Opinion: Sleepwalking To Sri Lanka – By Olusegun Adeniyi
Last Saturday, thousands of protesters in Sri Lanka stormed the presidential residence in Colombo. It was a scene reminiscent of Bamako exactly one decade ago when Malian protesters invaded the presidential palace to give the then Interim President Dioncounda Traore the beating of his life. Only God knows what the angry protesters would have done to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had he not escaped before they arrived. But after satisfying themselves with presidential luxuries, the protesters moved to the private residence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had also been hurriedly evacuated along with his wife. Apparently annoyed they didn’t meet their target, they set his house ablaze.
The ultimate lesson of the ongoing Sri Lanka crisis, as well as the May 2012 Mali cataclysm, is that leaders seemingly indifferent to the plight of ordinary people run the risk of mob action with devastating consequences for their country. It is therefore important for political leaders in Nigeria to pay attention not only to the turmoil in Sri Lanka but also the trigger. If they do, they will realise we are gradually inching towards the crisis that led to the anarchy now defining the streets of Colombo.
Indeed, for any perceptive observer, there is nothing happening in Sri Lanka that is not currently our lot in Nigeria. Let’s begin with the irrational decision taken to save the vast-depleting forex in Sri Lanka. In April last year, President Rajapaksa banned the importation of chemical fertilizers on the pretext of a push for organic farming. But the move backfired spectacularly. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine impacting negatively the cost of essential commodities, food prices were up nearly 60 percent in the country by the end of May, according to official data. Added to that is a shortage of fuel, medicine and domestic gas as well as an erratic supply of electricity. Is the situation much different in our country?
Data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) Consumer Price Index (CPI) suggests that the food inflation rate in Nigeria increased to 18.37 per cent on a year-on-year basis in May this year. But the market reality is quite different. Unless we want to deceive ourselves, the prices of most goods and services have doubled or even tripled in the past one year. Many Muslims felt the pinch during last weekend’s Eid-el-Kabir when ram was priced beyond what an average citizen could afford. Besides, the World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) last month classified Nigeria among 20 countries labelled ‘hunger Hotspots’. Nigeria was also listed among three other African countries on ‘high alert’ for starvation and death.
Now, let’s go back to Sri Lanka. The country of 22 million people is plagued by an acute shortage of foreign exchange that has rendered it unable to import fuel, among other essentials. With a debt of $51 billion, Sri Lanka announced in April that it was unable to meet its sovereign obligations and suspended nearly $7 billion foreign debt repayment due this year. We are talking about interest and not the principal on these debts at a period the Rupee, their national currency, has collapsed by 80 percent.
To come back home, let’s not even talk about the Naira that has in recent years been in a free fall despite the best efforts of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). Last month, the Debt Management Office (DMO) stated that Nigeria’s total public debt stock increased to N41.60 trillion or $100.07 billion in the first quarter of 2022 from N39.56 trillion or $95.78 billion as of December 2021. That was an increase of N2.04tn or $4.3 billion within a period of three months. Although the DMO Director-General, Ms. Patience Oniha, has been bullish in arguing that our debts are sustainable, she admitted in May this year that “concerns about debt sustainability and the need for restructuring have been stronger for Sub-Saharan Africa, due to high debt service costs when compared to revenues.”
That precisely is where the problem lies. In its 2021 Article IV projections released in February this year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said the federal government could spend as much as 92.6 per cent of its revenue on debt servicing this year, after estimating last year’s debt servicing-to-revenue ratio at 85.5 per cent. The IMF also projects public debt to grow by 117.8 per cent on a year-on-year basis in 2022. This perhaps was what prompted the former CBN Governor and 14th Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, to warn of an impending crisis. “To be honest, we are living on extra time. In 2015, we were in a deep hole. In 2023, we will be in an even much deeper hole than in 2015,” he said earlier this year. “All those people who are struggling to be president will face daunting challenges. I hope they understand that the problems they are going to face are in multiple compared to the ones we faced in 2015, and all of us have to be ready for difficult decisions. If they are not taken, we are all going to pay for it.”
One of those difficult decisions that may soon be forced upon us in a manner that could be catastrophic is the removal of subsidy on PMS. I sometimes wonder whether those who are aspiring for political positions have really counted the cost, if indeed their motivation is service. In April, the National Assembly amended this year’s N17.126 trillion budget to reflect a N4 trillion subsidy cost for the consumption of a single item. That N4 trillion, about 25 percent of the entire budget for 2022, represents a new figure for petrol subsidy, taking the sum up from N442.72 billion initially budgeted for the first half of the year. Yet, despite spending humongous amounts of money, Nigerians are groaning at filling stations where many spend hours, sometimes days, to fuel their vehicles. On a daily basis, countless productive hours are being lost, the savings of many are being ruthlessly depleted and the patience of the citizenry appears to be ebbing rather fast.
The crisis in the sector goes beyond the escalating price of PMS. Without remittances to the federation account by the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) Limited for sharing, workers and pensioners in majority of the 36 states are being owed several months in salaries, gratuities and other entitlements. In March this year, members of the Airline Operators of Nigeria (AON) threatened to shut domestic flight operations due to the rising cost and scarcity of aviation fuel. This was before the intervention that may not long endure. The power sector is worse. Businesses large and small, artisans and households are subjected to unimaginable operational situations due to the energy crisis. From N280 per litre in January this year, the price of diesel is now hovering between N800 and N900 in an oil producing nation where everyone generates their own electricity.
