Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016: The high and low points for Nigeria

It is three days to the end of 2016. In another 72 hours, we will be shouting Happy New Year 2017 with a lot of handshaking, backslapping, phone calls, text messaging and other expressions of joy for seeing the end of this year and the beginning of a new one. It is thus in order at this point in time to weigh in and consider how Nigeria and Nigerians have fared in the last 12 months. I must say that this is a subjective analysis due to the fact that it is my personal view of the situation on the ground. My analysis shall span different sectors such as the economy, politics, education, security, and sports.
In the outgoing year, the biggest news about the economy was the official announcement that the country had slipped into recession. The budget for the year was passed late having been embroiled in controversies over “padding” by both the executive and legislative arms. By the time the appropriation bill was signed into law in May, the economy was already in comatose with no capital release to the Ministries, Departments and Agencies. Even the huge debt owed the private sector particularly government contractors,  put at about N2tn, led to the sacking of many workers and shutting down of many businesses. The implementation of the budget has been hampered by shortfalls in the projected revenue both in the oil and non-oil sectors. The 2.2mbpd oil production projection in 2016 could not be met due to increased cases of oil and gas pipeline vandalism by Niger Delta militants.
Other problems that faced Nigeria’s economy in the outgoing year are high inflation which is over 18 per cent, weak naira against other international currencies like the dollar, pound sterling and Euro; inability to significantly improve electricity supply for both industrial and residential consumption as well as low oil price in international market.
Truth be told, it wasn’t all negatives for the economy in 2016. Some of the high points for the sector were government’s ability to resolve the lingering fuel scarcity plaguing the country. This came at a high cost to the consumers as the price of Premium Motor Spirit was increased from N87 per litre to maximum of N145 per litre. Even though this has orchestrated high cost of living, more so as many state governments are owing workers’ salaries while the workers’ union is now demanding N56,000 minimum wage, on the positive side, there is now price stability as against when the price was officially N87 but was selling at over N200 per litre at many retail outlets. Despite the lingering challenge of electricity supply, there is a modest improvement with many consumers testifying that they now have more supply than in previous years. However, huge customer debt, liquidity problem, vandalism of gas pipelines and metering of customers remain daunting challenges.
In the outgoing year, government has taken seriously the issue of diversification of the economy. Government is walking the talk on diversification into agriculture.  On July 20, 2016, the Federal Executive Council met and approved the Agriculture Promotion Policy (2016-2019). According to the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, the policy outlined all that needed to be done to achieve self-sufficiency in agriculture.  He said: “The document is entitled, ‘The Green Alternative’ and it outlines virtually everything we need to do, every policy we need to undertake to achieve self-sufficiency in agriculture and also to become major exporter of agricultural products.”
One of the low hanging fruits that have been plucked is the joint venture on rice production between Lagos and Kebbi states which has led to the production of LAKE Rice which is now on sale in Lagos State. Still on the economy, serious commitment to “Buy Made in Nigeria” as part of the wider “Change Begins With Me” national campaign launched on September 8 is commendable. Also, the commencement of the cleanup of Ogoniland by President Muhammadu Buhari this year will create jobs, help restore the environment and ultimately make agriculture practice possible again. It will also help tame militancy and youth restiveness in the Niger Delta in the long run.
