Eight years after he came into office, President Muhammadu Buhari is leaving Nigerians with a debt burden per head that outstrips the combined spending on education and health.
Official data compiled by BusinessDay show Nigeria’s debt burden per citizen grew at a faster pace compared to spending on education and health for a nation of more than 200 million people suffering from widespread poverty, deepening fiscal crisis, and widespread insecurity.
The country’s debt per citizen jumped by 215 percent from N68,852 in 2015, when Buhari took office, to N217,136 in 2022, according to data from the Debt Management Office.
Within the same period, Nigeria’s education spending per citizen stood at a meagre N6,056, despite growing by 125 percent from N2,688 in 2015.
Nigeria’s health spending per citizen also stood at a paltry N3,849 in 2022, compared to N1,404 in 2015. The bulk of that allocation is drained by recurrent expenditures such as salary payments, leaving a tiny fraction for the critically needed medical infrastructure around the country.
Most Nigerians are bewildered that a country that relies on development aids to tackle its high burden of diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS still prefers to place acquisition of huge debts for its citizens ahead of health infrastructure or improved quality of education accessed in the country’s 774 local governments.
Some analysts say the spending pattern is a crude reflection of a collective decision that issues such as debt servicing and petrol subsidies are more important than strengthening the health system.
“I think we are over-borrowing. We continue to rely on international benchmarks, which make us lazy in terms of revenue generation,” James Okweshine, a professor of economics at the University of Benin, said.
Okweshine urged the government to lessen its huge expenditure costs and channel money into more productive sectors of the economy.
Olamide Brown, founder of Flying Doctors Healthcare Investment Group, said a substantial amount could be recovered from avoidable expenditures to help Nigerians meet its commitment to apply at least 15 percent of its total budget to healthcare yearly.
“The bottom line is that Nigeria is not generating enough revenue, and it affects healthcare,” Brown said.
With the increasing borrowing appetite, Africa’s biggest economy uses a larger part of its resources to service its debt, and that has become of great concern to economists, especially in the wake of already lean revenues made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2022, Nigeria’s debt service-to-revenue ratio was at 80.6 percent — a figure far above World Bank’s suggested 22.5 percent for low-income countries like Nigeria.
The International Monetary Fund had said Nigeria may spend almost 100 percent of its revenue on debt servicing by 2026.
Further findings by BusinessDay showed that as of 2015, each Nigerian owed N68,852, as the total debt owed was N12.60 trillion, based on a population estimate of 183 million people. Yet the budget for education and health per citizen stood at N2,688 and N1, 404 respectively.
In 2016, Nigeria’s debt increased to N17.36 trillion, of which each citizen owed N92,340, based on a population of 188 million. Within the same period, Nigeria’s education and health per citizen stood at N2,554 and N1, 329 respectively.
By 2017, the debt stock experienced its first significant increase to N21.73 trillion, making Nigeria’s debt per head N117,459, with an estimated population of 185 million people nevertheless, education and health per citizen stood at N2,424 and N1, 643 respectively.
By the end of 2018, the debt stock had accelerated, hitting N24.39 trillion, based on a population of 198 million. Each Nigerian’s debt had reached N123,181 by that year. Nigeria’s education and health per citizen moved at a snail’s pace to N3,287 and N1,797 respectively.
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2019 ended with the debt increasing to N27.4 trillion, and each Nigerian owed N134,975. The population estimate was 203 million people. Nigeria’s education per citizen dropped to N2,571 while health per citizen increased to N1, 832.
At the end of the pandemic year, 2020, Nigeria’s total debt had increased to N32.92 trillion, and with a population estimate of 208 million, each Nigerian owed N158,269, while Nigeria’s education and health per citizen rose to N4,392 and N2,254 respectively.
By the end of 2021, Nigeria’s debt was N39.56 trillion, translating to N185,727 per citizen, based on a population of 213 million, while Nigeria’s education and health per citizen stood at N5,380 and N2,816 respectively.
“Nigerians will remember Buhari for increasing the debt burden a former president Olusegun Obasanjo laboured to reduce,” Luqman Agboola, head of research at Sofidam Capital, said.
“The rising burden means more money will be spent on debt service and less on developmental projects like education and health.”