Wake Me up When this Nightmare is over By Simon Kolawole
Pardon the cheek. I want to give you a quick assignment this morning. Please pick up your phone. Call at least three of your friends. Ask them to list the most urgent national issues, in their own opinion, at the moment. Let’s be quick with it, please. Here we go. One… Two… Three… Are you done? Great. Did any of them list Senate Majority Leader and Chief Whip as their priorities? What about Deputy Majority Leader? The ones I called said the urgent issues are the falling naira, unpaid salaries, the looming fuel crisis, erratic power supply and rising insecurity, notably the renewed Boko Haram attacks and increasing armed robberies. None of them mentioned Chief Whip.
My friends must be out of touch, you would say. Reading the news, after all, they should know that the most urgent issue in Nigeria today is the politics of sharing political spoils at the National Assembly, which has become the battleground for a test-run of the 2019 presidential election — with various interests strategising to take control. The undercurrents of this proxy war will not be televised. In the absence of anything of significance happening at Aso Rock, the National Assembly is the centre of attraction. The politicians are keeping us entertained with their usual who-gets-what fiasco, while thousands of distracted Nigerians are at the ringside soaking in the fun.
I have been well lectured that we need to put the National Assembly “in order” before the new administration can take off and I must express my sincere gratitude to my teachers. I suspect that the naira is falling because the house of representatives is yet to have its principal officers, and we should expect a better exchange rate when the reps reconvene in July and make those appointments. Armed robbers, sensing that Senate President Bukola Saraki was not the preferred candidate of the APC, have gone on the rampage. Hopefully, if Senator Ahmad Lawan is made senate president, the robbers will beat a retreat remorsefully.
Wake up, fellow Nigerians, we are in trouble. Big trouble. Saraki is the least of our problems. Our economy has had a ghastly accident. It suffered multiple fractures and lost a lot of blood. We don’t seem to know it. Some accuse President Muhammadu Buhari of exaggerating the problems. They say he should just roll up his sleeves and pull out the magic wand. Even many of those who know that the problem is genuine still think it is only temporary. They think oil prices will soon rise and there will be petrodollar rain again and we will soon have enough to eat and drink, make merry and rise up to play. They say it has happened before and it will happen again.
I belong to the group that thinks we are in a nightmare and that it will take a long and painful process to stabilise the system. I must confess that I am not one of those praying for crude oil price to rise again. Do not blame me. I’m paranoid. In 2008, crude oil sold for as high as $147. It did not make my life better. It did not improve electricity. It did not fix the hospitals. It did not improve the quality of public schools. What I saw, instead, was profligacy. I saw state-of-the-art governor’s residences being built, with designer champagne being popped at the “house-warming” ceremonies and showcased on live TV. I saw a country whose problem was not money but how to waste it.
And then crude oil prices began to crash. When the 2009 budget was being drafted in the last quarter of 2008, oil prices hovered in the vicinity of $100 per barrel. The drafters felt they were being conservative with a benchmark of $62.50. (After all, the 2008 budget was benchmarked against $59 yet oil eventually hit $147.) In no time, however, prices began to wither; the $62.50 mark was no longer realistic. The budget drafters adjusted it to $45, thinking again that it was a wise, conservative decision. But a week after the Appropriation Bill was presented to the National Assembly by President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, oil was selling for $40. It ended the year at $32.
To adjust to the new reality, Yar’Adua and governors began to reduce the population and salaries of political appointees. Nigerians rejoiced. We went on a sweet-smelling campaign on how we were about to reduce reliance on crude oil and diversify the economy. Northern governors spoke deliciously about how agriculture and solid minerals were going to power the economy of the north. Southern governors spoke seductively about industrialisation and Japanisation of their own economies. If you lived in Nigeria in 2009, you would swear that we had finally overcome our genetic folly and were about to get over the oil dependency nightmare.
But crude oil prices began to recover, selling for as high as $80 in December 2009. What happened next? Normal service resumed. It was time for petrodollar carnival again. Politicians went on a spending competition with vengeance. Agriculture, solid minerals and Japanisation became dirty words again. All tiers of government embarked on unsustainable expenditure. Civil service went on an employment festival. Minimum wage went up. The population of political appointees exploded. Recurrent spending doubled and tripled and quadrupled. National Assembly ballooned their own overheads insanely. They did not bother about the math.
Ahead of the 2011 elections, the excess crude account (ECA), which is supposed to be our savings for days like these, came under “terrorist” attack. Governors embarked on self-serving arguments that ECA was unconstitutional. Some of us wrote and pleaded with them to keep these savings intact and live within their means. They waved the constitution menacingly in our face, telling us that we knew nothing about the law which says every federally collected revenue should be shared. I remember asking: is there any part of the constitution that says we should not agree to save part of our income? Of course, the governors knew what they were doing.
