Public conversation, ideas, values and how politics under-develops Nigeria
It is the ultimate paradox. Politics is supposed to generate robust public conversation. The outcome of that public square is supposed to drive optimal public policy choices resulting in stout economic performance, the raising of the quality of life of citizens and the advance of the Common Good of all.
On the contrary, in contemporary Nigeria, politics is the arena for demonizing people who do not cheer for your track for hugging power to yourself. And political conversation is generally about verbal bullying, especially through social media contractors paid to badger non-cheer leaders for the paymaster.
The result is the flight of ideas from the Public Sphere and the descent of governing into the abyss of uninformed action by people usually selected for positions on the basis of cronyism and parochial reasons. It is not surprising that politics underdevelops Nigeria almost in the way Walter Rodney said for how Europe underdeveloped Africa.
Contemporary German Philosopher of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas, would probably find Nigeria’s political area the antithesis of modernity which for him is the function of rational public conversation. We should probably make all public officials read our own Olufemi Taiwo’s book African Must be Modern.
As we repeatedly recurse to policy choices that failed in 1980 and 1990s it is clear that the loss of institutional memory and the retreat of the Public Sphere is significantly responsible for Nigeria’s underperformance.
What are some of the issues that merit robust public discussion which has shaped the course of Nigerian history and are still of great consequence for today’s troubles? Among them are the questions of production versus the sharing of revenues as source of the advance of our material well being; the attitude of justice or social justice in dealing with others, individuals or groups; the nature of our politics and the role of Political Parties; and the literal collapse of culture in the face of the truism that values shape human progress. Related to values is the nature of our institutions which are invariably weak; and how religion ethnicity and economic cleavages are managed so they do not take us down the road to Somalia or the Coming Anarchy which Robert Kaplan predicted two decades ago.
Maybe I should begin with the subject Public Conversation itself. In a talk I gave recently, I said if you read anything attributed to me and it is not in the Guardian or one or two other newspapers the chances are 95 percent that I did not say it. By now I am tired of issuing disclaimers on things attributed to me, not even as reports but as statements in the first person.
Reminds me of watching Prof. Wole Soyinka so agitated at a Fake News Conference organized by the BBC in Abuja last year. Truth is we encourage it by an unthinking swallow of all we see. It is sometimes easy to tell. In my observation, some of the biggest victims are Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah, Prof Wole Soyinka, President Olusegun Obasanjo and myself. But I have learned a lot from how people treat this phenomenon.
One that someone ensured went viral dealt with me ascribing my successes to some real and imagined persons. It took a view of ethnicity and religion that I would take but took incredible license. While it generated all kinds of comments from people I expected to know better, given that it was scripted partly as commentary from me and partly as a report from somewhere I went to, I was impressed when I ran into Governor Nasir el-Rufia. He said he read it, liked it, but thought it was not my style and language.
This discernment which many are lacking is important in these times much damage can come to public conversation that can be quite nuanced. Investigative reporting that can unveil the sources of such fake news can do the system much good.
On Production vs Revenue sharing, I think it is so important for us to educate each other so we can reduce the folly that currently afflicts policy. First, it is important to make the point that it is not about the right or wrong answer. This is why rigorous public conversation matters. I will illustrate this matter of right or wrong answer more when we discuss the issue of taxation.
When Nigerians discuss how best to maximize their material interest from the soverign the emphasis seems to be on shares of revenues. This evident in the so-called “Restructuring” debate in which oil-producing states push for a better sharing formula for revenues.
The weight of evidence in my experience is that we should be looking more to Production (output) than to Revenue inflow for sustained progress. I believe our national cause will be better advanced by people of knowledge rationally discussing the facts about how production leads to progress and those who see equity in the right revenue flows allowing those who get it to judiciously use it for their good. Each will have their points which will raise understanding and how citizens act contributes to outcomes. Was I in that debate I would show evidence of how in our experience revenues have created a “lottery effect”. When you meet a poor man who won the lottery 10 years before, he is probably going to be worse off than before he won the lottery. You can see it in how more revenues have flowed to some part of our country since Local Government reforms brought the LGs into Fiscal transfers from the Distributable Pool Fund (FAAC)accounts. Those that gained more revenues have become poorer.
One of the best intellectual arguments of the proposition I support in spite of my respect for the work of the French Economist Thomas Piketty on Capital and Inequality is Thomas Sowell’s reflection on Wealth, Poverty, and Politics. If we understood these better our politics will be less tense.
