By Tabia Princewill
IN the 1980s and 1990s, in tandem with the disastrous structural adjustment policies (a major cause of global poverty), privatization stunted government’s capacity to deliver affordable services to a generation of individuals who couldn’t afford public goods now only obtainable at supposed “market prices.”
It’s a shame that in Nigeria, as in many other African countries, our colonial mindset encourages blind support and admiration for any Western idea without thinking of its real effect on us. The solutions to our economic problems lie in our understanding of the long-term effects of the decisions taken in the 20 or so years between the Babangida and Obasanjo regimes.
Developing countries privatized government assets to increase profitability and efficiency: but are the privately-owned power companies for example, providing electricity? Without the institutions to ensure transparency of government transactions, many companies were simply sold to government cronies thus ensuring continued inefficiency.
Someday we’ll have the courage to probe the privatization process (defense spending would be another revealing investigation) as well as the granting of private university licenses to government officials in the late 90s to early 2000s, the period that saw the sharpest decline of our public education.
Decline of our public education
What an uncanny coincidence: at the exact time ASUU began near constant strikes, due to underfunding, owed salaries, etc., expensive private universities popped up to replace public education. Will we ever be bold enough to ask (and to answer) the question of where the funds to start these varsities came from? This was also the period that saw the explosion of private health facilities (again at the expense of public health care), mostly owned and run by a number of individuals seemingly connected in one way or another to government.
The song was always the same, as encouraged by the World Bank and the IMF which said government needed to adopt a “hands off” approach to the provision of critical services which could be fulfilled by private enterprises. Interestingly, the West was able to develop because of its human capital.
Without the welfare state, the provision of near free or affordable health and education for all, Western governments would not have developed a critical mass of free thinking, independent citizens with the future capacity to produce, create and reinvent innovative goods and therefore by virtue of their economic power and independence, be able to hold governments accountable. Yet, African policymakers continuously prioritize business interests which isn’t the successful development path taken by anyone else.
African technocrats, policymakers or any politician who simply wants to appear savvy, can label themselves as “business friendly” because this buzz word conveys the notion of globalization and foreign direct investment. The dark and unacknowledged side of all this is that Africa has not reaped the promised success from privatization, globalization or the prioritization of business and financial flows over human needs.
Europe developed in many ways through inward looking policies which gave local economies the opportunity to grow and become competitive before they were exposed to international competition.
Africa attempted western modernization at a time when this particular growth model was less feasible but the irony of it all is that in our struggle to tackle the imbalance of trade in Nigeria (we import more than we produce) the “business friendly politicians” of the 90s and 2000s reinforced our dependence on consumption of foreign goods through their corruption: indeed, corruption is the primary reason why the import substitution and industrialization policy didn’t work.
Therefore, despite banning furniture, fabrics and other consumer goods we were unable to develop the industries to produce them ourselves.
How interesting that the same individuals who stopped progress, parrot World Bank and IMF advice about the supremacy of capital and international financial flows over their people’s interest. So many “business friendly politicians” only achieved that tag by capturing state industries and leasing our commonwealth, subverting our national interest in favour of Lebanese or American expatriates. Unfortunately, the average voter neither understands nor has much of an interest in economic policy.
So, when the structural adjustment loans were mismanaged (a much too polite term for what reportedly happened), many didn’t connect the worsening economy to corruption or to botched privatization, or to the fact that we are yet to develop real industries, brands or products patronized locally and within Africa itself before we talk about competing internationally.
We continue to use foreign direct investment as a benchmark for how well our economy is doing, while in actual fact, this subtly continues Western dominance of the global economy, ensuring we remain consumers and they remain producers.
Our dependency on the West for political and economic guidance is now so natural and complete, the fact that it is simply another form of colonization goes unnoticed. Global conglomerates have access to cheaply obtained Nigerian labour and raw materials and retain the capacity to bribe our governments to ensure multinationals don’t pay adequate taxes.
This focus on foreign direct investment rather than small businesses, the backbone of any economy, is a legacy of the time period mentioned earlier, one where African economic policy was in service of Western wealth accumulation and capital.
The question we must ask ourselves now that it’s time to vote again, is, who does this obsession with privatization and attracting foreign companies benefit? If we sell NNPC as is being proposed, who will buy it if not the same incompetent individuals with access to state resources?
We continue to frivolously consume goods created by other nations and watch public education die while private schools accessible only to a small number of people thrive. These are the reasons why poverty, terrorism and ethno-religious violence rise.
A group of people watched our local businesses die so they could share public assets and invite foreign companies to continue this poverty producing system we find ourselves in today. Fela called them “International Thief-Thief”. Are Nigerians saying “never again” or “welcome back”?
A FORMER Chief of Defence Staff, General Martin Luther Agwai, recently said the army suffered casualties fighting Boko Haram because it is involved in “unconventional warfare” which it wasn’t trained for. “Let me remind all of us that when a dog bites man, it’s not news but the day a man bites dog, you know that it’s news.
“How many of you have reported the number of Boko Haram that have been arrested, those that have been detained and those that have been killed by the security agents? It’s because that is the dog biting man, that’s what is expected of the troops.” This bias should make us all question the sources of our information and the reasons.
THE claims made by the former President in his book: “My Transition Hours”, have met some disagreements. Until Nigeria, like Brazil and South Korea, develops the moral courage to probe past governments without being derailed by false accusations of “witch-hunts”, every serving politician will have room to rewrite the past according to political needs of the day.
Jonathan blames Obama, the US government and David Cameron, the former UK prime minister, for the Chibok girls kidnapping and his electoral defeat.
Yet, the Jonathan administration spent precious days denying the Chibok girls were kidnapped and allegedly refused help from the US, according to reports. Our underfunded military fought and continue to fight terrorists with Soviet era weapons.
Stealing wasn’t corruption so oil swap deals, etc., made overnight billionaires out of individuals whose spending habits intrigued the world. Only Nigeria provides rehabilitation for anyone who asks for it, despite the number of unresolved issues attached to their tenure.
Tabia Princewill is a strategic communications consultant and public policy analyst. She is also the co-host and executive producer of a talk show, WALK THE TALK which airs on Channels TV.