By Rotimi Fasan
ONE of the less aggravating things that happened last week, something that offered diversion if not comic relief from the now-humdrum news of mass abductions and murders whose economic dimension is often occluded by their bestial details, was the spat between two unlikely adversaries: the Edo State governor, Godwin Obaseki, and the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed.
It followed the release of an apparently private recording of the governor, lamenting the state of the Nigerian economy. In this age of social media and secret devices hardly anything is considered private. Not a locker room, or more precisely, beer parlour talk. Otherwise, Obaseki would probably have kept his musing to himself, or at least within the close circle of his associates.
In the leaked footage, he condemned the country’s fixation on crude oil, a wasting and fast depleting resource, as the main revenue earner at a time many countries are switching to more environmentally-friendly means of energy. The culture of over-dependence on the centre that sees state governors go, bowl in hand, to Abuja for their monthly allocation, a beggarly handout that discourages self-reliance and economic discipline and creativity, also came under Obaseki’s attack.
The governor, in the course of his outburst, made the bombshell remark that things had become so bad and unsustainable that Abuja literally resorted to printing money to the tune of N60 billion in order to give each state its March allocation.
The idea that government could on its own print money no doubt sounded strange and alarming to many Nigerians. This way of increasing cash flow and stimulating an economy already in or headed for recession, quantitative easing those who know call it, is not unheard of among economists or financial experts even while it may sound like the outcome of a child’s imagination. But to the rest of us civilians, it looked and sounded like a crude way of ensuring the availability of funds. If things were that easy, if it was that simple to claw one’s way out of debt, why is everyone not free to do it, some might ask? Obaseki’s aim was to warn of the impending danger of what he has since called “monetary rascality”, while doubling down on his initial statement after the cold reaction of the typically sedate Ahmed.
Since nobody else has addressed the authenticity of Obaseki’s claim or the refutation by the Finance Minister, who then should Nigerians turn to? Yet this is a serious matter that deserves more attention than it has received from official quarters.
Not even the usually loquacious “presidency” that is quick to respond to even more arcane and extraneous matters has spoken. It’s been dead silence everywhere. We must leave God out of this very mundane matter. Perhaps only the devil knows the truth of the printed N60 billion as neither the Central Bank of Nigeria, nor state governors nor “the presidency” have chosen to speak.
At the heart of this debate, however, is the increasing worry about Nigeria’s indebtedness to foreign creditors. Many Nigerians, less those presently in the All Progressives Congress-led government, are almost united in their fear about the unsustainability of Nigeria’s increasing debt profile. But Ahmed has denied money had to be printed, and all but called Obaseki a liar. Nigeria’s debt, she says, is within sustainable limits at 23 per cent of the GDP.
The country under this present government has been seeking and taking loans from every available quarter, even dipping or attempting to dip its hands into other people’s coffers (read pockets)- pensioners’ funds, unclaimed dividends and sale of what it says is its own property. This is evidence if no other, of a desperate, cash-strapped economy. Abuja harps on building infrastructure and insists there is nothing bad in taking loans. What matters, it argues, is what the loan is spent on. Which has the same ring as that claim often attributed to General Yakubu Gowon, who famously said Nigeria was so afloat with the money its only problem was what to spend it on.
That claim would explode in his face in less than five years following the oil glut of the late 1970s and the subsequent plunge into recession and “austerity measures” at the end of that decade. Time was when a president went out of his way to clear the country’s debt even when many felt there was nothing bad in the country owing a little provided there was justification for it. Olusegun Obasanjo paid off Nigeria’s debt and won some relief from the Bretton Woods institutions in the early 2000s. Today, his successors are telling Nigerians that we can owe for as long as we are only borrowing to finance infrastructure.
If only government words could be taken at face value! Not with inflation or prices of goods beyond galloping but perched as if on a flying carpet. Governments across the country (for this is not all about Abuja alone) have been fuelling inflation and taking loans to finance recurrent expenditure- paying salaries of and buying vehicles for outsized and unnecessary staff; furnishing the homes of surrogates and officials, fuelling their vehicles and meeting their daily expenses. These facts are concealed in the overarching claim of borrowing to fund infrastructure, including dead horses like our outmoded refineries.
To clasp the hands of future generations in economic cuffs is not a way to secure the future or build infrastructure. There are too many crooks in the corridors of power that the very idea that they are encouraging the procurement of foreign loans for whatever purposes should worry everyone.
Some of the leading lights and key decision-makers of the present government have been too embroiled in accusations of corruption and lack of transparency to be trusted in matters like this.
Muhammadu Buhari may be the face of this government and should rightly be held accountable for its successes and failures. But it is obvious that he only reigns where his aides/ministers rule. Whenever Aisha, the wife of the president, raises a ruckus that her husband does not know most of his own appointees, some may cite this as evidence of the President’s impartiality.
But the backstory to this is more complex and what it implies is that the President’s lifelong habit of relying on surrogates whose judgment or actions he does not appear to question or scrutinise is at the root of his government’s failure.
It should be concerning and is the reason Nigerians have to be wary of the dodgy busy bodies spinning yarns of reassurance around the country’s increasing indebtedness.