NigeriansTalk Are we listening? Mon, 14 Aug 2017 14:23:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 18788531 Who Has Culture Helped? Mon, 14 Aug 2017 14:23:17 +0000 That we make so much of our “culture” ought, on balance, not to be a problem. Given how little we’ve been able to collectively push the needle in other fields of human endeavour, it could be argued that this obsession with the quotidian rites and rituals that “define whom we are” is, indeed, therapeutic. The resulting sense of difference (and superiority over the “culturally illiterate”) that an obstreperous defence of our cultural practices confers on the cognoscenti must count for something. But for the slight inconvenience that these cultural practices also hurt.

Just the other day, a colleague’s wife lost her mother. Almost invariably, the quality of conversation with him went south from that day. As the internment day neared, he descended further into a funk so blue, words bounced off it. Igbos clearly place a huge premium on a male in-law’s duty. In the name of obligations imposed by his “culture”, my colleague then sought loans to give his mother-in-law a befitting burial; loans he’d not taken to send his kids to “befitting” schools.

At bottom, what passes for “cultural practices” here is simply confirmation of Thorstein Veblen’s arguments against the basis for “conspicuous consumption”: with marginal social classes spending themselves out of pocket just to keep up with the lifestyle of the “idle rich”. If beggared neighbours were the main outcome of this practices, it would have been okay. However, in more important ways, our cultural practices are a shorthand for much of the problems that beset us as an economy; in particular, the seeming lack of logic to much of what we do.

Take the insistence by the Ibibio that upon the death of a parent-in-law, sons-in-law must kill a cow. Until recent advances in the study of animal trypanosomiasis, the tsetse fly belt, which covers much of the parts of Nigeria from Auchi down to the Niger Delta, meant that the zebu (our cattle of choice) was not native to the Ibibio. A pacific beast, it’s unlikely to have forced its way onto their kitchen any other way. Apparently, there were cows of a different make up down south. Reportedly these were shorter and stockier — who knows, but that these were mutations which made them handle the tsetse fly scourge much better. Today, sadly, this fauna is all but extinct. And if they were not, being of a much slighter configuration, they would not have commanded the same cachet as would the sight of 10 magnificent zebus tethered in the compound of a recently deceased Nigerian.

How in the face of evidence so graphic a part of the country may continue to contend that the mass slaughter of zebus as part of the obsequies associated with the passing of certain categories of persons is a cultural practice, is mind-gobbling. But not more so than the twisted logic which emerges when you try persuading a younger Yoruba to call one older than him by his first name. an exegesis on how Yoruba culture is built on respect for elders and authority, and how this has been material in the advancement of the people then follows. As does the stammering and stuttering when you remind the same person that it was once de rigueur for younger Yoruba males to crawl on their stomachs, lizard-like, in deference to both age and authority.

How was the decision arrived at to hold on diligently to the one practice, while dumping the other, few have ever reflected upon. The Edo’s treatment of widows immediately after the death of their husbands is so obviously beyond the pale as not to deserve any comment. Across the debate about culture locally, a fatalistic thread runs through much of the argument in favour of retention of practices which once may have had uses, but are today both unsightly and non-functional. Because the same thoughtless conservatism runs through just about every other aspect of our lives, it is easy to see how we were bound to end up trapped in the many cul-de-sacs (political, economic, cultural, etc.) that now define us.

I have heard told that this failure is one associated with cultures that arose from agrarian social organisation. Industrialisation and the large premium it places on enumeration and rational thought was supposed to have cured much of these foibles. At which point the conversation runs into a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Our industrialisation efforts have been held back by pre-industrial mindsets across the country. Yet without rapid industrialisation we may not be rid of these mindsets soon.

How to square this cycle?

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A Few Things I Learnt From Cyril Odu – Feyi Fawehinmi Fri, 11 Aug 2017 11:46:44 +0000

During my recent trip to Lagos, I had the good fortune of having a meeting with Cyril Odu — current CEO of African Capital Alliance, Chairman of Union Bank Nigeria and all of that after 4 decades with Exxon Mobil Nigeria.

To say the man is a fount of knowledge about Nigeria will be to state the blindingly obvious — he easily pulls out dates from 1972 and 1977 like it happened only yesterday. I’m hoping that someday soon, I’ll be able to do a full and formal interview with him.

Bio of Cyril Odu taken from the African Capital Alliance website.

I’ve paraphrased some of his words.

How we got to the current structure of the Nigerian oil industry

During the early 1970s the primary goal of OPEC members was to secure complete sovereignty over their petroleum resources. Accordingly, several OPEC members nationalized their oil reserves and altered their contracts with major oil companies. In Saudi Arabia, they simply took over the top of the industry and left their American and foreign technical partners to continue running things as before. This partly explains why ARAMCO is one of the better run oil companies today. At the other extreme, the Libyans kicked out the oil majors and took over everything themselves. Indonesia opted for production sharing contracts with the oil majors.

