Recent public policy debates have put forward the idea that Nigeria’s policy options center around an Economic Growth versus Human Development Index (HDI) dichotomy. I am concerned that this juxtaposition sets up the false premise that the choice can ever, in fact, be binary – that it is possible for a good leader, or even one that aspires to simply average results, to choose either economic growth (usually expressed as GDP growth) OR human development (as represented by HDI) as the basis for a national policy – either because one is sufficient, in itself, or because the other will naturally follow.
Proponents of an “economic growth” policy thrust put forward the position that if we just focus on growing the economy, human development will naturally follow. They would have us believe that the cure for what ails Nigeria is a leader who will focus on growing the economy, because if our economy grows, the rest of what ails us will naturally be dealt with – and our country will be transported from third to first world on the back of the prosperity that is created. This is an alluring proposition: it is attractive in its simplicity, and is even logical in the same basic sort of way. The reasoning goes something like this: if there was more money to go around, the government would have money to fund intervention, people would have more to spend, and the country would be better. Economic growth advocates, therefore focus on annual increases in GDP (i.e. the value of goods and services produced in a country), and on GDP per capita (GDP relative to the size of a country’s population). There are obvious issues with limiting policy to a GDP conversation. The most commonly cited are that GDP only measures the formal economy (leaving out the value of activity in the informal economy), and that GDP per capita does not address issues such as wealth distribution – both important issues in developing countries. GDP also does not track how money is spent, or what investments are made. As a headline progress indicator for countries like the US or UK, already in some steady state, economic growth as a sole indicator of progress and compass for policy may well be instructive. Not for Nigeria.
Perhaps to circumvent these gaps, and in search of a more inclusive measure of progress, a clamour for the human development index (HDI) as a policy barometer has increasingly found voice. Advocates believe that because HDI also takes into account life expectancy, access to knowledge (as measured by average years of education in the adult population, and expected years of schooling for young children), as well as the “standard of living” (as measured by the country’s Gross National Income – a measure similar to GDP, but which includes income made by nationals who live abroad, and excludes what is made by non-national in the country), it offers a measure that is robust, reflective of the population’s reality, and internationally understood. What could possibly be wrong with that?
My answer is this: that as an index for speaking to the world about our progress, HDI is worth calculating, and tracking, as it offers some insight into the effect of a country’s social policies. But those insights are limited, to health and educational duration – not quality – and, again, to national income figures that say nothing about allocation and distribution. We should admit, also, that as headline communication measures, even GDP and GDP per capita have their uses: they can be both externally and internally instructive about the state of the nation, relative to other countries, and as a measure of the effect that population growth has on revenue management. The more people there are, the higher GDP has to be, for there to be growth on a per capita basis. That much we can glean. Those concessions notwithstanding, if we accept that the purpose of national policy is to effect real change, and not simply to speak to the world in headlines, then we must consider that neither economic growth nor HDI can be sufficient as a basis for driving national policy – we are too far off course for these to be our policy development anchors.
To my mind, a more granular, more responsive approach to policy formulation is required for Nigeria, and we must begin by asking the question “what are we developing policies to address?” In other words, what do I mean by “we are too far gone?” In researching this paper, I came across the London School of Economics’ definition of social policy as “the services and support provided by the state across the life course of citizens, from childhood to old age: including child and family support, schooling and education, housing and neighbourhood renewal, income maintenance and poverty reduction, unemployment support and training, pensions, health, and social care: with an emphasis on reducing inequalities in access to services.” It sounded almost utopian. I, frankly, had to remind myself that that speaks more to how far we have fallen than it belies the fact that those – indeed – are the issues with which responsible governments should be concerned. I say, “remind myself,” not because I recall it from something I read or watched, but because I have lived it. Not that long ago, in my own lifetime, the Nigerian government (or at least the Western Region Government) had policies and programs in place to address most, if not all, of those social needs. I am sixty-five years old; imagining our present condition, even fifty years ago, would probably have been considered ludicrous pessimism. Yet here we are.
What exactly is our present condition?.
