Nigeria underestimates its crisis

NIGERIANS had long felt it, from as early as late last year, but the recent release of gloomy figures by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) confirms what everyone, including the government itself, already knew. The economy is in deep trouble, perhaps the worst in about 30 years, and there seems to be no clear or firm indication that a concise and coherent attempt is being made to extricate it from its many troubles. A few weeks ago, the Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, had gloomily announced that the economy had contracted into a recession. The NBS statistics confirms that from a first quarter contraction of about 0.36 percent, the economy has shrunk further by a worrying 2.06 percent in the second quarter. Unemployment is up by a staggering  Q2 13.3 percent in 2016 from Q2 8.5 percent in 2015. Inflation, too, has risen in second quarter 2016 to 17.1 percent. On all sides, the country is confronted by misery.

What frightens many Nigerians is that the government’s response has been either dithering or buck-passing. Nothing consistent, nothing coherent, nothing persuasive and reassuring. Perhaps the weightiest effort so far to combat the recession is the improperly labelled economic emergency powers idea in which the Muhammadu Buhari presidency would attempt to cut the Gordian knot of tangled panaceas. It is recognised that one of the reasons for the entrenchment of the crisis may be due to the inability of the government to respond very quickly and smartly to the problem on account of administrative and bureaucratic bottlenecks. If the National Assembly should confer emergency powers on the government, it is argued optimistically, it would unshackle the president to move determinedly against delays and tentativeness. But the details of the bill have neither been adumbrated nor subjected to full internal debate within the economic management team, nor yet even passed on to the president for onward presentation to the legislature, perhaps as an executive bill. Indeed, nothing indicates that the presidency is itself persuaded that it needs such powers.

Undeniably, what the Buhari government appears persuaded about is their constant resort to taking refuge in the past. Every time critics take the government to task over its slow response to the raging economic crisis, presidential aides and government spokesmen have often vigorously suggested that Nigeria would not be in crisis today had the former ruling party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), not destroyed the economy with slipshod policies and corruption. The public should blame and criticise the PDP, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) says triumphantly. So fierce is the Buhari presidency’s riposte that government spokesmen even suggest that the PDP in particular has no moral right to accuse the government of doing nothing about the economic crisis. But fine words butter no parsnips. No matter how intensely the Buhari government blames its predecessors, the fact is that the public will hold it responsible for the continuing downward slide of the economy. Yes, the PDP cannot be absolved of blame, but the public will note that President Buhari has been unable to chart a way out of the morass, not to say instill hope in the people.

The public will recognise that about one and a half years into his presidency, the Buhari government should have been able to arrest the drift, assuming turning the corner would present a much huger challenge. They recall that when he assumed office in May last year, he proceeded agonisingly too slow, reluctant to constitute a cabinet when the people cried for one, and railing against ministers whom he regarded as noisemakers in an unprecedented manner. Even now, they see that he has been unable to change the leadership of many key agencies and parastatals, and in addition has failed to appreciate or define what it means to constitute an economic team. They realise that the situation would have been much worse had the president not been compelled against his personal wish and desire to tinker with the exchange rate policy, for he remained unconvinced that it made sense to let the naira float against other currencies.

The public was also astounded that he spurned the opportunity to deregulate the downstream sector of the oil industry when conditions made it suitable to do so at his assumption of office last year. And when he finally got round to it, prompted by desperate aides and advisers, he grumbled and whined. It is true Nigerians do not blame him for much of the causes of the crisis, seeing that the scale of stealing that preceded his government continues to shock everybody, but they have now begun to blame him for poor response, insisting that the reason they voted him into office, and not his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan, is precisely because they thought him competent to tackle the prevailing economic mess in the country and to forestall the kind of general collapse now being envisaged by everyone with great trepidation. In short, so far, and dismayingly too, President Buhari has neither planned nor talked his way through the crisis. The people are, therefore, left forlorn.

The stupefying scale of the economic crisis has led many critics to wonder whether the APC in fact did more than plotting its way into office when it needed to have also understood the nature of the impending crisis, if not its causes. It is barely two and a half years to the next polls, and the ruling party must begin to contend with the fact that public confidence in its capacity to govern and stay focused is abysmally low. Months after the last polls, the party made no strenuous effort to plan what to do immediately they ascend the throne. And shortly after being sworn in, they became bogged down by internal schisms and deathly struggles. Had the PDP not been hobbled by its own contradictions and self-destructiveness, the little reputation exuded by the APC would have been torn to tatters. The ruling party clearly underestimated the scale of the crisis; even now it has not clearly shown it appreciates the humongous nature of the economic mess, let alone assemble and administer the desperate and far-reaching panaceas the problem calls for.

Increasingly, it is also now feared that quite apart from not having a grasp of and grip on economic issues, the Buhari presidency may in fact be hoping that a solution to Nigeria’s economic crisis, when found, should also be able to arrest the country’s political drift. This supposition is faulty in the extreme. The economic stability the Buhari presidency wishes for, perhaps through miraculous interventions, will be long in coming, that is if it comes at all in the next two or three years. But even if that stability is somehow conjured, it will not transform into political stability. It is abundantly clear then that the government must find a great and sustained economic programme. And it must also find a great and practical political programme, which it has unfortunately and absolutely not paid attention to at the moment. Indeed, economic revival must go hand-in-hand with political renewal.

If economic revival is not achieved in the next one year or even less, things could get complicated very fast to the point of the government losing the initiative. For, far beyond the gloomy statistics and the repeated and redundant affirmation that the Buhari presidency feels the people’s pains, no one can adequately capture the anguish on the streets. Businesses have shut down, and family breadwinners have become frustrated, angry and helpless, if not suicidal. With many leading economists traducing the Buhari presidency’s economic policies, not many are hopeful that the country will turn the corner soon. To, therefore, compound this crisis with a lack of political programme to engender structural stability and balance is to sail near the wind. For too long, the government left the economic mess to chance; it must not and cannot leave the country’s political turmoil to chance. Happenstances have not solved the economic crisis; they will not solve the political turmoil gallingly evident. The Buhari presidency underestimated the country’s economic crisis; it is also sadly and worrisomely underestimating the country’s political turmoil.

As he is apparently beginning to address or at least worry over Nigeria’s economic debacle, the president must also attentively concern himself with the country’s political crisis. He has not approached politics with any surefootedness or even knowledge, and has spoken gleefully of complex political disagreements from the perspective of law and order, from the viewpoint of force. This is a tragic mistake. Now is the time for the president and his advisers to demonstrate that they did not take the concept of leadership for granted, and that they know statesmanship demands far more complex attributes and capacity than they have given so far. In tackling the country’s rather more straightforward economic crisis, they must not ignore the more convoluted political crisis brewing beneath the surface, a terrible and almost irresistible undertow capable of drawing the country into open and turbulent seas and sinking it altogether.

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