Tuesday, February 24, 2015 7.28 PM /Sahara Reporters/By Chukwuma Soludo *
My attention has been drawn this morning to an article entitled: “Jonathan Replies Soludo over “missing N30 trillion” claim”--- extracting from Mr. President’s interview as published by Thisday newspaper. ThisDay quoted Mr. President as saying that “Soludo said that under Ngozi’s watch they stole N30 trillion” but that since the sum of the federal budget over the last four years was less than N30 trillion, such an amount could not have been “stolen”. According to the President, “it is all political”. I had earlier stated that I would not make further comments on the issues until probably after the elections but since Mr. President has decided to join the fray, I am constrained to make a further brief clarification. For me, President Jonathan is a gentleman and a friend but I have a fundamental disagreement on his management of the economy. On the issues at stake, I believe that the pressures of office and the hectic electioneering campaigns have not allowed him time to read my articles or that his staff have not explained the contents to him hence he totally missed the point in his comments. For the avoidance of doubt, let me clarify as follows:
In my article entitled “Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and the Missing Trillions”, I presented some rough calculations covering: oil theft, money that ought to accrue to stock of foreign reserves, unbudgeted oil subsidy payments, customs duty waivers, leakages through the self-financing government parastatals, unremitted sums by NNPC, etc. I concluded that section of my article by noting that: “I have a long list but let me wait for now. I do not want to talk about other ‘black pots’ that impinge on national security. My estimate, Madam, is that probably more than N30 trillion has either been stolen or lost or unaccounted for or simply mismanaged under your watchful eyes in the past four years”.
It is evident that the monies I referred to are “off-budget”. These are monies that did not make it to the budget. I find it funny that the Government deliberately avoided the issues raised above but instead has sought to divert attention by focusing on the “federal budget”. Let me state for the record that I believe that the amount of resources that are either stolen from the economy or out-rightly mismanaged by government far exceeds the federal budget per annum. Ours is about a N100 trillion economy, and I will be shocked if the government pretends that it does not know that currently about 10% of the GDP falls into a ‘black hole’ on annual basis. We have not added figures based on counterfactual analysis such as the cost to the aggregate economy of bad or misguided economic policy. For example, in today’s Thisday newspaper, a headline news reports that “Aliko Dangote, Africa’s Richest Man, Loses $7.8 Billion as Naira, Stocks Plunge” while reporting that “In dollar terms, the devaluation has knocked more than $40 billion off the value of Nigeria’s economy”. Of course, most people predicted that oil prices would soon fall but we were caught unprepared, and today, the parallel market exchange rate is N225 to the dollar. Thus, the kind of analysis in today’s Thisday is just one little example of the kind of collateral damages--‘costs’ or ‘losses’-- that mismanagement foists on the system. To repeat, my article did not focus on the federal budget: the mismanagement of the consumption budget and its unprecedented debt accumulation (with low value-for-money expenditures) are entirely different matters.
What I found particularly disconcerting as a Nigerian from the comments I read is the fixation to validation from the World Bank. According to Mr. President, “we asked the Minister how her colleagues at the World Bank saw the accusation”. I shook my head in disbelief. It is instructive that no one asked what Nigerians thought or ‘how Nigerians saw it’ but rather what was important to government was the impression of the World Bank. If this is the mind-set of our leaders, then ordinary citizens have real cause to worry. Well, I have read several editorial comments of Nigerian media and they do not agree with the ‘impression’ of the World Bank official. I read a similar comment by a high government official stating that World Bank officials and CNN had told them that government was doing well and therefore who else could question them. But neither the World Bank nor CNN conducts comprehensive independent surveys on the economy--- they comment based on the data they are given--- and their subjective “opinions” cannot substitute for hard facts. The World Bank is not a statistical agency. I can provide a long list of countries that World Bank reports praised as ‘star performers’ and they slumped into deep crisis almost immediately after. Check out the World Bank and IMF reports on the US and other countries’ economies shortly before the unprecedented global financial and economic crisis in fifty years (the Great Recession of 2008/09). Actually for many countries once they start getting such ‘praises’, then perceptive officials begin to worry. Nigeria is probably the only country where its government officials quote the World Bank while ignoring data from its own statistical agency!
A serious concern is that while government relies on external validation (opinion) as ‘proof’ of its performance, it is selective in the process—accepting the positive ones and disparaging the negative ones. Our recent exchanges illustrate the point. In my first article (26th January): “Buhari Vs Jonathan: Beyond the Elections”, I argued that “the economy seems to be on auto pilot, with confusion as to who is in charge, and government largely as a constraint. There are no big ideas, and it is difficult to see where economic policy is headed to. My thesis is that the Nigerian economy, if properly managed, should have been growing at an annual rate of about 12% given the oil boom, and poverty and unemployment should have fallen dramatically over the last five years”. No one has credibly challenged the above, except what the Financial Times of London described as a “furious response by the Minister”. But, the influential Economist Magazine of London and New York Times agreed with us. According to the Economist editorial (7th February, 2015):
“… as Africa’s biggest economy stages its most important election since the restoration of civilian rule in 1999, and perhaps since the civil war four decades ago, Nigerians must pick between the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, who has proved an utter failure, and the opposition leader, Muhammadu Buhari….The single bright spot of his rule has been Nigeria’s economy, one of the world’s fastest-growing. Yet that is largely despite the government rather than because of it, and falling oil prices will temper the boom. The prosperity has not been broadly shared: under Mr Jonathan poverty has increased. Nigerians typically die eight years younger than their poorer neighbours in nearby Ghana”. I gave the Government an “F” grade on economic management, and the Economist described its performance as “utter failure”. The Economist also basically agreed with me that the re-basing of the economy and its observed ‘growth’ have nothing to do with government policy. Again, government has not credibly challenged the above or is the Economist’s view also ‘all political ’? Government simply waved it off. My point is that if Government has to rely on the “impressions” of external bodies, then it should be consistent and comprehensive.
In conclusion, let me re-state that I firmly stand by my earlier statements. These are weighty statements which I weighed carefully before issuing. I appreciate that this is an election time and so attempts would be made to trivialize, or either play politics with, or divert attention from, them. In a serious society, we should have had a good debate on these matters as they could provide some of the building blocks in trying to pick the pieces after the elections. Part of our citizen duty in a democracy is to raise such issues and demand for answers. In the meantime, I grant that our leaders are busy with campaigns but these issues won’t go away until we have a transparent resolution. Be assured that after the elections, we will be back with even more questions!