President Buhari’s message of ‘Change’ has got a new nickname among a growing number of Nigerians. They call it ‘chains’, inferring that Buhari’s policy choices have put the economy in chains and thrown it into the sea, where it is being dragged down to the seabed without any hope of being able to swim up to the surface.
For millions of Nigerians, last Xmas season was their bleakest ever, partly because the all important staple Xmas food, rice, which sold for N9000 per bag under former President Goodluck Jonathan, now sells for about N22,000 under Buhari, making it unbearably expensive. For many, the struggle was not how much they would spend to enjoy the holidays but an existential struggle to even eat a meal a day. And when you ask them why, they smile sardonically and utter one word, ‘change’.
The pain is not restricted to the poor, as even Nigeria’s second richest man has lost $1.3 billion naira in the past few months reducing him to millionaire status in dollar terms. nigeria’s richest man, Aliko Dangote lost one third of his famed fortune last year- a situation the opposition is laying on Buhari’s feet. Everyone is scared.
The usual refrain that ‘the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer’ no longer applies as both the rich and the poor are both experiencing new levels of poverty. People are asking: if Dangote can lose a third of his wealth in one year of Buhari’s tenure, then what of the rest of us? Even though it is clear that some of the seeds of the current crises predates Buhari’s presidency, millions of Nigerians hold him squarely to blame for their increased economic pains.
Inflation is also off the hook as prices rise by the hour, and salary earners watch helplessly as the spending power of their rigid salaries nosedive. The feeling of regret is so much that recently, when ex-President Jonathan traveled to Buhari’s stronghold of Sokoto in the North, he was received overenthusiastically by a mammoth crowd, many of whom likely voted against him in the last elections.
Things are not looking good for Buhari right now, as millions of Nigerians lay the blame for the faltering economy squarely on his doorsteps.
Not Really His Fault? To be fair to the man, the foundations for the current economic crisis started long before the Buhari Administration. Since the end of the First Republic Nigerian leaders have been largely profligate with Nigeria’s hard earned oil money.
During the First Republic Nigeria’s leaders had a policy of enhancing Nigeria’s economy through sound agricultural policies. As a result of that, Eastern Nigeria was the world’s largest exporter of palm oil, Western Nigeria was an important source of cocoa supplies to the world market, and Northern Nigeria produced so much groundnuts that they were stored in stacks so high, they were called groundnut pyramids.
Those were the days when Nigeria was a real economic powerhouse. Those were the days when Nigeria’s economy was dependent on hard economic analysis, not on the whims of the price of crude oil. Then came what has been largely referred to a the crude oil boom or crude oil curse. In the 1970’s, as Nigeria found crude oil in commercial quantities the government abandoned agriculture, and the people followed suit.
From being a net exporter of palm oil, Nigeria became a net importer overnight. The height of the groundnut pyramids kept reducing, until they disappeared altogether. Today they exist in pictures or as distant memories because the farms are now largely empty. People moved to the cities in droves, abandoning the farms.
The ethos of the crude oil era can be summarized by then President Yakubu Gowon’s now infamous phrase that ‘Nigeria’s problem is not money, but how to spend it’. Nigeria had entered an age of profligacy. Wasteful projects were embarked upon, like the one that led to Nigeria’s ‘Cement Armada’, when in the 1970s the Government decided to import 16 million metric tons of cement when all it needed was 2.9 million tons.
Thereafter, millions of tons of cement rotted in the open seas, as the massive amount of cement laden ships had nowhere to berth, leading to painful port congestion. Economic activities were paralyzed, millions lost in demurrage and N500 million was wasted. That is but one example of the typically wasteful projects that occurred before Buhari became President in 2015.
In an era when fellow crude oil exporters like Norway, Saudi Arabia and Russia were building up massive ‘Rainy Day Funds’ from oil revenue and now have massive cash piles they are falling back on, pre-Buhari government officials were frittering oil revenue as if the money was running out of fashion. There exists many other, more bizarre cases of billions of dollars being unaccounted for that occurred before Buhari became president, like the $12 billion dollar windfall from the Gulf War.
As a result of all these wastages, the highest Nigeria-one of the largest producers of crude oil-has ever saved is about is about $30 billion – for a country of 170 million people. So blaming Nigeria’s current situation solely on Buhari is not totally accurate. But saying Buhari does not have a large share of the blame-as some of his supporters have said-is completely false.
First of all, knowing that Nigeria’s crude-oil-dependent economy was heading for the rocks, Buhari did not appoint a cabinet for months! The cancer that the economy faced would not have metastasized this far, if he had appointed a team of competent ministers with the responsibility to tackle the looming issues as soon as he came into power. Instead inexplicably, he did nothing.
Now Nigeria is like a recently fired worker in an economic depression who has no savings and no social security to fall back on. Sadly, it is not only in the area of not setting up a cabinet quickly that Buhari has faltered in:
1. Buhari Has Refused To Develop Commercial Ranching, Allowing The Herdsmen-Farmer Crises To Render The Agricultural Sector Dangerously Volatile What happens these days according to reports from all parts of Nigeria is that: farmers plant crops, and then cows belonging to herdsmen go into the farms and eat up the crops, and when farmers come to the herdsmen to complain, they are mowed down by the heavily-armed herdsmen, and nothing happens to the herdsmen.
In such a situation, many sane people will rather not go into farming. But the irony is that currently, farming is about the only sector that would have quickly revived Nigeria’s economy. The herdsmen complain of lack of land to rear their cattle and also of their cows being poached by people in the farming community. These could easily have been solved by commercial ranching in a secure environment.
