Bala Zakka, a Nigerian public affairs analyst, in this interview with EHIME ALEX, speaks on issues in the country’s socio-economic space
What do you make of the controversy surrounding the N60bn Nigeria reportedly printed and shared as part of federal allocation in March?
First of all, that argument was fortunate and unfortunate. I said it was fortunate because, as citizens, we now have an idea of how our leaders have been operating with respect to the economic, political and social destiny of our lives we entrusted into their care. It’s fortunate because we are happy to have known it.
It’s unfortunate because we have discovered that the country’s economic, political and social management have been on the wrong track. At a point, we didn’t know why we were experiencing micro and macro-economic distortions. But what has happened revealed why, as ordinary citizens, we have been expecting that the country should have a focus, a direction, and we are supposed to be seeing growth and development, but we have not been seeing that. So, to that extent, it’s very unfortunate.
A country should be able to forecast into the unforeseeable future the cash needs of the government and possible challenges. That seems not to be the case with Nigeria. Does it suggest that the regulatory bodies are not doing their job?
It’s not the issue of regulatory bodies. The real concern has to do with leaders of the country, because it’s the leaders that will appoint the right people to take care of the regulatory activities and the regulatory bodies. Remember, we have different kinds of regulatory bodies headed by people who are supposed to be competent in their respective fields. Now, on what terms and conditions were those heading the respective regulatory bodies appointed? Who appointed them? If they were appointed based on competence, dexterity and management acumen, they will do well. It’s the leaders that appoint, so to that extent, you don’t blame those appointed; you blame the leaders. If they were appointed based on political affiliation, nepotism, sectarianism or sectionalism, then you are going to have mediocres leading those regulatory agencies. The blame still goes back to the leader.
Again, there is something going on in our country, which I appreciate based on the question you asked. Leaders are supposed to be strategic thinkers, who look into the future and plan generationally. A practical example is on taxation. Ordinary citizens and corporate bodies are supposed to pay their taxes; but most of the time, they pay grudgingly. It’s the leaders that are supposed to have sat down, project into the future and look at areas that require development, and do things that will create enabling environment for corporate entities to subsist. This includes also for citizens to be able to gain employment, so that when leaders are compelling them to be responsible to their civic obligations they will not argue.
Let me give you another practical example why leaders are supposed to think and plan generationally. As we speak now, there is this concern that prices of food have escalated. All of us are aware, right? There is inflation. The reason I said leaders are supposed to be future and strategic thinkers are these: a year or two ago, leaders were supposed to know that every farmer that was killed, or blocked from going to the farm, was going to lose a given number of ridges or harvest of food crops or cash crops. Leaders are supposed to know that if the herd of cattle is destroyed or killed, then we are going to probably experience shortage of meat or protein or whatever nutrient. As at the time farmers were being killed, we were wishing those killings, destruction and clashes away. We didn’t know that for every killing of a farmer or cattle, the future consequences were going to be shortage of food. Leaders were supposed to have had the thinking that the practical effect may come up in probably six months, one year or two years’ time. Citizens will only start complaining seriously when those consequences are staring them in the face. That is what citizens are doing now. But organised leaders were supposed to have known months or years ago that for every farmer that couldn’t go to the farm, for every herdsman that couldn’t rear cattle effectively, those consequences will rear their heads.
What leaders were supposed to have done was to apply all the mechanisms needed to solve problems and create peace. Everywhere, leaders are described as people who are futuristic and strategic thinkers. When you move away from that practical example of food sufficiency and go to the micro and macro-economic indices, leaders were supposed to also know that as long as there is insecurity or business climate hostility, if one company leaves Nigeria or stops production, either due to insecurity or lack of energy or otherwise, in the next one or two years, many companies will go that way. When many companies go that way, it means many companies will close shop. When many companies closed shops, many Nigerians would be out of jobs. When many citizens are out of jobs, then we are going to have social calamities. Those social calamities will definitely be in the form of armed robbery, kidnapping or other security issues we are seeing.
So, when one or two companies were closing shop or complaining of multiple taxes, high cost of energy, leaders were supposed to have projected that if we don’t stop these bad effect by doing the needful, in a year or two, the calamities will be very dire. Just like the example of the farmers and the herdsmen I gave you, same on the micro and macro-economic. When a company that is into manufacturing threatens to go, leaders will just wish it away, make one or two derogatory statements. But they wouldn’t know that the number will continue to increase, even if in arithmetic progression, and a time will come when the overall consequences are going to put a negative cloud on the strata of the country’s economy, which everybody is seeing today.
When you say leaders, what exactly do you mean?
When you talk about leaders, you are talking about those we have handed over the economic, political and social destiny of our country to manage. To that extent, I’m referring to those we have elected, empowered and entrusted with our economic, political and social destiny into their hands to manage for us. A practical example is, if there is a need to construct drainage today, you and I, as ordinary citizens, have no power to give instruction for that to be done. But we know that there are some people that we have assigned those responsibilities to and they can legitimately order those things to be carried out.
