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Nigeria: A chance for re-awakening

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By March 2020, it had become very clear that COVID-19 was a global pandemic. The news media was awash with a shock announcement by the Central Bank of Nigeria on her exchange rate policy; In what can be regarded as an unexpected yet positive move, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) on Friday moved the official exchange rate from N307/US$1 to N360/US$1. At the Investors and Exporters Window (I & E), the CBN also adjusted the NGN peg upwards by 5.7%, as it raised its intervention rate to N380 from N366.”this caption was Dateline Mar 24, 2020on Nairametrics.com.

I wrote this article three years ago on January 20, 2017, after a sharp drop in Oil prices – and surprised how relevant it is even today. What was our experience as a country, what did we learn from it and how is it that we have once again been caught desperately unawares? 

Why can’t we fix our educational system and send our children to schools here? And fix our hospitals and treat our sick here, instead of our notoriety as big spenders on medical tourism?

Nigerians are gradually coming to terms that the cheese has indeed moved this time. The days of lucre and easy money, fuelled by petrodollars are far behind us; no thanks to shale oil and other sources of energy. 

The aimless swagger has been replaced by a renewed sense of purpose and the need to produce in order to survive. No wonder Agriculture seems to be the only game in town these days. To borrow from the words of Pravin Gordhan, Finance Minister of South Africa, it is now Agri-Cool. All manner of yesterday’s nose thumpers now proudly call themselves farmers; it is beginning to have a nice ring and tone to it. 

Unlike other oil boom and busts, it seems that this particular bust is here to stay. We seem to be in a stalemate. If we cut production to shore up prices, the shale producers will seize the opportunity to increase their own production and drive the prices right down. Not to talk of the conscious global effort towards cleaner renewable energy, and the significant improvement in its technology and adoption. COP 21 in Paris cemented the commitment to clean environment and green energy. 

Time was when first class and business class seats on commercial airlines in Nigeria were filled way before economy seats, and private jets littered all our airports. 

How did we get here? How did we subsequently fall from such deluded Olympian heights? The recurrent mistake we keep making as a nation is failing to anticipate and plan for our oil windfalls. There have been many boom opportunities since Nigeria joined the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1971; Oil prices increased by 400% in six short months after the Yom Kippur War following the Arab Oil Embargo. Crude prices doubled from $14 in 1978 to $35 per barrel in 1981 following the Iran/Iraq war. The price of crude oil spiked in 1990 with the uncertainties associated with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing Gulf War – the so called ‘Gulf War windfall’ under then Head of State Ibrahim Babangida. 

The report of the panel of enquiry headed by the eminent Dr. Pius Okigbo in 1994 was critical of the government’s role in mismanaging the $12.4b windfall. Most of it had inevitably gone with the wind.

Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that the latest windfall happened between February 2011 and August 2014, under the Goodluck Jonathan presidency, when oil prices were much in excess of $100 per barrel. Another golden opportunity was squandered, characterized by organized kleptocracy of epic proportions as has now come to light.

There is a saying in my native Igbo culture that an abomination that endures for long enough becomes part of the culture. Corruption came close to achieving this status in Nigeria.

Our inflated egos were matched with the adventure into GDP rebasing in 2014 which put Nigeria as the largest economy in Africa, overtaking South Africa. Alas this new status, propped up by an artificial exchange rate sustained by huge foreign reserves did not last. As the reserves dwindled, partial reality in the foreign exchange rate wiped away close to half of the estimated $510b GDP, and with it, our bragging rights. 

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I say ‘partial reality in the foreign exchange rate’, because I still feel that a differential of over 60% between the official rate and the parallel rate to the dollar seems to suggest that one of the rates is way off the mark. The acute shortage of the ‘Official Dollar’ seems to suggest that the parallel rate is closer to the mark. 

The thing about the market is that you can distort it for a while, but you cannot hold it back for long. The market is like water; it will always find its way.The earlier we let this happen the better for our economy. In one decade, I have witnessed the British pound at close to £1 to $1.9 and now as low as £1 to $1.22; yet the British government is not scrambling to shore up the pound by all means (including expensive subsidy of the currency). 

