WEDNESDAY COLUMN by USSIJU MEDANER
This week, I will commence a random touch of issues that define the year 2020 for Nigeria. From the pandemic’s ravaging influences, to the economic downturn and food shortages taking their hardest toll on the citizens, to the banking institution’s non-relentlessness to illegally optimise its takes from the citizen customers as the watchdogs look the other way, to the insecurities that has suddenly resumed it veracity across the country despite the government’s sincerity and relentless responses to the nation security challenges, among several other issues.
In the annals of history of times and events, the year 2020 will be remembered for its uneven richness in the mix of positive and negative events and activities. Not just for Nigeria but every nation of the world. The great beginning that became interrupted and replaced with the plague of COVID-19 that without excuse affected all facets of national and individual existences, leading to the struggles of nations and citizens with economic, health and existential afflictions that have crippled virtually all common activities and brought untold hardship to all across the board.
Here in Nigeria, a year that seemed to have started on the good side for many reasons took a turn for the negative due to the uncontrollable events, a season and year of struggling with the course of protecting the nation against the global invasion of coronavirus and the consequences of the plague invasion. The nation’s macroeconomy was brought to its knees when all businesses were forcefully grounded as a panacea to disrupt the spread of the virus within the nation as nationwide lockdowns bit hard on all; human and systems alike. The nation’s macroeconomy received the hardest bite as national income dwindles as a consequent of abject termination of international businesses and deals, inclusive of sharp drop in the demand for crude oil and its price in the international market, in response to the massive drop in demand by populations under lockdowns across the globe.
The gain we thought we were about to start harvesting from the conscious deregulation policy by the present Administration in the oil and gas industry was not surfacing any longer as the nation’s capacity to sustain the policy, without jeopardising the incontestable capital needs of the national economy was also no longer reconcilable. The meeting of the year’s in and out recurrent national expenditures while we struggle not to totally ignore the delivery of capital projects across the country with oil production and market availability for the country fell to critical levels – enough to spell doom for the country as price per barrel fell and stagnating between $20 and $45, the year round. The country, more or less, has become economically incapacitated, and for the better part of the year, struggles to avert crumbling into yet another recession, which we eventually have to face.
While the nation was crumbling under lockdown, all available national resources were mandatorily diverted to fight the war against the virus invasion, at the expense of the year budget plan and allocations to projects and services. While critics and rambling haters of the Administration prefer not to either understand or accept the precarious position of the government, both economically and in plans to reset the country to accommodate the unplanned emergence of the virus and its consequences, the ability of the government to focus was equally hampered by the recurrent attacks and propagandas from the oppositions and sullen elements of the society.
Either it was difficult for the opposition elements to recognise that Nigeria was not alone in the struggle for survival during the year or they are irreversibly programmed to ignore reality while perpetrating their ferocious attacks on the government and its activities. They fail to realise it was the same year that brought great nations to their knees and expose the limitations we never could believe they possess. They prefer not to realise that the year 2020 is the same year that Saudi Arabia, a nation credited for its massive citizens’ social services was forced to temporarily reassessed and suspended some of its most citizens-friendly policies; the nation raised its value added tax (VAT) by exactly 300 percent and terminated the payment of monthly allowances to a large number of its non-engaged citizens and even retired benefits to a large number of its military personnel; the same year that the almighty America could not afford to bail out its citizens after the first bailout and the prolonged effect of the COVID-19 pandemic; the same year that India went into recession for the first time in about 80 years; the same year that most developed nation pretend to remain stronger – though sensible – by continuous suppressing the emergence of recession in their economies by bailing out businesses and companies repeatedly and mitigating the consequences of unemployment and lockdown on their citizens via payment of survival stipends.
In the area of food security, in the last five years, the country began a progressive but determined process to become self-sufficient in major staple food production; the rice revolution was kick-started followed by national border lockup to stem the incidences of food smuggling into the country. Farmers were organised, accessible loans and supports given. The same was applicable to farming of several other crops, locally planted and refined rice was becoming the toast of the market, while we were patiently waiting for the forces that will bring down the price with increased production across the country, but the year 2020 came with a tornado that disrupted the flow and expectation and threatened the progress of the gains literarily until it began to appear as if the well-thought out decision were bad judgments. The factors were multiple; insecurity began rearing its ugly head again despite the massive efforts of the government over the years and gradually destabilised the farming communities, making farming a difficult task and harvest as dangerous as it becomes. But not limited to that, COVID-19 eruption in more ways than we could understand has disrupted the farming season and taken its toll on the food availability in the country, not to mention the consequences of flooding on most crops and the quantity of harvest. We ended up seeing prices of foods skyrocketing at a time when citizens are already struggling with survival at the back of the long lockdown and global share of economic woes.
