Category Archives: Nigeria

Are we thinking about the digital future?

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

If God wills, I shall be particpating in what I hope would be an exciting event on 31 January. Themed “Nigeria in the World, the World in Nigeria”, panelists at the “Nigeria Economic Outlook Conference 2018” (#NEOC18) would discuss what Nigeria’s place could be in a post-oil world. Tony Seba, a Stanford University scholar in entrepreneurship, disruption and clean energy with an enviable record of correct predictions, posits crude oil demand would peak at about 100 million barrels per day (mbpd) by 2020, three years from now. A decade after, by 2030, he supposes it could be about 70 mbpd. That is not so bad, you probably reckoned just now. If his estimations are vindicated, the price for a barrel of crude oil would not be so tolerable at about $25 by 2021-22; that is about 4-5 years from now. Why would these happen? Mr Seba believes 95 percent of passenger miles would be self-driving, electric and on-demand by 2030. His analysis is not sentimental. It is economic. By his reckoning, it would be ten times less expensive to ride electric, autonomous and on-demand than owning a car. While the likelihood that these new transport technologies would make it to African countries within these timeframes is slim, the impact would almost certainly be immediately felt by oil-producing ones like Nigeria. So are we preparing for this future? Our education system remains an archaic rote-style nonsense. Our job market teaches little of tangible utility for a digital world. And our government wants to grow more yam tubers for export. If our country remains in its current ill-prepared state, this near digital future could be bleak for us indeed.

Action talk
Incidentally, the #NEOC18 is coming after the just concluded World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. The flurry of ideas was simply extraordinary. I followed the proceedings extensively from my very warm abode in Lagos – if you are left behind, there is nobody to blame but yourself. (See my Premium Times column for my observations: https://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2018/01/26/davos-insights-for-africa-by-rafiq-raji/.) Artificial intelligence was on everyone’s lips. Its unimaginable possibilities, good and bad, have everyone’s antenna up. What really intrigues me is that these happenings are also discussed animatedly by the Nigerian intelligentsia. Unfortunately, these conversations are not translating into policy and action. We cannot continue like this. The Nigerian who designed the Chevrolet Volt, an electric car, is back home. As far as I know, his mandate is to develop an auto industry in the country. I suspect his efforts are geared towards the futility of trying to build a fossil-fuel based car industry. If that is the case, I do not need to be a seer to know his years doing that are going to be wasted. Why not an electric car industry? He knows how to build one, doesn’t he? Someone might ask: where is the power? I would reply: why not a solar-powered one then? The sun is free, is it not? Besides, a solar-powered car is not just a concept: it has already been builit.

Step up
If we are serious as a country, we will put building a robust power and internet infrastructure at the top of our priorities. Off-grid power solutions are already taking off. And some well-meaning entrepreneurs have also been doing their bit in broadband access and developing coding capacity. MainOneand Andela are world-class Nigerian companies. They operate here and are run by Nigerians. They are evidence of our possibilities if and when we decide to put on our thinking caps. Nigeria needs more of them. The inequality of the future is not going to be so much between rich and poor as it would be between those acting on their knowledge for change and those who know but are doing nothing or are simply just ignorant. The knowledge gap would become contemporaneous with the wealth gap.

What else can we do? We could start acquiring the skills that allow us speak the “language of technology”, at least. You could also ask yourself how what you currently do for a living could change in the next decade or so because of technology; and what you are going to do about it. Digital banks would get better. Cars would become autonomous. Robots would be able to perform surgery. Manufacturing is going to become totally automated. Retail would become entirely online. In that event, what are you going to become, be able to do, and how are you going to earn a living? Of course, as these technologies evolve there is the sometimes mistaken assumption that human beings would be static and not similarly dynamic. Instead, it is more likely that as our current needs get cared for by machines, new ones would evolve precisely because of these disruptions. And it would likely be humans who are first able to handle or innovate to solve these new problems before machines are able to do them far better. So whether it is artifical intelligence, big data or something else currently just the pigment of the imagination of someone somewhere, no one can say for sure what the digital future would be like exactly. One thing is certain, though, unless poor economies step up their game, they would be left behind. Again.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/thinking-digital-future/