President Goodluck Jonathan, who himself was thinking of the 2011 elections, became very vulnerable to governors asking him to share the booty. Anytime governors met in Abuja, it was always announced thereafter that they had agreed to withdraw from ECA to “cushion” the effects of global “food” crisis. Food indeed. Jonathan, meanwhile, was paying fuel subsidy to every Jumai, Jumoke and Juliana, apparently to fund his own election. The governors soon disappeared from our radar. They started flying private jets. The only governor I ever met on a commercial flight since then was Peter Obi. Many ministers started flying “ministerial jets”. That is the way we are.
So it is 2009 all over again as crude oil prices have tumbled. The population of political appointees and their pay packets are being “slashed” again. On the surface, we appear to be sober, with our tails nestling between our legs. We are pretending to be prudent. It appears the leopard is about to change its spots. But if I know my country very well, we don’t learn any lessons. We are quietly waiting and wishing for another oil boom so that normal service can quickly resume. You can bet that as soon as the salary arrears are cleared with another oil boom, we will return to senseless spending yet again. That is why I am not praying for another windfall.
If we are a country that learns lessons, this crisis presents a perfect opportunity to reform our brain. With the right policies and incentives, Abia can be the electronics manufacturing centre of Africa; Plateau and Kogi can become global tourist destinations; Jigawa can be a world leader in sesame seeds; Rivers can play host to the biggest refineries exporting petroleum products; Kwara can rival Thailand in rice export; Taraba and Adamawa can host Africa’s biggest mango and orange juice-making factories. The revenue to be derived from VAT, PAYE, duties and corporate taxes as well as the associated economic activities can cut off our umbilical cord from the unstable and disruptive hydrocarbon monster. Not to talk of the accompanying millions of direct and indirect jobs.
This crippling fiscal crisis has again exposed the underbelly of our “feeding-bottle federalism”, as Senator Ike Ekweremadu calls it. We are in an economic nightmare. The time has come to confront our politicians and get them to sit down and do their jobs. On a second thought, I would love to be the Chief Whip so that I can, with the help of “koboko”, whip these overfed adults in the National Assembly into line. They are obstructing our progress with their pot bellies. Of course, we need a peaceful National Assembly to move forward. But the most urgent issues today can still become our priorities while these exuberant legislators try to sort themselves out.
Some years ago, groups like “Boko Haram” and “Babu Boko” started mushrooming in northern Nigeria. They gleefully preached against “Western” education and began to carve an identity for themselves as believers with superior ideology. The whole world knows what Boko Haram went on to become. Daily Trust recently reported that another group with similar beliefs has launched out in Kebbi State. Although it currently has only some 100 members, the Yanlabaiku sect is becoming a source of concern. While I do not propose a hysterical crackdown, I just hope our Boko Haram experience will help us handle this intelligently. Disturbing.
BOKO BOUNCES BACK?
Meanwhile, the original Boko Haram seems to have found a new life. They launch attacks almost on a daily basis now. The body count under the Buhari administration has crossed the 200 mark — the worst single-day haul being in Debiro Biu and Debiro Awul in Borno State on Monday night when 40 persons were killed. Curiously, the Presidency has not uttered a word on these tragedies, even if to console the grieving communities. In fact, it was only the US government that issued a statement to commiserate with Nigerians and warn that the sect remains deadly despite recent setbacks. Alarming.
The All Progressives Congress (APC), in an attempt to show Nigerians that they are different from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), has consistently told us there is no zoning in the ruling party’s philosophy. I was therefore further scandalised when I saw a copy of the letter the party chairman, John Odigie-Oyegun, sent to Senate President Bukola Saraki on the nomination of principal officers. He clearly stated that the north-east would produce the Majority Leader, the south-west Chief Whip, the north-central Deputy Majority Leader and the north-west Deputy Chief Whip. And they still say there’s no zoning in APC? Denial.
ET TU, ENYEAMA?
One of my all-time favourite Nigerian footballers is goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama. I think he is one of the most dedicated and disciplined players we’ve ever had. I still remember when Adegboyega Onigbinde gave him his competitive debut against England at the 2002 World Cup. He went on to acquire global fame with his consistent top-class performance. I, however, object to his recent uncomplimentary remarks against Kaduna, which he considered unsafe for the Nigeria v Chad match. As team leader, he should know his public comments matter. And if the NFF seeks an explanation from him, he must respond respectfully. Leadership.