It should be understood that such distortions open huge arbitrage opportunities for those with access, which distract from productive pursuit. Rent seeking from allocation of dollars creates a new crop of overnight billionaires akin to those created during the era of petroleum subsidy. In the long run, it blows no good wind. 

I have always argued that more important than the exchange rate, is the stability of the rate, which removes uncertainty, and attracts investment. As it is, we are inadvertently inviting more pressure on the naira because even locals are saving their money in dollars, albeit at zero interest rates. And why not? They have figured out that even at the relatively high interest rates on treasury bills and fixed deposits, savings are halved in real terms due to the fast deteriorating exchange rate of the naira. 

We have to understand that the exchange rate is an indicator of the perception of performance, and opportunity in the economy.To shore it up you have to do the hard work of better economic management.Removing the alert on the dashboard of your car that tells you that the oil level is low, puts out the irritating light, but does not guarantee that the engine will not stop functioning further down the road. 

There is now an even more fervent glamour for buying Nigerian and growing what we eat. About time too. According to the Minister of State for Agriculture, Heineken Lokpobiri, Nigeria spends about $22bn annually on food imports. How can a country with a huge population of over 170 million people (a viable consumer market by any standard), squander such a whopping amount on imported food, and in the process export much needed jobs in the agriculture value chain? This is despite the huge fertile landmass and favourable climate? 

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It is no different in the Education and Health sectors. It was estimated that Nigerians studying in British and American Universities spent over N137billion on tuition and living expenses in 2014. There were also about 71,000 Nigerian students who paid tuition fees in excess of N160billion in Ghana during the same period (these may have easily doubled in the past year due to the deteriorating foreign exchange rate). And yet the Nigerian Government’s total budget for education in 2017 is N540b (a paltry $1.1b against South Africa’s $22b)

Why can’t we fix our educational system and send our children to schools here? And fix our hospitals and treat our sick here, instead of our notoriety as big spenders on medical tourism?

I understand that luxury shop owners in Dubai and London are asking loudly ‘where are the Nigerians?’ Well, the Nigerians are at home, confronting the new realities of basic survival. You only have to look into the eyes of the average Nigerian to glean the pain of adjustment. This difficult period is too painful to waste. We must seize the opportunity of this painful reality check, for a reawakening and realignment towards doing the right thing. As Maria Robinson said “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today to make a new ending”. Let us begin today to write the ending we want for our country.

Austin Okere is the Founder of CWG Plc, the largest ICT Company on the Nigerian Stock Exchange & Entrepreneur in Residence at CBS, New York. Austin also serves on the Advisory Board of the Global Business School Network, and on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Innovation and Intrapreneurship. Austin now runs the Ausso Leadership Academy focused on Business and Entrepreneurial Mentorship

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Op-Ed

Nigeria: Skydiving Without a Parachute Albeit Hopeful

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The polarization in Nigeria today is akin to that of the sixties-the very kind that left a scar in our history.

Besides the polarisation, the standard of living have worsened, heightened by the effect of coronavirus and other sundry economic issues. Sadly, it reminds me of Fantine in Les Miserables who sold her front tooth to buy food-I pray we don’t get to that point.

When Victor Hugo wrote his famous book, it was in reaction to societal happenings. My reactions to the state of Nigeria today, is comparable to a skydiver skydiving without a parachute yet counting on gravity’s grace.

Nearly everything is against us; the economic indices and the general state of play. It makes me more sad when the presidential spokesperson says “wailers should calm down”.

I wail for God and country and I want the best for my country. I will constantly wail until things get better. Perhaps Nigerians can give the leadership a chance at redemption, just so we see if they would turn a new leaf, a new page.

Let’s see how they will fight Covid-19 in 2021. I’ll also like to see how hitherto proposed infrastructural project will help the people. Maybe, somehow the CBN will work at harmonising forex. Maybe, just maybe the security situation will get better.

Perhaps a record number of people will move into middle class in 2021 after living on less than a dollar daily for years. These are my hopes as a Nigerian and if these are what qualify me as a wailer, I will continue to wail for God and for country.

