2024 and the belly of the year – By Kehinde Yusuf

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*Photo: Prof Kehinde Yusuf*

One of the most striking and most memorable idioms I have heard before is “Igi l’óyún.” (‘The tree is pregnant.’) This was used at a local community meeting by an elderly Yoruba man many years ago. He said the community needed to climb a tree (i.e., had a critical task to perform), but the tree was pregnant.

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Now, what does climbing a pregnant tree entail? It entails introspection (thinking deeply), ingenuity (thinking outside the box), circumspection (looking very well before leaping), and tenderness (avoiding harming the foetus and missing the goal). These are all values indispensable to successfully navigating Year 2024.

As morning shows the day, the declaration by President Tinubu in his inaugural speech on 29 May, 2023 that “Fuel subsidy is gone”, and the removal of the dual exchange rate regime, ensured that the Nigerian economy would be the predominant subject of public discourse for a long time.

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Predicting what would be in the belly of year 2024 on 22 July, 2023 and reiterating it on 5 September, 2023, reputable economist and banker Mr. Bismarck Jemide Rewane remarked as follows: “The bad news is that there is pain and there will be more pain in the short run but the good news is that there will be gains in the first quarter of 2024.” I have heard people cite Mr. Rewane’s prognostication as a justification for anticipating, as with any normal pregnancy, the birth of succour or ‘a bundle of joy’ this year.

Incidentally, President Tinubu himself said to a delegation of former Governors who visited him on 12 July, 2023: “I understand that our people are suffering, yet there can be no childbirth without pain. The joy of childbirth is the baby. Relief comes after the pain. Nigeria is being reborn. It is a rebirth of the country for the largest number, over a few smugglers.”

In a related direction, the Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mr. Idris Mohammed, was reported to have said, “Certainly, there is a new wage regime that will come in on April 1, 2024.”

As the President and the Minister continue to make such mollifying statements, some economic/financial experts seem to be more obsessed with economic/financial theories than with the alleviation of the pains of the populace. One scare-mongering expression with which such experts are enamoured is “hyper-inflation”. And they use it to support or recommend minimal salary awards or ineffectual wage concessions. The argument of such experts goes like this: If you grant substantial or significant wage increases or financial awards, it will create hyper-inflation.

This may make sense to the theorists, but seems to make very little or no sense to workers or citizens whose purchasing power has been radically reduced by desirable, but painful government policies. This may be the case, because one of the justifications of such policies, especially the fuel subsidy removal, is that it would make more money available to the government who would then be able to serve the needs of the people better.

This situation reveals an economic cultural conflict. In, for example, Yoruba cultural economics, the preoccupation is with ensuring optimal purchasing power, while with the Westernised economic experts, the priority seems to be with preventing inflation. The Yoruba position is encoded in the proverb, “Ọjà tí a bá rówó rà kò wọ́n.” (‘Goods that we can afford to buy are not expensive or inflationary.’) In other words, anything that the generality of hardworking people can afford is not expensive.

This cultural attitude needs to be taken into consideration in designing and implementing economic policies. Where such policies that put the people’s welfare and not fidelity to economic theories at the centre of public policy results in problems such as inflation, it would be the duty of economic experts to innovatively think of strategies to mitigate the concomitant problems.

A related issue concerns the appeal to the people to be patient while awaiting the positive impact of painful economic policies. The cultural attitude to such appeals is shown in the proverb, “Àyangbẹ ajá dùn, ṣùgbọ́n nǹkan kan la ó ma jẹ kí ajá ó tó gbẹ.” (‘Dry roast dog meat is sweet; but there has to be something for us to be eating before the dog meat gets dry.’)

Education, especially university education, is also of key significance in Year 2024’s multiple birth, and how issues in contest are resolved deserve attention.

Arising from the unsavoury 8-month-long strike of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in 2022, various sections of society suffered different kinds of casualty. Students suffered dislocation in their education; businesses that depend on students to thrive recorded avoidable loss; student-related businesses that depend on bank loans to survive suffered repayment default; some parents incurred huge unanticipated financial burdens, because they had to seek alternative educational opportunities for their children and wards in high-fee-paying Nigerian private universities and foreign institutions; some Nigerians fell prey to fraudsters in substandard or fake foreign universities; some university lecturers suffered financial embarrassment and some lost their lives due to the International Labour Organisation recognised “No work, no pay” policy; and the “japa” syndrome (the large-scale emigration of Nigerians from the country) was aggravated. In other words, the 2022 ASUU strike caused what may be called “Equal Opportunity Loss”.

