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Naira: Comedy inside a tragedy, By Dakuku Peterside

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On Sunday, August 15, 1971, the United States economy was literally facing a firing squad. The Dollar was in a mess. Price gougers were everywhere, and foreign exchange was cruel to the Dollar. The newspaper headlines were full of scorn and ridicule, but President Richard Nixon did one thing. He faced the issue squarely.

“The strength of a nation’s currency is based on the strength of that nation’s economy,” he said. Nixon nipped the problem in the bud. Everything changed. He rescued his country from financial and social crises. Today, Nigeria is in a similar situation, albeit slightly dissimilar, given that the American economy is by far the strongest in the world. Thus, President Bola Tinubu needs to act in a manner that moves the nation from “Renewed Hope” to “Renewed Confidence”.

The loss of hope was what triggered the Arab Spring and other springs. In December 2010 in the town of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Tarek El-Tayeb Bouazizi, a trader who had lost hope in the economy of his country set himself on fire. That act became a catalyst for countrywide protests. The protests included several men who emulated Bouazizi’s act of self-sacrifice. Hope is good. However, hope is not edible.

In Nigeria, there are reported and unreported suicide cases due to economic hardship in the country. A few weeks back, a woman who worked at a bank locked herself in the convenience of her company and swallowed poison, leaving behind a suicide note which points at her giving up on Nigeria.

With the free fall in the value of our currency, we are beginning to see more public expression of frustration. In the coming months, the unrelenting fall of the Naira could lead to an increased risk of suicide and even social unrest. In Kano State, where social unrest forms quickly, a group of local bakers warned the government about things to come. They protested the high cost of flour with a bag that sold N10,000 a few years ago now selling at N41,000. The Kano bakers cannot afford the price spiral and social unrest arising therefrom could pose additional risks to economic recovery and create setbacks with lasting impact on general economic performance.

For a government looking for an economic spark plug through Foreign Direct Investment, FDI, and business startups, the fall of the Naira and global jokes about it are downright depressing. The fall of Naira indeed poses grave dangers to the viability of businesses in Nigeria. Last August, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, a young Nigerian celebrated all over the world for creating two unicorns and a general partner at early-stage venture capital firm, Future Africa, told Rest of World, an America-based publication, that his firm is advising its portfolio companies to explore business abroad to avoid Naira-related challenges.

Jokes about the Naira

Over the past two weeks, social media have been awash with hilarious jokes about the Naira. This is not restricted to Nigerians. First, a Toronto-based television station announced that Nigeria’s currency was now worth 0.0011 American Dollars. This was followed closely by a South African Prokerala showing that one Zimbabwean Dollar equals N2.77. In its February 2, 2024 edition, Bloomberg described the Naira as the worst-performing currency in the world. In their cartoon section, two US newspapers taunted Nigeria over the Naira. This is infinitesimal compared to the number of local jokes about the Naira in our media. Besides, social media has amplified the crash of the Naira to such an extent that Nigeria has literally and metaphorically become a laughing stock. Nigerians are either losing faith in the country or have lost a sense of patriotism.

These hilarious jokes and caricatures are a metaphor for a bigger problem.

There are genuine concerns that Nigeria may follow a similar trajectory to Zimbabwe and Venezuela. This concern is well-founded. The echoes of Zimbabwe ring eerily and loudly in Nigeria today. There are many reasons why history students could look back on the crash of the Naira and its impact on our reputation, global stature and the living standard of our people. This concern is heightened for many reasons. However, I will highlight only a few.

The first is poor policy articulation and implementation. Recall that the policy origin of the current Naira tumble can be traced to the simultaneous removal of subsidies and years’ long currency pegs last year by the current administration. This was done without considering other factors that need to be in place to make the economy function optimally. Nigerians are worried that our economy handlers are not doing enough to stem the decline.

The second is the damaged reputation of the country occasioned by the Naira crash and the ongoing economic and security instability. Local and foreign investors are losing confidence in the Nigerian economy because of high-level financial, economic and political instability.

The next is that the cost-of-living crisis escalates and inflation ravages the country. Prices of essential goods and services are going off the roof and people are perplexed at the rate of degeneration.

The fourth is that microeconomic indices are unfavourable given the reduction in demand for goods and services due to high prices and reduced supply. The latter itself is due to lack of production or high cost of importation.

Also, there are unfavourable macroeconomic indices such as escalation of unemployment. This correlates with a high crime rate, high inflation occasioned by a fall in the value of the Naira, banks’ inability to grant medium to long-term loans and general perception of impending economic catastrophe hovering over Nigeria like an ominous overcast.

