Sunday, February 8, 2015

On Soludo, Buhari, Jonathan and the elections

The firestorm generated by Prof. Chukwuma Soludo’s well-reasoned commentary on the place of issues in the 2015 electioneering has somehow become the core of the campaign. What a way to come from outside and define agenda.
Of course, I do not agree with all the points marshalled by the erstwhile Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and Patito’s Gang member, but not to commend his citizen duty of engagement or indicate as reprehensible the resort to ad hominen bashing of the former economic adviser instead of providing facts to counter the views he had raised. That is issues-based campaign. I will myself raise logic to support and dispute some of the points in the Soludo intervention.
I do agree with Soludo that issues matter. I also think that those who turn to divisive emotion-laden typecasting of others rather than issues pertaining to the well-being of the Nigerian people do a grave disservice not only to democracy but to the long term common good of all.
The Soludo thrust of criticism sounds like an attack on the statist perspective that intervention can generate jobs and economic growth. Even as one who likes to see government out of the way, I find the approach worrying because beyond the Keynesian logic that brought the ultimate capitalist state, the United States, out of the Great Depression with initiatives like the Tennessee Valley Authority in Infrastructure, there is more recent example of post-2008 global financial crisis and the stimulus packages of the Obama administration, and now Europe turning to Quantitative Easing, not to knock the Wall Street/Main Street tag team approach to ensuring prosperity. Soludo’s solutions sometimes sound like Deepak Lal on the poverty of development economics. I think that if we see the current oil price slum as an opportunity rather than a threat, then we have to see a role for government in the way Lee Kuan Yew used state intervention when Singapore was prostrate in 1965, as Nigeria is today.
This leads to another point I am not in agreement with Soludo on. He talks about cost of programmes and the fact that low oil prices mean you cannot finance a big idea. In 1965, Singapore’s main revenues came from rent for the British Naval Base and the British had decided to shut all bases east of Eden. The decision of leaders of the United Malay National Organisation to eject Singapore from the federation that was thought to be the only hope left Singapore, out of pocket, and all dressed up with nowhere to go. Then, they rolled up their sleeves, got creative, transmitted the right values and found leadership that inspired and had integrity. Today, the small country probably has the largest concentration of billionaires per capita on earth.
Here in Nigeria, shortly after self-government, in the 1950’s, Nnamdi Azikiwe as the Premier of Eastern Region was anxious to match the free education policy of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Palm produce did not fetch as much as cocoa in the market. The civil servants led by the new Permanent Secretary in Finance, Chief Jerome Udoji, thought it could not be done because of limitations of money. Zik insisted and accused Udoji, in Parliament, of trying to sabotage his government. After 40 per cent of the Eastern Nigeria budget of 1957 had gone to education and was still inadequate, the Udoji team suggested the introduction of fees for Primary 1 and Primary 5. But leadership kicked in. A philosophy called “Ibu anyi ndanda” raised a formula that created a partnership between government, the communities and missionaries that enabled the East to leapfrog the gap in education between the East and West.
In both cases the difference was leadership. At the centre in Abuja, for some reasons that may be from exposure, or whatever, leadership does not inspire as Lee Kuan Yew, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Michael Okpara did. Money is not everything in making dreams come through.
Among the many lessons we will learn, if we begin to operationalise the cash transfers initiative of the All Progressives Congress, a concept that helped Inatio Da Silva pull Brazil out of “potential” into a global economic powerhouse, is that we may not need as much cash as Soludo projects and that corruption and goal displacement are so high in a bloated public service that the savings will more than be adequate. Besides, from Kayode Fayemi and Rauf Aregbesola, we learn that with such programmes in Ekiti and Osun states, the numbers projected are often exaggerated. Given our abuse of census, we are likely to find much fewer people in those brackets. Check with the Bill Gates Foundation on satellite imagery studies of target population groups.
Having stated my major point of disagreement, it is useful to reflect on some other points raised by Soludo.
His broadside on austerity measures pronouncement and the road to austerity is a true, fair and proper read. No question that we walked with our eyes open into a repeat of 1982. In many of my speeches and my 2006 book, WHY NATIONS Are Poor, I recall how the Iranian revolution pushed oil prices into the stratosphere of $40 a barrel. We went reckless with champagne and even importing sand and “big men” bought Rolls Royces. We managed to borrow ourselves into a debt trap. On this round we moved up private jets and buying up Dubai.
When this current boom started with India rising and China producing, I recall on several occasions calling for fiscal responsibility compact in which flows into the distributable pool, the Federation Account, not go above $40 a barrel, with additional revenues up to $70 a barrel price going to a stabilisation fund. This fund would be available were prices to drop below $40 to be used to ensure a constant budget funding up $40 in lean times. Beyond $70, it should flow into a future fund. I have been singing this song for several years but the technocrats say the politicians insist on sharing the whole money and say of talk about saving for a rainy day that it is pointless planning for the rain when it was already pouring torrents. My retort was what is so wrong in resigning to make a point and force public conversation to educate the people because these politicians may be greedy but they surely do not hate their children. They have only acted in ignorance. I pointed them to young Mahathir Mohammed in Malaysia who disagreed with the position of the then Prime Minister and spoke up. He was dropped from the government where he was a junior minister, and expelled from The United Malay National Organisation, the dominant party at that time. Out of government, he wrote a book: The Malay Dilemma. That triggered soul-searching that finished with the resignation of the Prime Minister. He was brought back into the party. Not long after Dr Mahathir Ibn Mohammed became Prime Minister and the history of Malaysia changed for good.
What does it take to lead such a change – Genius? No. I draw from the Ronald Reagan experience in the US. President Reagan was not a genius. Some think he probably already had Alzheimer’s disease when he entered the White House. But his values were clear as was his vision. He found the right people and an America, in retreat, was revitalised, opening the way for ten and twenty American young stars to create a new industry with the .com revolution. Ironically, I have said elsewhere that the Buhari movement somehow reminds me of the coming of Ronald Reagan.
Let me close with a caveat. My response is a citizen response. My prism on this is not partisan. But I am a card-carrying member of the APC. The emergence of the APC is a culmination of my life’s quest as an institutionalist to see the dynamic of two balanced political parties. I was sure that without competition between parties that are equals progress would continue to elude Nigeria. So I longed for and worked for the scenario we have today. But I see in the torrent of abuse on Soludo for speaking truth to power and worry that this thing we have worked hard for, not in any pursuit of any self-interest, but for the advance of the common good, could be threatened by those who fail to understand the very idea of the public squares and the triumph of the ideas rather than emotional outbursts that result in tension and violence. I have read unprintable things online and in so many e-groups, some more offensive than Charlie Hebdo cartoons from both sides. This is poison we must curb. It is a double blow when those who follow this track are well-educated. So let us leave this business of certificates and uncompleted PhDs and hateful portrayals of opponents in caricature from the cross to throw backs of earlier life of candidates that seem like Hitler’s Goebbels at work. Let’s examine vision of society of challenges and the record of incumbents. Let’s ask people, regarding incumbents, is your life better today than it was four years ago and to the challengers, how can you make these same lives much better four years from now?
Utomi is a professor of political economy and founder, Centre for Values in Leadership

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