Monthly Archives: January 2015

Nigeria’s under-funded war

By Tunde Obadina

In its 2015 budget proposal Nigeria’s federal government earmarked N985.9 billion (US$6 billion) for defence and security spending this year. This amount, covering all the armed forces and the police, is not much different from the amount budgeted last year. This figure tell us a lot about why the government has been struggling to contain jihadist insurgents trying to carve out an Islamic state in north-eastern Nigeria and threatening to destabilise Africa’s most populous nation.

Unfortunately, much of the criticism of the government’s inability to defeat Boko Haram has been based on issues of corruption and the presumed lack of commitment of Nigerian leaders to ending the crisis. However, though corruption and lack of incentive may be factors in the apparent weakness of the Nigerian state, the main issue is that the financial cost of defeating Boko Haram and other insurgents has risen over the past five years to a war footing and a point that is now requiring substantially more resources than are being invested. Without doubt, more money needs to be spent. Those who contend that the Nigerian armed forces cannot be trusted with higher budget allocations miss the point that wars always cost money.

Unfortunately, people tend to view the conflict in the north-east as some form of social unrest short of war. Wikipedia defines war as “an organized and often prolonged conflict that is carried out by states or non-state actors. It is generally characterised by extreme violence, social disruption and an attempt at economic destruction.” Given that the Boko Haram insurgency has resulted in an average of more than 1,000 deaths a year since 2009, caused the displacement of nearly one million people and destroyed large amounts of property and agricultural production, the scale of the insurrection clearly warrants being treated as an internal war. Furthermore, the fact that Boko Haram has captured territory in the north-east, even if only temporarily, tells us this is more than the usual sporadic communal or ethnic clashes that have dotted Nigeria’s recent history.

Wars always cost large sums of money to fight and win. Yet Nigeria’s military spending is substantially less than those of comparable developing countries such as Pakistan, Algeria, South Africa and India. It is low whether viewed as a percentage of government spending or per capita outlay or as a share of GDP. In its latest Trends in World Military Expenditure report the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute stated that Africa had the largest relative rise in military spending in 2013 of any region, but showed that military spending by Nigeria fell by 5.1%.

Even if every naira allocated for security in 2015 was to be honestly spent, the total allocation would remain inadequate for maintaining regular national security, let alone defeating an insurgency movement that is growing in sophistication and largely operates in a vast, remote and difficult to police land expanse. According to the website, Yourbudget.com, 90% of Nigeria’s 2014 security vote was for recurrent expenditure, leaving a paltry 10% (US$589.2 million) for capital spending. Incredibly, only US$4.36 million was provisioned for procurement of ammunition by the army. The Department of Homeland Security, just one of several internal security agencies in the U.S., alone spent US$19.2 million on ammunition in 2013.

Two important factors determine the ability of the security forces to defeat insurrectionists and other organised criminals. These are possession of intelligence about the enemy and providing the state with overwhelming fire-power superiority. Both cost money, lots of it.

Many politicians and human rights activists have contended that the underlying causes of the Boko Haram uprising are political alienation and poverty and thereby call for more to be spent on education, health and other social services in the affected areas. This perspective is flawed. Boko Haram is not a populist movement trying to endear itself with the poor masses. Most of the many thousands of people it has killed and maimed over the past five years in the besieged north-east have been poor civilians who do not require schooling or higher incomes to judge whether Boko Haram militants are a threat to their lives, property and freedom. Besides, it is a fallacy that individuals become terrorists because they are unschooled or materially poor – violent extremists come from all social classes and many are very well-educated..

In the final analysis, the containment of violent extremist groups is mainly the job of the state’s security services. And, whether we like it or not they must be adequately funded to succeed in this endeavour. It is folly to ignore the complaints of Nigerian soldiers and police officers that they are grossly under-equipped and under-armed to defeat this determined foe.

The question that government and the public needs to address is not whether, but how to raise the extra money required to at least minimise the impact of terrorism and restore law and order in  the country. This invariably involves re-prioritising public spending – cuts will have to be made in some areas of state activity. In this respect, there are some obvious candidates for slimming down. For example, it is incredible that in last year’s budget more money was earmarked for the National Assembly than was budgeted for the Nigerian army. Also the allocation for the federal legislature was about half what was provisioned for the entire national police force. It is odd that Nigeria has one of the best paid legislatures in the world while its security forces are amongst the least funded. There are other areas of government spending, including various subsidies that benefit some at the expense of others, that can be slashed or scrapped with no damage to the economy.