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Davos insights for Africa

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

Africa’s representation at the 2018 World Economic Forum (WEF), themed “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”, was small. The forum has always been primarily focused on America and Europe anyway. Last year, China stole the spotlight. And a few years ago, Africa got its chance. With regional forums now, the Davos meeting is increasingly focused on global themes and issues. And the major attraction this year was none other than Donald Trump, the American president. Once he arrived (thank goodness, it was on the last day), everything became about him. India’s prime minister Narendra Modi was probably delighted he gave the forum’s keynote speech on the first day (23 January); long before “The Donald” arrived. Mr Modi made some deep points. But the part that resonated with me was that about data. He posited that in today’s world and in fact the future one, data is the biggest asset. And he who controls data controls the world. He is ahead of the curve. It was also a veiled boast, I think. India is firing ahead on the technological front. Like China, it is racing ahead to ensure that it would be an active participant in what would entirely soon become a digital world economy. China has a date for when that time might be upon us: 2025. That is the target year for its ambitious technological plan, which if realised, would put it at the forefront of technological leadership globally. There is the pertinent question, of course, about whether that digital future would not be exclusionary. Ever-evolving tech skillsets would be required by anyone who desires to be an active participant in the digital economy. So steps need to be urgently taken by African countries to ensure their citizens are able to compete in that future world. The mastery of basic technologies has to be the least qualification for anyone who passes through the education system. Technology has to be seen in the same way as English (or French and Arabic in other countries) is regarded as a foundation subject for basic education.

Technology as language
Technology is a language. If you do not know how to speak a language, you cannot participate in a conversation in that language. If the language of the future world is technology, what then would be your fate if you cannot speak it? You hear talk about up-skilling and re-skilling. What I think the focus should be on is what I call “dynamic skilling.” It is not entirely novel; you may have heard of “continous learning.” It is similar. But my concept of dynamic skilling is premised on how if the world of work would likely continue to change as technology evolves, then the individual that desires not to be changed (i.e., replaced) must also ensure that his skills are similarly dynamic. The foundation for any such eventuality is basic knowledge about technology. Thus, vocational skills of the future are not likely to be how to be a good plumber, carpenter, or electrician. Instead, it would be “simple” things like being able to code an app, use a digital currency, and so on. Any country which is not thinking in this manner, right now, would again be left behind. Fortunately (for African countries, at least), the extraordinary thing about emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, big data, and so on, is that they are equalizers; up to a point. Vintage is an advantage. One who starts early may remain ahead because of the advantages of experience and ownership of data acquired in the process. Even so, African governments could, for instance, momentarily start to insist on the ownership and control of the data of their citizens and all digital activities in their domain. That way, they would be able to ensure that their citizens benefit from whatever technological progress happens on the back of their data assets.

New paradigm
Benedikt Sobotka of the Eurasian Resources Group, in an interview with CNBC Africa during the WEF, made a point that all African governments need to muse on. Electric vehicles (EVs) rely on cobalt-based batteries. Where is cobalt found in abundance? The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia. In the next decade or so, EVs would probably replace all fossil-fuel vehicles. That future can be Africa-led if the relevant governments put in place policies that ensure the cobalt mined in their jurisdictions would be used to build an African EV industry; as opposed to a mining one just for the taxes. By insisting on the batteries being built on the continent, or adding some meaningful value to the cobalt at least, before it is shipped to China and elsewhere, the DRC and Zambia would be able to participate in what is likely going to be a very lucrative global value chain (GVC). What is happening now? China is buying up the precious mineral. Cobalt is being mined and shipped abroad to build batteries that would power EVs the future world would use to wean itself of oil and gas that some key African countries rely on and failed to build industries around. African countries can be part of the new world right now. By the way, did I travel to Davos to arrive at these insights? Go figure.

Also published in my Premium Times Nigeria column. See link viz. https://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2018/01/26/davos-insights-for-africa-by-rafiq-raji/

Rise of the peoples’ assembly

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

We the people…”; that is how most constitutions start. Of course, the politicians who tend to refer to those words the most are usually the ones who also hold them in contempt the most. It used to be the case that they could actually get away with the disgust they often have for the very people that voted them into office. Aloof and conveniently tone-deaf for most of their tenures initially, their amnesia is miraculously cured at the near-end of their typical four to five-year first term in office, when it dawns on them that should they not now grovel to the same people they cared little about hitherto, they may soon lose the office that has been the source of their ostentation. In other words, as much as they dislike the very people they are supposed to serve, they know they are ultimately vulnerable to their whim. Power truly belongs to the people. Shrewd politicians realise this very early on. And the successful ones are able to hold sway over the affairs of their fellow men and women for as long as the Heavens allow irrespective of whether they hold office or not because they stay close to the people and go with their ever-changing tide of opinion. Inevitably, they are populists. Politicians, even the supposedly altruistic ones, do not like to admit it. But ultimately, it is the desire to rule that really drives them. Power is the end, not the means.