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Op-Ed

Watching America Unravel: A Nigerian’s Perspective

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Watching America Unravel

For some people, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom was their first experience with the idea that America may not be the greatest country in the world. The gaspin the room when Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) expressed his doubt about it hints at how Americans may feel about the idea that something they’ve been told all their lives and one that may have formed the basis of sneering at people from other countries, may, in fact, be untrue. It’s how I feel when confronted with the facts that gnaw at the assertion that my country – Nigeria – is the giant of Africa. 

Granted, Nigeria is so called mainly because of her population, but also because of its political power and wealth back in the day. It may be hard for many people to fathom this, but the Naira did not always cower at the sight of the Dollar. 

For some of us, we’ve always felt we are way better than many of our neighbours in other countries; yet today, I have seen Ghanaians, who were once learning filmmaking from Nigerians, produce such beautiful pieces that Nollywood – Nigeria’s film industry – can barely match. That is just one of many examples. 

Here is another – according to internetworldstats.com, Kenyans have an internet penetration of 87.2% while Nigeria has 61.2%. While some would raise intelligent arguments about population and other factors, one truth stands out; the average person in Kenya has better access to internet service than I do and that doesn’t help me when I’m in the middle of those very interesting and engaging Twitter wars between Nigeria and Kenya. So, we may lag behind most countries in the arts, tourism, internet penetration, healthcare, and infrastructure, but the Giant of Africa, we are.

Much like Nigeria, America’s might lies in numbers and stories. According to ‘the media’ (we’ll catch up with this guy later), America is the greatest country on earth. When I watch American movies, I can see why and how Americans would believe that. Americans always save the day. American superheroes save the world and the American SWAT team can do all things; but these pale when held against real news stories and statistics that mirror the realities of the American experience. I still cannot get over the fact that conversations around gun legislation are so polarised. To me, it is probably the most interesting thing about America – that people would worry more about guns than life, even their own lives. I know that I may be biased because I live in a country where people don’t just own guns. Apart from that one incident where a distant relative strutted out of his house with a dane gun and fired it into the sky to mark the new year, I have never been in doubt about how guns make me feel – threatened. Even at the hands of my country’s law enforcement officers, guns are a source of trepidation. So, I know that they are not playthings and I find it baffling that Americans don’t mind the risk of putting guns in the hands of “unstable people”; especially because they are notorious for this. According to the American Center for Disease Control, 39,740 people died from gun violence in 2018. Americans are supposedly smarter and this sounds like a no brainer, but what do I know. “The second amendment was put there for a reason” and every gun needs a home.

Well, a country where people have so many unchecked security loopholes would not be my first choice. Nobody wants to leave his house thinking, “if I drive carefully and no drunk person runs me over, maybe someone will hit me during a mass shooting at the mall; but thank goodness for 911. I know help will show up in time”. As a Black person, this is heightened by the thought that anyone – even the police – may hurt me just because they feel threatened by my existence.

But why do I care at all, you may wonder. I am Nigerian and I live a safe distance from white supremacists, greedy pharmaceutical companies, and trigger-happy white people. All these should not be my business especially because I have many problems of my own. In an episode of ABC’s Boston Legal a citizen sued the United States for the ethnic violence in Sudan. The argument was that America’s declaration of interest in the fight against terrorism “wherever it thrives” made other countries that would have stood up to help Sudan, to hold back. Shirley Schmidt (played by Candace Bergen) the prosecuting attorney, asked that if America couldn’t rise to the occasion, it should say so. That’s how I feel about America in many ways.

As we wade through this pandemic, one can hardly quantify what the mixed signals from America have caused governments and individuals outside America, who still look to her as the greatest country in the world. One day, COVID-19 is a small fly and the next, it’s a serious issue; one day Hydroxy-Chloroquine is the answer and the next, it isn’t. One day, bleach can probably work to clear the human system and the next, it resumes its seat on the table of substances that are unfit for ingestion. In the words of Shirley Schmidt, “maybe as a compromise, we can get the US government to declare ‘hey, not our problem’. That way, the world will be on notice that someone else can “play hero” and we can turn our attention to a country like New Zealand, that is swift with a response to gun violence and pandemics and has a better healthcare system. 

