Our President’s Love Affair With The IMF

Our President’s Love Affair With The IMF

By Lasisi Olagunju,

 

A colleague yesterday shared a 1992 campaign video of Chief M.K.O. Abiola promising to demystify governance in Nigeria and stop “people’s heads” from being “shaved in their absence.” A professor friend (political scientist) commented that “that’s partly why he never became president.”

 

Becoming president or king comes with a price. When ‘The Price of Kings’, a political documentary on Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, was released in 2011, the Financial Times titled its review of the film: ‘All about the art of compromise’. The reviewer describes the film as a portrait of leadership; he talks about “years of gritty compromise and the abandonment of previously held principles.” He goes on to ask: “What sacrifices would you make for what you believe in? What, in other words, is the collateral damage, personal and political, of statesmanship?”

 

In January 2012, today’s President Bola Tinubu as opposition leader rallied his economists and got them to tell him the implication of fuel subsidy removal. They wrote it for him. He read it and liked it; he signed it and put his name on it. Conscious of the verdict of history, of posterity, and for emphasis, he got it published – one and a half pages – in his newspaper, The Nation of January 11, 2012. Check the newspaper’s pages 43 and 44. The grim summary of Tinubu’s economists’ damning opinion was that if petrol subsidy was withdrawn in Nigeria, the poor would stop breathing and the rich would suffer. The prophets’ exact words are that “there will be less food, less medicine, and less school across the land. More children will cry in hunger and more parents will cry at their children’s despair…. Poor and middle class consumers will spend the same amount to buy much less. The volume of economic activity will drop like a stone tossed from a high building.”

 

Eleven years after what has turned out to be an accurate reading of the future, the man who signed the prophecy became president and proceeded to feed to the nation what he had pronounced as poison. A minute after swearing an oath to work for the welfare of the people, Tinubu became a victim of his own prophecy. What happened? You think he did not know the implication of ignoring his seers? He did. Was it sheer self-destructive wickedness? Again, I say no. So, why? The truth is election alone does not make a president here. Our presidency is by election and affirmation. Our votes are subject to affirmation by the kingmakers in London and Washington. The principal does not appoint an agent so that the agent would be master of himself. As opposition leader, Tinubu could independently hire economic advisers who told him the truth. As president, he cannot and dare not choose advisers whose views are at variance with the kingmakers’. The president is endorsed to act strictly the script as given to him by the film director. The script writers are the choice makers. They are the double ‘monsters’ headquartered on Pennsylvania Avenue and H Street, Washington DC.

 

Mr. Femi Falana, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, last week asked President Tinubu to stop obeying the IMF. He asked the president to reject IMF’s latest advice asking him to further increase the prices of fuel and electricity in Nigeria. Falana will not get a response from the president; the presidency will ignore him. The Senior Advocate ought to know better. The Nigerian government cannot glare down behemoths who hold the knob of life. No poor president has ditched the IMF and the World Bank and slept well since the two were born in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in 1944. If you know you won’t sleep with them, do not take their money – and power. If you can’t run errands, never apply and accept to work for them. The presidency of Nigeria is not a detached power house; it is some people’s gate house.

 

Falana in his intervention wondered why the IMF kept quiet when the British government, last year, paid almost 40 billion pounds ($50 billion) in energy subsidies. He asked why the United States’ doubled its subsidies for renewable energy from $7.4 billion in 2016 to $15.6 billion in 2022. He wondered why the IMF did not ask these countries to stop what they were doing with subsidies. Falana noted that the French government had announced that it would continue to subsidise electricity bills into 2025. Falana said: “The IMF has not called on France to stop subsidising electricity and increase electricity tariffs. So, the IMF’s anti-subsidy campaign in Nigeria should be flatly rejected.”

