Former US President Barrack Obama said: “Africa needs strong institutions, not strong men.” The thrust of the book ‘Why Nations Fail’ by Daron Acemoglu et al summed up that “the success of developed countries rests on their strong institutions”. Therefore, African nations are advised to build strong institutions, although African countries were left with Western-like institutions at the time of independence. Were they not reduced to the customs of the peoples of Africa? Is it possible to build institutions with different values from those held by the people who will lead them?
Nigeria has created a plethora of new institutions, such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the Independent Commission on Corrupt Practices and Other Related Crimes, the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, but things remain the same. Without a doubt, the control of institutions by strongmen has been the way of Africa and has not produced the required transformation. What is required is a strong and principled elite before strong institutions can emerge. That is, strong men who can resist a strong man who wants to tear down institutions. There is nothing like strong institutions; because institutions are only as strong as those who run them at any time.
This is one of several sound bites circulating in our beloved country, but never questioned before it is taken as fact, released, and passed on to the next generation. Like the mispronunciations and grammatical errors that have become our English, these shaky soundbites have become national policy. Follow me on a trip to the air and question some of these pronouncements.
One such pronouncement is that “Nigeria should go back to agriculture”. Based on the false belief that agriculture in the days before the oil period resulted in gigantic advances that we see in the famous House of Cocoa, the Peanut Pyramids or Malaysia coming to collect palm seeds from Nigeria. However, no nation in the country has been transformed by agriculture.
Agriculture has its strategic purposes; food security and being a producer of primary inputs for other industries. Yet all too often, when the nation is in economic crisis, the pontificators ask that we use agriculture to shelter unemployed youth. This is regressive thinking since manufacturing and industries have been the sectors that reduce poverty in other climates, not agriculture. The universal trend is to achieve ever greater agricultural production using ever less population; as low as two percent in the United States, with a similar trend in many Asian countries. It is this Nigerian mindset that gave rise to the recent rice pyramids that were vaunted as progress in this third decade of the 21st century.
Pronouncements such as the budget allocation to education should be increased; the development of human capital must be increased to eradicate poverty; They sound good, but they won’t come true, as we can never reap the full benefits of human capital development if nothing else is in place. Increasing the spending or production of human capital without a parallel increase in the accumulation of capital goods in the country simply leads to the japa syndrome being experienced.
Over the years we have placed a lot of emphasis on the development of human capital, although this is not reflected in the percentage that the Ministry of Education receives in government budgets. Private sector actors and non-governmental organizations have intervened to improve human capital from the primary to postgraduate level. The mismatch is that investments in other sectors that will absorb the products of human capital development have not grown or exceeded the growth that we have seen in the education sector; therefore, we end up with unemployed graduates. The problem will continue once we cannot see beyond the development of human capital.
Another pronouncement is that Nigeria’s problem is its low income to GDP. Others say that Nigeria has an income problem, not a debt problem, as our debt to GDP ratio is much lower than the debt-to-GDP ratio of close to 100 percent in other countries.” With government revenue hovering around six percent of GDP, Nigeria is said to have one of the lowest ratios in the world and we need to raise it above 12 percent to join countries like South Africa. Could this not be Nigeria’s saving grace rather than a problem? Why keep pouring water into a basket that is the Nigerian government? In the meantime, both the informal and organized private sectors should be encouraged to fill the vacuum created by the absence of government, as has been the case for decades. If the government wants more revenue, it can receive it by allowing the economy to grow rapidly, not by expanding the tax net or by multiple taxes and levies. Alone and if at some point in the distant future, we could have changed the culture of waste that pervades the Nigerian government if we thought about increasing that ratio of government revenue to GDP.
When Nigerians look for scapegoats for backwardness other than our corrupt leaders, the fingers point to the West because they don’t want Africans to develop. We are quick to mention transatlantic slavery, colonization, neo-colonization and simply that the world economic order is weighing against Africa. They ask us to read a book by Walter Rodney on how Europe underdeveloped Africa; a book published in 1972 that held up North Korea as a shining example for African nations to emulate.
The Nigerian experience should make us reconsider this statement. More than any other country in Africa, Nigeria’s economic quagmire is proof enough that our underdevelopment has less to do with Europeans and more to do with who and what we are. Petrodollars, in which we realize hundreds of billions of dollars, gave us enough financial independence to be truly sovereign and choose a path of development. We chose but badly, behaving like someone who hit the jackpot.
Our transformation efforts were childish, to say the least, in most cases; putting the cart before the horse. Instead of allowing the private sector to thrive, we inflate the public sector. Instead of improving and empowering Nigerian construction companies, we specialize in foreign construction companies. We willingly accept Dutch disease by using the price of crude oil to determine the nation’s budgets, but we boast that “we want to diversify the economy.” Were these decisions imposed on us by the West? Let’s stop pointing fingers in the wrong direction and look in the mirror.
“The 1999 Constitution is the problem; it cannot offer transformation. Either we restructure or we split. Return power to the states or regionalism”, are other pronouncements. All the knee-jerk reactions to our stunted development and transformation of society are not triggered by his political gimmick. In other words, the transformation does not begin with the adopted political organization chart. Transformations, revolutions, etc. they begin with new ideas, new thoughts, and new perceptions. These new ideas give rise to new political ideologies that form the core of how new constitutions are crafted. Professor Ben Nwabueze, one of the main proponents of that constitution, explained that the 1979 Constitution, from which the 1999 Constitution was copied, was designed that way by those who felt a strong center would unite us, and not precisely because one part of the country would dominate the other.
As I applied with strong institutions, I also applied with constitutions. It cannot be deliverable anywhere other than what those who will operate the constitution will allow it to deliver. Our internal constitution and customs may be of more importance than a collective document. Only our internal constitution can allow the noble spirit of a constitution to be transformative.
Jaiyesimi writes via [email protected]