The enforcement of the collection of N50 stamp duty on every bank transaction, bringing of more people and companies into tax net, weeding out of ‘ghost’ workers, plugging of some of the loopholes of revenue leakages and reduction in cost of governance are also noteworthy.
Politics in 2016 has been a mixed grill. Unlike in 2015 when there was a general election, in this year, only two off-cycle governorship elections, bye elections and court ordered re-run elections were held by the Independent National Electoral Commission. Though the two governorship elections in Edo and Ondo states were concluded on the first ballot unlike last year when Kogi and Bayelsa governorship elections were inconclusive, vote buying and electoral violence, unfortunately, continue to mar our electoral process. One of the lowest points in our democratic consolidation enterprise was the bloodletting that took place in Rivers State both on March 19 and December 10 during the legislative re-runs. This happened in spite of huge security deployments. Despite two re-runs, elections could still not be held in two state constituencies in Etche Local Government Area.
Some states also held chairmanship and councillorship elections into their Local Government Areas. Abia State just held its own on December 21.
In spite of some states’ inability to fund the conduct of elections into their local governments, they are creating Local Council Development Areas. Two of such states that did this year were Osun and Ogun. The outgoing year had also witnessed more defections from the erstwhile ruling People’s Democratic Party to the All Progressives Congress. Many chieftains of the PDP are answering corruption charges in courts while a lot of intrigues, bickering and legal tussles plagued the PDP which now has two factional leaders. The Ali Modu Sheriff and Ahmed Makarfi led-camps have been embroiled in a messy face-off which had prevented the party from conducting a successful party convention. Even the party congresses held in the year were mostly controversial.
The educational sector is still crisis-ridden. The Academic Staff Union of Universities embarked on a warning strike to press home the implementation and review of the signed 2009 agreement with the Federal Government.  The government through the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board in 2016 scrapped the Post-Unified Matriculation Tertiary Examination conducted by universities. Eight new private universities were given provisional licences in November. However, access to tertiary education remains a knotty issue. While there are spaces for admission at many of the private universities, the high tuitions demanded by them make them unattractive to indigent students. Ironically, only about 10 per cent of those who apply to public owned universities gain admission. In the outgoing year, many parents who could not source foreign exchange to maintain their children in academic institutions abroad have been forced to withdraw them and bring them back home for continuation of their education.
On job creation, the recent employment of 200,000 graduates under the government N-Power scheme will help address the issue of shortage of manpower in public schools as some of the new employees will be deployed to schools to teach.
The high points in Nigerian sports were the sterling performance of the Super Falcons who won the African Women Cup of Nations for a record eight out of 10 times as well as the commendable feat of the Nigerian paralympians to Rio 2016 Olympics in Brazil. Twenty three paralympians participated in three events – para-athletics, powerlifting and para-table tennis – to cart away 12 medals (eight gold, two silver and two bronze) which placed them 14th position on the final medals’ table and number one in Africa.
Security wise, while a majority of Nigerians agree with the government that Boko Haram might have been decimated, there is however an increase in the cases of crime and criminality such as kidnapping, armed robbery and rape.
In 2016, there are heightened cases of unemployment and poverty even as government’s anti-corruption crusade has spread to the judiciary where seven justices and some senior lawyers have been arrested and arraigned for corrupt practices.
Will Nigerians experience higher standard of living or higher cost of living in 2017? Time will tell!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

