It is usually painful to see Rotimi Amaechi, the Transport minister being drilled over Nigeria’s Chinese loans by the House of Representatives Committee on Treaties and Agreements. Painful, because those inquests often become personal and detract from the core issues. So, an otherwise intellectual debate gets split into two extremes; on one hand is Amaechi, trying to convince the House members about the merits of signing documents without any scrutiny because we just need the money and infrastructure so badly, and the Honourable members, who have assumed the position of Tomas de Torquemada, the head of the Spanish Inquisition, circling for blood. All said, the questions to be answered remain whether Chinese loans are not pre-packaged heists by which the Chinese are hoping to take over the Nigerian economy on the cheap and to run our lives, and whether we ought to be borrowing so much or at all, right now.
Let me give my humble answer with respect to the second question. I have seen it said in some quarters that Nigeria ought to be tapping into internal resources and redirecting internal revenue right now. My recent article titled “The Mad Scramble for Money by the Nigerian Government” sought to bring out where some of those leakages are. It is evident that a whole lot is going wrong in our country and especially with our public finance – which is a total disaster. With every Act passed by the National Assembly comes a parastatal or some government agency, such that Oronsaye’s 521 MDAs have grown to almost 1,000. Many of these are rogue organisations which do not prepare or submit accounts, and of late we have seen some of them confessing to being in existence for the comfort of those who work in them. Our catatonic anti-corruption avatars, as well as the agencies they set up, are conveniently mute at a time they should be speaking up or taking salutary actions.
More revelations have come out since my article. The Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) was grilled by a Senate Committee for generating N2.4 trillion on behalf of the Nigerian people, sharing N88 billion among its staff as approved bonuses, remitting only N44.5 billion to the Consolidated Revenue Fund, and not being able to account for the remaining over N2 trillion. The Securities and Exchange Commission was shredded by a House of Representatives Committee for spending N10 billion on its staff, which was more than the N8.4 billion it generated in 2019. The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) explained that a missing N7 billion was spent on inspection, and the Nigerian Customs Service plans to spend N238 billion on staff salaries, overheads and capital expenditure for the year 2020. The service shares 7 per cent of all import duties and 2 per cent of VAT among its lucky staff. Civil servants have ruined Nigeria.
In recent weeks our legislators have demanded that none of these ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) of government should spend more than 60 per cent of their collections on themselves. It is however going to be tough for the legislators to enforce this anyway, because negotiations will take place, votes will be added here and there on their behalf and the status quo will remain. It is always incredibly tough to reverse theft when they occur at the levels we see in Nigeria. The problem is systemic, and has only grown to the level where those who benefit from it now boast about it. An audio clip is currently circulating on WhatsApp, featuring the voice of a policeman who boasts about how he gets paid N250,000 monthly by the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), as he is listed as the chief detail to Minister Akpabio. He also said the minister’s cousin – another policeman – earns N500,000 monthly, whether he works or not. While trying to get another woman into bed, he boasted about how his wife, who is a deputy manager in Nigeria’s underperforming oil company, gets paid almost N30 million in ‘upfront’ rent and medical allowance every January. Similarly, news got out recently that staff of our shut down oil refineries got all these huge amounts as salaries, and even got their regular promotions for doing absolutely nothing all year. Nigeria is just a wonderful place and until the people take to the streets in protest, rather than hope to be ‘blessed’ like those ruining the country, forget it. Time is ticking on this country.
It is however almost too late at this stage, to hope that we could suddenly rapidly reorder our spending in order to urgently get out of the present economic downturn. Suggesting that this is possible may betray that we do not fully appreciate the problems this country is presently facing. Short of jacking every civil servant on the streets, seizing their assets and auctioning them, nothing can reverse this drift. The hard feedback that our government and the civil servants eating Nigeria to death require will never come through because Nigerians are not ready. And so the status quo will remain. A new set of oppressors have arisen in Nigeria. How is it that the best-paid and highest-earning Nigerians are suddenly public servants; many of whom are grossly underproductive? The other problem is that we are faced with an urgent, important and multifaceted crisis. Urgent because the country totters on the precipice of a self-inflicted destruction. Urgent because we have a global pandemic and economic collapse to deal with and if we don’t somehow keep the economy running, even those who think they are safe will suddenly see how vulnerable they have become in the blinking of an eye. This is important because we are faced with a life or death scenario – as a nation, an economy and as a people. Multifaceted because we have health, economic, sociopolitical and human development issues to deal with. The constellation of dark stars is unprecedented, for us and for the world. COVID-19 has come to expose us and push us to the very edge of existence. This is therefore the time to take quick, sustained and decisive actions. We have been played. We may be unable to get our money from the corrupt folk who have grown wings under this government and past ones.