Nigeria settled somewhere in the middle of these approaches with the Joint Venture Participating Model with the majors. Nigeria joined OPEC in 1971 and subsequently created Nigerian National Oil Company (NNOC), the precursor of NNPC which was created in 1977. Starting in 1973 Nigeria acquired 35% equity participating interest in the oil majors operated assets and gradually increased the equity stake to 60% by 1979. Note that the oil companies had already invested significant sums of money into exploration and production prior to government acquiring a participatory interest in their assets.

When you think about it, this was the beginning of the structure of the industry we have today with all the challenges, including government not able to meet its share of the funding requirement in a sector that can be self-financing, can be traced back to the method by which Nigeria nationalized its oil industry 40 years ago.

What was that time like?

I joined Mobil in July 1972 just as NNOC came on the scene. It was a time of great national pride — many people felt that Nigeria was on the cusp of something big and so a lot of young, bright people left the foreign oil companies to join the newly formed national oil company. Recruitment was easy for them as it was fueled by national pride.

Why didn’t I join the wave and move to the NNPC? I had just started on my career in Mobil and chose to stay because Mobil had shown they were willing to invest in me and my career. I had a career plan mapped out in front of me which involved working in different parts of the business, working in other countries UK, USA acquiring an MBA while on a work assignment abroad.

It paid off because I was able to have a long and very rewarding career with Exxon Mobil before retiring in 2012.

Is it that you can’t retire or you don’t want to retire?

After I left Mobil, Okey (Enelamah) and Dick (Kramer) asked me to come on board here (ACA) as some sort of consultant in the energy and finance services sector for the private equity firm in 2012. It sounded like a fun new thing to do so I thought why not?

Everything was going as planned until late 2015. Udoma Udo Udoma was nominated as a Minister which meant he had to resign as Chairman of Union Bank. ACA is an investor in Union Bank so I had been the firm’s representative on the bank’s board as a non-executive director. The bank needed a new Chairman and it fell on me to take the position. As if that wasn’t enough, Okey also got nominated as a Minister and had to resign as CEO. It then fell on me to take over the running of the firm.

So quite literally overnight, my workload here doubled. I thought I was coming here to do a relatively easy job as an adviser/consultant.…

It was a long and fun conversation and not even a tenth of it is captured here. But I thought it would be worthwhile to share these bits with his very kind permission.


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Of Potemkin Villages and Market Economies Mon, 07 Aug 2017 08:45:35 +0000 At the height of the cold war, two powerful armies eyeballed each other across the world’s main conflict theatres. Each bristled with enough munitions to destroy the world several times over. MAD, as a description of the stasis (mutually assured destruction) that developed on the back of this relationship did not quite do the situation enough justice. But as with most easily told stories, beneath the NATO-Warsaw Pact face-off ran a much more nuanced undercurrent.

At this level, the battle was, at the risk of being simpler still, one between liberal democracy based on market economies, and a collectivist approach to organising societies. The United States of America was the standard bearer of the former perspective, while the Soviet Union led the latter. The Chinese, though, were bit players for much of the 70 years from the Great October Revolution in 1917 to the eventual collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. However, despite the ruse of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Chinese largely played their part of the game on the Soviet side of the divide.

Forward back to 1979. Deng Xiaoping, Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, persuaded that it doesn’t matter what colour a cat is so long as it is a good mouser, launched “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. Opening Mao’s hide-bound economy to both domestic entrepreneurs and foreign investment, Comrade Deng launched policy after policy that helped China move more people out of poverty in a far shorter period than has been achieved in modern times. Today, China is the second biggest economy in the world by any measure, and continues to threaten an eventual overhaul of the leader — the United States of America.

Russia, the rump of the former Soviet Union, on the other hand, may still be the U.S.’s only rival in terms of the number of ICBMs it can weaponise and deploy, but it is increasingly an economic tiddler. At US1.268tn, its annual output (2016 estimates) is much smaller than Brazil’s, Canada’s and India’s. Put simply, despite having been at the head of one of the most powerful military blocs in the run up to the 21st century, Russia is today basically a souped-up emerging market.

How come this change of fortunes?

Simple. While the Chinese embraced the market, foreign investment, new technologies, and foreign management styles, the Russians interpreted the loss of the cold war to their failed attempt at an earlier opening of their economy — Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost — and sought instead an atavistic response. In Vladimir Putin, they found this response. A czar, able to allocate resources to his court, and projecting yesterday’s notion of power, the new monarchy in Russia continues to build its new space on Grigory Potemkin’s design for Empress Catherine II.

In this much narrow sense, both China and Russia are a cautionary fable for countries like ours still foraging for efficient paths out of underdevelopment. There are clearly few options more appropriate for the efficient allocation of scarce resources than the market. The opposite of this argument is that no matter how benign or wise a ruler is s/he is not always likely to succeed in choosing the best path for his/her society all the time. Unfortunately, whereas a market correction is often possible through adjusting relative prices, correcting for an errant autocrat is often a more expensive procedure.