How realistic is Buhari’s 2017 budget estimates?

On December 14, 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari presented financial estimates of N7.3tn to the National Assembly.  The financial plan was labelled as the Budget of Recovery and Growth. It is based on a benchmark crude oil price of US$42.5 per barrel; an oil production estimate of 2.2 million barrels per day; and an average exchange rate of N305 to the US dollar. The N7.298tn budget is a nominal 20.4 per cent increase over the 2016 estimates. However, 30.7 per cent of this expenditure will be capital. The fiscal plan will result in a deficit of N2.36tn for 2017 which is about 2.18 per cent of the GDP. The deficit, according to government,  will be financed mainly by borrowing, which is projected to be about N2.32tn. About 46 per cent of this borrowing, which translates to N1.067tn  will be from external sources while, N1.254tn will be borrowed from the domestic market.
Last Thursday, a day after the budget proposal was presented to the National Assembly, I had the privilege of reviewing the financial proposals on Politics Nationwide, a programme of Radio Nigeria (Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria) which holds every Tuesday and Thursday. To my own mind, the budget is a mixed grill of both positives and negatives. As the saying goes, there are two sides to every coin. Moreover, my training in development work makes it mandatory for me to always look at both sides of the coin. It is quite understandable that there are quite a lot of cynicisms about the budget and I quite subscribe to that. However, let me reel out a few things that thrill me about the budget.
I like the fact that Federal Government is walking the talk by emphasising the buy “Made-in-Nigeria and consume Made-in-Nigeria” philosophy. In paragraph nine of his speech, Buhari avowed as follows “…we will increasingly grow and process our own food; we will manufacture what we can and refine our own petroleum products. We will buy ‘Made-in-Nigeria’ goods. We will encourage garment manufacturing and Nigerian designers, tailors and fashion retailers. We will patronise local entrepreneurs. We will promote the manufacturing powerhouses in Aba, Calabar, Kaduna, Kano, Lagos, Nnewi, Onitsha, and Ota. From light manufacturing to cement production and petrochemicals, our objective is to make Nigeria a new manufacturing hub.”  Given the scarcity of foreign exchange to import goods, our choices are limited and it is inspiring that government is looking inward for a solution to our economic woes.
What the President said in paragraph 17 of the same budget speech also resonates with me. In trying to fast-track project implementation and procurement processes, he said he would be issuing some Executive Orders to ensure the facilitation and speeding up of government procurements and approvals. These Executive Orders, the President said, would widen the scope of compliance with the Fiscal Responsibility Act by the Federal Government-owned entities and promote support for local content in the Ministries, Department and Agencies.  In order to ease the business environment in Nigeria, the President said he had established  the Presidential Enabling Business Council, chaired by the Vice President with a mandate to make doing business in Nigeria easier and more attractive. For those of us who are familiar with the country’s poor rating on the “Ease of Doing Business”, this is a laudable and welcome development if the main aim is achieved.
It is also commendable that as part of measures to resolve the lingering issue of liquidity in the power sector, the Federal Government has made provisions in the 2017 budget to clear its outstanding electricity bills. The Association of Nigerian Electricity Distributors had earlier in the year claimed  that government establishments, including the military and security agencies alone, owed the Electricity Distribution Companies  over N93bn. Payment of this gargantuan debt will definitely bring a fillip to the ailing power companies.
In paragraph 23 of the speech, the President also pledged to pay some of the debts owed local contractors. According to him, “One of such issues that the Federal Government is committed to dealing with frontally is the issue of its indebtedness to contractors and other third parties. We are at an advanced stage of collating and verifying these obligations, some of which go back 10 years, which we estimate at about N2tn. We will continue to negotiate a realistic and viable payment plan to ensure legitimate claims are settled.” Many domestic contractors have died or become terminally ill owing mainly to the non-payment of their entitlements many years after they had executed the contracts awarded them by the Federal Government. Many of these contractors who borrowed money at high interest rates from money deposit banks otherwise known as commercial banks have had their properties used as collaterals for the facilities confiscated by the banks when they could not repay the loans. Should these debts be settled, it will stimulate the national economy.
Paragraph 34 of the budget speech also caught my attention. According to the President, “Our efforts on cost containment have continued throughout the year. We have restricted travel costs, reduced board members’ sitting allowances, converted forfeited properties to Government offices to save on rent and eliminated thousands of ‘ghost’ workers. These, and many other cost reduction measures will lead to savings of close to N180bn per annum to be applied to critical areas including health, security and education.” I am also delighted at the jerking up of the budget for the judiciary from N70bn in 2016 to N100bn in 2017. That arm of government has been treated with disdain over the years through low budgetary provisions.
The President was on point when he observed that “Our Small and Medium scale businesses continue to face difficulties in accessing longer term and more affordable credit. To address this situation, a sum of N15bn has been provided for the recapitalisation of the Bank of Industry and the Bank of Agriculture. In addition, the Development Bank of Nigeria will soon start operations with US$1.3bn focused exclusively on Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises.”  The 2017 budget retains the allocation of N500bn to the Special Intervention programme. This is praiseworthy given the sloppiness with which the social schemes have been implemented in 2016. For instance, only 200,000 out of the 500,0000 jobs promised through the N-Power Programme have been delivered, the school feeding programmes has yet to take off while the payment of N5,000 to the poorest of the poor has yet to also commence.
With all the aforesaid, will the 2017 be able to deliver on its aim of economic growth and recovery?  I doubt. If wishes were horses, beggars will ride. All the aforesaid wish list will only impact positively on the lives of Nigerians when they are fully implemented. This budget proposal, just like in previous years, was submitted late to the National Assembly. The consideration and passage will only be done in the first quarter of next year. This is against the letters and spirit of the Fiscal Responsibility Act. Even as of the time of the budget presentation, the Medium Term Expenditure Framework and Fiscal Strategy Paper had yet to be passed by the legislature because of the many unrealistic assumptions made therein. Even the benchmark crude oil price of US$42.5 per barrel; an oil production estimate of 2.2 million barrels per day; and an average exchange rate of N305 to the US dollar seem very unrealistic. With the likely huge revenue shortfall in 2017, full implementation will be a serious challenge.
However, it is hoped that when legislative work begins in earnest on the budget, we shall not be treated again to the melodrama of 2016 when “padding” was the norm.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The shabby treatment of Nigeria’s Super Falcons

