We thank God for the peaceful transition and the new hope that seems to be burning in the hearts of the Nigerian populace. In the recent past, and perhaps because of my training on Change, I have not been as optimistic on what a change in actors could possibly deliver. A few have naively said we should focus on the issues and not the people involved … but you really have to consider everything; the issues, the sponsors, the navigation and the change agents in other words the people and issues are equally pertinent.
We are in that time when various positions on the economy have become so baffling in their disparity, depending on who you are talking to and sometimes the perspectives they may have been exposed to or chosen to adopt or who they want to impress. The absence of more comprehensive and reliable metrics makes it increasingly difficult to be conclusive on most things and the populace continue to relish only what they want to hear…sieving information to suit the story.
Someone once said “Error and lies are like fish … they must be consumed quickly, new and fresh or they will begin to stink” … A new government only has the advantage of a few months before we begin to sense what we are really dealing with. Economic progress typically rides on a long-term trajectory and the right path is not expected to be without its bumps, but then how many bumps and pot-holes can an economy be subjected to?
A disruptive change is one that takes you back to relearn what you should already have learnt. Every episode has lessons and even though some events are apparently negative, there are constructive points and lessons which – if one is humble enough to see, can be leveraged … thus taking us further on the desired path of inclusive growth. This brief article seeks to establish five of many key learnings that can be built upon, irrespective of how the musical chairs pushes in or out the present and future protagonists … when the political melody eventually stops and the jingles of flatterers on both sides cease.
1. A tough economy. There is no use deceiving ourselves. The economy is going to be severely threatened as its mainstay – oil prices, stay low in the medium term, even if we achieve decent gains in diversification. Nigeria cannot afford bloated inefficient government structures and the argument about pains from loss of jobs is indefensible. Nigerian government has no choice but to severely downsize in cost and quantity, decentralize (cost effectively) as much as is possible and massively privatize government making it more efficient, leaner, much less lucrative and significantly less involved in the commercial sector. There is a hidden buffer and stimulus waiting to be reaped if recurrent expenditures are reduced by more than 60% and this is possible. Unions tend to be manipulated to retort that privatization creates inequality …perhaps so, but it has been proven that it also lifts the minimum floor. Critics of Margaret Thatcher, the privatization pundit that transformed Britain’s economy, do not always give her credit for the fact the average standard of living in the UK improved tremendously in her time when common folk started owning homes and consumer credit expanded, even though more billionaires were created. Private wealth is not in itself a bad thing in a responsible government scenario. Leaders will not cling to power when government is not “juicy” business.
2. Petroleum Subsidies must go (asap) and value needs to be added. It is almost impossible (and I stand to be challenged) to police the potential leakages and bleeding when subsidies thrive particularly in the Petroleum sector in an economy lacking in the information and legal infrastructure to identify and deter abusers. All over the world, the advantage of low oil prices is being taken to remove subsidies. Refineries will never be built by prudent business men in a subsidized pricing regime and you will need unusual economic patriotism to dive into the heavy investment of refineries/downstream which is a narrow margin, capital intensive enterprise in which you can easily lose money and which is already experiencing global overinvestment and saturation. Nigeria should stop the indolent celebration of production and export of crude for which value is largely exported abroad. Most of this wealth has financed wastages such as subsidies and the value loss has cost so many jobs. We have been blessed with hydrocarbons reserves … we should maximize the petroleum value chain as a matter of top priority even as we diversify to other sectors. The Petroleum Bill must be adapted as legislators have already suggested and passed to give stability to quell all the uncertainty of the last few years.
3. Welfare systems must immediately be built perhaps almost from scratch, starting with accurate population (CENSUS) and identity infrastructure with linked information related to location, income, medical, insurance and taxation institutions. Nigeria can afford and should aim to give every Nigerian a basic decent life and target support for those with proven subsistence challenges. We have enough Information Technology savvy to begin the construction of automated data systems on citizens and be able to deploy targeted safety nets. We need more decent small towns ( at least 100 new small towns) and do not need every one living in Lagos/ Kano/ Port Harcourt or trying to build fancier metropolis when we cannot maintain the most basic infrastructure e.g. street lights.
4. Corruption is best fought with strong institutions and rules and not a hard face. The judiciary, policing and special investigation functions can be helped and reengineered to operate to best practices especially in independence, integrity and objectivity. Money launderers can only thrive when the banking and other rules makes it possible to do so. The corrupt amongst us are very few … most will embrace new open, user friendly processes and systems facilitating responsible citizenry and the tempted will quickly adjust if punitive illustrations demonstrate that the tone in Nigeria has changed. Presently it is sad that rules remain deliberately primitive and only apply to unconnected common folk …while friends/cronies of officials will always seem to get away with the grandest official larceny and are rewarded with front row seats at Aso rock events.
5. The path of growth and progress requires a long term vision. Infrastructure like underground or over ground rail, airports, roads, rail, electricity, gas and water works thrive only if a medium/long term development and maintenance framework of thinking is allowed to thrive. One reason why infrastructure is weak is that every new government wants to do something different and we do not have the foresight and structures to build sustainably for decades ahead. A lot has already been done on the electricity transformation agenda in Nigeria …it will be a shame if that is subject to reversals to score points as tends to be the norm. Nigeria for good reasons is already being perceived as one of the most attractive locations for new foreign investment, with the potential of being the most developed economy in Africa which is rising as the next investment hotspot … and Nigeria is predicted as having potential to be amongst the top economies in the world. This perception prevails in spite of all its economic, security and political challenges and one can only imagine what will happen when we are bold to tackle and make progress on many foundational concerns. Could this be the Beginning of a New Era ?