Nigeria: 2016 In Retrospect, By Chukwuma Okonkwo
As 2016 draws to an end, the hope of Nigeria being firmly on the road to recovery from economic recession this year has seriously dampened, as the economy continues to contract. The non-oil sector, which is the beacon of hope of the recovery, shrunk further in the third quarter. This does not even suggest a bright prospect for the incoming year.
For Nigeria, the year 2016 was heralded by uncertainties in the overall economy. Nigeria’s economic outlook appeared gloomy, with many pundits signaling signs of doom. Following the astronomical decline in global oil prices in 2015, which continued to fluctuate in the new year, 2016, the economy of Nigeria was negatively impacted, resulting in significant changes in some economic fundamentals. For example, economic growth rate plunged from 6.3 percent recorded in 2014 to 2.7 percent in 2015, and inflation rose from 7.8 percent recorded in 2014 to 9 percent in 2015.
With economic growth heading down south and inflation heading up north, other economic fundamentals – for example, foreign exchange, foreign reserves, current account balance, fiscal balance and trade balance – became upset. The falling prices of oil adversely affected Nigeria’s exports and earnings from foreign trade. Foreign reserves continued to deplete, as the apex bank, the Central Bank of Nigeria, continued to defend naira against foreign exchange shocks. With the significant fall in revenue generation, national savings have significantly declined and the need for investment in critical infrastructures for economic growth has remained unavoidably sacrosanct. Fiscal deficits have increasingly expanded, while the Federal Government has continued to maintain an unfavourable current account balance.
In the second quarter of the year 2016, the economy of Nigeria plunged into recession, breaking a record that the country had held for over two decades. Subsequently, the possibility of the economy recovering from recession has appeared to be weak, but not impossible, with the prices of oil still low and foreign exchange still highly volatile. The non-oil sector, which appears to be the beacon of hope of Nigeria’s economic recovery, is increasingly fettered by inhibitions in enduring currency fluctuations, inspired by foreign exchange volatility. We see the ugly hands of economic recession in sectors such as manufacturing, construction, mining and quarrying, as their productivity continues to contract.
On the political scene, the year 2016 started with what appeared to be an arena theatre with the 2016 appropriation bill at the centre. On December 22, 2015, President Buhari submitted the 2016 budget proposal to the National Assembly, which subsequently went on recess to resume legislative duties on January 12, 2016. However, in early January 2016, while the Assembly was still on recess, reports emerged in the media that the 2016 appropriation bill submitted to the legislature by President Buhari had gone missing in the chambers. The media outrage following this was enormous. The reports about the missing budget synchronised with media reports that the presidency might have retracted the document to make some (bogus) changes in the budget; changes that were not included in the budget that was previously submitted by the president. But these reports were refuted by the presidency and some members of the National Assembly.
As days went by new things unfolded. The Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions found that the copies of the budget distributed to the National Assembly by the president’s aide on National Assembly Matters, Senator Ita Enang, was different from the copy that the president submitted in December. Thus the polity was heated up. It became a controversy between the ruling party, APC (All Progressives Congress), and the dominant opposition party, PDP (Peoples Democratic Party). The Senate insisted on the soft copy of the document that the president submitted in December. Some called for the president’s head on the chopping block, as the controversy turned into a national ignominy. Then, as the fire that was ignited by the controversy raged in intensity, it became clear to the presidency and its allies at the National Assembly that the pregnancy could no longer be covered; hence it was time to break the conspiracy of silence. But it would be contradictory and discreditable if the presidency agreed that it withdrew the budget or that the budget was missing. Surely, something needed to be figured out quickly to douse the already heightened tension.
Subsequently, as it behooved commonsense, President Buhari wrote to the National Assembly to request for changes to be made to the submitted 2016 appropriation bill. President Buhari was reported in PREMIUM TIMES, giving the reasons for the request for the changes, as saying that “(a)t the time of submission, we indicated that because the details had just been produced, we would have had to check to ensure that there were no errors in the detailed breakdown contained in the schedule.” What this means is that the president had anticipated that there would be errors in the budget, but he still went ahead to present it, keeping in mind that when the errors were detected, changes would be made. One might be tempted to argue that it was a reasonable approach; at least it suggested honour and integrity. It would make sense to alter the submitted budget to accommodate the new changes when the anticipated errors were, eventually, detected. But such an argument would depend on if the intentions for the alterations were genuine. Based on that, one might be tempted to wonder why the presidency did not pursue the reasonable and constitutionally required approach to write to the National Assembly, ab initio, if the intentions were as genuine as the reported reasons suggested. However, because the changes were nothing, but inflating figures to serve private interests, the presidency rather allowed its political juggernauts the laxity to pursue a clandestine approach that involved secretly retrieving the previous copy of the budget that was submitted and replacing it with a new and padded one while the National Assembly was on recess. Unfortunately, scripts are not always acted as written, because things go wrong sometimes. Clearly, the plan to swap the two copies of the 2016 budget did not go as planned.
