“The ship of state is heading inexorably towards the rock and you as the chief helmsman owe it a duty to steer the ship away from it” – Chief Obafemi Awolowo, in an open letter to the then President Shehu Shagari, warning that the nation’s economy was in dire straits in 1982.
Today that ship is heading towards the same rock as the Buhari government has so far failed to define its economic direction. The country’s GDP has progressively declined since Buhari assumed office, the latest being the fourth quarter GDP of last year which slowed to 2.11%, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, NBS.
There is a saying that when a man fails to plan, then he is actually planning to fail. Nothing best captures the story of Nigeria like the above statement. It is no longer news that the country is at the moment in dire financial straits. All indicators are pointing to depleting reserves as oil prices continue their downward spiral, dealing a shattering blow to the country’s finances. This is compounded by the fact that the economy was already reeling from the consequence of embracing pirates and buccaneers as heroes of our time. These “heroes”, realising our greatest Achilles heel which is of course our docility have arrogantly and mercilessly exploited it.
Nigeria has been through this path before, not once, not twice, so there is really nothing new about our predicament. The only constant here is we keep repeating the same mistake in the hope that it will lead to a different outcome; fantasy no doubt. The great Physicist Albert Einstein, punctured that a long time ago when he said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Roll back the dice for a moment. In the Shehu Shagari presidency between October 1979 and December 1983, Nigeria witnessed an economic meltdown akin to what it is going through now. Corruption had become rife, as politicians of that era mismanaged and wasted the huge oil revenues the nation earned from the $31 per barrel range of oil that it could not pay its import bills. They simply went berserk with excitement, awarding inflated bush-clearing contracts to clear Abuja and pave the way for construction works to commence in the new capital city. Added to this, import licensing simply became the bazaar for rent-seekers and briefcase merchants who took advantage of the system to make big money for their private benefit at the expense of the nation. With the country awash with petrodollars, no one thought of building a firewall to protect the economy let alone save for the future.
And of course, people grew lazy and soon developed an appetite for everything that was imported; phoney contracts for everything imaginable were awarded to family members and cronies of politicians, the binge went on and on. In the midst of all these, the only sane voice to speak out against the madness was the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who warned that the ship of state was heading inexorably towards the rock and that President Shehu Shagari as the chief helmsman owed it a duty to steer the ship away from it. He was mocked and abused by the leaders and supporters of the then ruling party, the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). The NPN leaders even flew to London to address a world press conference where they clearly lied through their teeth about the state of the nation and thoroughly lambasted the opposition leader for daring to sound the alarm bell.
Then the price of oil suddenly tanked to $9 a barrel. With oil earnings not enough to sustain our huge appetite for imported items or foot the bill of phoney contracts politicians awarded themselves and their cronies, the people were faced with the stark reality of things: no savings, and a stunning failure to develop new wealth centres away from the instability of oil prices. Foreign reserves started to take in water and whatever was left soon gave way; debt began to pile up. It was only a matter of time before the country faced real financial crisis. The military incidentally, led by the current president, Muhammadu Buhari struck and dethroned the Shagari regime.
He wasted no time in exposing the visionless civilian leadership as a liar and a fraud. He barely lasted two years in office before he was overthrown by the gap-toothed army general, Ibrahim Babangida who himself carried on with the impunity and mismanagement the politicians were accused of. Then came the gulf oil windfall in 1991 as a result of the gulf war. What did Babangida do with it? He squandered it on his endless political transition-cum-experiments, bogus and inflated contracts, while the rest were brazenly stolen by the officials of that administration. Then came the dark-goggled one, General Sani Abacha who simply beat everyone in his crude ways of stealing public funds.
Then came the second gulf war in 2003. Oil prices spiked, Nigeria made a killing, and was able to pay off all its decades old debts that were choking it to death under President Olusegun Obasanjo. Luckily, prices stayed relatively high between 2003 and 2007 when he handed over the reins of power, leaving healthy reserves of around $45 billion and another $20 billion in the Excess Crude Account, ECA. Nigeria was to smile even further as oil surged to a record $147 a barrel in 2008 when Iran launched missiles to demonstrate its military capability, thus raising tension with the West. Brent crude rose to $147.02 in London, while the US light sweet crude rose to $146.90 a barrel.
