Senators as Jesters, By Dele Agekameh
Whereas, today’s economic indicators call for serious sober reflection and introspection, asking for subsidy for pilgrimage, a religious-cum-spiritual exercise, at a time the government is seriously scouting for lifeline to revive the comatose economy, smacks of shallow thinking by our so-called senators.
In defining who a jester is, Wikipedia, the leading online Encyclopaedia, dwells on the etimology of the word. It describes a jester as “…..historically an entertainer during the Medieval and Renaissance eras who was a member of the household of a nobleman or a monarch employed to entertain him and his guests”. Furthermore, Wikipedia says: “A jester was also an itinerant performer who entertained common folk at fairs and markets. Jesters are also modern-day entertainers who resemble their historical counterparts.”
It goes on to say that “Jesters in Medieval times are often thought to have worn brightly coloured clothes and eccentric hats in a motley pattern and their modern counterparts usually mimic this costume.” For those who are very conversant with the mode of dressing of some of our lawmakers, particularly a person like the loquacious Dino Melaye, who often appears at the chambers looking like a masquerade or one of these funny characters, they cannot but agree with Wikipedia. More so, as those “brightly coloured clothes and eccentric hats” are a common sight in the National Assembly and other Assemblies across the States today under the guise of upholding individual lawmaker’s cultural identity.
Flowing from the above, therefore, it may be quite appropriate to describe what took place inside the red chambers of the National Assembly in Abuja, last Thursday, July 20, 2017, as the product of a national entertainment outfit or cast and crew. That was the day the Nigerian Senate passed a resolution asking the federal government to direct the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to supply dollars at N200 to those going on pilgrimage.
What this means is that if the government consents to this request, the allocation of foreign exchange to those planning to embark on any pilgrimage, either to Mecca in Saudi Arabia or Jerusalem in Israel, would be subsidised by about 37 percent by the government.
The Senate’s action came on the heels of the presentation on the floor of the Senate by Adamu Aliero, a former governor of Kebbi State, now an All Progressives Congress (APC) senator representing Kebbi Central Senatorial District, who, as a matter of urgency, had requested for a concession of N200 to the dollar once every year, for those going on pilgrimages to Mecca or Jerusalem.
This request followed the adoption of the report by the Senate Committee on foreign affairs on “Extortion of Pilgrims” by the National Hajj Commission. Aliero said, “the committee strongly recommends the concession of N200 to $1 for 2017 Hajj, to bring down cost to a bearable level”. He also claimed the CBN had been offering forex at that rate to some unnamed businesses.
Last year, a similar move by the CBN when it approved the allocation of foreign exchange to those on pilgrimage at a rate lower than the prevailing rate was embroiled in controversy. This time around, many Nigerians have criticised the Senate recommendation as thoughtless and insensitive.
It was apparent that the request was for those embarking on pilgrimage to the Muslim holy land this year and the inclusion of the Christian holy land of Jerusalem was a mere smokescreen to avoid criticism and controversy over the move.
The naira currently exchanges for about N315 to the dollar at the official window, while it exchanges for about N365 at the parallel market. This is even as the CBN has involved both orthodox and unorthodox methods to shore up the value of the naira against the dollar. Otherwise, a few months back, the situation was so critical that the exchange rate had, at some point, exceeded N500 to a dollar until the CBN decided to drastically reduce the spiralling momentum.
Anyway, if the senators thought that by making a case for both Muslim and Christian pilgrims they would be spared public anger, they were dwelling in illusion. This is because no sooner had the news of the request filtered into town than people took them up on the social media through tweets and other platforms. In the first place, the Senate’s thoughtless request ignored the provisions in the approved Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) covering all expenditure plans for 2017, and the Appropriation Act, which was earlier approved by the lawmakers themselves, prior to the assent to the bill by Yemi Osinbajo, the acting president, on Monday, June 12, 2017.
In a swift reaction last week, the CBN denied the allegation that it had been allocating forex to any business at an unofficial rate of N200 per dollar. Isaac Okorafor, its spokesperson said, “the lowest rate in the entire market is the inter-bank rate, which ranges between N305 to N315.” According to him, “since June 2016, when the CBN unveiled the flexible forex policy, the apex bank was partially stripped of the powers to intervene and fix the exchange rate of the naira against any currency. With the policy, which effectively removed CBN controls of the exchange rate, abolished the previous N197-199 band to the dollar, with exchange rates in the international currency market becoming a subject determined purely by the prevailing forces of demand and supply”. “The new arrangement”, he said, “created a single inter-bank trading window, which determines the exchange rate of the dollar to the Naira”.
Last year, a similar move by the CBN when it approved the allocation of foreign exchange to those on pilgrimage at a rate lower than the prevailing rate was embroiled in controversy. This time around, many Nigerians have criticised the Senate recommendation as thoughtless and insensitive. They argued that if the CBN conceded to such a request, it would spell disaster for the economy because it will definitely distort the market and create another crisis of confidence. Besides, they said, it will show that Nigeria is not a serious country.
In any case, on what basis are they asking the CBN to allocate dollars for their private religious venture? And if indeed it is true that businesses are given dollars at N200, it is simply because those businesses are adding value to the economy. Now, what value is pilgrimage adding to the economy?
Yet, many also believe that this development shows that the National Assembly members have totally lost touch with the reality of the Nigerian situation as they do not seem to understand the precarious state of the country’s economy. To these Nigerians, it is certainly unthinkable that those who are supposed to make laws for the progress and development of the country are the same people engaged in making such pedestrian and ridiculous demands.
Obviously, anybody who makes such crazy proposition and senseless request should not be taken seriously because a pilgrimage is a personal thing and anyone going to seek salvation should look for private money to fund the trip. In other words, asking the government to subsidise such trips violates the right of other Nigerians not interested in such a jamboree. Perhaps, the only reason one can discern in this request is that the lawmakers may be looking for cheap funding for their impending vacation. In any case, on what basis are they asking the CBN to allocate dollars for their private religious venture? And if indeed it is true that businesses are given dollars at N200, it is simply because those businesses are adding value to the economy. Now, what value is pilgrimage adding to the economy?
It is quite unfortunate that Nigeria is a country of many absurdities. It is a country that gives room for many absurd issues to happen. We all know that the issue of foreign exchange or buying and selling forex in Nigeria is firmly under the monopoly and control of a powerful cartel comprising top politicians and highly placed individuals in both the public and private sectors, conniving with their counterparts in the banking industry.
These are the godfathers of the itinerant money changers you find in market places and other street corners everyday running after passers-by soliciting to exchange money. It is these powerful Nigerians that are responsible for round-tripping, a euphemism for mopping up foreign exchange at the official market rate and then going ahead to sell same at the parallel or black market to maximise profit at the expense of the country’s economy. This is the tragedy of our nation.
Whereas, today’s economic indicators call for serious sober reflection and introspection, asking for subsidy for pilgrimage, a religious-cum-spiritual exercise, at a time the government is seriously scouting for lifeline to revive the comatose economy, smacks of shallow thinking by our so-called senators. This is the more reason they have earned the sobriquet of jesters or alawada in Yoruba.
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