Home Features The Week Ahead – A Black Swan

The Week Ahead – A Black Swan

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By SBM Intelligence

A black swan might be an unpredictable or unforeseen event with extreme consequences but the COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare the impotence of Nigeria’s health policy, the incredulity of Africa asking for debt relief, the complicated synergy between insecurity and health challenges, the unsustainability of everyone looking to Abuja, the rising toll of artificially propping a currency and the imperative of forcing citizens in a democracy to stay at home.

In need of defibrillation
As the coronavirus takes hold, the Punch has reported that Nigeria does not have up to 500 ventilators across the 36 states and Abuja. The newspaper sent correspondents around Lagos, which, with 28 confirmed COVID-19 cases out of Nigeria’s 40 as at the night of 23 March, does not have enough ventilators to manage coronavirus patients who may present with breathing problems. The president of the Nigerian Medical Association, Francis Faduyile, explained that the appliance for artificial respiration is necessary when treating severely ill patients; however, he said that he did not know how many ventilators are available nationally. The Punch listed some hospitals visited and came up with 15 ventilators at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, Ikeja; eight at the Alimosho General Hospital, Igando; five at the Federal Medical Centre in Ebute Metta; four at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital all in Lagos; two at the Imo State University Teaching Hospital, Orlu; and four at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital, Benin City. The Medical Director of Gbagada General Hospital, Kaka Adeleke directed the paper to the Federal Ministry of Health for answers, while the Chief Medical Director of LUTH, Chris Bode, refused to disclose how many ventilators were available in the hospital. This comes as the Central Bank of Nigeria and bankers committee identified local pharmaceutical companies, Tuesday, that would be granted funding facilities to procure raw materials and equipment. Some of the companies named by the committee at its meeting on Saturday include Emzor, Fidson, GSK, May & Baker, Unique Pharma, Swiss Pharma, Neimeth, Sagar, Orange Drugs and Dana Pharma. This is part of efforts to cushion the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the Nigerian economy.

The coronavirus pandemic, which has not even reached the exponential growth rate stage in the country, is laying clear the severe underinvestment Nigeria has made in its healthcare industry over the years. Nigeria had a couple of months, counting from the first case in China, and some weeks if we use Europe as the benchmark to ramp up capacity. In spite of this, it appears this was not prioritised. Despite the Federal Government budgeting tens of billions of naira each year for the tertiary health institutions it owns such as teaching hospitals and federal medical centres, only about 10% of the spending is earmarked for capital spending, which covers the cost of facilities and equipment. This situation is replicated at state levels with not just the health sector to be underfunded but also the bulk of the funding going to recurrent expenditure. In addition, not many private hospitals in Nigeria can afford ventilators and respirators. Now, in typical Nigerian fashion, there is a scramble to attempt to do so at a time when supply chains have been fully disrupted and the rest of the world is in the grip of the crisis. Nigeria has little choice now but to attempt to produce these items locally. Perhaps, healthcare will get the needed investment now that everyone is unable to escape as medical tourists after decades of neglect and rot.

Moment of reckoning
The stalemate that followed last week’s FAAC meeting may have been settled, with the announcement of the sharing of about ₦581.566 billion to the Federal, States and Local Governments for February 2020. The decision was announced at the end of the rescheduled meeting of the FAAC held in Abuja on Monday. Nigeria’s Accountant General said the money comprised Statutory Revenue, Value Added Tax (VAT), Exchange Gain, and revenue from Forex Equalisation Account. The AG said the balance in the Excess Crude revenue Account stood at about $72.221 million. Details of the allocations showed gross statutory revenue for the month of February 2020 was about ₦466.058 billion, which was lower by ₦59.195 billion than the ₦525.253 billion received in January 2020. Last week, the meeting of the Committee failed to reach a consensus on the amount to be shared for the month. The meeting, attended by the Finance Commissioners and Accountants General of the 36 states, their FG counterparts and the FCT rejected the amount presented for sharing by the revenue-generating agencies. However, after a second look at the revenue proposal in view of the poor revenue accrual from oil export and as a result of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, representatives of the states had no option than to accept what was presented, despite that it was far below the benchmark revenue approved last year.

These situations always bring to light the untenable nature of Nigeria’s fiscal structure. In 2019 oil prices (using the Brent benchmark) averaged $64/ barrel. Currently, prices are below $30/ barrel and the most optimistic forecasts for 2020 by analysts put average oil prices at $45/ barrel. Simply put, Nigeria is likely to expect a significant revenue shortfall throughout 2020 and the FAAC numbers for February are just the beginning. The FAAC generally comprises Statutory Revenue, Value Added Tax (VAT), Exchange Gain, and revenue from Forex Equalisation Account. Asides Exchange Gain, all the other revenue lines are likely to see a significant downturn when March FAAC numbers are released. States cannot continue to depend on a federal government sharing revenue from dwindling sources. Conversely, the federal government can also not continue to withhold direct control of resources from the states. It must let go of the chokehold on resource control and allow the states to take ownership. It is the only way the states will become responsible for their own financial wellbeing and rise or sink solely on their own ingenuity. The choice is really this – will this be voluntary or will circumstances beyond its control force the Nigerian government at all levels to restructure?

