The media were awash, last week, with news of the federal government’s decision to turn to “economic experts” to help it out of the cul-de-sac into which it has run the economy. While the consensus opinion was that this decision couldn’t have come too soon, in the company of some of these experts, over the weekend, the worries were of a different vintage. Arguably, there wasn’t much disagreement over how parlous the state of the economy had become. It was also not in doubt that the convenient argument of having inherited an ailing economy from its predecessor was past its best before date in light of the almost two years in which the incumbent government has been in office, and the sub-par performance it has put in in this period.
However, how much of these failings owe to the absence of a chief economic adviser role in this government? A certain perspective was sure that if the Buhari administration had, on assuming office, appointed an influential and well-respected economist into this function, then the problems with policy coordination that appear to have dogged the administration’s formulation of responses to the economy’s many ailments would have been less severe.
There was also the sense that the office of the finance minister had lost its vim after the high-octane performance of the former holder of that office, who also doubled as the coordinating minister for the economy. But there was general agreement that a dumbed-down role for the current finance minister plays to her strengths, given that her immediate past experience as finance commissioner at the sub-national level uniquely prepared her to count the beans, and try balance the books. Much of the blame, then, for the administration’s seeming lack of vision on the economic front was laid at the doorstep of the national planning ministry.
Still, looking ahead, there was much argy-bargy over which is the more important requirement if this government is to successfully reposition the economy? Reinvigorating the economic team? Getting the ministers for national planning, and finance to work closely with the central bank governor, without infringing on the constitutionally guaranteed independence of the latter for designing monetary policy?
And, in what order should these be implemented?
This latter question around the appropriate sequence for public policy implementation does suggest, though, that the problem with this administration might be less technical. As it prepared to take office, one of the first initiatives of what was to become the Buhari administration was to inaugurate a transition committee. Led by Ahmed Joda, the whole point of the committee was to ease the bedding-in of the new government. The committee reportedly submitted an 800-page report covering most aspects of our national life. A blue-print of sort, it was touted as.
But whatever became of the report and its recommendations? We may never know, for this was one committee for whose members the “omerta” must have had real and immediate meaning.
The silence around the committee’s report notwithstanding, it was clear from the word go, what the nature of the domestic problem was and, accordingly, what the solutions might be. Unsurprisingly, in the early days of the Buhari administration, there was talk of privatising state-owned enterprises (including the national oil monopoly, and its refineries) as part of a continuing process of easing the burden on the exchequer, and of slimming down government, especially through implementing much of the Oronsaye committee’s report on reform of the civil service.
While not much may have come of these initiatives, the fact of their having been discussed belie the sense that the administration may have wanted expert counsel on the economy up until now. There is a profusion of evidence that it received advice. What we do not know is what it thought of the counsel it got. But that it did not heed much of the warning on the need rapidly to move the economy on to a market-led basis, we have ample evidence. In which case, what we confront is an ideological difficulty and not a technical one.
Now, what is to be done?
Speaking to one of our many economic experts, last week, he described the challenge before the Buhari administration over what remains of its current tenure in terms of how it responds to two challenges: what it thinks of the need to strengthen the price mechanism across every sector of the economy; and to make up its mind on its attitude to foreign capital inflows into the economy.