Monday 4 January 2016

Living Through The Uncertainties Of 2016

by: Ayo Olukotun

"Nigerians still go through all kinds of trauma in their daily lives because of the comatose nature of our leadership, so people look for areas in life where they can find succor and that is why comedy shows are sold out” – Ezechi Onyerionwu, December 5, 2015
Literary scholar, Prof. Ezechi Onyerionwu’s remark, quoted above appeared in a recent edition of the New York Times. Onyerionwu spoke to Japanese writer, Norimitsu Onishi, author of the article, who informs that the soaring popularity of stand-up comedy in Nigeria indexes the several ways in which a traumatised citizenry is coping with the rigours of daily existence. Nigerians, we are reliably informed, are escaping the scramble for survival, typified by the relentless search for fuel, broken down infrastructure, and the terrors of Boko Haram, by laughing harder than usual in order to stay afloat.

Although 2015 brought in celebrated political change at the centre, in the shape of a reformist government led by President Muhammadu Buhari, it ended pretty much like 2014, for the average Nigerian. Buhari may have reduced the defiance and bravado of the insurgents, who as 2014 closed unleashed a horrific massacre at Baga. 

Any claim however, to have vanquished Boko Haram was quickly, punctured as 2015 reached a terminus by repeated massive assaults, through detonated bombs in Borno and Yobe states. Politicians everywhere in the world exaggerate their achievements and diminish those of their opponents; Nigerian politicians tend to major in bombast, and rhetorical claims. This suggests that Nigerians live out their lives below the claims, half-truths and polemical brickbats of their leaders. The bottom line however, is that Nigerians still continue to die from the attacks of Boko Haram, and are likely to, still do so in the new year.

Regarding the disappearing and appearing fuel scarcity, the situation, at the end of 2015 was not different from what it was at the end of 2014. In several states around the country, fuel was sold for double the official pump price. Indeed, one emerging feature of the situation is that we are fast getting used to the recurrent crisis to the point of seeing them as normal. This New Year will tell whether the slashing by government of fuel price to N86.50 per litre will bring the much needed relief. At the end of 2014, many workers went home at Christmas, without pay. At the end of last year, a larger percentage of workers did not receive salaries, in some cases for several months, before the close of the year. Will it be any different in 2016? It is too early to foretell, but the omens suggest an even bleaker economic vista, than was the case last year. Of course, the 2016 budget with its emphasis on high spending in key social sectors, raises hope, but much will depend on the extent to which government, federal and state, will mark up on budget implementation which has been the bane of successive budget pronouncements.

Another area of anxiety concerns galloping prices of goods, materials and services, at a time when the average Nigerian, either has no job or is not paid for work done. Part of this is related to the domino effect of increasing fuel prices, way above the official price, and the continuously falling exchange rate of the naira in an import dependent economy. It is welcome that this year’s budget addresses job creation through such mechanisms as the proposed employment of 500,000 teachers, 10,000 policemen and the granting of soft loans by the Central Bank of Nigeria, to aspiring entrepreneurs. If these policies are vigorously pursued, they will at least slow down the rising tide of unemployment, but will obviously still leave out swathes of Nigerian youths. The bigger point however, is that the healing of the economy, especially of infrastructural deficits will better enable Nigerian youths and the private sector to create jobs. It is also important that government should think through its policies of rationalisation and merger of ministries in order to avert excessive shedding of labour. For, it is a contradiction in terms to, in one breath push job creation to the front burner, and in another breath, carry out significant shedding of labour.

Important to the citizens is the persisting jinx around electricity generation, which in the middle of 2015, experienced a bubble which did not last, suggesting that the fundamental problems have not been resolved. The fact that government houses are setting money aside for fuelling generators, and purchasing bigger ones, sends a sign to the citizens, that their travails, repeated promises notwithstanding, are far from over. In recent months, the woes of consumers have been compounded by an escalating billing architecture imposed by the regulatory authorities. In this critical area, genuine change would mean that hitherto unlucky consumers will have longer hours of electricity at affordable cost. It remains to be seen, whether 2016 will bring in fresh departures in this direction.

A key question in 2016 is whether the Independent National Electoral Commission will, building on the successes of Prof. Attahitu Jega, the immediate past chairman, usher in a regime of voting without tears, while sustaining free, fair, credible and conclusive elections. While INEC cannot be blamed for all that went wrong in the Kogi and Bayelsa elections, there is evidence to suggest that the transition to the qualitatively superior use of card readers is incomplete. Is it not a crying shame that the identities of several senior citizens, including former President Goodluck Jonathan were not recognised by the card readers in the inconclusive Bayelsa election? Beyond that, the New Year will test the capacity of the Federal Government to maintain and improve upon our modest success in the area of providing a level playing field for government and opposition alike to compete in the political arena.

It is predictable that in 2016, Nigerians will continue to put up with ever rising cost of such social services as health and education. As known, there is little to choose between an inefficient public sector, which charges comparatively low fees, and a better managed private sector which charges fees way above the ability of the average Nigerian to pay. The situation is compounded by the fact that both public and private sectors are constrained by our failure to provide the right environment for health and educational enterprises. It is doubtful, if the issues, as well as those of well-to-do Nigerians going abroad in search of better facilities, can be resolved in a hurry. What is important however is for the authorities to set goals, and targets by which citizens can measure improvement in the quality, as well as affordability of services in these areas.

Evidently, the battle to bring down the cost of governance will be a long and difficult one, going by the allocation of N2.2bn for food and travels for the Presidency in the 2016 budget. There also is the proposed spending of N4.7bn by the Senate on 2016 models of luxury vehicles. These are things that breed cynicism and despair, causing more and more Nigerians to turn to comedy for temporary relief.

I wish my readers as happy a new year as they can muster in the circumstances.

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