WHEN A RECESSION SWALLOWS A RECESSION:
Bearing the Burden of Leadership Ineptitude
By Tunji Ajayi
I recall that a teacher’s skill in telling enthralling stories prevented me from playing truancy while in primary school. Arithmetic, I guessed, was a junior brother to Mathematics - the subject I dreaded and hated so much. And that logically suggests that if I hated Mathematics that much, I could not have loved Arithmetic, which I saw as its junior brother. Thus, it is unlikely that anyone who hated mathematics would like economics as a subject. And I hardly pontificate on a subject matter I do not know enough about. That may be too presumptuous. Don’t ask me the average marks I used to score in the subject. Permit me to forget that now. Indeed, I have forgotten. But I remember it was not so bad. But then, “pride goeth before a fall”, so says the Bible. Thus, I hate pride. I was not so proud to show my marks to my mother. So, I always hid my examination report cards away from my hardnosed mother at the end of every academic term. I knew she could faint if she saw my marks. She was renowned for delivering a heavy knock at appropriate hurtful point on an errant child’s head. I have no appropriate word to describe my examination marks. Despicable is an understatement.
However, one teacher’s skill spurred me to be regular in school. In those days, there was no scourge of kidnappers. Banditry was a rare occurrence. Oh! Such good old days… It was even possible to loiter about the town without reaching the school, only to return home after 1.00 p.m. into the waiting arms of our ever-loving mothers who, unaware of their kids’ truancy at school, would still feed them with sumptuous meals of hot amala, eba or pounded yam, with catfish and ponmo; all reclining inside hot egusi soup. Oh. Good days are gone! I stopped being absent from school the day my teacher told us the enthralling story of the Biblical Joseph, who masterfully explained the meaning of King Pharaoh’s strange dream, wherein skinny cattle devoured the fat ones, and yet didn’t grow fat as the ones consumed. What an enchanting dream! How could it be possible that normally herbivorous cattle swallowed each other? I often wondered in my innocence and solitude. Consequently, my curiosity to listen to her biblical stories every morning before the dreaded Arithmetic class entrapped me to be regular in school.
However, since then, I never heard of anything cannibalizing another of its type; until recently when a recession - in a country of anything-goes called Nigeria, swallowed another. A friend had called me a few days ago asking if I heard the news that Nigerian economy had slid into a recession. I listened to his economic calculations and pontification in utter silence as he kept lamenting and hollering on phone the consequences of this quagmire. I am not a mathematics buff. I treated his calculation with derision and disdain. He showed his apprehension, which transmuted to anger and indignation as I kept so silent without uttering a word, while his angst lasted. As for me, all I know is that: Àt’òsán, àt’òru, Òkan náà ni lódò afójú”: Both daytime and nighttime are the same to a blind man.
I don’t think I saw any difference between the dismal and suffocating economic status of Nigeria few weeks back, and now that we are told that our country is in a recession. What do we call the period between 2015 and now when we; except perhaps the politicians and the few money-bags, have literally been starving, unable to eat mere two meals daily? Even before now, we just fed the stomach with whatever we saw. What do we call the “pre”-recession period when our aged men and women turned beggars, and were literally scraping and scrapping for financial help otherwise called alms – a situation which is still prevalent till now at motor parks and public places? What do we call these past 5 years when obviously malnourished mothers who are breastfeeding their unfortunate babies often gate-crashed private events, viz weddings, burials, kids graduations, etc, and resorted to begging for left-over foods? What do you call a period when a country could not, and still cannot fund the basic primary health care of her citizen? One of my saddest days in the year 2019 was my visit to a Federal Medical Centre. I had barely queued up for the usually long preliminary registration to retrieve my hospital card, when a frail-looking old woman of almost 70 years approached me, sobbing. Her problems? The doctor had prescribed some drugs for her to buy to treat her ailment, and was begging me for N300 to supplement what she had! What is a true determinant of economic recession? Is it esoteric mathematics calculation, or obvious state of well being of the people being led? My sadness and pain became more excruciating when I remembered that her prescription would probably include the usual much-hated advice: “Use the drugs 3 times daily after food.” If she couldn’t afford to pay for N700 drugs, I bet she could ill afford to eat three times daily!
What do we call these horrifying years of excruciating pains and anguish, when millions of our unemployed college and university graduates, had to engage in menial jobs on the streets to eke out a living; while million others stay idle indoor, and ironically compelled to be dependent on their poor parents who had labored for years on their schooling and upkeep? And yet, many of the parents of these marriageable-age children, ironically are owed pensions and gratuities by various governments, after serving the nation for many decades before retiring?
