Lately, there has been palpable concern over political developments in Imo state, with the spate of unsavoury social media battles that have exposed the fragile nature of the relationships currently existing amongst key political actors. Regrettably, sundry events in our dear state have become the subject of intense public discourse and disagreements in the blogosphere. Imo has, rather unfortunately, become one of those states that has been subject to intense public scrutiny and judgement.
Amid all these developments, the world is witnessing an era of unparalleled disruptions in the links that define our global ecosystem. The COVID-19 pandemic has, more than any other event in the past century, altered just about everything and anything that mattered to everyone. With the global economy shrinking in a manner never envisaged just three months ago, and livelihoods threatened in a fundamental way, the world as we knew it, would never be the same. The new normal that is about to emerge was the extreme abnormal of 2019.
Practically no reasonable prediction, whether secular or religious, prepared the world for what we are currently experiencing. The sad part is that there is every indication that things will get even much worse, before they begin to improve.
It was, therefore, a matter of concern, that such a pandemic, along with its secondary effects that had far reaching implications for our survival as a people, was of little significance to our major political actors. In an emerging scenario, where our survival would depend on selfless cooperation and collaboration; where we must strike a note of seamless harmony in the pursuit of a common purpose, we appear rather focused on issues that divided us in the past and tore away at the fabric that held us together as a people.
One must reiterate that as a people and society, we face severe challenges in ways that were never imagined a few months ago. With oil prices moving south in an unprecedented manner, and our continued dependence on its proceeds, at least in the short to medium term, for survival, it can no longer be business as usual. For the avoidance of any doubt, here are the facts:
1) Oil accounts for approximately 60 percent of Nigerian government revenue and 90 percent of its foreign exchange earnings;
2) The drop in oil prices has translated to a lower distributable revenue for the three tiers of government;
3) Nigeria’s total debt currently stands at approximately $84b with two-thirds of all government revenue committed to debt service obligations;
4) On account of the foregoing disruptions, the Central Bank of Nigeria projects that Nigeria’s GDP would contract by about 3.4 percent in 2020 and with the current account deficit expected to be about 3.3 percent of GDP;
5) Based on the decline in oil revenue, an external financing gap of $14b would have to bridged, possibly through a drastic cut in expenditure or borrowing. There is no short cut here.
Imo state, as a subnational unit within the Nigerian federation, has been almost completely dependent on federally allocated revenue for its sustenance. In the recent past, monthly collections (state and local) averaged roughly N10b. Now, when you factor in outgoings related to the running of the bureaucracy and debt service obligations, the state has roughly N1b of unencumbered funds! With internally generated revenue at an average of a little above N1b, the state would be facing severe fiscal imbalances in a matter of months. This was the grim picture of Imo public finances that Emeka Ihedioha inherited from the Owelle Rochas Okorocha’s administration and which Senator Hope Uzodinma must confront as Governor. Regrettably, the structural deficiencies of the Nigerian federation have relegated productivity of the subnational units to the background in a political and economic framework appropriately described as “feeding bottle federalism.”
Therefore, the challenge we face now is how to generate at least N10b in revenues monthly within the next six to twelve months. This can only be achieved through an aggressive revenue diversification and optimisation programme. It is only at such levels of revenue that we can maintain the current level of services and achieve some measure of revenue sustainability and independence. These are crucial for social stability and civil peace. Such an ambitious programme requires bold initiatives and courageous action.
In the Chinese Confucian philosophy, the concept of ‘crisis’ is seen in positive terms as ‘opportunity’. Therefore, as painful as the COVID-19 challenges have been, they bring with them immense opportunities. We must seize the opportunities present to transform our society to a new order, defined by improved revenue sustainability and Independence. The strategy would be to act like a sovereign entity striving to provide for its citizens in an environment that enables them fulfil their manifest destiny. With a population of about 4 million, a land mass spanning 5,530 sq kms, and an array of human and material resources, I daresay that we can!
If Imo state were a country by itself, it would rank in population with countries like New Zealand, Panama, Kuwait and Croatia. It will be ahead of countries like Eritrea, Uruguay, Jamaica, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Gabon. In terms of land mass, it is bigger than much-touted countries like Trinidad and Tobago, Cape Verde, Mauritius, Hong Kong and Singapore!
