BY DELE SOBOWALE
“If a man stands with one foot in a bucket of boiling water, the other in a bucket of ice, statistically he is comfortable.” Anonymous.
To that, the old iconoclast Mark Twain, 1835-1910, had added: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”
Throw away your dancing shoes if you are still dancing in the street on account of the report by the National Bureau of Statistics, NBS, that the Nigerian economy grew “higher by 1.46 per cent points from the rate recorded in the preceding quarter” and by 0.55 per cent in the second quarter of 2017. Instead, sit down and put on your thinking cap. You might discover that you should be praying for deliverance instead. “Every government is [still] run by professional liars; nothing they say should be believed.” (I.F. Stone).
Just a week earlier, Sunday Vanguard had expressed concern about the lateness in the release of the second quarter economic report by the National Bureau of Statistics, NBS. Something suggested all was not well.
Financial reports are almost always delayed when they are unfavourable and managers are struggling to “massage” the figures with clever accounting to render the figures acceptable on paper to most readers. Only, the most painstaking readers, especially of explanatory notes, can detect where the sleight of hands occurred – how the financial magicians produced the reported result. The NBS has just pulled off such a clever trick.
Firstly, a question regarding the NBS and its reports.
In April, 2014, the NBS announced that after re-basing, Nigeria’s economy had emerged as the largest in Africa. Yet, three years and three months later, Nigerian youths are still queuing up in front of the South African, SA, High Commission begging for visa even when hundreds of Nigerians are being killed there daily. No South African kid cares to know where the High Commission of the “Giant of Africa” is in Pretoria. Virtually all Nigerian kids and most adults would rather live in SA than here. Facts can be proved practically; fictions cannot.
You were probably dancing because you have read that “GDP grew by 0.55% in the second quarter” according to the NBS. And, you believed it; just as you believe that ours is the largest GDP in Africa. But, back in May of this year, the same NBS published the first quarter GDP results. Here it is reproduced below.
“In the first quarter, the nation’s GDP contracted by 0.52 per cent (year-on-year) in real terms, representing the fifth consecutive quarter of contraction since Q1 2016.” (May 23, 2017). You probably believed that too. If you did, you will believe anything. The Q1 figure was not true. And who says so? You will not believe it, but, the NBS itself made the confession that the figure announced in May was false. When, you now ask how? You discover that the sordid confession was made in one half sentence this month; which the fellows at the NBS assumed nobody would notice.
The revealing part of the sentence, which gave the lie to most of the report informed the world about “the GDP recording a growth rate of 0.55 per cent in the second quarter as against the -0.91 revised rate recorded in the fist quarter of this year.” There you have it.
The NBS declared GDP decline of 0.52 per cent for Q1 in May; turns around in September and tells us that it was actually -0.91. Whenever any organisation presents two different estimates for the same variable, the first thing experienced financial analysts do is to challenge the presenter to explain why the difference and which, if any of the figures can be relied upon. The matter is illustrated below.
NBS AND CHANGING GDP ESTIMATES
Several questions are raised when confronted with such dodgy figures. First, which do we now believe, if any, of these estimates? Was the contraction 0.52 per cent in Q1 as first declared or -0.91 as later revised? None financial analysts might not fully realize the import of accuracy in rendering economic reports. But, the entire global economy depends on mutual trust and will come crashing on our collective heads if institutions charged with providing vital economic data on which decisions are made deliberately mislead the public. The difference between -0.91 and 0.55 is about 70 per cent. That is a huge margin of error. The NBS did not explain how it came about. It should.
Second, how are we sure that the +0.55 per cent announced for Q2 will not again be reviewed downwards and we would all have been sold a dummy? In other words, should we continue to have trust in NBS after this disclosure of grave error committed in rendering the Q1 estimates? Personally, it is doubtful; and the reasons will be explained after asking the next and most frightening question.
