- May 1999
Nigeria is fashionable again. Potential foreign
investors are all over the place. International
monitors of the recently concluded elections were of a calibre that few
countries have seen, including the United States' Gulf War hero, Colin Powell,
and former President Jimmy Carter. Ideology peddlers from the East, led by
China, and from the West, represented by, notably, the World Bank and
International Monetary Fund, are stepping up on their quest for relevance and,
At stake are control of the minds, natural
resources and spending of 100 million Nigerians who constitute, potentially,
Africa's largest market and provide a potent rallying point for some one
billion black people the world over.
Nigeria may today post the 13th lowest capita in
the world, but it remains a powerful nation. To be its president can be
overwhelming, not just because of the physical splendour the office has
retained despite widening poverty, but also because of the competing
international attention it attracts.
World Bank President James Wolfensohn last month
spent three days in the newly democratised Nigeria, a visit strong in
expectations on both sides.
Going by Wolfensohn's pronouncements and programme,
the visit had been calculated on his side to signify that the Bank, dormant
since 1993 in Nigeria, was back in the policy-driving seat it occupied from
1986 to 1992 when Ibrahim Babangida's regime bloodily implemented the
Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP).
The Nigerians on their part had expected a
categorical package on what the Olusegun Obasanjo government considers the most
pressing economic issue: relief on the country's $31 billion external debt, the
full servicing of which would cost more than 50 percent of export earnings. The
expectation was hinged on an upbeat letter Wolfensohn had written Obasanjo last
An anxious Obasanjo pointedly asked Wolfensohn on
arrival to go beyond 'principled support' and concretise matters. Wolfensohn
virtually disowned his letter as he said Nigeria must clear its debt arrears,
currently some $18 billion, and thereafter service the debt regularly. According
to him, "debt forgiveness is not an important element in the restoration of
The international community's attitude towards
Nigeria has always been ambivalent; substantially reflecting the country's own
identity crisis. On one level it
is the country the world automatically turns to for conflict resolution in
Africa. On another, it is derided
as a rich fool, which transfers its riches abroad to enrich already rich
countries while its citizens grope in the dark and die of thirst.
This is succinctly played out in Nigeria's
two-decades-old quest for bilateral debt relief, which began when the debt, now
around $32 billion or some 100 percent of GDP, was $17 billion or some half of
Granted, a part of the problem had been Nigeria's
own politically unkempt house, with successive military regimes eager to please
outsiders while decimating their people at home and generally making the
environment antagonistic to productive multiplication of capital.
A clear opportunity is now here. Nigeria has a
democracy headed by someone the Western creditor nations adjudge clean and
possessing a clear understanding of the workings of markets.
President Olusegun Obasanjo in words and actions so
far has committed himself and his government to the ideals the creditors, led
by the US, France, Britain and Germany, lay claim to: social, economic and
political freedoms. He is restructuring government processes and overall
economy along the paths designed by these countries - individually and
multilaterally through the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organisation.
The mood of seriousness about domestic issues,
which disappeared soon after President Olusegun Obasanjo's inauguration in May
1999, may have returned.
By the end of December, he had passed the 2001
budget without a repeat of last year's five-month brawl with the legislature,
which rendered the government-driven economy moribund for half the year.
The Central Bank of Nigeria and Finance Ministry
followed up on
2 January with monetary guidelines and tariffs designed jointly to restructure the fragmented financial
services industry and build up manufacturing.
This is a promising start to what could be a better
year for growth despite disappointing support from creditor governments who,
while trumpeting Nigeria's intensifying poverty, are demanding higher debt
It is to be hoped that optimistic projections bear
out because 2000, democracy's first full year in Nigeria since 1983, was
dismal. Growth at 2.8 percent was
well below the original target of five percent was revised downwards despite
high oil prices which sometimes were nearly double the $18 a barrel allowed for
in the budget.
For all the justifiable negative headlines and
continuing frustration of everyday living, Nigeria is closer to being a
civilised society today than at any other time in most of the past 20 years.
But 2002, the eve of second democratic elections,
is crunch time. It will indicate whether the transition proceeds or reverses.
The minefields are many and embrace the economic, social and political spheres.
Long-suppressed ethnic tensions exacerbated by
arbitrary military demarcations called states, are erupting into conflicts,
which have claimed more than 1,000 lives since 2000.
The PDP itself is dominated by incumbent President
Olusegun Obasanjo, which, though ensuring the party behind him, has stripped
the party of the healthy dissent germane to healthy policy making and
execution. Therefore, what is missing from the party and the wider political
circle are power blocs, which serve to counterbalance politics.
