I hope you all know Mama Oyoyo. She is no less than the minister for finance, budget and planning. She was so christened by her excited workers on the day she resumed back at the headquarters of the Ministry. This article is addressed to one of her recent statements and the general mindset.

I reckon we would have to sometime down the line, shut up and listen to those closest to the national treasury speak about what they know and allow them to run the economy in the way they know best. Nigeria is presenting a very unique position, which is more astounding than it has ever been, in these interesting times. Those of us on the outside believe that this is time for caution and that the nation is not following the path of sustainable financial and economic management. We are alarmed by the frequency and volumes of debt acquisition by this government, which has seen a doubling of the national debt stock between 2015 and 2018, in spite of a devaluation. We may well be on our way to quadrupling this before they leave in 2023. Some of us wake up with cold sweats in the middle of the night, worried about the future of our nation and our children. We are scared stiff about the manner in which our people in government spend money, and how they are not letting up on their usual enjoyments and addictions. We also wonder why we cannot generate more revenue by organising our nation better, just like what we see abroad. But we are told there is nothing to worry about.

We have to admit that there are details about our nation that are available only to the guys who run the economy. For they are extremely confident. In fact, they often show consternation that people will dare question their positions or offer alternative arguments. Wise Nigerians have since chosen to keep quiet and follow the flow. It is unwise people – like me – who fret about these issues. The level of confidence of those in government is so palpable that there must never come a day in the future where this country will declare another economic recession, or depression, or some sort of downturn. Nigeria may well have discovered Vibranium and become the fictional/mythical Wakanda from the rhetoric coming from the government. Who are we to complain? The minister for finance, budget and planning did say to those complaining about debts, that they are ‘insensitive’. She means we should just not talk about it. Mama Oyoyo in action!

However, these powerful people should kindly allow me to chip in that the economic problems of Nigeria should not be unduly minimised. Those in government should not confuse or try to hypnotise the masses. For when successive ministers and their colleagues say we only have a revenue problem (as I’ve heard Okonjo-Iweala, Ahmed, Nwabueze and even the vice president say), as a way of calling attention to the fact that many Nigerians are not paying due taxes, they do violence not only to our psyche and intelligence, but to the profession called Economics and also to our future. We are spending only debts these days, for our revenues are nothing compared to our taste. We are borrowing for sundry recurrent spendings, such as paying the salaries of people who don’t do anything, or even ghost workers. We are borrowing to give bailouts to bankrupt states with kleptomaniac governors. We are borrowing to service other borrowings – a typical case of teeming and lading. The presidential spokesman wrote recently, saying we face a fiscal crisis, and that the revenue the government gets can no longer cover the bare recurrent expenditures anymore, much less the capital ones. But Madam Minister says not to worry.

On this debt issue, a few weeks ago I read where the former director-general of the Debt Management Office said our debts are ‘problematic’. He defended those debts till he left the government. I noticed Dr. Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala complaining about our inability to create jobs for the youth and increase productivity across the board after she had left government too. Is there any assurance that a day will not come in the future that Mrs. Ahmed will change her tune after she may have left the government? I recall Kemi Adeosun resisting International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans at some point in the beginning of her ministership, but she ended up being the one who dug us into the heaviest amounts of foreign loans especially.

I have just read what is a scathing remark on our national debt from the African Development Bank, in its 2019 Africa Report. Hear them:

“…the average revenue spent by West African countries on external debt servicing is 17 per cent. This is high and even higher in Nigeria which spends about 50 per cent revenue on external debt servicing… even though the country’s debt burden had increased by as much as 128 per cent in the last eight years, Nigeria’s debt to Gross Domestic Product remained low… Liberia had the highest rate of debt accumulation between 2010 and 2018, at 329 per cent, followed by Nigeria at 128 per cent…for countries moving from low-income status to middle-income status such as Nigeria, the possibility of accessing concessional debt or increasing the proportion of grants appeared remote.”

Our economic problems as a nation are not binary or linear in nature. In fact, we are saddled with very complex, convoluted equations. We have to at once find how to get our people to be responsible and pay up their bit to keep the nation moving. But we have to understand their sentiments and their heartbreak, having seen too many governments come and rip them off over the decades. The people also see that those in government are not letting up on luxuries. We cannot just keep barraging the people to pay more taxes, while saying and doing nothing tangible to assure them that they are not suckers. While this is going on, we must keep a keen eye on our national debt, not only because we now require more than 50 per cent of our revenue to service these debts, but because we had had a very bad experience with debts in the past (pre-2006). Anywhere in the world, and for any entity, it is always tougher to repay debts than to borrow, because of the number of demands that compete for cash flow. It will be grossly irresponsible of us to borrow very liberally today and not care how those loans would be repaid tomorrow. We should note that Nigeria’s population is growing, and so there will be a greater need for funds tomorrow.

Borrowing with a 20-30-year moratorium incentive is no comfort. One day it will be 30 years and the creditors will come for their pounds of flesh.
I urge those running the economic not to bully the rest of us with this ‘we have a revenue, not a debt problem’ rhetoric. We have more problems than that. It is not an ‘either/or’ scenario. To add to the problems with debt AND revenue, we must add the fact that we have an expenditure problem. Look at the way we budget and for non-value-adding expenditure? Today Nigerians are complaining about the N5.5 billion with which the Senate intends to buy new cars. Everybody has their hands in the cookie jar. More than half of our expenditure goes to waste as we cannot tie spending with productivity.

The relationships between these three phenomena are simple. A bad financial manager will often depend on much borrowing – because he cannot generate enough money to meet his expenditure. An unthinking individual with little capacity to earn but much greed/carelessness will always buy things he doesn’t need in order to impress people he doesn’t like, and get into constant debts, which become big problems for him. A prodigal person will also not be able to keep a lid on his expenses, especially because those expenses are such that do not lead to further productive ventures. Oftentimes, the inability to earn revenue feeds the debt crisis for an unthinking entity. The debt-revenue-expenditure conundrum is thus tightly woven and that is our conundrum in Nigeria today.

As it is for a person, household or business, so it is for a country. The Germans have always seen economic management this way and resisted the toxic fare being marketed by some global bodies and right-wing economists, that debt is good, among other things. That is the reason why the German economy is the strongest in Europe and ranks in the world among the top three most sustainable. Within Europe, the Germans are seen as sadist machines because of their ability to think deeply, cut excesses and remain strong at all times. Nigeria is even run worse than Greece. In short, Mama Oyoyo, we have a serious strategy problem.

‘Tope Fasua, an economist, author, blogger, entrepreneur, and recent presidential candidate of the Abundant Nigeria Renewal Party (ANRP), and can be reached through [email protected]

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Nigerian Diary