amount of electricity. However, the distribution end of the chain can only take a load of slightly over 5,000MW, leaving 2,000MW of electricity untilised which could be made available to eligible customers.

Surely, Fashola must know that there are three components of the electricity supply chain – generation, transmission and distribution. As such, if one arm, in this instance the distribution end of the chain, is unable to distribute more than 5,000MW to consumers, there is no way that the generation companies can produce more electricity than the installed capacity of the distribution network. In reality, Nigeria currently has a nameplate capacity of over 11,500MW, but of this amount transmission output only managed to peak at 5,222.3MW on December 18, 2017. Indeed, Nigeria should count itself lucky if the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) and the 11 distribution companies are able to wheel out 4,000MW of electricity to consumers consistently over any given month.

Another notable tall yarn is the one sold by President Muhammadu Buhari and his agriculture minister Audu Ogbeh, who have both regaled the world with stories on Nigeria’s purported rice revolution. They have told anyone who cares to listen that rice imports into the country have fallen from 644,131 metric tonnes in 2014 to 23.2 metric tonnes in 2017. The federal government has even gone as far as blaming falling rice imports into Nigeria from Thailand for the closure of several rice mills in the Asian country. But contrary to what the Nigerian government would have us believe, available information on the website of the Thai Rice Exporters’ Association shows that global exports of rice from the country have risen from 9.8 million metric tonnes to 11.63 million metric tonnes between 2014 and 2017, with rice imports into neighbouring Benin Republic rising exponentially over the same period from 805,765 metric tonnes to 1,811,164 metric tonnes.

Clearly, the rice being imported by tiny Benin is not meant for the country’s consumption. The bulk of it makes its way to Nigerian markets, and is the main reason locally grown rice remains uncompetitive while the variant produced by Kebbi State for the Lagos State Government continues to be still sold, when it is available, to a negligible number of consumers in Nigeria’s commercial capital at a subsidised price.

Not to be left out, even the president’s media aide Mr. Femi Adesina has tried to put the lie to the unemployment rate in the country as provided by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). Adesina, in an interview conducted by Charles Aniagolu on ARISE News Channel last week, had been confronted on the state of the Nigerian economy, rising poverty and the unemployment rate which stood at 18.8% in the third quarter of 2017. Responding, Buhari’s media aide shockingly informed his interviewer that the figure provided by the statistical bureau only applied to white-collar jobs and not to the informal or agriculture sector where he claimed 7 million new jobs had been created by the administration.

Adesina’s response not only showed how ill-prepared he was for the interview, but how far members of this government would go to misinform the public. Had he bothered to avail himself of the NBS Q1-Q3 Unemployment and Underemployment Report, he would have seen that the agency’s report included unemployment data in the rural areas and for that of the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). In the quarter under review, the NBS report showed that the total labour force population in the country stood at 85.1 million, of which the urban labour force population was put at 26 million while the rural work force was put at 59.1 million, reinforcing my position on numerous occasions in the past that more than 65% of Nigeria’s work force resides in the rural areas.

The same report went further to show that rural unemployment stood at 16.4%, up by 2.0 percentage points over the previous quarter in 2017 and by 4.6 percentage points over the corresponding quarter in 2016. In urban areas, unemployment was put at 23.4% in the third quarter of 2017. This was 3.2 percentage points higher than the previous quarter and 5.2 percentage points higher than the third quarter in 2016. What this means is that whilst urban unemployment rose faster than rural unemployment, in absolute terms, the rural areas had 9.7 million unemployed dwellers in Q3 2017 while the urban centres had 6.1 million unemployed dwellers during the same period. It should be noted that for the benefit of this article, no mention has been made of the underemployment data included in the same report by the NBS. Should this be added, the figures in absolute terms will be much more alarming than the government and its spin-doctors would ever care to admit.

The problem with all these sexed up figures churned out by the administration is that it is beginning to believe the false narrative that it continues to push out on a frequent basis. Very few Nigerians are challenging it and compelling it to abide by the truth. False narratives, just like fake news, are insidious to a society’s development. They promote individual biases, devalue critical thinking and create a sense of false accomplishment where there are none, inevitably leading to complacency. We cannot afford to allow this to happen.