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An essay from the Obasanjo years shows “situation on ground” casts a cloud on “transformational” change occurring in Nigeria

FIRST:   Muyiwa Adetiba’s story in The Guardian, https://emotanafricana.com/2011/11/21/the-nigerian-situation-brought-face-to-face-muyiwa-adetiba-face-to-face-with-humiliation-at-the-american-embassy/,

reproduced here last week has received not only much readership but  has brought some readers asking through my emotanafricana@gmail.com –  about the double “face to face” used in the title.  Adetiba’s column, “Face to Face with Muyiwa Adetiba” in the Punch long before he edited the paper was, perhaps, the trail-blazer for the PRIME PEOPLES, THE CITY PEOPLES of Nigeria’s social reporting journalism genre.  In those columns, he chatted with interesting and famous people and the tabloids like City People have since borrowed the idea though very much watered down.  TOLA.]

No, to [Nigeria’s] debt cancellation (2)

For the benefit of readers who may just be discovering this column, I must confess right away that I have no credentials in Economics or international politics.  Before any of my teachers at Ibadan Poly (then Technical College) or my alma mater in far away Washington, D.C. steps forward to say “you used to be in my class”, I must also confess that I did eventually earn a bachelors in Business Administration thirty years ago, a diploma that should imply quite a bit of knowledge in economic principles and theories.  It was for me, as kids would say in the Southwest these days, a matter of gbe ru, gbe ‘le (studying for exams just to pass). What a shame that the beauty of that apt description is lost in translation.  Anyway, I did come away with knowledge in subjects that really interest me which is the beauty of the U.S. system: an ever-abiding love of the arts, especially Literature, Music and Art.

Do not expect the kind of arguments (against this subject) that former World Bank no-debt-forgiveness mindset (Dr. Iweala) would marshal on why our debts should now be forgiven.  Times may change but personal interests do not.  The lady minister is now on this side and apparently has seen facts and figures, both real and inflated and the stand of the government she represents is that these debts are crippling the economy and have to go if the economy is to be revived.

Therefore, the arguments you will get here will be those that you can get from a trader at Dugbe, Ibadan; Oke-Aarin, Lagos; Onitsha market or Kano if you are the type that takes time out to mingle in unusual places!

With Africa’s lone and respected voice, Mandela, choosing a recent London visit to call for debt cancellation, we may soon find lending countries lining up to heed Madiba’s call.  What with his strong words that demand freedom for the millions of “slaves” of poverty worldwide, Nigeria may just slip in with real poor countries. I am all in support of having the debts of really poor countries in Africa and elsewhere forgiven because they are mired down, vise-grip like, in debts that seem to get bigger even as they struggle to pay the interests alone.  These are the like loan sharks of America, or to put it more charitably, credit card companies that headquarter their operations in less-restrictive U.S. states.  With interests sometimes as high as 36 percent per annum, poor and middle-class people find themselves in perpetual servitude to these companies.  Isn’t servitude slavery, as Mandela has appropriately described it?

While in college, one of my kids worked for one of those credit card companies whose supervisors breathe heavily on workers’ necks who are mostly college kids out to earn some money, egging them to go for the kill (via earphones) when dealing with elderly and poor applicants who appeared ready to say ‘no’.  I asked her (she had come home feeling particularly bad about what she had to do to close sales) why they would peddle a credit card to a 75-year old widow who lived on social security and definitely had no way of paying back.  “To supplement their income,” my twenty-year old answered. What income?  Many of such old people live on pet food (cheap) just to stretch their social security incomes which, by the way, may soon disappear, thanks to President Bush.

I narrate this as a comparison to what western rich nations do to countries like Nigeria but we can say ‘no’, can we not?  We are up to our teeth in debt for which there is nothing to show and they still keep lending to us.  Right now at the Bank headquarters, I am sure there are various lending projects FOR NIGERIA in various stages: white cover, etcetera.  Why, why, why?

The same reason that credit card companies lend to those who may not or cannot pay:  interests go on forever even after the principals must have been offset many times over.  And Bank staff are doing very well, thank you very much.  Third World citizens hate them but so do First World, especially America where the belief is that these people are not only overpaid but their theories and prescriptions (along with those of the IMF across the street) are unsound and crippling to Third World economies.

