By Ochereome Nnanna
The Good Book says “by their fruits ye shall know them”. When you dress a person in borrowed robes just to show off, William Shakespeare (Macbeth Act 5, Scene 2) says it will be “(hanging) loose about him like a giant’s robe upon a dwarfish thief”.
Before 2003, the Finance portfolio of the Nigerian economy had always been handled by men. After his frivolous first term, former President Olusegun Obasanjo decided to get serious in his second. Nigeria had a debt overhang of $32bn owed to the Paris Club alone.
Obasanjo saw that his global gallivanting and begging for debt forgiveness was not cutting ice. He needed to do more than merely advertise his “beautiful” mug on the streets of Western capitals.
So, in 2003, he went outside the country and lobbied Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a “big fish” in the World Bank, to become Nigeria’s first-ever female Finance Minister and Head of the Obasanjo Economic Team. Within two years, Obasanjo was guided to exit Nigeria from the Paris Club debt, using the oil boom fund to swap $12bn for the $32bn we owed. When Buhari’s government asks what “previous administrations” did with our oil boom money, this is one of them. Monthly federal allocations to the three tiers of government were published in major newspapers for transparency.
The foundation that Okonjo-Iweala and the economic team laid gave the middle class a boost. Banks were begging middle and senior-grade workers to come and take loans for brand-new cars! When the Lehman Brothers failed in America in 2008 and triggered a worldwide economic meltdown, it hardly affected our financial system.
The Okonjo-Iweala team’s great job recommended her for reappointment by former President Goodluck Jonathan as Finance Minister and Minister for the Economy between 2011 and 2015.
When Muhammadu Buhari came to power in 2015, he allowed his Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, to head his economic team and to bring in Kemi Adeosun as Finance Minister; a continuation of the new practice of giving our finances to a woman to manage. Adeosun struggled with the recession of 2016 to 2018 amidst plummeting oil revenues.
She drove the non-oil revenue sector, especially taxation, including the Voluntary Assets and Income Declaration Scheme, VAIDS. She bravely steered the economy marginally out of the recession. Just as she was beginning to sit pretty, the NYSC certificate forgery scandal knocked her off her perch.
When Buhari captured his second term in 2019, he discarded Osinbajo and his economic team. Indeed, he altogether trashed Osinbajo’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, ERPG, taking direct control of the economy.
He brought in Zainab Shamsuna Ahmed, an accountant and a family member of Governor Nasir Ahmed el-Rufai from the Nigerian Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, NEITI. Buhari consolidated the Finance and Budget/Planning Ministries under Zainab Ahmed, which puts her out as the Minister in charge of the economy.
Over three weeks ago, Ahmed announced what she called a five-year National Development Plan, NDP, for 2021-2025 which, she said, will fulfill Buhari’s plan to take 100 million Nigerians out of poverty. Beyond telling us that it had an investment package of N348.7 trillion, no further detail has been made public, which is probably why no one is talking about it. Beyond these bogus and grandiloquent claims, Zainab Ahmed’s routine is just like that of a typical accountant whose work is more of administering spending than building revenue and striking economic equilibriums. Since Zainab Ahmed took over, it has been “borrow-and-spend” galore. All the gains of the Okonjo-Iweala era have been doubly, if not triply reversed with debt sinking us into a bottomless pit.
The latest in town is Zainab Ahmed’s recent announcement that the Federal Government will stop paying petrol subsidy in 2022. The GMD of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, Mele Kyari, has disclosed that a litre of petrol could cost N340 per litre when that happens. Zainab Ahmed last week shocked Nigerians when she announced that the Buhari government plans to remit the N2.4 trillion per annum that would be saved from the petrol subsidy withdrawal to 40 million “poor” Nigerians.
Now, this says it all! Northernising the Finance portfolio, like other strategic posts, was not really meant to prove that what Igbo and Yoruba women finance ministers did an Arewa woman can do better. It is probably all about a final splurge before the Buhari Arewa bonanza is done. It is the most primitive economic agenda I have ever heard of.
Can you imagine N2.4 trillion unbudgeted funds in the hands of politicians in a pre-election year? Coming from a regime whose so-called “Social Investment Register” is more fiction than fact, whose “Conditional Cash Transfer” scheme has been bedevilled by allegations of corruption, which conducted “School Feeding” during the total coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, we may be in for a bazaar never witnessed in history.
Why is it difficult for Buhari to remember the Gen. Sani Abacha strategy he was hired to implement in 1996 when the late head of state raised the price of petroleum products? The proceeds were handed over to Buhari’s Petroleum Trust Fund, PTF, to deploy to massive interventions in infrastructure and some social services. If we were told that the money would be sunk into power, roads, rail, security, food security, education and health, we would find it easier to listen.
Jumping petrol price from N165.6 to N340 overnight, less than one year before a general election will be political suicide for any ruling party. Jonathan’s attempt to do the same on January 1, 2012 dented him irreparably and gave the opposition the fuel it needed to seize power.
Any day now, we shall be free!