Will The Economy Get a Breather as Buhari Breaks The Ice on Niger Delta?

Finally,on November 1, 2016, Niger Delta heavy weights, have had the much sought opportunity to jaw-jaw with president Muhammadu Buhari inside the hallowed chambers of Aso Rock villa. Before the latest opportunity, both parties had more less been ‘talking’ through the barrels of guns. Although the main protagonists-militants like Avengers, MEND etc-were not seated at the round table with the president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the federal republic of Nigeria, their surrogates were in the eyeball to eyeball meeting.Hopefully, that would help the frosty relationship between Niger delta people and the Govt in power to thaw.

Before proceeding further, lets go back to the brass tacts by tracing the origin of the economic challenges currently clogging the wheel of progress.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record,the fact that the government in power started off on wrong footing by mismanaging the uncertainty that comes with change of govt is not debatable, but whether the Nigerian establishment has now recognized that a culmination of their belligerence and lack of defined economic vision and shortage in leadership savviness, is what is presently manifesting as economic recession, is another kettle of fish.

All over the world, businessmen and women , especially international investors prefer continuity, hence the surprising and unpredicted decision by the British electorate to vote in favor of exiting the European Union, EU in a recent referendum, resulted in the crash of the British pound.

That the British economy, with London as the foremost financial capital of the world, is in the doldrums despite the positive spin that the Bank of England governor Mark Carney put on the otherwise disappointing decision to exit the EU immediately after the referendum,attests to the fact that no matter how solid an economy may be, investors loathe, in fact, dread change which is often fraught  with uncertainty and instability.

Then British prime minister, David Cameron also had put in strenuous efforts into reassuring jittery investors that nothing untoward would change in Britain even if it exits the EU, yet the currency and economy have been gyrating.

Now compare the gallant efforts of British authorities to the dog in the manger attitude of president Muhammadu Buhari, who upon taking over the reins of power some 18 months ago vowed to deal ruthlessly with the so called economic looters, without giving any hint as to how he will manage the crude oil dependent economy which was already in a cliff hanger owing to global crash in commodity prices.

Nigerian authorities doing the opposite of what the British did after Brexit, by confirming instead of allaying the fears of apprehensive investors, was clearly a recipe for economic disaster as the economy has no other option than to head towards the precipice and those of us who saw the handwriting on the wall, kept reminding Aso Rock leadership that recession was the ultimate destination of the economy, if policy paralysis owing to lethargy and corruption rhetoric, were to remain unmoderated.

Since nobody in govt appeared to have cared to heed the call, the economy ended up in the recession ditch as we had predicted and from which we are now desperately trying to dig it out.

After about one year of bad mouthing Nigeria and Nigerians,the obnoxious branding of Nigerians as corrupt by our president has ebbed , as the commander-in-chief is now harping more on the nation’s potentials and destined greatness, which he should have been doing from the moment he took over the reins of power.

Mr president’s new positiveness would invariably help restore investors confidence, however, severe economic damages had been done by previous negative comments, hence naira exchange rate is still in a tailspin,hovering closer to the N500 to $1 range in the open market than N200 where it was less than six, 6 months ago.

Having brought the economy to its knees, mainly due to rigidity in Aso Rock as opposed to flexibility which is a requirement in modern day economic management, it would appear that a new threat, this time to democracy through erosion of its fundamental principles such as the rule of law and due process now being trampled upon with impunity by the authorities in Aso Rock, is afoot.

Dishearteningly,this persistent corrosion of the bedrock of democracy is being perpetuated under the guise or cloak of fighting corruption, simply because graft fighting would resonate with the masses.

But if reduction of corruption (total elimination is utopian) is actually one of the cardinal objectives of the authorities in Aso Rock, most of us have posited that some of the most creative and less disruptive approach would be to reform the economy in such a way that most of the sectors like oil/gas, sea and air ports and railways still under the shackles of govt and which have the negative reputation of being corruption cesspools, are unbundled for private sector participation.

We don’t need a Paul Krugman or Joseph Stiglitz -Nobel prize winning economists and World bank and lMF advisers- to enlighten us that if upon taking over the reins of leadership, president Buhari had proposed to build on the gains from the reforms in the telecoms, aviation and now electricity power sectors which have been privatized or commercialized leading to reduction in corruption, Nigerian economy might not be in recession today.

This is simply because such reassurance of continuity could have calmed the frayed nerves of investors -foreign and local- who took flight with their investments as soon as the war on corruption started being waged with hordes of business men and politicians being hauled into detention.

