Big Picture according to Shettima




In an era of relentless citizen complaints and negative perceptions on everything from fuel and food prices to inflation to naira value to cost of medicines and insecurity, forcing through a positive Big Picture of the Tinubu Presidency’s efforts is an uphill task. But that was what Vice President Kashim Shettima bravely did at the Second Chronicle Roundtable in Abuja last Thursday. The table wasn’t exactly round because he was the only Guest Speaker, and so had all the stage to amplify the Administration’s efforts. It is unusual for top officials like him to agree to be Guest Speaker; it is much easier to be a Special Guest of Honour and utter only a few words. But being a former university lecturer [and ASUU member], this top shot was not afraid of speaking.

Kashim Shettima presented a positive Big Picture in the midst of the gloom. The Administration is making difficult choices, he said, and he wished there are short cuts to prosperity and glamour but there are none. It is a long, hard slog instead. President Bola Tinubu could place in Nigerians’ mouth a placebo instead of the real but bitter medicine, he said, but then, “we know the danger of leaving a life-threatening disease untreated for too long.” Maybe the Administration did place a few placebos in our mouths, including free train rides during Christmas and palliative food items channeled through our governors and legislators. Mostly however, it is the bitter pills.

The Vice President actually said, “This may seem like the most difficult time to occupy a position of leadership in our country, given the choices before us.” Tinubu may actually wish he was General Gowon [after the Civil War], who was said to have said that Nigeria’s problem was not money but how to spend it. Today, the government’s problem is not how to spend money but where to find it. Leading Nigeria at this time, Shettima said, “is akin to standing at the helm of a ship going through a storm, where the weight of every life on board rests upon your shoulders, and the course you chart will shape the destiny of all who follow.” At that point I thought the bookish Kashim Shettima, who would have been a professor if only he had stayed a year or two more on the Unimaid faculty, was thinking of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s late 18th century Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Except that the Tinubu Administration is determined not to shoot a wandering albatross and invite misfortune to Nigeria. Failing to take the long, hard road, Vice President said, “would prolong Nigeria’s agony and its imminent economic death.” God forbid.

The biggest elephant in the room during the change of guard last May, he said, was the removal of fuel subsidy. “We understood why our predecessor made the decision to remove them and refused to budget for it in their final fiscal year.” He did not add that former President Buhari cleverly timed the end of fuel subsidy to the beginning of a new Administration. So, while Buhari made the decision, Tinubu is carrying the can for implementing it, probably the single most unpopular public policy in the eyes of Nigerians.

But it had to be done, Shettima said. In May last year, Nigeria’s debt service to revenue ratio was 111.8%. “In plain terms, our debt servicing was such that if you earned, say, N100,000, the entirety of the money wasn’t only paid to your debtor; you were forced to borrow an additional N11,800 to pay the debtor. How do you intend to survive this? How many more loans will you take before you become a pariah? We are not even discussing the nation’s budget deficits, diversion of resources from critical sectors of the economy, and corruption masterminded in the subsidy regime.”

He however refused to apportion blame to Buhari. That was being very charitable because Buhari himself spent half of his presidential tenure blaming the preceding Jonathan and Obasanjo regimes for “the rot” that he inherited. Some people now say he compounded it. The PDP presidents also got their just deserts because they spent most of their early years in office blaming the military rulers for the country’s mess. Very charitably however, Shettima now says, “We know that government is a continuum.” He wouldn’t throw a dig at the Buhari Administration but he landed a punch on the noses of Tinubu’s 2023 election rivals, saying, “Whoever succeeded the [Buhari] government would have either chosen to steer the ship through the storm as President Tinubu is doing, or jumped ship and let the country implode.” Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi, he said without mentioning their names, “are unable to question our methods because, whether in handling the subsidy matter or the forex crisis, they had also promised the solutions we have adopted.” They now say they would have handled it differently, but that is academic, since they never got the chance.

Kashim Shettima threw another dig at an unnamed election rival, probably Mr. Peter Obi. “Sometime in February this year, a presidential candidate in the last election, eager to mock our economic trajectory, rushed to point to Argentina as a model for Nigeria. An overnight free-market specialist, he was convinced we had missed our way and should have adopted the template of our friends in South America. In barely two weeks, he watched as Argentina’s inflation rate soared, yet refused to acknowledge that every country’s journey is different.” People who sat next to me in the hall wondered why I was laughing at the point. It was because I remembered an episode in the late 1980s when Argentina defaulted on its loan obligations. On a Saturday morning when it was supposed to make a hefty loan repayment, the country’s Finance Minister was relaxing at his farm in a rural area. A reporter reached him and asked him if the payment will be made, and the minister said, “Argentina does not have money.” It is in order to prevent Mr. Edun relaxing at Bar Beach on a  weekend and telling a London Club loan shark that Nigeria has no money, that we are paying more for fuel and electricity.

He then paid tribute to National Security Adviser Nuhu Ribadu and Central Bank Governor Yemi Cardoso for tackling economic sabotage and “overpowering influence of currency manipulators who had conspired to frustrate our reforms.” Their actions have translated into desired results, Shettima said, and “Naira’s pushback against all odds is an inspiring journey that doesn’t have to be learned in Buenos Aires, as some would want us to do.” Looks like they will have to apprehend more saboteurs because the naira is sliding again at the official and black markets.

The Vice President then mentioned eight areas that he said the Tinubu Administration has made major interventions in. They are job creation, promoting economic growth, ensuring food security, eradicating extreme poverty, facilitating access to capital, preserving the rule of law, waging an anti-graft war, and driving inclusive development. Shettima, who is a trained agricultural economist, departed from his prepared speech when it came time to discuss agriculture. Nigeria, he said, has less than 50,000 tractors, compared to 1.6 million tractors in India, and that we spend $4 billion annually on wheat imports alone. He dwelt at length on the administration’s interventions in agriculture, and cited surveys which show that food prices are moderating in several markets.

He then dwelt on Renewed Hope Housing Scheme launched last February, with its promise to build 250,000 homes in its first phase, and the many job creation initiatives, such as Outsource to Nigeria Initiative, Investment in Digital and Creative Enterprises, Expanded National MSME clinics, and the Nigeria Education Loan Fund now chaired by Mr. Jim Ovia, Shettima’s old boss at Zenith Bank.

Former Finance Minister Dr. Shamsuddeen Usman, who chaired the event, dwelt on the importance of long-tern national planning, saying Nigerian leaders tend to abandon programs of their predecessors and create new ones. This, he said, explains the wide growth and development gap between Nigeria and India, which maintains long-term national plans. Usman caused a stir when he called on President Tinubu to sack any minister who fails to perform. It is not his own idea, Usman said; the president himself promised during last year’s ministerial retreat to boot out any minister who fails to perform. I think President Tinubu should not ask citizens to undertake this assessment of ministerial performance. Given the short fuse of Nigerians and their thirst for VIP blood, too many top shots in the Administration could fall victim.

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