There is a cacophony of voices telling the Muhammadu Buhari administration to close its eyes to the past, that given the enormous tasks that lie ahead, history and its consequences for our nation should be the least of the government’s preoccupation at this juncture. I disagree. To avoid repeating past mistakes, Nigerians must come to terms with what went wrong with the past, how bad were things, what was done wrongly, what the past government should have done, before we come to what needs to be done to right those wrongs. Believe me, episodes from the Jonathan era can fill books, and other possibilities such as courtroom drama thriller.
Against this backdrop, I sought to hear our erudite Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun on where we are coming from, vis-a-vis the administration’s chosen path to recovery and accelerated growth. What is the administration doing to revitalize the economy? She spoke at length on the many measures being put in place, many of which are not glamorous. The simple explanation is that the economy was broken, and just as they do the broken leg, you must bear the pain of fixing it.
As explained by President Buhari again and again, trumpeted by Madam Adeosun and other senior officials, we solely relied on oil, the price of which was as high as US$140 per barrel. Government simply reticulated oil revenue through personal spending by corrupt leaders, wasteful expenses and salaries. This was done rather than investing in what would grow the economy. Economies grow due to capital investment in assets like seaports, airports, power plants, railways, roads and housing. Nigeria has not recorded a single major infrastructural project in the last 10 years. In short the money was mismanaged.
In addition to failing to spend money on what was needed, no savings were made by government unlike other countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Norway. To compound the problem, the previous government was borrowing heavily and owed contractors, and international oil companies. When this government took over we had accumulated debt back to the level it was before the Paris Club Debt Forgiveness. All these factors were building up to Nigeria heading for a major crisis if the price of oil fell. Nigeria did not have fiscal buffers to withstand an oil shock.
The oil shock should and could have been foreseen. These are matters that both the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sunusi 11 and Professor Chukwuma Soludo, both them eminent former Central Bank Governors had occasions to warn the government of the day about, but they were clobbered. The dire warnings were written on the wall, but they were ignored by Nigeria’s economic managers. They should have had the courage and vision to do as the present administration is doing through the Economic Team, the Ministry of Finance under Madam Adeosun and the various agencies of the state to envision a better future by first of all fighting corruption. Look at what a civilian administration is today doing to military, investigating their finance and accounts that the military could not do to themselves.
Now that the oil has fallen as low as US$28 per barrel, it is very difficult to do what is needed but they must be done to save Nigeria. There is no other way if we want to be honest. If PDP were still in power they would have continued deceiving people, by borrowing to fund stealing and wastage and the problem would have simply been postponed for future generations to face. There are many who say that this government’s economic strategy is unclear whereas the previous government seemed well co-ordinated. I will make the confession that we, the officials hired to communicate government policies, including myself, have not done as well as we should have.
The truth is that more than any other time before, there is a clear direction and strategy for achieving growth and development. Revisionists may not agree, but the truth of the matter is that the previous administration only had one issue, which was how to spend money ( oil revenues and borrowed money). As mentioned earlier this spending was focussed on the wrong things and even though the economy seemed to be growing it was not sustainable, it was, as described by Minister Adeosun, a classic “boom and bust”’ driven solely by the oil price.
The government is people-focused and wants the economy to grow in a way that will create a more stable future which is not dictated by world oil prices (over which we have no control). No more boom and bust (thanks, Minister Adeosun). Nigeria wants to take responsibility for its own destiny, therefore our policies will ensure that Nigeria returns to growth in a sustainable manner. No more dependence on oil. Every part of Nigeria has a role to play in contributing to our growth. We will create an environment where people can thrive and where business can grow.
To this effect, all relevant agencies have been reoriented to focus government spending on infrastructure which will create jobs and opportunities for Nigerians across a number of sectors, not just oil. Ensure that we reduce our reliance on oil by developing other revenue streams such as taxes, efficient customs collections and other government revenues. Develop key sectors in which we have comparative advantage and encourage development of agriculture to ensure food security for our huge population. Develop petro-chemical industry on the back of the oil industry, develop solid mineral extraction and also develop light manufacturing to provide locally made basic needs and reduce importation.
If you are an official of this administration and a mixer, that is someone who mingles with citizens high and low, a charge you are forced to defend is that this government seems to be bringing austerity and suffering to the people. Blame not Buhari. The current pain is due to the mismanagement of the past.
Nigerians expect a lot from President Buhari and rightfully so. Many feel disappointed. While much of this warranted, a lot more is arising from opposition politics. A man who has promised good things is being accused of failing to use the palm to cover the sun or that he is unable to stop the rain. This government is fighting corruption. It is working hard to do things right and do them in a manner that will endure. No government has ever considered the poor like this one. Under the current budget, the administration devoted N500Bn for social intervention programmes for those who need and deserve support. There is hope for Nigeria, a hope that was previously clouded by corruption, greed and lack of focus. Nigeria is starting over and everyone has a role to play. Look back, look ahead.
Shehu is Senior Special Assistant (Media and Publicity) to the President.