Published On: Thu, Feb 21st, 2019

Nigeria Decides: How long to build a nation?

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By Ibrahim Abubakar

Nigeria’s population is growing at 2.6% and the economy is growing at 2.4%, which essentially means a 0.2% shrink. This begs the question of whether we are waiting for when, and not if, the country will implode. Nigeria is currently faced with a choice of whether to re-elect president Muhammadu Buhari or to replace him with a former vice president Atiku Abubakar. Each candidate has set out lofty goals in well prepared manifestos – Buhari’s Next Level and Atiku’s Get Nigeria Working Again. Each plan outlines goals that tally with the key challenges facing Nigeria and while there are key differences in the detail of the plans, the major distinguishing element is their track record including in particular on corruption. The challenge facing the country is illustrated by the inability of the national election commission to organise an election and the postponement of the polls with hours to go before voting started. This article attempts to explore the context of the current election debate and compares the two leading presidential candidates.
Some have argued that recent reform, in particular the creation of a single treasury account, has stifled the flow of cash in many sectors ultimately impacting the economy by preventing corrupt civil servants and contractors from functioning in a business-as-usual mode. There are several potential ways to dig the country out of the current hole it is in. The option, articulated by the PDP presidential candidate – #Atiku, is to revert back to a fantastically corrupt state and open up the tap so that resources flow, while attempting to limit the extent of corruption by only allowing “friends” to benefit directly. The hypothesis is that the rest of the country benefits indirectly through the largesse of these friends and their spending on the economy and a more open market approach.
While Atiku’s manifesto talks about tackling corruption, his track record in this area including the accusations by his former boss and now supporter – former president Olusegun Obasanjo, the allegation of money laundering by the US and the self-award of key financial opportunities initially while still employed by the Nigeria Customs Service and subsequently as Vice President, are the most concerning. Indeed, this approach to his acquisition of wealth challenges the popular narrative of a successful businessman – at least not in the way business is understood in most liberal democracies. There is also an unsupported assumption within Atiku’s plan that there will be greater foreign direct investment.
The alternative model, proposed by Buhari, the current president is to focus on tackling insecurity, taking a zero-tolerance approach to corruption and ensuring fiscal discipline while investing in major infrastructure projects. The #Buhari manifesto outlines a range of goals that again tackle the major challenges facing Nigeria. Judging his performance is complicated by the recession that started as he was sworn in due to a fall in the price of oil and the perception of slow progress by a population who have waited for so long.
The main criticisms against the Buhari model are that there is a so called “cabal” which wields undue power, a perception of lopsided targeting of anti-corruption actions at political opponents, and sluggish growth since 2015.
First, I will address the so called “cabal”. A challenge to Nigeria’s development is the distorted sense of right and wrong. With origins in the Babangida government of the 1980s, change is so difficult to implement because many in society no longer buy in to the Nigerian project. People talk openly about “alheri” or “helping yourself and others” when appointed to a public post. Similarly, even respected members of society have no hesitation in telling small lies that they perceive to be inconsequential. Unfortunately the majority of Nigerians were born in the post-Babangida era with no knowledge of a different value system and a functioning society. We need to have a conversation about this – for without changing this fundamental value, we are doomed to elect leaders, such as #Atiku, who are described by their supporters as “He might be a thief, but he never eats alone”.
Tackling the systematic loss of a sense of right and wrong, requires action in all sectors. Our legislators and senators who shamelessly connive with the corrupt elements of the executive to allocate bloated budgets while awarding so called “constituency projects” to themselves through a distorted procurement process, our judges who have blocked the prosecution of corrupt public officials and a private sector with no hesitation in bribing or conniving with public officials. The so called “cabal” are implementing Buhari’s plan and often stop the elite from business as usual (the list is endless but examples include stopping Atiku’s multi-million dollar Intels contract). Indeed, Buhari has challenged all to cite a single example of a decision that has been taken by the cabal and not him. Any honest observer can see that while the current system is far from perfect, the criticism of the so called “cabal” is that they are not allowing certain people to be given contracts or appointments with no further justification as to why these individuals should be appointed other than to reward them for loyalty.
