By Sam Omatseye
This has nothing to do with the slugfest in Ivory Coast, where Nigeria’s Super Eagles seem airborne. With the exploits of gangling Osimhen and the dribbling wizardry of diminutive Simon, we can only hope that the sing-song endures. The team that started like a stutter seems to be hitting its stride like an elocution. Soccer duels tempt miracles and disasters simultaneously. A team headed for victory may moan at the last whistle, like Cape Verde. Victory and survival sometimes are the same thing. As a famous American football coach, Vince Lombardi, once crooned, “Winning is everything.”
We hope for the same as we face the headwinds of the economy. The gazelle is a beauty and beast. When it races, its footwork dazes the eye. Its speed meshes with grace, especially when a predator lurks. In Nigeria today, the predator are elites hemorrhaging the naira. The gazelle symbolizes a race to save the naira against our collective suicide as a people. So, this essay is not about the lithe antelope with a fawn coat and white underpart. Few have heard of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) move named after the elegant animal. It is called Gazelle, and it represents a thrust to save the naira and the economy in the face of our collective suicide masterminded by the banking elite, conniving politicians and business elite. But all who can access the dollar are in on this project of self-death from the mechanic to the fashion designer.
The NNPC, under Group Managing Director Mele Kyari, has approached the AFREXIM Bank for a crude oil for dollars deal. There have been a lot of jargon in this narrative like SPV and forward sale, et al. It’s modern-day trade by barter. But it is a swap in which we sell our crude oil for $3.3 billion. The bank sources the money from the international market, while our crude oil serves as both collateral and product for sale. The idea is simple. The economy, especially the naira, is in an emergency. Naira is, in the words of Governor Chukwuma Soludo, like a dead horse standing. The gazelle, like the virtue of its feet, is a speedy way to save the naira. We need money to rescue money. We need foreign money as oxygen mask for a gasping naira.
The irony though is that the NNPC is doing this as a quick fix while we, as a people, are getting quick fixes at the expense of the same naira. It is a paradox also of having what we have to save ourselves but we choose to kill ourselves with it.
That is why it is collective suicide, or mass suicide. It has been suicide by instalment. Today, we are on the cusp of total collapse. Everyone has contempt for the naira. It is not only the naira we hate but ourselves. We are like the addict who binges without heed to personal danger. It is what the critic Killam says of Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, or King Oedipus in Sophocles’ play about a person who sees the end but would not stop until it comes. Killam calls it “insistent fatality.”
I had a dialogue with our excellent finance reporter Collins Nweze, and I wondered what was going on with the value of naira. He said, “about 40 percent of the money in the banks are in dollars,” adding that speculation is the virus of the day – my words. I later had a close to 30 minutes dialogue with a top man in the finance world and he lamented our embarrassment of riches – my words, again.
It reminded me of the lines in the Book of Revelations, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have grown wealthy and need nothing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.”
That is the profile of our suicide. The mechanic has 50 dollars, he hoards. He is speculating. The bank boss keeps one billion dollars for a politician friend. The trader stops his business because investing it is arduous and slow. He makes a few days hoarding what he makes in a year trading.
The Bureau De Change are at the mercy of the banking elite, who starve them so demand rises and prices hike. It is clever. Individual nests grow, the collective sighs. This has been going on for decades. It has just reached its head with the naira spiraling down towards about N2,000 to a dollar.
The new CBN rules – well not new – that compels the banks to release their dollars is a symptom of a decadent banking system. Banks are making trillions in profits in suffocating economy, and we did not ask how? The health of a banking system should relate to the DNA of the economic environment. A bank that thrives on speculation is a vampire. Making trillions of Naira in profit while you are not giving loans to power investments only reveals an unregulated system, a Hobbesian culture of rapine and predation.
If the vice grip between the political elite and the business -especially banking – elite does not loosen, a rupture beckons. This is the time to hold the bank leaders – directors and managing directors and board denizens – to account. If the government does not, they will hold the government hostage. They already are, but it is going to get worse.
Decades-long outcries over corruption happened only because of conniving banks. They are the wayfarers of stolen money. Impunity by stealth has waxed into a public howl.
NNPC’s Project Gazelle is setting the tone, in spite of the partisan wailings of Atiku. Atiku should tell hoarding Nigerians to open their vaults rather than impugn NNPC’s audacity. Gazelle is speed but it is also grace. The CBN can act with the dispatch of the antelope, a roe’s speed before the row.
Meanwhile, like addicts on a binge, we look at naira’s death like Emma says in Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary: “Ah, it is but a little thing, death. I shall sleep and all will be over.” Societies have known to execute themselves while Individuals blame others and absolve themselves. The great writer on crowd psychology, Elias Canetti, made it clear in his Nobel Prize-winning expose, Crowds and Power. Hear him: “It is always the enemy who started it, even if he was not the first to speak out, he was certainly planning it; and if he was not actually planning it, he was thinking it; and if he was not thinking it, he would have thought of it.”
History has records of mass suicides from Roman Empire resistance like Numantia to the Caribbean colony of Guadeloupe under Napoleon to even Nazi Germany. This happened out of national pride, or sometimes gender pride like women who killed themselves to avoid rape like the Dance of Zalongo in the Greek War of independence when the women of Souli threw themselves over the precipice with their children. It is an evocation of Chaucer’s Dorigen. The best living French writer, Michel Houellebecq, in his troubled novel Atomised, posits that post-Christian Europe is committing suicide for abandoning the creed that crowned her over the world.
Many of these are suicide for pride. Ours with the naira has no redeeming value. If it is suicide on a binge, does it mean we are incapable of our own distress, apologies to Shakespeare? I don’t think so. As the CBN begins its onslaught, it must remember the speed of the gazelle.
This article was first published on back page of The Nation – February 5th 2024.