Almost everyone is talking about the economy. In beer parlours, motor parks and conference halls, the conversation centres on the prospects of living without government handouts that are disappearing very fast. The reports I receive from those who go to market show that the prices of many items are now north-bound. Even the onion seller quotes the dollar exchange rate.
And how startled could one be when, on Thursday, a 12-year-old ran to me, asking for help in an assignment after he returned from school for their mid-term break? Their teacher, he said, had asked them to return to school tomorrow with an essay on the state of the Nigerian economy. My guess is that the teacher chose the subject of the assignment after reading Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka’s recommendation of an “emergency economic conference” of experts to brainstorm and prescribe ways of rescuing the nation’s bad economy. Likely, she had been bothered by the dwindling value of her N30, 000-per-month salary as the prices of goods and services rose last week.
I wonder why Soyinka thinks that a conference is necessary at this time. For once, I agree with former president Olusegun Obasanjo and disagree with Soyinka. Over a year ago, Obasanjo said that we had had enough think-tanks and that it’s time for “do-tank”.
There has never been a scarcity of discussions on the state of the Nigerian economy. We witnessed the most active conversations on the subject 30 to 36 years ago – before the “austerity measures” and SAP programmes. Strangely, the debates of 1985/86 on IMF loans are resurfacing in 2016 and some of the debaters are the same “gurus”, “experts” and “seasoned economists” of a generation ago. As they say, only a mad person keeps doing the same thing over and over but expects a different result.
I like making complex things simple, so I had no difficulty explaining to the young lad what “economy” means. I asked the JS III pupil to consult a learner’s dictionary. But I soon found it would make him more confused. So I gave him a simple definition: “An economy is the totality of how people eat, work and live in a country.”
Before then, he had asked me if “economy” was a man or woman. And our conversation continued: “Yes, economy could be a man,” I said. “He is the reason some of your mates are sent home for failure to pay school fees. He is responsible for the disappearance of lumps of meat from many soup-pots. Many do not take tea in the morning because of this man. He makes some people drive cars while others trek.”
Needless to say, the current hysteria over “the state of the economy” has been prompted by a threat directed at the rich. For a large majority of Nigerians, the economy collapsed a long time ago. And millions of people have been buried in the rubble of the collapsed economy.
Let me illustrate: The Nigerian economy is like a 10-storey building, each floor occupied by people of the same class. The poorest of the poor live on the ground floor while the richest of the rich are on the 10th floor. Of the 20 pillars holding the structure, one is so huge that it’s suitable even for a 30-storey building; others are fit only for a bungalow or a duplex.
In no time the structure caved in. Because of the huge pillar, however, no deck got shattered. The floors were still habitable until a year later when those on the first and second floors fled. Rather than seek to replace the 19 other pillars with strong ones, those living on the sixth, seventh and eighth floors were busy organising lectures on how to build a solid house. Funds that should have been used to put better pillars are stolen or hidden elsewhere. As long as the giant pillar remained, they did not perceive any threat to those on higher floors.
They were proved wrong. The huge pillar ensured that the entire building did not collapse at once, but, as the years passed by, occupants of floor after floor moved out; the small pillars continued to crumble under the weight of the higher floors’ occupants. Then, all but three floors were gone! The false sense of stability offered by the huge pillar started fading, especially when the roof itself started leaking.
Does this require any interpretation? The huge pillar represents oil and gas. Occupants of the higher floors are Nigerian leaders who, rather than replace the weak pillars, were unconcerned about the plight of their compatriots because they felt they could always move to the 10th floor or get a helicopter to ferry them to another building (abroad). The leaking roof symbolises the constant pillaging of the treasury: the $14billion windfall that grew wings overnight, the $20billion used to generate darkness instead of power, the $2.1billion shared by thieves within two months, the billions of dollars shared constantly through overinflated contracts and white elephant projects. Ironically, nobody is in jail, partly because there are clever lawyers sans morality that live off treasury looters.
All the genuine efforts made to put the Nigerian economy aright are not working because too many people have been displaced – perhaps 90 per cent of the population. These people are frustrated, desperate and dangerous as they struggle to remain alive. Even if a barrel of oil sold $200 today, the money earned would not be enough to rebuild the defective structure in our anecdote. All the money earned by Nigeria will not be enough to rebuild the north-east that Boko Haram has destroyed. We are not yet talking about the over 20, 000 dead and the over 2million people forced from their homes and now living like refugees in their own country. And who can handle our 20, 000 street kids and 100million unemployed?
The clock is ticking. And everyone knows the end is near. Only faith is still keeping most Nigerians alive. No one should, however, hope on the CHANGE agenda or a beautiful budget 2016 or 2017. Gains will be made, but they can only reach those on the ninth and 10th floors – and perhaps trickle down to those on the seventh and eighth floors.
A total collapse of the economy would mean everyone being out of a job. The few companies still standing would fold up. Government would collapse, and civil or evil servants would no longer have salaries and allowances to draw. There would be no law, no order, no schools! We would return to the jungle where only the fittest survive. Scary?
Other things being equal, it would take at least 40 years from now for Nigeria to descend to that level. But other things have never been equal! I believe the Supreme Being will still intervene to save the younger generation. The rest of the world might still come to tap the several resources buried underneath the soil of the territory known as Nigeria. In the process, Nigerians will smile again.