Stunted potentials hobble our nation
by Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai
Our country is in the news these days often for the wrong reasons.
Nigeria is a country devastated by poverty, insecurity, corruption and terrorism. The governance challenges are immense, while much of public policies now deliver poor outcomes. The budgeting process is a fictographic art, featuring much drama and a growing disconnect from the imperatives of development and the needs of the majority. True to that tradition, the 2013 budget is by August still a matter of unsettled contention between the executive and legislative branches of government.
In spite of this, the nation’s savings account ' the Excess Crude Account is being rapidly drawn down, probably unlawfully, such that it is likely to fall from about $11bn in February to zero by October 2013!
Yet this sorry impasse, governmental incompetence and impunity do not define Nigeria. Our diverse peoples are an energetic, often optimistic lot trying to build our lives despite the trammels imposed by governmental incompetence and paralysis. Ours is Africa’s largest country and second largest economy. It could easily be the continent’s largest economy and market if a congruence should emerge between politics, government action and national aspirations.
Such congruence was in the works from 2004-2007, when a variety of reform measures began to improve government finances, shrink the participation of the state in business by privatizing many state-owned enterprises, create a modern national identity system, strengthen the banking system and getting the ports to be more efficient. Our nation was even poised to launch a national mortgage system to reverse its embarrassing 17 million units housing deficit. A series of gas-based thermal plants were contracted to improve the patchy electric power generation levels. For the first time, a coherent roadmap for a potential boom in the solid mineral sector emerged alongside efforts to reduce the cost of governance through right-sizing and monetization of fringe benefits. The personnel cost of the entire executive arm of the federal government was about N600bn, while the maximum running cost of 469 members of the national assembly used to be less than N50bn annually. The pay-as-you-go pension system was reformed and transitional roadmap to a fully-funded contributory pension scheme legislated.
The success of our foreign debt relief campaign reflected the international community’s confidence in the soundness of the economic programme then being feverishly pursued. Nigeria did not suddenly become an Eldorado. But it was clearly beginning to get to grips with its problems using solutions that were pragmatic and largely market driven; propelled by a vision that the government should provide the infrastructure, security and the guaranty of law and order that can give people confidence to invest, grow and unleash their talents.
The vision of that Obasanjo administration was to make this the last generation to merely speak of Nigeria’s potentials. We were determined to realize those potentials, confident that we had the talents to create wealth from the vast natural and human resource endowments of the country, leveraging the energies of its young people and latent assets in the Diaspora.
Why then the stasis since late 2007? We will attempt an explanation.
Political power must always be tied to national purpose. The inheritors of power post-2007 were strangers to that conception, and did not feel obliged to uphold the reforms they inherited, and where they did, did not demonstrate sufficient political will to see them through. Even conceding to the ever changing dynamics of life, the broad thrust of the programmes our governments need to implement is obvious: the 2004-2007 reforms are unfinished. They should constitute a new starting point for development- focused governance and the agenda for the next government.
Perhaps that will be the single agenda item for the All Progressives Congress in post-Jonathanian Nigeria, as it is clear that the current leadership is unwilling to proceed on that road less travelled. We will nevertheless outline what obviously needs doing. It is not rocket science but requires a competent team led by a president that has been tested and transparently honest. The next president must possess unquestionable personal integrity, character and will, propelled by the anger to change our currently-unacceptable conditions Ã¢â‚¬' qualities that appear to be in great deficit in the current leadership across the board not only at the top but even at the levels of ministries, departments and agencies.
On a macroeconomic level, the government has to both shrink and become more efficient. The public service is in many ways unfit for purpose, with a mismatch between the skills required and the excess personnel it carries. A set of incentives needs to be arranged to once again make the public service an attractive career for our most talented. Certain sectors of the service also need to grow. Nigeria needs more police officers, health workers, teachers and judges and the infrastructure to support them. But the share of national income consumed by government has to reduce. The monetization policy has to be revisited and strictly implemented so that securing a public service job, or getting elected to a post stops being a license to live like a monarch, well above the austere circumstances of ordinary Nigerians.
The expense on human capital has to both grow and be more efficiently allocated. The failure rates in the final secondary level exams show that we are not equipping our youth with the skills needed for the 21st century. Our tertiary education is also mired in mediocrity, and the emergence of private universities merely glosses over, rather than addressing the problem. Access to basic healthcare is also problematic, and we continue to record scandalous rates of maternal and infant mortality. The vote of no confidence in the healthcare system is seen not merely in the N4 billion Nigerians spent in 2010 on medical tourism, but also in the fact that the government makes provisions to send its top officials abroad for healthcare services.
Spending priorities and the allocation of resources have to be calibrated to reflect the urgent necessity to build infrastructure and capacity in Nigeria. The personnel and overhead cost of governments should no longer dominate budgeting; which must begin to prioritize about 70% of budgets for capital expenditure in national and subnational appropriation acts. Having a healthy and well-educated population that is able to compete in today’s global village is more important than the perks that seem to occupy and distract many public officers.
The abandoned efforts at developing a national mortgage system should be revived to create a source of sustainable, long-term financing and a basis for a veritable housing revolution. This would help create better planned neighborhoods in addition to the civic pride, social stability and sense of security that home ownership fosters.
Unleashing entrepreneurial energy also requires that strong regulatory competencies be developed across the board. As our banking system so notoriously demonstrated, effective supervision and enforcement of rules and regulations are critical to the overall performance of the nation’s economy. The culture of corruption and impunity must be confronted no matter whose oxen are gored. The ambivalent and highly politicized efforts to tackle insecurity and terrorism must be reassessed and redesigned, and then implemented with all seriousness to end the kidnapping, crude oil theft, armed robberies and the Boko haram insurgency that plague our country. The commendable clean-up of the judiciary initiated by the current illustrious Chief Justice must be intensified and sustained.
None of these is easy but we have little choice if our 170 million people are to have a future. If we continue to make at least 6 million babies per annum, by 2050 Nigeria will be amongst the three most populous nations on earth. We have a duty to do what is necessary to avoid short-term anarchy or sate failure in the medium term when the oil prices are driven down by discoveries all over Africa, and improvement in fracking technologies producing more and more shale oil and gas in Europe and the Americas. We have only a small window to get things right, and we can. Indeed, we must!
When we do, Nigeria has room for an economic explosion, a revolution in development with tectonic consequences for Africa and the Black Race.
While we concede that even today, enterprising investors can still make money from the chaos that is the Nigerian economy given the reservoirs of unmet needs across many sectors, real progress that creates jobs and opportunities on a sustainable basis are possible only within the framework of leadership qualities and policies described above. But all these depend on getting the politics right by ensuring we have clean elections between now and 2015. Anything sort of that is sounding the death knell of Nigeria’s progress, and Africa’s emancipation, and that will be very sad indeed.