“Don’t forget that nobody even knew that the team would emerge victorious; if we were confident they would emerge victorious, all the federation would have done is to plan for process of participation and entitlement…”
– Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung
After two weeks of trading tackles (November 19 – December 3, 2016) Nigeria’s Super Falcons in Yaounde, Cameroon won the 2016 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations for the eighth time after beating host Cameroon 1-0 before a capacity 40,000 crowd. An 84th minute goal from Desire Oparanozie was all Nigeria needed to retain the trophy they won in Namibia two years ago, when they beat the same Indomitable Lionesses 2-0. To get to the final, the Super Falcons beat Mali 6–0, played 1–1 with Ghana and trounced Kenya 4–0 to get to the semi-final. In the semi, the Super Falcons defeated South Africa 1- 0, the same margin with which they beat Cameroon in the final.

Super Falcons have dominated this competition, winning all but two of the 10 editions of the tournament.  Arsenal Ladies forward, Asisat Oshoala, scored six goals to emerge the highest goal scorer at the sporting fiesta while three of Nigeria’s players – Osinachi Ohale, Desire Oparanozie and Asisat Oshoala – made the Africa best XI players. The Super Falcons’ team coach, Florence Omagbemi, also made history as the first woman to win the Africa Women Cup of Nations as both a player and coach.  A similar feat was achieved by late Super Eagles coach, Stephen Keshi, who was the second African to win Africa Nations Cup both as a player and a coach after Egypt’s Gohary.
The dominance of Nigeria in women’s football has never been in doubt as the record shows. In fact, due to the sterling performance of Nigerian ladies in women’s football, many of them, like their male counterparts, are now playing in big football leagues in Europe and America. They have equally dominated the African Women’s Footballer of the Year award. Nigeria’s Mercy Akhide blazed the trail in 2001 before Perpetual Nkwocha won the award a record four times in 2004, 2005, 2010 and 2011. Cynthia Uwak won the award twice in 2006 and 2007 before Asisat Oshoala won it again in 2014. Thus, out of the 13 times the awards have been given out, Nigerian ladies have won it a total of eight times.
It is however heartrending that despite all the laurels and fame that Nigeria’s female footballers have brought to this country, they have not been duly recognised and rewarded for their efforts. Their matches are not transmitted live for Nigerians to watch all because the Nigerian Football Federation and the Sports Ministry never bothered to sponsor the live telecast of their matches or look for private sponsor. If it were to be the Super Eagles, they would go all out to ensure live transmission of their matches, even if it’s a mere friendly game. The ladies are also discriminated against in terms of match bonuses and allowances as they are paid less than their male counterparts. Also, there isn’t much celebration of women who won the CAF Women’s Footballer of the Year. Although since 1992, few male Nigerian footballers have won the African Footballer of the Year – Rashidi Yekini, Emmanuel Amunike, Victor Ikpeba, and Nwankwo Kanu – they are more celebrated than their female counterparts.
Worst still, after the ladies won the AWCON for the record eight times on December 3, 2016, they have yet to be paid their camp allowances and match bonuses. The NFF reportedly owes each player $25,000. As I write this, the ladies have refused to hand over the trophy they won in Cameroon and have actually refused to vacate their hotel in Abuja until all their entitlements are paid. Unfortunately, the beret-wearing Sports Minister, Solomon Dalung, said they were not able to pay the ladies because they didn’t expect them to win the trophy. What a reckless talk! So despite being the defending champion and having won the competition a record seven times previously, Dalung wasn’t convinced of the ladies’ ability to conquer Africa.
It is not the first time such shabby and demeaning treatment would be meted out to the Super Falcons players. Hear Stella Mbachu. who was a former member of the team: “I can remember that such a thing happened after the team’s triumph in 2014 in Namibia. We were promised to be paid after we arrived in the country but we haven’t heard anything about it. The NFF has been unfair to female players.” Need I say more?
Young as they are, some of these female football players are breadwinners of their families.  And this is Christmas season, a festive period when Nigerians spend a lot. This maltreatment has exposed Nigeria to negative international news and one had expected that the Federal Government and relevant authorities would have done everything to sort out this mess promptly before it degenerates further. Unfortunately, it has been two weeks and all we hear is that government is looking for money to settle the ladies entitlements. This is very ridiculous, demotivating and condemnable. Lack of appreciation, care and support have been the main reasons many Nigerian athletes dump their fatherland for other countries where they are more valued.
It behooves Nigerian sports administrators to nip this ugly incidence in the bud by fully paying these ladies their due wages with apologies. These sports ambassadors are deserving of national honours and should be so recognised for doing the nation proud in football. Sports ministry and the NFF should, after this ugly episode has been put behind them, guard against future occurrence by ensuring that our national sporting teams are well resourced.
Twitter @jideojong

