These are indeed challenging times for Nigerians and Nigeria. For the majority of our countrymen who have been grovelling under the yoke of unrelenting economic malaise and acute insecurity, the COVID-19 pandemic is akin to a malignant salt added to a festering sore. A country, said to be the poverty capital of the world, is sinking even deeper into the dungeons of penury. There is some sense of relief that the feared millions of dead bodies from the novel Coronavirus has not materialised. But the economic impact is real, it is here, and it may get worse.
Last week, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) released a report showing that inflation rate as at end of August 2020 was 13.22% (ordinary man on the street feels it is much higher given the realities of increase in price of goods and services around him) which is the highest since October 2016. The import of that data is dire. It means if you got a small basket of tomatoes for N100 previously, today the same basket of tomatoes will cost N132.2kobo. Wages are either stagnant or plummeted, and most people’s earnings have nosedived, which means that you are paying higher for the same quantity of tomatoes even when your salary or income either remained the same or reduced. The fuel price has gone up, and electricity tariffs have increased, meaning that it is more expensive to move around, and equally more costly to stay at home, that is if you are lucky to be connected to the elusive National Grid.
The Naira has depreciated considerably, making imported goods costlier and the significance of this on an import-dependent economy would always be devastating. The fact that COVID-19 is a pandemic leaves other countries with little to spare, meaning that foreign direct investment touted to be the panacea to our economic development has become unavailable.
At the same time, the demand for crude oil, our critical mono-product export commodity, is relatively low, leading to low prices, less government revenue, less money to spend on critical infrastructure and social amenities and consequently more suffering across the land.
Virtually everyone in Nigeria is feeling the pinch. Our economic malaise eschews bigotry, it doesn’t respond to discrimination and nepotism, and there is no tribalism or favouritism here. No north and south dichotomy. No national character. Whether you are Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Ijaw, Kanuri, Edo, Borom, etc. you will feel the heat. The cause of the hard times in Nigeria is not just COVID-19, security issues or bad governance as you may believe. It is deeper than that. It is a result of the seed sown over time by Nigerians, leaders and followers alike.
Over the years in Nigeria, the management of public finance has been abysmally poor. Our cost of governance as a factor of GDP is one of the highest in the world. The implication of this is that the bulk of national wealth goes to service the needs of a tiny minority of privileged officialdom. Add pervasive corruption which unites public and private sectors, and the situation becomes direr. And when government bleeds itself broke, it resorts to increased taxation, hikes in prices of public utilities, tariffs and borrowing. The result is hardship and hunger with attendant social dislocation that leads to strikes, unrest, insecurity and political desperation.
It is indisputable that the country has been regressing over the years. A combination of socio-economic and political missteps have continued to hamper sustainable development in Nigeria. We lived the 1990s reminiscing the ‘good old days’ of the 1980s. At the turn of the century in the 2000s, we were fantasising over the paradise of the 1990s.
These days, we look back at the turn of the century with nostalgia, romanticising the days when the dollar exchanged for less than N100, when kidnapping was nowhere near our national lexicon and when insurgency and banditry feature only in foreign news channels broadcast about faraway failing countries. In Nigeria, things seem to be getting worse every day as we live today, glamorising yesterday. If this unfortunate trend continues, by 2030, we would pray that almighty God restores the ‘good old days’ of COVID-19 pandemic of the Year 2020.
So how do we come out of this? How does the ordinary Nigerian survive these challenging times? Government’s role in tackling our economic problems has gotten too much attention, so we need to focus on the part Nigerians, rich and poor, can play in ensuring that we make the best out of this problematic situation.
Firstly, we need to address our insatiable appetite for foreign goods. The Nigerian economic situation is summarised thus: we mainly export oil and import virtually every other thing. For the reduction of imports, local substitutes for imported items must be patronised. We must curtail our inordinate penchant for foreign goods.
This is both a clarion call for greater patriotism and a strategy for economic survival. A Nigerian will rather buy imported toothpick than a locally-made one even if the quality and prices are the same. The ban on foreign rice and the closure of our borders ( which curtailed smuggling) have left many Nigerians with no option than to eat local rice, and in that process, many people have realised that there is not much difference.
Despite our infrastructural challenges, there have been remarkable progress in some areas like textiles, shoes and patronage of local fabric . Our local industries can manufacture clothes and shoes that can challenge the ones imported from China. Many of our local tailors can effectively compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world. Can we make more fashion and financial status statements with our local attires? Can we see more of our ladies substitute ‘Brazilian Hair’ with beautiful afro and hand weaved hair?
Individuals should contribute their quota to ensure that critical infrastructure works. The nexus between power and industrialisation is simple. Sustainable economic development in Nigeria will remain a mirage if we do not have steady power. Beyond strategic government investment in this sector, individuals must play their roles. Many Nigerians do not pay appropriate ‘electricity ’ bills? Many people access power from the National Grid through illegal connections. The prepaid metre introduced to ensure correct billing should have worked well, but in most cases, consumers resort to bypass, whereby they do not pay for the use of most of their appliances. How can the power sector survive if the majority of the users do not pay for power consumed?
Nigerians need to cut down on waste. The positive side of the COVID-19 pandemic must be sustained. We have suddenly realised that expensive burials and weddings are not necessary. If COVID-19 restrictions led to having a wedding with not more than 50 guests, why not sustain it in the long run? Although the wedding ceremony is an industry supporting many businesses and families, we can tone it down.
Most of the burial ceremonies conducted between April and August saw an event in which the mourners were few, and the cost was relatively low. What stops us from continuing the trend? We have realised that meetings can be conducted successfully without the participants travelling long distances for physical interaction. We have realised that people who claimed that they could not stay a day without going to the beer parlour were not telling the truth as the drinking bars were shut all through April 2020and beyond. For those who claimed that a year without summer vacation is like a year not lived, COVID-19-induced travel restrictions have exposed this lie.
Remote learning opportunities and possibilities should be sustained. Our kids would ultimately go back to school, but the COVID-19 pandemic realities have made us realise that maybe some aspects of their leaning can be done virtually. This reduces travel cost and risk as well as stimulates innovations in some cases.
The Nigerian elite has suddenly realised that our decrepit health infrastructure does not affect the poor alone. Perhaps no one anticipated a situation whereby a billionaire with a health challenge will have no option than to patronise a local hospital. Quite a few persons paid the ultimate price. So the state of our hospitals and health centres should be a concern for all and sundry.
If we are to survive these challenging times, sacrifices must be made by all. Our country has been overwhelmed by corruption and incompetence, and many Nigerians are reluctant to perform their civic obligations like payment of taxes and other levies as they believe that the monies will end up in individual pockets. However, the current situation calls for collective patriotism. Government revenue has drastically reduced, and individuals and companies must pay requisite taxes and levies for the government to continue functioning and for critical infrastructure and social amenities to be made available and functional to the populace.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to humanity in so many ways. But as bad as it has been, there are certain areas of the lives of Nigerians it has affected positively. If the lessons of these areas are well internalised, harnessed and adopted as the way of life from now on, it would enable us not just to survive but thrive in the days, months and years ahead.