By Rev. Fr. Paul Irikefe
Nigeria is not new to socio-economic policies aiming to transform the nation. There was “Low Profile” of Murtala Mohammed to cut down government waste; the “Operation Feed the Nation” of Obasanjo in 1979 to drive food sufficiency and reduce imports; the “Green Revolution” of Shagari to boost agricultural productivity; the “Counter Trade” and the “War Against Indiscipline” of Buhari to roll back unbridled importation and social anomie; the “Structural Adjustment Programme” of Babangida to introduce fiscal stringency into the economy, the “National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy” (NEEDS) of Obasanjo to create wealth, employment opportunities, value reorientation and poverty reduction; the “Seven-Point Agenda” of Yar’Adua to transform the wheels of the Nigerian economy; and now the “Transformation Agenda” of Jonathan which seeks a new approach in addressing the welfare of the Nigerian people based on Nigeria’s Vision 20:2020 and the First National Implementation Plan (NIP).
What is clear, however, is the abysmal failure of all these programmes to lift Nigeria out of its quagmire. While the various economic teams have celebrated figures and statistics beholden to Western Institutions—IMF and the World Bank primarily, our country continues to slide into poverty (relative and absolute) and dysfunction (social, political and cultural). We are faced with first order problems of nation-building, the various economic teams have glorified macroeconomic achievements aligned to Western malaise such as interest rates and inflation.
The danger of defining our problem as basically economic or social is that narrow definition is a mismatch to the reality of the Nigerian crisis. The result is that what little macroeconomic gains are achieved in one administration, are easily rolled back in the next, less serious, maybe less committed government. For instance, many of the economic gains of the Obasanjo’s reforms were lost in the Yar’Adua-Jonathan administration—foreign reserve was depleted, debt was reacquired and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission was muzzled as recounted in the explosive book by Olusegun Adeniyi: Power, Politics and Death: A Front-row Account of Nigeria under the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
The second danger is that it gives the impression that Nigeria runs a productive economy. Once it is shown that the gross domestic product is growing at 6.5 per cent, inflation rate is down to single digit, total foreign reserve is $48 billion and growing, and exchange rate is relatively stable, then the rest is papered over—the fact that growth is jobless, and that of out 167 million people, about 100 million live on less than $1 per day, that there are no middle class, a person is either extremely rich or extremely poor, that recurrent expenditure of federal budget gulps 70% of the total budget and that corruption has become “the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
To be truly transformative, a reform agenda must break with the past by overhauling the system and by addressing the core issue of why Nigeria runs a feeding bottle federalism, a point Davidson (1973) made of Nkrumah’s Ghana: “The economic policies of 1964 and after were, in fact, another version of the old ‘policy of growth’ which argued that a mere adding to what already exists must in due course change what already exists.
But countries without modern industry do not become industrialized countries merely by ‘growing’. Far from that, the process has always demanded more or less complete break with what ‘already exists,’ just as during the industrial revolutions of England, France or other technologically advanced countries…. Merely adding to what already existed, in this situation, was only a way of piling frustration on confusion” (Davidson, 1973, pp.96-97).
The core issue is the structure of the political economy that crushes every incentive of the states and the various state Governors to work hard, to save, to invest—in education, in talent and skills, and to shun criminal actions and venal practices because doing so never goes unpunished—either in a court of law that is functional or in the electoral system that weeds out the less competent, less committed, and less able candidate.
In a word, we need the right institutions, formal and informal, that would guarantee a self-correcting process, a Darwinian society that people are motivated to do the right thing because they will get rewarded, and avoid the wrong things, because they will get punished. That would be the greatest legacy of any government in power—not Seven-Point Agenda, and not any Transformation Agenda that is hollow. We need strong institutions not strong men, or benevolent authoritarian leadership.
The American system that Nigeria ostensibly apes is based on this pessimistic idea—that human nature cannot be trusted with power, that it is ultimately strong institutions that are the bastion of true democracy. One of the Founding Fathers of that Republic, Madison, famously said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
Rev. Fr. Paul Irikefe is a Catholic Priest and the author of a forthcoming book, Why Nigeria is not Working: The Predicament and the Promise.
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