That the market is impersonal enough to have many people drop off it is not in doubt. Nor is the point to be argued against that the market is often indifferent to the hardships that those who fall off its radar often suffer. Part of the shock of the resurgence in protectionist tendencies in the West is the result of the strength with which these latter points are made. But then, as the debate over healthcare reforms in the U.S. illustrate, the challenge of the sovereign in a market economy is not so much to impede the full functioning of the price mechanism. Instead, it is to build a safety net that gives all as occasionally fall victim of market forces a fighting chance.

In this sense, mankind could be said to have made giant leaps. For we tend to forget that poverty is a relative term. Compared with today’s affluent, much of mankind may be poorer. But against yesterday’s upper classes, a few of today’s poor are relatively well off. Our task as managers of economic spaces may, thus not be simply to close the gap between the rich and the poor. It might simply be enough to ensure that each generation of the poor can live much better than the preceding one.

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If Agriculture Is To Supplant Crude Oil As The Economy’s Engine Mon, 31 Jul 2017 06:53:39 +0000 Arguably more interesting than the current state of the Nigerian economy are the conversations that have arisen on the back of its vicissitudes. One such especially insightful argument is the one that puts out agriculture as the solution to the economy’s current dependence on oil export earnings for much of its financing. By the way, this platform is also a natural extension of the “diversification as solution to the economy’s sundry vulnerabilities argument”. In one incarnation of this argument, the point is made (and without irony at that) that palm oil could be the new crude, if only the federal government was minded to pay heed to the sector’s needs.

To the point that by promoting agriculture, this way, we may simply be substituting an old dependence for a new one, supporters of this position indicate how much of domestic employment agriculture currently accounts for — about two-thirds! Thus, the argument continues, any investment in the agriculture sector that is able to drive up both capacity and productivity should result in net welfare gains across the economy. It should, in addition, strengthen domestic terms of trade in favour of our rural communities.

How much does it matters to this perspective that commodities’ prices move in lock-step? Accordingly, whether it is oil (palm or of the extractive variety), cocoa, or sesame seeds, exporters of primary produce are never going to sell more than there is a global appetite for their respective commodities. True, the pro-agriculture argument readily concedes. But isn’t the whole point of the planned reforms to the sector about boosting rural infrastructure (better inputs and roads to farm gates, better post-harvest processing, better storage, etc.)? Post-agriculture reform, therefore, considerable domestic “value addition” should help break the domestic industry’s link to the commodity cycle.

All well up to this point. Indeed, the latter focus on domestic economic linkages is essential if we are to break away from the current fixation with managing the naira’s external price (especially at some expense to its internal one). The case for agriculture along these lines starts to break down, however, when you consider that the sector uses up so much labour only because its management, techniques, and tools are antediluvian — rain-fed, subsistence (hoe-and-cutlass, etc.). If you consider that in those places where agriculture plays important roles (food-sufficient, and provider of key input into the domestic value chains) in the economy, a very small number of the population is engaged in the sector, then we clearly confront a different task order in any planned reforms to the sector.

Mechanisation on a very large scale, use of improved crop varieties, and advanced soil management techniques (all of which are essential to improving both capacity and efficiency in the sector), would all require changes to the way the economy as a whole is structured. At the very least, mechanics must be educated to levels where they can keep tractors (combine harvesters?) running optimally across the country. Local research institutes must be able to improve seedlings for local use, across the broad range of domestic farm produce. And agriculture extension facilities must be up to scratch.

But by far the bigger change must be to rural-urban terms of trade. If the goal of a more efficient agriculture sector would result in 3% of the working age population producing all of the sector’s output post-reforms, then we would have to deal with the challenge of finding useful employment for close to 67% of our current workforce. Now, this is a lot of hands to be left idle. And as both Boko Haram, the restiveness in the Niger Delta region, and a resurgence of separatists’ sentiments in the Southeast show, if the economy is loth to find gainful employment for any number of our youth, a less benevolent employer would lend them a helping hand.

If it is to be of any use, much of the new employment should open in urban areas. It thus matters that the current bias against “rural-urban migration” amongst our policy wonks must be addressed for the harmful fiction that it represents. Beyond that, though, urban industry and services will have to endure reforms as thorough-going as in the agriculture sector, if they are to soak up the excess labour released from the newly-reformed rural areas. In a roundabout way, then, we do not just return to the now familiar refrain that government must bring down business costs across the economy if it is to see significant appreciation in output growth. We are also invited to re-emphasise the relative importance of social investment in leveraging any such reforms.

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Why? (Yam and Wood) – Feyi Fawehinmi Wed, 26 Jul 2017 06:22:09 +0000 A couple of days ago, The Guardian Nigeria committed a serious act of journalism with an excellent multimedia story on the wood industry and market in Lagos. If you haven’t read it yet, leave what you’re doing and read it here now.