Compounding this is the absence in the ring of any
kind of statesman able to rally especially the youth to believe in their
country again, and thus recapture the soul of the society from staggering
In the pack of present politicians, Obasanjo stands
out. But he is yet to exude that natural trait which makes people follow
someone for non-pecuniary reasons.
The Nigerian government may have scored political
points by formally withdrawing from the adjustment programme of the
International Monetary Fund (IMF) last month, but it was only a matter of time
before either side pulled the rug.
The guarded review upon which the IMF based its
first Nigeria standby agreement in nine years in late 2000 signified a
difficult partnership ahead. Indeed, soon after the government announced the
agreement, the Federal Office of Statistics reporting the return of
Yet, as with the first time round in 1986, this
programme started in 1999 with mutual commendations. The government kept a
tight rein on spending, even a suspending fiscal releases and steering clear of
central bank borrowing. However, in mid-2000, the screw was loosened and that
year, instead of a targeted budget surplus, the government recorded a deficit
equivalent to 2.9 percent of GDP.
The stark question though is where does Nigeria go
from here? External pressure such as that the IMF represents is some times
necessary to, for example, force the central bank to penalise bank's excesses.
Beyond that, however, Nigerians need to design an economic programme to meet
the needs of their domestic exigencies and be credible with trading partners.
Obasanjo's act of withdrawing his country from the
programme will only be justified if he can produce a genuine economic strategy
with buy-in from major stakeholders and deliver appreciable results by the 2003
If he does not do so, the commonly held view that
the withdrawal was to allow him a free hand to finance his re-election, may
It is probably just as well that the Super Eagles
failed to fly at the world cup for their good performance would have clouded
the real issue in the local council elections starting next month.
For one, Nigeria is facing a domestic food crisis
of the proportion last known in the stillborn republic of Biafra during the
1967-70 civil war.
Consequently, the food importation bill, which
peaked at $1 billion in 1981 under elected President Shehu Shagari and hovered
around $500 million since, may hit $2.5 billion this year.
Obasanjo's special advisor on agriculture,
professor Ango Abdullahi, recently said it was running at N250 billion ($2.1
billion) annually, N60 billion of that spent on rice imports. The president
added that $100 million was spent on fruit juices in 2000. The government has
expressed remorse over the situation. Abdullah, for instance, told a delegation
from the West African Rice development Association: "It is saddening that a
country that has the potential to produce sufficient rice for local consumption
and also supply to neighbouring counties should continue to spend so much
scarce foreign exchange on the importation of agricultural products annually."
Obasanjo needs to repay their confidence by rapidly
instituting a credible agricultural strategy. Otherwise, Nigeria will be
joining the begging queue at the next world food summit.
Whether or not General Olusegun Obasanjo retains
office as President of Nigeria in the next few months, the biggest scandal of
his government may be the privatisation programme. Deal after deal contracted
since 1999 has been unravelling, from the oil companies African Petroleum (AP)
and National Oil and Chemicals to telecoms monopoly Nitel. With the stench
becoming unsuppressible, the government in August began responding, in British
Whitehall style, with committees even as victims gnashing their teeth.
At least two committees are investigating how $3.5
(N26 billion) mostly trade debt in AP not only escaped the notice of the privatisation agency Bureau for
Public Enterprise (BPE) and the National Council on Privatisation chaired by
Vice President Atiku Abubakar, but also regulatory agencies including the
Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE).
Sadiq Petroleum happily paid $270 million (N2 billion) for it fences with the
corruption and elections
In the cacophony of the four-month-long elections
starting this month (December), there is a deafening silence on one issue
Nigeria badly needs to confront: corruption, which has accelerated since
democracy with some $36.8 billion (N5 trillion) in public expenditure melting
in three years leaving few traces. The situation is now such that a whole
generation of Nigerians have grown up to see corruption, which started in
earnest following the oil price boom of the 1970s, accelerating with each
successive government, as de rigeur.
Consequently, few make much of their country
continuously topping global corruption tables compiled by, among others,
Transparency International (TI) co-founded by President Olusegun Obasanjo, and
the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to whom their
country owes most of its
$32 billion debt. This is even as Cameroon, which traditionally traded the numbers one and two spots
with Nigeria, ranks seventh in this year's TI index. Only Bangladesh, which can
plead first time rating, ranks worse than Nigeria.
Daily Nigerian life corroborates the ranking.
Nothing is considered off limits. Legislators, by confessions from their ranks,
allegedly took bribes to institute impeachment proceedings against both the
president and his foes in the leadership of the legislature including Senate
President Pius Anyim and House Speaker Umar Na'Abba. They equally allegedly
collected bribes to stay action. These are both bribes, not constituency
projects for which a parliamentarian in any civilised society might trade his