By Uche Amunike
Today, I bring you excerpts of the brilliant speech by Prof Charles Soludo at The Covenant Place, Lagos, on ‘Re-Designing the Nigerian Economy with New Ideas’ on October 1, 2019.
We have not come to read the Book of Lamentations about Nigeria’s woes, nor to sing the songs of David. We see the half-empty glass, but we prefer to focus on the half-full glass. We want to focus on the future—rather than the past or the present. As mentioned above, we are asked to speak on “The Economic Restructuring of Nigeria”—an omnibus topic indeed!
Since the First National Development Plan (1962- 68), transformation of the economic structure/diversification has been the fulcrum of all national plans. For decades, every government has tried its brand of ‘economic restructuring’ or economic diversification and yet the economy remains tied to the life-support of oil, peasant agriculture and largely informal services sector. Income inequality, poverty, and unemployment remain major defining features of the economy. The name of the game of the future in an increasingly integrated world is innovate/compete or die. Let’s break it down. Economic restructuring of the future is about positioning Nigeria to compete and win in an increasingly complex world thereby guaranteeing the security, prosperity and happiness of the 400 or 752 million Nigerians, in a world without oil. In sum, the alternative future that we see is one without oil, and where other exhaustible natural resources play very little role.
III: The Challenge of Weak Foundation
The question is whether the existing foundation is adequate or appropriate for the dynamics and challenges of the future? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Our Constitution, together with its command and control institutions concentrated at Abuja was designed for and around the sharing and consumption of oil rent. It is largely obsolete for the demands of a productive economy (without oil rents) which requires competitive and flexible rather than unitary federalism. As the oil rent that held the system together is tapering off, its internal contradictions have burst open, requiring a coterie of survival/coping mechanisms to keep the system afloat. But for how long?
The courts are congested: with about 117,000 pending cases at the Federal High Court alone, estimated tens of thousands at the Appeal court, and over 30,000 at the Supreme Court. Can we seriously expect the ICPC and EFCC to police 774 LGAs and the impending 752 million Nigerians? We can go on and on.
What Should Be Done?
1) Create a Productive Progressive (PP) Constitution for a world without oil. Among other things, this would entail:
a) Political-governance arrangements that ensure participation and ownership of the Nigerian project by all citizens of the federation—a stable and more efficient system which promotes fairness, equity and justice.
b. Devolution of powers according to the principle of subsidiarity and variable geometry—away from the current system of unitary-federalism, with its choking concentration of powers and responsibilities at the inefficient centre; thereby giving power back to the people. In addition, the PP Constitution should define a new Fiscal federalism that is consistent with devolution of powers and which alters the incentives faced by economic and political actors, thereby unleashing the competitive spirit, hard work, innovation and efficiency which are the hallmarks of prosperous economies of the future. We also need to abrogate the Land Use Act of 1978, the Solid Minerals Act, as well as the various Petroleum/Gas Acts and amendments, and return the right of ownership, control and exploitation of these assets to the federating units as proposed by the APC Committee on restructuring led by Gov. El-Rufai. In turn, they should pay appropriate taxes to the federal government.
Nigeria urgently needs a new Fiscal Responsibility Act to constrain irresponsible fiscal behaviour and provide incentives to create wealth. A new fiscal regime should ensure that never again shall we need a wholesale bailout of state governments. Our judiciary should be part of our brand. The Gov El-Rufai’s Committee on Restructuring has several interesting recommendations but three stand out, namely: state police, scrapping of the local government system from the Constitution, and resource control. The APC recommends abrogating the extant legislations and transferring rights over minerals to the federating units or states. With the APC Committee Report and Manifesto, it is fair for Nigerians to ask: so, what’s holding action? The APC at least has a Committee Report which is public knowledge.
Where is the position of PDP as the main opposition party?
What is suggested above is part of the foundational plan for Nigeria’s future prosperity without oil. The contradictions of the old, oil-based economy vis-à-vis the population and geographical pressures are swirling and the challenge of a new institutional framework to lead the emergence of the new economy is urgent. A wise man gets the umbrella ready before the rain starts. We are currently at the cul-de-sac and need a fundamental disruptive change to reverse the trend. A central message therefore is that systemic restructuring is not only progressive politics but excellent economics.
3. Fix our broken politics through ideologically and value-oriented mass participation.
A secured and prosperous country of the future won’t drop from the skies. Nor can we legislate politics out of public policy. Every advanced or progressive society we see in the world today is the product of organization, struggles and continuous contestations for a more perfect union or society. In a democracy, there is no other route to a better future than the instrumentality of politics. Politics is therefore too serious to be left to those who call themselves politicians. It is our collective destiny.
Unfortunately, our politics is broken. It is destructive rather than developmental. We define Nigeria’s current politics as largely “dining table politics”— the ‘you chop I chop’, or what an author Michela Wrong describes as “It is our turn to eat” politics. Consequently, political parties are mere platforms to grab power— same people, same interest—driven by crass opportunism and primitive accumulation. It is largely about “what is in it for my pocket” and not about “how can I contribute to leave this world a better place than I met it”? But a problem identified is half solved.