Year 2020 does appear cursed for Nigeria specifically. After a long season of lockdown and appearance of what looked like a careful return to normalcy; when we mostly thought the country could begin the long shot at recuperating, the next episode of danger struck and hell was let loose on the country once again. Some said the ENDSARS protest could not have come at any better time; that the nation needed the wakeup reaction to straighten up. Some were more opined that the youths have had enough and have risen to demand for changes, but realistically, taking into consideration the construction of the entire episodes of the protest that engulfed the country over the period it lasted, it is the nation that has yet suffered. The supposed spontaneous and peaceful protest that left hundreds dead from acts of violence perpetrated by protesters, the destruction of public properties to the tune of billions, prison breaks and increased segmentation of the country along ethnic lines as consequence of the protest, bear the appearance, to me, that the entire protest was a carefully orchestrated attempt at a coup. It got the brains, the plan, the goals, the resources and the human tools found in willing youths that prioritised material and financial gains over the safety and integrity of their country; all, being elements of carefully orchestrated attempts at toppling a constitutional order of administration. The perceived champions of the youth population cashed out – big time – at the expense of their population to register an episode of events that negatively define the year 2020 for Nigeria.
The ASUU and government impasse has also become a dent on the country in the year under review. Though perennial and recurring, the baseless demand by the university lecturers’ union to determine how their employer pays them possesses all the elements of a society where the strength of the complaints, regardless, could force the hand of the government in unexpected directions. In a normal setting, what is always at stake and debatable is the regularity and the quantity of the wage the employees receive and never the employees’ choice of the channel of delivering the remuneration. It is absurd, and remains confusing how the decision of the government to block well-known corruption in the payment schedules of its employees on the university payroll by engaging a platform it has used in other sectors effectively, to be rejected by the lecturers’ association; yet keeps getting from the society, enough to grow wings to keep the mass of students at home till this moment since the last nine months. So it has been registered that Nigeria universities were non-operational for the whole of 2020 and the students were abandoned, left to roam the street for the whole year while ASSU and the government play (bad) chess with the negotiation on the table.
The nation’s economy could not have fared better than it did in the course of the year, considering the unexpected, but the obvious negative effects were suffered by the citizens because the banking system more than ever was more interested in profiting from the calamity of the season. The year saw an internal uprising against the banking system and institution in the country with continuous manipulations of the system and monetary transactions of the citizens by the banks and operators of the banking institution in Nigeria despite the ongoing hardship in the country. The continuous prioritising of corporate profit optimisation over consideration for the economic welfare of the citizens and contribution to national economic growth by the banks erodes the consciousness that the desired development of the country is hugely connected with the proper functioning of the banking sector. More than ever, the year saw more erosion of customers’ trust in the banks, due to the banks’ failure to recognise the supremacy of customers and the continuous need for conscious customer satisfaction as the anchor of their service rendering policies. Rather than creating funds for real time investment at bearable interest rates, considering the criticality of the year, the institution more than ever drawdown business growth and industrialisation by the apparent conscious, deceptive and unscrupulous extortion of the citizen customers via ridiculous illegal charges and repeated surcharges – charging unexplainable multiple charges and deductions on electronic services and deposits far beyond the morally reasonable and legally allowable. In 2020, the unholy practices by the banks skyrocketed. ATM cardholders, for instance, are charged N65 per transaction and still charge for maintenance at the end of the month without fail. That is clearly a fraud; a case of double – if not tripple – charges, considering situations whereby a first transaction does not dispense cash, then, the banks go ahead to double charge such customers because the oversight system is not functioning and no one is truly checking such retail banking excesses. The CBN and the National Assembly are aware of this illegality and despite repeated probes of the regime of illegal charges and deductions from accounts of customers by banks, the practice only expanded in magnitude and severity in the course of the year 2020.
So left without enforced control, the Banks, with impunity, evolved and entrenched the culture of excess and arbitrary charges on their customers in the name of account turnover charges, stamp duties, SMS alert charges, interest on deposits, monthly maintenance charges, card renewal fees (even when you are not using ATM card), etc. Just recently, the charges of fifty naira stamp duties on bank deposits and transfer was declared illegal by a federal high Court sitting at Asaba in Delta state. Nigerians are hoping that the Central Bank will make public its regulations on charges and allowable deductions on all forms of Banking transactions to allow every Banking service consumer the chance to consult the document and know exactly what debit alert they would receive from the Banks at designated period. If we can get to this point in Bank customer interaction, then it would become possible to get the Banks to explain origins of unexpected charges and guarantee that the impunity of the Banks making decisions unilaterally on customers’ deposits without the latter’s consent would no longer suffice.
