Big spenders of the western world

Members of the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, are always advocating for better wages. I understand each corps member now earn N19,800.00 monthly. When I was doing my service in Ogun State in 1981/82, our monthly allowance was N200.00 only. Yes, two hundred naira only. It was a lot of money. My cousin, Ayo Olaoye, who was a manager at the CFAO, helped me to purchase a standing refrigerator for N200 from their store at the end of my service. Now the sound of naira reverberates; but it is still very shy in the market. In recent months, however, the naira has been able to hold its own against the dollars and other currencies on the foreign exchange market.

In the beginning, the naira was matched with the British pounds. This was because of our colonial experience for before the introduction of the naira, Nigeria was also using the pounds as its national currency. So when the naira was introduced at the end of the Nigerian Civil War, it was seen, not only as an instrument of transaction, but also as a symbol of our national independence and pride. One pound was exchanged for two naira. Chief Moses Olaiya, the great Baba Sala, the comedian, was one of those hired to advertise the change during the regime of General Yakubu Gowon.

For many years, the naira held its own against major international currencies. Our currency was the king of Africa and of London and many international capitals. Many shop owners in London learnt to speak rudimentary Yoruba and pidgin for they know when Nigerians arrive, they would spend well if you speak their language to them. With the oil boom after the war, Nigerians became known as the big spenders of the Western World. We had the money. The world had the goods. Who dare complain about how we spend our money? In the 1970s, Nigerians imported so much cement that the ports were clogged with ships struggling to offload their cements. That was the era of the cement armada. It took the military skill of General Benjamin Adekunle, the legendary commander of the Third Marine Commandoes Division to clear the cement armada.

By the late 1970s, we had too much money chasing too few goods and inflation was dogging our heels. The military government of General Olusegun Obasanjo set up the Price Control Board and insisted that every company advertising its product must put a price tag. Leventis Motors was the sole agent of the Mercedes-Benz car brands. It wanted to increase the prices of its cars including the flagship the Mercedes-Benz 230 and wanted the Federal Government consent to increase the price from N12,000 to N15,000 or thereabout. The government commissioned the late Professor Ayodele Awojobi of the Faculty of Engineering, University of Lagos, to study the then new model of Mercedes and recommend whether a price increase was advisable. Awojobi recommended that there was no notable change between the old models and the new ones. The old price remained.
Since then, nothing has remained the same. The Mercedes-Benz car prices have now reached the stratosphere. In the old times, the annual salary of a professor could buy a Mercedes Benz car. Today, no professor car affords a brand new car of any description or else he has other sources of income. Today only politicians, businessmen and their fellow travellers buy brand new cars from their personal income. There are very few employees of any description who can buy brand new cars from his or her personal income. On a global scale, Nigerians are regarded as poorer than the average citizen of the world, though our country is rated as rich, blessed with hydrocarbon and all the bounties of nature. And we are in debt and we are going more into debts. Our new creditors are the Chinese and they are ready to lend us more money to ensure the peonage of our grandchildren.

There were rules in the past that kept our country on the path of rising prosperity. During the First Republic, the rule was that each of the five governments; Federal, West, East, North, Mid-West, must balance its budget. Spend what you earn. Plan your budget. Keep within the rules. If you must borrow money, let it be for a project that would generate more money or accelerate production and prosperity.

Then the Civil War broke out in 1967 and money was scarce for the Federal Government. Most of the oil fields were in the Eastern Region controlled by the secessionist regime of Biafra under Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. But the Federal Government, instead of borrowing money, decided to re-engineer the economy, banned certain items of import to preserve foreign exchange and concentrate spending on the war. Soldiers were drafted to the borders to assist the Nigerian Customs to stem the activities of smugglers. I remember that soldiers of the Ibadan Garrison Organisation, IGO, under the command of then Colonel Oluwole Rotimi, were drafted to Imeko, Ogun State to prevent smuggling from Benin Republic. The soldiers came from 131 Battalion, Iwo Road, Ibadan.

In the Western State under Brigadier Adeyinka Adebayo, balancing the budget was a tough assignment. In order to improve revenue, the government decided to increase taxation, especially the poll tax. Despite the war, it could not tamper with the old welfarist programme of the West, free primary education and free health service for women and children. The proponent of the programme, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the first Premier of the defunct Western Region, was the Federal Commissioner (Minister) for Finance and Vice-Chairman of the Federal Executive Council. He was the second most powerful man in the government of General Yakubu Gowon and no one dare tamper with the programmes everyone knew was dear to him. However, attempt to increase taxes led to the devastating Agbekoya riots of 1968 and 1969.

So the naira held its own despite the war, the post war era of the oil boom and the profligacy of the Second Republic when the sedate Shehu Shagari held court at (State House, Ribadu Road) Doddan Barracks, Lagos. While the naira held its own, we were able to build the third mainland bridge, the express roads leading to Apapa, the Tin Can Island port, the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, the Egbin thermal electricity station, the Lagos-Ibadan Express road and many others.

It was also during this period that Nigeria had many new industries set up by both the government and the private sector. We remember the Oku-Iboku paper mill, the Ajaokuta iron industrial complex, the Oshogbo Steel Rolling Mills, the Peugeot Assembly plant in Kaduna, the Volkswagen Assembly plant in Lagos, the textile mills, the tyre manufacturing companies, the battery companies and many other businesses that kept the workers busy and kept mischief at bay.

It is tempting to conclude that the problem started with the regime of General Ibrahim Babangida who in a bid to please the egg-heads at the International Monetary Fund, IMF, and the World Bank, decided to deregulate the naira, making five naira to exchange for one dollar. But I think the problem may be simpler than we think. We fail to follow the examples of the First Republic and the Civil War era. We were spending what we did not earn. In our bid to satisfy the present, our leaders decided to spend our future before we reach there.

President Muhammadu Buhari, as he presents the 2018 budget, needs to return Nigeria to the path of rectitude. First there is a need for national audit of the money our leaders have borrowed on our behalf. The regime of President Olusegun Obasanjo when he embarked on the global campaign for debt forgiveness, discovered that many of our debts were for bogus projects. Buhari should order for more comprehensive audit. Those who are responsible for bogus loans should be exposed and brought to book.

At least there is cheering news in this season of angst. The naira is holding, if not too firmly, against the dollars. We only need to persuade the elite to show more respect for the national currency. A few weeks ago, in one of the society parties in Lagos, many of the top politicians and traditional rulers were busy spraying dollars and pounds. In Lagos, especially in Ikoyi and some other elite enclaves, there are landlords who only collect their rents in dollars. All these, especially the spraying, constitute serious abuse of the national currency.

For the common people, the boom era is past. That is why almost 90 per cent of Nigerian youths wear tokunbo dresses and shoes. They buy tokunbo cookers, fridges, chairs, tables and cars. Buhari should make a conscious effort to return our country back into production and keep our industries running. We could start by ensuring that at least all ministers wear Nigerian dresses and Nigerian shoes. Let us start by keeping the tailors and the shoemakers busy first. From those little steps forward, we may actually be on another journey to prosperity.



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