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Debating the Nigerian Economy

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“There are rumours that President Buhari has hearkened to the call by Soyinka for the economy to be debated and that a formal debate on the economy will be organized any time from now.”

Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who has become a sort of deity to several functionaries of the APC-led federal government, raised the stakes when he called for an “emergency economic conference” to find ways of fixing the economy. During a visit to the Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed in mid-February this year, Professor Soyinka was quoted as saying: 

“Recovery is going to take quite a while…the President should call an emergency economic conference, with experts to be invited – consumers, producers, labour unions, university experts, professors, etc. ‘I think we really need an emergency economic conference, a rescue operation bringing as many heads as possible together to plot the way forward” (Sahara Reporters, February 18 2016). There are rumours that President Buhari has hearkened to the call by Soyinka for the economy to be debated and that a formal debate on the economy will be organized any time from now.

I have issues with this.

The author

One, implicit in the call for the economy to be debated is an innuendo that managing the economy is beyond the capacity of the President and his team which therefore necessitates a need to broaden the pool of talents that will debate and hopefully agree on the magic elixir  for  the country’s economic woes. As Professor Soyinka is uncharacteristically too soft on the Buhari government, the innuendo is being stretched even further by Buhari’s critics who suggest that Soyinka’s call for an economic conference is a polite vote of no-confidence on the APC-led federal government. 

For others, especially members of the civil society, Soyinka’s call has animated them into calling on President Buhari to quickly constitute his economic team. The question shifted to the ‘capacity’ of the President’s   economic team when Mr Laolu Akande, the Senior Special Assistant to the Vice President on Media and Publicity revealed that contrary to what some people think, the President does indeed have an economic team, which he said had been put in place since the inauguration of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) last November.

Two, the call for a debate on the economy implies wrongly that we have not been debating the economy. The truth is that we have been debating the government and its policy options right from its inception on May 29 2015.  Opinion writers, newspaper editorials and columnists have been taking various positions on the government’s policy options – from the Treasury Single Account (TSA), to whether the naira should be devalued or not through government’s proposals for school feeding and to pay unemployed graduates a monthly stipend of N5,000. If these robust interrogations of the government’s policy options are not debating the economy, what should we call them?

Three, instituting a formal debate on the economy could create additional problems for the Buhari government. True, there could be momentary respite for the government because its most ardent critics are likely to focus on hijacking and framing the debate. Here it is important to learn the lessons from Babangida’s attempts to democratize the debate on whether the country should embrace the IMF/World Bank supported facilities in the mid-1980s. 

Largely because there was no official attempt to frame the debate (assuming such was possible), street populism triumphed and it was quickly wrongly framed as whether the Nigeria should “take IMF loan or not”. The overwhelming populist response was that Nigeria “should not take the loan”. People said they were ready to make sacrifices including making financial contributions in lieu of the government taking the loan. But the truth is that the issue at that time was not about the IMF loan per se but securing the imprimatur of the two Bretton Woods institutions on the country’s economic programme. The imprimatur of the IMF and the World Bank on a country’s economic programme had become a condition for even rescheduling a country’s debt or opening new letters of credit. This was the so-called notion of ‘cross-conditionalities’. 

When therefore Babangida, who really had no choice,  eventually embraced the IMF/World Bank facility in 1986 despite the outcome of the formal debate on the issue, his critics counted the debate as another act of deception or  one of the regime’s ‘Maradonic’ moves against Nigerians. What is most likely to happen if a formal debate is organized is that the vocal minority and civil society activists will hijack the debate and frame it as they want. What if the recommendation from such a debate ends up asking the President to sack all his Ministers or even for him to resign? 

Four, the call for the economy to be debated may in some ways be an expression of nostalgia for Obasanjo’s Second Coming. Obasanjo had in 2003 established an economic reform group that became known as the ‘Dream Team’. The team was made up of bold and confident technocrats who enjoyed Obasanjo’s unfettered political cover.  The team was led by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Minister for Finance who was recruited from the World Bank. He was complemented by a crop of erudite academics. 

While no one doubted that several members of the team were accomplished, it is not clear how they would have performed if they had not enjoyed as much political cover as they got from Obasanjo. Therefore any criticism of President Buhari’s economic team must also include a qualifier on whether members of the team have sufficient elbow-room to take risks. Rather than a formal debate on the economy, the members of his economic team need more elbow room to take risks. The debate on the economy should be between them and relevant think-tanks and consultants. They can of course invite relevant groups for inputs and advice or bounce off ideas on the public.  It should not be an all-comers’ affair.

Five, while I believe Obasanjo is clearly the best leader the country has produced so far – despite what one columnist called “his lack of grace” – it should be borne in mind that his first few years in office were dogged by the sort of despair that some people now have about the Buhari government. For instance when Obasanjo increased the minimum wage to N7, 500 on May 1, 2000, without first examining the capacity of states to pay, the country erupted into agitations and strikes for almost a year. There were also sectional grumblings and agitations against the government, including from some northern state governors that decided to introduce Sharia law and also from Odi and Zaki Ibiam.  It took Obasanjo a few years to take full control of his government. 

Though I am one of the critics of the Buhari regime I do not believe the regime is beyond redemption. As I pointed out elsewhere, it takes a while after an aircraft has taken off before it can to get to a cruising height. Buhari is still full of unsustainably high energy levels and still has many political IOUS to settle. Eventually these will settle down and he will find his bearing provided he is willing to learn from his initial missteps and mistakes.  

Buhari’s foreign trips

Buhari’s foreign trips have continued to generate intense debates. A crucial rhetorical question posed by the President supporters is whether a President needs to be at home to solve the country’s problems. His supporters justify the trips on grounds that the President’s foreign trips are necessary to attract foreign investments and broker agreements on repatriating looted funds. 

Buhari’s critics also have their own rhetorical question: Does a President, in this era of revolutions in information technology, need to be undertaking so many foreign trips to accomplish the said objectives? The truth is that a President’s foreign trips do not come cheap. 

For a president whose frugal ambience helped to propel him to Aso Rock, it is very important that he is not seen as enjoying himself while the generality of the masses are suffering and are being urged constantly to have patience or make more sacrifices. Perception is everything in politics.

Jideofor Adibe, Email: pcjadibe@yahoo.com, Twitter: @JideoforAdibe


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