The attack ads have been most virulent. For some, the scurrility of the many claims made by the sponsors of these opinions is simply unacceptable. Yet, set against the practice in more mature democracies, the depths reached by both sides as they try to persuade would-be voters of the perfidious nature of the “opposition” have been far from exceptional. The observation has also been entered to the effect that never in our practice of democratic rule has an incumbent administration seemed so vulnerable.
Although much discussed (and still attended by plenty of hand wringing), the absence of serious conversation around the issues facing us as a political, social, and economic space, is, I think, generally consistent with the national character. I do not know of any other aspect of our national life that we attend with deserved gravitas. This lightness of mien has earned us the label of the earth’s happiest people. However, it may, at bottom, be no more than a device and the result of a process of sublimation without which our lived experience would have been more tortuous.
So, is there anything exceptional about the elections scheduled for this week? Not even the fact of it having been once postponed is as significant as has been made out. We have had entire elections annulled before. Does the cynical manipulation of the public space by government not count for much? Not if we look back to the four years from 1979 – 1983. At the national level, the current People’s Democratic Party government’s distance from reality is not half as bad as the National Party of Nigeria government’s was ahead of the 1983 elections.
What then to do about the aftermath of these elections? By how much should we worry over what the next nine months would look like? Now, this looks like uncharted territory. Much will depend on which party wins the presidency. At this point, the moving parts are sundry, and all in the air — the auguries do not, in other words, favour a call on the likely winner of the May 28 poll. Consequently, in the light of so many “known unknowns”, we must look to the “known knowns” in contemplating the consequences of the elections.
What do we know? First, let us take the easiest one — the crude oil dynamics. Although oil contributes less than 16% of domestic output growth, it is our major export earner (about 90%) and accounts for 75% of government revenue. That is why a 50% drop in the oil price over the last nine months has had such a telling effect on the economy. From today’s vantage, no one expects the global price for this commodity to rise above the current sub-US$50 per barrel — I actually believe it might have further to fall.
Next is the fortune of the Naira. Unsupported by oil rent, it has been in free fall for a while now. How far does it still have to go? A lot will depend on the monetary policy response. Thus far, though, the Central Bank has underwhelmed in its reactions to the sell pressure that the Naira has come under. Both the Naira and the Central Bank are nearing the limits of the current policy preference for fiat.
Both of these trends will hurt the economy in many ways. We have seen government tinker endlessly with the budget in search of buffers and cushions to take the edge of what could turn out to be a long period of falling output growth. Still, most estimates are of a budget deficit, this year, in the region of N2tn. Calculated on a much larger denominator, the deficit reaches about 0.8% of GDP, from 1.2% last year. On current numbers, debt service cost this year is projected to be a third higher than the total capital budget.
Looking ahead, therefore, we face considerably massive and variegated squalls over the current plan period. In this respect, we differ only slightly from just before October 1983. Confronted by similarly strong and disturbing headwinds, we failed then to start conversations around what the challenges are that we confront, and what responses are proper thereto.
It took until 1985/86, before we reached a national consensus around the “market” as the new domestic engine of growth. Today, we take for granted the ease with which government may alienate public property, and create new private sector monopolies in their place. But so many years ago, government had to overcome domestic thought patterns dominated by labour and an instinctive national predilection for government provision of goods/services, in order to move society forward.
Unfortunately, we may have reached the limits of those reforms; and are invited once again to look at how we would rather be organised for change. This would have been the one way in which these elections would have been different — if it had contributed to the debate around what it means to be a Nigerian, and how we may best advance the average Nigerian’s interests. How, to take but one example, it matters to my net welfare that there is a minister from my state in the federal cabinet?
To have failed in this charge (of helping define the space we intend to occupy over the next four years), is to commit this space to years of stumbling on temporary expedients and picking ourselves up only to fall back again. It is worth recalling that we spent from 1983 to 1999 floundering in search of a way out of an increasingly tightening cul-de-sac. Without paying proper attention to the challenges that we currently face, we could be in for another decade of navel-gazing, after this week’s elections.