I have spent much of my time reflecting on the optimal fix for Nigeria ruminating on a single question. “How much of the difficulties faced by the country today is the consequence of weaknesses in civil society, its institutions, and the way both of these express themselves?” The answers have not been easy (not that I have come up with that many, anyway). Partly, though, I concede that my difficulty has been conceptual.
In a sense, the notion of weak civil society institutions is not one that is readily associated with our space. If nothing else, one would argue instead that we do have some of the more boisterous civil society spaces in the developing world. Our media have not been as muzzled as have others in more authoritarian countries. They may not be as independent as their obstreperous headlines suggest ─ for what passes for the “deep state” here has decided on “co-optation” as its preferred tool for managing the media (and related centres of opposition/sources of possible reforms) rather than “confrontation”. Besides, an admirable resilience has seen parts of the media ready and able to turn samizdat in the face of the irritations of would-be dictators. Accordingly, non-governmental organisations/individuals have always found platforms from which to address, in very vigorous language, perceived failings of governance, especially in the public sector.
One problem remains unsolved from all this, though. Despite the best efforts of our civil society organisations, public debate still flounders around optimal choices. Indeed, I doubt that we are even agreed on the facts, elementary, that governance is a constraint-optimisation problem. Or that whatever choices we arrive at on the back of wanting to optimise these constraints come with costs that must be looked at against the respective benefits.
Take the current government’s bulimia for borrowing, for instance. One thing that is beyond doubt about it all is that someone will have to pay, eventually, for the debts we are racking up, today. Equally certain is that it is going to be a latter generation that will be saddled with this responsibility. Just as certain is that it will cost whichever generation that bears the responsibility for repaying these debts far more than it is costing the current government to contract them.
Should we, therefore, be interested in how our spending of the new monies that these debts create help future generations to pay back? Often, this question is posed in terms of whether we spend the new monies on the re-current or capital side of the budget. Arguably, spending on capital items should drive improvement in both domestic installed capacity, and productivity levels needed to help future governments meet the liabilities built up by today’s governments. But the “how?” that this question raises goes beyond which of the legs of the budget to support. It is as much, also, about which channels to deploy spending through. In other words, how to optimise constraints of a fiscal type.
In my take of this problem, the biggest upshot of our inability to phrase this question properly is the gut hostility to market-led solutions that are manifest daily in popular responses to possible policy choices. So, we not only think that government should continue to provide all the infrastructure the country needs, including through extensive borrowing. We are also loth to fix tariffs for publicly-provided services through recourse to cost recovery measures. And we would rather that users do not pay for any such services. Yet, not even the “nanny state” is without costs. Our notion of the state is, however, remarkable for its unwillingness to admit of these costs. So bad is it, that in those instances where non-Nigerian enterprises provide services where they expect to recover their costs, the consequence of this worldview is a buildup of xenophobic sentiments around perceived price gouging.
In this sense, for me, the biggest failure of our civil society institutions lies in the absence of serious conversation around the development options before an economy such as ours. I have often blamed my friends on the market side of the debate for being remiss in meeting this challenge. For, the truth is that what passes for the “left” side of this discourse continues to benefit from a long association, since pre-colonial times, between trade unions and the media in the battle against “anti-people polices”.
How difficult could it be to lay waste to the notion that only those policies benefit the “masses” that are provided free?
The same question is easily answered when we ask why we don’t have think-tanks on the “right” of the ideological divide, especially, if these may help sharpen the arguments around which development option is optimal for a society facing the resource constraints that we have? At one level, both this question and the panoply of possible responses that answer to it are a function of how deep the state is. Not a few of those that I have spoken to about this (i.e. persons who have the means to set up think tanks to investigate most of the questions raised in this piece) have gone ahead to remind me of how much of their current business is the beneficiary of government patronage.
Their fear in refraining from starting or taking part in debates around the major problems that afflict us, is that arguments that appear to go against the grain of an incumbent government’s thinking may simply result in such revenue streams being cut off.