By Ayobami Oyalowo — A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else. ~John Burroughs
Ordinarily we have been led to believe that a democratic government is essentially a participatory one and as such citizens have inalienable rights to ask questions of their representatives while expecting sensible, reasonable and civil answers, backed with facts. It is universally held that people who get “voted” into political offices are answerable to those who voted them in. But it appears we are practicing something else in Nigeria where it has become a crime for freeborn citizens to ask questions of their so-called government.
It is a known fact that in most third world countries, the mass media is controlled by government or businessmen who are mostly stooges and yes men of those in government. Therefore, the government usually controls what streams out from these media channels. Since the media generally shapes debates and discourse, opposition voices are usually muted. But with the advent of social media, online blogging, twitter, Facebook etc, the various governments in third world countries have been running helter skelter; having lost the monopoly of information. Nigeria as a third world nation is no exception. We have been denied information over the years but suddenly, it does appear, the people have found a voice in social media and are judiciously using it to call their government to order.
One thing is clear though: despite the rants and dissenting voices online, the Nigerian government scoffs at the voices of the people so much so that a presidential adviser once branded some citizens as ” collective children of anger”. But there seems to be an exception to this rule. The moment certain personalities use the social media to make their voices heard, a horde of presidential minions are unleashed, from the attack dog, to crawling roaches. Like a cackle of hyenas, they are usually out in full force. They do not have to give any intelligible answer or clear grey areas as raised. Their singular aim is to muddle up the puddle, in their usually rambunctious manner. They raise unsubstantiated allegations and mudslinging is their watchword.
The presidential minions have no restraints nor decorum. They don’t care about the sacredness of facts or the sanctity of proof. NO, that ain’t their turf. All they want is to divert attention and turn the gaze of the masses away from salient issues raised by anyone they perceive as influential. When all that fails, the government, through any of their numerous agencies, may start to pursue spurious court cases against these so called opponents.
Recently, Obiageli Ezekwesili, former World Bank Vice President, was University of Nigeria Nsukka’s 42nd Convocation lecturer. There she observed that the two administrations that succeeded Olusegun Obasanjo’s had squandered $67bn – a combined sum from our foreign reserve and Excess Crude Account. Deeply troubled, she complained that six years after the administration she “served handed over such humongous national wealth to another one, most Nigerians (especially the poor) continue to suffer the effects of failing public health and education systems, as well as decrepit infrastructure and battered institutions.”
The government got jolted by that revelation. They were more troubled by the image of the messenger and the damaging impact it will have on their already grossly despised administration.
After such revelation, one expects a sensible government to either explain what happened or contradict such claims. Not this government. In came the rambunctious and loquacious Labaran Maku, the misinformation( sorry, information) minister. He didn’t bother to explain or contradict Mrs, Ezekwesili, but rather in his usually unintelligent fashion, cast aspersions on her person. It was almost a contest of ‘yes, our government is bad, but was yours better?’ Nigerians were treated to more macabre dance steps when a member of the presidential media gang, a supposed intelligentsia and a former chairman of the editorial board of a national newspaper, jumped into the fray.
Reuben Abati took infamy to a new low, going on an expletive laden spree. Not once did he he even pretend to address Ezekwesili’s allegation. No, that wasn’t necessary in Abati’s book. He chose to give her and her supposed co-travelers a serious tongue lash. The only sad part was that Reuben was not man enough to mention their names. All he could do was make allusions that keen watchers of events could piece together to know who particular invectives were meant for .
Let us stop for a moment and examine what the bone of contention has been about. Ezekwesili alleged that the government under which she served, left behind a humongous amount of $45billion in Nigeria’s foreign reserve and $22billion in the excess crude account (ECA) totaling $67 billion as sum left behind by the Obasanjo led government. But the government that succeeded theirs, while the incumbent president was a vice President, had frittered some of that sum. Let us also recall that the same Obasanjo led government paid off the entirety of Nigeria’s foreign debt which was around $30billion at the time.
Today, Nigeria owes about $10billion in foreign debt and $50billion in local debt. Bear in mind that crude oil which forms between 70-80% of our national income has never sold for less than $90 per barrel in the last 6 years. Nigeria’s current OPEC quota is 2million BPD. You can do the maths. Recall also that the British Prime Minister, in Davos, recently asked the Nigerian government to account for the over $100billion which accrued to Nigeria last year. He made the call while belaboring the point that Nigeria does not deserve more foreign aid.
