When I think of Nigeria at 60, I cannot shed the image of a waking giant tied down by a myriad of crisscrossed ropes, and at the end of each rope a member of Nigeria’s elite, too many of whom are corrupt, thieving and ineffectual politicians.
As this important anniversary approached, the economy dipped into full recession, with a dramatic contraction of over 6% following the triple crisis of crashing oil prices, the Covid-19 pandemic and poor economic management before the pandemic struck. Moreover, the federal government and military have failed to protect the nations’ borders. Islamist extremist militias operate with impunity in the north-east. Last month, ISIS-linked Boko Haram killed 30 police officers and soldiers in an attack on a security convoy carrying the Borno state governor. Internally, political tensions are rising. A crowdfunded social media campaign, #EndSARS, moved onto the streets nationwide and forced government to disband the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a notorious Nigerian police unit that protesters accuse of brutality, murder and involvement in crime. BBC World News captured a young protester’s cry, which could be President Muhammadu Buhari’s report card: “They are killing us, they should be protecting us.”
After over 60 years of oil production, the country is woefully unprepared to face the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The disease’s spread is largely unknown and the Nigerian government’s ability to respond with a health or stimulus package is nonexistent. Successive Nigerian governments have relied on the rescue by oil production, prices and exports but, as the pandemic accelerates towards a post-oil future, this option is uncertain. Two issues highlight the problem. By late 2019, Nigeria’s debt repayments had soared to consume 90% of revenue. Then, at the height of the global pandemic shutdown between March and May, Nigeria was left with 420000 bb/d of oil production unsold. Officials fret about where future revenue will come from. According to one: “We don’t have money to do a stimulus programme . . . We are hoping that we are able to borrow enough just to keep the lights on and to pay salaries.”
On 8 October, Buhari presented the 2021 Budget to the National Assembly which attempts to address the crisis. While the Budget of $34.4-billion is a Nigerian record, this tally of projected revenue and expenditure for a population of 195-million people compares badly with South Africa’s $100-billion for a population of 57-million and Kenya’s $30-billion for a population of 50-million. Buhari’s pre-Covid-19 disastrous economic policies, which include a fixed exchange rate regime, has led to significant disinvestment, not least by South Africa’s Shoprite retailer. Most affected are ordinary Nigerians, who not only suffer a loss of jobs, opportunity and support but also have to manage inflation at levels three times the sub-Saharan average and rising.
Yet Nigeria’s political class is already scrambling to secure funds for the 2023 elections. So entrenched is political corruption that a significant proportion of the 2021 Budget will never reach its allocated destination. So accepted and coyly acknowledged, it is referred to as ‘fiscal leakages’. Ministers collude with political parties to divert funds to electioneering. All revenue is subject to scrutiny with funds short: Ireland recently returned the $5-million stolen by the dictator, General Sani Abacha (1993–1999), which sources allege has been reassigned to the Kebbi state elections!
Despite its political class, however, Nigeria’s is an energetic society demonstrating an extraordinary entrepreneurship and innovation borne of necessity. It’s worth remembering, too, where Nigeria has come from in those 60 years. After independence, Nigeria embarked on a brutal secessionist/civil war – a defining event brilliantly captured in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. War gave prominence to military men and was followed by ten military coups – each more corrupt than the last. People close to Buhari say he has failed to tackle the most corrupt of the elite – the security chiefs – because he fears being overthrown a second time. Buhari first came to power in a coup in 1983 and was ousted in another in 1985. Nigeria’s democracy is only just 21 but the principle of change by elections is established. The certainty that Buhari will leave office after elections in 2023 is a source of optimism.
Another is the growing prominence of progressive state governors who aim to run their states in a modern and professional way. In a landmark defeat for ‘godfather’ politics, voters in September returned Godwin Obaseki as governor of Edo state. Obaseki – a former Lagos banker – broke the corrupt cycle in his first term and used state revenues for state development. The political class’s expectation is that half the state Budget pays off politicians who ‘secured’ the governor his post. As the federal funds become scarce, the future and opportunity will shift to state level as governors compete against each other for foreign investment. Consider Edo state – it has a population of five-million people – equal to Ireland and New Zealand. It’s an oil-producing state and its capital is the culturally important walled city of Benin. Like Lagos state, it has the possibility to become a successful economy in its own right – and one largely independent of federal interference. The most important reason for long-term optimism is the size of the tethered giant – $460-billion in gross domestic product in 2019.