Fixing the Economy: Less Politics, More Substance, by Prof. Akin Onigbinde

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Text of a keynote Address at the 2nd Annual Lecture of Freedom Online held on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at Alvan Ikoku Hall, Radisson Blu, Isaac John Street, GRA, Ikeja, Lagos.

It gives me great privilege to give the keynote address at this important gathering. It is a good opportunity to gather with people of ideas to engage, as we ought to continuously do, issues bordering on the state of our nation at this significant point in time, when the social fabric of our country floundered, albeit, without a guiding compass. Hopefully, we shall survive this seeming uncertainty, and this is not talking ‘politics’.

I consider the title of the address interesting, coming after the last general elections, where all manner of scenarios played out. Across party lines, we saw the abandonment of governance for politics, as Government secretariats became campaign grounds. The election mood, which takes over our polity at least a full year ahead of the ballots, got to its feverish peak. As usual, when this happens, governance suffers. And because of the peculiar nature of our economy, whatever affects governance has a greater impact on the economy and other sectors of the polity than it does in other places where the presence of structures ensure that minimal disruptions arise out of the electoral season, even if much of the economic depends on the political.

The question thus, is whether we can really separate politics from the economy. Across ideological divides, scholars, from the time of John Locke to Karl Marx, and more, recently John Rawls, have outlined the ways in which both politics and economics are intricately linked. In fact, far deeper in time, Aristotle had noted that man is a political animal, and comes into a relationship with others in pursuit of mutually determined ends. Paramount among this is how to allocate and distribute resources in a way that conduces to the happiness of members of the polity. I wish to submit then, that a society that does not pay enough attention to its politics will most likely not get its economic policy right. Because, in the final analysis, politics involves a continuous preparedness for possible conflict with inimical others. Further, although politics is only one of many and distinctive and mutually irreducible forms of human activity, it is intrinsically superior to all others because it is centrally concerned with preserving the collectivity, without whose existence all other activities could not properly take place. Political decisions deal with intrinsically disordered, and thus menace-laden nature of the relations between collectivities. No other decision approaches them in importance.

To proceed on the basis of this assumption, however, makes one begin to wonder how to situate the title of this address. If we are saying politics is inseparable from the economy, how then can we do less of politics and focus more on the economy? The answer to the question lies in the nature Nigeria – a country with a peculiar economy and political system, peculiar to the extent that responses to common issues of global concern always seem peculiar. We seem to have redefined all known assumptions about politics, policies and associated governance. However, let it be made clear that this is not about our nature, as a people, it has much to do how we have nurture the political space that has given a peculiar Nigerianess to politics. Socrates, if he were to take a break from his ‘sleep’ in Athens, and temporarily relocate to Nigeria, democracy would be so alien to the dialectician who fought sophistry with rationality to establish a case for good governess and associated justice. Ours is a country whose history is filled with numerous instances of how politics has frustrated economic progress rather than facilitated it.

In many other places, politics is the handmaiden of economics. This means in other words, that the contestation for power, its acquisition and use is a means towards another end – the social and economic wellbeing of the people. The material progress of the people is one of the cardinal ends towards which politics is tailored. In Nigeria, the reverse is the case. The economy, which includes the totality of the people’s productivity, national income and developmental policies, among others, are subordinated to politics. While this brand of politics is not without its own economic considerations, what it does is to create a chain of activities in which the national economy serves political interests, which in turn becomes the handmaid of elite, exclusivist economic interests. Politics is thus the pipe that drains and saps the national economy to overfeed the economic interests of a small group of elites who control power for their own interests.

Hence, we can expand the thesis a little bit further by saying that politics asphyxiates the economy in Nigeria because it is either seen as an end in itself, or is played in pursuit of ends that are not aligned with the wellbeing of the people or the nation’s economic growth. That is why we routinely make a virtue of shutting down the economy, conducting elections, declaring them inconclusive and then rerunning them as much as we like, until we get what we consider acceptable results in alignment with a power grabbing template, with little or no regard for the security, social and economic implications on the society. Politics, to be sure, has become the only business in town.

