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Opinions of Thursday, 11 November 2021

Columnist: Utomi (PUNCH)

Factors fuelling Nigeria’s socio-economic contradictions

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Speaking in absolute terms, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson did not contain the Nigerian leadership arena in mind when they echoed a postulation tagged ‘Ignorance Hypothesis ‘in the subsection of the second chapter of their book, ‘Why Nations Fail.’ A postulation which very broadly ‘maintained that poor countries are poor because their leadership unknowingly adopts bad economic policies, and ‘enjoys’ a lot of market failures and because policymakers do not know how to get rid of them and have heeded the wrong advice in the past. While rich countries on their part are rich because they have figured out better policies and have successfully eliminated these failures.

But a recent incongruity on how to pull Nigeria out of the mud of unemployment/underdevelopment that ensued between two members of a panel (names withheld) during a discussion at an annual lecture in Asaba, the Delta State capital, did more than anything else to reveal that Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s proposition may have found a home in the country and the said hypothesis explicitly qualifies as Nigerian-specific.

To shed more light on the conversation, the first to speak at the said event was an academic doctor and former Provost of a College of Education. He was practical and systematic in tackling the issue. He, among other concerns, principally lamented the way and manner relevant authorities have become reputed for clarifying challenges/discussions constructed around the Niger Delta without commensurate steps or action plans to address the challenge. While noting that Nigerians are getting tired of blueprint development without follow up action that sees through to fruition, he submitted that the time is auspicious for the nation handlers to draw a lesson from countries like Singapore by having the state/Nigeria industrialised to help solve the nagging problem of unemployment. On his part, the other member of the panel, a professor and political office holder in the state, against all known logic countered the above position as he said in parts, “let me correct one impression, it is not the responsibility of the government to industrialise the state but that of private organisations/individuals.”

While I considered this new awareness by the professor as costly in political and socio-economic terms, I, however, listened to the rest of the conversation with a mixture of surprise and frustration. To douse my nagging helplessness, I allowed a similar account of an encounter that took place in August 1995 at Taipei to come flooding.

During a similar address by Harvard Political Professor, Samuel Huntington, in August 1995 at Taipei, he was, among other things, asked of his impression about Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s effort to develop Singapore, and he scantily summed it up thus: the honesty and efficiency Senior Minister Lee has brought to Singapore are likely to follow him to his grave.

However, like faith, which is a belief in things not seen, coupled with the fact that ordinary calculation can be upturned by extraordinary personalities, not only did Lee’s efficiency survive him but history has since assisted in providing answers to the correctness or otherwise of Professor Huntington’s declaration.

Two years after the slanted observation, Singapore, a country with a Gross Domestic Product of $3 billion in 1965 grew to $46 billion in 1997, making it the 8th highest per capita Gross National Product in the world according to the World Bank ranking.

Essentially, the crux of this piece is to use Prime Minister Lee Quen Yew’s account to analyse and understand the essential ingredients of foresight in leadership and assist our leaders to learn the lessons from such history and gain wisdom or ignore it and wonder in dilemma.

Singapore’s progress going by reports is a reflection of the advances of the industrial country: their inventions, technology, enterprise and drive, a united and a determined group of leaders, backed by practical and hard-working people whose trust in them made it possible, and part of the story of a leader’s search for not just new fields to increase the wealth and well being of his people. In fact, one useful lesson our leaders here must not fail to draw is that Singapore under Lee grappled with the problems of unemployment and came to the recognition that the only way to survive was to industrialise. This informed why the country concentrated on getting factories started. Despite their small domestic market of two million, he protected locally assembled cars, refrigerators, air conditioners, radios, television sets, and tape recorders in the hope that they would later be partly manufactured locally.

From this new awareness flows the major difference. Nigeria’s current posturing is more man-made than natural, more of leadership gaps than lack of resources.

More specifically, while this appalling situation daily unfolds in our political space, the global leadership stage is littered with telling evidence about leaders that demonstrated sagacity and professional ingenuity that our leaders have refused to learn or replicate their resourcefulness on our shores.

For instance, in 1932, Franklin D Roosevelt, the Democratic Party candidate, United States of America was elected president in the midst of the great depression. At the time of inauguration in 1933, one-quarter of the labour force was out of a job, with many thrown into poverty. Industrial production had fallen and investments had collapsed.

But within two years of his administration, he revived the economy and moved to the next stage of his agenda. He signed the social security act which introduced the modern welfare state into the United States pension at retirement, unemployment benefits and some public health care and disability benefits. When asked how? He responded thus: “extraordinary conditions call for extraordinary remedies” This to my mind is a leadership accomplishment worthy of emulation.

Regrettably, here in Nigeria, leadership challenge is given a boost by the ground propensity and penchant for corrupt, nepotistic practices of our ‘leaders,’ a development that is gradually becoming a norm.

The present threat of hostility in the country which has gotten to a point where basic conditions and responsibilities of government no longer function properly did not come overnight but started gradually and steadily before getting to this definitive level. Both experience and facts fundamentally indicate that the quandary has nothing to do with ignorance or culture but is based on leaders’ choices that create crisis and poverty. To understand this, one needs to study how decisions get made, who gets to make them, and why those people decide to do what they do.’

Except in peripheral terms, nothing in my views explains more why the nation, Nigeria, is failing than our national budgetary framework, which originally was meant to channel spending in a particular direction making it possible to manage the income available to prevent overspending and debt. So that income cannot surpass expenditure or, at the very least, equal it.

Despite the virtues and attributes of nations having their budget, the country’s national budget has neither achieved its prime objective nor demonstrated satisfactory performance as a result of a disturbing lack of discipline in allocation and implementation.

As an example, while the nation has never made efforts to heed or comply with the United Nations Educational Scientific, and Cultural Organisation budgetary recommendation on education, the health sector has equally suffered the same fate. This state of affairs has characterised our educational sectors with endless industrial action occasioned by underfunding while turning the health sectors (hospitals and primary health centres) to mere consulting offices as they are daily starved of drugs and adequate manpower.

What about budgetary allocations to sectors such as power, security, technological development, and infrastructures? Without wasting words, attempting to find out the percentage of the nation’s annual budget that goes to the welfare of the Executive arm, the National Assembly, recurrent and capital expenditures will in no small measure act as a pointer to why we are failing as a nation.

To reverse this trend, the nation needs a sincere and selfless leadership, a politically and economically restructured polity brought by the national consciousness that can unleash the social, economic and political transformation of the country while rejecting the present socio-economic system that has bred corruption, inefficiency, primitive capital accumulation that socially exclude the vast majority of our people. We must heed expert warnings not to concentrate wealth in the hands of a small group that could then use its economic might to increase its political power disproportionately. Furthermore, we must ensure limited gains for holding political power, and weaker incentives for every group and every ambitious, upstart individual that tries to take control of the state.