It’s an example of what is not being done by the Nigerian media — bringing stories to life in a way that educates the reading public. Well done to Yemisi Adegoke who wrote the story and Yinka Obebe who took the photos.

But I want to talk about a part of the story that I found incredibly disturbing. I will quote the relevant parts at length:

But in the midst of the rags-to-riches stories lies something more troubling — the growing number of issues that threaten the very survival of the business. The rise of the cost of business is squeezing profit margins at all levels, with the sawyers who invest the money to finance the operations especially feeling the pinch.

‘’Economically, things are not the same in Nigeria again,’’ says Goodluck Pemi. “Everybody is complaining about one thing or another and the cost of the business is higher. Even feeding is expensive and wood workers can finish a bag of garri in a week because we eat a lot of eba.”

Bad roads, poor infrastructure and little governmental support also don’t create the best environment for the market to continue growing, as well as outdated machines.


But perhaps the biggest concern lies with the wood origins. ‘’Somewhere near Ijebu-ode, around ’81, 82, 83, when I had the opportunity to be there, you would see seeders planted by the Europeans. But today, that place has been destroyed completely,’’ Akolo shares.

Deforestation in Nigeria is a serious problem with the UN reporting that Nigeria is one of the top ten countries in the world with the highest rates of deforestation. As a nation, Nigeria relies heavily on wood, particularly for energy, but loses about 350,000 to 400,000 hectares of land a year, to deforestation. Further rapid deforestation could prove devastating. “Government says ‘to cut one tree, you plant three’ but we don’t do that. We only cut and we don’t plant. Our forests are going.” While Akolo worries, Pemi says, “You can’t go out of it (leave the job). It is better to stick to it and manage what you have in your hand than staying idle.” But for how much longer will this business survive?

Last month, America’s NPR did a story on Nigerian yam farming and the various challenges with it. Here’s the part I want to talk about [emphasis mine]:

But in the past few years, Nigeria’s yam yield has dropped to its lowest level in two decades, according to the United Nations, even though the area of land under cultivation is rapidly rising.

“For a large number of farmers, seed yam is a big problem,” said Robert Aseidu, West Africa research director for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), a nonprofit research organization based in Nigeria. “It’s only now that we’re seeing how big a problem this could become.”

The trouble stems from the way yam is grown by Nigeria’s small farmers. New tubers grow directly from planted pieces of old ones, rather than from seed. Traditionally, farmers will set aside the more measly yams from each harvest to use as seed yams for the next season, and take the bigger ones away to eat or sell. Having a big enough harvest to be able to keep your own seed yams is a mark of a farmer’s competence; buying them at the market is considered bad luck.

At the same time, yams are clonal, meaning that each tuber is genetically identical to its “parent.” So farmers are essentially planting the same yam over and over again, with none of the routine genetic mutation that typically occurs between generations to help ward off pests and diseases. And because farmers tend to set aside the worst yams as parents, they’re unintentionally practicing a kind of anti-Darwinian “survival of the scrawniest.”

“When you have this recycling over so many years, then they keep accumulating pests and diseases, and then productivity keeps reducing until you get to a stage where it’s no [longer] economical to plant anything,” says Beatrice Aighewi, a yam specialist at IITA.

What is going on here? There is no other way to describe this other than a purely destructive culture. In that same article about wood business, the traders talk about how they buy jeeps and build houses from the proceeds of the business. The wood ‘venture capitalists’ spend at least N3m on each expedition. The business is profitable. So why can they not secure their own future by reinvesting just a small part of their proceeds in planting trees to ensure, if not them, their kids have something to make money off in future?

Ticket to Mecca — One way

In the article about yams, the farmers talk about making money from a good harvest and then using the proceeds to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. So why on earth are they replanting the worst of their yams? In both cases, their businesses are literally dying before their very eyes and they are seemingly incapable of breaking out of a clearly destructive pattern?


The oyinbo man planted trees many decades ago. You know he planted them. You are cutting them down. You know the oyinbo man has left. The trees you are cutting down are providing you with enough money to buy a jeep. Do you not want more jeeps? Or do you not want something for your children to cut down? Yet you cut them down without replacing them and then spend the money killing yourself with enjoyment?


As I wrote in my last piece in The Guardian, we urgently need social scientists in policy making in Nigeria. It is impossible for a country to make much progress under these conditions. Are we going to sit around waiting for the EU to throw some money at tree planting to replace the forests that we have turned to jeeps? Tree planting is surely not that hard — I see them planting them every time here. You stick them in the ground and allow nature do the rest.

A lot of the problems afflicting Nigeria today are in the head. Yes, Nigerian leadership has been and is currently hopeless. But there is a problem here that can only be fixed by getting inside the heads of Nigerians and zapping these destructive neurons.


