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Emmanuel Onwubiko: How not to be a finance minister

As a student of philosophy, I have observed with considerable trepidation and fear for the future of Nigeria, just one feature of the President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration that is now notorious even as that characteristic is the habit of being CONSISTENTLY INCONSISTENT in all facets of our national life beginning from national security, inter-religious and inter-Ethnic harmony, economic planning and execution, anti-corruption crusade, police and constitutional or law reforms and promotions, protection of human rights of the citizens.

From the time of electioneering in 2014 up until 23.37 hours or thirty seven minutes passed eleven O’clock of June 20th 2022, the current administration has gone from bad to worst or to put it in the language of President Muhammadu Buhari, the government of All Progressives Congress has taken Nigeria ‘from top to bottom’ in all areas of our national life.

The most noticeable leadership inertia and abysmal failures are seen in the way insecurity has become a recurring decimal and a cancerous problem. These failings did not end here. The problem of Youth unemployment which has reached above thirty-three percent is another angle of the variegated evidence of spectacular failures but the major challenge is on how the National economy is planned and managed by the cabinet level minister in charge of the Federal Ministry of Budget, national planning and Finance.

The same person has been at the helm of affairs in that troubled and rudderless political position for the greater part of the last seven years since the initial occupant who is Yoruba but born in the United Kingdom was chased out of that plumb position by the Northern Cabal hiding under the nebulous and not so serious charge that she failed to do her NYSC.

The same person passed the security vetting conducted by both the Department of State Services and the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria but when the Northern hawks in the corridors of power wanted the ministry of finance by all means, they managed to squeeze an innocuous error of judgment made by that Yoruba lady Mrs. Kemi Adeosun. She was actually defrauded by someone within the National Youth Service Corps who gave her fake clearance certificate showing that she couldn’t serve because she presented herself after she left school above the timeline of 30 years of age.

Right from the first day that the half sister of the Kaduna State governor Zainab Ahmed was frontloaded from the less fancied seat of an executive Secretary of one inconsequential agency with very long name (Solid Minerals Transparency Agency) operating from one rented apartment in Maitama and made the powerful minister of the juiciest beat to control the driving seat of the National economic planning and Finance of a nation of almost 200 million population, she has demonstrated an unacceptable levels of gross incompetence and a clear lack of focus and direction.

The Finance minister has hibernated and dangled from one Policy flip flops to the other concerning accumulation of debts and the consequential obligations for servicing those bogus and largely unserviceable dubious loans that this government continues to draw from all manners of places including China that is a rogue State.

The Finance minister, the lackey who is Senate President since 2019 Ahmed Lawan, Central Bank Governor and President Muhammadu Buhari have argued that borrowings were only way out of Nigeria’s economic doldrums foisted largely by man-made incompetence and errors.

But as stated earlier, if there is one characteristic of this Government that is provocatively notorious, it is the consistency in its inconsistencies.

The government started arguing in favor of continuous borrowings since coming on board as if they are a bunch of persons who simply managed to grab political power but did not actually planned to develop the economy and so they now resorted to external borrowings as if to say evolving a robust economy that would be built on utilizing the abundant human resources in Nigeria and elsewhere of Nigerians and galvanizing the natural resources of Nigeria which are in super abundance and then make the National economy to become productive and to begin to export finished products to earn qualitative revenues and to reduce to its nearest minimum the insatiable quest for borrowings, is a mirage. Of course to these people who don’t mean well for Nigerians and Nigeria, making Nigeria a productive nation won’t give them the leeway to corner public funds at their beck and call. This is why one official allegedly stole as much as #170 Billion- an amount that can build standard tertiary health facilities in all 36 states of Nigeria and the Federal Capital Territory but the Accountant-General of the Federation who is from Kano State allegedly siphoned all those humongous for himself, says the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

And so after 7 years of accumulating huge debts and taking Nigeria on a deadly roller coaster right back to the inglorious status of a heavily indebted nation after we exited during the President Olusegun Obasanjo’s era in which the great internationally respected Economist Professor Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala facilitated debts exit and part forgiveness with the multilateral borrowers to Nigeria such as the London and Paris Clubs, the government has now started bemoaning the huge indebtedness they took us into even as they haven’t relented in further borrowings.

Tragically, because the National Assembly has been bribed and captured, the executive is no longer afraid to send requests for further borrowings. So why is the minister and the incompetent Debts management Office now crying over spilt milk? Why have these same heavy debts they accumulated and deployed fir God knows what, now a challenge for them to repay? Did these officials not thought through this basic fact so they prepare in advance how to seamlessly service the debts since they said going cap in hand to beg for dubious loans is necessary to build infrastructures? Where are those infrastructures built with these loans and why are those investments unprofitable and so intangible that most Nigeria don’t know their whereabouts? Going forward, we will read detailed claims of the Finance minister on why she would press on with seeking for loans to collect.