 

Tinubu cannot obey Falana and disobey the IMF and its brother, the World Bank. If he tells them no, he will pay. Whatever the earthworm tells the ground is what the ground does. The president is the ground, the Bretton Woods are the earthworm. There is an old video of President Olusegun Obasanjo saying his Central Bank governor, Charles Soludo, “was not really a fan of the World Bank” and was always showing it in words and deeds. The president said he, one day, warned Soludo: “never you say no to the World Bank; otherwise, they will rub your face on the ground – but never you do their bidding.” That is how tough it is – say yes without doing yes. Either way, you will pay.

 

Shaving people’s heads in their absence is the simple meaning of international politics and global finance. Two of the barbers – the ‘head cutters’ – are the IMF and the World Bank. They are the ones we are asking this president to disobey. The man knows why he is putting his feet where he is directed to put them. If he does not, to which god will he run when trouble comes? But he is wrong. Why has he not read what became of those who did what he is doing? He should read BBC’s Budget Blunders, UK’s ‘Dash for Growth’ budget of 1972/73, the 1976 Pound Sterling crisis, the tragedy of Keynesian measures and IMF’s involvement.

 

Before this Tinubu, there was a Tinubu in Lagos who made and unmade kings in that city. Lagos of the mid-19th century belonged to big boys from the colonial office, rich returning slaves and a few homegrown wealthy merchants. Madam Efunroye Tinubu not only belonged to the latter group; she literally had the balls of everyone in her firm grip. She was the female, local version of the 16th Earl of Warwick, the overbearing power and property baron “who carved out a position for himself by the strength of his sword.” This Earl had neither the authority nor the right to raise or depose kings” but he did both with cruel equanimity. He did, and P. C. Dharma gives him a generous mention in her 1947 article on ‘Kingmakers of India.’ Madam Tinubu was exactly the Earl in Lagos of the mid-1880s, an arbiter of royal and economic powers. Bold, courageous, no-nonsense, ruthless, her history in Lagos and, later in Abeokuta, is about making kings and using kings. The ones who demurred, who raised objections or showed reluctance, suffered loss of crown and scepter.

 

Falana asked why the two finance institutions are not giving first world countries the same drugs they are prescribing for us. I think I can answer that question. Small gods do not teach Sango how to inflict maximum damage. Besides, chief priests of the sacred grove are beyond the canes of masquerades. The masqueraders who tried that in the past lost their costumes. I use Madam Tinubu again here to illustrate this. The lady without means transited from poverty in Abeokuta to power and wealth in Lagos. Tinubu was made very rich by the colonial economic system. She was very useful to the government and the business community. She traded in men and goods for her profit and for the good of the powers-that-be. She made very good money. She loved and coveted the white man’s trade and riches but later detested the meddlesomeness of the alien in Lagos affairs. She started plotting the downfall of the masters. The first was in January 1855; it failed. The second was in March 1855. The grand plan was to expel or neutralize all the European merchants in Lagos. The plot was called off, last minute, because two British warships showed up fortuitously in Lagos waters. A deadly disturbance two months later got the British to expel Madam Tinubu from Lagos, never to come back.

 

No one on the mountain top desires such a fall. ‘Expulsion from Lagos’ is the title of the chapter that tells this part of Madam Tinubu’s epic story in her biography ‘Madam Tinubu: Merchant and Kingmaker’ by Oladipo Yemitan. I read it (starting from page 54) and thought the woman who later rose again and became the first Iyalode of Egba got what he gave her victims. Her boat met every furious tide with fury. The intrigues, the shifting and shifty loyalties on those pages present good lessons in compromise and consequences.

 

We will be asking our president to hate himself if we insist he must spurn the orders of those that give life to his government. If we would ask anyone to say no to the IMF, it would not be this president. His bones are weak; we should leave him alone. Why can’t we make the rejection by ourselves? The Yoruba say a man uses his own mouth to reject a meal. They also say no one begs another into slavery. Everywhere the Bretton Woods have been successfully glared down and shown to be dumb, it has been the people themselves who did so. But we are not normal people. We always look for king-size heads to help us break our coconuts. If we can’t find one, we simply withdraw into our prayer houses and intensify supplications for ‘divine intervention.’