Third are we sure that these figures are not politically motivated? The NBS is under the Ministry of Budget and National Planning. Most of its counterparts in developed countries are shielded from politics by being provided with complete autonomy. The NBS is not. So, it must be a courageous Statistician-General of the Federation, who can damn the consequences and publish absolute truth – even if it creates problems for the government he serves. Until we know whether the changes made to Q1 estimates were deliberate or inadvertent errors, it will also be difficult to determine whether the current SGF publishes figures which can be taken at face value. Until then, dancing in the streets would be lunatic. We should wait a little while longer and watch events unfold.
Meanwhile, this year’s estimates already are under the influence of unprecedented aberrations in handling public accounts by the Federal Government of Nigeria. If the reader has worked in the public sector or has kept close watch on its activities, one thing would have been regarded as fixed procedure. As December 31 approaches, every Ministry, Department and Agency, MDA, is a bee hive of activities. Last minute contracts are being written, cheques are prepared for goods not yet delivered and services un-discharged; Local Purchase Orders and Delivery notes are written, collected and acknowledged on the same day. The question is: Why? The answer is: funds not spent by midnight December 31 are expected to be returned to the Treasury. Top civil servants invariably spend every New Year’s Eve in the office in order to mop up as much of the votes left unspent. It is an annual ritual.
Something different occurred in 2016. The Accountant General of the Federation extended the date for spending 2016 appropriations until April 2017. That unprecedented four months extension included all of Q1 and the first month of Q2. Obviously, when the NBS makes comparisons between Q1 and Q2 2016 and 2017, they are being clever by half. In Q1 and Q2 of 2016 no funds were carried over from 2015; in 2017 a lot of money was unusually carried over; 2016 funds “subsidized” whatever recovery there was in 2017. It had nothing to do with APC government working. It amounts to working to the pre-determined answer.
On second thoughts, perhaps you should not just take off your dancing shoes. You should hold them in your hands to throw at the first official you see dancing near you. Here is the reason why.
The NBS was clever by half with its report. Even if taken at face value (and you will be a fool to do that), the report failed to provide the cumulative result for the half year 2017. It was pre-meditatedly side-stepped. To get the picture, the reader will have to return to the graph above. Now that the NBS has revised the decline in Q1 from 0.52 per cent to -0.91 per cent, and the Q2 result, our mistrust notwithstanding, is 0.55 per cent, simple algebra learnt in any decent secondary school in Nigeria would reveal that, at half-year the economy is still -0.36 per cent in the hole from last year. That unpleasant fact can be found by looking at the actual GDP figures for each quarter instead of reading about percentages. Naira we take to bank; nobody accepts percentages – however high.
If you need more reasons to doubt those funny figures, take a look at this one. Last year September, the Finance Minister announced as follows: “We are releasing another N350 billion. There will also be the funding of about N60 billion in the Social Intervention Programme…that will take our total capital release to date to N770 billion.” (NATION, September 17, 2016, p 6). On September 5, 2017, page 23, the another newspaper reported a telephone interview with Madam in which she confirmed that only N350 billion has so far been released for capital projects this year – short by N420 billion from last year and a mere 45 per cent of last year’s release by this time. The recession is over; but the Federal Government has less money to spend. Where is the “dough”?
Incidentally, the capital vote for 2017 is N2.36 trillion, out of which only N350 billion or just 15 per cent, has been released with eight months gone and four to go. Don’t expect those potholes on Federal roads filled any time soon and ASUU might still be at home by Sallah next year.
As President’s Senior Adviser on Media, Femi Adesina, announced last week “things are looking up.” They have to be when you spend N350 billion in 2017 against N770 billion in the same period last year. ASUU is on strike, Doctors have followed; fuel marketers are threatening to let go thousands of workers; and there are over N500 billion in judgment debts to pay – among other calamities that have befallen Nigeria.
In a manner of speaking, things must be looking up if you are standing on your head.
Throw the dancing shoes away. You have been deceived.