BY SEGUN AYOBOLU
CAMPAIGNS, IDEAS AND 2023
(Published in The Nation newspaper of Saturday, May 21, 2022)
It is not accidental that the last threes installments of this column has focused on Professor Yemi Osinbajo’s presidential aspiration come 2023. His significance in the race arises from the singular fact that he has been Vice-President for seven years under President Muhammadu Buhari and he himself has predicated his qualification to succeed his boss primarily on the experience he has garnered in office at the national level since 2015.
President Buhari is no economist and he does not pretend to be one. The main characteristic of his leadership style that is widely known is his complete delegation of responsibilities to his appointees to various offices and his almost absolute trust in their capacity to serve loyally and competently. Within that context, for instance, Mr Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN), Minister of Works and Housing and Mr Rotimi Amaechi, Minister of Transportation, are readily the poster boys of the administration in terms of service delivery in their spheres of responsibility. Not so Vice President Osinbajo who, as constitutionally designated Chairman of the National Economic Council (NEC), comprising all the state governors and the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), has had immense opportunity to make significant input into and positively affect economic policy with negligible impact.
True, no government in my view, in this dispensation at least, has pumped as much funds as the Buhari administration has in Social Intervention Programmes to alleviate poverty, there is no evidence of a serious scientific tracking of such expenditures to ensure that they got to the designated targets or achieved an appreciable measure of the desired effects. Ever since I was a secondary school student in the 1970s through my university days up till now, Nigeria has almost always been in one form of economic crisis or recession despite humongous amounts reaped from crude oil revenue windfalls at various times. Nothing fundamentally has changed in terms of substance or style in the management of the Nigerian economy since military President, General Ibrahim Babangida introduced the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in 1986. Things cannot continue this way. We cannot continue to do the same thing and expect a different outcome. There must be a drastic change in the course, direction and engineering of Nigeria’s political economy as from May next year.
It is unfortunate that, even as Nigeria is at one of the most dire and dangerous turns in her post-independence history, there has been more focus in public discourse on the ethnicity, region, religion or age of the next President than his competence and ideas for the transformation of the country. There must be fresh economic thinking in the dispensation after Buhari and one aspirant who, in my view, has shown the slightest inkling in that direction is the former governor of Lagos State between 1999 and 2007 and frontline presidential aspirant of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Asiwaju Bola Tinubu.
Along with Mr Brian Browne, Asiwaju Tinubu had in 2013 co-authored a book titled ‘Financialism: Water from an Empty Well’ in which they X-rayed the economies of the United States and Nigeria, analyzed the challenges confronting them and proffered policy options to attain the greatest happiness for the greatest number of the people of both countries. A former Consul-General of the US in Nigeria, Browne had a reasonable acquaintance with the operations of the Nigerian economy while Tinubu, who had schooled and worked in a number of corporations in America before returning home to rise to the position of Treasurer of Mobil Oil, before being elected as governor of Lagos State also had considerable knowledge of the workings of the economies of both countrys.
The critical importance of the book is its demonstration that, despite their disparities in wealth, power and opportunities, both countries are afflicted by poverty of potent policy options that can promote equity and prosperity for the vast majority of their peoples with Nigeria being, understandably, the worst affected. It boldly challenges economic orthodoxies particularly the plague of ‘Financialism’ in which finance speculators invest in ever increasingly exotic financial instruments to accumulate more and more money from such speculative activity rather than investment in tangible productive endeavors. I am no economist but even as a layman, I cannot understand the logic of an economy in which banks and other financial and investment outfits in Nigeria declare ever increasing profits annually even as de-industrialization deepens, unemployment soars and poverty worsens. Matters are complicated by a debilitating security crisis that negatively impacts agricultural productivity spurring food scarcity and price volatility.
There is hardly space here for a lengthy discussion of the sometimes contentious issues raised in the book. But the point is that a presidential aspirant in next year’s election, Tinubu, has made ideas a focal point of his intervention in public discourse ever since he left office in 2007 and others must follow this lead in the national interest especially in the campaigns towards the next election. Decrying the fact that Nigeria never fully industrialized before embracing ‘Financialism’, the authors lament that virtually all the development plans adopted by various administrations in this dispensation tend to be “bureaucratic squibbles” which constitute obstacles on the path of the implementation of any strategic economic vision. They note that these plans list every conceivable economic issue but prioritize none pointing out that no country can simultaneously do everything listed in these economic plans.