Specifically on June 20th 2022, we were regaled with the infantile tales by moonlight that in three months, the Nigerian government has spent a whopping N896.56 billion on debt servicing, according to the Debt Management Office (DMO).

This they said has led the country to spend N3.83 trillion on debt repayments in 15 months, a DMO data says. This same Debts Managers backed the unrestrained borrowings of President Muhammadu Buhari. So why the switch to another song against accumulation of huge debts? Why has managing these debts become an unsustainable burden to the Debts management Office?

Debt servicing surpasses increased revenue so say a newspaper report which says too that a total of N2.93 trillion was spent on servicing debt in 2021, meaning a 109 per cent increase in comparison to 2022.

Between October and December last year, the country reportedly spent about N310.5 billion servicing domestic debts and $2886.35, about N118.9 billion on external debt servicing, making it a total of N429.4 billion. In the first three between January and March 2022, Nigeria serviced domestic debts with about N668.69 billion, amounting to N896.56 billion. The debt servicing was based on the official exchange rate fixed by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and showed that it was N415.22 per dollar as of June 15, 2022

It shows that the amount Nigeria spent on debt serving increased by 109 per cent from N429 billion in December of 2021 to N896 billion in March 2022. Nigeria’s bloated debt stock Nigeria’s debt stock increased by N2.04 trillion in the first quarter of 2022, worsening the already bloated Nigeria budget and bringing the total debt burden to about N41.60 trillion from N39.56 trillion witnessed in December 2021.

Between January and March 2021, Nigeria had spent N612.71bn on domestic debt servicing, while it spent $1bn (N415.22bn) on external debt servicing, giving a total of N1.03tn, revealed media investigations. Did this deter the minister of Finance from sounding like a broken record on why her ministry lacks self control over loans from abroad? Not at all.

This is so because the Minister of Finance is not even ashamed to show her face in lamentations over the same debts she led us into and the same credits she said we shall continue to collect.

The Minister shamelessly laments the burden of debt servicing, the Newspapers are reporting.

The Nigeria’s Minister of Finance and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed said that the fuel subsidy regime was destroying Nigeria’s ability to service its debts. She said Nigeria is struggling to service debts after increased borrowing despite an increase in revenue. She said expenditure is bloating daily and this has put Nigeria in a difficult place and unable to meet its obligations. Nigeria spends N977bn on debt servicing in one month, says CBN Legit.ng reported that the Nigerian government has spent N977.03 on internal debt servicing as of June 2021. This represents about 8.75 per cent in comparison to N898.39 billion in the same period last year.

According to a Naira metrics report, the Financial Markets Department of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) said this in its half-year activity report for 2021. Nigeria’s domestic debt stock outstanding saw an uptick trend in the first half of 2021 in comparison to the same period in 2020.

The question to ask the minister is- what kind of national economic blueprints did you develop that you had relied on to continue to balloon and skyrocket Nigeria’s debts profile over the past seven years?

To demonstrate how consistently inconsistent she has being, on August 30th 2021 the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs Zainab Ahmed, was reported as revealing why the Federal Government will continue to borrow money from other countries.

The Minister, during an interview with newsmen in Abuja revealed the government was borrowing to invest in infrastructure in the country.

According to her, the Federal Government’s borrowing is sensible and responsible.

“I have said it several times that the problem we have in Nigeria is that of revenue.

“We are borrowing sensibly and this is because we want to invest in infrastructures like power, water, roads and rails which are investments that are required to enhance business productivity in the country today.

“These businesses will grow, they will not only pay taxes, they will also employ people.

“If we don’t do this, we will regress even from where we are today. Borrowing is a necessary investment and we are doing it responsibly,” she said.

On April 9th 2021 the badly mismanaged Central Bank of Nigeria was reported as giving its own dimension of the evolving governmental folly in which a section of the media on that day reported why Nigeria Can’t Stop Borrowing as claimed by the CBN.

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) said that Nigeria cannot stop burrowing, especially when it is necessary as it is part of fiscal responsibility.

The CBN Governor, Mr. Godwin Emefiele, said this in Abuja at the National Dialogue on the Nigeria’s rising debt profile, titled: “The Rising Public Debt in Nigeria and the Challenges of National Development” organized by the ActionAid Nigeria (AAN).

This is as AAN and stakeholders, expressed worry over unstable levels of borrowings and rising national debt profile under the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration and rising poverty level.

According to Emefiele, represented by the Assistant Director, Monetary Policy Department, CBN, Dr. Tawose Joseph, there is no crime in borrowing, but that there should be monitoring and evaluation of the money borrowed and the purpose meant for.