When did recession period actually begin? To the poor Nigerians who are at the receiving end of the pang of mis-governance and ineptitude, it began a very long time ago. But to our political office holders who are feeding fat on our collective patrimony, the recession has just begun. For our political office holders earning fat salaries, stupendous emoluments and recession-induced office perquisites in unspeakable millions - aside from padded security votes, constituency allowances, wardrobe allowances etc - the recession may have just begun. To our legislators who, having seen the enormity of depletion of the national coffers, a recession which devoured previous recession may have just begun; since it may affect their regular N13.5 million monthly salary. To our house of representative members, I pray this quagmire may affect their N9.3million monthly salary and other emoluments. The recession may affect 360 members’ N6.58 billion annual salaries and allowances, and also 109 senators’ N2.14 billion annual emoluments.
Perhaps, some of our past Governors would no longer have 2 houses built for them at the expense of their respective states in preferred locations. Unless we are out of the recession, the hit may affect provision of six new cars every three years for retired governors in some states. It may affect the furniture allowance which is 300% of annual basic salary, translating to N23.3 million in a country that could not pay N30,000 minimum wage to workers. This recession may also affect some governors’ N7.7 million salary per annum. It may affect free health care for their beneficiaries and family members. Good. So be it, if it affects some former governors furniture allowance which is 10 per cent of annual basic salary, translating to N778,229. This leadership-induced recession may adversely affect provision of 8 policemen and 2 DSS operatives as personal security entitlement for lifetime for each of former governors in many states. Indeed the N8.72 billion salaries and allowances of our national lawmakers in the two legislative chambers may be affected. The Senators and House of Representative members, hitherto enjoying non-taxable allowance up to 87% and 82% of their basic salaries respectively may be affected.
What do we expect of a mismanaged and disequilibrium economy that relies on a single product - drying oil, for survival? We flaunt huge debt profile, and yet, we hardly see the infrastructure provided with such debts. “Òbùn rí’kú oko ti’rànmó.”- A dirty woman blames her filth on her husband’s death, using his demise as excuse for not bathing. We blame COVID which affected other countries the world over. But what was our situation pre-COVID? Were we living better before COVID scourge? What honest provision did we make to absorb the effect of COVID on the economy as done in other climes? Aside from deceptive and phantom trader money, was there any revivalist strategy to revitalize our comatose industrial sectors? Which industrialized world exists without regular energy and electricity supply? We are advised on self-employment. But can we self-employ in darkness without electricity?
Governance is about assuaging the sufferings of the people. But in our Nigeria, whenever there is economic crises, often occasioned by the spendthrift leadership, the government quickly remembers whose responsibility it is to show “patriotism and cooperation” to turn situations around. The lamentation about this “recession within a recession” had to sound so loud repeatedly to our hearing, since the same famished and extorted people must bear the brunt of every systemic misappropriation and institutional profligacy. Earlier in February 2020, there was a loud plea to be “patriotic and cooperate” with the government’s policy on the newly imposed 7.5% value added tax (vat) from the old 5% to revamp “our economy.” It is often our economy whenever it is dwindling and sacrifices are needed to get it revamped. I do not know what value is being “added” to goods and services being consumed by famished masses in a country without regular electricity supply; inadequacy of motorable roads for people, goods & services transportation; water supply, etc. Thus, the very few private entrepreneurs are compelled to provide for almost every basic infrastructure, including security of their lives and property. The masses also have to bear with fortitude the harsh effect of the newly increased petrol pump price. To ensure survival of the deregulated electricity companies, the people must pay higher electricity tariff simultaneously with the increased petrol pump price. Yet, they provide slipshod services. Both kerosene and diesel prices are equally prohibitive.
I recall the wisdom in Proverb 227: “The rich is the one who rules over those of little means. And a borrower is a servant to the one doing the lending.” Nigeria is neck deep in debt. But she was not created to be of little means but with enviable huge resources to the amazement of even the advanced world. Curiously, due to ingrained ineptitude and the leadership’s kleptomaniac instinct, Nigeria turns herself to a perpetual borrower and a shameless servant to her lender. Yet she prides herself in being the giant of Africa. Nigeria; the third largest crude oil producer in the world; but it has now condescended beyond explanation by relying on the diminutive non oil-producing nation, Niger Republic to import petroleum products for her local consumption. Nigeria no doubt needs urgent redemption from her self-inflicted recession. But there is nothing to suggest a reprieve from the present doldrums and our multifarious problems due to leadership deficit. And like an adage says, the more a fool helps; the worse situations become. Like that 18th century English writer, Caleb Colton would say: “While the follies of the wise are known to himself but hidden from the world; the follies of the fool are known to the world, but are hidden from himself.” A democracy entangled by kleptocracy may continue to push our nation into recession that may defy any redemption. Perhaps when we realize our folly we will move forward. Until then, it will be apropos to liken our situation to that proverbial double-headed snake, the summation of whose forward and backward movement will always be zero. Verbum Satis Sapienti.
*Tunji Ajayi - a creative writer, biographer, author & audiovisual documentary producer writes from LC-Studio Communications, Nigeria (+2348033203115); >mobile. Facebook.com/tunji.ajayi.946<