A game of numbers

A game of numbers
Sanusi Lamido, Christine Lagarde & Okonjwo Iweala

Nigeria plays a dangerous game of numbers. One which is apt to mislead, fuel popular discontent, and distort many potentially valuable conversations, in the media, between politicians, amongst the educated elite, and most commonly, within the polity.

When in 2014, the Emir of Kano and former Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi claimed that the state owned NNPC had failed to remit up to $20bn to the Federation Account, the nation stirred in anger at the revealed scale of graft and mismanagement of public funds. One year on, Nigerians are no closer to appreciating either the size or the significance of $20bn in economic terms.

Recently, it started with Vice President Osinbajo stating that Nigeria's national debt was somewhere around $60bn. Again, a number too large for most people to comprehend. But it doesn't stop there.

President Buhari’s transition committee led by Ahmed Joda was reported to have claimed that the nation’s budget deficit stood at ₦7 trillion. Cue uproar. Yet both the media and the polity were slow to identify the more pertinent issue – whether Joda's claim represented the nation's debt or deficit, two very different economic metrics. When the figure became the focus, the meaning was lost.

Again, when the recently inaugurated National Economic Council claimed that the former Minister of Finance, Okonjo Iweala spent $2.1bn without Federal Government approval, more claims were debated back and forth between her and Governor Adams Oshiomole of Edo State. But, the only conclusion that could be drawn is that the numbers were as arbitrary as they were unsubstantiated. This raises certain issues for our country.

Firstly, the numbers never seem to add up. It just becomes too difficult to consolidate.

Secondly, the problem is that these numbers mean too much and too little to a large section of the Nigerian population and this includes the educated elite. On one hand, the numbers are sensationalised to reflect Nigeria's wealth. In this way, the numbers are used as instruments in the politician's attempt to direct conversation and smear opponents. When the struggling mechanic is informed that the GDP of Nigeria is more than $500bn, it should not surprise us when he concludes that any financial problem with the nation is the result of corruption.

The media never seems to help. Many times, Nigerian media parades so many figures, with so little regard for accuracy, that it confuses even the most up to date readers. It then becomes more difficult to gauge the effect of these numbers on the common man. The typical Nigerian may know that the minimum wage is ₦18,000. This figure has clear value to her. Likewise, a monthly salary of ₦500,000 has clear value to a middle to upper class earner. But once the media begins to interchange naira for dollars, ramp up figures and sensationalise them, they become postcards for confusion, with relatively little value, and instead fuel gossip. For example, almost every other oil businessman is classified as a billionaire – but in naira or dollar terms? Few seem to care.

The results of these issues then add up in different ways.

Used in the current way, the numbers become nonsensical; too large and devoid of context for the Nigerian man to understand. He simply cannot understand the value of ₦6.5bn as this number is not a regular occurrence. Smaller numbers like 5, 10 and 20 are easier to understand due to familiarity. 5 children, 10 cars or 20 school children. While most people cannot visualise what 50,000 people look like, they may make sense of it by imagining a football stadium. Others who cannot imagine what 170 million people look like, may be aware that it is roughly the size of the Nigerian population. But once the figures get too large or uncommon, we lose our reference points and struggle to make sense of them.

This is because when it comes to large monetary sums, we have no idea of their intrinsic value. We need a reference point to truly understand how much ₦60 billion naira means. Without a reference point, we cannot grasp the true significance of this number. 

So what happens when you combine the human inability to effectively process particular numbers with a proclivity for using numbers as instruments of power? You get a smokescreen that makes it difficult to truly grasp the scale of theft and graft in the public sector. This is crucial because we cannot make people accountable for figures we do not understand. We may say that politicians are stealing billions, or oil contractors are making millions. But these claims remain abstract, too far removed from our reality to really rouse us.

Recent events have reminded the nation of how unreliable the media can be, from the local newspapers to the international publications, mainly due to the desire to be the first to break news items. Depending on what paper you read, the state bailout sum of $2.1bn was either the savings of the previous PDP led administration or the revenue generated by the Buhari regime from the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Company. Furthermore, after the figure of ₦8.9bn was paraded as the Senate wardrobe allowance, the media later adjusted it to the much more believable ₦506,900, following clarification from the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission. Intentionally or not, the media often further muddies the waters. 

The careful reader might have found the numbers in this article difficult to synchronise. Alas, that encapsulates the problem with our game of numbers.

Nevertheless, some things are clear now. Nigeria deserves a higher level of journalism and a higher level of transparency. Discussion of figures must come after rigorous journalistic research. Our patience for sensationalism and obfuscation have long worn thin. And some of us now know, that in this game of numbers played by the media and those in power, the people will always lose out.


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Timeyin Preston Ideh

Timeyin Preston Ideh

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