16 June 2014

Nigeria: A New Low


Over the last four years, I have been worried by how the incumbent administration has managed the economy. Despite the roseate headline numbers, there are reasons to still fear that the structural underpinnings of the economy may be much softer than they appear. Worse. No one knows how the economy would respond to the beating from election-related spending as we near St. Valentine's Day, 2015.

But before all of that, there are the difficulties with the oil and gas sector. We have increasingly earned less from oil exports even as global oil prices have remained in the US$100 per barrel range for a while now. Over a much longer time horizon, we ought to worry that US demand for Nigerian crude has fallen over the last 3 years,c as that country exploits more of its local resources - and that this demand may have further to fall, until, at least, the unconventional deposits that are behind the US' increased domestic oil production start to taper (by 2035, according to one estimate).

Parallel with the search for new demand outlets for our oil output, there is a strong case for reforming the domestic industry in a manner that supports new production sources. Still, the Jonathan government has allowed the petroleum industry bill (a document flawed in many respects, but more so in its proposed governance arrangements) to fester in the legislature forever. Instead it has opted to advertise the consequent divestiture by international oil companies from the upstream oil and gas sector as victory for its local content policy.

The vicissitudes of the oil industry point us at further problems. The accounting there is self-evidently poor. It did not need the theatrics surrounding the expose by the former governor of the central bank to hint at the nature of the problem. Despite reforms to the public expenditure management framework, we find that government is still not able to execute fully those projects captured in its capital budget, while simply consuming the greater part of annual appropriation bills. Does it matter for the efficiency of our public administration that this capital budget is such a small portion of the annual appropriation acts?

Troubling though these structural vulnerabilities are, I have a new worry. The Jonathan administration may have dumbed down domestic debate. Yet, without vibrant discussion around major national questions, we will never agree on an outlook for the country. We will never be able to take advantage of windows of opportunity that may open as we go forward. Or design and put in place mitigants to threats that we envisage may crop up.

In part, this is an inevitable upshot of the administration's peevishness. Looking in on the administration's gut response to most issues, I am reminded of a quote that was the lodestar of my adolescence. Having learnt, growing up that Eleanor Roosevelt once said that "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people", I plighted my troth as a teen to an acquaintance with, and an attempt at understanding the dominant ideas that have held mankind spellbound.

I may not have become a great mind in the process, but, of late, I have seen the national nous atrophy on the back of the Jonathan administration's instinctive immersion of the president's persona into every debate that has arisen since the administration came into office. We hear for instance that the administration's initially lethargic response to the Chibok debacle owed much to the presidency's persuasion that it was all a hoax designed by Dr. Jonathan's "opponents" to trip him up.

From the furore over shenanigans in the aviation ministry, through to the former CBN governor shouting wolf over goings on in the petroleum ministry, this administration could see only threats to the president's person. Not once did his minders see an invitation to reform practice(s) in ways that strengthened the country on the path to its eventual normalisation.

Thankfully, an emphatic vote against the incumbent administration ought to go some distance in redressing this new national vulnerability. The same cannot be said, unfortunately, of a parallel development in the polity. Over the same period that the administration personalised what used to pass for a national conversation, the quality of the national voice wants a decent standpoint. Scroll through the comments/responses at the end of most Nigerian-based online publications, and you get the sense that dearth of ideas and critical thought is a new national pandemic.

Thus, I long since stopped reading beyond the main stories and opinion pieces online. Then, last week, I read on my Facebook timeline a post by a "friend" of mine who is an avid "Jonathanian". Don't worry, for like "Amechists", these nouns have no meaning beyond the acceptance by those who bear them of their close identification with the persons whose names these nouns extend. They represent no ideologies, no doctrines. Nothing worth remembering. And do much more worth forgetting.

This digression aside, this "friend" offered to respect "their emir" (the new one in Kano, I presumed), if "they" respect "his president". I still think this odd. Not solely because "respect is earned" not through such transactions, but through respectable conduct. I thought it strange that this administration may have successfully inveigled us into mixing persons, events, and ideas, in ways that prevent us from telling good events, people, and ideas from bad ones.

Suddenly, "good" and "bad" have been relativised to the point that all that matters now, is that the person in question is "one of us". Most of us laughed when first we heard the plea "Omo wa ni, e je ose".

But, today, I suppose the joke is on us all?

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