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Watching Nigeria from afar

BY: Elizabeth Ohene
The Writer
The Writer

Nigeria, our big and powerful neighbour, never ceases to amaze me. Just when you think they cannot possibly do anything that can surprise, they find something to outdo themselves.

Before the events of last Saturday when the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced the postponement of the elections four hours to the opening of the polls, I had, for weeks, been fascinated by a story from the Central Bank of Nigeria.

The Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Mr Godwin Emefiele, had said in a speech that the various initiatives aimed at encouraging domestic production had resulted in Nigeria’s monthly import bill falling significantly from $665.4 million in January 2015, to $160.4 million as of October 2018, representing a drop by 75.9 per cent and an implied savings of over US$21 billion on food imports alone over that period.

According to him, many Nigerian entrepreneurs were taking advantage of policies aimed at ramping local production to venture into the domestic production of the restricted items with remarkable successes and great positive impact on employment.

The most dramatic decline were the 97.3 per cent cumulative reduction in monthly rice import bills, 99.6 per cent in fish, 81.3 per cent in milk, 63.7 per cent in sugar, and 60.5 per cent in wheat.

Restriction

Now, this bit of information almost took my breath away and when I got over my astonishment, I decided Nigeria had obviously cracked whatever it is we in these parts have been struggling so hard to crack. I sent on the article to all those I thought would be interested.

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For latest news in Ghana, visit Graphic Online news headlines page Ghana news page

This was the backstory. The Central Bank of Nigeria had in July 2015, restricted 41 items from accessing foreign exchange from the interbank foreign exchange market.

The restriction was not on the goods, the items were not banned or restricted by the Nigerian customs or the Federal Government. The importers of the restricted items were simply asked to source their foreign exchange requirements from autonomous sources.

Governor Emefiele waxed lyrical: “If we continue to support the growth of smallholder farmers, as well as help to revive palm oil refineries, rice mills, cassava and tomato processing factories, you can only imagine the amount of wealth and jobs that will be created in the country.

These could include new set of smallholder farmers that will be engaged in productive activities; new logistics companies that will transport raw materials to factories, and finished goods to the market; new storage centres that will be built to store locally produced goods; additional growth for our banks and financial institutions as they will be able to provide financial services to support these new businesses; and finally, the millions of Nigerians that will be employed in factories to support processing of goods.”

I said a loud Amen to this as I replaced Nigeria and Nigerians with Ghana and Ghanaians in the speech. Planting for Food and Jobs was on my mind and I could see in my mind’s eyes the new logistics companies transporting raw materials to factories etc. etc.

I thought about the first time I had gone to Nigeria, courtesy of the Daily Graphic. The Biafra civil war had formally ended a few weeks earlier, and there, on the streets of Lagos, were vehicles with Biafran number plates. For years I cited this as evidence of how willing Nigerians were to move on once something was over.

Then I thought of getting out of Murtala Mohammed Airport two days after General Abacha had died and the first bold headline I saw on a newspaper being offered for sale: Abacha Gone, May He Rot in Hell. Nobody looked surprised or shocked at this headline.

My mind went to what must surely be an apocryphal story in the early 1990s about how Nigeria dealt with a dispute with Britain about Nigerians being asked to fill in visa applications the size of a midsize booklet, which Ghanaians had been doing for about two years.

The story goes that a British Airways jumbo jet arrived at Murtala airport, was asked to wait, three Nigerian Immigration officials entered the plane and went straight to the first-class compartment where they asked for the passports of about five British travellers, opened them to the page with Nigerian visas and stamped CANCELLED on the visas.

I might add that in those days, Nigeria still had clout and the London to Lagos route was the most profitable for British Airways. The British amended the visa requirements for Nigeria and to this day they have more baggage allowance between London and Lagos than London and Accra.

I once sat in on Nigeria Senate Budget hearings. Don’t now remember how and why the matter came up, but I certainly remember a Senator dismiss Ghana as having a national budget which was “less, much less than the budget of Lagos State”.

But I brought my mind back firmly to current matters. The INEC, called off an election with less than five hours to the opening of the polls. This one beats anything and everything.

Maldives too did it

But then again, maybe not. I once went to the Maldives as a member of a Commonwealth Election Observer Team. It is a long flight from Ghana to the Maldives.

I got there, we were deployed and sent off to my set of islands. The Maldives Supreme Court ordered the elections to be cancelled at 3.52a.m. on the morning of the scheduled voting.

The Electoral Commission did not even know the Supreme Court was sitting on any electoral case.

I can’t and I shouldn’t compare the Maldives to Nigeria.

Somehow, I can’t work out that the same people who are able to restrict the importation of, and these are my favourites on the list of 41 items: toothpicks, rice, cement, margarine, palm kernel/palm oil products/vegetables oils, meat and processed meat products, vegetables and processed vegetable products, poultry chicken, eggs, turkey, private airplanes/jets, Indian incense, tinned fish in sauce(Geisha)/sardines, wheelbarrows, head pans, metal boxes and containers, enamelware, wooden doors, glass and glassware, kitchen utensils, tableware, textiles, oven fabrics, clothes, plastic and rubber products, cellophane wrappers, soap and cosmetics, tomatoes/tomato pastes, Eurobond/foreign currency bond/ share purchases; the same people cannot organise an election. In modern parlance, I have to SMH.

But spare a thought for my friend Ofeibea who reports for an international broadcaster. She went to the Democratic Republic of Congo to cover their elections. She was supposed to be back home for Christmas; she ended up there for seven weeks, after postponements, court injunctions and other related African electoral accoutrements.

She got to her base just in time to get ready to go and cover the elections in Nigeria. Now that President Muhammudu Buhari has ordered the police and military to be "ruthless" with vote-riggers, we have no idea how long Ofeibea’s trip in Nigeria is going to last.
Incredible Nigeria.

I salute Waiting to hear from the President

I know exactly what I would want the President to say when he goes to Parliament tomorrow.

I suspect most people have their own scripts of what they want or expect the President to say as he addresses Parliament on the state of the nation.