All about power
A person has to have a certain level of hubris to think himself qualified to rule over a multitude. Some do not realise this until they lose an election. Otherwise what would motivate some men to seek political office repeatedly even as they lose with the same frequency. Take Kenyan opposition figure Raila Odinga, for instance, who has been aspiring to be president for almost all of his political life. He probably made his last futile attempt last year. Probably realising he no longer stands a chance, he now seeks to be president of a so-called “peoples’ assembly”. If what has happened since the idea was first mooted is anything to go by, it has not been as successful as he might have hoped. An earlier botched swearing-in as the “peoples’ president” is now supposed to happen anytime soon or never. Perhaps taking a cue from his older fellow opposition politician, longsuffering Ugandan presidential contender Kizza Besigye also called for the establishment of a peoples’ assembly in early January. What instigated his call was the recent enactment of a law that removed presidential age limits, enabling longtime president Yoweri Museveni to run for office again. In both cases, the opposition politician’s frustration made them resort to the people. Had they been more successful, it is hardly likely their reckoning would ever sway towards them. Their evolution lays bare what they wanted all along: power. They are not any different from their supposed antagonists in office. And were they to secure power themselves, they may behave similarly as the politicians they oust or worse.

Yours to wield
This new trend of African opposition politicians drifting towards alternative and mostly informal platforms to wield power after failing to secure it via state institutions is not entirely novel. They are simply latching on to something that already started without their urging. What is a peoples’ assembly? What is it supposed to achieve? Is there somewhere they are supposed to gather? Are they voted for? How long do the members serve in office? The peoples’ assembly is you and I. When Nigerians finally lost their patience with an effective but wayward police commando unit, they raised their voices. Were they heard? You bet they were. Nigerian authorities were finally forced to go after marauding Fulani herdsmen, long maiming and killing innocent farmers with impunity, after the people said enough! South Africans have been unrelenting in their insistence that the “capture” of their state by private persons – who have, in collusion with the very people they elected, been pilfering their commonwealth – must stop and the culprits punished. Did their voices matter? Yes. Now a judicial commission of inquiry is slated to get to the bottom of the matter. But for pressure by Ghanaians on their government during the infamous “dumsor” period of power load-shedding and cuts, they may have suffered a little while longer. Opposition politicians are clearly being opportunistic. A peoples’ assembly is not something you organise per se. It is leader-less. Put another way, all of its members are leaders. Before the advent of social media, people power manifested itself in African countries only on occasion. Now, it can be as immediate as the time it takes to type a hashtag. We all have the power to make a change.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/rise-peoples-assembly/

#FuelScarcity: Multiple pricing can work

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

Nigerians are a hypocritical bunch. I am Nigerian. It is curious that fuel suddenly became scarce after signals began to emerge that President Muhammadu Buhari might be interested in seeking a second term in office. Incidentally, former vice president Atiku Abubakar moved to another political party in obvious pursuance of his own presidential ambition at about the same time. Now there is increased violence here and there, gas pipelines supplying power stations are suddenly catching fire and fuel is scarce. Even though intuition should not suffice to attribute causation, it is a little too much of a coincidence that these negative events are happening just as the political cycle changed into a higher gear. Recent killings by criminals in the middle-belt region, who to witnesses looked like “Fulani herdsmen”, can be dealt with by the security agencies; if they choose to. Pipelines can be policed; costly but doable. Besides, many already know to turn on their generators when there is a power cut; which is almost everytime. But how did fuel supply become short all of a sudden? Mr Buhari blames saboteurs. (See? Intuition can be reliable.) Considering the timing – the scarcity started curiously during the Christmas festivities – the president may be on to something. In any case, he would not have made such a pronouncement if his security chiefs did not show strong evidence of sabotage. Even so, the fuel scarcity has a robust economic explanation.

