By Dele Sobowale
“Our responsibility, I said, is to secure this country for all the citizens to do their businesses without any problems. We haven’t achieved that yet. …We have a lot of work ahead of us.” – President Buhari in NTA interview, December 2020.
The question most frequently asked of me in my almost 30 years of writing on the Business/Economic pages of newspapers is: “Do people in government read what you write at all?” My answer has always been the same. “The Special Advisers to Presidents and Ministers actually read; but, only to find what to dispute. When they cannot fault your facts and grasp of economic principles, they get personal. They do everything other than admit you are right and they are wrong.”
Since January this year, every other column had recalled something written months before which ran contrary to government’s position; but, which had turned out to be correct when later the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, or the National Bureau of Statistics, NBS, publishes its report confirming my position.
It is not just the Buhari administration whose officials go to great lengths not to admit mistakes. It is all governments of Nigeria – Federal, states and Local Governments. The Chief Executive Officers at each level of government appoint or have pressed on them extremely limited individuals who are united in one endeavour – deceiving ogapatapata. Every pronouncement of the CEO is a stroke of genius – which none but lunatics and pen pushers like Dele Sobowale would question. That pervasive attitude has led us to where we are today.
It was therefore very astonishing that Buhari, after five and a half years in office would admit that his government has not achieved yet the minimum security standard that would make it possible for Nigerians to “do their businesses without problems”. If anybody else had said that, Lai Mohammed, Garba Shehu and Femi Adesina would have written rejoinders to dispute a fact so obvious one must wonder about their patriotism. Thank God Oga has admitted the truth on security. Can we now turn our attention to the economy and hope the discussions will be fact-based instead of tiresome propaganda – which they prefer.
However, permit me to make a detour to highlight how governments in other purposeful countries work. In 1972, late Senator Edward Kennedy, 1932-2009, Massachusetts, USA, made a remark in the US Senate which would have removed Nigeria from the list of poor nations benefiting from millions of dollars in grants and aids. Despite not being an American citizen, I fired off a letter to the Senator correcting his error. A reply came a week later asking me to substantiate my position. Two days in the Boston University Library produced my report which went off by ordinary mail but was still delivered the next day in Washington D.C. Kennedy reversed himself; sent me a letter apologising for the error and Nigeria received the grants faithfully. It was immaterial that I was not an American.
By contrast, I have accurately predicted every failure of Buhari’s annual budget, including this year’s monumental disaster. Yet, nobody in that government has had the humility to call and ask: Is there something that you know that we don’t? And, how can you help us? No! here a messenger would be sent to write a rejoinder totally irrelevant to the points addressed until the calamity descends on all of us. Certainly, the Nigerian economy is in as terrible a shape as its security; and they both suffer from the same cause – incompetent leadership which refuses to ask for help. Yet, there is nothing more pathetic than a leader despised by all. US President Johnson, 1908-1973, once said that “there is nothing worse than for a leader to look back and find there is nobody following.” More than on security, the Nigerian leadership had long lost followers on the economy. To be candid, there is nothing to follow; the leaders cannot define the route to follow; they stumble from one mistake to another. And, the people know. Here we are.
ECONOMY AS BAD AS SECURITY
“Everything helps the unhappy man to fail….” William Shakespeare, 1564-1616.
Open any newspaper in the country, any day and the predominant news about the Nigerian economy must be depressing. A few samples will illustrate the point.
“FG records N1.29tn fiscal deficit in three months.”
“External reserves shed $567m in 2wks.”
“Nigeria’s oil output drops by 14% to an average of 1.5mb/d”
“How oil majors divestment will affect Nigeria’s fortunes.”
Nobody needs to be reminded that since the oil boom of the 1970s, Nigerian leaders, unlike leaders of other oil producing nations, have got us addicted to collecting the bulk of our dollar revenue from oil alone. Yet, virtually all governments, since the Babangida administration (1985-1993), had vowed to diversify the economy and reduce oil dependence. None did it.
That we became irrevocably dependent on crude was bad enough. From the Yar’ Adua/ Jonathan administration, we developed the self-deceptive habit of basing our annual budget on the production and export of 2.3mbpd of crude. Despite historical data proving conclusively that Nigeria did not export 2.3mbpd from 2009 to 2015 under the former ruling party, the current ruling party had adopted the same figure for budgeting from 2016 till 2021. Again, not once was that target achieved since Buhari became President. An American friend with interests in Africa and Nigeria once asked me: “Dele is there any intelligent person in Abuja? How can the FG and NASS keep on adopting a bench mark that has proved to be unrealistic?” I keep asking the same question and the reason is not hard to discover.
The budget deficit of N1.29tn in three months, or annualised N5.16tn, did not occur by accident. It was predictable from the worthless budget we operate in 2020. The difference between the 2.3 and 1.5mbpd must certainly yield massive deficit. And, when aggregate revenue generated falls far short of budget, external reserves must drop; loans must rise; debt-revenue ratio must climb; and capital expenditure must decline. In short, all our present predicaments were predictable from the budget presented last year.
WE CAN RESCUE STILL 2021
“Insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting a different result.” Chinese Proverb.
The budget for 2021 was prepared like all of its predecessors – meaning that it was meant to fail. Several reasons account for that prediction; but they can generally be summarised with the Chinese definition of insanity. If I am asked to point to one and only one thing that our leaders – Executive and NASS – must change to get us back on the path of budgetary sanity, it must be this. STOP BASING ANNUAL BUDGETS ON 2.3MBPD. It has never been achieved and, going forward, it is unlikely to ever be achieved. Discarding that awful self-deception will free our minds for serious budgeting. Our OPEC quota remains 1.7mbpd. Yet, the National Assembly, NASS, passed the budget after adding N500bn. The exercise reminds me of Nazi Germany’s last days as it was facing total defeat. Hitler and his close advisers kept on deploying troops that had long been wiped out for battle. Once again, the FG and the NASS have amused us by passing a worthless budget for 2021. When will sanity reign in Abuja?