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Re-purposing The Discussion Around The National Debt Mon, 24 Jul 2017 09:38:42 +0000 Two weeks ago, the federal finance minister was reported to have argued against further borrowing by her government. Speaking at a business forum in Abuja, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun apparently said that “We cannot borrow any more, we just have to generate funds domestically enough to fund our budget and mobilise revenue to fund the necessary budget increase”, or some words to this effect. At about the same time, in a section titled “Deteriorating public finances in Sub-Saharan Africa”, the World Bank (“Global Economic Prospects – A Fragile Recovery – June 2017), described the region’s “interest-to-revenue ratio” as “sustainable, helped by the high share of concessional borrowing”. Nigeria, however, was a notable outlier, with the “federal government’s interest-to-revenue ratio (rising) from 33 percent in 2015 to 59 percent in 2016”.

Thus, almost overnight, the domestic discussion around the Buhari administration’s burgeoning appetite for borrowing has moved to the fore and centre of national concerns. Interestingly, in making this transition from a staple of “experts’” rumination to the top of the chatter across speakeasies’ and shebeens’, this theme looks to have dropped a familiar denominator: the size of the economy. Some have even argued that it is the absence of this denominator from popular discussions of the economy’s domestic debt burden that has made the latter topical. In essence, our large (and growing) public debt no longer looks manageable without the now familiar reference to the (large and compensating) size of the economy.

There is a pachyderm in the room, all right. Unsure, at this point, whether it is a hippopotamus, rhinoceros, or an elephant, there is no doubt that it is large and its eventual effect potentially ruinous. True, we are back to that point, 12 years ago, when similar worries over the sustainability of the country’s external debt burden persuaded the Obasanjo administration to negotiate a Policy Support Instrument with the Paris Club of creditor nations that included “debt cancellation estimated at US$18 billion (including moratorium interest) representing an overall cancellation of about 60% of its debt to the Paris Club of around US$30 billion”.

We are also at the point, 10 years ago, where the threat of “fiscal dominance” was a sufficient worry to persuade government to strengthen the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) by granting it both goal and tool independence. Fiscal dominance arises when poor fiscal policy leads to a huge debt burden (as in our present circumstance), and when worries over the cost of servicing the domestic portion of this debt is big enough to prevent the monetary authority from raising interest rates to deal with exchange rate pressures (again, as is currently the case with the CBN’s rate-setting mechanism).

Within this context, ought we to worry that estimates of central bank lending to the federal government over the last 2 years is circa N7tn? Does it matter that the Central Bank of Nigeria may have become the single biggest holder of sovereign domestic debt instruments? And how? Besides, with arguments at the beginning of the year that by the second quarter, domestic price increases should soften (as the base effect from structural price increases in the first quarter of 2016 wore off) proving heroic, should we worry that sticky domestic prices are now simply the consequence of too much money chasing after far fewer goods?

Onerous, though, all of these burdens may be, they pale in comparison with the picture that emerges when we bother to confront the fact that all that we have borrowed in the last 24 months have not been used to boost the economy’s productivity, nor increase its production capacity. Instead, as I recently argued, under the last two federal administrations, the economy’s supply curve has slipped leftward inexorably and very sharply. We are then confronted with the prospects, over a medium-term that will soon be on us, of paying down both principal and coupon on this borrowing binge off a near comatose economy.

Would it matter that by the time we start re-paying these debts global interest rates may have resumed their northwards movement? Maybe not for “concessional borrowing”. Still, a less accommodative global monetary policy space will take its toll on this economy in months to come.

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Moving The Economy’s Supply Curve Rightwards Mon, 17 Jul 2017 08:28:57 +0000 There is scant doubt that in the two years that it has been in office, the Buhari administration has struggled to make sense of its mandate. Well, that’s putting the problem mildly. By failing to stop rising unemployment and falling domestic output, it is fair to describe the government as having dropped the main balls in its mandate. Against the backdrop of rising domestic debt, one can only charge it further with building up huge vulnerabilities for tomorrow’s managers of the economy, without putting much in place with which the future may deal with these additional problems.

And basic problems there are aplenty. Even with the best policy mix in place, the loss of domestic capacity to the 2016 recession will require the expenditure of considerable resources to recover from. Failure to support investment in physical infrastructure will mean rising domestic costs into the medium-term; at a time when all efforts should be focused on improving domestic competitiveness. Far costlier, in the long-run, would be the toll that abysmal healthcare and education systems would take on labour productivity. This would be felt both in the inability of successive generations to hold unit labour costs down, and the difficulty the economy would experience making the transition through to digitisation. Of course, the way in which these economic challenges will be lent social expressions will be no less crucial. And it is fair to argue that the process of sublimation is unlikely to be pleasant. Nor the outcome positive for our social fabric.