The search for value
The Central Bank of Nigeria has technically devalued the naira to exchange the U.S. dollar at ₦380. According to BusinessDay, the CBN now pegged the naira at the official exchange rate of ₦360 per dollar. This is against the official rate of ₦307 per dollar as at Friday. The Nigerian central bank has sold the U.S. dollar to local Jaiz Bank at ₦360 on the official currency market, weaker than the 306 where it was previously pegged, implying a 15% devaluation, traders said on Friday. Traders said no quotes were shown on Friday for the naira on the official market, which has been supported by the central bank for more than two years. The move comes after the impact of an oil price plunge spread across asset classes in Nigeria, causing investors to widen spreads on the bond market, sell stocks and weaken the country’s dollar reserves. On the over-the-counter spot market for investors few trades were done on Friday on the naira at ₦380 on thin liquidity, traders said. Nigeria operates a multiple exchange rate regime which it has used to manage pressure on the currency. The CBN would make the dollar available to the BDCs at ₦378, which would be sold at ₦380 under the new dispensation as the President, Association of Bureaux De Change Operators of Nigeria, Aminu Gwadabe, said the merger of the different rates became necessary to build confidence in the sector.

This was an unavoidable outcome. Last year the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, stated that the regulator would only consider devaluing the Naira in a situation where oil is trading below US$45/bbl and external reserves drop below US$30billion. The scenario has happened hence the “price adjustment”. There is a possibility, therefore, of further devaluation if prices continue to fall and the reserves are eroded. What is still problematic is the retention of multiple exchange rates. This is simply to maintain the ability to dispense with arbitrage opportunities and unfair advantage creation to favoured individuals and firms by the political leadership ultimately to maintain patronage networks. But there is only so long we can continue this. Nigeria has been unable to find buyers for its crude oil, even though it is heavily discounted at the moment. According to Reuters, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation cut its April official selling prices for Bonny Light and Qua Iboe by $5 per barrel to dated Brent minus $3.29 and minus $3.10 per barrel, respectively. With those type of blood nosed numbers, we believe a further devaluation is inevitable now.

A note on the methodology – we got the budgets of each state and extracted how much they spend on health, then calculated both the per capita expenditure on health (in USD) as well as the percentage of the budget spent on health. To weight how seriously each state takes its health expenditure, we included some outcomes, namely infant mortality and HDI. Finally, to produce the rankings, we weighted as follows: Per capita budget – 40%, infant mortality – 30%, percentage of budget spent on health – 10%, human development index – 10%, household size – 10% where states were scored 0, 5 or 10 based on the size of household compared to a household size of 4. Based on this, the top-ranked states are Cross River, Kwara, Ondo, Lagos and Anambra, while the bottom-ranked states are Kebbi, Kano, Niger, Gombe and Jigawa.
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Not this time
African finance ministers have called for a $100 billion stimulus package, including a suspension of debt service payments, to help the continent combat coronavirus. Some $44 billion would come from not servicing debt and they would also tap existing facilities in the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), African Development Bank (AfDB) and other regional institutions. The ministers held a virtual conference on Thursday to discuss how to deal with the social and economic impacts of the pandemic on African nations, a statement by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa said on Monday. It did not specify which countries participated in the meeting. Africa is facing the combined shock of coronavirus, which threatens to strain under-funded health systems, as well as a sharp drop in revenues due to plunging oil and commodities prices. “Africa needs an immediate emergency economic stimulus to the tune of $100 billion,” the statement said. The proposed interest payment waiver would include not only interest payments on public debt but also on sovereign bonds. It would save governments an estimated $44 billion this year, and would possibly need to be extended to the medium term, it added. “(A waiver) would provide immediate fiscal space and liquidity to the governments in their efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement said. For fragile states, the ministers agreed that waiving repayment of both principal and interest should be considered.

Most African governments have a habit of racking up debts for mostly unviable projects boom years with little or no debt discipline, and in spite of cautionary counsel from concerned parties. When the boom years are over or a black swan event occurs, these same governments then expect the world to provide exemptions from their obligations. This is such a time. Though African nations currently count for only a fraction of global coronavirus cases, experts worry that their cash-strapped and under-equipped healthcare systems make them ill-prepared to tackle large-scale outbreaks. The problem at this time, however, is that the very people being asked for debt forgiveness are also grappling with their own issues due to the economic shutdown from the COVID-19 outbreak. It is therefore highly unlikely that Africa, save for the poorest of the bunch such as Somalia, will get its request met this time. A suspension perhaps, but definitely not a cancellation, and certainly no aid until after the donors have sorted out their own people. Perhaps after this is over, African governments would have learnt a healthy degree of prudence. We are, however, not confident this will be the case.

