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Opinions of Sunday, 3 October 2021

Columnist: Tunji Olaopa

Rethinking missing pieces in Nigeria’s development

Prof Tunji Olaopa Prof Tunji Olaopa

In an earlier piece where I explored the policy-research nexus in Nigeria and its imperative for national development, I made the fundamental claim that if Africa is taken to contribute one per cent of the total world output in research spending, Nigeria’s quota in that output will be near insignificant. With that irreducible fact, I like to proceed to say this, that the fundamental diagnosis of Nigeria’s development predicament is deeply conceptual: One, it still does not appear that Nigeria understands what development is all about. And therefore, the question: What are the larger intangible pieces that speak to the key issues in national development, and how does a state like Nigeria keys into these? The Nigerian leadership, from independence till date, in my view, is still dancing at the margin of this fundamental question.

Two, it does not appear that Nigeria has what it takes to design a development agenda and plan that does not significantly depend on external agencies and organisations for the nuts and bolts of its scientific parameters and metrics, as well as for technical guidance and support. It should be clear, even to the casual observers of Nigeria’s policy and governance domains, how much of policy conception, recommendations and design are traceable to development agencies’ theories of change. And further, a significant proportion of usable development statistics are generated by foreign agencies, from the World Bank and the IMF to the United Nations. While the National Bureau of Statistics has recently risen to the task of generating a statistical database of the Nigerian economy that feeds developmental and governance needs, funding constraints is still a key issue in determining its capacity to achieve more.

The sadder fact about Nigeria’s problematic development is that we are still focused on what we have earlier called the hardware of development management, especially the infrastructural details of what it means for a state to develop. We license new universities even when the old ones are barely funded and functional. We build roads and highways that barely stand the test of time through reasoned consideration for the much-desired paradigm shift in our national maintenance culture and assets management. We pump money into the healthcare system which is incapable of generating health for the citizens. And yet, with this attention to infrastructural development as the index of national development, Nigeria’s infrastructural deficit is still humongous. It currently stands at $3trn. And it will take spending $100bn annually for 30 years to bridge the gap. The implication of this is that Nigeria’s focus on the hardware of development has not even transformed our developmental predicament. It is time to begin a paradigmatic shift away from an obsolete reflection on development as the (hardware) infrastructural transformation of the economy. Do not get me wrong—infrastructural development is key to national development. However, it requires what has been called the intangible capital of a state’s national assets to backstop critical development and keep on a sustainable curve.

The relationship between tangible and intangible capitals gives us the insight into what we are referring to as the missing pieces in the idea of Nigeria’s development. As opposed to natural capital and infrastructures, the intangible capital speaks to a state’s human capital and the quality and values of institutions. These specifically reference the quality of a state’s educational system as well as the rule of law. It is the educational system that produces the human capital development around which the skills and competences required for development are built. And the rule of law serves as the template for measuring the functional value of the institutions on which a state relies for good governance. Here, we talk about the idea of social trust, efficient judicial system, rule of law, property rights, security, timely and reliable statistics, reformed public service, research and innovation, level of digital engagement, freedom of information, and of the mass media. The World Bank found out that 80 per cent of the wealth of rich countries and 60 per cent of the wealth of poor countries are constituted by intangible assets. Unfortunately, while the members of the OECD score 90 on the rule-of-law index, sub-Saharan Africa could only manage 28. Furthermore, while Switzerland has an average score of 99.5 out of 100, Nigeria could only manage 5.8.

We can ask a fundamental question: why would an equally talented Nigerian professional or expert in the United States or Germany be five times more productive than his or her counterpart who chose to remain in Nigeria? The answer is straightforward—once the Nigerian professional walks into the US or Germany, she immediately steps into the capacity context provided by an intangible per capita wealth worth around $418,000 per person. The expert that stays in Nigeria has to manage a paltry $2,748. The tragedy is that African countries, like Nigeria, are not just running on low per capita wealth; their political system is complicit in systematically destroying their intangible wealth and assets. There are two indications of this in Nigeria. First, the state of Nigeria’s higher education is palpably heartbreaking. Like we have argued, there is no nexus between policy and research. The anti-intellectualism of the political class ensures that the universities, for instance, are not integrated into any meaningful relationship with policymaking. Second, there is a massive haemorrhaging of Nigeria’s brightest and best professionals, experts, academics and scholars away from the aridity of Nigeria’s governance context into the plenitude of the western societies and the existential margins of national economy. Who would not want to be able to access an intangible capital that would make their competence worthwhile? On the other hand, the level of impunity in the Nigerian state immediately alerts us to how the institutions that define and determine good governance have been devalued by impunity, poor leadership sophistication and corruption.

Once the intangible capital that determines development has been undermined, then the domino effect of the consequences is inevitable: the educational system cannot produce the quality human capital whose skills and competences are what a state requires to jumpstart the tangible wealth that serves as the basis of good governance and national development.

The far most debilitating consequence of the increasing destruction of Nigeria’s intangible capital is felt more by the public service system. This happens at two levels. The first concerns the lack of institutional synergy between the public service and Nigeria’s higher education in terms of the generation and utilisation of human capital that enables the public service to navigate conveniently and with minimal restraints in the knowledge age and its glo-ca-lised ecosystem. It is a state’s higher education dynamics that serves as the connecting point between such a state and the global knowledge economy. The universities therefore produce the workforce that constitutes the backbone of an optimal and capacity ready public service. The second level has to do with translating the skills and competence of an intelligent workforce into a knowledge component around which development revolves. In other words, development is essentially a knowledge project. It involves the insertion of strategy, intelligence and knowledge into the policy architecture of a state in ways that make action research intrinsic to innovative implementation of policy recommendations that qualitatively transform the well-being of Nigerians.

The public service therefore becomes crucial as a strategic institution to the redefinition of development in Nigeria. It becomes an institutional corridor, alongside the educational system, in the dynamics that produce and sustain intangible capital. To achieve this, both the public sector and the educational system must be insinuated within a broad framework of institutional and governance reforms that target their capacity to restructure Nigeria’s development agenda at three correlated levels: The first level is the material/infrastructural level which include the system of production, distribution, consumption and exchange. The second level comprises the institutional dimension involving the system of institutions, organisations, the procedural mechanisms underlying democracy and so on. The third level involves social relations, culture, values, beliefs and attitudinal orientation of the people. In attending to these three levels of structural and institutional reforms, the attention of the government must be guided by what has been called Genuine Progress Indicator. This provides a pointer to an alternative indicator by which the Nigerian state can achieve a redefinition of development that focuses on the intangible capital, and how it is the intangible capital that instigates the possibility of exploiting a state’s natural capital to achieve infrastructural development. In this case, the state requires a political will that is able to push public service reform to its logical conclusion as the locus of national development.

And, to reiterate, a significant aspect of that institutional reform is the need to facilitate a strong and strategic policy-research nexus that instigate a strong foundation for policy intelligence and action research around which good governance can be erected for the well-being and welfare of Nigerians. It is only in this sense that we truly say the Nigerian state knows what it means to develop, and is ready to deploy the political will to facilitate the reform programme that unleashes the tangible capital that Nigerians can tap into for national development.