Nigeria: Under siege and on the brink

We have not been here before.  There is a palpable sense of foreboding that we, in Nigeria, may indeed have passed the point of no return.  An ominous wind is blowing from the North and in danger of engulfing the whole country.  Everywhere you look, the story is the same – hunger, fear, insecurity and an economy in comatose.   No facet of society is spared. Bandits, herdsmen, and kidnappers have laid siege to the country and the police and security agents admittedly unable to stop their march.   Having attained the unenviable position of the poverty capital of the world, we are on course to do the double by becoming the kidnapping capital of the world. With a President seemingly oblivious of the nation’s plight and fast asleep at the wheel, we are in for a very long bumpy ride.

At the root of Nigeria’s security and socio-economic challenges is a population growth that has literally gone out of control, compounded by decades of inept leadership.  Unfortunately, the boom in population has not been matched by a commensurate development or wealth creation. At the time of independence in 1960, Nigeria’s population was 45 million, less than the population of the United Kingdom, with a population then of 52 million people. Since 1960, the UK’s population has increased by 15 million, to 67 million, whilst Nigeria’s population has more than quadrupled to 200 million; an increase of 155 million. In the 10 years between 2009 and 2019, Nigeria added nearly 50 million people to its headcount.

Large family sizes are the single most important driver of Nigeria’s population growth rate, especially in some parts of the country, where it is not uncommon for men to have over twenty children, with no plans or means of fending for them. A recent paper by the Washington-based Brookings Institute estimates that the number of destitute in Nigeria is growing by six people a minute.

Once upon a time, Nigeria had only six universities and these public universities compared with the best in the world in terms of facilities, research, and student welfare.  That was in the 1970s when the then Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon declared to the world that ‘money is not our problem, but how to spend it’.  How times have changed!  Nigeria’s population then in 1973 was only 60 million and there was less pressure on the country’s resources compared to now.

Nigeria is on track to be the third most populous country in the world by 2050, behind India and China; countries with considerably larger land masses. This population explosion poses a security risk, not just to Nigeria, but the entire sub-continent and beyond, if unchecked.  We are already seeing a manifestation of this in the spate of crime in the country.  There are simply far too many idle people with no job, no money, no roof over their heads and no hope.  With nothing to lose, the underclass who once were content to forage for crumbs that fell from the oppressor’s table are now exchanging their begging bowls for AK47s; and in a country where crime pays, they are finding kidnapping a very lucrative enterprise.  With a police establishment that is poorly resourced, poorly paid and poorly motivated, Nigerians will be at the mercy of criminals for a very long time until this situation is addressed.

Although we like to believe the contrary, Nigeria is one of the poorest countries in the world, with over 90 million of its citizens in extreme poverty. The UK’s budget for health services alone, for a population of 67 million, is £152bn – eight times the entire Federal Government budget of N18.9tn (£19bn), for a population of 200 million.  South Africa’s budget for defence/security alone, for a population of 58 million is £11.4bn – more than half the federal budget.  These examples put in context the funding challenges we face as a country. We simply do not have the money to meet our deep challenges, and sadly, even the little resources we have are shared between the political elite.

With a burgeoning population, rampant poverty, and a country under siege from criminals and herdsmen, difficult times await Nigerians.  Addressing these challenges would require courage and competent leadership with a good understanding of our current state and a clear vision and plan how to move the country forward. It would require a line by line critical review of our budget to address the enormous waste and profligacy in the system so that money can be released to resource our police services and create jobs for the unemployed.  If just half the nation’s income was spent judiciously, Nigeria would be in a far better place today.

The country is believed to have over 800 parastatals and agencies, constituting a huge drain on the economy.  Many have become conduits for corruption and money laundering.  Allegations abound of legislators perpetuating these agencies by demanding kickbacks to approve their budgets.  Billions of naira could be saved from a drastic reduction in the current number of agencies and parastatals.

Nigerian legislators should not be collecting hundreds of millions of naira annually in salaries and allowances when the economy can barely afford N30,000 minimum wage.  In many countries, citizens would have taken up residence outside the National Assembly, until these less than honourable characters are forced to do the right thing. They will not do so otherwise.  Their peers in the UK, the world’s fifth largest economy, are paid just £79,468 a year – about N37m.

The government must address the issue of non-remittance of revenues to government coffers by revenue generating agencies. The President has the carrot and the stick and must learn to use the latter.  Some have alleged a criminal conspiracy between these agencies and public officials to defraud the country.

It is time to address the perennial issue of petrol subsidy or ‘under recovery’ as the Buhari government now calls it. Recent reports indicate that subsidy payments for 2018 could be as high as $5bn, above the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachikwu’s projection of $3.5bn.  This figure is more than the combined budgets for Education, Health, Transportation, Power, Works and Housing! It is madness that a country where hospitals have become where people go to die, due to lack of drugs and basic medical equipment, should be spending about half its entire non-debt recurrent expenditure subsidising petrol alone; a country that can barely generate 4,000MW of electricity in the 21st Century!

Whether Nigeria is able to address the current spate of insecurity in the country would depend critically on the leadership of the President and those he appoints as ministers and advisers in his second term. It would require public investment in job creating infrastructure and a doubling of the current police establishment and their budget to make the institution fit for purpose. Northern Nigeria has become killing fields and the wind is blowing South. President Muhammadu Buhari must wake up.  The urgency for action is now!

Nwachukwu, a London-based business consultant, wrote in via

Twitter: @emmanwach17

(The Punch)