A week ago President Buhari held a one-day summit with his cabinet on the economic recession and on the following day, Mr. Udo Udoma, SAN, the Honourable Minister of Economic Planning was on Channels Television to meet the press on the outcome of the economic discussions.
Two things stand out about the presidential parley and the ensuing press interview; that Mr. Udoma is now de facto Minister of the Economy, the Finance Minister having taken a back seat and the official government line is that the militancy in the Niger delta is to blame for the economic recession.
The Americans have a curious phrase for a minister who wields the most influence in a presidential system, they call it ‘the guy who gets the most facetime’ because he/she gets to spend more time with the President and then more time with the press. In the recent weeks, Mr. Udoma’s statute has grown as Mrs Adeosun’s shadow has receded. The latter’s grasp of economics was always in doubt, but the former’s economics is now in doubt, even as his stature grows and grows. This view of face time is supported by the Federal Executive Council photo shoots which often place Udoma at the President’s elbow.
Mr. Udoma, a very smart lawyer and picture of the most debonair suavity is scion of a path breaking legal icon and former Supreme Court Justice. He was for a while PDP Senator and is now an APC tier-one Federal Minister. In his interview he insisted the Niger delta militancy is the cause of the present economic recession.
According to Mr. Udoma oil production fell from 2.2 million barrels per day to 1.1 million barrels and thereby deprived Government of the capacity to fund the budget. According to the respected lawyer, the Government has been unable to fund capital budget by more than 20% although recurrent expenditure has been fully funded. His views, as the official government position, has in the last few days being reinforced by the cerebral Vice President, Prof Osinbajo.
In choosing this official position of Government, these two brilliant lawyers have chosen to range themselves against two formidable past Governors of the Central Bank of Nigeria and a smattering of economists who argue that it is policy mismatch rather than loss of earning from the commodity market that is responsible for what the President has described forebodingly as “economic doldrums.”
Two weeks before all these, the Emir of Kano, former Governor CBN and fervent APC supporter had gone to town with his disagreement with the official government line that oil production cut was solely responsible for the recession. His argument was that a component of the economy that contributesa mere 15% of the economy even if reduced to zero cannot force the entire economy into recession.
The government’s position that it is the militancy that is responsible for the recession seems self-defeating, but it warrants further examination. First, assuming this is right; it would mean that the recession is political and not economic in origin. In which case, government being an association of politiciansis eminently suited to solving the problem without resort to ‘outside help’ from the economists. Now, what political ‘measures’ have the government taken to resolve the problems? For months while the militancy raged in the delta, government paid lip service to a political solution to the problems and demands of the region, and while the militancy seemed to have subsided, mobilised a military force of occupation into the region. Never mind that the armada mobilised was asymmetrical to the terrain. Of what use are tanks patrolling the streets of Warri and Port Harcourt, when the ‘war’ the government proposes to fight is in the creeks, which are totally inaccessible to such crafts? At best it serves propaganda purposes, at worst it is aimed at terrorising the civil populace. Is that a political or a military solution?
In contrast, sometime in May, at the height of the militancy Dr. Kachikwu the minister of state for petroleum (who seemed to have had more facetime at the time) offered the makings of a political solution when in a town hall meeting in Uyo, he proposed to fund the Maritime University at Okerenkoko if the responsible minister for transport, was, well, not going to be responsible. For it.
Two weeks later or so he was taken off as the GMD of NNPC, some say as punishment for his overzealousness, and all talk of a political solution fizzled out. Instead we had the military exercises, wherein crocodiles were supposed to smile! For the cameras, perhaps? Neither the nation nor the region could force a smile since so we are left wondering what was the purpose of entire crocodilesmile exercise!
So assuming, without conceding, as lawyers often put it, that the entire cause of the recession is political, what has this government done to address the concerns in the Niger delta, which are at the roots of the recession according to government theology?Nothing? It simply means the government is not convinced of its own prognosis, or it is derelict in its perceived obligation. Either way it has not acted responsibly. Unresponsive government is often irresponsible, too.
Take Brexit for example, an economic problem with a political cause in the UK. The British public, like the people of the Niger Delta region, believe rightly or wrongly, that have been short changed in a transfer union in which they have consistently given more than they have received. Their vote to opt out presented a political problem. Prime Minister Cameron falls on his sword, and Mrs May emerges new Prime Minister. She hits the ground running. A new cabinet with defined responsibilities within 24 hours is formed and engagement with the rest of Europe is sustained ever since. Why? Because the UK economy is built on services, particularly financial services since the Big Bang in 1986. London’s place as the preeminent transatlantic financial services hub depends on it. Every day that passes and London’s status in the European firmament is not resolved is a day closer to the ruin of British enterprise and Mrs. May knows it!
In contrast nobody seems to know what to do about the Niger delta, except parade crocodile smiles. The paralysis over the Niger delta mirrors the paralysis of this government on every issue. A paralysis brought about by motive conflicts. Take the Niger delta issue as reference point again. First, Mr. Amaechi boldly claimed the nation had no need for a Maritime University – in a world where three quarters of the planet is covered by water and Nigeria boasts the longest coastline in West Africa! Then he said it was a bare piece of ground and Nigeria would rather have her money back that pay half the price of Lagos for a swamp in the middle of nowhere. Then Dr. Kachikwu seemed to reverse that trend at a town-hall in Uyo, only for that change to change again, and we are presented with crocodile smiles. Even the hoary Nobel laureate has had to re-echo the frustrations of the region, to no avail.
Question: if really the militancy in the Niger delta is the cause of the recession, barring fall in commodity prices, absence of trade and industrial policy, policy somersaults and the like, what has this administration done to engage and manage the issues politically?
Because, if militancy in the Niger delta is the cause of Nigeria’s recession, and operation Crocodile Smile is the way to go, I don’t think the CBN Governor Mr. Emefiele would be the right person to tell us the end of the recession is in sight. We should be hanging on every last word of General Burutai and the last time I checked, he had nothing to say about the end of the recession. Hello midnight!
Emmanuel Jakpa, a Legal Practitioner, lives in Warri, Delta state.