Nigeria's 2013 Fiscal Austerity Budget (3)

by Odilim Enwegbara

”Four billion barrels collateral will fix our infrastructure”

It was with such sheer absolutism, feudalism, and philistinism that Louis XVI ruled the people of France as their monarch. And to support the extravagant luxuries of his monarchy, French peasants were ruinously taxed. But trying to extent this ruinous taxation to French bourgeoisie, soon made him the most unpopular monarch, his ministers and the nobles the most hated public parasites in the monarchy’s centuries of history. Without enough home tax revenues to continue with government’s fiscal recklessness intact, meant loading France with foreign debt. Twice the interest rates paid anywhere in Europe, servicing the huge debt soon turned France from one of Europe’s richest nations into Europe’s most indebted and impoverished nation on the edge of bankruptcy.

Now with such huge debt obligations, government had less flexibility in raising money to deal with emergencies. Unable to milk the peasants further, and the fact that as one of the major trading nations, France couldn’t raise revenue through customs tariffs, the king’s efforts to tax the nobles got rebuffed. Making their privileges nonnegotiable, made the imposition of a “just and proportioned” tax impossible. Switching from making people aware of their rights to injecting anger, frustration, and hatred against the monarch and the ruling aristocrats, Enlightenment theorists such as Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Turgot, began to set the stage for a revolution in France.

The unexpected soon happened. While harsh winter caused by a strong El Niño cycle from the Iceland caused meager harvests across Europe, decades-long government mismanagement of French agriculture made crop failures cause more severe shortage of grain, consequently raising the price of bread. Because bread was the main source of nutrition for peasants, this meant starvation. The bread riots in 1789 soon became testing ground for the impending revolution. Because of the severe hunger peasant fled their villages in search of employment in French cities. Overcrowded cities, hunger, and destitution alongside disaffection, further made France increasingly ideal for a revolution. But quickening the end of monarchy in France was the king himself. Sending troops to Versailles to disperse the newly formed Assembly, Louis XVI triggered the fall of the monarchy, especially given the anger it generated among the people of France.

A provocation led poor masses attacking Bastille, forcing the nobles to flee France. From unrest to popular rebellion led to the king’s overthrow. With the monarch removed, France became not just a republic. Aristocracy too was replaced with new principles of equality, citizenship and inalienable rights. With transition to an elected National Assembly, King Louis XVI was publicly executed, bringing to an end centuries-old absolute monarchy in France.

No doubt most readers would be wondering why France in the 18th century! Nigeria, as it is run today has a lot of similarities with how Louis XVI’s France was run in the late 18th century. And not to end up the same way the king ended, or the way Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt, and Gaddafi of Libya did as a result of the sudden Arab Spring, our leaders should understand that we too are approaching the end of the road.

Like French monarchy’s fiscal recklessness during the 1780s, Nigeria’s annual budgets are wasteful, debt-bugged, corruption-ridden, anti-growth and anti-jobs. Like Louis XVI’s, our budgets are today lavishly concentrated on meeting politicians’ and civil servants’ insatiable opulence lifestyles. Just like French peasants, Nigerians are increasingly not happy with their rulers. But unlike the peasants, who wanted bread, Nigerian masses are only demanding from their rulers to spare them the agony of having to provide themselves such basic social infrastructure as power supply, water, and road — the very basic infrastructure people of even poorer nations today take for granted. Or shouldn’t these basic amenities be there for the people as the only reason to justify the very existence of a government in a country endowed with huge oil wealth?

How come it is only few countries like Nigeria that marathon running development suddenly is crippled and exhausted? Why has development which most countries achieved with such an ease become mystifying in Nigeria? To say that it is puzzling to see such a giant is submerged to the extent of importing food and fuel, in perpetual darkness, without good water supply, without modern hospitals, without good schools and good roads, is to just say the least. Or should our rulers have to wait for mass riots before they begin to rise up to the challenges of leadership? Since when has economics become a rocket science to the extent that we’ve to follow western development theories sheepishly? For how long should our people continue to cry for help, while their rulers luxuriantly continue with their culture of ”We can’t do it because it is not in line with World Bank, IMF, and WTO set rules? Why continuing bloated government while the people’s needs forgotten by government after government in Nigeria?