One may also ask, if all these are true and America is not the greatest country in the world, why are Africans still flooding U.S. embassies to get visas? Say hello again to our friend ‘the media’. Good stories make good believers and the American media does a fantastic job. I also believe that for most of us, it’s the devil we know. Our family members are there, we’ve learned their culture through movies, etc., we know the language and even if Black people are sometimes killed for no reason, we know we’ll find our own there as opposed to searching for countries that are even more welcoming of immigrants. The rules are more explicitly spelled. The risks too.

Americans complain about their current president so bitterly. I understand we are watching the deterioration of her democracy under his leadership, but I know this man. His kinsman has been my president since 2015 and will remain so until 2022, all things being unequal. If he berates women, embarrasses his state and office, has been part of efforts to oppress certain parts of the population, is uncouth with his words, and lacks empathy; he is pretty much my current president. The only difference is, Trump seems to love pressers but we haven’t had one with our President for years. It doesn’t also help that ours isn’t tech-savvy enough to handle his own Twitter account. 

We know your demons, America and even if our issues are louder than yours, we can risk living with them. We can also live with the fact that, according to one of your journalists, Will McAvoy, America is “7th in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, number 4 in the labor force and number 4 in exports.” 

I will confess that beyond all the justifications I have given for my interest in America’s unraveling, there is a more interesting and selfish truth: while I live with the realities of my ailing country, I watch with an embarrassing amusement as Americans wake up to their problems and cry out so loudly over things like health insurance, dwindling respect for democracy and value of life; because as it appears, you are warming up to things my friends and I have lived with, and thrived in spite of. Over the years, we have tried to say that we who go out of our way to do honest work in this country deserve respect in the way you write about us in your movies and books, but all you have always chosen to hear and see is that we are all corrupt alms-seeking beggars. 

Well, what if all I know about America is racism, drug addiction, a corrupt government, mass shootings, and the Capitol take over?

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Op-Ed

The Choice of Deploying COVID-19 Vaccine in Nigeria and The Science

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By PI Imoesi

Recently I read in the news how Nigeria is preparing to procure the COVID-19 vaccine for her citizenry. Is anything wrong in procuring a COVID-19 vaccine? Certainly not, but is there a need for a rush? No. In this piece of write-up, I will address why Nigeria shouldn’t be in a rush in getting the COVID-19 Vaccine, the type of COVID-19 vaccine we should be aiming to procure, and the need for a robust nation-wide seroprevalence study before contemplating on a vaccine.

The current COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t had a devastating effect on the African continent as initially predicted due to the poor healthcare system, poor social amenities and a high population density. Apart from South Africa, the abysmal testing on the continent is completely insignificant in spite of many African countries flouting the COVID-19 non-pharmaceutical interventions.

This is equally applicable in Nigeria a country of over 200 million people, and since the start of the pandemic, Nigeria is yet to test 1% of her population.

Despite the slow testing pace, nonadherence to COVID-19 guidelines, the total death recorded in the country is less than 1500. Some have doubted the accuracy of reported deaths, but when compared to the average death rate over the same 10-month period of the previous year(s) no surge is apparent.

Due to the flouting of precautionary measures aimed at preventing the spread of the COVID-19 disease, one could deduce, a possibility of widespread infection rate in the population. But for reasons yet to be established scientifically, many of the cases in the country are mild or asymptomatic.

Chances are that many Nigerians may have already contracted the virus, recovered without knowing, and by extension acquired a certain level of immunity. Since many of the precautionary measures are completely flouted, there is the possibility of continuous exposure to the virus and depending on the level of immunity based on previous exposure, there could be a risk for continuous reinfection.

In recent preprint paper from Imperial College, London, it was reported health workers with continuous exposure to the virus had no changes in the rate of antibodies positivity. Also, in a recent study conducted 16 – 18 weeks after the first lockdown in the United Kingdom, and published in Science Immunology, it was reported individual with mild or asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection had neutralising antibodies and complemented by multi-specific T-cell responses at 16 – 18 weeks after infection. However, it is unclear how long this level of immunity could last, and the same goes for the current vaccines.

