Once again, Nigeria is on a binge borrowing to another national debt crisis. According to the Debt Management Office, Nigeria’s total debt stock increased to $62.87 billion (N19.15 trillion) at the end of first quarter 2017, from $57.39 billion (N17.36 trillion) at the end of last year. While the external debt rose from $11.40 billion at the end of December to $13.80 billion at the end of March 2017, the domestic component of the debt fell from N13.88 trillion to N11.97 trillion.
Amid ailing finances, Nigeria’s debt is expanding again at a rapid pace with a huge debt servicing cost. In the past five years, Nigeria has spent $1.62 billion for servicing of external loans contracted by both the federal and state governments. In all, the Federal Government proposed to additionally borrow about $30 billion between 2016 and 2018 to be arranged from five multilateral institutions: World Bank, African Development Bank, Japan International Co-operation Agency, Islamic Development Bank and the China EximBank.
The breakdown of the package shows that $4.8 billion will be spent on the Mambila Hydro-electric Power Plant; $3.5 billion on railway modernisation coastal project (Calabar-Port Harcourt-Onne Deep Seaport segment); $1.6 billion for Abuja mass rail transit project; $1.1 billion to kick-start the Lagos-Ibadan segment of the Lagos-Kano railway modernisation project and $1.3 billion for the Kano-Kaduna section. Another $6 billion is devoted to social programmes in health and education. From this figure, $7 billion would be sought this year.
The Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, declared recently that the solution to our rising debt service cost was not to stop borrowing, but to raise revenue from tax as a low hanging fruit. According to her, Nigeria’s 69 million taxpayers have devised means of beating an opaque tax collection system. Her analysis shows that out of this figure, only 214 people pay personal income tax of about N20 million each, despite the fact that the country has the highest number of Africa’s wealthiest people.
Adeosun’s aggressive tax collection and the plan to boost capital spending are welcome and indeed overdue, but her solution to Nigeria escaping another debt crisis is inadequate. We agree that the economy needs a sufficient amount of public debt to function well. The economy suffers from obvious infrastructure deficiencies like electricity, roads, rails, water systems and more, which, according to some estimates, will require $31 billion to fix each year for the next decade.
And one way to put debt in perspective is to compare it to gross domestic product. The debt-to-GDP ratio is one primary indicator of a country’s economic health; a lower ratio is generally seen as more favourable, as it shows that a country is producing enough to eventually be able to repay its debts. The Economist magazine’s Global Debt Stock puts our public debt at $55,944,262,295, public debt per person at $309.57, public debt as percentage of GDP at 19.1 per cent and total annual change of 6.3 per cent. From the figures, we appear to be in a reasonable threshold when compared with that of South Africa’s $226,101,639,344 total public debt at $4,657 per person, 42.2 per cent of GDP and 12.5 per cent annual change.
But that is where the good news ends. The bad news is that successive governments have so badly managed resources only to resort to borrowing to meet consumption and feed the prevailing system of graft and patronage while piling up debts. Similarly, Nigeria is not among the world’s economic powerhouses. We are also not persuaded that the government is utilising loans judiciously as a tool for development. It is wrong therefore to justify borrowing using global thresholds knowing that we run an economy with an acute infrastructure deficit, one that is dependent on crude oil receipts for over 70 per cent of government revenues, where the rule of law is weak and one where excessive corruption derails all development programmes. Our oil-resource economy is another disincentive. With oil receipts dominating fiscal revenue and exports, the Nigerian economy has been hit hard by falling oil prices and low oil production. It is argued that a drastic and persistent fall in public assets, caused by a fall in revenue, would, in the long run, increase the risk of debt distress. Unlike Nigeria, countries like Malaysia, South Africa, Brazil and South Korea have built up infrastructure, diversified and built export-oriented economies and could therefore sustain such high debt-to-GDP ratios. In these and other countries, corruption is not as endemic as it is in Nigeria.
Many have had a hand in creating this mess. For an economy highly dependent on oil revenue and given the volatility in oil prices, an appropriate policy choice would have been a vigorous accumulation of oil savings during a boom time and using them in a downturn. The Goodluck Jonathan government failed Nigeria woefully on this score. Nigeria sailed through the 2008-09 crisis with ample buffers: the balance in the Excess Crude Account, according to an International Monetary Fund damning report, was put at $22 billion (8 per cent of GDP), while gross international reserves stood at $62 billion (equivalent to 16 months of imports). But Jonathan came and squandered a substantial part of that. By 2014, the ECA had been depleted to $4 billion (½ per cent of GDP) and GIR had fallen to $40 billion (about 8½ months of imports). Over time, the GIR fell below $30 billion in 2015 on Jonathan’s watch. Yet, as of March 31, 2015, the Jonathan government left a public debt of $63.5 billion or N12. 062 trillion. A year later, the debt stock climbed further to $71.7 billion or N13. 8 trillion.
Many others also brought this country to the sad state of affairs. For instance, while Nigeria is running from pillar to post seeking external loans to fund the budget, the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria just says that the debts owed it by 350 Nigerians would be enough to fund about N2 trillion deficit in the 2017 budget. “The Federal Government will have no need to borrow in order to finance part of the budget if they (AMCON debtors) pay the debts.”
No doubt, the treasury that Adeosun inherited from the Jonathan administration was almost out of cash. But the Buhari government statist approach to economic management is wrong. The administration must not drag Nigeria into a Greece-like debt crisis when a left-leaning, socially liberal government embarked on large increase in government spending. Government spending and borrowing soared, leading to 16 years of double-digit fiscal deficit. This, according to a report, stifled the private sector and saw an explosive expansion of the public sector as a percentage of total GDP.
How should Nigeria, therefore, manage its debt? The previous loans were expended on ill-conceived projects. Therefore, how the loans were utilised should be audited before new ones are taken. In addition to cracking down on artful tax dodgers, the government should take measures to shrink the bloated state, retool the anti-graft war and address the illicit financial outflow. Economic diversification driven by the private sector can only make sense if it is accompanied by aggressive privatisation plan.