Since investors detest instability and uncertainty, president Buhari’s anti corruption war created the impression that Nigerian economy is in turmoil and thus accentuated as well as consolidated their fears much more faster than they had expected resulting in the contraction of the economy year-on year or twice in a row, leading to the catastrophic descent into recession.

Whether the authorities admit it or not, the current recession in Nigeria is an indirect product of the taciturn and tedious nature and unpredictability of president Buhari which his advisers extol as virtues of ‘body language’ and hail as the exceptional management style of the  ‘new Sheriff in town’.

Unfortunately, just as sheriff’s don’t help their county’s or precincts make money but only help catch criminals, Buhari’s unverbalised system of leadership is also only Peculiar to Nigeria and since investors don’t rely on sign or body language to make investment decisions , they have largely been unable to understand the policy direction of Nigeria in order to determine what kind of actions to take, hence they had no option but withdraw their investments, resulting in the present crisis of socioeconomic paralysis in Nigeria.

Put differently, since nature abhors vacuum and speedy decision making are the stuff that modern day management in a global economy-which is constantly evolving at the speed of light-are made of, Nigerian economy retreated rapidly, as a consequence of the dearth of policy initiatives that investors could use in planning their investment strategy in Nigeria.

With the continued dearth of policy initiatives and lack of clarity on the few that have been enunciated, reversing the downward spiral of the economy is also proving to be a Herculean task, more so as the little changes that have so far been made are sometimes too late.

The fact that a handful of private sector practitioners now turned bureaucrats are in the federal cabinet of ministers, could have been a source of some kind of respite was soothing , but former private sector high fliers such as Okechukwu Enelamah ,Udo Udoma and Kemi Adeosun and to a some extent, former Lagos and Ekiti states governors, Babatunde Fashola and Kayode Fayemi can’t deny the fact Nigeria’s socioeconomic management style is not ideal.

But perhaps they are hobbled by bureaucracy, hence they have been unable to influence the cabinet which is heavily populated by professional politicians to craft clear policy documents and chart actionable and sustainable path to recovery.

But what the minorities in the federal cabinet have been unable to achieve could have been accomplished by the national economic management team led by Vice President, Yemi Osibanjo which is more populated by private sector chieftains, but for some fuzzy reasons, a clear cut economic policy direction of Govt is yet to be articulated and fleshed out.

I have heard arguments being made about loss of about a million barrels of crude oil that should have been exported daily to the destructive  activities of Niger delta militants being the major culprit for the sorry state of Nigerian economy and l wonder if such commentators are oblivious of the fact that Govt aggravated the mayhem being inflicted on oil/gas infrastructure through incendiary comments by public officials,especially the one made by president Buhari soon after taking office, wherein he threatened that he was going to deal with Niger delta militants in the same manner that he vanquished Boko Haram terrorists.

Worse of all, the comment was made at a time that it was unclear if the amnesty program pioneered by president Umar Yar’Adua of blessed memory was going to be sustained or jettisoned.

Threatening ,instead of courting Niger delta stake holders for their support on how to bolster the economy through increased oil/gas production, which for now is the only assured path to improved foreign exchange income required to salvage the sagging Nigerian economy presently under the yoke of global recession, occasioned by a slump in commodities prices, was bound to have the disastrous outcome currently being witnessed in the Niger delta.

How can the policy of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs be efficacious?

By virtue of the fact that they are seating on Nigeria’s treasure trove, Niger delta militants are like a tsetse fly perched on the scrotum requiring dexterity to manage.

Planning to use brute force to silence the militants in my reckoning is like trying to get rid of the tsetse fly perched on the scrotum of a man by smashing it with ferocious force.

The path of dialogue currently being toed by president Buhari via direct conversations with key Niger Delta stakeholders, appears to me as the most viable option for restoring peace and harmony in the volatile Niger delta. It is certainly not going to be a quick fix, so negotiations is expected to be drawn out, but oil production would go on and as the saying goes,nothing good comes easy.

With a bit of dexterity, it might also be apropos and therefore advisable that the activities of Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs and Amnesty Office, be integrated and more coordinated for enhanced benefits to the beleaguered and long suffering people of the environmentally challenged zone.

As most Nigerians would agree, socioeconomic development in the region is still haphazard and therefore requires a coordinating desk in Aso Rock villa.

Although some Niger Delta activists deem president Buhari’s body language at the November 1, 2016 meeting not to be satisfactory, others believe that the necessary foundation to build upon for future interactions has been laid so regardless of the varied prisms of the participants, the peace building ship of peace in the Niger Delta has docked and waiting to pick up as many stakeholders as possible on the voyage of peace and development because by now, it must be apparent to all that Nigeria can’t succeed without progress in the Niger Delta which is the treasure trove of the nation.

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