That Nigerian politicians are venal, and may be easily suborned, isn’t as serious a charge as it appears when, first, one encounters it. Emerging markets and developing economies are replete with news reports that often make stories of corruption here look abecedarian. Brazil’s “lava jato (car wash)” scandal, and the daily details of Odebrecht’s misdemeanours in Latin America and parts of Africa, are prime examples. Indeed, some instances of corrupt practices elsewhere would suggest that ours is but a matter of degree.
For every naira budgeted for public spend, how much kobos would it be okay for our politicians to appropriate without burdening the economy? Ideally, none. The dearth of public and social infrastructure in the country (in part, the result of so much defalcation) is such that if we were to devote all that we earned as an economy to fixing the problem, we would still be at the basic level of this task one generation from now. Still, such is the nature of domestic politics today that the key players have no qualms expropriating the state and then borrowing some more to fill private coffers.
But this isn’t the biggest burden that our polity bears. By far more troubling is a lack of clarity on what path of development we should be on. Take the conversation around agriculture, for one. Should we be pushing agriculture because we believe it has tremendous potential for earning foreign exchange? I have heard of plans for substituting palm oil exports for crude oil exports. And why should foreign exchange earnings matter so much? In order that the central bank may have enough to support a national sense of the naira’s virility?
If we have half as many people as we claim to do, and an economy as big as the numbers say, ought we not to focus on a development strategy that seeks to boost domestic economic activity by driving productivity growth across all sectors? Would we not be better off strengthening domestic demand by improving both the curriculum and instruction methods in our schools (why for instance are we not teaching coding/programming skills in our secondary schools), boosting our health care delivery systems, maintaining and investing in infrastructure, and making business conditions friendlier? The absence of debate around these key questions was, arguably one of the main failings of the Jonathan administration.
To its credit, the Obasanjo administration had a sense of these issues. And its legislative signature (the fiscal stability act, the central bank act, the due process office, etc.) did point in a certain direction. Much of the campaign rhetoric, then, that the opposition marshalled against the Jonathan administration was full of moral indignation not just because it was corrupt, but because it did not appear to have a sense of where the economy ought to be headed.
It was a bigger let to be “clueless” than to be “corrupt”.
The Buhari administration has had nearly two years to press the “reset” button on both these issues. Yet, not only has it failed to improve the efficiency of the public expenditure management framework, it has not furthered debate around the development path that the country ought to be on if it is to fast-track the process of moving the larger number of our people out of poverty in one generation. Why one generation? That’s about how long it took China, a much bigger economy to get things right.
The Buhari administration has, however, got one thing spot on. It is one of the more cynical governments to have ruled the country in a long time. This is not because it has continued to insist almost two years into government that the problems with the country are the result of the incompetence of its predecessor. Nor is it about its readiness to disavow prescriptions (such as demanding the resignation of an ailing president when it was in opposition, while insisting as a government that the health of the president is no business of the electoral) that helped it win at the ballots, once safely ensconced in office.
Neither is the charge of cynicism about the not unimportant matter of how long it took to put together an economic recovery and growth plan. At what point was the government persuaded that it needed a roadmap of this sort? Whatever became of the output from the Transition Committee comprising the great and good that worked so hard to put a roadmap together for the administration as it was coming to office? And by how much does that former document differ from this new one?
There is a case to be made that these posturing may have served only to shoehorn the incumbent administration into office. But that only reinforces the charge of cynicism. A charge that is very easily worn in a period of post-truth politicking. Yet, governments have often preferred office to credibility. However, beyond the sinister manipulation, there is a niggling worry.
How much of what looks like cynical manipulation by this government is the result of it simply not knowing what to do? Important this question is, when you consider that its economic roadmap has neither specific timelines, not a clear estimate of the financing that its specific deliverables will need.