Call it anything but…
Fuel marketers would have had a terrible Christmas if they continued to sell fuel at the current N145 per litre without some support from the government. About a year ago, when the retail price was set, crude oil was selling for less. And the naira was artificially stronger. On those two variables alone, it would not require a stroke of genius to know that should everything else remain the same, it cannot be profitable for fuel retailers to continue selling at that price. To make the point, the marketers likely chose the best opportunity for them to be heard. Well, they succeeded. Most analysts, if not all, suggest it would be politically suicidal for Mr Buhari to increase the price of fuel at just the moment he is trying to woo the citizenry to allow him a second chance at the State House. He did get away with past price increases, though. But now, “the times they are a-changin’.” If for political reasons the Buhari administration cannot now afford to increase the price of fuel like other more sensible countries have done, there is only one option available to it. And there is a word for it: subsidy. Wait a minute, the government does not pay subsidy on fuel anymore. So how have marketers been able to continue supplying fuel for the most part of the second half of last year – when crude oil prices appreciated significantly – without going bankrupt? It has to be that they had been receiving some form of support. We just must not call it “subsidy”; too sensitive.

Multiple choice
But should a temporary solution be again applied to what is a perennially recurring problem? The authorities probably hope they would be able to manage the situation until the mega refinery being built by the country’s richest man Aliko Dangote is completed. But at what cost? During the most recent fuel scarcity period, how were so-called black marketers able to sell their stock? I am not aware that any of them sold for less than twice the official retail price of N145. Their customers were not ghosts. There are many Nigerians who are willing to make the trade-off between price and availability. What could be wrong with having a system where this set of people get to pay a premium for the convenience of shorter lead times and assured supply at private filling stations while those not as endowed buy at the official price at filling stations of state oil company, NNPC? Yes, there are not enough of them. Heard of franchising, anyone? The NNPC could simply approve a number of filling stations per locale to supply fuel it imports and supplies to them at the official price. And as part of the arrangement, the approved filling stations would be branded with its logo. That way, anyone who desires to buy fuel at the official price could simply go to an NNPC-branded filling station. And those who do not want the inconvenience of likely queues at the official stations could simply buy fuel at a likely higher price at the private ones. The authorities should give it a try.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (9 Jan 2018). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/fuelscarcity-multiple-pricing-can-work/

#NotTooYoungToRun: Lessons from Weah’s triumph

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

After ex-football star George Weah’s victory in the recent Liberian presidential run-off poll, similarly young aspirants in other African countries have become expectant that they might also be able to pull a similar feat. Trust Nigerians to lead the bandwagon. It is interesting that a man in his early fifties is considered young in the African sense, of course. But considering the many leaders in their seventies and eighties that Africans have had to endure thus far, Mr Weah is an exemplar. And a worthy one. But his accession bears many lessons. There is a consistency in the route to power for young non-establishment figures it seems. Curiously, it does not matter whether the country’s democracy is young or matured. Take France’s Emmanuel Macron; one of the increasingly youthful leaders beginning to take over the world stage. Unlike his other similarly youthful Canadian counterpart, Justin Trudeau, whose father was once prime minister and was already quite known as early as when he was still being held by the hand, Mr Macron had to found his own political party, secure votes and then win his place. Turns out if Mr Weah wanted to be president, he would have no choice but to form his own political party as well. But unlike Mr Macron, he was not so lucky. He did not win the first time, losing to outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. After another failed attempt, this time as a vice-presidential candidate, he settled for the Senate to perhaps sulk or as they say, lick his wounds. He used the time well. Clearly the wiser, he chose the ex-wife of former warlord Charles Taylor as a running mate. The move paid off. Former warlords, now influential in the country – as is often the case after a prolonged civil war – rallied round him. It did help, though, that he had a boring and uncharismatic rival this time around for the post. Vice-president Joseph Boakai, with the appropriate epithet “Sleepy Joe” did not just sit by and allow Mr Weah a free pass, though. He made sure to give him some grief. Thankfully, he gracefully conceded defeat after the results showed an overwhelming Weah win.

We too
Is there an opportunity then for a Nigerian case, say? Unlike Liberia, or France for that matter, Nigeria is a more complex country. Ethinic and religious divisions are deeper and wider. And there is the added disadvantage that Nigeria is still largely an ageist society. Incidentally, there is likely not a better place where this is writ large than in how Nigerian political parties are run. In Nigeria, if a young person rises to a position of power, it either occurs by accident (An Act of God) or because the person is the child of a very important person. A meritocratic political system, whereby a young person ascends to an exalted position, is non-existent. Another avenue is via the House of Representatives, where younger politicians tend to gravitate towards. A speaker, if young, could leverage on his national exposure and recognition to aspire to higher office. Unfortunately or incidentally, this tends to be no more than vying for the position of state governor. That is not entirely a bad thing. As governors have become highly influential as a collective, they now determine who becomes president of the Republic. Penultimately, they chose one of their own. President Muhammadu Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, a former governor, may not be the ideal case, though. By a stroke of good fortune, Mr Jonathan was nominated for the vice-presidency at the age of 50; while an incumbent state governor. Three years later, he became president. The prospects of another so “young” becoming a Nigerian president are not so bright, however: it would be unnatural for his kind of luck to be abundant.

