Henry Boyo and the dismal science
I was in secondary school when I decided I wanted to be a journalist even without knowing the full ramifications of my choice. But I nearly got swayed into changing direction when I got an A in Economics in my Higher School Certificate Examination. I thought I could become a brilliant economist but then I knew that my result was based more on the brilliance of my Economics teacher Mr. J. J. Obot than on my own. Besides, I knew that if I chose Economics I would have to confront my mortal enemy, Mathematics and I dreaded that encounter. I knew that I didn’t need Mathematics to do well in Journalism. Besides, I had chosen journalism and journalism had also chosen me. We were likely to remain lovers for life. If anyone has stayed in a profession for 46 years as I have without yielding to the temptation to change direction and look for greener pastures that must be an enduring love affair. Even though my two degrees are in Mass Communication I never lost interest in Economics because I knew it is a discipline that politicians use in running the world. In 1982 after I was reassigned from the editorship of Sunday Times to the Business Times I thought I would edit a business newspaper that would be enjoyed by both economists and non-economists. That happened only briefly because the management of the Daily Times had a different view from what I wanted for a business newspaper. So I decided to take my exit. It was then that the Concord employed me as Chairman of their Editorial Board. Over the years I have followed the writings of some famous Nigerian economists in various newspapers. Let me name some of them: Efiong Essien, Clement Ebri, Onyeama Ugochukwu, Ijeoma Nwogwugwu, Alex Otti and Henry Boyo who passed on recently. Each of these economists had impressed me as writers who had the rare ability of reducing complex economic dogma to simple, easy to digest and enjoyable narrative. I had planned to attend Mr. Boyo’s burial as a mark of my respect for his contributions to improving my knowledge of the subject, but could not make it. As an avid reader of his columns I found his articles to be economically apposite but politically incorrect. I knew that he had the capacity to tell truth to power and no decision maker in Nigeria would look in his direction for advice because he would tell them what they needed to hear but would not want to hear. I enjoyed his articles; they were pleasantly, refreshingly intoxicating like a large swig of tequila. He put Economics at the T-junction of life, covering several subjects that make our political and social life truly meaningful. This is what some people have chosen to call Freak Economics, a field that has received the kind attention of Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner who have written two books, Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics.
The developed world is obsessed with STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine). That emphasis is not misplaced considering what benefits have occurred in the world based on the advances in these fields. The advances in these fields arise largely because of the near exactitude of the products of STEMM. You cannot say the same thing of Economics but that does not make the subject unimportant. Politicians realise the weight of economic decisions in their political calculations but they prefer to subject economics to the whimsical decisions of politics. So in many countries, Nigeria not excepted, Economics is made a slave of Politics whereas in reality Politics should be subservient to Economics. In the last four years Nigeria’s economy has been managed, some would say mismanaged, by politicians. That is why we are in the mess in which we are today. Now, the scales have fallen from the eyes of the powers that be. A high profile economic team has now been set up to advise the President. The hope is that they will have uninterrupted access to the President and their advice will be respected and implemented. Whatever success the group will achieve will depend on the President’s courage and ability to take hard and difficult decisions. The choices are grim for an economy that still depends largely on a single product: crude oil; an economy that is run by politicians who want to “chop and quench,” an economy that has been running on auto-pilot. Unlike the STEMM subjects Economics suffers from two disabilities (a) its apparent lack of precision. That is why most economists use the expressions “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.”
(b) Economists also talk about the “short run” and the “long run.” These expressions determine to a large extent economic postulations. Is that why Economics is called the Dismal Science, that is science that is gloomy, depressing and even pessimistic? The dismalness of it may derive from its lack of specificity in terms of time and predictability. John Maynard Keynes’ view seems to be that we cannot plan far into the future because “in the long run we are all dead.” ………..But we need to worry about our grandchildren and plan for them now. Nigeria is busy borrowing money to deal with today’s existential problems but who will repay the loans? We or our grandchildren? If we are able to turn the economy around in our lifetime we will repay the loans. If we fail to turn the economy around within the shortest possible time then we will pile the burden for our grandchildren to solve. If they are nice grandchildren they will simply grumble and carry on with the task at hand. If they are not too nice they will curse us for saddling them with problems that didn’t belong to them.
Michael Spence, a Nobel laureate in Economics has written a book titled “The Next Convergence, the Future Economic Growth in a multispeed world.” This book deals succinctly with the mega-trends that are shaping and will continue to shape, the global economy. Nigeria is a member of that economy but plays no significant role in the shaping of that future. Nigeria is basically more of a consumer and less of a producer. That is why we keep talking more about imports and less of exports. We have palm oil and kernels, cocoa, rubber, groundnuts, cassava and many other products that we could convert to processed goods for domestic consumption and exports but we have stayed in the consumption queue for too long to remember anything else except how to consume. The high profile team of economists set up by President Muhammadu Buhari must justify its existence by making a difference, by telling the President that the country has a lot to offer the world if it is ready to take the hard decisions that can make that difference.
We are not in the race for technology but we can use technology that is already available to move our country forward. Why should a country with so much land, good weather and abundant manpower be importing basic food items such as rice and tomatoes when we can grow them, eat them and export them? The world has been worrying about climate change. The effects of climate change are here with us already and we have done next to nothing in terms of sensitizing our people and companies to make some lifestyle changes. Others in the world have been talking and doing something about Green Economy. The only state where I notice some seriousness about Green Economy is Cross River State. May be I am not observant enough. But we all must come on board and change the way we do things from farming to production so as to save our immediate environment from the devastation that stares us in the face. Climate change is about the economy and our economists ought to factor climate change into our decision-making. Right now we are punching below our weight. Right now we are on the wrong side of the tracks, but there is an opportunity for us to make amends if we can listen to the voice of reason on the way our economy should be run. That is what Henry Boyo would have asked for. That is what I am asking of the experts that Buhari has assembled.