How did we reach this pass? There are as many answers to this question as there are Nigerians with an opinion. Usefully, just about every Nigerian you talk to on this question has a sense of what has to be done to shift the country’s supply curve to the right — for that is what we must do, if we are to fix the myriad woes of this economy. Build better roads. Improve the railway network, so more communities are covered, and the trains run at a faster clip. Improve electricity supply across the country. Improve policing and the speed and fairness with which the courts deal with litigations. Improve school curriculums, and the number of years the average Nigerian spends in education and training. Improve healthcare delivery, with focus on tertiary and primary healthcare.

This list could go on. But the basic point in this reform portmanteau is to push domestic cost of doing business down, so that more goods and services can be produced at lower prices.

Unfortunately, a dearth of data on the economy makes this challenge that much worse. What are the school age populations — primary, secondary, and tertiary? What’s the gender distribution of these populations? What is the labour dependency ratio, i.e. how many elderly persons out of work does each worker support? What is the average family size? And how much must each such family earn to be categorised as “poor”, “middle class” or “rich”? How are these numbers distributed across our sub-national spaces? And what is the population balance in these buckets across “urban” and “rural” communities?

In the absence of clear answers to these and related questions, the policy formulation process will be a chancy affair. Ultimately, bridges and roads will be built to nowhere, at great expense to the exchequer. Schools will be built in communities where rural-urban migratory practices have denudated the school age population. Etc.

While the data challenge may be important, the process of getting past it is far from onerous. A slew of technological innovations has made it a lot easier to aggregate the required numbers. Our problem is the quality of our response functions. Take national identity management, for example. We have been at this task for decades. India, on the other hand, has built the infrastructure around its 12-digit unique-identity number (Aadhaar) over the last 8 years.

Yet for us, thankfully, for any government that is minded to apply itself seriously to these and allied matters, there are walk-arounds. From the banks, through the telecommunications companies, to the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC), biometric and demographic data for just about every 18-year old Nigerian is available in some database somewhere in the country.

Privacy and data protection concerns, notwithstanding, I do believe that the algorithms to make these diverse databases interoperable cannot be that difficult to write. Who should pay for connecting the data spots and ensuring that they are searchable? Government, of course. Imagine how much police work could be improved, for instance, if an intelligent police system with the necessary forensic competence had access to the database of fingerprints for Nigerians 18-years old and above? The ability to match persons to crime locations will obviate the current need for punitive information-extraction procedures.

Across the economy, ripe, low-hanging fruits like these abound. Our task is to find a government that can spot them, and knows what to do with them. In a sense, this may be the only question that the electorate may have to answer in 2019!

Saturday’s Flood In Lagos And What We Ought To Do Mon, 10 Jul 2017 06:36:59 +0000 Aside from the long lines of backed-up traffic it drew across the Ikoyi and Lekki corridors, Saturday’s flood in Lagos also drew attention to several problems with the state.

How much of the unusually heavy precipitation in the week to the flooding was the result of a warming world? Now, this matters a lot if we are to agree the design of policy responses to the threat of future flooding — that is, other than continue with the far easier expedient of issuing flood warnings. In parts (Ikeja and areas north of it) Lagos is estimated to comprise locations about 2 metres above sea level. Amuwo-Odofin, Apapa, Badagry, Epe, Eti-Osa, Ibeju-Lekki, Ikorodu, Kosofe, Lagos Island, and Ojo, on the other hand, are “at or below sea level”. Over the next 100 years, if the world continues to warm at today’s rates, sea levels are expected to rise by more than two metres. In other words, all of Lagos will be submerged by 2100. Before then, however, a one metre rise over the next five decades might have put paid to lower lying regions.

Inevitably, much of the conversation around the flooding over the weekend focussed on how to mitigate the problem. Just about everywhere, litter and blocked drains took centre stage. On this reckoning, poor hygiene is complicit in worsening the conditions that make flooding inevitable. More sewerage. Less clutter. And presto, the floods should abate. However, a trip to the Marina in pelting rain raises questions around how superficial a response to the flood problem this focus on drains might be.

Just after the World Bank-assisted rehabilitation of the inner Marina and its adjoining roads, nothing intrigued me more than to stand by the manholes and watch water well up out of them unto the roads as the rain fell. Obviously, the lagoon was trying to pass on some of its additional burden unto the Marina. This danger of a back-wash is one reason why drainage in low-lying regions may not empty into lagoons or large bodies of water on the same level with the land.

Thus, beyond curbing litter and blocked drains, a larger challenge to Lagos’ low-lying status and the threats posed by flooding as a result should have us look at the management of our wetlands. These are bogs largely, with brackish water, and elsewhere, support a wide range of plant and wildlife. In parts of the world they have been protected as sanctuaries for migratory birds. In Asia, as nesting places for the endangered Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin. Wetlands are also very important for flood control. By absorbing additional flows of water they help smoothen the effects of severe precipitation.