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Perspectives on Ghana and Gambia 2016 elections

Today, December 7, 2016, about 15.7 million Ghanaians are filing out to vote a new president and 275 members of parliament. Ghana, since the coming into force of her 1992 Constitution, has established herself as a bastion of democracy in Africa. The Electoral Commission of Ghana under the leadership of Dr.  Kwadwo Afari-Gyang was able to conduct successive peaceful and credible elections that have become reference points in the continent and the world at large. Unlike in Nigeria where chairman and members of the Independent National Electoral Commission holds office for a maximum of two terms of five years each, chairman of Ghana electoral commission has the same terms and conditions of service as a Justice of the Court of Appeal while the two Deputy Chairmen of the Commission have the same terms and conditions of service as are applicable to a Justice of the High Court according to Article 44 (2) and (3) of 1992 Constitution of Ghana. This security of tenure helps to strengthen the independence of the Ghana Electoral Commission

I was privileged to observe the Ghanaian presidential run-off election in December 2008. Since then, I have been fascinated by the country’s electoral process. Unlike Nigeria’s 13 member electoral management body, Ghana’s electoral commission consists of seven members. A  Chairman, two Deputy Chairmen and four other members. It should interest you to note that at present five out of the seven members are women. In fact, the chairman, Mrs. Charlotte Osei who was appointed in June 2015 is the first female head of the electoral commission of Ghana. One of the two deputy chairmen is a woman. Her name is Ms. Georgina Opoku Amankwah.  Out of the four other commissioners, three of them are women. They are: Mrs. Pauline Adobea Dadzawa, Mrs. Rebecca Kabukie Adjalo, and Hajia Sa-Adatu Maida. That is a good example of women empowerment.

There are other things that set Ghana apart. Aside being a multiparty democracy, it also have provision for independent candidacy as well as special voting or early voting for those who will be on election day duty such as election officials, journalists, accredited observers, security agencies and the like. All of them have had the opportunity of casting their ballot last Thursday, December 1. Voting age in Ghana is 18 same with Nigeria. However, 21 years is the minimum age to contest election as candidate. I recall that Youth Initiative for Advocacy Growth and Advancement is currently at the forefront of mobilising support under its #NotTooYoungToRun campaign to get Nigeria to lower age at which a citizen can stand for election. Ghana has already shown the way to go!