Remember, I have no idea what I’m talking about as far as Economics is concerned but it has more than crossed my mind that these institutions dare not suggest any of the ‘structural adjustment programs’ they peddle to helpless Third World countries to the rich West whose citizens’ easy living is financed a lot from credit cards and other forms of borrowing. Their economies survive on heavy deficit budgeting.

In spite of “due process” and the corruption it is said to have reduced, it seems to the average Nigerian that the more we look the less we see.  On the outside, what we continue to see is the really cushy live styles of government people: politicians and civil servants, especially at federal level.

In view of the fact that I’ve not grown more profound since my first essay on this subject back on Sunday, October 5, 2003, I am reproducing excerpts from “’No’ to debt cancellation and a big ‘no’ to World Cup bid”. The same reasons why I opposed Segun Odegbami’s gong-ho pursuit of the World Cup bid AND government’s plea for debt cancellation almost a year and half ago are still very much with us: politicians are still stealing billions and so are federal employees who are supposedly on salaries.  The government may claim to have closed loopholes but the assets being acquired by these people speak otherwise:

“By the time you’re reading this, I hope FIFA would have helped us make our collective mind up: that hosting a world competition of the magnitude of the World Cup is going to mean economic suicide for Nigeria …

 

I know that debt rescheduling and outright debt forgiveness can, in the hands of a determined people, turn a nation’s fortune around.  After all, this should be the equivalent of citizens of developed nations being able to file for bankruptcy.  Ideally, when such a citizen files for bankruptcy and the court allows him or her to wipe off the debts, such a person is being assisted to start his financial life over AND learn from the past.  …

 

Debt forgiveness implies that the debtor would turn a new leaf and mend his ways.  You should not come out of bankruptcy to start another run on credit cards for the purposes of accumulating things you should learn to do without, and that brings me to why I believe Nigeria’s debt – puffed up and inflated by her creditors as they are – should not be forgiven.  Even with so much external and internal debts weighing the country down, the country is still not living within her means.  Too many leakage points exist in the system that can be closed at little or no loss to the system and at great monetary savings.  If each state decides to get rid of fifty percent of its “guest houses”, the governors and their deputies would not have to suffer any deprivation and each state would save millions of naira.  Meanwhile, most of these places shelter and feed near and far relatives, acquaintances and friends who hold no government positions.  And guest houses represent a minor tip of the huge iceberg in the orgy of profligate expenditures. …

 

Why should elective offices be pensionable when governments find it difficult to pay the compensation of those who have put dozens of years into the service?  …

 

What Nigeria needs right now is a big debit card and here’s how that works for a regular consumer.  Let’s say I have a kid in college in Europe or America and, instead of a credit card, I have the bank issue her a debit card to the tune of a thousand dollars.  This means I’ve prepaid that much into the account and she can “charge” stuff until she has reached the thousand-dollar limit.  If it was a credit card, the money is not prepaid.  Teaching discipline is what a debit card is all about, and in old morality, it is called ‘not biting more than you can chew’ so that you won’t choke to death. …”

 

What Nigeria needs is a proper evaluation of how much exactly it owes after all the padding that has been slipped in by the lenders can be removed.  In addition, I believe those perpetuating interests should be frozen and we buckle our shoes in earnest to pay these back.  I bet a dozen top politicians/civil servants have more in their hidden accounts than the country owes.

Finally, I think the World Bank, et al, that for commissions continue to put these loans together need to stop processing loans for Nigeria: am I kidding? Block their own sources of cushy live styles?

TOLA ADENLE, The Nation on Sunday, February 2005

[UPDATE:  By the way, the old loans were settled in an arrangement that purportedly saw Nigeria paying off much of the contentious figures but interestingly, the champion of the old causes:  cancellation, paying off loans, etcetera, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala is back in her old position as Finance Minister.  This time, she’s also Econoomy Director or a title to that effect which is supposed to give her a very free hand to run the economy.  This time around, she’s championing external borrowings.  Tola, November 2011]

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