Unfortunately, once successive governments in Lagos State persuaded themselves that “land” is the state’s own “crude oil”, they have approached its management with the same reckless abandon that Nigeria has the exploration and production of crude oil. Wetlands are not to be studied to understand what flora and fauna these unique ecosystems support, how they interact with adjoining communities, and what role they play in managing water flows across the state. No! they are to be reclaimed. And built up. In the understanding that wealth will flow to both government and some people from this activity. The wetlands around Oworonshoki are currently the latest victim of this pathology.

We may not care what happens to the plant and animal species that we thus displace by the reclamations. But we should worry what happens to the bodies of water that it displaces. And to the flow that would ordinarily have headed to such places when the rains fall too heavily.

Should we worry, too, about our building habits? The tendency in the state is to pave over the land once livable structures have been constructed, ensuring that when it rains, rather than some of it seeping into the soil where the rain fell, the larger portion of it heads for non-available sewers. Because the central business district around the Marina is some of the most paved-up space in Lagos, and because it kind of slopes towards the lagoon, this problem with run-offs is spectacular there.

Could we compel property developers and landlords to keep portions of their land devoted to gardens? So that not all rains that fall in Lagos go in search of drainages? It is possible. But much more detailed studies of the problem have got to be conducted.

It is not enough for us to argue, as a few fringe voices did last Saturday, that even Japan suffers from severe flooding. The old Dutch saw, “While God created the Earth, the Dutch created the Netherlands” makes sense only when we realise how the Netherlands has used an elaborate system of dikes and polders to make their low-lying country less flood prone.

‘Funmi’s Death And Our Sense Of Shame Mon, 03 Jul 2017 08:19:09 +0000 “Won fe so mi di a lai m’ose; b’eni pe ki nse ilu yi ni won be wa si. Sugbon, ilu yi ni oju ma ti.” ‘Funmi Adewunmi was wont to run you through this sentiment as soon as you were sufficiently acquainted. I’d come to know him in the 1990s years when he taught at the Michael Imoudu Institute for Labour Studies in Ilorin.

And his argument was simple. A huge divide (in terms of wherewithal and social standing) had opened between those of our compatriots concerned to make Nigeria work properly, and those who didn’t care a jot about how the country turned out. The former was likelier to do proper things properly. To insist on transparent and inclusive governance processes; and accordingly went home with no more or less than they were properly entitled to. The latter lived at society’s deals’ edge; and having learnt to, were comfortable cutting all corners. It was therefore nearly always handsomely rewarded.

‘Funmi’s plaint, for a complaint it was, was that our society’s new ordering of its values was increasingly such that the former group of compatriots (with him at the vanguard) were increasingly made to look like incompetents. Like folk, indeed, who had but strayed into this space. He was assured, though, that ultimately, given the propriety of positions like his, society was always going to be put to shame by its poor choice.

Despite his secular, if not atheist outlook then, ‘Funmi’s perspective on the condition of the Nigerian state had a religious bent to it. Whether it was to love one’s God with all one’s might; or to love one’s neighbour as oneself, the promise of most scriptures is of a rewarding hereafter. If therefore, if our society did not requite one’s commitment to its being properly run, then our kingdom was not of this earth. Within these narrow conceptual confines, it was not just that it’s good to do good. It’s simply the natural thing to do. Still, even within this spiritual narrative, there was space for one request: “Here now, O God, give us a foretaste of our heavenly reward!”

In ‘Funmi’s presence, the conversations ranged wide and went as deep and as elevated as possible. And it didn’t matter whether it was the sheer danceability of Kollington Ayinla’s music or exploring the philosophical boundaries of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s “Beast of no Nation” — you couldn’t but be bowled over by his thinking. Yet, his short take on how responsibility for the sorry state of the country was going to be accounted for, stuck. It was such a convenient stop-off point each time concern over the poor management of this country ranged deep and wide, and ran the risk of getting lost. I had no doubt that no one was going to declare me incompetent. Rather, Nigeria and the way it is currently organised would be put to shame.

That was before ‘Doyin Salami called me three months ago. He began the conversation by reminding me of ‘Funmi’s aphorism; then went on to ask: “In the event that Nigeria has no sense of shame, is there any chance that we would ultimately be the ones to eat humble pie?” Or something to this general effect.

It took a while to make sense of this poser. But apparently, he’d just lost a friend. Another intellectual, committed to the idea of building as good a country here as is obtainable anywhere in the world. This friend had died of cancer — as usual, misdiagnosed until it had metastasised beyond the competence of our local caregivers. And then, it took an eternity to raise the money needed to “fly him out”!

That he eventually died, was a given no less quotidian than that his family was now going to be at some risk of a diminution in welfare status because of his death. He’d worked hard, very hard. And he’d done and insisted on everyone around him doing things properly. In the end, he died because he didn’t have the means to travel for invasive surgery abroad. His children were going to become recipients of charity because he had not salted enough aside to guarantee them his post-mortem comfort.