This is where the borrowing comes in and becomes unavoidable.
It may be important, at this point, to remind us that indeed every nation is borrowing presently, and for good reason. When your people are forced to lockdown and stay at home for months, someone has to pick up the bill, one way or another. Countries are either borrowing domestically or externally, or both. The stronger countries are able to keep the money in the family by borrowing locally. I had tried to push this idea in the beginning of COVID-19, as a way of locking in as much as N20 trillion, which may otherwise be chasing the dollar. I saw an opportunity then, and tried to sell it but there were no takers. Now, the naira has fallen from N360 on the streets, to N480 since that time, and may fall some more. Those entrusted with running the economy are among those scrambling to exchange their naira for dollar.
Back to the issue, nations borrow in periods of downturn, especially in situations when global trade seizes up or in periods of global economic crises. The world economy is predicted to go into a recession soon. The United Kingdom’s economy fell by a whole 20 per cent and over 50 million Americans have so far filed for unemployment benefits. Wow! If Nigeria was sincere and we knew our real numbers, I’m sure we will all be more than alarmed. Our 6.1 per cent fall in GDP looks mild. Also, we run a largely informal economy, in which people are their own government and there is a dislink which makes our statistics unreliable. What worries me most, however, is our refusal to change our ways.
Having established the merits of borrowing at a time like this (and also emphasising the need for something drastic to be done about the wastage of public resources), I must confess that I am slightly biased towards Chinese loans. I must have mentioned this story here but permit me to repeat it. In the year 2010, while President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua writhed in deathly pains in Saudi Arabia, the trio of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Condoleeza Rice were in Abuja on the invitation of the ThisDay chief, Nduka Obaigbena. I was also there at the ThisDay Dome. Condoleeza interviewed the two ex-presidents. Someone slipped through a question about China’s activities in Africa and Blair answered that they had noticed that each time an African country approaches China about building a road, the Chinese people show up the next day with a digger, but when we go to them in the West, they give us a huge sheaf of people with fine print that we could never read (or weren’t bothered to read, like Amaechi advocates), and they ask us for all sorts of conditionalities (such as to devalue our currency, increase interest rate, lay off half of our civil service, and on a few occasions, they call for the change of government). At that point, Bush, who had been distracted, snatched the microphone from Blair and went on to tell us how China is polluting the African environment. I was there in the hall, literally 10 metres away from them. Blair had spoken in a moment of British simplicity and honesty. Bush had put on a typical, condescending American bullshit spin. I came off learning a lot.
In truth, the Chinese deliver on tangibles; we actually see what infrastructure they say they want to build. Before the Chinese came on the scene, the West had totally lost respect for us, and played with us, thinking we were stuck with them. They had seen that we were a bunch of time and money-wasters and getting any real tangible financing from them had become incredibly hard. They were just running rings around us and took us for granted. The Chinese made them sit up and take notice. Part of the clamour against Chinese loans stems from the need for some sort of Western comeback. However, the ‘West’ is not ready for a simple, development-based comeback to Africa. They are more interested in the political mileage they could get. I recall that in 2006, just as Nigeria jostled for debt cancelation, some Nigerian newspapers published the details of the loans that Nigeria had obtained from the London and Paris Clubs of lenders. Most of the projects did not simply exist, even though most had been drawn down. Some states claimed they had installed trams and cable cars. Others had collected loans for metro lines, and even underground rail systems. How could these have happened if the Westerners had adopted a hands-on approach like the Chinese are presently doing? They must have simply disbursed some of the loans to our Second Republic leaders and looked away. Money would also have changed hands. Nobody should say Westerners don’t collect bribes. In other instances, Nigeria paid for breaches of contract as a result of military takeover of governments. Some of the loans also accrued punitive interest rates as high as 14 per cent and before the debt forgiveness came, according to President Obasanjo, we had paid $38 billion in cash, on a loan of $12 billion, while we had a debit balance of $35 billion. Imagine the abracadabra!