For starters, we need to fix the electoral and judicial system to ensure that only votes count and all votes are counted. This will transfer real power back to the people, free from the stranglehold of an opportunistic elite. With power in the hands of the people and with the institutional reforms proposed above which require leaders with capacity for wealth creation, then ideas-based, cake-baking politics can emerge. The current politics is woven around the sharing and consumption of oil rents—and you don’t need any productive skills or to be a person of ideas to be able to “share the money”.
But the oil money is fast running out. Total oil income is barely $100 per person—not enough to provide 21st century primary and secondary education to our children. The obscene cost of governance and stealing at all levels of government is known.
Mass participation founded on patriotism, passion and values of hard work and integrity should drive the politics of the future. Those who have something to offer for a better future—especially our youths– must stand up to be counted or stop complaining. The perverse value of some of the youths summarized by the phrase “get rich young or die trying” is not part of the future we desire. We must be the change we want to see. Only a vigilant and active citizenry that holds public officers to account will secure the future.
We must now conclude. Our summary message is that an alternative glorious future – the next Nigeria for 400 or 752 million Nigerians– is possible. It is a future without oil but powered by our greatest asset—human capital plus technology, and which guarantees security, prosperity and happiness. But transition to that future requires a new foundation as it is impossible to try to build a 100 storey-building upon the foundation of an old bungalow. Elements of this foundation include a PP Constitution that creates a competitive federation; devolution of powers that unbundles Abuja and loosens its choking stranglehold on the economy; a fiscal federalism that promotes competition, innovation and hard work; a new judicial structure and performance that brands Nigeria as a country of laws with the best judiciary in Africa; and a new developmental politics with citizens power. Of course Nigeria has a long list of problems, but adversity comes with opportunities. With a will to overcome, the problems should not stop us. Nor should a few thousands of miscreants – kidnappers, terrorists, internet scammers, bandits, drug barons, robbers, and treasury looters – define us. As we build the foundation for the next Nigeria, we must seize the narrative and sing a new song to rebrand Nigeria. As we bemoan the rising poverty and unemployment, we still remind ourselves that ours is still the largest economy in Africa and Nigeria as home to the most populous black nation on earth. When I hear about the 77 FBI list, I remember that Nigerians constitute the most educated and highest earning immigrant community in the US; when I hear about the drug barons, I remember that Alaba Market has the largest business incubator in the world; when the news about kidnappers, bandits and terrorists adorn the newspaper headlines, I remember the over 200 million law abiding and hard-working citizens; when I hear about the afrophobia and the stereotyping of Nigerians in South Africa, I recall that the richest black man and woman –Dangote and Mrs Alakija are Nigerians, or that Tony Elumelu Foundation is empowering thousands of young African entrepreneurs or Allen Onyema/Air Peace recently took over the job of government by transporting hundreds of Nigerians from South Africa free of charge or that Glo communications is owned by our own Mike Adenuga or that the former Secretary General of the Commonwealth –Chief Emeka Anyaoku is a Nigerian, and yes, Nigerian banks – Zenith, GTB, UBA, Access, FBN, Union, etc have, since after banking consolidation, become our multinational corporations all over Africa, and that Nigerian investment banker—Adebayo Ogunlesi bought Gatwick and other airports in the UK. When someone remarked that Obinwannne- the famed Forbes kid alleged scammer is from Nnewi, I quickly reminded him that Ibeto, Innoson Motors, Chikason, Coscharis, EmekaOffor, etc are also from the old Nnewi. When someone tells me that our youths are underperforming, I remind her of the youths at the Ikeja Computer village or that a young man from Anambra just invented a generator that runs on water or the young girls from Regina Pacis secondary school, Onitsha who won the global prize for innovation, and don’t forget that the patent for the world fastest computer belongs to Philip Emeagwali and that Jelani Aliyu from Sokoto designed the Chevrolet Volt car. Or when anyone tells me that Nigerians can’t write, I mention our Nobel Laurette, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and yes, the new kid on the block- ChimamandaAdichie, etc. When I hear of the looting leaders of today, I remember the visionary and selfless leaders of yesterday—Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, M.I. Okpara, Alex Ekwueme, Shehu Shagari, Sam Mbakwe, Aminu Kano, Balarabe Musa; Bola Ige, Lateef Jakande, Samuel Ogbemudia, and yes, former President Obasanjo has earned his place in Nigeria’s history as a leader and statesman, etc. Of course, we won’t forget our footballers, athletes, musicians and Nollywood stars—all brandishing our green, white, green flag to the world. The list is long, and sometimes I wish that Wole Soyinka or Chimamanda would write a bestseller entitled: “Nigeria: the Counter Narratives”.
The point here is that for every one big challenge, there are possibly more than ten opportunities out there. I believe that God has blessed Nigeria with everything to be the most prosperous home for the black race. We need to unleash the creative geniuses in our people by designing the appropriate institutions to power a 21st century economy without oil. The current National Assembly can choose to do something historic or continue to kick the can down the road, and hopefully a future parliament will come to the rescue. We have no other country but Nigeria and we must make it work. If God, in His infinite wisdom, decided to put us together thus far, there must be a reason. As Africa deepens its integration (starting with the AfCFTA), I dream of a future United States of Africa, and possibly with Nigeria as its California. I see our huge problems but I focus on the solutions. The choice is ours, and I believe that if we (together) choose to work hard at them, the next Nigeria of our dream is possible!