LETTERS TO MY NIECE
Permit me a little but necessary detour before I come back to what led to this letter. Four Nigerian passports ago when I first traveled out, I exchanged ninety-seven Nigerian pound s (N194) for United States two hundred and seventy dollars ($270). Going back in January 1973, I got three hundred ($300) dollars for under two hundred naira (N198.40). In December 1976, I got a little over fifteen hundred dollars for a thousand naira and to skip some dates to fast forward my story, I got seven hundred and ninety dollars for two naira short of five hundred naira in April 1978.
Enter Alhaji Shagari’s presidency and by 1980, Nigeria was doing very well, getting a lot of foreign exchange from oil and the naira was riding very high. In February 1980, he had been about five months on the Nigerian throne when I got issued nine hundred U.S. dollars in exchange for N498.83. In June of the same year, the naira was still a healthy 1.81225 to the U.S. dollar when a CBN approval translated N1495.11 to $2710, i.e. under fifteen hundred naira for almost twenty-eight hundred dollars! By May 1983, the rate had gone down to around 1.4 dollars to the naira so that seven hundred dollars were exchanged for N495.26.
Exit Shagari and Enter Buhari/Idiagbon, the only government that has ever fought to stem the tide of a falling naira. In fact, the Buhari-led government put up a very spirited fight to strengthen the national currency by refusing the onslaught of the IMF and its cohorts that were bent on living up to their reputation of impoverishing poor countries. That was not the kind of leader wanted for a Third World country, dear, and so, Buhari, aided in great measure by his high-handedness and religious extremism, had to go.
Enter the gap-toothed general with a ready smile on his lips while a dagger hid in one hand at his back. I’ve read often that this guy styled himself an “evil genius” but even if the sobriquet was not self-inflicted, Our Man from Minna certainly lived up to that Dantesque description. He kept Nigerians on a leash and let them believe they were the masters of their own fate: repealed the draconian Buhari decrees, threw the taking of an IMF-loan debate supposedly in the public arena. By the time my family and I – like the mythical Nigerian ‘Andrew’ – checked back to the States in the summer of 1988, we needed four naira to purchase a dollar but that seemingly unbelievable rate would pale when compared to forty-six naira we got for each dollar on a visit in 1993. Yewande, dear, your own memories go back enough for me not to bore you with the continued slide of the Naira since then but suffice it is to say that a mere five years ago when Abacha died, the rate at the parallel markets was around eighty. As I’m writing you, a dollar will get you a hundred and forty-two naira and fifty kobo. What happened between 1970 – or even 1993 – to the naira when then, as now, dollar-denominated crude oil remains our only major foreign exchange earner and we are not a manufacturing nation with lots of goods that we want to be competitive in the world market and must, of necessity, have a weak currency to attract buyers?
I was at a bank in Ibadan the day before this letter when a young lady about your age – she even looks very much like you – asked me a question that first surprised me before I understood her: “Auntie, is it possible that our ‘mentors’ come back?” “Mentors?” I repeated, my eyebrows giving away my ignorance. “Yes, mentors; or what do you call our colonial masters?” As I was already on my way when she asked this question, she pulled my right hand gently, offering me a seat again. I was confused and did not know how to answer; so I offered another question: “You are asking if the British could come back to rule us?”
“Abi, look at what mess we are in; we make so much money from oil but the country is wretched. We produce so much oil but have to pay through the nose to fill our vehicle tanks and our leaders don’t care because they’ve taken so much for themselves …”
From A Nostalgic longing for our “mentors” in ‘Letters to my niece’ series.
The Comet on Sunday, October 16, 2003
To update above essay, I’ve pulled out an old Nigerian passport which images bear the real emblems of our collective shame. Other currencies go up and down but the only direction for the Nigerian currencies since the tail end of the Nigerian Pound when a single one exchanged for around $3.00 or thereabout to the Naira – is DOWN.
Our situation has not changed: Nigeria still produces nothing for export but crude oil but the Naira, indexed against the same US dollar in which the only export is priced, keeps falling against the same currency.
Even the fancy economist, Dr. Iweala who rules Nigeria’s economy, cannot explain this simple economics paradox.
Right now, you need around N160.00 to buy an Uncle Sam’s greenback. A couple of years ago, it was bandied on the NIGERIAN STREETS that it would go up to N200.00 to US$1.00.
Tighten your loins, even further, fellow citizens, and get ready to pay N50.00 for a tiny tin of garri .
The following images of what would actually qualify as “old glory” to borrow a sobriquet for the American flag, were not used in the 2003 newspaper essay above.