Raise your flag
Point is, it is difficult for a young person to succeed in Nigerian politics or that of other major African countries. Our culture, ways and history do not lend themselves to making it likely that a young person would join a political party, and on his own merits, secure a presidential nomination, and win. If it is going to ever happen, however, it seems it would have to be like Mr Weah’s.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/nottooyoungtorun-lessons-weahs-trimph/

MainaGate: We must be fair

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

I have followed the “MainaGate” saga with great interest. (It refers to the furtive reinstatement into the public service of Abdul-Rasheed Maina, the former head of a presidential task force on pension reforms, who to the knowledge of the public had been declared wanted for myriad corruption allegations but was purportedly at large.) My views are mixed. After watching a 2-hour video recording of the investigative hearing by a committee of the lower house of the Nigerian legislature, what is clear to me is that Mr Maina has the sympathies of some people in the current government. He returned to a post at the interior ministry without any fear it seems. And the country’s chief spy, Lawal Daura, acknowledges action on a request on behalf of Mr Maina of a threat to his life. Mr Daura says since Mr Maina is a Nigerian and that they indeed found his fears to be credible, they had no choice but to take action. Nigerians likely find this interesting: You could not get past the gate of the premises of the spy agency if you were not “special”, talk less have the ears and heart of the agency’s chief. Besides, why would any agency help someone who everyone in the public domain thought to be a fugitive from justice? It could be that they are privy to a truth; but which would be injurious to the state if made public. Mr Daura also revealed without the slightest equivocation that Mr Maina is not on his agency’s watch list; hence why he has not been arrested. Furthermore, is it possible that Mr Maina would make incorrect claims about helping the authorities to recover assets in the knowledge that should these be found to be untrue, it would not help his already unfortunate circumstances? There are just too many questions. And many remain unanswered.

Passing the buck
My primary concern is really just about fairness. I am usually very wary when a narrative dominates the airwaves to the point that people become reluctant to espouse anything different. And in my experience, narratives with such prominence tend to contain some untruths. In time, the real state of affairs tends to unfold; but by then, it is usually not that useful for the victims of the earlier falsehood. But in this case, the lives of a man and his family are at stake. And the matter has been so publicised to the point that anything short of a proper resolution would be a great injustice. And the potential victims are not just Mr Maina and his relatives. A senior civil servant has accepted full responsibility for Mr Maina’s supposedly illegal reinstatement. I doubt very much he is as culpable as he claims. But there is a culture amongst the people from the part of the country he comes from about keeping to pacts and acting courageously. So should push come to shove, those he is likely protecting can sleep quite restfully in the knowledge that he would not change his tune later. To be clear, I am not taking sides here. But if murderers can be allowed the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, a purportedly corrupt former public servant can surely be allowed some accommodation.

Truth at all times
I think President Muhammadu Buhari was likely privy to at least some elements of the events that led to Mr Maina’s now supposed illegal reinstatement and promotion. When he became aware is the part one cannot objectively infer. To be fair, the president is procedurally apprised of only high-level details of issues. It is only when he prompts further that he is made aware of more. And even when a president does this, the details are still watered down. It is not the practice, however, for any president to probe too much; at least, not if his principal staffer, the chief of staff, Abba Kyari or any person in the position, has his full confidence. But when Mr Maina started gracing the full cover of newspapers, it would certainly have been impossible for Mr Buhari, who is well-known for his love of the papers, not to have become fully aware of the controversy and the injury it was causing his administration. Predictably, he directed that Mr Maina be immediately disengaged from the civil service and asked for a full report on the great matter. That said, Mr Maina’s issue has become so controversial that even when he receives the fairest hearing, it would be unwise to allow him back into the civil service. Besides, the matter could be left to the court which Mr Maina’s lawyers claim ordered his reinstatement in the first place; albeit he would probably be better off collecting his emoluments and retiring into a quiet life should he emerge victorious. Even so, some pragmatism could be applied to make the matter a win-win for all concerned. If his claim that he could help the authorities recover about three trillion naira in stolen public funds and assets – more than a third of planned public spending next year – is found to be credible, for instance, it should be pursued in exchange for some plea bargain deal (if applicable). But there is a broader issue about how public pension funds have been perennially misappropriated by public officials; ironically, the raison d’etre of Mr Maina’s task force. My advocacy is to Mr Buhari and not his underlings. No matter how villainous Mr Maina may have become and the potential costs to his government if he chooses to be fair, Mr Buhari must stick to the path of truth. Mr Maina should be given fair hearing, full protection by the security services whilst this lasts, and the judgements and resolutions by competent bodies on the matter should be implemented to the letter.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/mainagate-must-fair/

