Hezekiah Nigeriana

Hezekiah was a king in ancient Israel who had been sick, but recovered. The sickness was described as “unto death.” In fact, he had been marked for death by God. However, the death sentence was reversed after Hezekiah prayed to God. The king of Babylon, having heard that Hezekiah had been sick, and had recovered, sent to compliment him upon the occasion. He sent ambassadors bearing gifts. Hezekiah reciprocated by taking his august guests on a tour of all his possessions. Then Isaiah who was a prophet of no mean repute (Hezekiah’s death sentence and later pardon had been communicated by Isaiah) arrived. He asked Hezekiah who his guests were and the king responded that they had come from far away Babylon. Isaiah further asked, “So what have they seen?” Hezekiah replied, “All that is in my house. There is nothing among my treasures that I have not shown them.” Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD of hosts. A day will come when everything in your house, all that your ancestors have laid up, shall be taken away to Babylon. Nothing will be left. Even your children will be taken away to serve the king of Babylon!” To which Hezekiah replied, “What you have said is OK by me since it won’t happen during my lifetime. There will be peace and truth in my days!”

Hezekiah’s response portrays him, in my opinion, as a very selfish and self-centred man. He cared only about himself. He could not care less about future generations. The prospect of their enslavement did not move him.

So, what has Hezekiah got to do with Nigeria? Well, everything! Hezekiah seems to have a special connection to Nigeria. Or better still, Nigerian leaders seem to have a special kinship with Hezekiah. Take state governors in Nigeria for instance, they incur debts with reckless abandon. Sometimes, it appears that they compete amongst themselves to see who will incur the most unnecessary debt. They borrow so much, and at the end, there is nothing to show for it. They can borrow from any source; they do not even mind borrowing from the ‘osusu’ groups of market women if their money is big enough. And when quizzed on what they used the monies for, they would usually point to white-elephant projects whose costs have been inflated by over a thousand percent. It would not be a problem if they borrowed in their names, or if the lenders were God who could just forgive them their financial trespasses, and say to them “Go and borrow no more!” The problem is that they borrow in our names, and the lenders are entrepreneurs out to make profit. The lenders do not understand the meaning of forgiveness, and you can’t blame them. They are not charity organizations. So who ends up repaying or suffering because of the huge debts? The answer is ordinary Nigerians and those yet unborn. Our future and the future of unborn generations are mortgaged by these loans. The ordinary man is the one who suffers, as monies meant for road construction, hospitals, schools, water, and other basic amenities are diverted to pay up the exorbitant interests on these loans. So the poverty cycle continues.

These state governors borrow so much because they know that they are not the ones who will pay back the loans. How do you explain a governor borrowing huge amounts in his final year in office? Does it make sense? And the state assemblies would usually rubber stamp it. They see the loans as their retirement benefits. A large chunk of the money would then go into private pockets. They not only impoverish the masses, they put them in chains; chains they cannot break easily. Just as our politicians steal up monies for themselves, their children, and children’s children, up to the tenth generation, they equally seek to impoverish Nigerians up to the hundredth generation.

Last week, President Buhari wrote to the National Assembly seeking permission to borrow. He forwarded a request for authorization to the legislators to approve external borrowing plan of $29.960 billion to execute key infrastructural projects across the country between 2016 and 2018. He said the loan, the biggest in Nigeria’s history, would fund targeted projects cutting across all sectors with special emphasis on infrastructure, agriculture, health, education, water supply, growth and employment generation. Other sectors, he said, included poverty reductions through social safety net programmes and governance and financial management reforms, among others.

Let us consider the amount first. Thirty billion Dollars! We are talking about United States Dollars! Not Zimbabwean dollars o! When you do the conversion, that’s over Twelve trillion Naira! To put it in better perspective, the minimum wage in Nigeria is just N18,000. That is about $45. And the whole “requesting for approval” thing was done in such a manner, you’d think it was a request to borrow N30,000. They did not give details, as if they were expecting the request to be considered, not on the merit of the request, but on the reputation and personality of the person making the request.  A House of Representatives member was even quoted as saying that the House would approve the loan. He said, “You need that money especially in the times of recession. You have to borrow money to make money, so I don’t have a problem with the borrowing.” As if $30 billion is beans! He spoke as if he was the one making the authorization request on behalf of the president. He was more enthusiastic than the president was.