“Debt is part of fiscal responsibility. Debt is never a crime or a sin. Private entity also burrows to survive. But what matter most is the quantum of the debt and the usage of the debt as well. If a money is burrowed as a result of shortage of income generation.

“When you compare the income and expenditure and is efficiently used is part of government responsibility. But where the fear is when it is above the threshold.

“CBN understand that when there is crisis in an economy, then the burden of debt would be something. That is why the conventional and non-conventional instruments is there to ensure price stability in the economy,” he said.

He added that the CBN formulates policies that positively affect the grassroots people, and added that the Apex Bank considers facts and figures before making policies.

He said that the CBN has rolled out 37 initiatives to positively affect the economy, but noted that there are challenges. Experts disagreed sharply.

Speaking earlier, the AAN Country Director, Ene Obi, expressed worry over upward trend in the nation’s debt profile, which she said keeps piling up and closing the fiscal space for effective delivery of public goods.

According to her, as at 31 December 2020, data from the Debt Management Office (DMO) showed that the nation’s total debt stock stood at N32, 915,514.85trn ($86,392.54 billion).

Obi said that continued borrowing is clearly not sustainable both in the short and the long-term but rather enslaving the citizens and future generations.

She said that the Nigerian government needs to proactively garner the political will to reduce the size and cost of governance, fight corruption, close leakages in the revenue generation and utilization as it makes no sense at all giving away large chunk of “our resources on tax incentives but continue to seek funding abroad and locally.

“It is in view of these that ActionAid is convening of a National Dialogue on the Rising Public Debt, as an antipoverty agency, ActionAid is worried that if the unchecked borrowing continues, Nigeria’s efforts at dealing with its challenges of unemployment, failing social services and infrastructure deficit and rising incidences of poverty will be a mirage.

“It is also concerned that the country is not exploring other avenues such as blocking leakages from corruption, illicit financial flows, reducing cost of governance amongst others as alternatives to unsustainable and conditional laden debt.

“Recall that in 2006 the Nigerian government secured a debt relief from the international consortium of creditors otherwise known as the ‘Paris Club’. The key argument of the government then was the inability of the country to meet its development obligations due to its debt servicing obligations.

“At the time the country was indebted to the Paris Club to the tune of $36bn. Giving the debt servicing obligation, that affected the annual expenditure of education and health care as was argued by the President at that time, thus making it an unsustainable venture in the journey to National development,” she said.

In her keynote, the Minister of Finance, Budget and Planning, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed, represented by the Head, Marketing Development Department (MDD), Debt Management Office (DMO), Mr. Monday Usiade, said the borrowings by the Federal Government followed due process as the National Assembly approved and passed budgets including monies to be borrowed.

She also commended AAN for conveying the dialogue as it will provide an avenue to broaden the discourse about public debts in Nigeria.

She, however, acknowledged that debt profile is really increasing, saying, “The government acknowledges that the nation’s public debt is growing, and it is also important to add that all borrowings both domestic and external are approved by the National Assembly before they are incurred, that is the representatives of the people.

“The borrowings are approved in the budget that is used to finance the budget offices and other projects presented by the various ministries, departments and agencies of the government. As you may be aware the federal government conducts and publishes debt sustainability analysis on the public debt portfolio on annually basis.

“The DMO exercise helps to determine among others. The results of the DSO are used to prepare the national budget, then the budget is now presented to the National Assembly who has the responsibility of appropriation including the amount that will be borrowed.

“The federal government also develops its medium-term budget management strategies on regular basis. The NTDS helps to set public debt management objectives to ensure that borrowing operations are conducted in a responsible manner, and the cost of enlist profile of the debt portfolio are within reasons,” Ahmed said.

Earlier on July 5th 2020, the media reported that Finance minister said her government won’t relent in borrowings even amidst growing concerns over Nigeria’s debt profile. The Minister of Finance, Budget and Planning, Mrs Zainab Ahmed, said the dual reality of COVID-19 pandemic and the drop in the price of oil in the international market has made it inevitable for Nigeria to keep borrowing from external bodies. Here she hung the reason on COVID-19. This is just the color of her consistent inconsistencies.

She went further with her tales by moonlight by stating that before the global health and economic challenges, Nigeria had been grappling with low revenue, noting that the crises had put the country in a difficult situation, which had made it difficult for the government to meet some of its obligations.

The minister spoke recently at a webinar organized by the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, Fiscal Policy Roundtable and Tax Investment and Competitiveness Policy Commission and was anchored by a tax expert, Taiwo Oyedele, who is the Fiscal Policy Partner and West Africa Tax Leader at PricewaterhouseCooper.

The minister, who was represented by the Special Adviser to the President on Finance and Economy, Mrs Sarah Alade, said government was doing its best to make sure the revenue base was broadened and expenditure reduced. She noted that if citizens also participated by paying taxes and doing the right things, it would go a long way in solving the country’s problems, especially raising revenues.