The charge that there is lopsided targeting of political opponents is also exaggerated. The council of foreign relations reported last year that there has been a doubling of corruption convictions and the recovery of 1.4 billion dollars. Similarly, this is the first time that a Secretary to the Government, who played a key role in electing Buhari, has been arraigned for corruption – or is he also a political opponent? The failure to convict other corrupt civil servants, security chiefs and politicians has largely been due to the judiciary frustrating the effort of the executive and a poorly performing anti-corruption agency.
The government has also been criticized for a sluggish growth of the economy. The opposition touts an increase in unemployment from 6.4% in 2014 to 18.8% and a relatively sluggish recovery rate as evidence for the need to change course. Little mention is made of the significant drop in oil prices and the poor investment of the oil revenue generated in the preceding two decades by the opposition to cope with this inevitable decline in oil prices. Right-leaning publications such as the Financial Times (FT) state that “Even critics concede Mr Buhari was dealt a bad hand, taking office just as the oil price crashed”. However, the FT go on to claim that the pace of economic recovery would have been faster had different measures been taken by the government. This is reminiscent of the criticism of Obama by the political right in the US for the slow recovery of a crash they caused despite his use of Keynesian borrowing to grow approach versus in the UK where David Cameron combined cuts in public expenditure with quantitative easing.
One might think the Keynes versus Hayek debate following the 2008 global economic crash is relevant to #Nigeria’s recent economic slump. John Maynard Keynes, a Cambridge economist, posited that “you cannot cut your way out of a slump; you have to grow your way out” but is this realistic if the crash in the Nigerian scenario is due to a lack of funds to spend. Would it be acceptable to borrow and spend on a consumption-driven growth in the context of a semi-parasitic private sector. By contrast, Friedrich August Hayek – a London School of Economics professor, argued that the slump of the 1930s is the reality and was caused by excessive credit creation.
While Hayek eventually became the less favoured of the two in Western economic theory, it is difficult to see how the theory applies to #Nigeria’s 2015/6 slump because we do not have a productive functioning economy in the true sense. The #Nigerian private sector has very limited productivity. Most businesses are either providing a service locally or are entirely reliant on the oil income of the country. The key driver of the economy is spending of money acquired through #Nigeria’s oil revenue usually by corrupt civil servants and associated “contractors” who distribute their ill gotten wealth to their local beer parlour, girlfriends, the local market and the rest of the economy keeping the Nigerian machine ticking along.
Whatever economic theory we eventually move forward with as the basis of policy, we need to have a more productive private sector, a zero-tolerance approach to corruption and greater equity in the distribution of wealth in order to prevent future social violence. Previous phases of rapid growth in Nigeria have always only yielded benefits to a privileged few and not to the majority of the masses. We should explore an adapted Nordic economic model which has socialist and capitalist elements.
Nation building takes time – religion, tribe and other vested interests have to give way to a common purpose. We all have to buy-in to the development agenda and give it time to work. The #Atiku model is not a viable option. While the #Buhari model is insufficient, it is the necessary first step in the right direction. The #Buhari approach has halted the retrogression of the last 30 years, confronted corruption with varying degrees of success, started fixing security issues and is tackling the lack of infrastructure in the face of a significant decline in oil prices which caused a recession. Perhaps more spending would have led to a quicker return to growth but it would have been the wrong sort of growth – consumption-driven and unsustainable.
All nations, have only ever emerged from poverty to become wealthy through concerted self-driven change and not by waiting for a foreign interest to “help” – Nigeria is no exception. We need to move forward and to do so using the most egalitarian development framework possible – one that is about shared prosperity, eliminating deprivation and ensuring multidimensional development and the basic rights of all citizens. We have a choice – to embrace change and progress or revert to a kleptocracy. I hope we chose the former and demand of Buhari to build on the last 4 years.

Abubakar, a Professor of Public Health is reachable via i.abubakar@ucl.ac.uk

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