Then back to COVID-19 and its veracity, the very fundamentals of our individual and corporate existences were shaken in the year 2020. A track of the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic on Nigeria and Nigerians reveal a nation that is hit hard not only by the spread of the virus but more importantly by the associated decline in the price of crude oil, which left the government laden with the huge challenge of managing the evolved multifaceted crisis in the midst of a very weakened economy. Unemployment has rachetted yet massive loss of household incomes; 42 percent of all job losses were traced directly to the pandemic, with commerce, service and the agricultural sector hit hardest. The nation declared a federally mandated lockdown sometime in April, going along with several other safety practices and remained in lock until the last days of July.
Parents were forced to close shops and out of work, dampening their access to regular incomes, while at the same time their wards and children were returned home as part of policy decisions to fight the pandemic. Demands for daily consumable rose in the face of diminished income and just a one time aid from the government in most cases; tertiary institutions were on the lockdown and their students joined the littering at home, increasing the loads on parents. On the part of the government, investment in building, equipping and administering isolation centers across the country became sacrosanct in the course of the year; and the need to ameliorate the financial tension and the struggle for survival of the citizens called for the need for acquisition and distribution of palliatives and other aids to the citizens. It is a long year, one in which the citizens’ response to the pandemic grew from fear to acceptance and then to disdain, when they began to show open readiness to defy slated control measures and not minding contracting the virus. That was the time and the beginning of the season in our dealings with the pandemic, when we began to prefer getting the virus to dying of hunger under the lockdown regime. Despite increasing daily hospitalisation and deaths, Nigerians, on social media and on the streets became rebellious defying the veracity of the pandemic, accusing the government of manipulating the figures and news to create fears and corruptly embezzle funds. We wanted out of lockdown when it was not safe to do so and eventually forced the hand of the government to succumb to pressure to open up the country. now as the year ends, the pandemic that has ravaged our lives and economy, killing hundreds of our citizens and has already gulped trillions in government spending is hardly publicly spoken about, even when the hospitalisation figure is on the rise and we are still recording daily deaths; even as the government begin to mull the reopening of all closed isolation centers. Summarily, the citizens’ failure to agree with the government’s handling of the pandemic, compounded with the media choice of biased reporting on the issue has and would remain the height of the nation’s failure in its response to the global pandemic of 2020.
Another high of the Nigeria issues in the year 2020 is the media complicity in the many negatives that have shaped the year in question. Just like every other years and seasons and without consideration for the criticality of the year in question, the media went on with their usual sensational reporting of issues; careless of consequences, and abandoning the sacred ethics of investigative journalism, the airways, the print and social media became littered with sensational news that were rarely confirmed to be genuine or not. Mostly, words of mouth and third persons – with no known credibility – narrative of events were picked and given colouration that agree with pre-assumed narratives and more importantly sell. There seems to exist no limit to the topics and issues that are being taken advantages of: the veracity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the structure of the government responses to the health and economic challenges, national perennial ethnic and religious division, and more worrisome, the erupted ENDSARS saga. It got to the point that the insensitivity of the Nigeria media platforms gave wings to certain foreign media houses to descend heavily but wrongly on the nation via the crafting of a wrong perception of the country with the ENDSARS protest.
The year review will not be completed without an introduction to the evolving and much talked about insecurity in the country. Coming into 2020, we thought we were already rounding the corner as far as insecurity is concerned in the country. Government offensive had by all standards cornered the Boko Haram sect reducing them to carrying out only clandestine operations that are easily checked by the nation’s security apparatus. Though rural banditry was not uncommon, but moderately under control. The year however has turned around to witness an increased surge in reported insecurities; kidnapping across the entire states of the country, banditry in the northern region, renewed insurgency in the Northeast and a number of other petty crimes that constitute insecurity of lives and properties to Nigerians. Perhaps, there is a correlation between the economic hardship orchestrated by the pandemic or maybe the relentless decision of certain politicians to heat up the country relentlessly until they climb on the back of unrest to power constitute the forces behind the insecurities. Whatever, while attempts will be made to expand this in subsequent writings, the year 2020, despite the efforts of the federal government, has been soiled by the blood of Nigerians.