Yet again, Nigeria has nothing much to show for all that money it earned – no savings in its reserves, no infrastructure built, and no new wealth creation centres away from the vagaries of oil price booms and busts. When you think of it, you get this overwhelming sense that we must be downright dumb, stone-cold dumb as a people to go through the same cycle over and over again with the same final outcome: pain and utter misery.
The irony of the country’s situation today is that some of the short-sighted governors who could not visualise the future, and who led the aggressive charge to scorch our savings are strutting around as the heroes of change. The Nigerian Governors’ Forum led by the then Governor Rotimi Amaechi arm-twisted former President Goodluck Jonathan to share every kobo earned by the country.
They played politics with everything, fought against saving for a rainy day, and even investment in the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF). These same people have now been declared heroes by some of the country’s best literary minds. Now, can anyone point to one project that the governors utilised the money for? Can anyone justify with concrete evidence what state governors have done with the huge allocations that have accrued to the states’ coffers since 1999?
Let me cite an example of what the bandits and buccaneers did with the people’s money: news filtering through indicates that the Imo State governor and chairman of the APC Governors’ Forum, Rochas Okorocha, the man who led the charge for bailout from the federal government to pay several months’ arrears of workers’ salaries, has allegedly looted the money to the tune of N2 billion, at least that is what has been discovered so far.
A few months ago, I wrote an article titled, “Okorocha Puts Imo in Chains.” I called for a psychiatric evaluation of the governor because I believed then as I believe now that something must be wrong with a chief executive who wouldn’t construct roads, or build health facilities and who begged for a bailout to pay workers’ salaries – only to go on a wild spending binge abroad with scarce foreign exchange in the name of attracting foreign investors to his state after collecting the bailout money. Despite his maladministration of the state, the ordinary folk still defended him. I was called names by some very ridiculous “yes men”. Now, we are hearing how the bailout money was allegedly stolen by the governor’s family members and close aides.
The poor are the victims of the rapacity of our politicians. It is a curious paradox that the great majority of them appear happy with their status as they form the support base of those who have put them in perpetual chains of misery. Try to talk some sense into them, they won’t listen.
Babatunde Fashola had allegations of mismanagement of public funds levelled against him – who rose to defend him? The poor victims of his mismanagement of course.
The apostles of change are daily repudiating the campaign promises they made to woo the poor masses for votes; guess who is making excuses for them? The very poor who are the victims of a clearly fraudulent and confused contraption which goes by the name of APC.
Barely a week after Buhari assumed power, the poor victims of mismanagement started spreading rumours/lies about his body language saying that it had fixed the power situation in the country. It was such a bizarre claim by a patently dishonest and highly amusing mob eager to embrace magic rather than meticulous planning which involves a clear road map for action. Those who were celebrating his “body language” before it flamed out have since had a rude awakening to reality. Where is the electricity? Manufacturers recently cried out that they spent N9 billion daily to generate power. What about the fuel situation – are the refineries working now? What has happened to the famous “body language”?
They eagerly claimed undeserved credit for the marginal improvement in electricity supply in the middle of last year, but are now refusing to accept blame and responsibility for the prolonged darkness the nation is currently experiencing. Is Lai Mohammed still there? Where is the “Prime Minister” Fashola, the Lagos “golden boy and actualiser” of Buhari’s change?
All we get now are excuses galore such as “if you see the rot left behind…..” Curiously, the poor who are the victims are the ones helping to amplify those excuses.
Recently, I watched the triumphant return of the Taraba State Governor Darius Ishaku to Jalingo after he had his mandate affirmed by the Supreme Court. One of the female victims of government’s mismanagement was so overjoyed that the governor won that she removed her wrapper and spread it on the road for the governor’s convoy to drive on it – another classic example of the poor being happy as victims.
I have searched for a plausible explanation as to why we are the way we are as a people: monies meant for the development of the collective good such as construction of roads, schools, hospitals, and the provision of clean water are often stolen by those entrusted with the responsibility. I have struggled to understand the behaviour of our leaders in order to draw lessons; spent endless hours agonising about the conditions of poverty of the vast majority of the people in the midst of so much wealth. I have researched the science of being black for clues. I am leaning towards the conclusion that the poor as victims and are happy to be so, is a Nigerian disease.