We are a bastion of penury, as evidenced by the living standards of our people. According to research produced by the Brookings Institution, Nigeria has 87 million people living in extreme poverty – more than any other country in the world. Can this be true? Let’s go back for a minute to the discussion on GDP per capita. We are told that Nigeria made 375.8 billion dollars in 2017 (I do not have the figures for 2018), and that there are 190.9 million people in the country, so GPD per capita is $375.8 billion divided by 190.9 million, that is $1,968 or N708,480. Now, even if we had the luxury of spending all our income on citizens, this would still only come to about 5 dollars a day per person. If we then consider the country’s other financial obligations, size of government, and general income disparity, it makes sense that almost half of us are living in extreme poverty. Both HDI and economic growth indices will reveal this.
We are a debt-burdened nation – numbers from the Budget Office of the Federation indicate that Nigeria spent 66% of its earnings on servicing debt in the first half of 2018 – up from 22% in 2012, and ascending all the way to 68% in 2017. Neither HDI nor economic growth figures can guide debt and revenue management.
We are an increasingly illiterate nation – UNICEF estimates that 13.2 million Nigerian children were out of school in 2015, up from 10.5 in 2010. Even those who are in school have little hope of receiving quality education, with only 0.5% of national GDP allocated to education. While economic growth will be impacted by this, it will not measure it. An HDI-focus will track, but not address it.
We are an irresponsibly procreating people – Every four seconds. That is the statistic. Every four seconds, a child is born in Nigeria. At an annual population growth rate of about 2.6% per annum, Nigeria will apparently be the world’s 3rd most populated country by 2050 – at about which time, the country is projected to have depleted 85% of its oil reserves. Considering that almost half of our population is already impoverished, what sense can there possibly be in breeding like rabbits? Both HDI and economic growth will reveal this, as trends after the fact.
Crookedness has become synonymous with our national brand – Transparency International ranked us No. 148, out of 180 countries in the world in 2017 Transparency Index. In 2012, we were No. 121. And the way we are fighting corruption, if indeed we are fighting, then surely we must consider that our fight is both toothless and ineffective, and rethink our approach. Neither HDI nor economic growth-centered policies can address this.
It is a grim condition, indeed, which is why we must do better than base our interventions on “tidy” indices that do not guide responsive policy formulation. This is not a start-up sovereign, such as Israel. Rather, we are a country on a collision course, barely a nation in any real sense, and deeply plagued by fundamental evils, which, if not addressed, will ensure our ruin. It is through this lens – of the giant evils that plague us – that my own view of a development policy for Nigeria is constructed. You might ask why I would choose to define policy on the back of problems – evils. My polite answer is that the role of a government is to respond to/create an enabling environment for the needs, challenges and aspirations of its population to be addressed; and, that where there are barriers to this, taking them down must be the foundation of policy. This is why they are called policy interventions – their singular purpose is to remove the barriers to national ascension.
The choice of the word “evils” in describing our particular barriers is a function of their depth and destructiveness, and is quite deliberate. To call them challenges would be a lie, it would cause us to underestimate their pervasiveness and leave any responses we may craft inadequate to address their rot. If we are running away from the insufficiency of GDP and HDI as foundations for policy, then we must run toward the kind of brutal honesty that will compel us to strive for a different existence. I also believe that by first describing our afflictions, it becomes possible to define organised remedies (or policy interventions) and articulate a future state (in other words, a vision) for our country.
The idea of naming a nation’s ills as a foundation for policy-making is not an altogether original position, I should admit. In 1942, at the end of World War II, the United Kingdom commissioned a national survey with a view to developing a comprehensive social policy. The result, the Social Insurance and Allied Services Report, more popularly dubbed the Beveridge Report, identified 5 giant evils in British society – squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. In response to each of them, policy interventions were crafted, modified versions of which remain part of the fabric of British society today – Council Housing, Grammar Schools, The Dole, Job Centres, and the National Health Service (NHS).
The severity of our situation suggests to me that we may well already be in a minefield of evils; but even minefields must be mapped in order to be disabled. That said, I have been unable to distil just 5 evils – particularly because our scope must extend beyond social policy, if any impact is to be realisable. What I have arrived at, after much musing, is a list of twelve giant evils, that are fundamental to our present condition. There are, of course, other evils; only that they are yet to attain the size of giants. Nigeria’s TWELVE GIANT EVILS, in my view, are the following, and they break down as social, structural, economic and psychological.