All too often we have referred to the post-independence Nigeria as the golden years of the Nigerian state. This reference has been more, in particular, when referring to Eastern Nigeria. With the official record of being the fastest growing economy in the entire world just before the onset of the Nigeria/Biafra war, Eastern Nigeria witnessed its most rapid phase of economic growth and development. It must be borne in mind that practically all the resources (human and material), that funded its regional development plans and achievements of that era, were endogenous to the region, with agriculture as the mainstay of the economy. With the Commodity Boards and Regional Development Agencies/Corporations, agriculture was the driving force for the quantum growth and development witnessed in the region during the golden era. As we reflect on the existential threats and economic challenges we now face, should we not be reminded that we are in a position to recreate that environment that engendered such productivity and revenue sufficiency as cornerstones of the development agenda?
Undoubtedly, charting this course would be daunting, particularly after decades of unbridled profligacy and a severely distorted and inefficient fiscal regime that placed little emphasis on productivity and merit. Old habits die hard, one could assume. Nevertheless, it is a journey we must embark upon given the existential threats we face as a people.
Times like this are rare and when they arise, they call for the type of leadership that is visionary and aligned to the goal of energizing the citizens for collective action and the pursuit of a common purpose. Such a rare opportunity is what has dropped on the laps of the present leadership in Imo state. We expect that Senator Hope Uzodinma will rise to this historic challenge and, working with Imo citizens, chart this new direction for the benefit of his people and to the glory of God. History is replete with heroes that emerge from situations like these.
Admittedly, the politics of our state has been needlessly polluted in the recent past by the actions of politicians who have remained in the trenches of war and refusing to yield grounds to embrace a new beginning. According to Ecclesiastes in the Bible, there is a time for everything. Regardless of our grievances and ideological differences, this is the time that we must rise to the greater challenge of survival and recovery for our people and our economy.
We must now adjust to the reality that we have Senator Hope Uzodinma on the seat as Governor. And in that role, provided he acts in the overriding interest of the state and its citizens, he deserves the unalloyed support of all well-meaning Imolites in the arduous task of piloting the affairs of our state. If we are true Christians and I have no doubt that we are; and if we truly believe that God is the dispenser of all positions of power and influence, then we must accept the outcomes of political contests as providential. In tandem with this understanding, we must not seek or wish the failure of any government just to make a point, or to confirm existing prejudices or stereotypes. A government fails to the detriment of all its citizens and we must, for the sake of our collective interest, guard against that.
Now to Senator Hope Uzodinma, the new sheriff in town (apologies to Prof Nnamdi Obiaraeri), you must rise to this historic call to duty and provide the leadership which these difficult times demand. Furthermore, you must rein in your lieutenants who appear to be spoiling for battle in defense of whatever they may construe as your interest. Let instead your performance in office speak for you as opposed to phyrric vicories at the ongoing social media battles which some of those around you seem intent on waging. The sparring sessions with the immediate past administration must give way to new rapprochement devoid of distracting recriminations. We must row in one direction or the boat of the state will crash on the rocks along with the collective fortunes of Imolites. That is not to say you should not insist on accountability in the actions of the Ihedioha administration. However, the strategy adopted for such exercises should minimise distractions that will overshadow any intended noble objective.
In conclusion, this is the time to consolidate a broad coalition of imo professionals and technocrats to continue the process of redirecting our energies towards the common enterprise of creating a new and prosperous future for our state and her citizens. Literally, we have to act as if Nigeria does not exist and take our destiny into our own hands. We must begin the search for new revenue sources that would help mitigate the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and its disruptions in the workings of our subnational economy. This call to duty requires that we act and you must lead the way while we all follow.
Some states have already set out on this journey, building post-covid -19 scenarios, and establishing the frameworks for implementing them. For Imo state, this project must begin in earnest under the present leadership in the state. There is no time to lose. It is a task for which Imo citizens would be prepared to give you the necessary support. Oil prices may recover momentarily and the conditions that necessitated this change may lose the force of urgency, but the need for revenue diversification and optimisation can never disappear. It is a reality that faces us and which must be confronted squarely. And we must recognise that it is a course of action that must be beyond divisive politics and requires constructive engagement involving all relevant Stakeholders. The hands of all imolites and lovers of the state must be on deck now. As the saying goes, ‘United We Stand; Divided We Fall’. We have a common destiny and there is no better time to pursue it than now.