Before deploying a COVID-19 vaccine in Nigeria, it is highly necessary to conduct a large scale seroprevalence study in densely populated cities and towns across the country. This robust study will help establish the true representation of Nigerians with the antibody against SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The situation of COVID-19 in Nigeria is not high burden compared to countries such as South Africa, Brazil, United States of America or the United Kingdom etc. Therefore, the need for hastened mass vaccination may not be so urgent.

Also, the current COVID-19 vaccine is yet to undergo a clinical trial in a black dominant population. And in terms of case fatality rate, cases in Nigeria or Africa are far less compared to western countries, and the average median age of the country is 18.1 and life expectancy 55.8. Based on these peculiarities and the behavioural pattern of the virus in our clime, it is highly essential a clinical trial of the vaccines be carried out. For instance, the Oxford AstraZeneca is currently under clinical trial in Indian under the name COVIShield in line with the Indian Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation.

There have been instances where a few vaccines such as polio and typhoid vaccines proven to be effective in a western population failed to stimulate immunogenic reaction in an Indian population. Also, since the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is currently under clinical trial in Kenya, it is imperative Nigeria and many other Africa countries wait for the final clinical data.

When we finally decide to procure a vaccine, a number of factors should be considered: one, is the vaccine tested on a black dominant population? Has the vaccine undergone thorough clinical trial of Phase I, II, and III? Are the clinical findings published in a reputable peer-review journal? Do we have the right mode for storage? For emphasis, no vaccine is licenced against COVID-19, the current vaccines are authorised for emergency use only. This implies if a COVID-19 vaccine is to be use in Nigeria, such vaccines should undergo thorough clinical trial.

For instance, the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine recently published their data in The New England Journal of Medicine and Lancet Journal respectively. In contrast, there is the COVaxin (Indian), SputnikV (Russia) and SinoPharm (China), these vaccines have been greeted with several controversies within the science community due to lack of transparency.

If we must procure a vaccine in Nigeria, we should be considering the Pfizer/BioNTechModerna or Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. However, since the logistics to deploy the Pfizer/BioNTech requires -70 degree and the Moderna -20 degree; the Oxford AstraZeneca stored at 2 – 8 degrees seems to be the best suitable option for our clime. In terms of cost, the Oxford AstraZeneca cost about £3.00 compared to the Moderna £15.00 and £25.00 for the Pfizer respectively.

I will recommend first, the Oxford AstraZeneca, next Moderna (-200C) and finally, Pfizer/BioNTech if we have the -700C storage capacity. My recommendation is premise on the thoroughness of the development of these vaccines and the transparency; also, the clinical trial data are published already in peer-review journals.

The government of Nigeria should be critical in picking a vaccine backed with reasonable efficacy data in a black dominant population. It is clear the virus as behaved differently in Africa and this should be put into context before procuring any form of COVID-19 vaccine.

PI Imoesi, Ph.D.

Molecular Neuroscientist and Research Fellow, 

Institute of Medical Sciences,

School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition,

University of Aberdeen.

Scotland, United Kingdom.

Work-profilehttps://www.abdn.ac.uk/people/peter.imoesi/

Blogwww.drimoesi.com

Emailpeter.imoesi@abdn.ac.uk

Follow my twitter handle @DrPI_Imoesi.

Hyperlinks:

Rush-vaccines: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2021/01/scientists-criticize-rushed-approval-indian-covid-19-vaccine-without-efficacy-data?fbclid=IwAR2zS4FaH9VFoumwHZCnM_C8BH7qUITTuHUsdavJHdBTFpEKrHLuixjdvkY

Imperial College Preprint: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.10.26.20219725v1

Moderna: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2022483

Pfizer: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2034577

Discordant neutralising antibodies: https://immunology.sciencemag.org/content/5/54/eabf3698?fbclid=IwAR2AWyxPqW9K3F2cIb_oMgmH4bgMDdNEKZmyUoGBF9px6Doi6RVJ5qi0DA0

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