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The non-change election

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I don’t mean to be the ‘Grinch’ to ruin Christmas for you. But being my last column for this year, I thought to talk about the great mismatch between what Nigeria needs as a country and what its politics can realistically deliver. To put it another way – however you choose to vote in next year’s elections, it is unlikely that much is going to change in terms of the deep structural reforms required to change Nigeria’s future for the better.

Let’s start with Trader Moni. The Nigerian economy is worth over N80trn annually in terms of GDP. Trader Moni is worth less than N15bn. Yet it has been launched and launched over and over again with so much energy by the vice-president. Strangely this energy has been missing from things like land reform or all the really hard problems that require energy. The reason is understandable – Nigerian politicians have a high response rate to things that deliver instant feedback. Sharing money in the market is the ultimate in this genre – when the programme is launched, ecstatic traders can be seen getting emotional in the presence of the VP’s star power. Thus, the programme must be the ‘right’ thing to spend time on. 

How about the budget? Successive governments have now been utterly defeated by something as simple and mundane as drawing up a budget for the country. In 2015, all the talk was about zero based budgeting but today, the document has moved in the opposite direction from reality. Why? Because the reality is too uncomfortable for politicians who purport to lead the country to worry about. Every single dollar the country now earns from oil is spoken for even before the country earns it. You can pretty much run the government on autopilot now by simply taking oil revenues, paying salaries and borrowing the shortfall. 

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If the budgeting system is bad because reality is too painful, the logical thing to do is to interrogate what exactly it is Nigeria is spending its meagre resources on. Yes, there is an argument that the government needs to find more sources of revenues (I don’t buy this argument) but you have to judiciously spend the money you have not the money you want to have. The lowest hanging fruit here is fuel subsidy. It is a political decision to remove or keep it and not like salaries where the government has a contractual obligation to pay people it employs, at least in theory. But if you listen to Nigeria’s two main political parties, you will see people tiptoeing around the issue with the hope of getting through the campaign without having to talk about it. In fact, in a most amusing irony, the PDP has taken over President Buhari’s former position – that there is no fuel subsidy – and President Buhari is now the one defending the subsidy, which presumably now exists. 

If fuel subsidy cannot be tackled, there is no point even talking about civil service reform, another giant fishbone in the country’s neck. Nigeria’s civil servants clearly know some dirty secrets about Nigeria’s politicians given the way they can get the government to respond to them – a tiny minority of Nigerians – with the vast majority of resources that ought to be used for almost 200 million Nigerians. Amazingly, the government has even been publicly bantering with labour unions over an increase in the ‘minimum wage’ that it surely cannot afford (except by simply printing naira). In fact, the entire ‘debate’ around a ‘minimum wage’ is a fake one because what is actually being discussed is a pay raise for everyone. This is why you never hear about how many people actually earn the minimum wage so we can know who is really affected and how much it will cost in public funds. 

Nigerian politicians are incredibly lucky. No scandal – corruption, sex, murder – can unsettle them. They collect a full day’s pay for working either part time or not at all. Nigerians will even go to war with each other over them while they live sheltered and pampered lives. 

The moral of this story is that Nigerian politics is simply not up to the task of reordering the country’s destiny. Things that began as bad habits have now become bad incentives with their own industry behind them. Education is in a shambles – it cannot even arm students with the basic skill of finding information for themselves. We are watching a slow motion collapse of the country’s most important port and the government just seems powerless to do anything about it.

All of Nigeria’s problems become knottier and more intractable every single day, they remain unresolved. I don’t pretend to have magic answers to any of Nigeria’s problem except to say that the country needs leadership that can articulate difficult but necessary reforms to Nigerians and then sell them every day with Trader Moni like energy even if there is no instant or enthusiastic feedback. 


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