With the sort of gloom and doom now pervading the sociopolitical atmosphere in Nigeria, due to the ongoing financial crisis, humor seems to be the best antidote for easing the stress.
That’s why I could not resist starting this article with a practical joke which a friend recently sent to me via whatsApp and it goes thus ” President Buhari was in a meeting with all the governors, legislators-Senators and members of House of Representatives, Federal Executive Council members, NNPC directors and all fuel importers when news came that the CBN was being robbed. Buhari said, how is that possible when all the thieves are here seated with me?”
Now, I was supposed to laugh and forward the joke to other contacts, but here is how l responded: “Perhaps, Mr President has once again forgotten that the civil servants, who were not seated with him in the meeting, are worse thieves. Recall that after he took over the reins of power on May 29 last year, he treated top civil servants like ‘blue eye princes’ , but they nevertheless took undue advantage of him by ‘padding’ the 2016 appropriation bill, which is a perfidy that has turned out to be president Buhari’s biggest embarrassment in govt, till date “.
Jokes aside, president Muhamadu Buhari’s war against corruption since he mounted Nigeria’s saddles of leadership some nine, 9 months ago, has been unprecedented.
Given Mr President’s zero tolerance for corruption underscored by his motto ‘Nigeria must kill corruption before corruption kills Nigeria’, a death knell for corruption has been sounded and no one should be in doubt as to whether or not corruption would ebb in Nigeria under president Buhari’s watch, but it is a question of how soon the mission would be accomplished.
However, while Mr President is trying to rein in corruption, the price of crude oil, the commodity that Nigeria depends on for roughly 95% of her foreign exchange, FX earning, has been tumbling dramatically and in the process, it has shed nearly 70%, due mainly to global supply glut, triggering what can best be described as panic attack in govt circles.
Consequently, a plethora of policies are now in place including barring of 41 items for access to FX from CBN.
The measures are aimed at stemming further hemorrhaging of the economy, which has become financially anaemic and tending towards asphyxiation, as it suffers the double jeopardy of massive corruption by unscrupulous politicians and civil servants as well as drastic reduction of FX income owing to international oil price slump.
Notable amongst the forty one, 41 items barred from being funded from the central bank of Nigeria, CBN , are items like tooth picks which can be sourced locally as Nigeria is essentially geographically located in a rain forest zone which makes the middle belt ,south-east and south-south, thick forests with huge mahogany and Iroko trees amongst others.
While Western establishment media organs like the London based Economist magazine and New York located, Time magazine have bashed Nigerian govt for introducing capital control measures to save the naira , financial institutions such as JP Morgan, have delisted Nigeria from her emerging markets shares index , thereby causing huge exit of portfolio investments from Nigeria by international equity and portfolio managers.
The international monetary fund, IMF has also weighed in with advise that Nigeria should devalue her currency, but Nigerian authorities have justifiably resisted the proposition and rather than heed the Brenton wood institution’s advise, Nigeria has taken the option to defend the naira by maintaining fixed exchange rate as opposed to floating rate, which is the preference of Western financial institutions.
This is in spite of the fact that there is historical evidence indicating that England, during the medieval times adopted a form of capital control. That happened when Border Control Act 1300 AD was enacted by King Richard II, prohibiting the export of metals which was a sort of means of foreign exchange at that time. King Henry the VIII lifted the ban in 1858 after it was deemed that England’s economy was solid enough to float her currency or open it to international competition. Similarly, in the USA, during the Great Recession (1914-1944), under the watch of president Franklin D Roosevelt, FDR some form of capital control measures were also introduced and the founder of Keynesian economics, whom the concept was named after, Lord Maynard Keynes is known to have been one of the advocates for capital restrictions as a means of pulling the USA out of the Great Depression.
Hypocritically, Nigeria is now being punished and sabotaged for adopting policies employed by leaders of the capitalist world, the UK and USA when they faced similar economic quagmire.
Frustratingly, despite the drastic measures introduced to stabilize the naira, it now exchanges with the USA dollar in the parallel market for between N300-N400.
A combination of factors are responsible for the continuous pressure on the naira and chief of which is that, about forty percent,40% of Nigeria’s fx outflow is for the importation of petroleum products.
The two next biggest single tickets outflows that are gulping FX after fuel import are payments of school fees abroad and medical bills which are also estimated to be about two billion dollars, $2b apiece. The third single item is the cost of importation of rice which is estimated at one billion, eight hundred million dollars, $1.8b annually.
It seems Mr President considers payment of fees for procurement of education and healthcare abroad as drain on the FX treasury, therefore such payments are now candidates for addition to the 41 items earlier put on the prohibition list.
Understandably, owing to the rapid depletion of the nation’s fx reserve, (now reduced to about $27b) the seemingly prohibitive cost of educating Nigerians abroad, and the huge sum expended on medicare overseas are giving Mr President headache.
Be that as it may, does the situation warrant the decision to plunge Nigerians into the abyss of ignorance and shortening the life span of critically ill Nigerians when students are denied FX for payment of school fees abroad and sick people barred from accessing funds for overseas treatment from the CBN?
Before proceeding further, let me quickly invite Mr President’s attention to some pretty disturbing data on where Nigeria currently stands in the new world order with respect to literacy and health care, as captured in CIA World Facts Book.
Focusing on (1) Literacy/ educational standards – which are the prime asset and pride of any leading nation; and (2) Life expectancy/ human resources – which are other critical factor in determining the capacity and productive output of the labor force and by extension the economy
On literacy/ educational standard, Nigerians from age 15 and above can read and write. The total population of literate people is 59.6% with an average of 69.2% male and 49.7% female.
When it comes to comparing Nigeria to world standards in literacy and human resource, the fact book awarded Nigeria 213 points, which is fairly ok.
And guess what? The pretty outlook on education is a result of the itinerant nature of the average Nigeria whose thirst for knowledge is so insatiable that you can find Nigerians in all nooks and crannies of the world studying-oftentimes even as remote as the war zone, Ukraine.
Let’s take a look at the second index which is Life expectancy/health care /human capital:
According to the CIA WORLD FACT BOOK, the average lifespan of a Nigerian male is 52 years, while that of the female is 54.3years.
Maternal mortality rate is another kettle of fish at 814/1000 births and infant mortality rate is put at 72.7deaths/1000 births which is abysmal.
This is unsurprising as govt expenditure on health is a lowly 3.9% of GDP and worryingly,
HIV deaths are put at 174,300-a discomforting and pretty grim picture.
When Nigerian healthcare conditions are compared to the world standard, Nigeria is alarmingly ascribed no 1, which are the bottom spot and the lowest rung of the ladder.
While the report on education is reasonable, the revelation that Nigeria is in the bottom of the pack in healthcare, is a depressing reflection of our broken health system and perhaps a justification for the medical trips to India and Israel for organ transplant etc.
To drive home my point about the great strides Nigeria had made by seeking education abroad, allow me quote from a New York Times, NYT article under the column WHAT DRIVES SUCCESS.
“Nigerians make up less than 1% of the black population in the United States, yet in 2013, nearly one quarter of black students at Harvard Business School, HBS were of Nigerian ancestry; over fourth of Nigerian-Americans have a graduate or professional degree, as compared with only 11% of whites”.
What’s more, it is some of these same people, who attend schools abroad that constitute the diaspora population, which the World Bank said, remitted a whopping $21 billion back home in 2015.
What the data above implies is that, although those who study abroad consume fx initially, they eventually end up generating fx for Nigeria in the long run when, as diaspora dwellers ,they remit funds back home, making allocation of fx for schooling abroad, a veritable investment with good return on investment, ROI.
Under the scenarios above, if l were the minister of education or minister of health, these are the hard facts that l would take to president Buhari to make the case for him to rethink his policy of sanctioning allocation of CBN funds to settle bills for education overseas and payment of medical bills of the infirm in our society, in foreign hospitals.
Fortunately, the job of the ministers would even be made easier as Mr President is not insulated from both issues as he has children schooling abroad and he, himself recently went on his first official vacation overseas and presumably used the opportunity to receive medical attention while in the UK.
Weighed against the dire situation in the health care sector and viewed from the backdrop of the unsavory condition in the education segment in Nigeria, would the cessation of the augmentation role played when Nigerians obtain education and Medicare abroad, not further exacerbate the already precarious condition?
If the policy of exempting education and health care from official sources of fx is implemented to stem the tide of fx outflow which is perhaps being abused through arbitrary allocation, president Buhari may be killing corruption, but something else our president may be killing, albeit inadvertently, would be knowledge/ literacy.
By that policy, Mr President might also be vicariously, sending Nigerians who need special medical care, like heart transplant in health facilities abroad, to their early graves.
Conventionally, a product or service is barred from being obtained abroad when capacity has been developed locally but in this case, facts on the ground clearly indicate that local capacity for robust education and special health care facilities are lacking.
It’s too difficult to overstate the strategic importance of a knowledgeable and healthy populace viz-a-viz- economic development, but suffice it to say that those two elements are highly critical and germane for a society to flourish.
Clearly, Mr President’s decision to de-prioritize the procurement of education and healthcare abroad is informed by current paucity of FX, but given the critical role that knowledgeable and healthy populace can play in socioeconomic development of any nation , does President Buhari want to turn the entire nation of Nigeria into a country of ignoramus? Perhaps, the popular wise crack “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance” may jolt Mr President into reversing the proposal because barring overseas students from accessing FX for school fees will dramatically reduce our current CIA World Fact Book rating in literacy which is currently nearly 70%.
Considering the visible consequences of lack of education as basis for people becoming susceptible to recruitment by terrorist groups like Boko haram in the north east; militancy in the Niger delta; OPC in south west and IPOB and MASSOB in south east, would Nigeria not descend into a jungle of sorts in the next decade, if folks are not offered access to official fx sources to fund overseas education and obtain lifesaving Medicare abroad?
This is more so as more often than not our local higher institutions are unable to absorb our army of youths graduating from secondary schools and vying for places without luck in our universities and polytechnics. We have to factor in the reality that the spill over is usually absorbed by school overseas. At costs, most parents and students can’t afford that alternative.
The irony in all of this is that president Buhari’s proposition is a case of the chicken and the egg, which one comes first. This derived from the fact that in the long term, an uneducated and sick populace, which the policy would breed, would negatively impact the economy as investors would not touch a country with such uninspiring demography with a badge pole. This would negate Mr President’s good intention of saving FX to help lift up the economy.
Take the nation of Haiti, where the society is ravaged by poverty, education is low and healthcare is poor, for instance. Investors know where Haiti is, but none wants to invest there.
Conversely, a country with highly educated, skilled and healthy workforce like Georgia has been attracting investors that have been promoting industries, leveraging on the productive workforce to make goods in the economy to satisfy local demand and export, an environment and condition which Mr President is seeking in Nigeria.
Another good example is Japan in Far East Asia. While she has the capital and skill, the nation lacks virile workforce due to her aging populace.
Keep in mind that youths constitute the critical workforce in any economy and since there is massive decline in the number of youths, the Japanese economy can’t grow and therefore suffering from what economists refer to as stagflation.
Added to the foregoing is that owing to the very high quality of living of the average Japanese , life expectancy could be as high as 80-87 years compared to that of an average Nigerian, which is a lowly 52-54 years.
If the average Nigerian has no access to Medicare abroad, life expectancy could further drop and Nigeria health rating would drop from one, 1 to zero, o.
Same situation applies to Germany in Europe, where a rapidly aging society could slow down growth, but Germans are taking advantage of the European migration situation arising from the Syrian war to strengthen her workforce by admitting over one million refugees since the migration crisis began last year. This is due to the fact that a virile and active workforce matters in economic development.
There are those who would argue that the only reason Nigerians send their kids abroad for education is due to the dilapidated state of our education system. That may be part of the reasons some low income parents send kids to Ghana, Benin Republic etc but it’s not applicable to those going to Europe or USA, who do so for the higher standards of education obtainable in those advanced societies owing to the inherent cutting edge technology and learning environment existent there.
That perhaps explains why the largest number of foreigners in American universities is the Chinese and Koreans, despite the fact that Confucius, one of the purveyors of civilization is from China. Apparently, Asian leaders recognize that Western education is critical to the development of their countries much more than some of our recent leaders hence they go in droves to the West to acquire education.
Lee Kwan Yew (product of Western education), the former president and father of modern day Singapore, had a deliberate policy of sending that country’s young men and women with leadership potentials to schools in England and USA to acquire the acumen required to sustain the phenomenal development of the small Asian island country that he leap frogged from third world to first world, in barely two decades.
Perhaps, it needs pointing out also that over fifty, 50 million Americans have no health insurance and therefore embark on medical tourism to India or Israel where treatment for ailments like heart transplant is about 30% cheaper. So even the almighty Americans, also do venture outside the USA for Medicare. Although the USA has one of the best educational systems in the world, Americans also go to Europe for education as well.
Compare and contrast Nigeria’s proposed policy on education and health to the other climes that l mentioned and you will see how myopic the proposal to ban students going to school abroad from sourcing fx from CBN, would be if implemented.
Overall, the take away from this conversation is that economies that have a workforce with good education and sound healthcare service are the best candidates for foreign direct investment. So a policy that discourages rather than encourages the growth and development of her workforce by denying her citizens of opportunity to gain global cutting edge education and excellent health care, abroad is doomed.
A case could also be made that primary education and healthcare would not be adversely affected by the barring of official FX sources for school fees and medical treatment abroad.
That may appear to be so, but in fact, primary education and local medical care may not be affected directly, however indirectly, education and health care at all levels would be affected, since both educational and health institutions in Nigeria, would ultimately have the need to send educationists and health practitioners abroad to further hone their skills and broaden their scopes, including acquisition of doctoral degrees in line with international best practice.
Furthermore, would the denial of access to FX from CBN also apply to overseas training for members of the armed forces and civil servants for professional training and courses?
If yes, would that not also diminish the potency of Nigerian armed forces and render our military uncompetitive and if no, would it not amount to double standards? What happens to our nation’s quest for a well-trained civil service capable of delivering excellent services that would surpass the current standard whereby they have become famous for ‘padding’ budgets? Are efficient and effective bureaucracies, as embodied by the military and civil servants, not a sine-qua-non for leapfrogging our economy?
These are questions that Mr President must mull over in order to arrive at an optimal decision to bar or not to bar education and Medicare abroad from official CBN FX source.
I share president Buhari’s anxiety as he ruminates over how to conserve and apportion the meager fx left in our vaults and figure out the best option to adopt in order to prioritize development, nevertheless, Nigeria may be in grave danger if Mr president proceeds with the policy that may appear to help in the short term, but would certainly hurt in the long run.
According to Bruce H. Lipton, an American developmental biologist best known for promoting the idea that genes and DNA can be manipulated by a person’s belief, “Your perspective is always limited by how much you know. Expand your knowledge and you will transform your minds”.
So the national assembly, NASS responsible for making laws, should weigh in with a view to thoroughly debating the proposed initiative to identify the merits and demerits of this policy that could throw erstwhile knowledgeable and vibrant people into the abyss of ignorance, disease and shorter lifespan.
Certainly, president Buhari is conscious of the fact that he was elected president & commander-In-Chief to take Nigeria to greater heights and not to be the Undertaker-In-Chief, who would literarily bury Nigeria, literacy and health wise.
Magnus Onyibe, a development strategist and futurologist is a former commissioner in Delta state govt and an alumnus of Fletcher School of Law And Diplomacy, Medford Massachusetts, USA, sent this piece from Lagos.