Hope in a season of angst
In a country never more divided since the end of a bitter civil war nearly 47 years ago and in which its economic managers have snatched depression from the jaws of growth, it is a challenge to reflect on prospects, at Landmark anniversaries. One reality stands naked though: To resent truth is to harvest untruth. Yet comfort with untruth yields much discomfort of discontent. In this season of malcontent writ large, the temptation is to despair. Paradoxically, for me, these times are times for goggles that provide prisms for seeing a future so bright we all need sunglasses to keep our eyes safe. Recession is opportunity to finally get right the structure of the economy and reinvent the policy process.
There is no doubt that the failure of leadership in the two years before the 2015 elections and the period since then, has produced a universalization of unhappiness with the Nigeria project. That is so much so the case that Chido Onumah’s book title: We are all Biafrans now; seems to have emerged poster title for the mood of the Nation. Still I remain a Merchant of Hope, convinced that real change, not sloganeering, can come to bandage the wounds of a bleeding people.
Last week on the long subway walk from the 42 street station in the New York to the exit, I ran into Nigerians. The first was a couple, “the second,” two gentlemen and the third, a lone young man. This may not be news because in this Instagram age in which all asked to take photos with me, I suspect one or two, may have found their way unto the internet. My journey was made long because all of these people who I had never met, on recognizing me, insisted on chatting about Nigeria. I was obliged, out of politeness, to listen, even though I had just got off an 8 hour flight from Europe.
The wife, from the first couple, was quick to announce they just left Nigeria last month because of economic hardship. She lamented that she was born in the US because her parents checked out, like Andrew, in 1984, and now she too was checking out. I assured them that all things work together for good for those who love God and that it may be in the stars that people like them locate where their offspring could learn and earn in a way that could make them seek the turnaround we require in Nigeria, just as Japan profited from returnees, following the Meiji Restoration; and India and China are doing in our contemporary experience. I wished they had not left Nigeria but the half full cup seemed a better way to view the matter. They were cheerful and fun and I was relieved to be left to continue my mission. But not for too long.
The two fellows who saw me from a distance shouted my name as if they were in Oshodi bus stop. They were so aggressive in expressing anger at what was going on in Nigeria that I had to tell them that if they were good citizens they would know the President and his team were still in New York for UNGA and that they could seek a forum to present their view. As I made it up the stairs towards street level, praying for a Taxi to pull up quickly, I ran into yet another Nigerian. The young man was determined to apportion blame for the economic problems, with a list of who should reign on account of economic troubles, and how the government should be organized. I did not want to add fuel to fire or encourage him so I could be free to head to my hotel for some deserved rest.
I could not but reflect, as I reached my hotel room, on how the country got here and what must change if the light is not to be extinguished on the dreams of the founding Fathers. I found I could not get away from my more recent analysis of the idea of state capture and how 50 years of state capture by the class of 1966 has fractured the idea of nation building and broken the possibilities for modernity in Nigeria. Why did we, with strong voices suggesting harsh outcomes, by August last year, allow policy disposition that would further damage quite fragile macroeconomic circumstances, that were being challenged by declining revenues from low oil prices? The voices raised were ignored largely by the way the political actors see stake holding in the Nigeria project and the hunter mindset in which stake in Nigeria is reduced to who is invited to chop rather than a collective sense of service for the common good. That mindset is rooted in the psychology of the class of 1966, a group of young soldiers who took Nigeria captive in 1966 and have invested in keeping Nigerian out of the business of where Nigeria should be going, except for those they have “invited to chop” with them. Sadly for Nigeria, that class has dominated the country for 50 years, easing out for preferred surrogates, when crises of legitimacy made it difficult for them to directly be on the saddle. Understanding state capture and the psychology of the group is critical for understanding why Nigeria is crippled and wobbles along.
