Viewpoint

May 22, 2024

Re-thinking Nigeria: Beyond myths, illusions and self-deceit

Minimum Wage

Utomi

By PAT UTOMI

Nigeria is a mess right now. A huge mess. Even the blind can see it. And the deaf can hear the cry of anguish of Nigeria’s children. Can the country be rescued? Possibly. But the myths, years of delusions of grandeur and criminal capture of the Nigerian state threaten the possibility.

Last week one of the great TV interviewers in Nigeria, Charles Aniagolu, asked me the big question. How did we get here?

I resisted the temptation of the immodest but frank answer:   go and read just about everything I have written in the last 40 years.

So I talked about a flawed political class   constrained by the false consciousness of the collapsed morality of civic culture captured in the seminal essay on Colonialism and the two Publics written by Peter Ekeh in 1975 and the idea of the tragedy of the commons where that which belongs to all belongs to none. Theoretical truths as they may be Nigeria’s descent to failing state status, poverty capital of the world, and theatre of violent crime and impunity has been a long time coming and has been framed by many illusions left unattended by an anti-intellectual culture fostered by post-1999 political elite, ego journalism which has left the big issues as a columnist celebrate self and promote partisan passions, and a rent focused business elite tied to the aprons of the politicians became complicit in their indulgence while pretending to be neutral. The chicken has come home to roost, the gate to the road to Somalia opens even as leadership selection traditions have left at the watch those unable to shut the gates of brass and the bars of iron.

To be sure, Nigeria was a great potential in 1960. But much of what created illusions of progress in the late 1970s and 1980s for a few thriving on crude oil rents, and the entitlement mentality that has since followed, and sustained an appetite for consumption and a consumerist economy has been in the way of shifting to production. These derive from less than thoughtful nation building policy making choices even as we went on giant of Africa hallucinations without the work that make giants. I warned back then, chided and prompted in directions that could help claim the promise of greatness. I was told I was talking to the deaf. Now all I hear is: you forewarned us of this catastrophe.

The projected greatness of Nigeria in 1960 was rooted  not in potential oil revenues but in a calculus of its factor endowments and character, vision and conduct of its politicians between 1956 and 1960.

So when Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa was welcomed in Washington shortly after Independence with such pomp in international relations arena marked by power, maximizing it was because the world saw an emerging black power. That potential consolidated for a period under the military was squandered progressively by corrupt, poorly governing narcissistic politicians.

But how did these leaders go so spectacularly wrong? They neglected some simple rules any head of family pays attention to in a time of windfall. Save for a rainy day, invest in the education of the offspring and construct now you have cash that which will enable them to produce and prosper in the days when that windfall may not be there. Our elite seemed quite challenged compared to Botswana in Africa, Norway in Europe and several of the countries in the Arab Middle East.

So we sauntered into Dutch Disease which occurs when a combination of spending patterns and exchange rates cause labour skills to move to the non-tradable goods sectors like construction as tradionally dominant sectors like agriculture became uncompetitive. The putative manufacturing sector which experienced great surge from 1956 under self-government suffered shocks in this season and as Irene Sun shows in her book on Chinese investments and Africa as the world’s next great factory became victim of poor trade policy.

For me the biggest damage oil boom did to Nigeria was the ‘confidence’ it gave decision makers to abandon rigor in decision making and turn their back on planning. The failure of the electricity sector so critical for production and civilization is the most revealing example of this. How on God’s earth did we manage to let that happen?

When I go back and read things I wrote 40 years ago, 30 years back and 15 years before now I wonder that if care is not taken some will capture me and pronounce me a prophet. But I do not need the religious charlatan powers to know those views were available  to anyone that paused to think.

Twenty three years ago I was hosting the LBS executive briefing breakfast at which the IMF Country Manager was guest. In my opening remarks, I reiterated my call for mineral and oil revenues to flow into three accounts: a Distributable Pool Fund(FAAC), a Stabilisation Fund and a Future Fund(Sovereign Wealth Fund). The IMF official nicely editorialised that with thinking of that nature foreign experts would have no place offering counsel. It was not rocket science. Botswana was ahead of me on that curve.

In columns,  I pressured the government in Abuja to start saving oil windfalls. When they did, some of my friends in a government I was friendly with in Lagos wondered why I would encourage the Federal Government to take money rightly belonging to the states. When I told one of them that he knew enough to understand the concept of mutual funds he kept quiet. Today he has the responsibility for what I tried to encourage then.

Had a marketplace of ideas encouraged rational public conversation on my crusade of that season perhaps we may not be where we are today in the management of the economy. But our politics stifles rational conversation and the pool of good thinking shrunk.

Those who could point us to the plight of the more vulnerable, the poor, the physically-challenged and minor minorities, from academia and journalism retreated from the arena as bullies and semi-literates got bolder. The voiceless angry began gradually to drop into the catchment of the entrepreneurs of violence or violent crime. Most of what we now project as violent irredentist movements happen to be organised crime as Italy and some Latin American countries have experienced. But they have compounded bad economic policies with insecurity that has hurt the agriculture value chain.

The results have come in. Is Nigeria a lost cause?

The tendency to glamorise the era of crude oil oiled easy life for a portion of the population is attractive. But it was an illusion of prosperity. Nigeria was never. It could have gone that way but a short sighted elite chose to live in the present and not in the future as their counterparts in Spain did three centuries ago.

The model from which we can reconstruct a new Nigeria has to be found in a digital version of that of the independence fathers who remarkably transformed the economy from 1957 to 1964 before the political order began to crack. We will then need to devise a new political order seeing the present one has failed almost all stakeholders.

What political structure can sustain a developmental state idea and grant the great escape to millions of the desperately poor in Nigeria.

That new way has to overcome the diseased morality of the civic culture of the extant ‘’democracy’ that let the Barbarians past the gate into the city halls and boardrooms. The ‘Band A’ bandits of the disconnected   state who have moved state capture up a few notches have now so little sensitivity that like the wife of Louis XVI in France they may ask why do those chanting ebi mpawa and rioting for food because there was no Garri now eat Ofada rice instead.

*Utomi,  a   Political Economist and Professor at the Lagos Business School is founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership