Driving into 2022, By Uddin Ifeanyi

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Traffic in Lagos, last week, was a lot heavier than normal. It did not help that a lot of the traffic lights only recently installed at the major intersections on my route have long stopped working. Nor that overworked, understaffed, and poorly remunerated traffic wardens are wont to take time off at peak periods. Yet, the traffic was not unusual for this time of the year. In the run up to every year-end, all the vehicles in Lagos pile unto the roads, creating logjams that only begin to ease in the first week of the new year. Last minute shopping is held to be the culprit for this, along with the fact that like lemmings, shoppers head to a single location in central Lagos.

As with most such milestones, especially ones that recur, each episode of being stuck in this traffic is as full of nostalgia as it is replete with troubling details. I had occasion last week to remember a time, not too long ago, when Nigeria was much better than what it is today. Power supply from the mains was no less epileptic. Nor were the roads less cratered. But I took long walks and cycled outside of my gated community without fear of being mugged or kidnapped. My annual vacation saw me do the 300km+ to Ilorin every August. Travel time was not half as bad, nor the threat to life and property this elevated.

All of which is unfortunate. For, on the cusp of a New Year, looking on, as it were from a hilltop, at what tomorrow brings, it is hard to see things getting any better soon. Despite the central government’s rhetoric around its achievements, businesses are reducing the number of shifts they run, when that is they are not shutting shop completely. In a very graphic illustration of the notion of a vicious cycle, the resulting worsening of the economy’s unemployment numbers is a direct consequence of falling final demand. As workers lose their jobs, they, in turn, buy fewer of the stuff they bought previously, that is when they have not stopped buying the stuff altogether. Businesses in response, ratchet down their production of goods and services to meet the drop-off in demand. Add to this mix, the effect of rising prices on demand, and the feed back loop could not be more negative.

It would have helped the design of proper policy responses, if only we could agree on the causes of much of these problems. But so toxic has the tribal nature of our politics become that a large part of the electorate seems willing to exculpate the incumbent central government for its continued role in the immiseration of the country. Arguably, it inherited a chalice with cracks in it. But that the chalice would now be poisonous to its successors is self-evidently its own making. Irrespective of the preferred metric ― deteriorating security conditions or worsening economic ones ― the excuses for President Buhari do not wash. For the simple reason that both his predecessors and his successor could lean on the same extenuating circumstances.

Concerning 2022, then, two things matter. It is a year in which Nigeria will go to the polls to elect the successor to the Buhari administration. Evidently, that choice would be coloured by how voters read the constraints faced by the administration and how it went about optimising these. It is also the year in which the government has pledged to improve the structure of domestic incentives. By removing, for example, the subsidy on the pump-station price of petrol. At issue, here, is not so much that most Nigerians think such radical measures unlikely in an election year. Or that wags point out that given the rot in the public sector, the savings from the subsidy removal are far likelier to be misappropriated than used to drive improvements in domestic productivity. In other words we would simply be taking the punch bowl away from a set of thieves (in the private sector) and handing it over to a different set of banditti (this time around, in the public sector).

Far more critical to the debate over the country’s near- to medium-term outlook is the question: “Why did the central government put off reform this vital until its final year in office?”. The subsidiary questions around competence and economic nous that this raises are just as relevant in any discussion of how optimal its responses were to the problems posed by inflation, inadequate domestic investment, and the wildly fluctuating exchange rate of the naira.

Back-out the rose-tinted spectacles with which boosters of the Buhari government contemplate its achievements, and from my vantage last week, 2022 would not be much of an improvement on this year. In a sense, this outcome is increasingly par for the course. Every year, Nigeria’s fortune worsens, enough for some of us over the last 7 years to have recalled the years of Goodluck Jonathan’s extraordinarily incompetent rule wistfully. And enough 5 years from now for another set to look back with longing at today’s graces.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

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