I couldn’t help it. As soon as the new figures conjured by Dr Okonjo-Iweala out of Nigeria’s “rebased” Gross Domestic Product exercise came out, I shouted abracadabra! Then I chanted, “Come and see Ah-meri-ka wonder! Come and see Ah-meri-ka wonder!” I promptly substituted “Nigerian” for America in that spell-casting ditty of itinerant tricksters that used to haunt the busy bus terminals of our major cities.
I completed the expression of my wonder by crying out loud, “The more you look, the less you see!” Enthralled by Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s fiscal miracle—Nigeria being a nation of miracle-seekers forever praying for the doubling of their portion of blessings—I remembered Professor Chandus, the money-doubler in Chinua Achebe’s classic of children’s literature, Chike and the River.
In that story, Chike, a starry-eyed village boy, dreams day and night of going to Asaba, a poor man’s Lagos that is in turn the-less-poor-man’s London. He comes very close to realising his dream when he goes to live with his uncle in Onitsha. But not even the seductions of Onitsha, a far bigger city with a fabled market, can quench his burning desire to cross the great River Niger. Yet, how to find the fare for the trip by ferry across the river and back? Several times, he thinks of asking his uncle, an unsmiling man, for it but perishes the thought. And the longer he waits to cross the river, the more restless he becomes. So one day he damns the consequences and asks. Chike is coldly denied and sternly rebuked. As luck would have it, however, he kicks up a six-pence coin one day as he is returning home from one of his many trips to gaze at the river and imagine what lies on its other side. His booty is only half the fare, so his problem is only half-solved. Then his good friend, Samuel, alias SMOG—Save Me Oh God—comes up with the bright idea of visiting a money-doubler. But first, SMOG persuades Chike to spend half of the money on treats with the argument that once the change of three pence had been doubled to the original six pence, then it would be doubled again to make a shilling, the exact fare Chike needs. I don’t believe I need to tell you that Chike lost his money.
A children’s tale, all right, but I submit that there’s nothing juvenile about the moral of the money-doubling episode. You only need to reflect for a moment to see in Dr Okonjo-Iweala, our finance minister, a Professor Chandus unbounded by the need to actually show us the doubled money. You would also see an uncanny resemblance to the eponymous hero of the tale. Like Chike, Okonjo-Iweala is hamstrung by poverty and driven by desire. Poverty: the inability of the economy of the country over which she wrested for herself the designation of its “co-ordinating minister” to afford even the most basic needs (food and fuel, for instance). Desire: Okonjo-Iweala must have always gazed enviously at South Africa, the continent’s richest economy. And always been reminded that much of the blame for the parlous state of Nigeria is attributable to her. Indeed, the similarity grows somewhat eerie as this is her second coming to the finance ministry—the first doubling act! Yet, with no hope of overtaking South Africa when Nigeria cannot even generate enough electricity to light up our homes, never mind for industry and manufacturing, there was nothing for it but to play money-doubler as a last resort. And she had the perfect excuse.
For twenty-three years, Nigeria had not rebased its GDP. Yet the International Monetary Fund, an institutional deity whom Okonjo-Iweala—as a former managing director of the World Bank—serves as a monetary high-priest, recommends that countries rebase their GDP at least every five years. True, the Nigerian economy has seen considerable growth since 1990 in the telecommunications sector and with the advent of Nollywood.
The stage was set for Dr Okonjo-Iweala to play Professor Chandus. But while fiction may imitate life and make us wiser, often while also entertaining us, only the ridiculous may be expected when life imitates fiction. In Achebe’s fiction, money-doubling is quickly exposed as the scam that it is. In Okonjonomics, however, fiction proves more anchored on reality than the supposedly real world of the total worth of all a nation produces. Chike learns quickly that he is the proverbial fool soon parted from his money. So if Nigerians went to bed in the night of Saturday, 5 April 2014, with N42.4 trillion naira in their collective pocket, and woke up the next day to their statistician-general’s revelation that they had grown richer by N37.8 trillion while they slept, wouldn’t they be fools to believe it if they remain as hungry and angry, homeless and jobless, as they were when they closed their eyes the night before? Mind you, statistician rhymes well with magician! The real reason for this money-doubling miracle, we are told, is to position Nigeria as an investors’ paradise. If so, another miracle is urgently needed: the overnight transformation of Nigeria’s stone-age infrastructure. And don’t forget about the ravening monster called corruption while you are at it! Bearing in mind, also, that Chike is finally able to cross the river with real money earned from earnest labour.
Professor Ifowodo, a lawyer and a poet, teaches at the Texas State University in the United States.