By Clem Aguiyi
Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, when in fact the results never change, is one definition of insanity. That definition works for economic insanity, too.
This week, I had visited an old uncle of mine who has a powerful friend in this government. My uncle’s friend is a Federal Minister in charge of a critical sector of the economy. My uncle whom I consider old even though he is a little younger than his friend was miffed that the minister hardly remembers any of his promises to him.
My uncle told me of his telephone conversation with the Minister the previous day whereby the minister asked him to visit him in the office the next day and that the minister made a lot of promises to him. But to his dismay the minister in less than 48 hours has forgotten all the promises, including the fact of his invitation. My uncle felt that the Minister friend appears to be too senile for the stress of the job. But, then this Minister is far much younger than the President himself. Now, if the minister is too old, wonder the odds against the President. I think at certain age people should be patriotic, fair and honest to themselves by refusing some level of higher responsibilities. A seventy year old man should be able to nominate either of his son or daughter for active political service other than himself. This is a story for another day.
While at my uncle, I stumbled on two major news stories which I will reflect here: First, was an interview granted by the former Military President of Nigeria, General Ibrahim Babangida to commemorate his 75th birthday. In the interview Gen Babangida said that if given another chance to lead, he will do things differently. He admitted that as a dictator he did certain things and left some things undone. And the second news item was a story on Oba Akiolu of Lagos urging President Buhari to stop doing things like a Military dictator and that he should try to listen to advice on how to manage and grow the economy. Oba Akiolu also decried the incessant blaming of the past administration saying former President Jonathan wasn’t responsible for all of Nigeria’s problems. I believe there are lessons to be learnt from the words of these two elder statesmen.
Is President Buhari too old for the job? Is he leading like a military dictator? Is he making the same old mistakes he made in 1984? Will his current policies grow the economy and get the nation out of recession? Certainly, President Buhari is not responsible for our current economic crisis. By coincidence he had the rare misfortune of coming to power in very bad times. If not for bad times no one would have accepted the military rule that kicked out President Shagari in 1984 but the people trooped into the street in jubilation just like the people again voted massively against President Jonathan and the PDP in 2105 to elect President Buhari as a democratic President. But the honeymoon between him and the people never last long as excitement often gives way to despair.
For example, when he shot himself to power in 1984, the world then was experiencing global economic crisis due to drastic fall in oil prices, of which Nigeria wasn’t immune. But rather than tell the people the truth about the dwindling oil prices and revenue, President Buhari accused the Shagari Government of corruption, pursued and arrested politicians and dumped them in jail. Some of his victims went blind, some went into exile, some died and many never recovered from the trauma of prolonged incarceration. In a bid to discredit and replace all that was done by the Shagari government he dishonored contractual obligations and international trade agreements. I recall it became a crime then to be found with foreign currency. Legendary Fela Anikulapo Kuti who was going to a musical tour in Europe was jailed for this particular offence. In further demonstration of his knee jerked response to issues that require well thought out processes, his regime fixed and regulated prices of commodities, oil and gas and exchange rates. He brought WAI with soldiers beating the people black and blue. After Gen. Abacha, his was the most brutal of dictatorship known to Nigeria. For the period the regime lasted , he fixed his gaze squarely on agriculture and oil rather than on industrialization and manufacturing which has better potential to grow the economy and tackle the then growing unemployment . At the end he created more quantum of crisis most of which still bedevils the country to date.
It is therefore a huge surprise that 35 years later, with a rare gift of second chance in office President Buhari is repeating almost the same old mistakes; criminalizing the dollar, over regulation, issuing orders to the Central Bank as if the bank is an extension of the presidency, demonizing the opponent and predecessor including attempting to replace everything done by the predecessor as bad. Like Oba Akiolu admonished, the 6 years of President Jonathan wasn’t all bad. There were good things the administration did. They gave Nigeria free and fair election and rule of law. The regime never interfered with the CBN monetary policies. They undertook many reforms and did their best with the economy. Prices of commodities and the exchange rate were relatively stable. There was hope and a lot of people looked up to the coming of Buhari to save Nigeria from insecurity but no one expected him to come with the same old policies that never worked.
Over the past one year and half, President Buhari has been consistent in a steady course of burdensome regulations, significant tax increases and anticipated massive federal spending on so-called infrastructure. He voted trillions on infrastructure in his 2016 budget with the hope of spending his way out of economic recession. Like in 1984, he clamped down on domiciliary accounts thereby shutting millions of businesses. He alienated successful corporate leaders who ought to have accompanied him on bilateral meetings in his numerous foreign tours and backed obnoxious mandates which threaten banks and manufacturers; His Labor Minister threatened banks for downsizing in the face harsh economic realities while his Minister for Agriculture threatened fertilizer companies for shipping overseas. And with all this, strong economic recovery from a deep recession may not come to pass.
While the focus on Agriculture is good , truth remains that agriculture like oil are still volatile and may not guarantee quick economic recovery like investment in manufacturing and industry would do. While those who know expect him to lead an industrial revolution he is dumping scarce resources on oil exploration in the North and focusing all his energy on agriculture. He has continued to do the same thing over and over again even when it’s clear that his approach can only deliver more stagnant growth, falling wages, dropping productivity, and depressed investment.
So far he has successfully raised taxes on virtually all government services. The new bank lending rates introduced by CBN are too obnoxious that only drug barons and armed robbers can survive the policy. No manufacturer can survive the current rate, just like no foreign investor will like to invest in a country with too many unstable policies.
Now here’s the question: By repeating same old policies, how does President Buhari expect the economy to do any better than it did during his first coming in 1984?
Except he changes his economic plan we will continue to suffer. We’ll have more of the same bad policy and more of the same bad results. And nothing defines this better than economic insanity.