The first five are social, and in fact, identical to the findings of the UK Beveridge Commission during World War II – and that may tell us something, both about the universality of the human condition, and the state of our country.
Hunger – the inability of citizens to access food, due to extreme poverty.
Ignorance – the absence of quality basic education, fueling an inability to make informed decisions about their leadership, followership and lives.
Squalor – decrepit living conditions – from clean water to housing
Disease – preventable sickness and deaths, borne of poverty, ignorance, and abysmal health-care options.
Idleness – lack of jobs, and access to opportunity/resources.
The next two are structural:
Darkness – the absence of steady or predictable power,
Voidness – compounding the absence of power, is a dearth of infrastructure (pillars to support a productive economy, inadequate and poorly maintained roads, public transit systems, etc.) has translated to stagnation of key industries.
The next two economic:
Barrenness – A failure to produce, and therefore to generate adequate revenues to fund our development.
Wastage – A failure to manage even the available resources. Poor expenditure, taxation, and debt management, cost of government (particularly the national assembly).
And the final three psychological:
Aimlessness – Leaderless, visionless, directionless, and without order. Just existing, subsisting actually.
Crookedness – Intentional and devious creativity, aimed at taking unethical (often illegal) advantage of a poorly managed system.
Insecurity – Living in fear of violence, exploitation, without protection or just recourse.
It is certainly possible to nuance, unpack, and debate, ad nauseum, my choice of twelve, but all good debates are limited by time. Let us therefore take these as sufficient for the purpose of advancing this discussion. What we are trying to establish is first that we are a country plagued by some very fundamental and pervasive problems and, second, that confronting those problems systematically and comprehensively is the responsibility of a responsible government, and must be the foundation of policymaking. Any national agenda that does not address, or at least consider the breadth of our afflictions is, by definition, inadequate and unworthy. You cannot restore health to an HIV positive patient by treating pneumonia. Nor can you administer HIV cocktails and ignore the already-present opportunistic infection. Ask the doctors, broad-spectrum ailments require broad-spectrum treatment. Sometimes this calls for sequencing, sometimes trade-offs, but the life of the patient hangs on accurate diagnosis of all underlying conditions, and the physician’s skill, in determining a treatment protocol. The grace of God, of course, is implied; first in assembling this confluence of factors, and then in completing what lies beyond the limits of human endeavour. But first, let’s deliver appropriate and directed human endeavour, over which, we have been given both choice, and control.
Given the bleak picture painted of our country, it is not an unreasonable question to ask whether this writer has not entirely given up on Nigeria. What future can one possibly envisage if we acknowledge these evils to be true? “Can our present circumstances be changed, or are we beyond redemption?” I believe they can be changed, I believe redemption is possible, but I also strongly believe that it cannot be accidental. It must be deliberate and systematic, and it must be based on difficult truths, because there are too many of us for denial and natural resource booms to be our ticket out of penury. Also, although the scope of a Nigeria turnaround must necessarily go beyond social evils, I have ordered my dozen giant evils in this way for a reason: listing the social first, and not second or third, because, even having first made the point that our policy priorities must be entire and mutually propelling, I also believe that order, not priority now, but the sequencing of our thoughts and interventions must begin with people. To the extent that it is people who make up a nation, their lives must matter first, and their needs must lead our other priorities.
