One Year Later: Still Fetching Water With A Basket

Originally appeared in premium times on June 15th, 2016

 

Nigeria has problems. Many many problems. These problems are not new to Nigeria. They are not unknown to Nigerians. They are not unique to Nigeria. We all know these problems. They are there in the way we fight corruption. There in the way we deliver justice. There in the way we organize security. There in the way we organize economic activities. There in the way we think about government. There in the way we collect and spend taxes. I could go on and on.

 

The last administration, and the one before that, was faced with these problems. To a large extent they did not tackle them. With a few exceptions, notable in the electricity sector, most of these problems were relegated to the back burner. Reforming the petroleum industry? Another day. Police reform? Another day. Tax reform? Another day.

 

It was initially easy to gloss over these problems while oil prices were high and there was money to burn. Then it wasn’t so easy. If you have big enough hands then you might be able to cover enough holes in your leaky bucket while fetching water with it. Once the holes become bigger than your hands then the bucket it really just a basket. Useless for fetching water.

 

Nigerians eager for a change in the way the country works voted for change. Many people would argue that the APC and President Buhari won the elections. The reality is that the PDP and President Jonathan lost it. The elections were much more about a referendum voting out corrupt bad leadership than it was about voting in a good one.

 

Be that as it may, a new government was voted in with optimism and a fresh mandate to change the way the country works. And what have they done so far with that mandate? To some extent we should not really be surprised at their actions. The tacit message by the APC before elections was that the only thing wrong with Nigeria was corruption. Every problem could in some way be traced to “evil” and corrupt people at the helm. All we needed was to vote good and corruption free people into power and everything will be alright.

 

This is not to say the message was completely false. In many areas just getting serious people into the right positions has proven very successful. The most notable is with the war against Boko Haram. Despite what you think about this government, the fact is they have taken Boko Haram a lot more seriously and the results are there for all to see. Unfortunately, despite the successes, the security arrangement in the country is still the proverbial basket. Blocking holes in one area has meant that water has come rushing out of others. From the south east to the Niger delta, from the middle belt to the north, security challenges are everywhere. So much so that you can probably name an armed militia in every state just waiting for valid or invalid reasons to unleash mayhem.

In some cases, they have begun. What has been the response of the government? Send more troops. Militancy in the delta? Send more troops. Biafra agitation in the south east? Send more troops. Herdsmen killing farmers? Send more troops. Of course once you send troops people die. I stand to be corrected but the Nigerian military is on track to become the single largest killer of Nigerians this year. And not for the first time. Nigeria needs serious reform in the way we think about security. Unfortunately, security reform was not deemed important enough to even make the list of future failed political promises. It is not on the agenda.

 

But at least they are fighting corruption. Some money has been recovered. More money has been frozen. Some people are on trial. The starting point for the fight against corruption has been to shine a light on the PDPs campaign finances. Which leads to the next obvious questions. What about the APCs? That question is still yet to be answered and speaks to what is really just a temporary fight against corruption.

 

Before the elections there was the general idea that fighting corruption had to come with institutional changes to the corruption fighting agencies. Ideas about merging the ICPC and the EFCC and making them financially and operationally independent from the federal government were mooted. Stripping the federal government of the power to unilaterally hire and fire the heads of these agencies were also discussed. So far these are on the list of future failed election promises. The EFCC and ICPC continue to operate under the thumbs of the president. Which means that friends of the president are fine. At least so long as they remain friends.

Unless real reform is implemented we can unfortunately expect corruption to make a grand comeback once President Buhari leaves. In fact, we should expect corruption to be worse. Some of the institutional checks and balances we had are already being broken down in the name of fighting corruption. The imaginary line we had between federal government and the NNPC is no longer imaginary. It is just not there anymore. The more important line between the federal government and the central bank is also becoming imaginary. Even though I do no doubt the honesty of President Buhari, we may not be so lucky with the next one. And the next president will have a field day if he or she chooses to be corrupt. Makes you wonder about the changes that enabled the Babangida regime to do some amazing things. Allegedly of course.

 

All those pale in comparison to the economy. The economy. The economy. The economy. No doubt the new government was dealt a tough hand. The previous government saved very little despite at least four years of extraordinarily high oil prices. A failure which they have to accept responsibility for. The previous government blames the failure to save on the state governors who fought tooth and nail to share everything. A statement which is also true. Nigerians also have to take their fair share of blame though. Reforms which may have allowed the government to save were blocked. Fight corruption not subsidy right?

 

Regardless of the hand dealt, this government has no excuses. It was common knowledge at least a year before the handover that oil prices were crashing. It was also common knowledge that Nigeria had no savings. Being dealt a bad hand just meant there was no time for trial and error or dilly dallying. Instead we had a government with no cabinet for six months and a budget that was almost a year late. To top that off we have a government that has relegated economic, and monetary, policy to a president who, with all due respect, would probably not pass an Econ 101 exam. It took an almost complete collapse of the downstream oil industry to convince the president that fuel prices are not things you can fix in your backyard at Aso Rock.

 

We all knew the president was weak on basic economics before the elections. The hope was that he would focus on his strengths and leave the rest for more competent hands. Unfortunately, that was all very hopeful. Instead we have a president who insists on being convinced about policy. This is especially the case with the nonsensical forex policy of the last year. Constitutionally the central bank does not need any kind of approval from the presidency to implement policy. However, we have a central bank governor who stands at attention anytime the president walks in the room. Ironically it was the las administration who started the fire that led to the loss of the central bank independence. But whereas they opened that door, this government has walked right into the building and set up camp.

 

The result is that we are headed for our first recession in almost a decade. All a bit sadder considering the fact that the economy was growing at about seven percent just two years ago. A year ago I might have argued that a flexible foreign exchange policy and movement on fuel prices could turn things around. Sadly the rot has already set in and it is not clear that will be enough. And as the minister of finance is finding out, there is no one coming with a stash of cash to save us.

 

The silver lining to having so many problems is that there are many things that can be done to improve the situation. No one is under any illusion that Nigeria can be turned into Sweden in four years. But the country is ripe for change and one way or the other, change must happen. The only question is if this government will start the journey there. Or if Nigerians will have to find another way.

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