Saturday, 5 March 2016

It’s The Economy, Wise Guy, By Okey Ndibe

Even if the situation were not
as grave, I doubt that Mr.
Buhari's economic team is
as strong as it should be.
Has the president what it
takes to steer the economy,
in the short run, out of the
current storm, and, in the
long run, to put it on a
course of steady growth?
Has he received the best
advice on the nature and
impact of the economic mess
as well as possible

In 1992, Bill Clinton, then the Democratic Party candidate for the US presidency, popularised
the phrase, "It's the economy, stupid." A year
earlier, then incumbent President George H.
Bush—who was seeking reelection on the
platform of the Republican Party—had a high
job approval rating on the strength of ordering
a military offensive that drove invading Iraqi
soldiers out of Kuwait. But by the time 1992
rolled around, much of Mr. Bush's political
capital had been eroded in the face of an
incipient recession.

It was in this context that the Clinton campaign
refined the devastating phrase:
It's the
economy, stupid. The whole idea was to keep
American voters focused, not on Mr. Clinton's
inexperience in foreign policy, not on the whiff
of scandal that attached to the Democratic
candidate because of his notoriety as a
philanderer, but entirely on the bleak economy
and rising layoffs that had affected many
American families and left many others anxious
about their future.. 

Mr. Clinton parlayed that expression and
similar signs of economic disquiet into a
winning political formula. The phrase became a
devastatingly effective campaign slogan, a wave
that enabled Mr. Clinton to dominate his
opponent and to coast to the White House.
Nigeria is more than three years away from its
next presidential election. President
Muhammadu Buhari, who was sworn in last
May, still has at least two years before he and
his party should start worrying about
Yet, the Nigerian president would do
well to remember, last thing before going to
bed and first thing on waking, "It's the
economy, wise guy!" If need be, he should
entrust one of his most dependable aides to
remind him about this essential reality. Or if
nobody cares for him fiercely enough to give
him that chastening message, Mr. Buhari should
devise a way to remind himself. It's about the
economy, man!
President Buhari should not look at the years
that lie ahead before he or some other
candidate of his ruling All Progressives
Congress (APC) must ask Nigerians to approve
another four years in presidential power. To
look to the future is to surrender to the illusion
that he and his party have time, lots of time.
Instead, the president and his party should look
at the nine months that have elapsed since Mr.
Buhari's inauguration. In that time, the
Nigerian economy has gone terribly south and sour.
It should be stipulated that the tsunami of
economic bad news was bound to hit our shores
regardless of who won the election. Nigeria is
facing the terrifying consequences of decades of
irresponsible, visionless leadership. For
decades, Nigerian "leaders" and their followers
practiced a style of governance best described
as eating and quaffing each day as if it would
be the last. The more petro-dollars rolled into
the Nigerian treasury, the more insatiable
Nigerian officials became. Cursed with puny
minds, they were incapable of realising that
they had in their grasp the resources to turn
their country into a developmental showcase,
the equivalent of those European, Asian and
North American countries they regard as
playgrounds. What Nigeria lacked was never
the cash; it was always the will and the
Nigerians are witnessing the comeuppance for
those decades of tragic squandermania. This is
the culmination of all those years when a few
Nigerians stole more than our country could
afford, when the same few partied beyond our
collective means.
Yet, the Nigerian story can no
longer be simplified as the recklessness of a
few. Those who found ethnic or religious or
clannish reasons to defend or hail the wasters
of the country's dreams bear part of the blame.
But let's return to Buhari's nine months in
office. Regardless of whether he played a part
in creating the current economic crisis, the
reality is that it's all come to a head under Mr.
Buhari's watch. Candidate Buhari had promised
Nigerian voters that he was going to turn their
country around.
He never qualified his
promises with the precondition that he must
find a rosy economic picture—with soaring
prices for crude oil and a lot of cash to play
with. At any rate, if the circumstances had
swung in a more fortunate direction and
Nigeria's economy began a boom phase a few
months into his presidency, there's no question
Mr. Buhari would have claimed credit. After all,
former President Goodluck Jonathan was quick
to beat his chest when Nigeria surpassed South
Africa to become Africa's largest economy by GDP. This, even though the whole thing was
achieved via a technical process, the re-basing
of the Nigerian economy to account for the
robust contributions made by the versatile
entertainment industry and communications
We should insist that it falls to Mr. Buhari to
take a decisive lead in navigating Nigeria out of the perilous economic times. His body language, so far, does not inspire confidence that he
recognises the scale of the crisis or knows
exactly what to do. The worsening foreign
exchange has come to epitomise (for many
Nigerians) the depth of the crisis. On an almost
daily basis, I receive phone calls from friends
and relatives who bemoan the misfortunes of the fast declining naira.
I'd suggest, however, that the drama of the
slipping naira and the soaring dollar often
obscures the deeper, more biting effect of the
ongoing crisis. It lies in the reality and prospect
of massive job losses and the possible closure of
businesses across all sectors of the economy.
Last week, a friend told me that her home state
had laid off all contract staff. The same week, a
business executive visiting the US disclosed that
he knew some companies that had sent home
one-third of their employees—and were on the
verge of making more cuts.
Nigeria's unemployment rates are
unsustainably high to begin with. It's not as if
one could be fired from one company and then
take a few steps down the street to get hired by
another firm. Jobs are as difficult to come by in
Nigeria as a jackpot in a Las Vegas casino. And
that was true even before the current
darkening climate.
Each employed Nigerian is often saddled with
providing for many dependents. Each lost job
has more multiplier implications than, say, a
similar loss in the US or the UK. How are all the
new jobless and their dependents going to eat,
to clothe themselves, to pay their rents, to pay
for medical treatment, etc, etc?
Even if the situation were not as grave, I doubt that Mr. Buhari's economic team is as strong as it should be. Has the president what it takes to steer the economy, in the short run, out of the current storm, and, in the long run, to put it on a course of steady growth? Has he received the best advice on the nature and impact of the
economic mess as well as possible panaceas?
One often wonders whether the president is a careful, patient listener, or is possessed of the
mindset—notoriously exhibited by former
President Olusegun Obasanjo—that he is all-
knowing, beyond counsel.
Two weeks ago, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka
proposed that the president call an economic
conference in order to generate expert advice on how best to tackle Nigeria's foundering
economy. One hopes that there's truth to a
recent newspaper report that Mr. Buhari was going to invite the country's best economic minds to weigh in on the way forward.
Above all, the president should assure
Nigerians that he reckons that, when it's all
well and done, it's about the economy. Period!
Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe

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