Then comes how to deal with politics and political parties. I have spoken much and recently written a book about that. Indeed I am writing a follow-up volume to Why Not which I wrote on this subject. It is appropriately themed: how politics under-develops Nigeria.
My hope that our political parties can move from Machine Politics to Service Politics has been dashed repeatedly. The US War General who became president after Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, is remembered for saying: if a political party does not have its foundation in a determination to advance a course that is right, and that is moral, then it is not a political party, it is merely a conspiracy to seek power.
Until we can discuss honestly the impact of politics and political parties on our quest for progress we will continue to be challenged. A friend of mine summed it up sadly when he said politics in Nigeria was an unfair way to launder one word – evil. If something is horrifying once you say it is politics, it looks more dignified.
In the sense, politics is not about values it has contributed to the collapse of culture in Nigeria. As Jared Diamond teaches so well in his book Collapse our way have gone South as a people through culture. Then there is the great subject of Taxation. In the early 1980’s I argued that we were not paying taxes and that this had consequences for accountability. Government collected oil revenue and did not trouble us with tax and we did not trouble them with what they did with the money in K.O. Mbadiwe speaks that was an accord concordia we could not, like at the Boston Tea Party argued No taxation without representation. They simply said leave us alone and we said leave us alone.
Today government is furiously trying to get us to pay taxes. To make their point about international Tax to GDP ratio the point to our low tax ratios. But because rational public conversation is not taking place we are not saying show us how you use those taxes because if all taxes do is keep a minority of politicians and civil servants living well, as most of it goes into high-cost governance and little of it makes for infrastructure that facilitates investments that will make the lot of most of us more productive and of improved living, we should not pay these taxes. Besides those international ratios came from countries social safety nets but ours those being taxed to death that will be “taxed” by relatives and community with non-stop requests of those perceived to earn well.
Ghana, anxious to move to being a producing economy was quick to recognize that it means saving to boost investments. So it began to drop taxes. Beyond an optimum level of taxation, it becomes a disincentive for investment. That logic used to be called supply-side Economics. Its High Priest in the days when it influenced Reaganomics in the United States was a Professor at the University of Southern Califonia called Arthur Laffer.
Few Nigeria seems to remember that Laffer confessed that the person who cracked the Equation that gave us the Laffer Curve was one of his Ph.D. students, a Nigerian, Sonny Onwochei Odogwu. But our tax formulation does not seem to understand supply-side economics as Ghana does. It is not surprising that at TICAD Japanese investments were headed to Ghana and not Nigeria.
To think clearly about these things we need the framework of a National Strategy- whenever I mention strategy I am pointed toward the ERGP. With the respect that is short to a medium-term recovery programme. Plenty of good work has gone into it but I want to see value chains we want to dominate in 20 years, based on our factor endowments and the kind of Industrial Policy that can make that happen. What is our latent comparative advantage from the six Geopolitical Zones of the country? How do we mobilize local passions and even the educational system to drive achieving that. It is common knowledge that the economy is troubled, unemployment high and the performance is burdened by continuing dependence on a Natural Resource Economics, Oil, for both Foreign Exchange income and funding government. The danger of that is well known. How seriously are we looking at changing our economic to escape this trap? We have seen Ethiopia, Rwanda, Senegal and now Ghana begin to find a new rhythm while our country remains poorly governed. Reengineering the next course is critical.
You would think we would all consider it an imperative of privilege to make our shoulders available to the next generation to climb on and see tomorrow more clearly. Mentoring must be a duty of privilege. I was therefore quite pleased, after speaking at a workshop for Sir Kashim Ibrahim Fellowship in the Governor’s office in Kaduna at the elaborate effort by Nasiru El Rufia to build a pool of bright young men and women from a
cross the country into a year-long development initiative in the practice of governing in Kaduna and learning from people like who come to run workshops for them.
How much do we discuss how to erect a leadership architecture through deliberate development of people of character whose knowledge level and sense of service assure us the future will be a destination of hope. And how do we educate our youth so that the youth bulge that is our reality will metamorphose into a demographic dividend rather than fear of traveling from Kaduna to Abuja by road? Talk is not cheap. Rational equality talk is the essence of modernity. And as our compatriot, Olufemi Taiwo has urged: Africa must be modern. Nigeria leaders should read his book Africa Must be Modern, this Independence Day Month.
* Utomi is a Political Economist and Founder of Centre for Values and Leadership (CVL)
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