Something strange happens on Saturday mornings on Bourdillion Road, Ikoyi, the UNILAG campus in Akoka, and Bode Thomas in Surulere is not exempted from this phenomenon.
If you look intently, you may observe it like David Attenborough filming the life of a baby elephant. Scores of differently sized people get on the road, some in lycra, some in garish pink, some in shorts, some on bicycles, and some with fanny packs.
What are these people doing on the road? What do they want? Why would anyone wear reflective visors, 6 armbands, and ill-fitted long socks? It’s weight loss time, yeah! Excessive sugar is bad — it’s the work of the devil!
Chocolates, biscuits, and weight gain
You know deep down you shouldn’t eat these incredibly sweet things, but when you are down and tired, you can’t resist — it improves your mood. The World seems like a sweeter place suddenly, you smile a little bit, and you forget the problem.
However, you get another urge for more sugar and eat again. Your problem is still not gone, but you feel alright. With time, you realize that you have gained weight and must face the hard truth — cut down on sugar or choke on it.
If you choose the latter, five years down the line, your weight has grown from 75kilos to 225kilos — an additional problem to your worries. A person weighing 225kilos is super morbidly obese and may have many health problems.
The Nigerian government is in a similar situation, it has a weight problem, a large debt load attached to it that it simply can’t afford or ignore any further. It’s time to hit the road, change its diet, and consult with the doctor. In orthodox economics, countries getting on a diet and hitting the gym is called Austerity. Austerity is never a popular route for governments.
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In Fela’s classic, “Teacher don’t teach me nonsense“, he lamented about the pain of austerity and included it alongside other pains felt by the citizenry some 30 years ago. Whether we like it or not, government finances must be put on a diet; at best, a delay can ensue.
The longer the delay, the fatter the debt pile gets, and many more problems will emerge. People will feel even more pain without austerity. Austerity is not unique to developing countries, it is important to mention that in 2010, post the global financial crisis, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, introduced austerity measures on government finances to enable its future sustainability. This after all is an economically developed country mindful of its finances. If the UK government can do it, why not Nigeria? Could it be the do-it-yourself economic ideas?
What does austerity diet involve?
A significant cut in government spending and largesse. It entails saying goodbye to the sweet-looking jeeps and furniture, the not so large civil service a.k.a government jobs, and to an ever-increasing attempt at collecting more taxes from poor Nigerians.
Recall, more than half of Nigeria’s population is living below the bread line. It’s unclear from whom any tax increase will emerge. There is debate amongst orthodox economists about the timing of austerity diets — should it be during a crisis or during boom times? There is no clear-cut answer, but it’s easier to take the pain in a growing economy than one undergoing strain.
It is sometimes possible to escape the diet. Some patients go for bariatric surgery and extensive liposuction and this helps them cut down in a very short space of time, without the attendant pain via the organic process. Nigeria did this in 2005 by securing debt forgiveness from the G8 countries to the tune of thirty billion dollars. Interestingly, this is roughly what Nigeria owes today.
Borrowing into unsustainable debts
It is unlikely anyone will cancel Nigeria’s debt again. So, why does the government keep borrowing when it’s apparent the country can’t afford it?
Well, if one keeps getting cheap biscuits and chocolates, then it’s easy to eat more. Reviewing the basic debt stats can be deceptive without a good enough grasp of the stats for sustainable and non-explosive debt.
In my last article, I discussed how DIY economics or homegrown economic ideas have done damage to price stability in Nigeria. Without a critical review of how best to adjust an explosive debt path, countries are bound to stay the destructive course. Considering indicators used by George Osborne as a benchmark for Nigeria, Nigeria is on an explosive and unsustainable borrowing path.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with leverage or borrowing. In many instances, especially with businesses and corporates, it helps them achieve their financial goals. However, there is a proverb from the South Western part of Nigeria that translates to, “one ought not to live an extravagant life, whilst in debt”.
The statistics show that Nigeria continues to borrow extravagantly, without the impact being felt on the streets.
What is the near term solution?
A selective increase in government revenue may be the way. Tax increase is highly unpopular but selective taxes on businesses that have benefitted from historical tax cuts and waivers may be the place to start.