Still on the New GDP Numbers, By Ifeanyi Uddin
There was no question but that the new domestic output numbers for the Nigerian economy was going to attract much interest. A rare event in the nation’s calendar, and a momentous result, it has attracted interest at home and abroad. Actually, it has elicited much more interest from the talking heads than I expected. Locally, the debate on both sides has been intense; and has gone further than I thought possible before the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) put the new numbers out. At great risk of appearing blasé, the dialogue on this from outside the country has been more illuminating. As the conversation has gone on, I’ve found it harder to hold of asking “Why two sides to the local leg of the debate?”
Throughout the long incubation of the rebasing exercise, almost two years, my primary worry was how reliable, (i.e. how reflective of our actual lived experience) the final figures would be. At any stage of the process – enumeration, categorisation of domestic activity (and into sectors), and final estimation – gremlins could have crept in, compromising all of it.
Alas, the debate around the new national statistic has had nothing to do with any of these fears. Few who have taken exception to the new numbers have done so from a check of the base data. And, how does it matter to the current numbers that a previous attempt at rebasing in 2000 was put off for fear that new higher numbers, then, may have hurt our chances of the debt relief, which we finally secured five years later?
Arguably, what we have is evidence of a previous administration, cynically, manipulating a process to improve the administration’s odour. Is this proof that the current administration has similarly manipulated the same process questing for similar results? I don’t think so. On the face of it, the timing of the these new data is suspect. Ahead of the St. Valentine’s Day elections next year, could the new numbers on the economy’s output have been put out to help a government with bad case of bromhidrosis smell better?
The Jonathan administration hasn’t helped this sense of the purpose of the rebasing. It takes an especially long stretch of the imagination to blame such consequential development on the last six years of government. Especially, when in this period, we’ve lurched from crisis to crisis. But that hasn’t stopped staffers of the administration and their boosters in the media from trying. However, by politicising the discourse around the new numbers, those who would make easy political capital off its positives miss several points.
The most obvious of the missed points, is the fact that civilised communities go through this rebasing process a lot more regularly – every five years, apparently. With our new measure of domestic output putting us firmly at the fore and centre of the world’s leading economies, the next deliverable ought to be to normalise the economy: make it look a lot more like “civilised” economies, a lot more like South Africa, for instance. In other words, and what is basically the same thing, to institutionalise the rebasing process. To understand why it took us all of a decade-and-a-half to do, and to put structures and processes in place that ensure we are already preparing for the next iteration in 2019.
This leads to the second point. The NBS, it would seem, made the extra effort to ensure that its result on the GDP rebasing was as reflective of domestic economic activity as possible. It had the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the African Development Bank authenticate its procedures, and fact-check the result. I do have doubts over the correctness of the Coordinating Minister of the Economy’s claims (at the launch, Sunday, of the new GDP numbers) that our own economists had also been given a chance to look at the process/numbers and had given their nod, but this is to nit-pick at this point.
Of more weight is the World Bank’s claim, Friday, “that the accuracy of GDP figures can be increased further following the completion of key new surveys for agriculture, industry, and households”. This new numbers are but a beginning. There’s so much that’s still to be done, including democratising the gains from our higher levels of GDP growth.