But those that leaders appoint are called supporting lieutenants. A minister or commissioner is not a leader, but a supporting lieutenant. However, the supporting lieutenants are supposed to help the leaders in thinking because leaders don’t know it all. A leader cannot be a medical doctor and at the same time be an academic professor, a footballer, construction engineer and an energy journalist. But a leader can appoint people who have all those competences. The question is, what kind of people did the leader appoint as his or her supporting lieutenants? If the leader appoints people who are mediocres, morally bankrupt and suffering from moral insolvency, then what it means is that those people will not help the leader in any way. This is the reason a governor, local council chairman or a president will wake up and make an announcement and nobody can stop him because you authorised him. But a commissioner, minister or head of an agency cannot just wake up and say he wants to do something because he or she is an appointee.
How would you react to the increasing debt profile of the states and Federal Government?
We are having an increasing debt profile because our leaders, in this case our economic leaders, have not been strategic in their thinking. We are left with ballooning debt because there is no productivity that will lead to the crystallisation and generation of revenues that will neutralise the debts. Today, you are incurring debts, it is expected that you invest the debts, so that it leads to returns for you, and you use the returns to liquidate or neutralise the debts. If it is not yielding returns that will pay the debts, that means something is wrong with you. At the rate the Nigerian government has been collecting debts, it is very clear that the debts are not properly channelled. If the debts are properly channelled, we are supposed to have seeing projects that would have led to the generation of revenue or improvement in the lives of citizens, and to the point where government will be able to generate revenue that will be used to settle those debts. Since we are not seeing that, it’s clear that the debts are not being properly managed.
Again, there is one dummy that has been sold to Nigerians. Every time you are talking to our government, they try to talk about debt to Gross Domestic Product ratio. Why can’t they talk about debt to revenue ratio? If you talk about debt to GDP ratio, it will look as if it’s still healthy for them to be collecting debt. The percentage will be looking as if the debt profile has not reached an alarming or dangerous level. But, all you need do is to adjust that mathematical relationship and try to look at debt to revenue ratio. Then, you will know that Nigeria is in trouble. Citizens and technocrats need to challenge the governments when they keep telling us that from the debt to GDP ratio Nigeria is still in a comfortable zone. Let them also show us the debt to revenue ratio, then you will know that Nigeria is seriously in danger.
You talk about the government putting more effect on projects. What is currently happening with revamping the Nigerian refineries?
The reason the refineries have not been revamped till now can be viewed from so many angles. The first angle is carelessness on the part of the economic managers and leadership. The second aspect has to do with even those that have been appointed by leaders to make sure the refineries work.
Let me explain carelessness on the aspect of leadership. The last time we constructed a refinery was around 1989. From then till now, you are talking about 32 years. Any sensible leader is supposed to know that for the last 32 years the population of Nigeria is increasing. There is supposed to be an increase in activities, both commercial and social. So, we don’t need anybody to tell us that there will be higher demand for energy. Any sensible government will know that in the last 32 years, because of the high demand from these strategic sectors, there will be need for high energy demand. That means you will have more need for electricity, petrol, kerosene and aviation fuel.
So, if you have a country that has not fixed refineries and could not build a new one, then it simply means that the leaders felt the population and industrial activities will remain the same as in the last 32 years without growing, which is not possible. Leaders think and plan generationally. They don’t need anybody to tell them that in the last 32 years, general activities, like I told you, will increase. If activities increase, then you are talking about mobility of activities. If you have increase in mobility of activities, you will have high demand for energy driving the activities and the economy.
So, it must have been a lack of thinking and projection on the part of the leaders. It still falls on the leader because it’s still the leader that has the legitimacy and vigour. Everybody knows that in the last 32 years, even if you have given birth to a child, the child will be 32 years old. You are supposed to know the child will require healthcare, education, where to work and contribute to the national economy. But, if you didn’t provide anything, in this case you didn’t provide energy and certain things that would take care of the ballooning population, who do you blame? You blame the leaders!
What about insecurity? We don’t need anybody to tell us that 30, 40, 50 years ago, at the rate the country was going we were building population, grooming so much illiterates without education. We didn’t need anybody to tell us that we would get to a point where there would be social disorder and decadence. We are seeing that today, based on where we have reached on social decadence we inflicted on ourselves. That is what gave rise to these banditry, kidnapping and terrorism.
Generally, terrorists are always out to make a country lawless, render government powerless, rubbish and collapse the economy. That is what they are doing today. So, this boils down to lack of planning, thinking, and strategic forecast by leaders because planning reveals the shortest route to your goals. If we have been planning, we would have known the shortest route to our goals, the likely bumps that we needed to clear.
What were the likely bumps we refused to clear? Lack of education, healthcare and employment. All those bumps have come up today to mix up in a pot that has generally developed into a monster that wants to consume everybody.
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