In the ensuing conversation, it mattered a lot what the domestic balance of shame is like. A society with a consciousness of guilt was always going to give respite to the wise and the prudent. While one incapable of censuring or reproaching itself was likelier to succour dealers and jobbers. It would have been nice to have had ‘Funmi weigh in on this conversation. Especially, whether, how much, and how those who are about to be shamed by the Nigerian state could repurpose the dialogue in the light of this new understanding of their interest. Ololade Bamidele, another friend, conversation with whom was an essential part of this piece, puts this added dilemma more pithily. “When the state fails and seems incapable of ever doing better, how should its people weave safety nets that would prevent them from victimhood as an ontology?”

Sadly, Professor Funminiyi Adewunmi died on June 13th, 2017.

Does It Matter If We Are All In One Party? Mon, 26 Jun 2017 07:43:48 +0000 Emmanuel Macron’s (France’s freshly-minted president) political ascent has been nothing, if not phenomenal. The many firsts now make for pleasant reading; and invariably have provided space for debate around their different meanings and significance — for French politics, and for politicians everywhere.

Granted that there will always be difficulties grafting experiences such as this on to other political environments, nonetheless, I have been intrigued, by the conversation around how the opposition in France will respond to Mr. Macron’s policies over the life of the current parliament. When the French parliament opens tomorrow, the centre-right Republicans (with 136 deputies to Mr. Macron’s La République en Marche!’s — LRM — 308) will play opposition.

Volumes would still be written about how France’s main 5th Republic parties (the Republicans and the centre-left Socialists) came a cropper in these elections. But of far more interest would be how France’s political ancient regime responds to LRM’s positioning at the centre of French politics. Mr. Macron, persuaded that much of the paralysis undergirding France’s sub-par economic performance thus far is the consequence of entrenched partisanship, has clothed his party in just about every political idea — irrespective of partisan provenance — that might be helpful in shifting the economy’s supply curve to the right.

Inevitably, both parties of the right and left will find themselves having to decide how to respond to the LRM’s implementation of ideas that they once held dear. Already, a contingent of 40 Republican parliamentarians have plighted their troth to providing “constructive” assistance to Mr. Macron’s party. Whether Emmanuel Macron can increase domestic economic productivity in France or not, it would be important that the French people were invited to weigh-in on the ideas that their country will be run by over the next few years.

Important, this, in a much narrower context. The tribalism which Mr. Macron abhors; the same narrow-minded partisanship that today has American politics so divided, is the one ingredient that appears to be missing in our space. When key politicians move from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to the All People’s Congress (APC) and back again, the way Danfo drivers switch lanes on the 3rd Mainland Bridge, it is obvious how bereft of ideas the domestic space is.

On the size of government, for example, how do our main political parties differ? How desirable is national ownership of the means of production? Is it the case that we concede such ownership only where natural monopolies are concerned? And for those who believe the private sector is a better driver of growth, how much of their resource conversion efficiency is a part of the argument, and how much of the remaining case results from their being less susceptible to corruption in a competitive market? Right-of-centre, is there clarity on what we would have to do to improve the public sector’s regulatory competencies, giving that transparent and competent governance in the public sector are as important to dealing with corrupt practices in the public sector as they are for addressing market-fixing practices in the private sector?

The chatter over the weekend around a “Price Control Bill” (allegedly sponsored by Senator Dino Melaye), brought much of the dilemma around domestic policy objectives home to me. Apparently, the bill seeks to “provide a legal framework to require the minister responsible for finance through the Utility Charges Commission to fix the maximum retail and wholesale prices for the essential goods – maize flour, wheat, wheat flour, rice, cooking oil, sugar, diesel, petrol”.

The incestuous nature of social media (followed by and following like-minded folk) meant that the consensus on my timeline around the price control bill was derisory. I guess the senator’s awful reputation did not quite help either. But in search of a sense of the preferences of our political class, it helps to remember that barely 2 weeks ago, the government of Akwa Ibom ordered shopkeepers to bring down the cost of food items in the markets across the state. Otherwise, the government promised to “dissolve the leadership of any union that does not comply with the order within 31 days”.

Arguably, then, it might be wrong to argue that the fluid nature of our politics speaks to the absence of ideas. Instead, it would seem that we are agreed on one such idea: there is nothing like the “market”, nor of the forces of demand and supply. Rather, as the panjandrums of domestic monetary policy have argued, when prices are misaligned we ought to look to the activities of saboteurs and the like. Conversely, we might not be averse to private property. We are only concerned that access to this must be through the instrument of the state.

Alas, therefore, the challenge of domestic economic management is not to “move the nation’s supply curve to the right”, as an economist friend of mine is now minded to demand, but to make conditions in the market less conducive for saboteurs. Thus, ultimately, it really doesn’t matter what party we are all in.