Monday, 11 November 2019

The Wonders Of Nigeria by Simon Kolawole

In February 1998, Gen Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s military head of state, sent troops to Sierra Leone to restore democracy. Major General Johnny Paul Koroma had sacked the democratically elected president, Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, who fled to exile in Guinea. Thankfully, the military junta was displaced by the ECOWAS troops, led by Nigeria, and Kabbah was restored to office a year later. I still remember a sarcastic line from The Economist of London on the intervention: “Democracy in West Africa now depends on the Nigerian military.” To think that the same Nigerian military had annulled the country’s own presidential election and clamped the winner, Chief MKO Abiola, into detention!

This is one of the wonders of Nigeria: restoring civil rule in a neighbouring country while urinating on democracy back home by incarcerating and assassinating pro-democracy activists. This wonder also coincided with when Nigeria entered the age of massive fuel importation as all our refineries went down. Nigeria, then the biggest producer of crude oil in Africa and the world’s fifth biggest exporter of the black gold, started importing petroleum products — a culture that stands solidly till today. This prompted Chief Bola Ige to say: “Nigeria is a country that exports what it doesn’t have (democracy) and imports what it has (petrol)!” It is a land of wonders.

There are times I pretend I am not a Nigerian just to imagine the kind of thoughts a foreigner would have towards this country. I pretend I am on the internet reading news from some random countries. So I see a headline like “Nigeria imports 60 million litres of petrol daily” and I try to make sense out of it. So Nigeria produces 2.2 million barrels of crude oil per day and needs probably 600,000 barrels to refine petrol for local consumption. But all the four refineries are either down or barely working. So the country sells crude oil abroad, makes millions of dollars and then sends away the revenue to import finished products. Wonderful.

What this means, without too much mathematical complication, is that if their heads were properly screwed to their necks in that their Nigeria, or whatever they call it, and they do things properly (remember I am pretending to be a foreigner today), the country would save itself the agony of depleting its foreign currency reserve with avoidable expenses. That would strengthen the naira, improve their balance of trade and current account positions, and help grow the local economy tremendously. The results could definitely be felt in improved inflow of investments. They would definitely save and create jobs, not to mention the macro-economic stability.

Okay, so Nigeria imports fuel because its refineries are not working. So the refineries did not work under Abacha, did not work under Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, did not work under President Olusegun Obasanjo, did not work under President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, did not work under President Goodluck Jonathan and are still not working under President Muhammadu Buhari — in like 30 years? So these funny Nigerians have been spending billions on turn-around maintenance since Abacha’s days and are still not turning around anything? So they are now fasting and praying that Alhaji Aliko Dangote’s refinery will save them from the fuel import scourge — more than 10 years after they revoked the sale of their refineries to him? Wonder! Wonder! Wonder!

Every day I read in the papers that the roads leading to Apapa ports in Lagos are congested because the trucks have no parking bay. So they use the main roads as parking lot, thereby disrupting the flow of traffic and bringing untold hardship and economic ruin on Lagos motorists. So the federal government issues one-week ultimatum to “decongest” the roads without providing a parking lot for the trucks. So the federal government sends a “decongestion task force” to Lagos and spends hundreds of millions of naira without providing a parking space still. With strong-arm tactics, the trailers disappear from the roads — and resurface a few days later. Wonderful country.

You see, when the colonial masters built the ports, they created enough parking spaces that could take up to one million trucks (that is an exaggeration, but you get the point). They did not create a port without parking. But Nigeria has sold the parking bay to private companies and the trucks now have no other place to park than on the roads. Did you know that the colonial masters built a rail line between the ports and Iddo railway terminal? The idea was to evacuate the cargos by rail! It has gone moribund. It could be revived with just $50 million but Nigeria would rather spend that amount on a monthly “decongestion” exercise, making a few people smile to the banks. Wonders.

Enough of ports now. I am told that when you want to travel out of Nigeria, two officials check your passport. One is from the Department of State Services (DSS) and the other from the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS). That is not my problem. If they like, they can add police, army and boys scout to the list. What I don’t understand is that Nigeria spends billions yearly on foreign trips for its officials, who frequent several countries daily, sometimes looking for “foreign investors”. So where else in the world do they see two officials checking one passport at the border? Why do Nigerian officials burn so much money on foreign trips without taking sense back home?

Is it true that customs officers check vehicle papers on Nigerian roads? You must be kidding me. What I was taught in my kindergarten days is that customs works at entry points to the country. I have travelled to many countries across many continents and it is time for me to confess that Nigeria is the only country where customs works inland. It is one of the wonders of Nigeria. They say it is to check smuggling of cars into the country. Wonderful. The smuggling is not checked at the border but it is checked on highways? The same customs that cannot check smuggling of fuel out of the country are now checking smuggling of cars into Nigeria? Wonder! Wonder! Wonder!

That country must be an interesting place. They import what they have and export what they don’t have. This is a land flowing with milk and honey, literally, but they are spending like $1.3 billion importing milk every year. They have spent billions of dollars on the power sector for decades and keep generating megawatts of darkness. Their national assembly is filled with chronic debtors and politicians undergoing criminal investigation or trial. Some of the miscreants even get appointed as ministers. It is a country where recurrent expenditure, notably duty tour allowances, gets spent to the last kobo while there is no money to finance the capital projects that will benefit citizens.

I was told that in Nigeria, top government officials shamelessly celebrate the graduation of their children from foreign universities on social media when they can at least spare the details so that Nigerians do not become jealous and begin to moan. Someone told me that the shortest route to wealth in Nigeria is to get a government appointment or get elected into office. Suddenly you can afford all kinds of cars and build all kinds of houses and celebrate your first billion naira and first billion dollars with parties. Is it true? Tell me it is not true. Tell me what I am reading on the internet about that country is fabricated.

Finally, the sharing of ministerial portfolios by Buhari opened yet another window for the world to see the wonders of Nigeria. An educationist was not appointed minister of education; rather she was made minister of state for agriculture. An accountant was made minister of finance while the only economist in the cabinet was made minister of agriculture. The power sector has been deregulated and we have NERC to play the critical role of regulator. We do not really need a minister of power but Buhari has now appointed two ministers of power! A minister of energy would have combined petroleum and power: it is basically about driving policy. But is it not Nigeria? Wonderful!

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