My reasoning rests on the strategic logic of starting with the end in mind, and I will give you a non-statistical, non-clinical, though no less valid insight into my leaning on this. I grew up in a world where parents considered their children an investment, and made financial sacrifices for the child as well as the parents’ future. Parents, sometimes communities, ensured that children were fed, healthy, and went to school, often at great personal cost, in the belief that those opportunities would afford the child an opportunity build a better life for himself, and that the fruit of that improved future would be shared by the collective. Oftentimes, there were trade-offs between children, on the basis of aptitude, or attitude, or both. Sometimes it was gender, but the basis and fairness of tradeoffs notwithstanding, they were made. The result was that the poor birthed the rich, and many of the successful people we celebrate today can speak of “humble beginnings”. Between the knowledge of want, and a refusal to go back to it, and the sense of responsibility imbued by the sacrificers, the motivation to succeed was not in short supply. “From those to whom much is given, much is expected”, so goes the adage, and in order to give, parents went without; they borrowed, they nurtured a sense of responsibility. I believe that a developing nation, particularly one plagued as we are with these many evils, must take the same view. That its leaders must, as custodians of citizens, prioritise the development of people, and do so with an investment mentality. I believe that by first planning for it citizens, a nation puts itself in a position to understand what its actual financial requirements are (for those of you who are commercially inclined, we can call it a target/budget), and can then set economic growth goals and unpack the strategies by which to achieve them.
Having named our shame, what do we do about it? These evils have, after all, been laid out, not to revel in despair, but to craft policy interventions that directly address our most intractable problems. To that extent, it would be irresponsible to speak of evils without offering a framework on which policy responses can be anchored. I should
1 Describe the evil, and why it is evil.
2 What is the future state that we want to replace the current? (We must take the time to describe this is painstaking detail)
3 What cadre of peers do we anticipate we will have in that future state? (This is an important question, as it takes account of the fact that we live in an evolving world. Our peer comparisons cannot be static, they must be informed by our desired place in the world).
4 What specific interventions will bring about this outcome? And what role must the people themselves play? What will happen if citizens fail to play their role?
5 What resources will we require (financial, and otherwise)? How will we get them?
6 How will we measure success, internally, and relative to our future peers?
If we are able to take all 12 evils, and rigorously run each of them through these six critical questions, I suspect our policy options will be laid bare before us. For illustrative purposes, let us examine the evil of ignorance:
Describe the evil, and why it is evil…
Nigeria is beset by the evil of ignorance. Of the 180 plus people in our country, 75million do not have basic literacy skills. In addition, Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world – accounting for more than half of the 20 million out-of school children globally. Ignorance is evil because it negatively impacts ability of our citizens to make informed choices about their future and the future of their children, it limits their earning potential, and robs them of the opportunity to participate, much less compete, in a global marketplace. With the largest population in Africa (almost twice that of Ethiopia, which is second in line), continued illiteracy in Nigeria will spell disaster for the continent, and almost certainly result in a humanitarian crisis.
What is the future state that we want to replace the current?
We believe it is possible to avert disaster and develop and formidable talent pool for Africa by eliminating ignorance in Nigeria. An informed, knowledgeable and educated Nigerian population will have the capacity to innovate for Africa, and the world.
What cadre of peers do we anticipate we will have in that future state?
We will be one of the world’s Top 3 emerging knowledge economies within 25 years.
By defining our aspirations with precision, and addressing the questions comprehensively, our policy direction for ignorance and all of the other 11 giant evils that plague us can be determined based on this proposed framework.
While space limitations will not permit a full review of all 12 giant evils, there are two in particular that require some further exposition, as I believe they are central to any hope we may have of turning this country around. The first is the evil of aimlessness. Where are we going? What is our national vision, and what is our plan for getting there? To my mind, this even more essential than many of the restructuring debates that proliferate our polity. Structure follows strategy, not the other way around. So we must define (either by adopting the vision of a leader who presents us with a rigorously considered, viable and aspirational roadmap, or through representational participation in a conversation about national direction) a path for Nigeria.
To me, envisioning a future for Nigeria starts with having a vision for the people. “The people perish, no have no vision”. ”What do we want the lives of the people of Nigeria to look like in 25 years?; and the answer to that question must go beyond “good” or “prosperous” or “world class”, none of which actually means very much. To address this comprehensively, we must go back to the giant social evils and be specific – e.g. want to reduce the percentage of our people living in extreme poverty to 5%, etc. We must find a leader who will speak to us every day, reminding us of that collective dream. We must instill it in schools, and in the public space. We must become unapologetically brainwashed, steeped in our vision of a better future.