It may be that some important governmental activities have to be reduced to free resources to strengthen the capacity of the state to fulfil its prime purpose, which is the defence of human life and property. as well as upholding the rule of law. Antisocial behaviour such as theft, murder, kidnapping and rape, inflict both human and economic costs on society. The human costs are obvious and include the bereavement, pain and fear. The economic costs can be viewed in two ways. There are the actual losses of value such as in the destruction of physical property and theft of money. There are also the “opportunity costs” of dealing with violence. Such costs are the alternative uses that resources deployed to protect against anti-social behaviour could have otherwise been used for. For example, money spent on protecting society from criminals and militants could have been invested in building roads, bridges, seaports, dams, power plants and other infrastructure that facilitates economic growth and prosperity. The payrolls of members of the armed forces and police could have gone to employ teachers, health workers and other productive workers. But this wish list cannot be realised when violence and armed conflict destroy and cancel out every social welfare investment made.

Society has to deploy resources to protect lives and property not because it prefers to do so but because it is compelled to by the behaviour of people who mean to harm its citizens. In a utopian world, there would be no need for security forces because society exists in perfect harmony. Unfortunately, Nigerians do not live in utopia.

Whose money is it anyway?

By Tunde Obadina

In its endeavour to shore up the naira currency the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has in recent months taken steps to curb domestic use of foreign currencies in Nigeria. It  barred authorised money dealers from importing foreign currency banknotes without prior approval and stipulated that beneficiaries of international money transfers must be paid in naira only. The regulator has also tightened restrictions on the operation of bureaux de change to limit demand for hard currencies.

According to monetary officials Nigeria has become one of the world’s largest importers of US dollar notes. Restricting domestic use of foreign currencies, they believe, is necessary to combat money-laundering, especially by corrupt politicians and Islamist insurgents. The CBN also wants to counter what it says is the dollarisation of Africa’s largest economy. Its aim of checking money laundering is undoubtedly commendable; but corruption is not the only driver in the growth in local usage of foreign currencies.

There are many legitimate reasons why people may choose to hold dollars or other currencies in preference to the local currency. Lack of confidence in the national monetary system is an obvious reason. Individuals and businesses may believe their interests are better served storing their wealth in assets that are more stable and less prone to losing value in the foreseeable future.

Money is in some ways similar to debt. Unlike barter, where people exchange commodities that both parties can immediately ascertain their respective value, a monetary transaction involves the seller receiving an item that has no inherent worth. The real value of money is determined at the time of its application as a means of exchange. For example, when customer A gives one dollar to shopkeeper B for a bar of chocolate, A receives a product which has instantly realisable utility. For B the actual worth of the dollar note will only be known to him when he deploys it in a future transaction. At that later time its purchasing power may provide more or less chocolate as at the time he accepted the note, depending on whether the currency has meanwhile appreciated or depreciated. When the seller exchanged his chocolate for money he acquired a note that contained a promise of future entitlement. He took a risk in doing so. He entered the transaction because he believed that the asset he receives will retain a value that is at least close to its present worth. His faith could prove to be misplaced, if when he comes to spend the money it buys much less in value than the chocolate customer A had long digested.

Given the volatility of money, the choice of people living in economies with high inflation and weakening local currencies to hold some of their wealth in sturdier foreign currencies is rational. It is a way to protect against risks of devaluation. Needless to say, governments and central banks throughout the world intensely dislike their citizens using foreign currencies. This is because the practice undermines their control over the financial system and the economy. The effectiveness of monetary policy is limited if members of the public can choose to ditch government-issued money in favour of other mediums of exchange and wealth storage.

Control over money supply is arguably the most wide-reaching and effective means the state has to affect the lives of individuals within its domain. People can ignore or circumvent most government regulations, such import bans and licensing laws, but holders of the national currency cannot easily escape the effects of state monetary actions. For example, when governments print large amounts of money, thereby fuel inflation, their action invariably devalues the money in the pockets and bank accounts of all who possess the currency. Citizens can evade paying direct taxes, but they cannot easily avoid the taxation effect of money printing. The state does not need to know of your existence or location to take your money.

Currency shifting by individuals and businesses to protect their wealth against the effects of poor state financial management is not peculiar to developing countries.It is world-wide. It is one of the reasons that the export of dollar notes is a big U.S. export. The relative stability and strength of America’s financial system is also a reason why individuals, businesses and governments across the world deposit most of their external reserves in the U.S.