The controversy over the 2016 budget did not only fragment, on the surface, the relationship between the executive and the legislative arms of government, which hampered the passage of the 2016 appropriation bill until April 2016 when it was finally passed by the National Assembly, it also shattered relationships amongst law-makers within the National Assembly, particularly in the House of Representatives, and further created divisions within the ruling party, APC. For example, the relationship between the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara and Hon. Jibrin Abdulmumin, who until July 2016 was the Chairman of the Committee on Appropriation, was shattered when the latter became an informant to the public, exposing how the former was involved in the bogus inflation of figures in the 2016 budget. The fight between the two Representatives did not only reveal the dirty linens of the lower legislative chamber to the public, but also revealed the tragedy of the systemic gangrene of a hallowed arm of government, caused by corruption. The revelations were mind-blowing. But whistle-blowing sometimes comes with a price. Consequently, Hon. Jibrin was suspended from the House of Representatives. This followed his indcitment for gross misconduct, following the findings of the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges. Though, one may be tempted to argue that his suspension had the evil hands of vendetta in it, however one cannot dismiss the possibility of him eating from the same apple that he said was rotten. Sometimes whistle-blowers do have some skeletons in their cupboards too. It is hard to find a saint in a house full of Judases.
Anyone who studied the demeanour and responses of President Buhari whenever he was asked questions about Boko Haram insurgence and the fuel crisis during his presidential campaign, particularly close to the presidential election, would think that he had a magic wand that he would quell these concerns once he won the election and resumed office as the Commander-in-Chief. On Boko Haram, many Nigerians had expected that with the heap of criticisms he mounted on the way the previous government had managed the insurgence, coupled with the campaign promises of his party, APC, to deal with the insurgents within a December 2015 timeline, Boko Haram insurgence would become a thing of the past in 2016. However, Boko Haram still remains a major threat to the security of Nigerians and the country in general. In the course of the year, Boko Haram groups have launched several successful attacks, which have killed thousands of Nigerians, particularly in the North. The humanitarian crisis as a result of the insurgency has also continued to worsen. The 2016 African Economic Outlook shows that over two million people have been recorded as IDPs (internally displaced persons) in various cities, and their conditions of living are poor. Though the Federal Government has claimed that the fight against the Boko Haram insurgence is drawing to a close, however the reality on the ground does not support that claim, as Boko Haram insurgents continue to carry out attacks in the North.
Indeed, the Nigerian military merits commendation. There has been a wide progressive gap in the operations of the Nigerian military under President Buhari-led government than it was under the Jonathan administration. This is clear in the way Boko Haram insurgents have been pushed back in recent times, with significant improvements being made in the warfare, possibly accounting for the return of some of the abducted girls from Chibok. It is expected that the tempo of success that has been recorded this year will be sustained in the rest of the year and in the incoming year. But total victory over Boko Haram insurgence is still far away to be seen.
On the fuel crisis, many Nigerians had expected that President Buhari would put an end to the chronic fuel shortages that have bedeviled the country for a long time. Many factors have been responsible for this. One of them was the corruption involved in fuel subsidy. For decades, the Federal government has subsidised fuel, but owing to the high level of corrupt practices in the management of the subsidy regime, a majority of Nigerians were unable to feel the positive impacts of the policy. Prior to his election into office last year, President Buhari was a vocal critic of fuel subsidy. On numerous instances in the media he had referred to it as a scam. Hence many Nigerians had expected that once he got elected he would put an end to fuel subsidy. But since he assumed office as Commander-In-Chief, he has been drinking from the same river he said was full of mud.
Also, with the appointment of Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, a Harvard trained lawyer, as the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and Minister of State for Petroleum, many Nigerians had expected that the spectre of fuel crisis, which has haunted Nigeria for decades, would finally be destroyed. However, it appeared that this spectre was more formidable than Dr. Kachikwu had predicted and could deal with. For months, Nigerians felt the excruciating wrath of fuel scarcity, which analysts described as the worst Nigeria has ever witnessed. At some point it appeared that Dr. Kachikwu did not have the magic wand to cast off Nigeria’s fuel crisis, as many had thought that he had. In fact, he was quoted in Daily Trust as saying that “(o)ne of the trainings I did not receive is that of a magician.” But he would be remembered for his analysis that produced two prices for petrol. As resilient as Nigerians are, they survived the storm of fuel scarcity that the year 2016 brought; as usual, they adjusted to the hike in the price of fuel and life continued.
