Rising discontent over the negative impacts of President Bola Tinubu’s economic reforms shows the failure of his palliative measures, writes Bolaji Adebiyi
Like alcohol, sports, especially football have the special distinction of offering relief in times of distress. If anyone is in doubt, the ongoing biennial African Cup of Nations ought to have cleared that doubt. With the nation’s Super Eagles in the competition, attention has turned away from the difficulties at home. On Wednesday evening, major streets of the country were filled with jubilant Nigerians who celebrated the 4-2 penalty victory of the William Troost-Ekong-led national team over the Bafana Bafana of South Africa.
Days before the competition was flagged off in Abidjan, the capital of Cote d’Ivoire, the talk in town was that of hunger in the belly of many Nigerians who groaned under the harsh conditions the economic reforms of the President Bola Tinubu administration had engendered. Last weekend matters came to a boil as protesters occupied the streets of Minna and Kano, capitals of Niger and Kano States, over rising food prices.
The finals of the competition come up on Sunday. It promises to engage the attention of Nigerians for more weeks to come, particularly if Nigeria wins against fellow finalists, Cote d’Ivoire. But events earlier in the week threatened to checkmate the distraction and quickly return the nation to the substantive issue of the biting impacts of Tinubu’s economic reforms. Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party in the 2023 general election had criticized Tinubu for not cushioning the negative effects of his reform policies, contending in a statement on Sunday that the president’s poor response to the nation’s challenges had set the stage for prolonged and deeper economic crisis.
Abubakar had been immediately rebuked by Bayo Onanuga, presidential adviser on Information and Strategy, for spreading half-truths, arguing that the former vice-president, who he said had turned himself into opposition-in-chief, failed to take cognizance of the efforts of the Tinubu administration to turn the economy around the corner. He said the administration had embarked on comprehensive fiscal and tax policy reforms that would drive speedy recovery and spur economic growth, adding that its detractors could not stop the serious work of nation-building already set in motion by Tinubu.
Atiku’s searing attacks on Tinubu’s reforms would soon become all the ruling All Progressives Congress needed to accuse the opposition parties and their leaders as the instigators of the protests in Minna and Kano. Not a few public policy watchers thought the APC reaction to the protests and widespread complaints against the rising hardships in the polity was an infantile subterfuge. How could it not have recognised that the unintended but foreseen consequences of the economic reforms were ravaging the majority of the people who have become increasingly unable to meet their basic needs?
The APC might have misfired, not the president, who recognising the dire implications of the growing resentments around town, had directed his Chief of Staff, Femi Gbajabiamila, to gather senior government officials directly in charge of handling the economy to review the situation. So, on Monday evening, Olawale Edun, minister of Finance and Co-ordinating minister for the Economy; Abubakar Bagudu, minister for Budget and Economic Planning; Olayemi Cardoso, governor of the Central Bank; Abubakar Kyari, minister of Agriculture, and his deputy, Sabi Abdullahi; Tahir Mamman, minister of Education; Mohammed Idris, minister of Information and National Orientation; and Nuhu Ribadu, national security adviser, meet at the Presidential Villa to ruminate over the growing discontent among the populace.
Emerging from the meeting, Idris said: “The government is very concerned about what Nigerians are going through, especially what happened in Minna yesterday, and, therefore, the government is taking some action to ensure that Nigerians have some relief in terms of the availability of food on the table.” Nothing new you might say even as his colleagues, who were also summoned by the House of Representatives, toed a similar path.
Answering queries from the House on Tuesday, Edun, Bagudu, Cardoso, and Zacchaeus Adedeji, chairman of the Federal Internal Revenue Service, said Tinubu was making spirited efforts to alleviate the suffering of the people, contending that the reforms were like a corrective surgery which was bound to attract post-surgical pains. Specifically, Edun said Nigeria was economically far better than it was on 29 May 2023, noting that the country at that time had expenditures that were wasteful and unsustainable. In turning back from that road, he pointed out, there would be dust. According to him, bold measures had been taken by the president, explaining that the gains would soon manifest even as he told the federal legislators that more palliatives and more succour were coming to augment the rising cost of living.
Bagudu, who has the responsibility for packaging the federal budget and monitoring its implementation as well as economic planning, struck a similar chord. The 2024 budget, he said, had moved the country on the right trajectory of growth with an increased emphasis on infrastructure, explaining that the estimates devote 39 per cent to capital expenditure. He told the federal lawmakers that special attention was also paid to health and education which were the enablers of growth, adding that agriculture funding had increased. He explained further that the coordinating mechanism put in place under the Minister of Finance gave confidence that Nigeria would deliver on the 2024 budget to overcome the challenges of the moment and come up with the economic growth that will carry everyone along.
These remain essentially messages of hope from the ministers of the president. It is expected. However, the substantive issue many Nigerians are grappling with is when the hope will materialise. Nigerians are understandably tired of messages of hope from their leaders and want concrete results. Recognising the hardships in the land, Tinubu in a nationwide broadcast late in July last year rolled out a series of short-term measures aimed at ameliorating the pains of his economic reforms. It included releasing 200,000 MT of grains for households; 225,000 MT of fertiliser and N200 billion for farmers to cultivate maize, rice, wheat, and cassava; N75 billion for 100,000 MSMEs; N50 billion for Nano businesses; N75 billion for manufacturers; and N100 billion for 3,000 gas-powered buses.
The widespread complaints in the land make it apparent that it is either these measures were not implemented or that they had become largely ineffective. They were bound to hit a brick wall anyway, given that they were incapable of any significant impact without their replication by the 36 states and the FCT, including their 774 local councils. Nigerians are aware that the removal of the petrol subsidy has accrued massive fresh funds to the coffers of the federal, state, and local governments. But they are amazed that the extra funds have had no positive impacts on their lives. That is what has led to rising street protests.
Adebiyi, the executive editor of Western Post, is a member of the Editorial Board of THISDAY Newspapers