Again, many economists and prominent Nigerians have expressed reservations over the country’s rising debt liabilities.

As of March, the Vice Chairman, Senate Committee on Local and Foreign Debts, Senator Muhammad Enagi, said the country’s total debt would have risen to about N33tn after the Senate approved the President’s request to take another $22.7bn foreign loan.

But, Ahmed said, “We’ve had to grapple with low revenue, even before the pandemic. We had high debt, weak infrastructure base, low human capital and low revenue that is largely dependent on the foreign exchange earned from oil. So, there are many things we have loved to do that we cannot do.

“Due to the global economic slowdown and the revenue issues, what we are expecting is a GDP that would contract, in the best case scenario, by about 4.4 per cent and in the worst case scenario, it could be about eight per cent or more.

“We are in a very difficult situation but we are trying to manage that because if nothing is done, up to about 21 million jobs could also be affected by the impact of the pandemic. So, with all these statistics, we cannot overemphasized the importance of raising revenue.”

She said in addressing the situation, government had come up with key fiscal measures that government could not but borrow to accomplish. She identified them to include the 12-month economic sustainability plan to mitigate the effect of COVID-19; measures to support the private sector, which includes the implementation of the Finance Act 2020 aimed at supporting MSMEs and strategic industries affected by the pandemic.

She added, “We also have the establishment of an N86bn intervention fund for health infrastructure; conversion of World Bank Regional disease surveillance system enhancement program to support COVID-19 intervention in the states; accelerating infrastructural development; preparation of a Fiscal Stimulus Bill to provide legislative backing for the fiscal stimulus packages that we have; deregulation of the price of refined petroleum products – we know how important that is, given the amount of money that we spent in that area.

“We also have the adoption of financing plan for the power sector recovery program; incentivizing the use of up to N2tn of pension funds for roads and housing development, supporting and encouraging states to achieve state fiscal transparency and accountability, sustainability and other World Bank program actions in order to access external support and we are collaborating with state governments on affordable mass housing.

“To achieve all these, we will have to keep mobilizing external funding and seek debt relief. We continue to engage with the multilateral and donor agencies to access additional funding for crisis response, we seek moratorium from official partners for some of the loans that we have and support arrangement to secure commercial debt relief.

“If the revenue had performed, then we probably will not be seeking this much support from external sources, we know we cannot but keep working at generating more revenue so that the economy can be better for it.”

Other panelists were the Chairman, Nigeria Governors’ Forum, Dr Kayode Fayemi; Chairman, FIRS/JTB, Muhammad Nami; IMF’s Senior Resident Representative for Nigeria, Jesmin Rahman; and the Country Director, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mr Paulin Basinga.

Fast-forward to January 5th 2022 when the baton was then switched over to the President to drum up the same line of half truths on why his administration won’t stop borrowings.

President Muhammadu Buhari said Nigeria would continue to take loans from China or any other country and donor agencies as long as they are willing to help with infrastructural development in the country.

Buhari, who stated this during an interview with Channels Television, defended his administration’s decision to source loans from China and other agencies, insisting that Nigeria would always welcome anyone willing to assist infrastructural development in the country.

He said: “Whenever there is a need to secure more foreign loans, especially for infrastructure, this administration will not hesitate to go for them as long as we use it for the purpose they are meant for, which is to develop our infrastructure.”

Buhari dismissed fears that Nigeria may be plunged into a debt trap with the constant borrowing, insisting that the country was still within the threshold of borrowing.

The President added: “We only take loans where it is necessary. I told you now of something, what it used to be between Lagos and Ibadan alone not to talk of the rest of the country.

“But we got the Chinese to help us in the rail and the roads, how can we turn that down? If we had turned that down, maybe between Lagos to Ibadan, you will have to walk.

“So the Chinese are welcome; anybody that is prepared to come and help us and our infrastructure to do the roads, the rail and power, will be welcomed.”

The bulk of these Chinese loans are dubious as the terms are said to be coached and written in Chinese language that almost all of the incompetent officials in the office of the Finance minister are unable to speak or hear with clarity.

So how are we sure the allegations that President Muhammadu Buhari signed off Nigeria’s sovereign ownerships of major national assets of strategic dimension when he inked the contract documents on the numerous unaccounted Chinese dubious loans? How come the Finance minister is now singing another tone that we can’t meet up with our debts servicing obligations? Did they not tell us that a bulk of these loans are interests free and have longer serviceable timelines?

It is because of these classical inconsistencies that are consistent with the Finance minister that Nigeria’s economy has nosedive to a voodoo economy with no other direction than economic doom.

EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO is head of the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA and was NATIONAL COMMISSIONER of the NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION OF NIGERIA.

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