Nigeria: That Sinking Feeling

9 October 2019
opinion

Abuja — Against my better judgment, I sat through the opening formalities of the 25th Nigerian Economic Summit(NES) two days ago. I admit to some curiosity over the contents of President Buhari's address at the Summit that has become an annual barking platform on our economy. Perhaps the optimist in me was hoping for a redeeming improvement on his UN General Assembly speech, an event which he used to say all the wrong things to the wrong forum. There was also that stubborn voice hinting that he will feel more at home and emboldened by a new and fairly acclaimed Economic Advisory Council to mention some uplifting initiatives or even offer a different consoling phrasing from the tired phrases that Nigerians will soon see major improvements in their lives, or, even worse, that Nigerians are living better than they did before 2015. Certainly, any performance would have been better than the tepid and bland Independence Day speech, the most poignant summation being the President's exhortation to citizens to fix Nigeria, as leadership cannot do it.

To be fair, the President did step slightly out of routine in his address. He said Nigeria's wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few people living in four or five states and the FCT, many of such people among his audience. 150 million other Nigerians from 31 states are living in abject poverty. You would think the President is hinting at the alarming rate at which the country is being redefined by widening gulf between regions and classes, the most pronounced being the deteriorating economy of the northern part of the country and the isolated strides being made by a few states in the south.

You could even sit up when you detected a President recognizing the dangerous chasm between economic classes, much of it caused be worsening standards in the management of the economy and the cynical exploitation of the weaknesses of governments and corruption by a handful of those privileged to do so. Most of the dangers of increasing wealth for a shrinking few and deepening poverty for a growing majority were recognized by the president: migratory and security trends in Nigeria and across the region, the challenges of population growth and the linkages between security and corruption were in his speech. There was also the mention of policies and programmes that are designed to be inclusive and promote collective prosperity. Then the damper: the President refers to his party's election vision for clues on how the nation's desperate circumstances can be addressed. There is no hint at what new or improved steps will be taken to fix the economy, fight corruption or create jobs.

You get that sinking feeling that our leaders are either unaware of the magnitude of the problems the nation faces, or they are unwilling to change gear even in the face of realities. If the President had stayed behind at the Summit, he would have benefitted from some informed, even if unflattering comments about the economy from some of the very people who own the nation's wealth he referred to. The Keynote Speaker at the Summit, Atedo Peterside, lamented that "falling annual per capita incomes have become the norm in every single year since 2015... In a nutshell, falling living standards appear to have come to stay in Nigeria... at a time when several African countries are successfully lifting more and more of their own people out of poverty". Chairman of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group(NESG), Dr Asue Ighodalo lamented the slow growth rate of the GDP at 2%, an inflation rate above 11% and, more worrying, food inflation which is higher, at 13.2%. What these mean is that more Nigerians are becoming poorer and feeding is becoming more challenging. The Emir of Kano rounds it up with his usual royal refrain: our burgeoning population is a liability compounding other liabilities, making the tasks of engineering real economic growth increasingly more difficult.

It is tempting to dismiss some of the criticisms of the management of the economy and its impact at the Summit by reference to class or partisan interests. Certainly only a handful of the people at the Summit would have voted for Buhari during the last two elections, but it is fair to say that if partisanship decided their choices in 2015 as major stakeholders and operators of the Nigerian economy, they would have voted against him in 2019 for him (mis)management of the economy. The most charitable verdict you would return for President Buhari so far would be that his heart is in the right place. If that is the case, you will have to wonder where his head is. Here is a President who has governed a country where more and more of the poor who voted for him are getting poorer. The middle class has been decimated. Professionals are migrating at alarming rates. Violent crimes are impacting on major economic activities such as agriculture, access to land and mineral resources and even settlement patterns. The cost of everything is rising, a few get its benefits while the vast majority asks what good will come from some decisions and policies and when.

The president who chased away Boko Haram back to enclaves in the North East now presides over a nation resisting a rollback by Boko Haram, and citizens who are at the mercy of bandits and kidnappers and all types of crimes that flourish when the state's capacity to protect them weakens. Governors are adopting panic, eye-catching measures to achieve short-term goals with resources that could make differences at levels of poverty and the manner vital social structures could be rebuilt. Fights are breaking out between governments and international relief and humanitarian agencies over the manner millions of Nigerian victims of violent crimes can be assisted. Foreign investors, except the Chinese who think in circles of decades are wary of investing in a nation shackled by bottlenecks erected by patronage, uncertainty and insecurity. You get that sinking feeling that things will not improve soon under current thinking and disposition.

Abubakar wrote this piece from Abuja

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