All the Buhari Administration needed to have done was to empower the herdsmen financially to buy land from willing sellers and set up commercial ranches. Instead, he has ignored that solution, and the killings of farmers continue. Buhari’s puzzling refusal to empower the herdsmen with finances for commercial ranching has therefore led to an untenable situation, were Nigerians are afraid to go into agriculture.
And yet Buhari has been the most passionate proponent of the need for Nigerians to enter agriculture, a sector that relatively doesn’t need much capital. How do they enter the sector when the security of their lives and property isn’t guaranteed?
2. Buhari Has Ignored Coal, The Most Viable Solution To Nigeria’s Epileptic Power Situation A situation in which 170 million people have to share 4000 megawatts or less of electricity is untenable. Serious economic development cannot occur in such a state, due to unavailability of power to run economic activities seamlessly. That is the situation Nigeria finds itself in at present.
This is because the country is dependent on gas for its energy needs. But the problem with this is that there are so many competitors for the gas, so Government finds it difficult to get gas for electricity provision. The irony is that Nigeria has 2.7 billion tons of coal, a quantity that can sustain the consumption for 200 years. It will not take much to reopen the long-closed Enugu Coal Mines, open up new coal mines elsewhere and set up low-emission coal fired power stations.
But instead of exploiting coal to boost our electricity, the Buhari Administration curiously ignores it, while Nigerians pour opprobrium on him for the sorry state of power. The explanation that coal power is ‘dirty’ doesn’t hold as much water as before. Technology that traps pollutants from coal burning such as sulphur dioxide which causes acid rain and nitrogen oxide, which produces smug is now available for coal fired plants.
Buhari needs to pull Nigeria into the coal bandwagon. Coal accounts for: 50% of power consumed in the US; 70% OF India’s power; 80 percent of China’s power, 50% of Germany’s power, etc. Only then will we see the kind of stability and growth in our power sector which will effectively catalyze economic growth.
3. Buhari Has Refused To Legalize ‘Illegal’ Refineries: None of Nigeria’s government-owned refineries are working, but thousands of privately owned mini refineries are running effectively in the South East and South South. Yet, rather than license these refineries and regulate them, the government routinely destroys thousands of them. As a result, Nigeria is left without much locally produced fuel, and is forced to import fuel with scarce foreign reserves.
Buhari needs to takes steps in the opposite direction and encourage these budding entrepreneurs, rather than destroy their investments.
4. Buhari’s Damaging 5% Label On The South East And South South Early On In His Presidency President Buhari made a gaffe when he effectively stated at the US Institute of Peace that he would concentrate on constituencies where he got 97% of the vote and ignore ones where he got 5% (South East and South South Nigeria).
The statement sounded unbelievable, but since then, several of his policies suggest that he means every word of it: For instance, a breakdown of his projects to be executed from a $30 billion foreign loan he is seeking shows that no project is slated for the South East. This is coming at a time when the main transit point connecting the South East to the rest of the country, the Niger Bridge is reportedly in a state of near collapse.
To make matters worse, mysterious military road blocks have appeared just after the bridge on both ends, and it has been alleged by South Eastern leaders that the roadblocks are part of a conspiracy to put so much civilian pressure on the bridge through gridlock that it collapses, given the heavy traffic that passes through it at this time of the year.
Buhari should realize that measures that make it seem as if he is persecuting the South East-South South do not make him look like the father of the nation that he is, and may hand a political advantage to his opponents in the 2019 elections. Buhari may feel betrayed by the South East and South South, but the only thing he can do about it is to try to win their hearts and minds, not to punish.
5. Buhari Has Refused To tell Us How Much Nigeria Has Recovered From His Anti-Corruption Drive President Buhari’s brand revolves a lot around his anti-corruption credentials. That is one of the reasons many Nigerians voted for him in the 2015 presidential elections. Since becoming president, government agencies have arrested scores of past government officials and claim that they have recovered a lot of stolen funds from these former officials.
The problem is that, given the current crises hammering the Nigerian economy, Nigerians expected the government to have used some of these so called recovered funds to alleviate their problems. Unfortunately, there are no figures of how much has been recovered or what the money has been used for. So significant doubts are now being raised about whether the former officials arrested are in fact guilty of embezzlement or if they are just being witch hunted for political purposes.
These kinds of allegations do not help Buhari’s brand as an incorruptible leader, and could be used against his reelection bid in 2019. Buhari should lay all doubts to rest and give Nigerians a full breakdown of how much money has been recovered so far, and what the monies have been used for.
And if the monies have not been used at all, he should tell us why. It is not too late for Buhari to save Nigeria and save himself politically. This writer notes that China’s economic miracle started not as a result of massive investments, but as a result of policy decisions that reversed bad directions.
China became an economic success story because Deng Xiaoping decided to allow more private ownership of agricultural land. In that vein Buhari needs to make 5 decisions that will fill his change with economy-reversing power.
In a nutshell:
1. Buhari needs to guarantee the security of lives and property in the agricultural sector by empowering the herdsmen with funds to set up their own commercial ranches. He needs to depoliticize their business by persuading them to disarm, while taking security measures to protect them from cattle poachers.
2. Buhari needs to urgently exploit coal and build coal-fired power plants to energize Nigeria’s weak economy.
3. Buhari needs to legalize ‘illegal’ private refineries and regulate them to stop the unnecessary wastage of foreign exchange to import fuel, while providing Nigerians with enough fuel to power the economy.
4. Buhari needs to be seen to promote stability by ensuring development in every part of the country, including those areas that fell to the PDP in the last elections. Additionally, he needs to avoid inflammatory rhetoric about those areas.
5. He needs to be totally transparent with Nigerians concerning the state of recovered funds and to use those funds to urgently save the economy. A stitch in time can save nine.