Written SAM OMATSEYE
It is not the best of times that we hear of great economists. Things must go sour, money must fall, hunger must reel on the streets, companies must spin out of investment options, the very nation must gasp for breath.
Many believe we are grasping for solution, as the Naira cascades faster than we can keep up and inflation suffocates us out of our options to buy some even more basic things as food. It is a time like this that we have economists, fair or foul, who try to fetch us out of foul times.
The suggestions are legendary. Raise the value of the naira. Reduce the worth of the currency. Leave it, let it float. Shut down the borders. Import rice. Ban rice imports. No, how can we survive without rice? So open the borders. Pump money into the economy. Be careful about that, or inflation will drown us? Have you heard of the American experience with stagflation? Be careful about being too careful.
Hail TSA. Woe on TSA. Sell our refineries. Depend on Dangote model with his work in Lekki. No, it is a sacred trust. We cannot cope with private buccaneers playing vampires on our oil. Regulate the banks. If you do that, you will smother them and we shall have nowhere to keep and even hide money. Pare interest rates, others yell. Where is the political will? Only idealists think that way.
Invest in infrastructure; invest in power, free the central bank so it can guide the economy. So, where will the politicians be if we have an independent central bank? Remember the case of Jonathan who ordered men to go straight there and dip their filthy hands in our pot of gold.
Free the BDCs. Jail the BDCs. Some are saying what of all the money we have saved? Shall we not spend them? How much? Others are following the niggardly ways of the play, Pot of Gold, by the Greek writer Plautus, about a miser who guards his pot of gold but it is stolen. Shall we continue to play the miser? Others say it is not that we are tight-fisted but that the purse is tight. No much money to spend.
This sort of chaos of ideas or fertility of intention is not new. During the last recession, Obama was drowned in perspectives. FDR confronted many in the throes of the Great Depression. Japan in the late 1990’s was almost asphyxiated when some even asked the eastern titan to abandon culture for full-throated laissez-faire. The economists boomed without any boon to the society. “Economics is extremely useful as a form of employment for economists,” quipped John Kenneth Galbraith, a world-renowned economist himself and the author of The Affluent Society. He knew economics is not an exact science, although the economists act as though the world lies in their hands.
“If all the economists were laid end to end,” wrote playwright George Bernard Shaw, “they’d never reach a solution.” We cannot leave economics to economists alone, as Henry Kissinger noted in an essay during the 1980’s recession.
So, there. The only area where theory and practice seem to concentrate now, is the CBN, and in the tongues and hands of Godwin Emefiele. He is the one experimenting, rolling the dice, playing the monetary and fiscal, the man in our economic arena. As we try to stop the bleeding from the Jonathan years, he has been there. In trying to steer the Naira in good stead, he is there. In stimulating, what economists call foreign direct investment, his hand is writ large.
He is the optimistic face of the economy today, a sort of vicar of our pot of gold. He is the one who must guard it. He has spoken and exercised a role in working a formula for inter-bank rates. He has intervened in the matter of fuel price. He has also weighed in on the issue of quantitative easing, and pumping the economy with fresh funds.
He has also been a moralist, saying we ought to concentrate on what is Nigerian, and focus on local production.
But that’s as far as he can go. The central bank is an important institution, central to the pulling of the economy from its stronghold. But the central bank is an alarm signal as well as a guide. After that, the responsibility is in the hands of the other institutions.
The CBN governor is not the minister of defence, or the Immigration or Customs chief, so he may weave a policy of self- reliance. But he cannot implement border control. While the smuggled rice and unhealthy chicken zip through the border, he can only look with frustration. He can soar over the need to give loans to SMEs but he is not GTB or Zenith or UBA, and if the banks play coy, the economy suffers. All the banks today pay lip-service to helping the economy and the small guy. But we know only the same circle of vampires suck up our economy’s blood. He makes foreign exchange available to firms, but he does not pick their staff-members nor decide where and how to invest and motivate personnel.
When the list of the big debtors was released not too long ago, the culprits were familiar. He might be the familiar vicar of the economy, but he is no priest. We don’t look to the CBN for counselling on good behaviour and integrity with the funds of everybody.
He is not Lai Mohammed who will want to roar with Change Begins With Me. He cannot be everything. He does not construct roads, nor build the hospitals nor monitor the schools. “Most of the policies that support robust economic growth in the long run are outside the province of the central bank,” noted Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the United States Federal Reserve.
It all depends on the spirit of productivity. We need to whip up a sense of balance between theory and practice. We have seen some good spots. The FIIRS has started to generate more money, some road works have begun, the Customs man is generating more money. But a lot more has to be done. The decision to pump more money into the economy to the tune of N350 billion can help galvanise the economy.
But it is the way we turn policy into productivity that will make the difference between the pain of today and the gain of tomorrow. Or we shall be like Plautus’ play where no scholar knows for sure whether the pot of gold survives or not, everything is in the realm of speculation. There is too much at stake today. Jonathan and his dame have done the damage. Now is no time for despair. We should not only repair but redeem ourselves. But we have no time.