Tumbling crude oil prices—with some analysts expecting the price per barrel to hover for some time around $30—is the gravest handicap Nigerians have faced in a while. It is also, I suggest, the greatest opportunity handed to us.
In the short term, there will be colossal suffering, pain galore. Companies and governments are bound to lay off workers. Many more of those who remain on the employment rolls are likely to see slashed entitlements and more frequent cases of unpaid salaries. Even the well heeled, accustomed to conspicuous consumption and instant gratification of every imaginable desire, will be jolted into some adjustment of habit. The era of spectacular cash downpours, of money growing on low-hanging tree limbs, waiting to be plucked by the corporate, social and political cronies of the rulers of the land—that era is gone, baby.
A friend of mine once joked about having a see-food policy: when he sees food, he eats it. Nigeria’s political leaders—more justly described as rulers—operate by a parallel principle. When they see cash, they spend, squander, and steal it.
Trouble is, most of them don’t have the foggiest idea how to generate the cash they are wretchedly prone to “eating,” as Nigerians say. This singular fact accounts for the decidedly mediocre pool of aspirants for political office in Nigeria. Many who pursue political offices—and, I’d hazard, a majority of those who succeed in this pursuit—are men and women bereft of the acumen for thinking deeply about problems and their prospective solutions. For sure, most of them lack the imaginativeness, rigor and focused intelligence to think outside of the box.
For decades, the inside of the Nigerian “thinking” box consisted of a rather simple idea. That idea was this: that, regardless of what those in power do or fail to do, there will always be a huge pot of ready-made, oil-generated cash at their disposal. And all they were required to show for all that cash was evidence that they awarded contracts for a few kilometers of substandard roads, that they intermittently paid the salaries of state employees, and that they “carried stakeholders along” (a euphemism for spreading the lucre among a small circle of idle political henchmen).
With expectations so low, Nigeria’s spoilt-rotten public officials, adorned with the mask of “leaders,” never evolved to the point of reckoning what it truly meant to be a leader. Blissfully ignorant, they festooned themselves with self-aggrandizing praise. They boasted of being “iconic leaders,” of “totally transforming” Nigeria or some local government area or state therein, of “totally redefining governance.” Their richly rewarded court jesters specialized in the art of ego-inflation. These hirelings hyped their retainer’s every ordinary deed. If these praise experts knew that, in serious societies, no municipal manager (much less a governor or president) would dare count road construction or payment of salaries as accomplishments, they made sure that their paymasters never heard that truth.
Nigeria has entered a perilous zone. The world is far from saturated with oil, far from a point when it could be asserted that the liquid gold has become a relic. There’s a chance, then, of crude oil prices rising intermittently, even significantly—in the event, say, of a major disruption in production. But it’s also safe to hazard that economies that depend on oil production are unlikely to ever see another extended period of grand earnings from crude to rival the trend that ended more than a year ago.
For Nigerians, the implications will be dire. That old guarantee of a steady flow of petro-dollars into the Nigerian treasury has now—and perhaps permanently—expired. Henceforth, those who seek public office in Nigeria must come ready to figure out where and how to find the money to do even the most basic of things—like pave roads and pay salaries. It won’t do any more to sit on their behinds, look pretty, quaff choice wines, and daydream about fat allocations from the federation account.
The wrecking levels of corruption, indolence, massive capital flight and Olympian scales of social misery that have marred the economies of numerous oil-producing countries helped inspire the phrase “resource curse.” If Nigeria did not have its endowment of crude oil, with the easy cash that was its concomitance, it would not have been able to support so many private jet-owning lootocrats. Perhaps, then, Nigerians would have developed a staunch antipathy to graft, the top obsession of our broad elite. But as long as oil wealth oozed out of our soil, we were inclined to accommodate those looting our lives to the Dark Ages. As long as oil cash gushed, we were content to argue that public funds belonged to nobody in particular, that it was okay for any quick-fingered man from our ethnicity, state or religious affiliation to help himself to as much of the “national cake” as his heart desired.
I am worried about the consequences of falling oil prices on poor Nigerians, those who got little or nothing from the oil windfall. But I’d also confess a secret: A part of me leaps with delight with every significant drop in the price of crude oil. Yes, reduced oil earnings will translate into greater suffering for the sector of Nigerians whose staple has been hardship. But I see this suffering as pregnant with prospects of positive transformation.
It’s a cliché to assert that Nigerians are a deeply resourceful, energetic and imaginative people, but I believe there’s more than a grain of truth to that claim. Without that resourcefulness, that can-do spirit and that sense of undying hope, the hapless Nigerian would not have survived the ravages of the criminal minds that often dominate their country’s public affairs.
With oil prices dropping, those politicians motivated by graft are likely to steer clear, enabling men and women of imagination and intelligence to rise to the top. Nigeria has the people, the spirit, and other resources to enable them to recreate a vibrant life.
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