These days, the answer to the headline question comes in dollars. You have probably heard the story of the orange seller who told a potential customer that one orange now costs N500, about one dollar fifty cents. The outraged customer wanted to know why orange had become so expensive. The seller replied that it was not the price of the orange, but the price of the tray on which it was being sold that had gone up, because it was imported.
Is the exchange rate the worst thing that has happened to the country? I don’t think so. I think the worst thing that has happened is that we have forgotten where we’re coming from.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a child in school abroad and it’s tough paying her fees, especially for parents like me who have never depended on the official exchange rate window to pay. I manage a small content, publishing and printing company and God knows how testy it gets when parts breakdown and we have to import or when the stock levels run low and we have to replenish ink, paper or plates.
I receive loads of solicited and unsolicited text messages for jobs by known and unknown persons who are jobless and don’t know where the next meal is coming from. Not a few of them are genuinely in need and the number of those despairing is increasing by the day.
And, believe me. I love oranges too and I have had to pay more from a shrinking wallet for the imported tray on which they are sold. It’s hard, really hard.
But, I’ve also had to think back to where we’re coming from to answer the question, how country? This time last year, we were on a knife-edge. We were on the verge of a potentially explosive vote, which some had predicted could lead to war and a break up of the country.
Hundreds of ordinary citizens who felt genuinely uncertain about the outcome of the election had started moving back to their neck of the woods, fearing the worst.
Boko Haram was occupying parts of the North East as large as the Republic of Ireland and was occasionally launching deadly attacks on the country’s capital, Abuja. Of course after the election was postponed from February 14 to March 28, the military mounted a major offensive to push back the insurgents. Now, we know that the offensive was more to win an election than it was to save lives and reclaim the country.
How country? The naira is weaker now and the petrol queues have stubbornly refused to go away, but I still remember where we’re coming from. Oranges were cheaper, but not because the trays cost less. To be fair former President Goodluck Jonathan’s government had done some work on agriculture and the yield helped to keep the prices of farm produce stable. His government had also gone far with the privatisation of the power sector to tackle rolling blackouts, which had nearly paralysed the country.
What was missing was not the promise of transformation; it was the absence of effort, any sort of honest effort to build a legacy. If you had asked me how country this time last year, it was very unlikely that I would complain about the dollar or the price of orange.
Why? The dollar was the currency of the day. Jonathan’s government, which started the cashless policy, had found an ingenuous way of bending its own law by filling the pockets of party delegates and high profile figures with dollar bills. Wherever the naira could not go on errands, the dollar did and there was still enough left to stash away in the homes of ranking politicians and military officers.
At a time when 24 out of 36 states could not pay salaries, millions of dollars raked in from five years of relatively high oil prices were used to fund election campaigns, to patronise prayer warriors and fashion designers.
What was most concerning to me was that we had a presidency comprising five presidents – four women and one man – and the man we voted for was the weakest of all. He was absent, leaving his aides and appointees to commit some of the worst crimes against the country in his name.
But how country? Tough. Falling oil prices and a rotten legacy have ensured that most families and businesses are probably going through one of the most torrid periods in decades.
President Muhammadu Buhari has made mistakes, too. The unnecessarily long delay in his appointment of ministers, which contributed largely to the 2016 budget fiasco; the absence of an economic blueprint; and his misplaced faith in civil servants combined with his insular style, have created the impression of motion without movement.
Yet, a lot is changing. This is not the country it was last year and probably never again will be. Here’s the simple reason why: since Buhari came to power, I no longer go to bed asking myself who’s with the president now, cutting deals behind the country’s back.
We’re right to demand more and should do so. But the repairing of trust in the last one year makes it a lot easier for me to answer the question, how country?