By Muyiwa Adetiba
Professor Wole Soyinka, a very successful individual by any definition of the word, once lamented that his generation was a failed one.
It was a curious lamentation at the time especially when you know that the said generation boasted many successful individuals in business, commerce, military, the arts and of course, government.
It was arguably more successful in the many definitions of success, than the generations after it. But unto whom much is given, much is expected. And that is the crux because that generation was given a lot by God and country.
It was the generation that enjoyed the largess of government scholarship the most. It was the generation that walked into jobs immediately after school.
It was the generation whose members became CEOs, Perm Secs and Generals in their 30s. It was the generation the founding fathers handed over the future of the country to because it was better educated and more enlightened.
Alas, it was the generation that wasted the vistas of opportunities the nation had to enter the comity of civilized countries. It was a generation that caused the country to falter. It caused a war and prosecuted it. It’s been downhill since then.
But if this generation wasted its opportunities, the succeeding generations wasted the country. My concern today is the economy however.
One by one, everything that could make the country re-enter the league of industrialised countries was denied oxygen.
The Iron and Steel Industries, the Petrochemical Industries, Aluminium Industries, even the refineries were asphyxiated. We ignored the basic rules of industrialisation either because we felt we could get away with it or we simply did not care. Industries were sited without thinking of access to raw materials, market or labour. They were manned without respecting quality, merit or competitiveness.
They were supported by decrepit infrastructures. In other words, our national industries were programmed to fail. And they did fail. Spectacularly. But we were not stripped naked because the multinational companies were there to save our blushes.
After all, we had the population, the raw materials, the petrodollars, ‘otherwise known as the market’. We were also reasonably stable. They siphoned; they exploited. But they gave us jobs. They gave us training. They made our leaders glorified Chairmen and our people glorified shareholders. Everybody was happy until the bubble busted.
The price of crude oil fell drastically and we couldn’t meet our import bills. We entered into the era of essential commodities, import licensing and forex rationing. Even this we couldn’t handle transparently.
The same fat cats who mismanaged the economy also became beneficiaries of a skewed system. They became richer by selling allocation papers on the secondary markets while those who needed ‘raw materials’ were clawing at straws and gasping for air. It was an unsustainable system. Industries were operating at about 40% capacity.
IMF came in ostensibly to free our economy from the stranglehold of import licensing and to liberalise trading. The champions of IMF were President Babangida, Chief Falae and Dr Chu Okongwu. But the supporters of IMF were, to be fair, not limited to the trio. There were many proponents among our economists, bankers and even industrialists who were fed up with the import licensing system.
But IMF conditionality turned out to be a wrong prescription. It was like offering surgery when a simple drug would suffice. The capsule we needed to cure our ailment should have contained discipline, prudence, transparency and patriotism. Our industries were simply too young, too small, too unsophisticated to compete with big global brands internationally or even locally.
Devaluation of our currency was to discourage imports and encourage exports. But only if we offered cheaper alternatives and our industries were not geared to provide cheaper alternatives. Add access to funds and cost of funds to the reasons I had earlier mentioned and you begin to get a picture of the situation we were in.
IMF knew it. The Western powers knew it. Many multinational companies knew it. They sold a dummy and we bought it. The aim was not to industrialise us. The aim was to make us a market for their finished products. Thirty five years down the line, their game plan has worked to a T. One by one, the local industries died. One by one, the multinationals abandoned us citing an unfavourable working environment.
The scars of this failed economic policy and leadership attitude to industrialisation are everywhere. Industrial estates are now populated by either churches or warehouses for all manner of goods. Machines have been pushed out into the rain to make room for shining finished products.
Trailers queue up empty to bring finished products from the ports. Ships berth our shores laden with goods and leave empty. We subsidise other countries’ economy at the expense of ours. We help other countries keep a high employment rate while our youths go about jobless.
In the heady days of the seventies when Nigeria still held a lot of promise, a young man came into the country from America with a ‘can do’ spirit.
He soon decided on self- employment and tried his hands on trading and importation to get some capital and the feel of the business environment. But he really wanted to be an industrialist. He soon built a sprawling factory in Ijebu to assemble parts for his air-conditioning business. His ultimate goal was to manufacture everything in Nigeria. I know about this because I was involved in trying to get the Minister for Commerce and Industry under the Shagari government to attend the opening ceremony. I also interviewed the Japanese Chairman of the parent company to help raise awareness for this laudable project.
Everybody was impressed with what this young man had achieved already and was trying to achieve in the near future. His foreign partners facilitated credit facilities in cash and goods running into millions of dollars for him. This young man poured himself into the business, spending 12-18 hours a day at the factory.
And he was rewarded. His units started appearing in homes and offices. Then came IMF. He was summoned to Japan and told point blank that the parent company was pulling out because they could not see how Nigeria’s fledging industries could survive IMF pill. He was devastated. He tried to get some concessions but it was really the beginning of the end. Today, the vast factory in Ijebu stands as a monument to what could have been and a symbol of many other failed projects in Nigeria.
Last Sunday, I sat next to Remi Abdul at the reception hosted by his old friend, Gori Ogunyemi who was recently made a knight of the Methodist Church. For the first time in three decades we were able to reminisce with only a tinge of emotion. Time has healed as usual but the scars are etched.