Reversing Nigeria’s jobless economic growth

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“16 years after $16bn and over N3tn had been spent on power sector, all we hear are excuses why we are not having stable power, yet the same government continues to approve electricity tariffs beyond the reach of most Nigerians”

 –Banji Oyeyinka, a former Director, Office for Africa, UN- Habitat, 14 August 2017

A few years back, Nigerian leaders waxed eloquent about our joining the league of the most advanced economies by 2020. We already were, or so the narrative went, a secure middle level power in the ranks of Brazil, Russia and Mexico, and with a growth rate higher than the global average, so, our ascent to economic superpower status was projected as assured. It took a dramatic downswing in the price of oil to force on us the reality that we lived in a bubble, and that the soaring number of private jets did not tally with economic development. Now that we are in a recession, and slipping back into debt slavery, experts are focusing their lenses on our false starts, comforting illusions and deceptive narratives, with a view to proffering a pathway for pulling us out of the economic forest of a thousand demons, into which we have wandered.

One of the experts, Prof. Banji Oyeyinka, a former Director, Regional Office for Africa of UN-Habitat, from whom the opening quote is sourced, delivered an absorbing lecture last week at the Distinguished Governance Lecture Series of the Oba (Dr) Sikiru Kayode Adetona Professor Chair, Olabisi Onabanjo University. Following a welcome address by the Acting Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Ganiyu Olatunde, the audience was treated to goodwill messages and incisive reflections by Prof. Akin Mabogunje, internationally acclaimed development geographer; Dr Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu, Nigeria’s former Ambassador to The Netherlands, who made a trenchant call for restructuring the polity, and Senator Olorunnimbe Mamora, who chaired the occasion. Oyeyinka’s lecture can be read as an autopsy on Nigeria’s failed industrialisation policies, due to poor planning, false assumptions, the politicisation of economic decisions, the lack of an indigenous technological capacity, as well as the vulnerabilities of an over-centralised and state-led approaches to development planning.

It be can also read as a manifesto for a new political economy, based on the goals of sustainable development in the United Nations Agenda 2030, featuring among other things, the promotion of sustained, inclusive  economic growth, which also addresses mass poverty and the jobless growth syndrome. Still, and as Awolowo-Dosunmu pointed out, there is a hidden cry in the lecture that Nigeria is too big to be governed or better still, managed without effective devolution of powers to sub-national authorities. To be sure, Oyeyinka does not advocate political restructuring, but implied in his narrative is the need to veer away from such models, by recognising that in development, as in much else, small is indeed beautiful.

To take one of the issues raised by the lecturer, for example, the woes of electricity generation and distribution, Oyeyinka quoted an official of the Manufacturers’ Association of Nigeria as saying, “Do you think a wise businessman or woman that has cheap stable electricity in Ghana, Senegal, Ivory Coast or Togo will relocate to Nigeria where he will be paying for darkness and still pay a fortune to buy diesel?” Obviously, it must be easier to generate and distribute electricity in the relatively small countries mentioned, than across the huge spatial geography of Nigeria. This is perhaps why the Federal Government has reportedly allowed the states to generate their own electricity, in order to remedy the perpetual shortfalls of over-centralisation. What is not clear, however, is how this squares up with the placing of electricity under the 1999 constitution on the Exclusive List. And this leads us back to the need to reconfigure this ailing federation, if Nigeria is to overcome its economic arrest. Before pushing the narrative further, this columnist, characteristically, requests the reader to indulge in a short take.

One of our national newspapers raised the alert, on Saturday, concerning a modern day version of Toads for Supper. The difference is that the story is not fiction, but unnerving reality. Entitled “Poison on parade”, The Nation newspaper (Saturday, August 19, 2017),  reported the result of a laboratory test conducted by the consultancy division of the University of Lagos, which revealed that out of 15 samples of “sachet water”, popularly called pure water, only six met the World Health Organisation standard on hygienic potable water. Frighteningly, the samples that failed contain, the paper informs, “high level of contaminants raging from the presence of pathogenic bacteria and faecal coliform to high microbial levels and objectionable odour”. What this suggests is that, there are six in 10 chances that the “pure water”, as it is called, that the residents of Lagos are drinking, contain harmful and dangerous impurities.

Strangely, UNILAG Water is implicated in the controversy, although the authorities of the university made it clear that the problem in their case had probably arisen from scammers who faked their identity, by putting their labels on substandard products. The clarification is in all likelihood correct; but, that only makes matters worse for the unlucky citizens thirsting for water, but cannot differentiate between the true and the fake water sachet, since both carry the identity of a reputable organisation. Against the backdrop of the failure of public water supply in our major cities, the findings of the researchers should be of interest to our regulatory authorities, most of which have gone to sleep. For all who value long life, and disease-free existence, pressure must be mounted on policymakers to rid Lagos and our major cities of the scourge of adulterated and bacterial infested water sachets, and for that matter, bottled water, which carry smart and authorised labels.

To go back to the discussion on our economic development or lack of it, Oyeyinka argues that in the rapidly developing Asian economies, urbanisation arrived, in the context of a Green Revolution and an Industrial Revolution, leading to structural transformation. Obviously, Nigeria has not experienced either a Green Revolution, considering its low profile agricultural yields, or an Industrial Revolution, given that it has a feeble industrial and manufacturing sector. Where, then, did the rain start to beat us? The development expert pointed out that much of the problem arose from the failure of grand projects such as the Federal Superphosphate Fertiliser Company in Kaduna, the Delta Steel Company in Warri, The Machine Tools Company in Osogbo, as well as the Warri, Port Hacourtand Kaduna refineries. Had these ambitious projects succeeded, Nigeria’s industrialisation would have been off to a good start, and we would have avoided the narrow bind of jobless growth, where millions of unemployed youths are roaming the streets menacingly.

We cannot reinvent the past, but we can at least learn from the costly failures that defaced it. So, some of the key suggestions made by the lecturer have to do with remedying in the crisis of infrastructure, reducing  the information deficiencies in our planning process, depoliticising, and de-ethnicising important economic decisions, as well as picking up the balls of agricultural and industrial revolutions, from the points where we dropped them.

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