President Muhammadu Buhari has reechoed that Nigeria is broke. This is the umpteenth time. And it’s beginning to tinkle the ears (a cliché is coming…) like a broken record.
A few moments before Buhari departed New Delhi, where he participated in the third India-Africa Forum, he told the Nigeria Television Authority and Channels TV, in an interview, that the empty treasury he had inherited upon assuming office on May 29, 2015 remains full of nothing five months after. It has yet to experience positive change. He summed the state of the vault with a categorical affirmation: ‘’Of course, Nigeria is broke.’’
Buhari elaborated the ramifications of the situation. Africa’s biggest economy cannot conveniently fulfill the basic elements of her national recurrent obligations. ‘’Nigeria cannot pay salaries. The Federal Government itself had to summon the Governor of the Central bank to see how it would pay salaries not to talk of the agreements we signed with foreign countries, counterpart funding and so on.’’ He also telegraphed a kill-joy alert to his exulting 36 ministers-designate: My favorites will be ministers; others will be mini-stars, sitting in the cabinet to satisfy the constitutionally prescribed righteousness of federal character.
Spokesman of opposition Peoples Democratic Party, Olisa Metu, said Buhari was ‘’demarketing Nigeria’’. Buhari is scrambling the proud, sacred trope of a Nigeria that is (a homegrown cliché coming this time…) ‘rich in human and material resources’. The President’s spokesman replies that the incumbent administration has pledged fealty to candor. Buhari will not flinch from voicing how broke Nigeria is.
The Presidency’s riposte had a definitive a-no-and-a-wink dimension. The retort was a veiled, triumphal mockery of the deceitful denialism of the past administration. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Minister of Finance and the Coordinating Minister of the Economy, always resisted any suggestion that Nigeria was cash-strapped. She had a cocktail of statistics to buttress her claim that the fundamentals of the economy in her motherly care were strong.
Chukwuma Soludo, former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, at some point, queried the basis of her optimism. He challenged her claims of national buoyancy and warned that the famine would sooner be too self-evident to be denied. He particularly advised that the winner of the 2015 elections will have a basket case economy to deal with.
Soludo was later proved right. In the last months of the Jonathan presidency, the FG borrowed to pay her civil servants. Okonjo-Iweala herself admitted that much.
Buhari inherited the coffers and declared it ‘’virtually empty’’. It was a necessary disclosure. He had been swept into power by a populist wave of voter goodwill. He had to declare the state of the purse. He needed to acquaint the people with a factor that would impede his early start. That was fine.
But six months after, Buhari’s update on the treasury remains depressing. Nigeria is still broke. And he reports the fact of her empty purse as ‘’the truth’. And that’s the part that raises a cause for concern.
‘’Truth’’ is an eternal fact. It is a time-conquering verity that will always be true. A fact that is not subject to change. A fact that ultimately frustrates human attempt to alter it.
So when you hear the President commit to serving the dosages of ‘’truth’’ about the economy, your alarm bells start to ring. Is the condition of Nigeria’s empty treasury really ‘’the truth’’? Will it always be true? Is it impossible to change? Are we stuck with it? Are we doomed to continue mourning it?
Malta, an unimpressive force in erudition, surprisingly, gave the closest correct approximation of the damage Buhari makes when he invokes the fact Nigeria is a beggar state as a truism. Buhari doesn’t do Nigeria’s empty treasury any good by speaking ‘’truth’’ to it; or by proclaiming the ‘’truth’’ about it.
When Buhari says Nigeria can’t pay her domestic bills and can’t honor her part of the terms of some binding international financial covenants, he projects national weakness. He inputs panic into a gloomy economic system whose vital signs are worrisome. He promotes local hoarding. And he terrifies prospective foreign investors who may be looking in from outside. In this way, he sabotages the ability of Nigeria to climb out of the pit.
Buhari’s ‘’truth’’ telling solidifies conditions that will perpetuate the emptiness of the purse. It doesn’t break the fall of an economy on the decline: it promises to accelerate the imminent crash.
Buhari had rehashed his previous line about why Nigeria is broke. ‘’This country was materially vandalized and morally so…’’He didn’t indicate he was implementing any roadmap for stimulating for reversing our revenue deficit. He was content to externalize the blame. The orgy of plunder that had preceded his inauguration as President caused this mess. Well, he was focused on repatriating the loot from all the four corners of the world where they are warehoused.
The strategy of banking on the residue of spoils in secret hideaways all over the world to revamp the Nigerian economy is embarrassingly simplistic. It makes us mere dealers in hope. Robbery victims who won’t do anything except wait for the day their stolen goods make a return journey home!
Buhari’s also demarkets himself with his ‘’truth’’ parroting. He presents himself as a paralyzed agonizer. A helpless manager who can only watch and bewail the entropy. A mortician hired to keep vigil over the dead and keeping it a little above decay.
As he regurgitates the emptiness of the treasury time and again, Buhari inspires doubt about his capacity to administer Nigeria. He provokes distrust among those who invested hope in his ability to husband the nation. He foists buyer’s remorse on them.
Each time he reminds us that we are prisoners to an era of prodigality as a default habit, President Buhari concedes defeat to his Candidate Buhari persona. He appears to give verbal expression to a presumptive mental preference for his past role as rhetoric-spouting vote hunter: The campaigner who magnifies the failures of the government of the day and waves a magic wand. He seems to find the pressure of running for President more bearable than being the President.
This relapse to campaign mode must stop. The election is over. The winner must now administer Nigeria as it is; not grieve over the weight of Nigeria’s burden. Buhari can’t be passing the buck backwards to an expired tenure. Nigerians sacked that regime because of irresponsible leadership. It is pointless singing the refrain of what PDP did wrong: It is no remedy for the hour.
Too many repetitions of the empty treasury complaints sound like Buhari is actually pleading to be relieved of the expectation of solving his inherited problem. He indicates that he would have been more comfortable tackling issues that cropped under his watch. He just has to take responsibility. This is the job Buhari has always wanted. He can’t afford to be portraying himself as unready.
Besides, Buhari gives the impression that he had run for president four times on the assumption that if he won, he would be disturbed only by Gowon’s fabled headache of how to spend the glut of money. The treasury of Nigeria would always overflow with petrodollars. And he, Buhari, would never be tasked beyond the routine of authorizing disbursements to areas of priority.
Buhari doesn’t have that ‘’good luck’’. Today’s reality is different. The price of crude has dropped to below $50 per barrel and will remain low in the foreseeable future.
Buhari faces a long season of drought. And he needs to make commonsensical moves. If the emptiness of our treasury is actually ‘’the truth’’, he must take steps that represent his acknowledgement of that ‘’truth’’. To speak the truth is to automatically subscribe to the demands of that truth.
For example, Buhari has to turn the page on the regime of petroleum subsidy. He will incur some political costs. But that’s less expensive than keeping that faucet of waste open, in defiance of reason and reality. This time of shortage should not tolerate that leisurely hemorrhage!
Of course, he can’t keep prodding the naira on a weak crutch. The disparity between the official rate of 200 naira and the parallel market rate of 225 is an indication that Nigeria needs to embrace reality. He needs to order the proper valuing of the naira as the prevailing dynamics dictate.
The administration must prune down the countless number of government departments and agencies that the Federal government funds. Institutions with overlapping mandates should be merged. Redundant organizations should be scrapped. And the over-bloated civil service must be trimmed.
The tokenism of announcing a voluntary 50% pay cut does not cancel the imperative of addressing more serious channels of waste. Buhari cannot retain the dozen plus airplanes in the presidential fleet while speaking the ‘’truth’’ about the empty treasury.
After that unprecedented slow start, which Buhari said he needed to settle down, we need to see radical developments in agriculture and mining. Not to hear a Complainer-in-Chief resigned to perpetual lamentation.
Emmanuel Uchenna Ugwu