By Uddin Ifeanyi
Much of my public commentary is taken up by musings on the state of the Nigerian economy. This is largely because I am persuaded that without a functioning economy, we cannot begin to address the diverse difficulties that our country must contend with if it is to be “modern”. Thus, I have fretted over low productivity rates, and low domestic output growth. You only need to hold these two variables against our strong population growth rate to realise the potential for dysfunction that we’ve built up for ourselves. I believe strongly that a big part of the economy’s slow run-rate is one consequence of how it is structured.
Government plays too dominant a role. Initially, it was the case that government produced everything. The “commanding heights” (a Marxist-Leninist construct) of the economy ― crude oil production, downstream fuel and gas supplies, airlines, hotels, etc. ― were controlled by government. A holdover of the need to correct for the drawbacks of colonialism, we adopted the Soviet five-year plan and its command and control system as a shortcut to development. Inefficient, in terms of the quality of its goods and services output, dirigiste works at all only when government is well resourced.
By 1986, the Nigerian government could no longer meet this criterion. We then made the crunching transition to accepting the private sector as the engine of growth. The Chinese did this circa 1979, and we have seen the Vietnamese undergo a similar transition. But somehow, we botched ours. Preferring to pick national champions, we sold public assets to barely qualified private entities, and secured their operations against competition ― both domestic and foreign. Invariably, across sectors of the economy we ended up with private sector operators as inefficient as the public businesses that they are heirs to.
Over the last four years, these economic concerns have only worsened. In keeping with the best of our traditions, we have substituted the old obsession with “home-grown” economic programmes ― DFRRI, NAPEP, MAMSER (boondoggles all) ― with a new heterodoxy that simply throws the same scarce resources at the same problems, with the same results.
So, it was clear at a point that unresolved, the problems with the economy were going to blowback into other spheres of the state. In our main cities, the underclass has never been this visible, nor this visibly underemployed or idle. At which point you realise that Nigeria’s forthcoming battles are para-economic. Instead, they now sketch a tinderbox that is getting drier daily. The spontaneous way in which the #EndSARS protests combusted only reminded us of the clear and present danger that the country’s current flinty state represents.
Developments in Oyo State all of last week further underlined this. Our communities have come to be described by the (increasingly antagonistic) contradictions between their component (if not constituent) parts. And identity increasingly matters above all else ― especially the “self-evident malevolence” of the “non-us”. Beyond the economy, we are at that point where leadership matters. It is easy to point to the failures to drive a decent economy as the root of this problem.
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Take Lagos State, for example. The biggest social and security concern, I am told, is the influx of youths from the North. But then, growing up in Ilorin, along that axis that had Tate & Lyle, MatchCo, and Philip Morris, this surplus labour from the North was available to offload imports of raw materials and spare parts, and load truckloads of output at most factory warehouses. Hectic work. But it paid more than riding a commercial motorcycle all day. It was irregular, true. And it was less risky. Besides, it was tiring enough to keep the young underclass out of harm’s way. And it was aspirational. For these casual labourers ― for that’s what they were ― then ensured that their kids went to school. Hoping one day that their kids would be the ones chauffeur-driven to work the way their current bosses were. In this narrow sense, then, the social tensions in Lagos State are only partly the result of incompetent rule in the North (that has allowed surplus labour to migrate down South). It is largely the result of gross misrule in the South (a failure to grow these economies as fast as their production possibility frontiers suggest is possible).
Anyway this is argued, it will be facetious to blame all of our current social difficulties on the economy. For our fissiparous tendencies have been around for as long as we have been a country. In a way you could even argue that these tendencies ― the emergence of a large underclass in the North to take but its most egregious form ― helped elect the current central government. Torn between regional economies that were fast becoming black holes and the seductive ministrations of irregular armed non-state actors promising a spiritual solution to this crisis, northern youths plumped for a secular messiah.
Arguably, at bottom, the new political compact with the messiah is a barely acknowledged dialogue on the economy. With those left behind by the economy’s lacklustre performance over the last two decades demanding a seat at the table and a bigger share of the spoils therefrom. Constrained by shrivelling revenue, government has struggled the last half-a-decade to deliver on this expectation. Wags argue that by choosing instead to demonise segments of the population with a disproportionately large share of the commonwealth, the Buhari administration may have driven new wedges into the social fabric.
Which is kind of sad. Because the first duty of any Nigerian leader in our present circumstance is to bring the country’s many warring tribes together.
Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.