Showing posts with label Royal Mail. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Royal Mail. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Your Majesty, The Flat Face Of The Naira

In this chapter from Royal Mail, his twelve-part epistle to Queen Elizabeth II of England, the renowned Nigerian poet, King Nengi Josef Ilagha, Mingi XII, Amanyanabo of Nembe, suggests that the name of the Naira be changed to Turinchi, the Hausa-Fulani word for English, to reflect the national heritage of Nigeria as it marks 50 years of political independence from Britain.


The Flat Face Of The Naira

No one can make you a slave without your consent
- Eleanor Roosevelt

YOUR MAJESTY, I am a living witness to just how round the pound is, even as a coin, and how prestigious it is in hand. There’s no dirt on the face of the Queen in the fifty pound note. It is the strongest currency in the world, and has been so for so long. The dollar bows to it, and so does the yen. The euro does not compare with the sterling by a yardstick, which is why the average British citizen would rather not have any kind of political merger that might spell a drop in value for the sterling.

By the way, how does it feel to have your face on your own national currency, to know that wherever the pound is, there you are as well? Today when I tell my children that, once upon a time, this same pound was the national currency in Nigeria, they find it hard to believe. It has become the stuff of legend that every pound and every shilling was mopped up by the Central Bank of Nigeria only in 1973, three years after the civil war. It is hard to believe that the naira, the Nigerian currency, was swapping on a cozy ratio of two naira to one pound at that time; that the naira indeed was on a comfortable one to one exchange footing with the American dollar.

Things have since fallen apart for the Nigerian naira, Your Majesty. The central government cannot hold it in place, not along the roadside market, not on the stock exchange. Recently, I had cause to change a huge pile of naira notes, all two hundred thousand pieces of them, and was suitably embarrassed to receive a sum under one thousand pounds in exchange. In the batting of an eyelid, I had finished counting. Before the imperial pound, the naira simply falls flat on its face, a willing slave on the fiscal calculus. I am still at a loss as to how this happened, Your Majesty, and why we haven’t been able to rise to our full height for so long.
At the recent Isaac Boro day celebrations in London, the special representative of the President at the occasion, Braeyi Ekiye, was telling the packed audience about the progress being made at the home front with regard to the proposed electoral reforms. Even though I was familiar with the figure that had been approved for the electoral commission towards the 2011 elections, the explosive sound of eighty-seven billion naira still reverberates in my ears -- and it has nothing to do with the burp of the microphone before Ekiye’s lips.

In times past, I thought, that figure would amount to the overall budget of a number of states for one year. Now, it is one of many approvals that the President is obliged to endorse within a space of four months. As the days unfold, my fellow country men and women seem to lose sight of a geographical verity, that the higher you go the cooler it becomes. With regard to the naira, in this particular case, the higher the figures the lower the value of our currency in the international money market.

Once upon a time, the naira was the leading and most liquid currency in all of West Africa, so much so that it was proposed as the legal tender of the sub-region. That’s because the Ghanaian cedi as well as the West African CFA franc were underlings, so many thousand units exchanging for a handful of naira. Not so anymore. We now count our funds in mouthfuls as well, and the more high-sounding the amounts, the more gratifying in the ears of the average contractor and his political collaborator. Every day, so much money is voted for, and so little gets done. Chinua Achebe testifies that “we have become so used to talking in millions and billions that we have ceased to have proper respect for the sheer size of such numbers.” He was writing in 1983, mark you. Today, twenty-seven years later, the tendency to proclaim billion naira figures is far more manifest, in the private calculations of individuals as in the official pronouncements of government.

Let me bring you up to date on this, Your Majesty. One of the most hopeful road projects in the fifty-year history of Nigeria is the Nembe-Brass road. It was first proposed by the Niger Delta Development Board in 1962. Then it came on the Federal Government's drawing board in 1971, and was first awarded by the General Yakubu Gowon regime, evidently in millions. The same project was re-awarded in 1983 by the Shehu Shagari government but was botched by the coup that was to follow. It was awarded a third time in 1990 by the Babangida regime only to be conveniently abandoned. In the wake of the presidential amnesty granted Niger Delta militants, the contract was awarded for a record fourth time in November 2009, just before the late President Yar’Adua took ill.

Today, the entire forty-two kilometer stretch of the road commencing from Yenagoa and cutting through Oloibiri and Nembe right down to Brass on the fringes of the Atlantic Ocean, is estimated to cost one billion naira per kilometer. That would be forty-two billion naira, only. Professor E.J. Alagoa, chairman of the Nembe-Ibe Group Road Project, laments that forty-eight years after the idea for the road was first mooted and the commitment of the Federal Government was spelt out on paper, the road is still a future prospect. Given the penchant for cost variations in Nigeria’s construction industry, to say nothing of kick-backs and side kicks, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to Your Majesty if the road swallows all of eighty-four billion naira, if not more, by the time it gets to destination point.

Nigeria is an odd country, Your Majesty, at cross purposes with itself. Even in the development of literature and the arts, Nigeria is deficient. The writers weep for lack of patronage. Values are turned upside down and inside out. Nigeria is the only country on the face of the earth where an enlightened panel of judges decides the best nine books of poetry out of 163 published in four years, and yet cannot declare the winner. And then -- surprise, surprise! -- the prize money goes to the panel. It happened on the night of October 10, 2009, at the Nicon Noga in Abuja.

Former Heads of States were there, business tycoons were there, politicians came in all their pageantry. Only conscience was in flight. None of the eggheads on parade could ease the microphone from the Master of Ceremonies, and tell the panel of professors and their sponsors on the spot that it was wrong to advertise a prize for one full year, and demure when it mattered most. The prize money in question was not in naira. It carried greater value. It was fifty thousand United States dollars.
As Dan Agbese, one of Nigeria’s most perceptive journalists, would put it: “What distinguishes Nigeria from other countries is not our wealth but the way we use it. Other countries spend money to solve their problems. We turn money into missiles and shoot them at our problems.” He couldn’t have put it better. The poets in question are still reeling with shock in the aftermath of that unnecessary coup.

Even so, Your Majesty, you were no less unconscionable in your bid to exploit the resources of Nigeria. I dare say the British Crown built a good part of modern Britain on the wealth you colonized from our groundnut pyramids, our cocoa pods, our palm produce and our oil wells, in much the same way that Babangida built Abuja with the wealth derived from the Niger Delta. You will do well to wipe your conscience clean of this imperial misdemeanour.

It is time to own up to what you took by force and guile, time to return every artifact in your National Museum at Bloomsbury, every artistic piece that bears the signature of Nigeria, beginning with the sixteenth century Ivory Mask from Benin which was the mascot for the Second African Festival of Arts and Culture, FESTAC ‘77. And that is just in the cultural sector. It is time for restoration on a pervasive scale, time for conscience to have the right of way in your dealings with our nation and its long-suffering people.


If you were to throw a question over the heads of the Nigerian multitude, and ask all those who do not think that Jesus Christ can conduct free and fair elections in the country to raise their hands, only one man is bound to do so. That man is Olusegun Okikiola Obasanjo, OOO for short, a farmer from Ota who has since lost his hoe. It is like an obsession with him to utter offensive statements. Obasanjo is prone to blasphemy, Your Majesty. Like Prince Phillip, he has a risqué sense of humour. As Professor Charles Nnolim would say, “every time he opens his mouth, a big fat toad jumps out.” You want to hazard a bet? No need for that. OOO is my fellow country man. I know him better than you do. Never mind the show he put up for you when you visited Abuja seven years ago.

On the eve of the 2003 elections, Sam Aluko, one of the foremost economists in the country, had cause to compare the Abacha and Obasanjo administrations side by side. He scored Abacha far higher than OOO. At the very next press conference the farmer attended, the question came up for air. What’s your reaction to what Professor Aluko said about your government and its mismanagement of the naira? Obasanjo’s retort went right off the mark.
“That one whose son is a thief in the Senate?”

Talk about effrontery, Your Majesty. The man left the substance of the matter altogether and stalked the shadow instead. How fallacious can he get? Ask me another question. When approached for comments, Aluko chose not to join issues with the farmer. If he were to oblige him, he would have probably underscored the fact that, under Abacha, the naira exchanged for twenty-two to one dollar. But by the time Obasanjo left office on May 29, 2007, following his failed bid to make a third term, the naira had fallen to a sprawling low of one hundred and fifty to one dollar.
Mark you, I am not holding brief for General Sani Abacha. He was the most mindless, the most rabid, of all the dictators that ever governed Nigeria these past fifty years. His personal record of corruption and graft ranks as the most brazen in the annals of our history. The Swiss Bank is my witness. In fact, the government of OOO took it upon itself to investigate Abacha’s wholesale looting of Nigeria's coffers, and declared that $4 billion or £3 billion worth of foreign assets were traced to Abacha, all acquired at the expense of the tax payer. In 2002, out of $2.1 billion demanded by the government, Abacha's family agreed to return $1.2 billion that was annexed from the Central Bank. In many ways, Abacha was the last Nigerian military dictator. It is now twelve years since he passed on. We don’t need another.

It so happens that Bayelsa, one of the five states created by Abacha on October 1, 1996, remains something of a baby in diapers, practically exploited to retardation by its politicians and contractors, suffering under the malignant shadow cast by Abacha’s corrupt antecedents. Only recently, the current governor of the state earnestly promised on national television that he would build the first hanging bridge in Nigeria, so that the rest of humanity could come from far and near to see this construction engineering wonder.

Your Majesty, he spoke as one who has seen the drawbridge across the River Thames, and therefore that may not cut ice with you. I merely mention this as an indication of how imaginative our politicians can get. For fifty years of our sovereign nationhood, we have been coping with grand dreams conceived to hoodwink the hopeful voter and to buy time, while the treasury is systematically plundered for the selfsame prospect of the proverbial hanging bridge that never would be. And for ingenuity, for sheer creative bravado, a special prize must go to the chairman of the environmental sanitation authority in the state who stuffed four hundred million naira of tax payers’ money into an empty water tank, and left the criminal sum hanging high above his roof in what may well qualify as the modern-day equivalent of the Akassa Raid. That is how bad the scramble for the naira has become in the country you once ruled, God save the Queen.

What is even more ludicrous is that, on the eve of our country’s Golden Jubilee anniversary, a retired military dictator you may have heard about, a veteran coup maker with pretensions to decent civilian conduct, has declared his intentions to run for the presidency in the forthcoming elections. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, of course, gives him sufficient leave to contest for any office of his choice, as well he might. He believes he can lay the flat face of the naira on the negotiation table, and buy up every Nigerian conscience that may be up for sale ahead of the elections. By and by, we shall know just how far his bidding goes.
In the meantime, I suggest we change the face value of the naira, and opt for a more acceptable currency that would reflect our national heritage. Let us change the name of the Naira to Turinchi, the Hausa-Fulani word for English. After all, the English language has been our lingua franca in the last fifty years, and is likely to remain so for another half a century.