In a free society individuals may hold their wealth in any form that does not violate the property rights of others. Individuals alone assume the risks involved in their investment decisions, including any limitations on the number of people willing to accept the currencies they possess. Some readers may think that this libertarian perspective only benefits rich people with money. This is not so. Poverty does not mean being penniless, it is having very little amounts of money. This is why the opportunity to choose currencies that are least susceptible to depreciation is important for the poor. A subsistence farmer who saves 5,000 naira in an economy with 10% annual inflation rate will find that after a year his nest egg is worth only 4,500 naira in real terms. Had he changed his money into a more stable currency, the value of his meagre savings would have been better preserved.

Currency shifting is not necessarily an act of national betrayal. It is the case that rich people in developing nations keep much of their wealth in foreign assets, including overseas bank deposits.

Wealth inequality is unjust when caused by plunder

By Tunde Obadina

As elsewhere in the world, wealth and income inequality has grown in Nigeria during the past six decades. The country’s richest tycoon, Aliko Dangote, is worth more than $20 billion while the poorest villager has close to zero in assets. More broadly, the counts of dollar millionaires and billionaires have soared, especially over the past two decades.

No reliable wealth data exists for Nigeria, but it safe to say that the average income of the richest 0.01% families has risen much faster than those of the poorest 0.01% or bottom 99.99%. A recent Wealth X and UBS report estimates that in 2013 there were 600 ultra high net wealth individuals (UHNWI) living in Nigeria (those with assets totalling at least $30 million), up from 455 in 2012. A New World Wealth report reckoned that in the same year 15,700 Nigerians possessed net worth of at least $1 million and projected that the number would rise to 23,000 by 2017. Although Africa is the region of the world with least number of super-rich, most global wealth management consultants believe that the late developing continent is likely to see the biggest increase in UHNWIs over the next decade, with Nigeria leading the increase.

Many factors can drive wealth inequality. The two most important are wealth creation and plunder. The latter entails the use of force or fraud to seize wealth that belongs to others, whereas wealth creation involves the use of resources in free exchange to produce goods and services for gain.

I have no objection to individuals becoming super-rich through enterprise and free exchange. What is objectionable is inequality that stems from plunder. By plunder I mean more than illegal theft of public property as in bribery and embezzlement. Politicians and their cronies dipping their hands into the public coffers is only a part of the everyday plundering that fuels income inequality.

Arguably the main driver of modern-day wealth inequality is legal plunder. This is when power is abused within the confines of the law to ascribe benefits to some people at the expense of others. French 19th century economist Frederic Bastiat wrote that to identify this form of plunder: “See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.”

Legal plunder occurs in many ways, enabling the powerful and well-connected to make money they did not worked for. Here are a few examples: Awards of lucrative oil concessions at favourable terms Waivers, subsidies and tariff restrictions that enable privileged businesses to trade at lower cost than their competitors. Government bailouts that provide relief for defaulting wealthy borrowers. Foreign exchange round-tripping – buying hard currencies at lower official rates to sell at higher rates in the free market. Banks taking government deposits, then lend the money back to the state at profit.

Financial gains from legal and illegal plunder enable the powerful to acquire capital that boost their stake in the economy. Capital is any asset that can be owned and can generate income, such as rent, interest, dividend, royalty and profit. Unlike labour income, which is derived from work, capital income is a return for ownership of an asset, requiring no work input.

Wealth inequality is largely due to uneven possession of capital. The richest 0.01% of populations in virtually every country in the world owe most of their wealth and income to ownership of capital. Some built their stock of capital through self endeavour, but sadly a large segment of the hyper-rich accumulated capital mostly through legal and illegal theft, often by their ancestors. Gains from plundering enabled today’s powerful and well-connected to accumulate capital assets, such as land, factories, privatised state-owned utilities, oil and gas concessions and financial institutions. They built fortunes through what is for them a virtuous cycle whereby ill-gotten gains go to buy legitimate assets that then act as collateral to obtain big bank loans to purchase more revenue generating assets. It is a form of money laundering – dirty money is cleansed by being invested in legitimate assets.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine how much of the wealth of crony capitalists is owed to dishonesty and patronage and how much to genuine enterprise. How do we determine how much of the profit made by tycoon owners of cement companies that have been bolstered by state subsidies and tariff restrictions stemmed from their entrepreneurship and how much from legal plunder?

In an evolving economy like Nigeria, income and wealth inequalities are inevitable. Individuals differ in their luck and entrepreneurial abilities, while the politically powerful will invariably use their strength to grab for themselves as much wealth as they can get away with. This is why it is important that the state, as much as practically possible, is stripped of powers that can be exploited by its agents to plunder. While some levels of inequality are unavoidable and happens everywhere, it is possible to change the rules to move to a more even playing field.