If Adam Smith in trying to defend British interests employing his fake absolute advantage theory, where he advised nations to not restrict free trade, did Alexander Hamilton, America’s first secretary of treasury, listen to him when using bans and high tariffs to promote and protect America’s infant industry from Adam Smith’s British advanced industrial products? Of course not, especially when he knew that Smith was using his pen as Britain’s economic hit man. Deng fully understood that rather than western development model show developing countries the right way, it was the wrong way it always directs them. For this reason, warning his fellow leaders, he philosophically concluded, ”It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

If for ages it is clear that government’s critical responsibility is provision of basic infrastructure, why is government in Nigeria outsourcing this responsibility through so-called Public Private Partnerships (PPP) and Built Operate and Transfer (BOT) to so-called private sector, when China, India, Brazil, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates continue investing hundreds of billions of dollars expanding and upgrading their own critical infrastructure? Should we with our over $200billion infrastructure deficit still be dreaming becoming among the 20 largest economies of the world by 2020?

If we remember that Louis XVI’s dethronement and execution was because he abdicated his sovereign duties by relying so much on his ill-informed and ill-intentioned advisers, who will our elected officers blame for their gross mismanagement of our economy? That managers of our economy apportioned larger part of our annual budgets to keep our politicians happy, while stifling part of the budgets that supposedly to benefit the people, certainly it is our politicians who, like Louis XVI should take all the blames.

Or who else should be taking the blames for the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway handed to Bi-Courtney since April 15, 2009? Of course, if government could not find the N90 billion needed to execute that economically important road, why blame Bi-Courtney? Where should the company find such a huge amount of money, when the government that awarded it the contract keeps major of the nation’s money in foreign reserves? Should the company compete with government in paying such unheard-of interest rates, which tend to constantly crowd out companies like Bi-Courtney? Or why should any bank finance Bi-Courtney’s capital-intensive infrastructure project with all its associated high risks, when the banks investing in government’s risk-free, high interest-yielding Treasury Bills and Bonds could easily declare 200 per cent profit yearly?

What does it really require to deal with our perennial infrastructure deficit than drawing down our huge foreign reserves kept in Ame

rica? Shouldn’t leaving only about $10 billion in foreign reserves enough to get us around any sudden financial crisis? With our current 40 billion barrels of oil, can’t we turn it into reserve? Shouldn’t commonsense tell us that our oil could equally act as our foreign reserves since we could easily use part of it to borrow? Had the Lagos-Ibadan been constructed since 2009 and tolled, using part of our foreign reserve, shouldn’t half of the invested money been recovered by now? Or what sense does it make that we have about $44 billion dollars in foreign reserves while our federal roads are ”only better than Somalia’s roads”?

Should a nation as vastly endowed with oil wealth as Nigeria continue using lanterns and candles in powering its development, or remain in darkness when it should have used a fraction of its 40 billion barrels of oil reserves (between 2 and 4 billion barrels) as strategic collateral to raise between $200 billion and $400 billion, enough for tackling its power sector, its agriculture, its road infrastructure, etc., head-on? Why can’t we make this offer to China and India? Why reserving the billions of barrels of oil, when with a fraction of it invested in developing our critical infrastructure, not only should the result include fast-tracked diversification and industrialization, unprecedented GDP growth with equally unprecedented multiplier and trickledown effects with millions of industrial and service jobs, mass prosperity, and millions lifted out of poverty?

Shouldn’t fixing our infrastructure make our millions of small businesses and entrepreneurs get to work and compete with their peers elsewhere in the world because they too could now access cheap government loans and venture capital financing, because they too could now easily, cheaply and safely transport themselves, and their products across the country, because they should no longer have to preoccupy themselves with buying and fueling generators in an effort to provide themselves power, because industrial parks are littered all over the country, because they should no longer have to fly to India for treatment or send their children overseas for education, and most important, because such absence of mass poverty and mass disenfranchisement security has so improved that our streets and highways are no longer battlefields?

With Nigerians enjoying the kind of high quality infrastructure they should have been taking for granted, the President knows how much love Nigerians will shower on him as a visionary leader who succeeded where others failed. In fact with that, should he want a reelection, Nigerians should reward him handsomely as Americans rewarded Franklin Roosevelt, as South Koreans praised Gen Park, as Chinese worshiped Deng, and Brazilians praised Lula.

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