In the light of the Renewed Hope Agenda of the President Bola Ahmed Tinubu administration, steps have started to be taken to address the areas of conflict between ASUU and the government. One such step is the decision of the President to pay four months out of the about eight months of lecturers’ salaries withheld on account of the strike. One snag with the Presidential magnanimity is the condition that ASUU members would sign an undertaking that this is the last time that they would be paid if they go on strike again.

This condition would be creating the kind of ambivalence which a Yoruba proverb enacts as follows: “A ní ká jẹ èkuru kó tán, ẹ tún ń gbọn ọwọ́ rẹ̀ sáwo.” (‘We ask that all bean cake granules should be totally eaten and cleared off a plate, yet you are shaking off the bits stuck to your fingers back on the plate.’) The union has suffered enough and the enforcement of this humiliating condition is unwarranted. In fact, even if all of the eight months withheld salaries are paid today, the value of the money has depreciated so much that the eight months’ pay would just be like paying them around two months’ salaries.

Certainly, demoralised academics are neither good for the academia nor for the nation. In line with President Tinubu’s metaphor of birth, its pain and its eventual joy, let all that has happened between ASUU and the government so far with respect to strikes be seen as part of the pangs of birth which would henceforth herald joy.

The issue of withheld lecturers’ salaries even has an ironical twist. The government has invoked the “No work, no pay” principle ostensibly to dissuade ASUU members from going on strike. At the same time, the government is withholding the salaries of members of the Congress of University Academics (CONUA) whose guiding principle is that flippant strikes are detrimental to the nation’s university system and who have therefore never gone on strike since the formation of the union in 2018 and did not take part in the 2022 strike.

In other words, the government has been penalising those who were on strike for going on strike and seems to have been penalising those who were not on strike for not going on strike. The Ministries of Labour and Employment, Education, and Finance need to resolve this queer situation expeditiously.

The catastrophic explosion in Ibadan, the capital of Oyo State, on Tuesday night also shows what is in the belly of 2024. The explosion was so massive that it has been reported to have had damaging effects within a 25 kilometre radius, and many parts of Ibadan look like a war zone. According to the Governor of the State, the explosion was caused by explosives stored in a residential area by illegal miners.

As misty-eyed as we may be arising from that disaster, we cannot stop seeing critical questions calling for clear answers. One, where was the Chairman or Chairmen of the affected Local Government Area or Areas in the aftermath of the explosion? Two, were these government officials hamstrung even in a time of calamity, when they should have demonstrated more responsiveness to their constituents? Three, have efforts of the Government of Oyo State to effectively tackle miners’ deleterious conduct in the state not been undermined by the existing Mining Act and Mining Regulation?

The last question is critical because the Governor referred to the fact that mining was on the Exclusive List and was the preserve of the Federal Government. But he also referred to the fact that the Land Use Act vested all land in State Governments.

This ambivalent and conflict-generating situation makes it imperative for the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), the Mining Act 2007 and the Mining Regulations 2011 to be reviewed to give State Governments a bigger role to play in mining matters.

Moreover, the roles of different stakeholders need to be made clear to avoid situations in which State Governments would be issuing illegal mining-related directives to Community Leaders, land owners, land users and other stakeholders. The Ibadan disaster also shows why reluctant State Governments should embrace or be made to see the value of Local Government Autonomy.
So much hope has been raised about this year, and Nigerians are entitled to expect that out of the belly of 2024 would be delivered sustainable good governance.

In this regard, in an earlier article titled “Tinubu, the Baobab”, the following thoughts of Yap Kioe Sheng of the United Nations were quoted, and they remain critical: “Good governance has 8 major characteristics. It is participatory, consensus-oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are considered and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society.”

The article further quotes the following UN-related key question which any effort towards good governance should answer: “Are the institutions of governance effectively guaranteeing the right to health, adequate housing, sufficient food, quality education, fair justice and personal security?”

2024 is still in its infancy, but there is hope that it would meet the legitimate expectations of Nigerians. Some policies, decisions and actions of the government in these early days of the year justify keeping hope alive.

May the government bear this burden of hope with grace.

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