More pointedly, the incumbent government has elevated politics since its inception, to a level that relegates sound economic decision-making to the back bench. Consider for instance, the politics of rice importation and local production. While every data suggests that importation has risen in all neighboring countries since the forex restrictions on rice, government insists Nigeria has become self-sufficient in rice production. It doesn’t matter that these local brands are nowhere to be found either in Daleko, Aba, Bodija, Oba Lipede or Gwagwalada markets, in Lagos, Abia, Ibadan and Abeokuta, Abuja respectively

In a report in Leadership newspaper, several months back, it was noted that: in the entire West African region, only Nigerians eat parboiled rice. Benin Republic, with a population of 8.02 million and Togo’s 7.06 million people, cannot consume the massive rice imported to their countries.
According to data from the Thai Rice Exporters Association, rice imports from Thailand to Benin Republic rose from 805,765 MT in 2015, when Nigeria introduced the policy to 1,427,098 metric tonnes (MT) in 2016. It further rose to 1,814,014 MT in 2017, importation from January to May 2018 has risen to 625,863 MT in first five months of the year. Please note that maize and yam are the staple foods in Benin republic, and the huge spike in rice importation is not in any way commensurate with a change in palate or a sudden increase in that country’s population. To tell you what has happened plainly, we handed over the revenues we could have made from a better management of rice importation to smugglers, all in a bid to prove a point. Of course, self-sufficiency in food production is so much desirable, for we have no excuse being unable to feed our people. Yet, an approach that places politics above sound economic judgment, even when such isn’t the most politically correct, would have yielded a better result. For the sake of being politically correct, let us remain muted on the politics of ‘Mitro Rice’, suspected to be rebagged of imported rice from Thailand, but much touted as home grown, with its pyramid of bounty harvest seen more on television than in Oba Lipede, Kuto and Ijebu-Ode markets.
Now, we are beginning to hear of ‘removal of subsidy’ that was never officially admitted to be part of the petroleum pricing regime, and increase in VAT charges- all presumably geared towards ‘fixing the economy’. And to do this we are being persuaded to be less sentimental and play less of politics in our putative reaction to this life-subtracting economic decision. But is anybody thinking of the socio-economic implication of ‘fixing the economy’ by making life more unbearable for already traumatized Nigerians. Robust political thinking ought to precede this means of fixing the economy, and the opposing voices must not be silent, even if they will be blackmailed of playing more of politics.
We can also go on and ask ourselves as well whether the terrorist activity that herdsmen conflict has become is really not manageable if we put sound economics ahead of ethnic or tribal politics. Imagine seizing the opportunity at hand to modernize our cattle rearing system for more efficiency and an increment in the value chain, such that we begin to process our own milk in ranches where technology and innovations drive production.
Imagine that the ruling government would be bold enough to give effect to its own rhetoric on restructuring, such that power reforms would mean that Lagos can generate its own power and manage same, or that Zamfara will have a say in the exploration and mining of its own resources, with some powers to enforce law and order. All these will no doubt increase economic growth, eliminate the unnecessary cogs that the overbearing, indifferent and detached effect of the almighty Federal Government.
We can go on and on, but what this address has done, in trying to set the tone for today’s discussions, is that for politics to serve the purpose of economic development, Government must be willing to define the overall goal, what Aristotle called the telos, in terms of the interest of the people, and not just that of a few elite, which has been the case from so long a time, and sadly continues under a government that promised change.
Yet, the opposition cannot be justly accused of playing politics if they choose to make issues of some state governors fraudulent act of refusing to remit deductions from workers monthly salaries to the appropriate destinations. Such denial of workers entitlements cannot be deemed proper… in the name of fixing the economy. A labourer definitely deserves his wages, and in full.
For us to have sustainable economic development, we must have not necessarily less of politics, but less of the kind of politics that regards power capture as a primary end, whose only other goal is what accrues to the elites. Nigeria has a huge unemployment population, which is supplemented by a record number of out of school children – 13.5 million of them according to reliable figures. They need a future, which cannot be guaranteed or secured without a grand vision that transcends expedient political considerations of the moment. We cannot justifiably start the jostling for 2023 when the mandates of 2015 hasn’t been fulfilled yet, with that of 2019 yet to even commence. Politicians typically think of the next elections, but in between, they have a duty to think and work for the next generation.
Thank you.

*Professor Akinyemi Onigbinde,
Ilepa, via Ifo, Ogun State.

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