Indeed, I agree with the House of Rep member that sometimes you have to borrow to make money. However, that depends on what you do with the money. You cannot make money by using the money to fund consumption as we do in Nigeria, where a big chunk of our budget goes to fund recurrent expenditure. In 2015 for example, the capital expenditure took up 15% of the budget. It is 30% in the 2016 budget, and we are not even sure about the level of implementation. In 2015, personnel cost alone accounted for N1.83tn of the total budget of N4.454tn. While in 2016, it is N1.71tn out of N6.08tn. How do you make money from such budgets? A serious nation spends money on production, not consumption. We spend money on unnecessary and wasteful things. In the 2016 budget for instance, the following items are listed: N19.8bn for travels; N6.78bn for purchase of computers; N13.49bn for software acquisitions; N1.6bn for budget preparations; N4.02bn for office stationery/computer consumables; N24.8bn for purchase of vehicles; N12.2bn for monitoring and evaluations; N16.03bn for rehabilitations/repairs of office buildings; N1.7bn for office rent; and N10.9bn for purchase of furniture and fittings. These add up to N111.32bn which is just a tip of the iceberg. This has always been the trend, and if this government gets a loan, it will most likely be put to the same use.

Yes, the president gave lofty reasons for the loan, but that is not enough! You see, I agree that President Buhari has good intentions, and would spend ‘good-intentionally.’ But then, we have heard variants of such noble motives in the past. In fact, our fathers heard the same thing as a child. Today we have nothing to show for our entire borrowing prowess, except for the luxuriously kept potbelly of a selected few.

Fortunately for us, the Senate this week rejected the request. This is commendable, but the way the Senate went about it raises some questions. It is reported that the borrowing plan was not debated at all; they just threw it out. That is legislative recklessness in my opinion. It is true that the way the Presidency made the request did not show any form of research or planning. $30bn is not a little sum. It is expected that if they are planning to borrow such an amount, they back it up with needs assessment, expenditure projections, repayment plans, public hearings, etc. That would have shown respect for the Nigerian people. But equally, the way the Senate handled it seems to suggest that they had other reasons for rejecting it; reasons not altogether altruistic. The request should to have been debated, and accepted or rejected on its merit. The Senate ought to give concrete reasons for rejecting it. That way, the Presidency would learn from it. Now, the Presidency – including many Nigerians – might think that it was rejected because of the friction existing between the National Assembly and the Executive. It is common knowledge that the Senate President is facing corruption charges at the Code of Conduct Tribunal, which has led to a frosty relationship between the two arms of government. The question is, if they had had a good relationship, would they have rejected the request? We need to move past this era where legislative duties and functions are performed based on the whims and caprices of the legislators. They should spend time carrying out research and analysis of a matter, before it is debated. That way, they would have better understanding of issues and the country would be better off for it. The National Assembly should not be a retirement home for lazy politicians, but a place of highly cerebral debates. They can definitely do better than that display they put out.

I do not support loan moves by governments at all levels in Nigeria. That is because we do not have the mechanisms in place to monitor and make sure that the monies are used for what they are meant for. All such loans in the past have always found their ways into private pockets and banks abroad. Our parents can attest to that. I do not think that Nigeria needs to borrow to come out of recession, or to become developed. What we need is a reordering of our priorities. We need to cut out wastes in government. The monies allocated to the budget items listed above can be put to better use. In addition, political office holders should take a pay cut, and the war on corruption should be fought with seriousness and sincerity. We do not need loans that will put us in perpetual bondage.

Finally, I do not understand why Nigerians were so unconcerned about the loan issue. A loan that could mortgage our future, and that of our unborn children! There was no outrage! Where were the labour and trade unions, the civil society organisations, student bodies, market women, and average Nigerians? If it was about one senator or minister, we would have had “Rent A Crowd Nig. PLC” block all roads in Abuja in solidarity protest. This is unacceptable. It is the same attitude we exhibit during elections periods. We sit at home and complain about how the election was rigged. We have to change. We must do things differently. We must be interested in what those in government are doing. Else, they will continue to shirk their responsibilities, blaming cabals and evil spirits for their ineptitude. Since they have decided to become Hezekiah, we must let them know that they are in Nigeria, not ancient Israel.

Budget figures from BudgIT. www.yourbudgit.com

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