What is lost to most Nigerians in this government orchestrated “roforofo” public mudslinging, is that instead of asking the hard questions, the masses are being treated to a Nigerian brand of the Roman Coliseum. During the zenith of the Roman empire, when the citizens are disillusioned and therefore become restless, especially when the government’s performance is abysmal, the rulers will stage a big gathering to entertain them by throwing a Christian into the arena to battle bare knuckled with either a lion or a tiger. These regular “shows” were usually staged as a form of diversion to turn the attention of the populace from the ineptitude of the government of the day. Today in the Jonathanian era, we have our modern day coliseum. It is an arena that reads like: “yes I am very inept and corrupt but others are corrupt too”. The gullible amongst us lap it up and say “yes those people are not saints”. They (the gullible ones) usually miss it. The question we all ought to be asking is: “when did governance become a contest of the worse among the worst”? Is governance meant to improve our welfare or seek to prove that preceding administrations didn’t fare any better? The joke is on us.
Nigerians have lost sight of the real deal. Obasanjo was not a saint, neither were his subordinates. But what you can’t take away from his government was the fact that he placed Nigeria on the path to meeting the millennium development goals. I will seek to clarify a few points in the paragraphs that follow. I believe that all sensible Nigerians should join Mrs. Ezekwesili in this crusade. Follow me patiently, as I enumerate a couple of issues quickly.
What is the use of having a large reserve? International(foreign) reserves are a country’s “external assets”–including foreign currency deposits and bonds held by central banks and monetary authorities, gold and SDRs. Nigeria under Obasanjo, saved the excess money which was not in the budget, due to sudden increase in global oil price. Note that in reserves, you merely hold the funds as savings but it doesn’t yield any interest. To answer the question of why a country needs its FR, in global trade, countries show up at the negotiation table with what they have in store as a way of gaining an upper hand and tilting the bargain their way. Nigeria as an import based economy needs to maintain a low and stable exchange rate. The healthy state of our external reserve is a means to achieving that lofty goal.
Any business man can bear witness to the catastrophic happenings of December 2008 when the exchange rate crashed from 118 naira to a USD to about 200 naira to a USD. What created such a terrible and unstable situation was the depletion of the external reserves by the federal government of Nigeria led by Yar’adua and Goodluck Jonathan. Herein lies the crux of the matter. What became of the $67 billion? Having a healthy foreign reserve is a precursor to being able to dictate the play in global finance and foreign trade. It enables a country to play and bargain from a position of strength. A healthy foreign reserve also helps to defend the local currency from unnecessary fluctuations and sharp drop in value.
Let me quickly explain that countries are moving away from just having foreign reserves to creating Sovereign Wealth Fund SWF. What is SWF? A sovereign wealth fund (SWF) is a state-owned investment fund composed of financial assets such as stocks, bonds, property, precious metals, or other financial instruments. Sovereign wealth funds are global investments. Most SWFs are funded by foreign exchange assets. Since the SWF is usually funded by foreign exchange assets, we could have easily funded ours from the ECA. Some sovereign wealth funds may be held by a central bank, which accumulates the funds in the course of its management of a nation’s banking system. This type of fund is usually of major economic and fiscal importance. Other sovereign wealth funds are simply the state savings that are invested by various entities for the purposes of investment returns, and that may not have a significant role in fiscal management.
The aftermath of the depletion of our foreign reserves was what led to many Nigerian banks losing their foreign credit lines, thereby emasculating those banks from being able to fund importation requests by Nigerian businesses.
From the foregoing, it is crystal clear that the government of Yar’Adua and Jonathan have a lot of questions to answer, but they would rather be clever by half. While Angola, a former war enclave, has launched the SWF in October 2012, our presidential rabble rousers and attack maggots are busy making a fool of themselves. The question of the $67billion is no longer a question of yesterday’s men against today’s men. It is a case of the crimes of this GOVERNMENT against our collective sensibilities. Enough of these roman coliseums. We are no longer interested in who is a saint or the sinner. We need answers to the question posed by Dr. Mrs obiageli Ezekwesili: where is NIGERIA’S 67 billion USD?
Like I earlier averred, Obasanjo or his team were no saints; but he clearly had a team of forward looking technocrats, proven men and women who were forward looking and who made provisions for a better future for Nigeria, unlike the present administration that does nothing but borrow while plunging Nigeria into a deeper hole. Nigeria’s debt; both local and foreign, is almost $60billion (that is over N7 trillion). I weep for the future. Indeed Obasanjo did make a lot of mistakes, but what you cannot accuse him of is not planning for the future.
Rather than Reuben Abati engaging the citizens in a civil manner, like the proverbial elder, he chose to walk into the village square with corn cobs tied to his waste and inadvertently has made himself a playmate of fowls and chickens. Let them continue their macabre dance in the market square. That is their palaver. What we demand is an explanation by their financial managers about what became of the $67billion.
Of the many mistakes Obasanjo made, herein lies his greatest mistake- that he bequeathed to Nigeria two of the worst kinds of successors: an invalid and a nincompoop, because success without a successor is invariably a big failure.