The simple analysis of the class of 1966 broadly categorizes the actors into three. They are the modernizer wannabes, the Narcissistic Influencers and the Entitlement minded Praetorian Guards. The modernizer wannabes saw the Parks in South Korea, and the Suhartos in Indonesia, and desired to be like them. But they lacked the personal discipline and had too much of the Laissez Affaire disposition to achieve as those ones did. Just as Suharto had his Berkeley Mafia they had their PACs here.
The Narcissistic influencers are drenched in self-love and even when they sometimes advertise their purpose as Champions of the national cause, their accomplishments are quite limited because obsessive love of self either for relevance or material gain through economic rent, prevented the leaps that often come either from self-sacrifice in favour of the greater good, or a single minded focus on some strategy for development. For this group the Number of Oil wells, the appointment of their nominees for cabinet or parastatals position or how close they are to incumbents is what pumps their Adrenalin. They often moderate between the A group and C group. In the third category of Entitlement minded Praetorian Guards are those who feel entitled to power and imposing their will on the Nigerian people. They are often not as smart as those in Group A or B and push their conception of personal discipline as justification of their “divine right” to lord it over others. In that disposition listening to people other than cronies or people they have not invited to chop is an affront. It is typical for the policy process to lose sight of the bigger pool of better ideas. Recognizing this root of our challenge and how we can inflict adverse outcomes on ourselves affects how do we reflect on circumstances at a time like this.
In my view the race for renewal and the progress Nigeria deserves has to involve consensus building on a strategy for development that will be owned by all, no matter your partisan travel path. That path has to turn away the prebendal “hunter” mindset symbolized by the culture of the Class of 1966 to a Farmer mindset that involves sacrificial sowing for the profit of coming generations. This requires a youth policy which drives a disciplined deferred gratification of working to harvest a demographic dividend from our youth bulge. That future which is bright and still possible needs to have a post class of 1966 inclusive orientation that leads the people away from this Road to serfdom (apologies to Frederich von Hayek) paved from 1966 to a new “path from servitude”.
In a way therefore the current recession serves, for me, as high water mark separating the two highways, to serfdom, and from servitude. The way forward must include open candid conversation in policy choice, deprogramming Nigerians from a view that citizen duty of the engaged person does not indicate a desire to want to come and chop; so the dignity of the citizen as L’homme engage is elevated such that he does not crawl into a shell not to be misunderstood when he speaks truth to power. The silence today from the knowledgeable majority comes from wanting to maintain their dignity.
A new national development strategy that inspires confidence, run by champions with competence and passion, mobilizing the young to build on their know how to attain competitiveness on value chains that rest on Nigeria’s Factor endowments in Agriculture, hydrocarbons, Technology. (Why Mark Zuckerberg came) culture (Nollywood and music) and manufacturing.
With a philosophy of development that is neither autarkic, acknowledging the benefits of trade in a globalizing world but cautious enough not to be presumptuous about the good globalization of total openness, will yield development and growth. Selectively picking value chains in which agriculture and manufacturing can create jobs and diversify the base of the economy and so applies Industrial policy that allows the ventures to mature, is important as Justin Lin cogently argues and is in a position to support since his return from the World Bank to China.
All of these require a radical shift of thinking about education. I am persuaded that Nigeria will rise up again to claim the promise of its founding fathers. But we cannot wish it into being. We have to work for it.
The promise of Nigeria remains bright but claiming it will involve acknowledging the truth that our kings have danced naked in the market place and their harems have cheered on in their birthday suits. The beat needs to change as the dance steps must. As we live in a knowledge age we need to deploy technology to leap frog the democratization of education and healthcare. A liberalization of our development, which creates citizen entrepreneurs in pursuit of a demographic dividend is waiting to be made. Just as important is the need to strengthen our institutions to reduce impunity and abuse of property rights. A little more discipline in political actors in respect of the property rights of others will greatly reduce the confidence in the Nigerian investment environment. That’s how to avoid making JP Morgan go away with their index when as a country our balance sheet was still fundamentally strong but south bound Oil prices in the face of failure to do the needful to save creating a balance of payment crisis.