Egg shell
About 70 Nigerian soldiers were killed in an ambush on their convoy by Boko Haram terrorists near Gorgi village in Borno state on Monday, two military officers told AFP on Tuesday. The insurgents were said to have fired rocket-propelled grenades at the lorry carrying troops as it travelled. One of the military sources said the terrorists specifically targeted the truck loaded with soldiers with RPGs and incinerated the vehicle, killing all on board. So far 70 bodies have been recovered but the toll is certainly more than that as the rescue operation is still underway. Several soldiers were also injured and some others were taken captive by the jihadists, the two officers said. The convoy had left regional capital Maiduguri on its way to launch an offensive on a camp belonging to jihadists affiliated to the Islamic State group in the area, a member of a government-backed militia fighting the insurgents told reporters. The Islamic State West Africa Province faction, a split from Boko Haram insurgents in 2016 has been accused of increasing attacks on civilians and taking hostages at bogus checkpoints on main roads in the region. The group has focused on attacking troops, raiding bases and laying ambushes on military convoys.

There is also an additional, and sad aspect of this incident. Chatter within the intelligence community points to friendly fire in this attack as no insurgent was identified in the vicinity of the force at the initial stage of the encounter. The attack and lack of information about what really happened, in this case, bring into question the integrity of information around troop movements and operations in the area, considering how the official narrative is that the troops were attacked on their way to an operation, it also brings to the fore the lack of sufficient equipment for military operations in the area, as the troops were being transported in regular trucks which are soft skin and were easily taken apart by the RPGs as opposed to armoured vehicles as should have been. Also, the official casualty figure of the Nigerian Army of 47 is vastly lower than those obtained from journalistic sources, which range from 70 to as many as over a hundred. This incident happened two days before another in Niger State, in which the Army is still not confirming the deaths of the soldiers despite the fact that pictures of the bodies of soldiers are on the internet. All of this calls into question how forthcoming the Nigerian Army is with disclosing details that cast it in a negative light, including these attacks. The Niger attack also buttresses the need for increased policing particularly in rural areas to be able to be more responsive to attacks by bandits. Finally, a word needs to be said about the uncertainty that the worsening security situation in Northern Nigeria brings to the coronavirus pandemic. The profile of the average perpetrator of criminal activities in the north of the country is uneducated, and not given to taking advice with regards concepts such as social distancing. This mix has the potential to damage efforts to bring the crisis under control, should the virus spread to rural parts of the North. That will be a huge crisis.

Memory failure
A report by Premium Times says that the Nigerian Army plans to embark on a special operation which includes enforcing restrictions of movement and compulsorily moving sick people to hospitals. This is as part of the government’s strategy to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease. The Operation, tagged ‘Op-Second Eleven’, has been sanctioned by the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai, according to a memo obtained by the newspaper. The memo signed by Nigeria Army’s Chief of Policy and Plans, Lamidi Adeosun, was copied to 112 recipients, including all the subdivisions of the army. It directs the suspension of all projected 2020 events of the army that involve large gatherings including meetings, briefings, and conferences. According to the memo, aside the suspension of most programmes chalked up for this year, the army is making plans to lease out excavators, trucks, water tankers and other relevant vehicles to aid the operation in the area of possible mass burial, water, and essential food/drugs supplies. The memo said the army also plans “forceful transfer of the sick to hospitals, enforcement of government movement restriction order” among others. The Nigeria Army is also “planning to secure all major food stores and government storage facilities for essential goods from looting. It is also planning coordination with sister services, Nigeria Police, Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, Fire Services and others on enforcing a restriction on movements and other directives by the government. A statement late on Wednesday by the Army denied the memo.

Bearing in mind that the Army has denied the memo, we still think that a potentially military enforced lockdown bears commenting on. While there is some “doctrine of necessity” justification in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, we do not see how the Army getting involved could positively affect these internal security operations. This is particularly important as the Army has habitually been used to make up for the state of inadequate policing in the country with operations in 35 out of 36 states. A special operation by the Army involving the police and other security agencies could see the already under-policed rural areas and highways become more vulnerable to attacks by the various threats that will quickly take advantage of Nigeria’s many ungoverned spaces which would become even more ungoverned. Another nightmare situation is highhandedness by soldiers against a population that already views the military with mistrust, leading to even more social unrest. In our view the best strategy by the military at this time would be to reach out to civil society organisations, which it views as askance, but which have the networks and trust of many of these underserved communities, to help distribute aid. Even at that, our best scenario is that hope that restrictions on movements will be adhered to by citizens voluntarily, once the dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic fully set in.

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