Faulty sound bites about politics and economy

Former United States President Barrack Obama said, “Africa needs strong institutions, not strong men.” The thrust of the book, ‘Why Nations Fail’ by Daron Acemoglu et al summarised that “the success of developed countries is based on their strong institutions.” African nations are thus advised to build strong institutions though African countries were left with Western-like institutions at independence. Were they not brought down to the customs of the peoples of Africa? Is it possible to build institutions with values ​​other than those held by the people who will run the institutions?

Nigeria has created a plethora of new institutions such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, yet things remain much the same. No doubt the control of institutions by strong men has been the way of Africa and has not delivered the required transformation. What is required is a principled and strong ‘elite before strong institutions can emerge. That is strong men that can resist a strong man who wants to topple institutions. There is nothing as strong as institutions; for institutions are as strong as those who run them at any point in time.

This is one of several sound bites that make the rounds in our beloved country but is never interrogated before being taken for fact, bandied around, and passed to the next generation. Like mispronunciations and grammatical errors which have become of our English, these unsound sound bites have become national policy. Do follow me on a journey to air and interrogate a number of these pronouncements.

One of such pronouncements is that “Nigeria should go back to agriculture.” Premised on the false belief that agriculture in the days before the oil period resulted in giant strides we see in the famous Cocoa House, Groundnut Pyramids, or Malaysia having come to pick up palm seeds from Nigeria. However, no nation has transformed on the basis of agriculture.

Agriculture has its strategic purposes; food security and being a producer of primary inputs for other industries. Yet too often when the nation is in economic crisis pontificators ask that we use agriculture to take in the unemployed youth. This is a retrogressive thought as manufacturing and industries have been the sectors that reduce poverty in other climates, not agriculture. The universal trend is to achieve higher and higher agricultural output using less and less of the populace; as low as two per cent in the United States, with a similar trend in many Asian countries. It is this Nigerian mindset that gave birth to the recent rice pyramids flaunted as progress in this third decade of the 21st century.

Pronouncements such as budgetary allocation to education should be increased; human capital development must be increased to eradicate poverty; They are right sounding but will not deliver as we can never get the full benefits from human capital development if other things are not in place. Increasing human capital expenditure or output without a parallel increase in capital goods accumulation in the country simply leads to the japa syndrome being experienced.

Over the years we have placed lots of emphasis on human capital development, though this is not reflected in the percentage of education the ministry receives from government budgets. Private-sector players and non-governmental organizations have stepped in to provide human capital enhancement from primary to postgraduate levels. The mismatch is that investments in other sectors that will absorb the products of human capital development have neither grown nor outpaced the growth we have seen in the education sector; hence we end up with unemployed graduates. The problem will continue once we fail to see beyond human capital development.

Another pronouncement is that Nigeria’s problem is its low revenue to GDP. Others say Nigeria has a revenue problem not a debt problem since our debt to GDP is much lower than the near 100 per cent debt to GDP ratio in other countries.” With government revenue being around six per cent of GDP, Nigeria is said to have one of the lowest ratios in the world and we have to raise it above 12 per cent to join the likes of South Africa. Could this not be Nigeria’s saving grace rather than a problem? Why continue to pour water into a basket which is the Nigerian government? In the interim, both the informal and organized private sectors should be encouraged to fill the gap created by the government’s absence as it has been happening for decades. If the government wants more revenue, it can obtain it by allowing the economy to grow quickly, not by expanding the tax net or multiple taxation and levies. Only and if at any time in the distant future, we might have changed the wasteful culture that permeates the Nigerian government should we think of raising that ratio of government revenue to GDP.

When Nigerians seek scapegoats for backwardness other than our corrupt leaders, fingers are pointed towards the West as not wanting Africans to develop. We are quick to mention transatlantic slavery, colonisation, neocolonisation and simply that the world economic order is weighed against Africa. We are asked to read a book by Walter Rodney on how Europe underdeveloped Africa; A book published in 1972 that put up North Korea as a shining example for African nations to emulate.

The Nigerian experience should make us reconsider this assertion. More than any country in Africa the Nigerian economic quagmire is enough proof that our underdevelopment has little to do with the Europeans and more to do with who and what we are. Petrodollars, in which we realize hundreds of billions of dollars, gave us enough financial independence to be truly sovereign and to choose a path of development. We did choose but wrongly, behaving like someone who hit the jackpot.

Our efforts at transformation were puerile to say the least in most instances; putting the cart before the horse. Rather than allowing the private sector to thrive, we bloated the public sector. Instead of enhancing and empowering Nigerian construction firms, we specialized in foreign construction firms. We willingly embraced the Dutch Disease by using the price of crude oil to determine the nation’s budgets yet we crow “we want to diversify the economy.” Were these decisions imposed on us by the West? Let’s stop pointing fingers in the wrong direction and look in the mirror.

“The 1999 Constitution is the problem; it cannot deliver transformation. We either restructure or divide. Devolve power to states or regionalism,” are other pronouncements. All knee-jerk reactions to our excited development and transformation of society aren’t brought on by their polity contraption. Putting it in another way, transformation doesn’t begin with the political organogram adopted. Transformations, revolutions, etc. begin with new ideas, new thinking, and new perceptions. These new ideas go on to birth new political ideologies which form the core of how new constitutions are made. Prof Ben Nwabueze, one of the main instigators of that constitution, explained that the 1979 Constitution, from which the 1999 Constitution was copied, was fashioned that way by those who felt a strong center would unite us, and not exactly because a part of the country would dominate the other.

As I postulated with strong institutions, I also postulate with constitutions. It cannot be anywhere deliverable other than what those who will operate the constitution will allow it to deliver. Our inner constitution and customs might be of more importance than a collective document. Only our inner constitution can allow the noble spirit of a constitution to be transformative.

Jaiyesimi writes via [email protected]

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