Good news, bad news

It was meant to be the most cheering news of the year about our country. It was. It was meant to call for national celebration.It did. Dr. NgoziOkonjo-Iweala, the minister of finance and co-ordinating minister of the economy, could not help crowing. She said: “Nigeria has moved to be the largest economy by GDP size in Africa and has moved to be the 26th largest economy in the world.”Nigeria was 37th in the world. That tells you how great the leap is.

I puckered my brows when she added:  “We did not set out to be the biggest economy in Africa.” I am not sure what she intended to suggest. If it was modesty, then it was sadly delivered with an apologetic tone.Unnecessary.I thought we had always set out to be the best and the biggest in everything in Africa. We set out to be the most populous nation on the continent. We are. We set out to be the leading crude oil producer on the continent. We are. We set out to replicate Hollywood and our Nollywood is now the third largest move industry in the world. We set out to make our ruling political party the largest in Africa. We did.
Well, we did not set out to become one of the most corrupt nations and one of the poorest in the world.We did but that is another story.Our nationwears the stained garland of inexplicable paradox of rich but extremely poor nation. If she apologises for these I would understand.

These are not the best of times for our country, what with the insecurity challenges that befuddle our leaders and wraps our tomorrow in blanket of fear. But that is no reason not to cheer our country’s great leap in the size of its economy. The cheering news boils down to this: Nigeria’s gross national product has jumped from $258.555 billion to $509.9 billion. The last figure translates into N80.22 trillion. No Nigerian, thinking in his native language, can quite comprehend that but I suppose if you pile up this quantum of Naira, anyone standing on top of the mountain would be touching heaven. Our per capita income has also leap-frogged from the miserable $1.50 to $2,688.

On the face of it, it means no Nigerian is today living below the poverty line of a dollar a day. If you thought we have wiped out poverty, I would advise you do not spend your last Naira celebrating it.Just not yet.
On with the good news.We have now displaced South Africa from its former perch as the biggest economy in Africa. Its GDP, compared to ours, is a miserable $370 billion. President Jacob Zuma has a lot of catching up to do now with President Goodluck Jonathan. Splendid.

I am sure the curious are asking: How did we achieve this feat? Do you suppose that a country whose president is called Goodluck must necessarily expect a lucky break in the size of its economy? Perhaps. But the question takes us to the arcane world of economists.It is not a world I am competent to explain with any degree of clarity.It is a dense world of figures.Economistsare the only professionals permitted to juggle and manipulate figures to paint the picture of a country’s economy in even two colours simultaneously – beautiful and ugly. In this case, the economic magic wand that changed the size of our economy in the time it takes to say wazobia,is something called rebasing. This patently strange word in our national discourse refers to the decision by a country tobase its national accounts on new calculations using a new year as the base.

Countries usually do this every four of five years. The last time Nigeria did it was in 1990. Perhaps that is what makes the leap spectacular. If we had followed the convention, we would have monitored the development in our national economy better. We would see its gradual growth and the contributing factors.Countries do rebasing to get a clearer picture of the size of and the contributing factors to their economies to help them plan and manage them better. It follows that if a country is remiss in this, it leaves itself no choice but to grope in the dark. This means that despite all the claims to the health of our national economy, its managers have been groping in the dark. They did not quite know. It should tell you something about why the management of our national economy has been and is still riddled with contradictions and paradoxes.

President Jonathan and his team would feel naturally inclined to tout this new development as evidence of their competent economic husbandry. I would ask them to moderate their celebration. Our national economy is more or less on auto-pilot. It has been so for as long as anyone can remember. This mathematical calculation would have turned out the same result under any other president in the country who did not have a former World Bank technocrat as the coordinating minister of his economy.

This mathematically correct size of our economy tells only one side of the story and cannot even pretend to hide the other side that calls for no cheer at all.It was not out of a churlish desire to throw bad news at us that the World Bank released its assessment of the Nigerian economy about the same time the rebased figures reared their beautiful head. The bank says “that the Nigerian economic statistics reveal a puzzling contrast between rapid economic growth and quite minimal welfare improvements for much of the population.” In 2013, Nigeria ranked 153 out of 186 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index.

Unemployment rose from 12% in 2006 to 24% in 2011. It is most unlikely that these unsettling facts and figures have changed for the better since then.Our national population is estimated at 158 million. A worrying 122 million out of this number live below the poverty line. That is more than the population of many African countries put together.
It should be a matter of national pride thatSouth Africa now trails behind Nigeria in the size of its economy but its per capita is more than twice ours at $7,508. And while Nigeria is in the same bracket with the poorest of the poor in the world, South Africa is not.

This rebased figure appears to lull our economic managers into believing that in Africa, Nigeria is the place to be and, perhaps, to do business. Okonjo-Iweala was quoted as saying: “If you’re not in Nigeria, you’re not in Africa. And you’re kidding yourself.”
This is sheer arrogant posturing. Whatever the size of our economy, two fundamental problems prevent the country from pulling itself out of the mire of its underdevelopment: poor governance and corruption. The minister knows that too well. No mathematical abracadabra can change this fact in the foreseeable future. Our new per capita income is merely a figure on paper. It makes no difference to the wretched of the nation.We are still a poor country, despite our enormous human, service, natural and agricultural resources. And that is why the South Africans are not losing sleep over our number one position in Africa.

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