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Nigeria drags feet on economic reforms as World Bank raises red flag on rising debt

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THE Nigerian government is yet to implement holistic economic reforms that will make the country an investors’ toast and restore the economy to prosperity, the World Bank has said.

The bank also cautioned Africa’s largest economy on its debt risk.

In its latest report, the World Bank said Nigeria was among a list of top 10 countries with high-debt risk exposure.

According to the report, with a debt exposure of $11.7 billion, Nigeria ranked fifth among the top 10 countries with the highest debt risk exposure.


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The top four countries were: India with $22 billion, Bangladesh ($18.1 billion), Pakistan ($16.4 billion), and Vietnam ($14.1 billion).

Other countries on the list included:Ethiopia  ($11.2 billion), Kenya ($10.2 billion), Tanzania ($8.3 billion), Ghana ($5.6 billion), and Uganda ($4.4 billion).

Analysts say the country’s inability to set its macro-economic fundamentals right through viable economic reforms has heightened its susceptibility to several risks.

The  situation has seen Nigeria lose a high chunk of its revenue to debt servicing, rather than provide for its weak infrastructure.

“The capacity to service the debt stock raises serious sustainability concerns. For instance, the debt service provision in the 2021 budget was a whooping N3.3 trillion, whereas the total budgeted revenue was N6.6 trillion and the capital budget was N3 trillion. This implies that the amount budgeted for debt service was 110 per cent of capital budget and 50 per cent of retained Federal Government’s revenue,”  Economist and former Director-General of Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry Muda Yusuf told The ICIR.

Yusuf said there was a need for holistic economic reforms and pruning down of cost of governance, stressing that the country must also reduce recurrent expenditure taking the chunk of the national and state budgets.

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“It is critical as well to ensure appropriate policy choices to attract equity, domestic and foreign private-sector capital for economic and social infrastructure financing.”

Reducing the burden of debt and the risk of  debt trap demanded appropriate policies to incentivise private investments, he said.

THE ICIR reports that growing national debts is a cause for concern as public debt grew from N12.6 trillion in 2015 to N33.1 trillion in March 2021, an increase of 163 per cent. About 12.45 per cent of this is debt owed by the state government and the FCT.

A  recent report by the Federal Ministry of Finance indicates that as at May 2021, the actual retained revenue of the Federal Government was N1.84 trillion while the actual debt service was N1.80 trillion. This implies that 98 per cent of revenue was committed to service debt as of May 2021.

Meanwhile, Debt Management Office, while reacting to World Bank’s debt caution to Nigeria said: “By way of explanation, the World Bank, through IDA, gives concessional loans to poor and developing countries to help them achieve improvements in growth, job creation, poverty reduction, governance, the environment, climate adaptation and resilience, human capital, infrastructure, and debt transparency. Nigeria is a beneficiary of IDA loans.

“It is important to re-emphasize that the World Bank’s report, which was misrepresented, focused only on the composition of IDA’s Loan Portfolio and did not make any reference to the debt sustainability of the top ten (10) beneficiary countries of IDA loans, such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana.

“IDA loans are typically for tenors of 30 – 40 years, grace period (moratorium on principal repayment) of 7 – 10 years and service fee of only 0.75 per cent.”

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Analysts, however, say this is not a healthy fiscal position in the management of the government’s finances.

They are worried that, with the weak revenue performance and the growing recurrent expenditure, the capacity to fund capital projects has become severely constrained.

More so, the opportunity cost of high debt service for the economy and citizens is  high as the economy is denied desired funding for critical social and economic infrastructure projects which are needed to build a globally competitive economy and advance the welfare of citizens.

To state the least, Nigeria’s Finance Minister Zainab Ahmed, who supervises the Federal Government’s borrowings, had hinted earlier in the year at the government’s willingness to reduce  cost of governance and dusting up Steven Oronsanye’s report on rationalisation of federal civil service, but she has gone silent on the issue despite the bourgeoning Nigerian wage bill.

The situation has kept analysts wondering whether the government has the political will to address concerns of cost of governance,which is ripping off finances for infrastructural development.

A Development Specialist Ene Obi,  who  is a deputy director in ActionAid Nigeria, wondered why the World Bank and other global financial institutions kept lending to Nigeria despite red flags on Nigeria’s debt risk

“The WorldBank has not withdrawn its lending appetite to Nigeria despite raising the red flag on several occasions. For instance, we have seen them lend money to the government for the electricity sector despite the privatisation of that sector since 2013.”

She noted that most of the debts being accrued by the present federal and state governments would not be repaid by the present administration, expressing concerns that such debt traps could plunge the country into deeper under-development.

“We would end up being trapped in this debt in the years to come when the current administration will have gone. We experienced that during Obasanjo’s era and we are currently experiencing it. This debt has failed to lift millions of Nigerians out of poverty.

“If the government is using this to bail out public education in both primary, secondary and university, we would be much better off with human capital development. We don’t really know what is going on.”

 Economist and former Director-General of Abuja Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Chijioke Ekechukwu expressed an alternate view, assuring that there should be no cause for any alarm regarding the listing of Nigeria as one of the top 10 countries with high debt risk.
He stated that the World Bank would continue to appraise and evaluate the performances of the countries it had given development loans.

“They are measuring their risks and their mitigants. Risks identified amongst these countries include: country risks and counterparty risks. There also exist foreign exchange risk and security risks which are high with Nigeria. They are looking at our debt to GDP ratio and revenue to debt ratio. They are also considering FDIs and PFIs as well as capital flight.

“When all these indicators are not positive, they will invoke more precautionary measures in releasing more funding or in pricing subsequent funding. We need to overhaul our economic policy and find out what is working and what is not working.”

He however said, Nigeria must get its acts together in tackling insecurity. “Our power sector should still remain a major driver of our manufacturing industry, so we must do everything to make it work.”

Associate Consultant to the British Department for International  Development (DFID) Celestine Okeke told The ICIR that Nigeria needed a national sectoral development plan which fed into other economic plans, subject for review periodically to ascertain the progress made sectorally.

“What is the national sectoral plan for agriculture or mechanisation or, lets say, industrialisation? This is why the government comes up with interventionist plan like the Economic Sustainability Plan. Most of these plans are knee-jerk and don’t proffer holistic solutions to our economic problems. This is why the figures of poverty keep rising because the plans are not properly fitted wholistically to be reviewed from time to time.”

He noted that politicians often pushed up what was favourable to them “and when leave office,we return to square one,and poverty recycles.”

 

Author profile

Harrison Edeh is a journalist with the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, always determined to drive advocacy for good governance through holding public officials and businesses accountable.

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