At least, for China, we know where the rails are, and the airports, and whatever else it is they intend to build for us. It is true that they have so many of their own peasants and so, they try to use their interventions in Africa to create jobs for their own people, and of course their transactions are more susceptible to opacity and corruption and so the deals are sweet for our leaders and politicians. Nigeria must struggle against such practices. In Ghana some years back, it was reported that the Chinese released some of their prisoners to come and work as contractors on a project, while their salaries were paid in China. Some Chinese also engage in illegal activities, such as illegal mining and the cheating of our farmers. In terms of local content and the refusal to transfer knowledge, Nigeria must understand that no country or people transfers technical and technological knowledge easily, and the little we get from them, we must develop ourselves. China had to steal a lot of its current technology from the West, which had also stolen from them millenniums ago. I recall that about 20 years ago, the main complaint on CNN was about how the Chinese were stealing technology and how they had no respect for intellectual property rights. All over West London then were Chinese women who sold cheap, pirated VCDs and later DVDs. Things have changed now.
As per the clause in contention in our railway loans, my opinion is that it sounds rather omnibus and like some commentators have opined, I would rather the clause is more specific as to what asset is claimable per defaulting loan. I have read a number of highly respected lawyers on this and from my understanding of international finance, fair is fair and we must give some sort of comfort to lenders. Everything is however subject to innovation, and so the House of Representatives is doing the right thing, calling for clarifications to what it is unsure of. Nigerians are also afforded the opportunity to learn. I do not agree with Amaechi that we sign those deals with scant regard and enquiry. We also don’t have to adopt an anti-China stance whereby we begin to spew racist slurs and try to denigrate the Chinese as has been going on. I would however suggest that we are pragmatic. We should be pro-Nigerian always. Kishore Mahbubani gave an expose about how Singapore was able to pull away from underdevelopment in a simple speech. He called the acronym MPH – Meritocracy, Pragmatism and Honesty. Singapore was pragmatist in choosing ideas from capitalism and socialism that worked for her people. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed of Malaysia also spoke about how a country should not blindly collect loans, but insist on tangibles for her people in terms of finance, employment, and training. Investments should not be sought blindly.
Nigeria is in deep economic trouble. All who have benefited immensely from the corruption and stealing that defines this country must be very worried because this country can snap any day. A handful of people are sitting on so much ill-gotten wealth, while the country is forced to borrow some more. Well, except we are ready to face the evil day, we will continue to borrow, especially in these sad, scary times, which society and economy must somehow be sustained. I prefer the Chinese model, because beyond the politics of puritanism by which another country dictates who leads and how we run our country, we really need to see what we are borrowing for. It occurred to me that those foreigners who intervene in the politics of this country have never helped install anyone who will add true value. What they bring is one terrible disaster after another calamitous disaster. It is best we leave the politics and face the tangibles.
It is also most important that we get worried that we are still on the feeding bottle, even though this country is now 60 years old today. We cannot do anything on our own. We even speak of borrowing as if it’s an achievement. We have no hand in the construction of the infrastructure that our governments list as accomplishments, and our youths still graduate from university, only conversant with expired theory and no practicals. The university staff union abandons students in the public university for years and most of the lecturers are only interested in victimisng students when the schools are on. We are not yet ready for the great sacrifices and exertions that result in real nationhood. We borrow, because it is the easiest thing to do. We are oblivious of the dangers ahead, and the fact that we have mortgaged the existence of five generations unborn. We max out our enjoyments today, and strut about thinking we were specially made, when indeed we are just being thoughtless. We are ready to replace one oppressor with another, based on exigency. Yesterday it was the West. Today it is the Chinese. Already, we are even looking at Turkey. Someone tried to interest me in their citizenship just days ago. Are we born to be so helpless?
Illustration: Lau Kakuen/South China Morning Post.
Source: Premium Time