COVID-19 and Nigeria Economic Sustainability Plan (1), By Isaac N. Obasi




The outbreak of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was an emergency that created serious health and economic crises across the globe. And in order to stop the spread of the virus, many nations responded (among other policy interventions) by imposing a lockdown that restricted the movement of people, goods and services except for very essential activities.
However, the lockdown in turn seriously threatened economic livelihood further in both the formal and informal sectors of the economy. For instance, international trade suffered and economies of many nations experienced deeper crisis than ever imagined. In the informal sector also, many of those in self-employment became more vulnerable to the threat to livelihood.

In Nigeria for example, there were numerous and vociferous complaints that the lockdown was generating unintended consequences such as hunger-virus, increased number of reported rape cases, and other forms of domestic violence. Many who depended on daily economic activities to survive became poorer and their lives were threatened. The concept of hunger-virus emerged. Some people then, argued that hunger-virus itself was claiming more lives than the dreaded and ravaging coronavirus. In Lagos, Ogun and Delta states, among others, there were incidents of youth restiveness manifesting in protests, violent demonstrations and armed robbery attacks on people along streets in some neighbourhoods.

In some sectors, jobs were lost immediately as employers could not afford to pay their workers. And in some other sectors retention of jobs became seriously threatened, as the devastating impact of COVID-19 was very high. Again, some sectors have remained on lockdown much longer than others, while some others have witnessed partial reopening of activities. The sectors that have been badly affected include the entertainment industry, the private education sub-sector, the aviation industry, the hospitality and service industry (including event planning, catering and restaurants). Many organisations in these industries have all suffered incalculable economic losses since the lockdown. The need for a stimulus package to get them out of the impending doom and gloom became urgent. This is where strong financial support and sustainability plan readily come in mind.

But unfortunately, Nigeria’s economy plummeted with the price of crude oil falling as low as $18 a barrel as against the $57 used as benchmark in the 2020 budget. But this notwithstanding, President Muhammadu Buhari responded quickly by setting up the Economic Sustainability Committee (ESC) on 30 March 2020. The ESC was headed by the Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo with five ministers as well as the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and Group Managing Director of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) as members with the Permanent Secretary, Cabinet Office as Secretary to the Committee. In addition, nine other ministers whose activities were relevant to the work of the Committee were co-opted.

It is important to examine how the Nigeria Economic Sustainability Plan (developed by the ESC) would address the various economic problems generated by the COVID-19 pandemic as identified earlier. In looking at this, some relevant questions need to be addressed. First, are the terms of reference given to the ESC adequate enough to address the identified economic problems? Secondly, has the Economic Sustainability Plan developed by the ESC replaced the existing Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP)? Thirdly, is the 9-Point Agenda announced by President Buhari recently (as his priority plan in the remaining three years of his administration) different from the Economic Sustainability Plan? Fourthly, what are the general objectives and pillars of the Economic Sustainability Plan? Fifthly, what are the key projects proposed in the Economic Sustainability Plan, and can these projects be realistically accomplished within the 12 months lifespan of the Plan? Sixthly, are the needs and fears of the higher education sub-sector adequately taken care of, in the Plan given the perennial crisis in the sub-sector? These and some other questions will be examined in the remaining sections of this two-part series.

Terms of Reference (TOR) of the ESC
The ESC was given the following terms of reference: (i) Develop a clear Economic Sustainability Plan in response to challenges posed by the COVID-19 Pandemic; (ii) Identify fiscal measures for enhancing distributable oil and gas revenue, increasing non-oil revenues and reducing non-essential spending, towards securing sufficient resources to fund the plan; (iii) Propose monetary policy measures in support of the Plan; (iv) Provide a Fiscal/Monetary Stimulus Package, including support to private businesses (with emphasis on strategic sectors most affected by the pandemic) and vulnerable segments of the population; (v) Articulate specific measures to support the States and FCT; (vi) Propose a clear-cut strategy to keep existing jobs and create opportunities for new ones; and (vii) Identify measures that may require legislative support to deliver the Plan.
The TOR as outlined here has a mixture of thematic areas that can comprehensively and adequately address the economic problems identified earlier. This is because the TOR touches on measures that can address the COVID-19 generated problems in both the formal and informal sectors.

The Link between the Sustainability Plan and the ERGP
Has the Economic Sustainability Plan replaced the existing Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP)? There appears to be confusion between the two Plans, but looking closely, the confusion is apparent and not real. The Sustainability Plan draws a lot from the ERGP and as the ESC rightly pointed out, the ERGP is one of the four existing documents that were incorporated into the Sustainability Plan. The other ones are (i) Report of the Economic Crisis Committee (headed by the Hon. Minister of Finance, Budget & National Planning) (ii) The Finance Act 2019; and (iii) Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Proposals.

The Sustainability Plan and President Buhari’s 9-Point Agenda
The announcement by President Buhari that his remaining three years in office would focus on nine key areas, raised some questions as to whether the 9-Point Agenda has also replaced the Sustainability Plan. Some analysts were wondering why the president who has been struggling to achieve his three areas of focus (security, economy and anti-corruption) since five years would suddenly announce a 9-Point Agenda for the next three years.
However, looking closely at the Sustainability Plan, one would discover that the 9-Point Agenda were drawn directly from the key proposed projects in the Sustainability Plan. There was actually no confusion but if there was any at all, it was as a result of the lack of clarity in the announcement of the nine key areas of focus which were not new as a matter of fact. This discussion would be continued in the second part of the article.

Prof. Obasi, a public policy expert (& former columnist in the Daily Trust, Abuja, March 2003 to October 2006, & Daily Champion, Lagos, April 2005 to December 2008), is of the Department of Public Administration, University of Abuja. Email: nnamdizik@gmail.com

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