The grim statistics
The figures are grim. Inflation 17.1 per cent; Gross Domestic Product 2.06 per cent; unemployment/underemployment 26.06 million; crude oil price, less than $50 per barrel; oil production declined from 2.11 million barrels per day by the end of the second quarter of 2016 to 1.69 mbpd. These are figures produced by the National Bureau of Statistics which indicate that Nigeria’s economy is in a recession.
The Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, put the situation quite grimly but frankly: “It’s the worst possible time for us. Are we confused? Absolutely not. How are we going to get ourselves out of this recession? One, we must make sure that we diversify our economy. There are too many of us to keep on relying on oil.”
She is not saying anything that nobody has said before. All of Nigeria’s leaders since the Shehu Shagari era have parroted this diversification line but how much of it has been done? Pretty little. One of the problems of Nigeria’s leadership is “a short attention span.” When there is some calamity in the oil industry and we cannot engage in full production we talk about diversification. When the price of crude goes south we talk about diversification. When the militants go crazy and blow up oil infrastructure we remember diversification. As soon as the problem recedes, the talk of diversification goes away too. I am almost certain that if by some stroke of luck the price of oil goes up and the guns fall silent in the Niger Delta tomorrow, diversification as a policy will disappear from the government’s radar.
But first let’s interrogate the statistics. The facts behind the figures that tell us that our economy has slipped into a recession are even more grim. They are more grim because while statistics are just cold blooded figures, the facts deal with live human beings and their condition as they negotiate life’s treacherous bends.
Kerosene, the poor man’s cooking liquid, now sells for N300 a litre if you can find it. Many men and women are crawling back to their old, reliable friend: firewood. A depletion of the forest is an environmental hazard that can contribute significantly to climate change. Diesel, the rich man’s manufacturing liquid, the most effective power source in the absence of power from the official source now costs N220 per litre. The result? Low production, closures and layoffs.
Now airlines are staying more on the ground than in the air because they cannot get aircraft fuel which some smart fellows are now selling as kerosene. This is compounding the woes of the flying machines. The airlines are now raising their fares astronomically to make ends meet. At the last count there were two casualties, Aero Contractors and First Nation. Both airlines have been grounded by the force of impecuniosity because all along they have been flying at a low altitude financially.
The prices of goods including foodstuff have gone up since the price of petrol was upped. Most people are making adjustments in their eating habits either by patronising “food is ready” or “mama put” eating outlets or resorting to a 0 – 1 – 0 arrangement, that is one meal a day. This lifestyle change is not restricted to eating habits. In the area of housing, a lot of young people are moving from flats to face-me-I-face-you shanties or engaging in flat sharing. Those who have cars are involved in car pooling or are taking a ride in BRT buses in Lagos which they had hitherto scorned. But there are adjustments that are difficult to make. One area is health. Those who cannot afford hospital bills are either patronising petty medicine sellers who may be selling fake drugs or they are beating their way to the babalawo or the Pentecostal churches. Neither the babalawo nor a spiritual church is a hospital. The bottom line is that the health of many of our country men and women is gradually being put in peril.
This is compounded by the fact that many of the state governments are still unable to pay salaries to their staff. Some of the state governments have now reduced their working days from five to four or three in the hope that the workers can use those free days for farming. But you have to have land to be able to farm. And the passion for farming is not stored in everybody’s genes. Perhaps the most important achievement in the reduction of work days is that workers are able to save on transportation cost. But it is likely that agriculture will do better than it has always done. The attention paid to it is yielding some minor results. In the second quarter of this year, agriculture grew by 4.53 per cent as against 3.09 per cent in the first quarter. The difficult area in terms of diversification is the solid minerals sector which needs massive investment as well as a legal and administrative framework that will accommodate the states and local governments. However, that is a subject for another day.
I read with pleasure President Muhammadu Buhari’s directive to the NNPC to go find oil in the North. Although oil exploration has been going on for more than 30 years in the North no oil has yet been found. If we find oil in the north we will achieve two things: (a) we will add to our available oil output which means more revenue to the country (b) we will have peace in the oil industry because the right decisions will now be taken and majoritarian/minoritarian politics will be put to rest. NNPC, please search and find oil in the north so that if there is a discussion of environmental degradation and resource democracy there will be a level playing field. If there is going to be a discussion of militancy, pipeline vandalisation, compensation for oil bearing communities we will all be on the same page.
As things are now, since there is no oil produced in the north the Niger Delta people can never win any argument about oil. They are reminded that their state governments are pocketing a lot of money from the federation account as if the non-oil states don’t. They also have the NDDC and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs each with a huge yearly budget. But how much of the money is ever released for projects in any given year? Who awards the big contracts in these two outfits? The Abuja lords of the manor, never mind that the outfits are headed by Niger Deltans. That is the reality of Nigeria’s politics and except we find oil in the north things will remain that way.
The other day citizens of Benin Republic were lamenting the current decline in the patronage they get from Nigerians now. That is an index of how Nigeria itself has declined. When I read the story of Venezuelans going across the border to Colombia to buy essential items I wondered: Will we have to go to Benin Republic for our tomatoes or tea? Now that Benin Republic is in distress where will we go to?
Buhari has assured us that this is a temporary eclipse and that we will swim across the ocean to the other end of prosperity. He should do what James Carville did as Political Adviser to Bill Clinton in 1992. During the campaign for the governorship of Arkansas, Carville posted a sign at his office as a constant reminder of what was the most important topic on the campaign agenda: the economy. The bill read: “It’s the economy, stupid.” A plaque like that will remind Buhari that his unwavering focus should be on the economy, every day.
It’s a pity we didn’t dig the well before we were thirsty. Now we have to dig it when our throats are already parched.