WHEN, last week, the price of crude oil nudged up to about $40 per barrel, from the initial $30 – $32 in the international oil market, I was reluctant to celebrate. Yes, the bulk of the economic hardship Nigerians are passing through today borders on fallen oil prices, and things would definitely look up a little if global oil prices were to pick up. But I’m afraid that if the prices pick up today, we would return to our old prodigal ways.
A lot of the financial sobriety that we seem to be experiencing right now is largely because there is no free money. Crude oil had tumbled from over $100 per barrel to less than $30 per barrel. Now, without oil money, we have suddenly been forced to think. To look for alternatives. Everyone is now paying more than just lip service to the concept of Nigeria-beyond-oil. States are taking another look at their internally generated revenue and tax regimes. We are suddenly talking agriculture, mining, manufacturing, etc.
Suddenly too, Central Bank Governor, Godwin Emefiele, is not looking nearly as evil as he looked a few months back, when he first released that controversial list of 41 items, for importation of which, he said the CBN would no longer allocate Forex at the official rate. We had to think out of the box. And that was exactly what Emefiele’s CBN did.
At first, it sounded like a return to the dreaded Import Licensing regime. But it seemed the only sensible thing to do, with exchange rate tipping at nearly N400 to the dollar.
With a monthly foreign exchange inflow of about $1 billion, it is only a mad man that would expect the CBN to meet a staggering local forex demand of about $3.6 billion monthly, especially when most of it was for importation of not-too-relevant items, or items for which we have appreciable local substitutes. Items like toothpick, fruit juices, etc.
But that was not the only pressure of our scarce forex. Offshore education and medical tourism abroad were also taking their toll on the lean foreign reserve and driving up the exchange rate.
But then, you ask: Why would parents who can hardly afford one good family holiday in three years be competing to send their children to universities in Ghana, Ukraine, Bulgaria, South Africa and all manner of places, whose standards are barely up to scratch, just to move with the Joneses? Is that not where all the pressure on our poor naira comes from?
How come we have this insatiable appetite for things we can’t produce, while shunning, sometimes, better, local alternatives?
That probably explains why I was literally floating in the air last week when Senate President, Bukola Saraki, and his colleagues decided to take their buy- Nigeria campaign a notch higher by trying out a few Made-in-Aba outfits in Abuja. Cosmetic as it might look, the need to patronise Nigerian made products seems to be the only way to go, if we must begin the process of pulling our country out of the present economic quagmire and unfavourable forex situation. And those in position of authority would just have to lead the way, both in public and in their private homes.
It is nice to note that we’re finally taking this very critical issue of our national survival seriously, taking it beyond the narrative of Emefiele, going beyond his brief as CBN governor. For sure, the matter at hand has gone beyond selling crude oil and redistributing the foreign exchange therefrom.
The time has come for everyone to take a second look at his consumption pattern, as a first step to arresting the national plunge – when you’re in a hole, the first thing you do is to stop digging. We have dug ourselves into a forex hole, so we have to stop digging.
I’m also doing my part. It was at a dinner with Comptroller of Customs, Col. Hammed Ali, sometime last year, for instance, that it dawned on me that every piece of turkey we consume in this country is actually smuggled into the country. Poultry products are import-prohibited items in Nigeria, despite that we continue to flood our markets with them. That is how we begin to put pressure on scarce forex. I have since banned imported poultry in my soup pot – especially, when I know that the native fowl alternative is a lot sweeter and more nutritious than the cancer-laden imported ones.
We just have to. Our forex situation is at a critical stage, with earnings now down to about a quarter of what it used to be. In fact, it is to the credit of Emefiele and his CBN team that Nigeria has not been blacklisted from international trade, given the parlous state of our foreign reserve.
But, come to think of it, how come we all claim to be international businessmen and women yet none of us can bring one extra dollar bill into the country without using the CBN? How come we all rely on federal government to sell us dollar? In what currency do the people we do our ‘international business’ with pay us? Shouldn’t our foreign exchange earnings be augmenting whatever the government – through the Central Bank, is bringing in?
Now, it is very clear that everybody can no longer sit in the comfort of his/her respective cocoon and expect the CBN to conjure forex to fund our mindless spendings. Now, we not only have to re-examine our forex demand, but we all now have a part to play in rebuilding the reserve. Everyone has a part to play; from the Customs at the points of entry to the Ministries of Finance, Trade and Investment, which fiscal policies must have to encourage local production and protect local manufacturers. Even the ministries of power and works suddenly have to see the provision of infrastructural support is key to spur the growth of local industry and enhance foreign exchange earnings. If it will take Emefiele and the CBN to get us thinking along that line, so be it. For it’s either we halt the bleeding together or we all bleed to death.
That Auditor-General’s report
I have one standard favour I always ask of God: And that is; any time He wants to bless me with money, He should be kind enough to add a little extra to enable me hire an accountant. For counting money and balancing books have never been my strongest points.
Thankfully, so far, God has not been so mean to me as to give me money what I can’t count on the fingers of one hand. And I’m not complaining.
So, you can understand my dilemma, therefore, when, on Monday afternoon, I had to make meaning out of the figures thrown in our face by the 2014 audited report of the Auditor-General of the Federation (AGF), Mr. Samuel Ukura, submitted to the National Assembly.
According to Ukura, 73,547,759,436.00 (it’s money, by the way, and not an international telephone line) was diverted into God knows where. And, wait for this, 3,234,577,666,791.35, which was supposed to be remitted to the federation account by the NNPC also ended up never getting there. Another 235,685,861 (US dollars) realised from sale of gas to NLNG was paid into an Escrow account with curious signatories, and not captured anywhere. Hmmm!
Incidentally, accounting for the income is even less dizzying than accounting for how we spent it. For instance, N2,894,531,250.00 was spent to procure hand sanitisers. Now, my classmates at Federal Government College, Ilorin, would confirm that I was not one of their brighter mathematics students, but my guess is that, with such an amount, everyone of Nigeria’s 170 million citizens should have got about 15 bottles of hand sanitisers. I dey laugh o!
We even released money meant for construction of dams to the NSA, and paid N3,630,000,000.00 for a property without any C of O. At some point, I had to resort to my ever-reliable Michael West dictionary to look up the word ‘kleptomania’ again.
This is one country where you have to be thoroughly sick before you can be taken serious around government circles. In fact, it was more than 15 years ago that I came to one painful conclusion about our country, Nigeria: Ours is a country managed at its most commanding heights, by psychiatric outpatients