In 2016, Nigeria demonstrated, once again, that it cannot conduct an election that is free of pre- and post-electoral violence. In September, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) conducted two important elections – the gubernatorial polls in Edo and Ondo States. There was a shift in the date of the Edo State governorship election from September 10 to September 28. INEC claimed that it received security intelligence that there were threats of terrorism in Edo and other states. Based on that threat, the election was postponed. The postponement was received with open hands by the ruling party, APC, but was lambasted by the dominant opposition, PDP. This was a clear demonstration of national irony.
We can recall that in 2015, the National Security Adviser to then President Jonathan, Col. Sambo Dasuki (retired) advised INEC to postpone the presidential election because of security threats posed by the deadly activities of the Boko Haram group. Many alleged that it was a deliberate attempt by the PDP, which was then the ruling party, to buy time. But when the table turns, things obviously change. The same reason that APC would not buy for the postponement of the presidential election in 2015 was what the party welcomed with open hands in 2016. For PDP, it was a boomerang. The monster that they were comfortable to live with in the past was no longer worthy of a housemate. What an irony!
Eventually, the APC candidate, Mr. Godwin Obaseki won the election and the PDP candidate, Pastor Osagie Izu-Iyamu lost. In November, INEC conducted another governorship election in Ondo State. The APC candidate, Mr. Rotimi Akeredolu won the election and the PDP candidate, Mr. Eyitayo Jegede lost also. As expected, following the results of both elections, PDP members cried foul that the elections were rigged by APC in collaboration with INEC. Governor Fayose of Ekiti was reported in Sahara Reporters as accusing the APC-led government of “legalising money politics.” That coming from a man, who literally introduced ‘stomach infrastructure’ into the Nigerian politics, sounds not only frivolous, but also ridiculous. The politics that has played out thus far in the year, with the APC-led government using institutions of government that have the statutory responsibilities to protect everyone regardless of party affiliation to silence oppositions and to its advantage, is not new.
Indeed, the anomalies that have transpired in Nigerian politics within the year mirror what the PDP had perpetrated over the course of the 16 years that it controlled political power. Thus with the PDP members being recipients of the venom that they helped to produce during the 16 years of PDP-led government, it behooves commonsense to say that the chickens have come home to roost. Those PDP members who cry foul today are the same set of people who had somehow in the past violated electoral processes, used the institutions of government to obstruct justice and chastise opposition, and demonstrated blatant disregard for the rule of law. Now that the table has turned and positions have switched, the deadly virus that they helped to create has grown to attack them in very severe ways. This is what happens when institutions of government are abused and, as such, weakened by virtue of holding political power. It is unfortunate that the APC-led government has continued to undermine these institutions, instead of building them to make them strong. As long as institutions of government are undermined by the ruling party, regardless of which party holds political power, opposition parties will continue to whinge like grumpy cats.
2016 marked President Buhari’s one year in office as the Commander-In-Chief. Although it was expected that the presidency would publish the list of the achievements of the president in his one year in office, as part of his celebration, however what was not expected was the litany of the rhetoric of what was churned out as the achievements of the president. They were called his “75 achievements” in one year. Though, it will certainly not be unreasonable to call some of those claims frivolous, but it is rather disappointing that the presidency had nothing concrete and fascinating to show for the administration’s one year in office. To say that those achievements were vague will verge on simplicity and understatement. It is unfortunate that one would have to search the encyclopedia before one could find any concrete reform that the President Buhari-led government initiated and implemented in the year 2016. Clearly, the year 2016 was deficient of serious policy reforms. This has been confirmed by many international media reports that came out towards the end of November. For example, AFP reported that President Buhari’s response to Nigeria’s economic crisis within the year indicated that “he doesn’t have what it takes to rescue Nigeria from recession.”
As 2016 draws to an end, the hope of Nigeria being firmly on the road to recovery from economic recession this year has seriously dampened, as the economy continues to contract. The non-oil sector, which is the beacon of hope of the recovery, shrunk further in the third quarter. This does not even suggest a bright prospect for the incoming year. However, although the gale from the economic downturn is blowing heavily, as evident in the economic hardships that the majority of Nigerians are facing and the increased fraudulent activities inspired by the need for survival by any means by many Nigerians, yet there is light glowing at the end of the tunnel. There is hope even in the seemingly hopeless situation. This is a presumption of faith, which is based largely on the expectation that the Federal Government will, somehow, embark on serious policy reforms that will eventually yield positive results that will give the economy the big thrust that it direly needs. Also the expectation that state governments will, somehow, begin to pursue and implement structural reforms that will make states less dependent on federal allocations, for example through investing, increasingly, in infrastructure and closing leakages from revenues as a result of corrupt practices.
Chukwuma Okonkwo is a member of the prestigious (Young) Institute of Public Administration Australia. He tweets @Chuma_47