Another demonstration of inclusive and transparent electoral process in Ghana is that party agents and the electoral commission are allowed to put their seal on the transparent ballot box and record the serial numbers both before the commencement of the polls and after counting of ballot. Record cards are provided for party agents to document all the details of the elections in their booths including tracking of the number of voters in their polling stations. Party agents are also given complaint forms to document any irregularities observed in their polling booths.

Ghana returned to multi-party democracy in 1992 under Jerry John Rawlings. The 1992 constitution brought into force the 4th Republic. Today’s general election is the seventh general elections having previously held elections in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012. The ruling party has won four of the last elections while the main opposition has won the other two. Interestingly and on a lighter note, all past and present president of Ghana since 1992 had been John. From 1992 to 2000 it was Jerry John Rawlings of the National Democratic Congress. From 2000 to 2008, it was John Agyekum Kufuor of New Patriotic Party. From 2008 to 2012, it was John Evans Atta Mills of National Democratic Congress. From 2012 to 2016, it was John Dramani Mahama. Who shall it be from 2016 to 2020? The answer is with Ghanaian electorate. It is worth noting that power has been oscillating between two parties NDC and NPP from 1992 to date. Though there are seven presidential candidates in today’s election, pundits have predicted that it is a two horse race between the incumbent Mahama of NDC  and old warhorse, Nana Akufo Addo of NPP who is contesting for the third time since 2008.

So much for political lessons from Ghana. It was a pleasant surprise last Friday when news broke that H.E. Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh lost his bid for fifth term as president to his main challenger, Adama Barrow. The megalomaniac Jammeh had governed Gambia autocratically since he took over power in a coup as a 29 year old Lieutenant in the Gambian Army in 1994.  The flamboyant outgoing president who had boasted that he would rule Gambia for a billion years, Insha Allah lost the election by about 50,000 votes. Mr. Barrow won 263,515 votes (45.5%) in Thursday's election, while President Jammeh took 212,099 (36.7%). A third party candidate, Mama Kandeh, won 102,969 (17.8%) according to Alieu Momarr Njai, the electoral commission chairman. Incidentally, the three presidential candidates were all born in 1965.

Barrow’s electoral feat did not come on a platter. It was made possible by a coalition of seven other political parties who backed him for the election. Without that, Jammeh would have had his way. Ahead of the election, Jammeh had bared his fangs. He locked up scores of political activists who protested against his government in April 2016. He barred European Union and ECOWAS observer missions from being accredited to observe the polls and ordered the internet and international telephone services shut on the day of election. He also clamped down on journalists. On November 8, officials from Gambia’s National Intelligence Agency arrested the director-general of Gambia’s state television and radio, Momodou Sabally, along with his colleague Bakary Fatty. NIA officers also apprehended Alhagie Manka, an independent photojournalist, on November 10. Sabally was allegedly picked up because the station broadcast video footage of an opposition candidate’s nomination at the time when the station was scheduled to cover an agricultural initiative led by the first lady, Zineb Jammeh.

Gambia has a unique way of voting for their president - instead of ballot papers, voters use marbles. In the 2012 election there were only two invalid votes when people placed their marbles on the top of the voting drums. The electoral loss of Jammeh is a moral lesson for all other sit-tight African leaders who wanted to die in power. It is clear that power belong to the people, they only hold it in trust for them. Gambians learnt the right lessons from Senegal, Niger, and Nigeria where opposition political parties teamed up to wrestle power from incumbents. It would be recalled that coalitions of political parties assisted Macky Sall to defeat Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal’s 2012 presidential election.

It is heartwarming that despite his well-known eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, Jammeh did not take a cue from his counterparts in DR Congo and Gabon and postpone the elections neither did he influence the outcome of the election to favour him. Rather he allowed the election to hold and abided by the result of the polls. He even called Adama Barrow to formally concede defeat. That is the hallmark of a statesman. Now that he has lost his bid to hang on to power, he would now have time to attend to his herbal medicine practice through which he had previously claimed to have found cure for AIDS and infertility.

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