On the security front, Sri Lanka fares better, even with its own challenges. During the Easter celebration in 2019, for instance, there were suicide bombings at a number of churches and hotels that claimed the lives of no fewer than 300 people. The Islamic State claimed responsibility. In our own case, violence has become a regular fare featuring sundry criminal cartels with various nefarious agendas. Such is the security challenge facing Nigeria that in most rural communities, people can no longer access their farms. As I write this, I just received a message from a member of a family abducted in the Abuja-Kaduna train incident of 28th March soliciting money to pay the kidnappers who are demanding N100 million as ransom per head. From soldiers, mobile policemen and civilians being killed in Shiroro, Niger State to the attack on the advance party of President Muhammadu Buhari in his home state of Katsina to the invasion of the Kuje Prison by the Islamic State for West African Province (ISWAP) to release their members, there is no doubt we are in a bad place.
Finally, let’s return to Sri Lanka where political corruption is rife. One family essentially runs the country, though protesters may have put an end to that. On assuming power, President Rajapaska brought in his brother, Chamal Rajapaksa from the United States where he resided as a citizen and installed him first as Sri Lanka’s defence secretary before eventually elevating him to the position of Prime Minister. His other brother, Basil Rajapaska, also an American citizen, was first appointed a senior adviser to the president before making him Finance Minister. And then you have Namal Rajapaska as Sports Minister. Meanwhile, to speak against this brazen nepotism and corruption in the country is to be targeted as a ‘traitor’ by a leader who ruled with an iron fist and brooked little or no dissent.
Yesterday, the in-your-face state capture by the Rajapaskas came to an abrupt end when the president once celebrated as a national hero for helping bring an end to Sri Lanka’s civil war during his first term in 2009, fled his country in disgrace. As at the time of sending in my column last night, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, appointed acting president to avoid a constitutional crisis, was battling with protesters who had invaded and taken over his office.
Nigeria and the South Asian countries may have different histories, but it is obvious that most of the excesses that led to the crisis in Sri Lanka are also with us. And so are the socioeconomic challenges gradually pushing ordinary Nigerians to the brink. On Monday at his country home in Daura, President Buhari told visiting governors that he was already looking forward to leaving office, describing his presidential job as being tough. But considering the existential pressures that daily confront them, a majority of Nigerians would not mind changing places with him.
On the whole, I am quite aware of the assumption that Nigerians are docile, fractionalized by identities and therefore insulated from the convulsions we witness elsewhere. I beg to disagree. The earlier authorities dispense with the delusional thinking that what is happening in Sri Lanka cannot happen here, the better for our country. The cascade of factors, including spiraling inflation, collapse of the electricity grid, endless fuel scarcity, state of insecurity amid growing political mercantilism are more likely to unite than divide the ordinary Nigerians when push comes to shove.
What the authorities must understand is that people united by the threat of starvation, insecurity and total hopelessness could become an uncontrollable angry mob like those in the streets of Colombo. As we saw with the EndSARS protest two years ago, the days of docility and complacency are clearly numbered, even here. The scenes in Sri Lanka are therefore urgent warning signals to those in authority in Nigeria. And the message is simple: The pompous posturing of officialdom cannot assuage the anger of an endangered and hungry people.
I hope the relevant authorities are paying attention!
On Kukah’s ‘Broken Truths’
‘Broken Truth: Nigeria’s elusive quest for cohesion’ is markedly different from the previous works of Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, perhaps due to the target audience. The eleven chapters comprise a collection of ten convocation lectures delivered at public and private universities in Nigeria and a 2004 paper presented at the British House of Lords in London. Well researched and brutally frank as one would expect of any book by the Catholic Bishop of the Sokoto Diocese, his presentations speak to our challenges as a nation while proffering practical solutions to some of the things that have for decades held us back from peace and prosperity.
It is particularly interesting that Kukah’s book comes at a critical period in our country as we move gradually to the 2023 general election amid existential challenges. I take particular note of the questions posed by Kukah at the Ebonyi State University convocation lecture on 25th April 2015, shortly after Buhari’s election: “Given the fact that there is so little to choose from between the PDP and the APC, what are we to expect? We are being warned about the ugly challenges that lie ahead against the backdrop of dwindling oil prices. Will the subsidy merchants merely change their jerseys? What about the threats of Boko Haram? In other words, has Nigeria turned the corner? Have we finally placed the stone on top of the mountain? Is it so well protected that it can withstand the hostile elements, or will something trigger its rollback to the bottom of the mountain?”
It is noteworthy that those questions in chapter four of the book were posed more than seven years ago, and five weeks before Buhari assumed the presidency. Now, at the twilight of an administration ushered in with the slogan of ‘Change’, it is left for readers to provide their own answers to those questions. As Prof Jibrin Ibrahim wrote in one of the blurbs, Kukah’s book is “brutally honest, hurting many sensibilities, but then the core of the message is that broken truths can only amplify, not solve our problems.” In another blurb, former United States ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell affirms the universality of Kukah’s ideas: “Though the audience he addresses directly is the youth of Nigeria, Americans will find Kukah’s insights invaluable for understanding their own country as well as Nigeria and Africa.”
Preparing Tomorrow’s Leaders
With the theme, ‘Why Tomorrow’s Leaders Must Begin Today’, this year’s edition of the annual Teens Career Conference of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), The Everlasting Arms Parish (TEAP), holds on 20th August. The speakers are Samson Itodo, Executive Director, YIAGA-Africa and member of the Kofi Annan Foundation Board, Linda Ejiofor-Suleiman, an award-winning actress and model, and Seun Onigbinde, a social entrepreneur, open data analyst and co-founder/CEO of budgIT. Like previous editions, the conference will bring together teenagers from Abuja and its environs to listen to expert advice on career choices in today’s dynamic and challenging world. For registration, interested teenagers should visit http://www.rccgteapteens.ng
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