Diversified Nigerian economy still about oil

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

Last week, I was part of a brilliant panel at the 2017 Bonds, Loans and Sukuk Nigeria Briefing event in Lagos that discussed the Nigerian economic outlook for the coming year. With the economy largely looking upward, the panel was naturally upbeat about the future; no doubt helped by the release of better than expected Q3 GDP data just about 30 minutes earlier. The forecasts one had just before the data release had to be momentarily revised upwards, for instance. Above 1 percent GDP growth rate for 2017 is beginning to look feasible certainly; from earlier projections of below 1 percent. More importantly, earlier estimates of about 2 percent for 2018 seem somewhat conservative now. With planned ramped-up public spending, because of the political cycle no less, expected lower inflation and interest rates, likely appreciation of the naira on the back of likely high for longer crude oil prices, 3 percent GDP growth next year would not be farfetched at all. One veteran company board guru in attendance agreed as much in private.

What if
Amid this optimism, however, an experienced foreign portfolio manager rightly asked a so-called disconfirming question. What if oil prices go south again? Of course, recent events suggest that scenario is not likely for another year, at least. But if one were to learn from history, sometimes all it takes for things to go awry can be no more than a single event. For example, if anyone said previously that Russia would be crucial to solving the Syrian and North Korean crises and indeed be germane to whether the oil producers’ cartel OPEC (which meets on 30 November) would be able to sustain the efficacy of its production cuts, you would have been sceptical. But that is exactly the case now. No one could have envisaged the radical anti-corruption move by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia or that his power would be formalized so quickly, for instance. Incidentally, the Saudi royal’s youthful exuberance is already becoming writ large: while the Yemeni war is still ongoing and the cold shoulder towards Qatar persists, MBS virtually held hostage the head of government of a sovereign country; and with the benefit of hindsight clearly forced him to read out a resignation letter that was intended to instigate a conflict with Iran. Otherwise there is no other explanation for why Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri would, following summons from the Saudis, quit office in Riyadh on supposed intelligence of plans to assassinate him and then suddenly change his mind after what is believed to be an internationally brokered “release” from their watchful eye. (Upon returning to Beirut, Mr Hariri announced he would not be leaving office after all.) And since then, MBS has been unrelenting in his acerbic rhetoric towards the Iranian leadership. At this rate, it is beginning to seem like the bad blood between the Arabs and Persians might be a better trick for keeping the price of crude oil above $50 than any coordinated production cuts could ever do; albeit the Saudi and Iranian oil ministers have been largely speaking with one voice on an expected extension of the period for the production cuts. Besides, both countries need oil prices to remain high.

Political tune dictates
So what was my reply to the portfolio manager I referred to earlier? The problem with the Nigerian economy has never been about its structure. An economy that is 90 percent non-oil is not any sense of the word a mono-economy. It has always been the policy response. Unlike the popular perception, there is not so much a fixation on the exchange rate by foreign portfolio investors as there is on the crude oil price: they know to fly to safety the moment it seems like it would sustainably be below $50. Without saying so explicitly, what he really meant to ask about was the likelihood of capital controls if oil prices tanked again. And my view is that irrespective of the very nice commentary coming from the lips of officials at the central bank about the many lessons they have learnt during this most recent foreign exchange crisis, if another one comes about in the coming year, they would likely respond in a similar or worse fashion. Why? Electioneering ahead of the 2019 elections has begun in earnest. So, we are already in a political cycle. Within such a context, does anyone really think the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) would simply hands off if crude oil prices go back to the $30-$40 area? Bear in mind that even at the current above-$50 price levels, the CBN is believed to still participate actively in the buoyant investors’ and exporters’ (I&E) FX window; albeit on both the demand and supply sides. Thus, should crude oil prices fall again, I doubt very much the CBN would behave any differently; especially under a government that is keen on a second term and is led by a president that is very sensitive to the level of the exchange rate. To be fair, it would not be because the CBN does not know the right thing to do. And its officials were definitely not dumb in the past. They simply did not have the political space to do the smart thing. In the coming year, that space would become even smaller.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/diversified-nigerian-economy-still-oil/