 

Normal babies cry at the sight of injections. There is a trending WhatsApp video that shows an unbelievably calm baby while being inoculated. With that video is a caption mocking how we suffer pain here without crying. The baby betrayed neither pain nor anxiety. That baby is Nigeria and its long-suffering people. We take and endure knocks and, like Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist in the workhouse, we ask for more. American abolitionist and fiery anti-slavery orator, Frederick Douglass, in August 1857 warned that the extent tyrants go is set “by the endurance of those they oppress.” Douglass added that victims of power would be hunted in the north and flogged in the south “so long as they…make no resistance, either moral or physical.”

 

For millions of my countrymen, life is literally nasty, brutish and short. Every home sobs. Rice was N70,000 per bag last week. This week opened with rice becoming N80,000. Cement sold for N10,000 per 50kg bag on Friday. Naira slid to N1,700/dollar at the weekend. Our minimum wage of N30,000 equals $17. How did we get here after the experience of previous disasters? The IMF gave us some prescriptions some forty years ago. The calcifying effects are still in our blood system. In 2023/2024, that same Doctor Death came back into our embrace. Ola Rotimi wrote ‘Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again’. Why should people’s head go bad more than once? Madness and insanity are synonyms. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Frank Wilczek, theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States and 2004 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, examined that quote and called it the “Einstein Insanity”— because the quote is attributed to Albert Einstein. Einstein was that thinker who held that if we are not insane, we should be able to predict the consequences of our actions. He was the physicist who believed that human stupidity is one of the two infinite things in the world. He refused to accept that the world is inherently unpredictable. He strengthened his argument with a sound bite from the celestial: “God does not play dice with the universe.” But, here, we are being ruled by dice players – poor players; people who roll the dice, and roll it again – and again, because the results they expect are not what they get. What they do with Nigeria is what my childhood called tokíní tokéjì. They use the people to play Baba Ijebu; they bet with people’s destiny.

 

Amid all these came from the north last week a regional threat to the president by traditional and religious leaders. They said their people were hungry and restive and that they could no longer control them. Every sentence they uttered sounded like a threat of Armageddon. Their concern would have carried weight if the shouters had done so when their Muhammadu Buhari was in power and was messing up everyone, everything, everywhere. But they maintained complicit quietude and passivity when their evil reigned. Because of their past of unholy silence, their present angst could not resonate with the street in the south. I saw and heard people mocking these northern leaders and their groans. They lost it. Ironically, the Yoruba content of the south is working hard to follow that same road of vicarious infamy. There is an insidious, invidious campaign for indifference going on. I was called “a perennially sulky bad boy” last week by a gentleman who claims to be a ‘Yoruba leader.’ That was because I had the audacity to speak about hunger and pain in the land. The ‘Yoruba leader’ thought Yoruba brotherhood with the president should have stitched my mouth. I thought if he was truly Yoruba, he would be familiar with the causal relationship between criminal, idiotic silence and a bad head.

 

The rain has not stopped; nobody should say that it is not as heavy as yesterday’s downpour. Things may still get worse. Today, staying at home is hot as hell and there is no safety on the road. It is the perfect Yoruba situation of Ilé ò gbàá, ònà ò gbàá (the home rejects him, the road won’t accept him). Uproars daily follow naira’s death by installment. We sob as if we do not know that the illness that won’t heal will kill. Unfortunately, you feel pain only if you wear the shoes. Those assembled by Tinubu to halt the drift do not have their wealth in weakness. Every fall of the naira swells their bùgá. But they may be wrong. My political economics teacher told me that the way these things are going, every soul in this ship is in danger. He said life vests won’t help and escape boats may be useless.

 

(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 19 February, 2024)

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