It is getting clearer by the day that the Nigerian economy may be sicker than we earlier thought. The indices are there for all to see. Many factories have closed down or are producing below capacity. About 30 per cent of Nigerians below the age of 35 are unemployed, unemployable, under-employed or mis-employed.
Many of those who are concluding their compulsory national youth service this month have no idea what they are going to do next. The steady income from oil in past years has masked the severity of our self-inflicted unemployment. While oil is a major source of income for the government, it has never been the major sources of employment for the people. Therefore, the creeping time-bomb of unemployment is coming to our attention because the oil cash flow has reduced into a trickle.
This is not the first time our country is facing a general economic downturn. During the Civil War, the economy was in a dire straight. Yet the Federal Government, under the leadership of General Yakubu Gowon and his able Minister of Finance, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was able to steer the ship of state through that troublous times. It is on record that Nigeria did not borrow money to finance the Civil War. The second challenge came during the ill-fated Second Republic when President Shehu Shagari was forced to seek emergency powers to deal with the economic situation.
One of the highlights of that period was the public letter written in 1981 by Awolowo, the leader of the opposition Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, to President Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria, NPN. Stated Awolowo in his letter: “Our ship of state is fast approaching a huge rock, and unless you, as the chief helmsman, quickly rise to the occasion and courageously steer the ship away from its present course, it shall hit the rock, and the inescapable consequence will be an unspeakable disaster such as is rare in the annals of man.”
Shagari fired back: “You are not serious when you refer to our economy as depressed. Ours is acknowledged world wide, as one of the fastest growing economies in the world.”
Those words have a familiar ring when we remember what happened in the closing days of the Goodluck Jonathan regime. We were told as that regime was facing the possibility of a disorderly retreat that “after rebasing, the Nigerian economy is the largest in Africa.” The truth is that today is the day after the party. The binge is over and we need to deal with the aftermath. Our greatest resource is not oil but the large market that our population represents. But now, because of the exotic taste of the Nigerian population, we have turned what should be an advantage into something else.
The last binge session was a roaring time. So great was the time that one of the servants of the republic used N1.5 billion to charter aircrafts for official and private use within a space of 24 months. Another bought two cars worth more than N150 million. One of top guy had his bank account full to the brim to the extent that he had to keep some of the extra cash in the septic tank of his house. Now the party is over.
It would be good for the experts to deliberate how to take us out of this pass. However, one cannot but ruminate on who we were when we were rich. Chief Alfred Rewane, the late chieftain of the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, once told us a story on how he became a millionaire at a young age. He got into the business of exporting cattle horns to the United Kingdom. In the aftermath of the Second World War, British factories needed those giant horns sported by Nigerian cattle. It was from this simple business that Rewane became a millionaire before 30.
In the past, we were considered wealthy not because of our oil, but because of our work. Now, we want to be wealthy without the benefit of work. During the colonial era and up to the end of the First Republic, many European countries use to import hide and skin from Nigeria. It was used mainly for furniture and shoe making. Later Nigerians learnt how to make first-class furniture especially in Lagos, Benin, Akure and Kano and good shoes. European and Lebanese businessmen would come to Nigeria to buy furniture for export our furniture to Europe and Asia. Some of them also set up factories in Nigeria to take advantage of our skilled labour in this sector and the large domestic market.
That is now ancient history. Few years ago, I visited a governor of one of the South-South states. He was boasting how all the furniture in the new Government House were imported from Europe, especially Italy and France. He was only telling the truth not only about his state, but almost all the states of the federation. Gone were the days when the likes of Governor Adekunle Ajasin of old Ondo State would look for furniture makers in Akure, the state capital, to furnish government apartments. The situation today is that we are importing settees from China and fake bullet-proof doors from Taiwan and South Korea.
After the Imagbon War of the late 19th Century, the Ijebu country of the present Ogun State was brought under British rule. One of the things that attracted the British to Ijebuland was the richness of the Ijebu forest which has sturdy trees like Obese, Iroko and mahogany. Therefore, the colonial authorities in Lagos decided to grant monopoly to a British firm to exploit the resources of the Ijebu forest. The Ijebu resisted vigorously and would not allow the British to take over the wealth of their forests. Soon, the Ijebu learnt the secret of the timber trade and the first set of Ijebu millionaires, including the legendary Ogbeni Oja, Chief Adeola Odutola, were timber merchants.
Ijebu-Ode still has the evidence of that Golden Age. Nigeria’s Number One tree planter, Giwa Bisi Rodipe, is a denizen of Ijebu-Ode where he operates the Bisrod Furniture Factory. That notwithstanding, the Ijebu are also now importing inferior doors and other furniture items from China and other countries.
The more we consume other peoples’ products, the more we keep our own people in the Army of the unemployed. We produce the best wine, the palm-wine, in the world, and yet we are one of the greatest importers of wine. Every year, Nigeria spends billions of dollars importing wine, spirit, champagne and juice. We have many universities and research institutions and we are yet to come up with the formular to successfully bottle palm-wine for export.
Palm-wine is regarded as the best wine in the world because it has the highest grade of natural yeast. Because of its superior quality, the members of the Palm-Wine Drinkard Club says when Jesus Christ turned water to wine during his first miracle, the palm-wine must have been the product. Therefore, they call palm-wine the “holy water”, a claim that is regarded as a blasphemous by many serious Christians.
Now the holy water is no longer acceptable even to the orishas to which it was sometimes dedicated. Few years ago, we have gone to do a burial of an elderly person in Okemesi, Ekiti State. There were traditional groups that should be feted because of the age and position of the deceased. Would some of the groups take palm-wine? Their answer was an emphatic no. “Ogun gan o mu emo mo! (Even Ogun does not take palm-wine anymore!)
Ogun, one of the deities in the Yoruba pantheon, is the god of war and patron saints of blacksmith, artists and travellers. According to legends, during his earthly sojourn, he was in Ire, one of the ancient Ekiti towns, where he drank palm-wine with the natives. Since then, palm-wine has been associated with Ogun and his worshippers. But now, Ogun does not drink palm-wine. He would prefer imported spirit and his devotees have since ported to other drinks. Palmwine that could bring our country billions of dollars every year are left in the bush. We are the beggar sitting on a throne of gold.
So how can a community or a country be wealthy if it does not drink its own wine, wear its own cloths, eat its own food or produce its own furniture? Which kind of society would the youths prefer second hand clothes from Europe and rags from the United States to new clothes made in their own country? Next time you see your wife wearing hair from India, blouse from Italy, shoes from Spain, wristwatch from Japan, jean pant from the United States while serving you rice grown in Thailand as you are seated on a chair made in China, while savouring wine produced in South Africa, you know whom to blame for your brother’s unemployment.