The fifth is that wealthy Nigerians and other average citizens worried about the erosion of the value of their money and assets are converting them into Dollars or are moving their assets to dollar-denominated investments abroad to hedge for further loss.

Finally, the volatility of the Naira implies that fresh capital investments in infrastructure and power, mainly dependent on imported plants and machinery, shall be negatively impacted, leading to projects being put on hold.

How did we tumble in such a short time from a respectable nation to a butt of jokes? Not only amongst us but within the global community?

A brief historical odyssey on Naira volatility suffices. The tragic history dates back to 1983 when the Naira began its nosedive and successive governments have failed to ameliorate the plunge. In 1983, $1 was exchanged for about 72 Kobo. But the Naira fell to trade at about N9 to $1 by 1990. In 2000, $1 was exchanged for about N85 at the official window. In 2010, $1 was officially exchanged for about N150, but more at the notorious black market. By 2020, $1 was exchanged for about N360 at the official window. In recent years, the Naira has faced challenges related to external factors. These include fluctuations in oil prices, the global economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and serial mismanagement.

A cursory look at this administration’s response to the Naira crisis shows an attitude of calm amidst the panic at the early stages of the free-floating of the Naira, as policymakers expected the fall in Naira. However, there were more panic reactions to this problem as the President and his economic team worked to stem the tidal wave blowing the Naira. Recently, we have seen monetary, fiscal and tax policy adjustments, and currency interventions to boost the Naira. Structural reforms by taking steps to diversify the economy to reduce dependency on a single sector and improving the business environment to attract foreign investment are ongoing. Unfortunately, these policies and actions have not stabilised the Naira in the short run. More needs to be done and quickly too. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and a combination of strategies may be necessary.

Additionally, the success of these measures depends on practical implementation and the cooperation of various stakeholders. Investor confidence remains our greatest challenge. It is advisable for this administration to carefully analyse the specific economic conditions and consult with experts to tailor appropriate solutions for the country. Every good head, home and abroad must be brought into the room to stop us from remaining a butt of jokes. Saving the Naira is most important now and all stakeholders must work together to end this comedy show.

Strictly Personal

All eyes in Africa are on Kenya’s bid for a reset, By Joachim Buwembo

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Whoever impregnated Angela Rayner and caused her to drop out of school at the tender age of 16 with no qualifications might be disappointed that we aren’t asking who her baba mtoto (child’s father) is; whether he became a president, king or a vagabond somewhere, since the girl ‘whose leg he broke’ is now UK’s second most powerful person, 28 years since he ‘stole her goat’.

Angela’s rise to such heights after the adversity should be a lesson to countries which, six decades after independence, still have millions of citizens wallowing in poverty and denied basic human dignity, while the elite shamelessly flaunt obscene luxury on their hungry, twisted faces.

After independence, African countries also suffered their adolescent setbacks in the form of military coups. Uganda’s military rule lasted eight years, Kenya’s about eight hours on August 1, 1982, while Tanzania’s didn’t materialise and its first defence chief became an ambassador somewhere.

What we learn from Angela Rayner is that when you’re derailed, it doesn’t matter who derailed you, because nobody wants to know. What matters is that you pick yourself up, not just to march on, but to stand up and shine.To incessantly blame our colonial and slave-trading ‘derailers’ while we treat our fellow citizens worse than the colonialists did only invites the world to laugh. Have you ever read of a colonial officer demanding a bribe from a local before providing the service due?

African countries today need to press ‘reset’. A state operates by written policies, plans, strategies and prescribed penalties with gazetted prisons for those who break the rules.  This is far more power than teenage Angela had, so a reset state should take less time to become prosperous than the 28 years it took her to get to the top after derailing.

So it’s realistic for countries to operate on five-year planning and electoral cycles, so a state that fails to implement a programme in five years has something wrong with it. It needs a reset.

A basic reset course for African leaders and economists should include:

1. Mindset change: Albert Einstein teaches us that no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. For example, if you are in debt, seeking or accepting more debt is using the same level of thinking that put you there. If you don’t like Einstein’s genius, you can even try an animal in the bush that falls into a hole and stops digging. Our economists are certainly better than a beast in the bush.

2. Stealing is wrong: African leaders and civil servants need to revisit their catechism or madarasa – stealing public resources is as immoral as rape.

3. Justifying wrong doesn’t make it right: Using legalese and putting sinful benefits in the budget is immoral and can incite the deprived to destroy everything.

