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I submit in this article that the issue of Nigeria’s ballyhooed exit from recession is still pending. We were, as a matter of fact, yet to discuss it to the fullest when IPOB broke into the scene and diverted our attention. IPOB itself is one big issue that will engage public discourse for a long time to come. I will, therefore, let it be for now and return to the issue that borders on stomach infrastructure, namely, recession.
A few weeks ago, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and the office of the Special Economic Adviser to the President bombarded us with a load of figures. The NBS said Nigeria’s economy had exited recession after five consecutive quarters of contraction. They said something like “the economy grew in Q2 2017 by 0.55% from -0.91% in Q1 2017 and -1.49% in Q2 2016.”
According to them, “this positive growth is attributable to both the oil and non-oil sectors of the economy. Growth in the oil sector, which has been negative since Q4 2015 was positive in Q2 2017.” The Presidency said the overall economic plan of the administration had resulted, among others, in the sustained restoration of oil production levels occasioned by the enhanced security and stability in the Niger Delta, both in agriculture and mining, and so on and so forth.
The announcement that heralded these fanciful figures was made with fanfare. Those who put it together sounded triumphant. It was as if the country was witnessing a new dawn. To add some pep to the triumphal announcement, economists have been falling over one another, drawing graphs and charts in the bid to break down the issue to the level of the layman. The discourse has been excitable, very appealing to those in the business of economic analysis.
But that is how far it can go. The real Nigerian, the people in the street, the people for whom government exists, do not know what the NBS and other relevant agencies of government are talking about. The economists are even confusing them the more. They have freely brought in the inexactitude of their discipline to bear on the issue. On one hand, the economy has shown signs of recovery. But on the other hand, there is still a lot to be done. That is the language of economics. It does not admit of precision. The man in the street wants to make meaning out of this hocus pocus. But he cannot. The figures and percentages do not mean anything to him. When the economy slipped into recession a few months after Buhari took over as president, the people did not know what the figures were like. They did not know anything about Q1 or Q5. They also did not know about the positives and negatives that the economy recorded.
Yet, they knew that the economy was in trouble. The effect was telling. They did not need a load of figures to know that things have gone awry. They knew because they could no longer afford basic food items that they needed to survive. The prices of rice, garri, tomato, beans, onions and other foodstuffs shot sky high. Cost of transportation went prohibitive. Rents of any sort quadrupled. Household goods were no longer affordable. Luxury goods were priced out of the market. It was so tough that Nigerians learnt to protect and guard jealously their prized possessions. As if the hardship in these areas were not biting enough, Nigerians could no longer travel out of their country. Airfares rose astronomically. Those who had children and wards in foreign universities could no longer afford the school fees. Many were forced to return to the country under the biting hardship.
All this happened owing to the state of our currency in the foreign exchange market. The government that came had embarked on massive devaluation of the Naira. Our currency had become very weak. The Naira exchanged for as much as N500 to $1. The result was that the purchasing power of our currency became very weak. The country was in a shambles. Everyone knew that all was not well with the economy.
Since then, Nigerians have learnt to live with the hardship. They have tightened their belts. They have adopted the philosophy of hard liberty in order to eke out a living. In fact, Nigerians have been so disappointed to the extent that they have been raising questions about the content of the change the government promised them. They are even looking forward to changing the change.
As I write, the hardship inflicted on Nigerians by the government of the day is very much with us. Prices of basic staple foods are still prohibitive. The cost of living is still very high. The strength of the Naira in the foreign exchange market is still very weak. The result is that imported goods remain unaffordable. Airfares to foreign destinations are still very high because the Naira is not doing well in the foreign exchange market. In other words, the hardship that came with the present order is still very much with us. Nigerians are still suffering.
It is in this state of hopelessness that government has announced an end to the recession that the country has been into for nearly two years now. And they have furnished us with the figures to back up their claim. But I dare say that we do not need those figures to tell us when we are out of recession. When we get out of recession, we will know through the prices of goods and services. The cost of a bag of rice will be a good determinant. The prices of other staple foods will be a good way to judge. The strength of the Naira in the foreign exchange market will be a good indicator. For as long as the Naira remains weak, so long will its purchasing power remain hopeless. These are some of the practical indices that we can use to measure the state of the economy. Figures that do not and cannot translate into reality are of no use.
There should be no grandstanding in this matter. End of recession will be practical enough. It is not about figures that do not translate into reality. As a matter of fact, government is in dialogue with itself. It is enjoying its antics alone. The people are not with it in this bouquet of figures. Before government gets carried away by its antics, it should do well to go back to the drawing board. It must adopt workable measures that will make the naira to rise again. This should not be too difficult for a government that made the exchange rate of the Naira a campaign issue. Buhari said he would make one Naira exchange for one dollar if elected. He has been elected and Nigerians are waiting for him to fulfill that promise. But the talk among the citizenry on this matter is that Buhari should at least try. That he should return the Naira to what it was during the Jonathan presidency if he cannot get one Naira to exchange for one dollar, as he once boasted. Nigerians say they are ready to forgive his exuberance. They are of the opinion that such antics are permissible, especially for a man that wants to win election at all cost.
But there is a consolation here. It appears that Buhari is not part of the deceit that is going on here. That was why he received the news of Nigeria’s so-called exit from recession with cautious optimism. He has said that the triumphal declaration will amount to nothing if it does not translate into meaningful improvement in the lives of the people. The president is right on this score.