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Nigeria borrows to pay salaries with cash crunch worsening

A cash shortage caused by low oil prices has forced Nigeria to borrow heavily through the early part of 2015, with the government struggling to pay public workers, officials said Wednesday. “We have serious challenges. Things have been tough since the beginning of the year and they are likely to remain so till the end of the year,” said Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

*Finance Minister, Ngozi-Okonjo-Iweala
*Finance Minister, Ngozi-Okonjo-Iweala

Nigeria, Africa’s top economy and largest oil producer, has been hammered by the 50 percent fall in oil prices, with crude sales accounting for more than 70 percent of government revenue. “As it stands today, most states of the federation have not been able to pay salaries and even the federal government has not paid (April) salary and that is very worrisome,” said Imo state Governor Rochas Okorocha.

Okonjo-Iweala said the federal government had a projected borrowing allowance for 2015 of 882 billion naira ($4.4 billion/4 billion euros). But 473 billion naira had already been used up to meet recurrent expenditures, including public worker salaries. “We have front-loaded the borrowing programme to manage the cash crunch in the economy,” the minister told reporters.

While Okonjo-Iweala said the severity of Nigeria’s cash crunch requires daily management, the problem will almost certainly be off her desk in less than a month.  President-elect Muhammadu Buhari will be sworn in on May 29 and is not expected to retain any of the key ministers appointed by outgoing president Goodluck Jonathan.

*Gov. Rochas Okorocha of Imo State
*Gov. Rochas Okorocha of Imo State

Government critics have alleged that Nigeria’s revenue crisis was compounded by excessive and wasteful political spending through last month’s general elections.  Leaders of Buhari’s party All Progressives Congress (APC) warned that the incoming administration will be confronted with serious economic headwinds after taking office.

Okonjo-Iweala said Nigeria was still projected to grow at 4.8 percent this year and was therefore “doing much better than many other oil producing countries,” similarly hit by the collapse in crude prices.  But, as Jonathan leaves office with the government coffers in tatters, observers will likely note his administration’s persistent failure to save for a rainy day.

Nigeria typically sets its benchmark crude price between 75 and 80 dollars, and is supposed to deposit excess revenue in a savings account. But even when crude was selling above $100 last year, Jonathan’s administration struggled to build savings. Critics say the excess crude account has been repeatedly raided by powerful political actors.

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