4. Take inventory of your resources and plan to use them: If Kenya, for example, has a railway line running from Mombasa to Nairobi, is it prudent to borrow $3.6 billion to build a highway parallel to it before paying off and electrifying the railway?

If Uganda is groaning under a $2 billion annual petrol import bill, does it make sense to beg Kenya for access to import more fuel, when Kampala is already manufacturing and marketing electric buses, while failing to use hundreds of megawatts it generates, yet the country has to pay for the unused power?

If Tanzania… okay, TZ has entered the 21st Century with its electric trains soon to be operating between Dar es Salaam and Morogoro. Ethiopia, too, has connected Addis Ababa to the port of Djibouti with a 753-kilometre electric railway,  and moves hundreds of thousands of passengers in Addis every day by electric train.

5. Protect the environment: We don’t own it, we borrowed it from our parents to preserve it for our children. Who doesn’t know that the future of the planet is at stake?

6. Do monitoring and evaluation: Otherwise you may keep doing the same thing that does not work and hope for better results, as a sage defined lunacy.

7. Don’t blame the victims of your incompetence: This is basic fairness.

We could go on, but how boring! Who doesn’t know these mundane points? We are not holding our breath for Angela’s performance, because if she fails, she will be easily replaced. Africa’s eyes should now be on Kenya to see how they manage an abrupt change without the mass bloodshed that often accompanies revolutions.

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Strictly Personal

The post-budget crisis in Kenya might be good for Africa, after all, By Joachim Buwembo

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The surging crisis that is being witnessed in Kenya could end up being a good thing for Africa if the regional leaders could step back and examine the situation clinically with cool-headed interest. Maybe there is a hand of God in the whole affair. For, how do explain the flare not having started in harder-pressed countries such as Zambia, Mozambique and Ghana?

As fate would have it, it happened in East Africa, the region that is supposed to provide the next leadership of the African Union Commission, in a process that is about to start. And, what is the most serious crisis looming on Africa’s horizon? It is Debt of course.

Even the UN has warned the entire world that Africa’s debt situation is now a crisis. As at now, three or four countries are not facing debt trouble — and that is only for now.

There is one country, though, that is virtually debt-free, having just been freed from debt due to circumstances: Somalia. And it is the newest member of the East African Community. Somalia has recently had virtually all its foreign debt written off in recognition of the challenges it has been facing in nearly four decades.

Why is this important? Because debt is the choicest weapon of neocolonialists. There is no sweeter way to steal wealth than to have its owners deliver it to you, begging you, on all fours, to take it away from them, as you quietly thank the devil, who has impaired their judgement to think that you are their saviour.

So?

So, the economic integration Africa has embarked on will, over the next five or so years, go through are a make-or-break stage, and it must be led by a member that is debt-free. For, there is no surer weapon to subjugate and control a society than through debt.

A government or a country’s political leadership can talk tough and big until their creditor whispers something then the lion suddenly becomes a sheep. Positions agreed on earlier with comrades are sheepishly abandoned. Scheduled official trips get inexplicably cancelled.

Debt is that bad. In African capitals, presidents have received calls from Washington, Paris or London to cancel trips and they did, so because of debt vulnerability.

In our villages, men have lost wives to guys they hate most because of debt. At the state level, governments have lost command over their own institutions because of debt. The management of Africa’s economic transition, as may be agreed upon jointly by the continental leaders, needs to be implemented by a member without crippling foreign debt so they do not get instructions from elsewhere.

The other related threat to African states is armed conflict, often internal and not interstate. Somalia has been going through this for decades and it is to the credit of African intervention that statehood was restored to the country.

This is the biggest prize Africa has won since it defeated colonialism in (mostly) the 1960s decade. The product is the new Somalia and, to restore all other countries’ hope, the newly restored state should play a lead role in spreading stability and confidence across Africa.

One day, South Sudan, too, should qualify to play a lead role on the continent.

What has been happening in Kenya can happen in any other African country. And it can be worse. We have seen once promising countries with strong economies and armies, such as Libya, being ravaged into near-Stone Age in a very short time. Angry, youthful energy can be destructive, and opportunistic neocolonialists can make it inadvertently facilitate their intentions.

Containing prolonged or repetitive civil uprisings can be economically draining, both directly in deploying security forces and also by paralysing economic activity.

African countries also need to become one another’s economic insurance. By jointly managing trade routes with their transport infrastructure, energy sources and electricity distribution grids, and generally pursuing coordinated industrialisation strategies in observance of regional and national comparative advantages, they will sooner than later reduce insecurity, even as the borders remain porous.

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