The second is the evil of barrenness. I find it interesting that we so readily and derogatorily call women barren in our society, referring to biological processes over which they invariably have no control. Yet, we – the nation – despite having significant control over our ability to produce, fail to recognise our own national sterility. We produce nothing. Nor do we have any concise national plan that I am aware of, to build and hone expertise in producing anything. A country that does not make does sustain, and extraction is not the same as production.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, 99% of Nigeria’s export revenues come from oil. There is a lot of narrative around diversification today, but I have heard nobody say, ”we will be the best at producing these 3, or 4, or 5 things globally”. We either talk about solid minerals, and gas, which, incidentally are also extractive, or we pay lip service to agribusiness. Where is the land to accommodate endless commercial production of anything and everything? Where will this uncontrolled population live, if cassava and rice are competing for space with people and livestock? We must get real. I am not saying the country does not have agricultural potential, but we must focus, and do so from the beginning to the end of high-value chains only. The primary agricultural level, it has been established, is where the smallest profit resides. Switzerland, the home of premium chocolate, does not grow cocoa. Yet it is they who set the standards; chocolates are now graded, based on the level of cocoa inclusion. We, on the other hand, continue to peddle a pedestrian narrative of growing enough to feed an endlessly growing number of mouths. We don’t plan for wealth, we plan for subsistence. This cannot be a viable path.
The first question, in my view, is this: what do we need to fund the future we desire? This is the reason why I insist that we must lead policy formulation by addressing social evils first. By understanding the kind of future we desire for our people, we can work out what the cost of that future is, and plan for how we will generate the funds for it. Funding sources will require creativity, some borrowing possibly, ambitious revenue generation targets, and clear strategies for achieving them. We already are the 7th most populous country in the world. Even if we were to magically stop procreating today, we would still remain in the 90th percentile on population size for a while to come. This means, if we go back to the discussion on GDP per capita, that we need to have a GDP in the top quartile globally to give our citizens a world class lifestyle. How will we build that wealth? Surely, not by subsistence. Nationally, we must plan to bear fruit – premium, high value, fruit and on more than one front. And that planning, the identification of transformative sweet spots, has already tarried.
A word of note is probably prudent here. A country that plans to produce on a global scale, must be prepared to make significant sacrifices. No country with a population like ours has gone from 3rd to 1st world by keeping her doors completely open, and continuing to import everything from luxury cars to toothpicks. China closed its doors. India closed its doors. Singapore didn’t, but hey don’t have our population. If shutting doors has become unfashionable, the use of tariffs has not. Perhaps it is time that those who have amassed sufficient wealth to live above the development of their nation, begin pay for the luxury of their imported lives.
The clock is ticking on Nigeria. Oil reserves are dwindling, the population is rapidly increasing. From a country that planned, and saved and provided high quality social services, we have devolved into one that is entirely dependent on its revenues, practically, from one product, oil. When the global price is high, we declare a boom. When the world is not quite as interested in our subterranean treasures, or those in whose backyards the oil wells actually lie refuse to be appeased by token payments that have not, in 60 years, improved the livelihoods of the inhabitants, we plunge into a recession.
If we continue to ignore the reality that we are a country on the precipice, it is almost certain that we will fall over. It can get worse, and there are examples all around us. Yemen, Sudan, Libya, the DRC; these are all countries with people who also pray to “the living God”. Between the opioid optimism of the religious, and the parochial preoccupation with the nuclear that numbs the elite, we are stumbling towards Armageddon. And the thing about Armageddon is it engulfs all: the poor, the rich, the innocent and the guilty.
Less than thirty days to the next election, it might be worth pausing to ask ourselves what we are looking for? Is it the leader who offers us change (to what, and from what?), or the one who offers us prosperity (for whom, and by what means?). Is it the one who offers youth (as an elixir for what?), or the one that offers experience (as a credential in lieu of a vision)? Why do we consistently choose between less than and nothing? Can we start now, to demand more? Can we take this country and own it? Do we care enough about our futures and our children’s tomorrow, to wrestle it away from these giant evils? Who are we waiting for? The strongman who will close our borders and insist we start to fill the void? Or do we continue with this survival of the fittest, where the weak are destroyed, until none of us is left? We have choices to make, about our votes, and about our roles. May God bless Nigeria, and teach her people to be a blessing unto themselves. Our lives depend on it.