The authors thus advocate a meaningful national industrial policy that will return Nigeria to the path of concrete production with set priorities lying along the path of national development. Rather than adhering to the advice of institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO), for example, which advocate free trade and open borders without restriction, they stress the need for measures to protect the country’s few existing industries through, for instance, tax, energy production and export credits, to insulate these ventures. Noting that industries that used to thrive and provide jobs in various parts of the country have vanished, they call for a reduction of duties enacted on imported items needed for these industries to operate and the enactment of direct tariff protection if necessary to halt the continued erosion of the country’s industrial base. They also believe that guaranteed loans, tax holidays and power-generating subsidies are forms of government support that can help the revival of factories that recently closed because of high operating costs.
Of course, the book also deals in detail with policy proposals on filling the massive infrastructure gap, increasing electrical power generation to reduce the costs of industrial production and seeking foreign investment especially of the type that produces jobs for Nigerians. It proposes the deliberate nurturing by government of new ventures in light manufacturing such as textile and garment production that can be worked by relatively low-skilled Labour force. “Rather than abandoning its re-industrialization agenda to market forces and beyond promulgating rules that make Nigeria “investment friendly”, the government must identify specific investors, then negotiate detailed agreements with these investors such that they can see a reasonable profit potential in their investment while Nigeria can ensure the enhanced employment, increased production of goods and other benefits that she seeks” the authors aver.
While the policy options focused on above deal with aspects of the proposed National Industrial Policy for Nigeria, there is also the National Agricultural Policy, for instance, which emphasizes a shift from subsistence to commercial farming to the extent possible, the establishment of commodity exchange boards that guarantee minimum prices for farm produce and other initiatives that will give farmers a guaranteed minimum price for farm produce and ensure that their products will be purchased at a minimum price making farming more attractive as income becomes less erratic. Other detailed policy options for a resurgent Nigeria explored in the book include a National Educational Policy, Financial Sector Reform, Fiscal Reform, Land Tenure Reform, National Health Policy and ECOWAS and Sub-Regional Integration among others.
I recently came across a reprint of an article first published in 2015 in which an acute and informed economic mind, Mr Tope Fasua, had commented on Tinubu’s interventions in public discourse in his policy advices to successive governments since leaving public office in 2007. Mr Fasua referred, as a reference point, to Tinubu’s plea with the Dr Goodluck Jonathan administration in 2014 that “…In the face of recessionary headwinds, government should run counter cyclical fiscal policy by using its Naira sovereignty to fund fiscal deficits. This deficit is not simply for the sake of running a deficit; the funds cannot be spent on unproductive matters. It must be used to fuel infrastructural and other projects that not only employ great numbers of people but enhance the overall productivity of the economy…Inflation is the major risk of running budget deficits to spur growth. We can contain inflation to acceptable levels by ensuring additional government expenditures are for items that can be supplied domestically, particularly Labour. Naira paid to poor and working class people mostly circulates in the domestic economy, spurring local commerce and production…This is because their consumption patterns do not approach the level of import expenditures associated with their wealthier compatriots. Related to this, we must decrease our level of superfluous imports”.
And what was the reaction of Tope Fasua to Tinubu’s submission here? His words: “Very few commentators in our milieu speak on such hard facts as these. Tinubu is the only one I know who has dared to broach the issue of Naira sovereignty. Most of the ‘revered’ economic intellectuals in this space would never dare. Their brains are probably Americanized to the Dollar. Let me explain. For some reason, our yearly national budgets is based on the price of crude oil and how much dollars we intend to get therefrom. The only revenue assumption on our yearly budget is crude oil. This means our thinking is externalized. Those who run our governments feel helpless and dependent on foreigners to solve our problems. But sovereign countries should never depend on the availability of other people’s currencies in order to plan their lives. It should NEVER be said that Nigeria cannot pay the salaries of government workers just because there is no dollar to convert to Naira. The stability of our economy should not be so tightly linked with the price of crude oil. Nobody has engaged Tinubu on this statement. They just behave like he didn’t say it. I would want to hear opposing positions…We may not print the Naira into perpetuity, but we cannot be locked into a single option of ‘dollar-standard’ says Tinubu. And I agree”.
Tinubu’s contribution to elevating the quality of our public discourse has been severely undervalued. Let the 2023 presidential election campaigns be on the developmental challenges that constitute serious existential threats to the country particularly the economy.