Funmi Iyanda—one of the more intelligent persons in Nigeria today—hosts a live audience sociopolitical series in London titled “How To Fix Nigeria”. An episode of the show earlier this year discussed the Nigerian economy. In that episode, Ms Iyanda probed the brains of her guests—including Feyi Fawehinmi and Professor Charles Soludo—on the nature and causes of, and solutions towards fixing the dysfunctional Nigerian economy. There were a lot of thoughtful points. One of the deeper ones—for me—was the crippling political control over our markets and the near-constitutional reforms required to remedy this situation. Today, the unclear romance between Mr Godwin Emefiele and President Muhammadu Buhari continues to demonstrate the validity of this point.
As designed and practised, our economy is ultimately controlled by one individual and not by institutions. This individual—the president—may be liberal enough to delegate control to economic experts and other officials, or maybe not. The latter case is our current situation. Personally, I don’t quite understand the president’s economic theory, but it seems that Emefiele does. In any case, the Central Bank has sacrificed any pretence of independence to accommodate the president’s perspective.
And so, we see the futility of tackling regulatory policy without critically engaging the muddy political framework within which these policies are manufactured and dispensed. It is amusing to watch economists assess current monetary policy while carefully skirting around the personality of President Buhari. From this perspective, Emefiele is beneath criticism. Should he resign from office today, his successor will be no more independent than the current president permits.
However, I worry about Emefiele’s statements on the economy in his own capacity as an expert. Last week, for example, he suggested that the government could raise more revenue by taxing Nigerians on telephone calls above three minutes. He suggested, also, that poor people make calls for more than three minutes. Of course, Emefiele is more knowledgeable in economics than I am. But, as is often the case with a lot of our finely educated technocrats, he seems uneducated in Nigeria’s social psychology.
First, Emefiele seems unable to engage with the reality of the Nigerian environment where lengthy phone calls are a general communication necessity in the absence of easier options. Second, because he assumes poorer Nigerians don’t make long phone calls, he proposes to make it even more unaffordable for them in the near future. Third, he assumes that the resultant increase in the cost of business will not be transferred down to the poorest. In short, Emefiele’s blasé prescription is the kind of policy that would have sparked protests and riots by the masses decades ago. From this perspective, Emefiele deserves some criticism.
It baffles me how our economists treat the government treasury as a more urgent issue than the basic welfare of the people. Other than a lip-service dedication to capital projects, government revenue mostly funds the government itself. But since we are being ridiculous, we may as well propose a toll for entering government buildings. In fact, why not let us be efficient? Let us slaughter all adults on a monthly income less than a hundred and fifty thousand naira and contribute their assets to the treasury.
Nigeria’s government has constitutional and legal control over all mineral resources in the country. It has control over all land and other factors of production, and even over the major sectors of the economy. Given these assets, a serious government need only deploy skill and intelligence to generate jobs and income for all society. Our economists ought to point out the selfish contradiction in government’s control of economic resources and an insistence on taxation. Instead, they treat the government like a pampered child and ask the people to pony up money whenever the government is broke—because taxes are a divine injunction, maybe. Of course, the typical “educated” method is to present examples of taxation from developed countries, ignoring the social context of comparing countries with a majority middle class population with a country where 70% of the population is simply poor.
The Nigerian economy—as designed from the Royal Niger Company template—is not complicated. It is based on the corporate process of invest, trade and profit. It is not distracted by ideological theories or philosophical prejudices. Government at different levels is only expected to invest in our several resources, trade these, and make profit for the treasury. This system was how the British ran the country when they were in charge. The British—as a government—did not develop the people except to the extent that they needed competent labour. But, considering that they kept reinvesting in our resources, they ran the country sustainably. When they left, their successors forgot—or were never trained in—how to invest and trade. They just looked for the profit in government. Particularly, the automated profit of the oil sector. Now that oil profit has declined, our economists want the people (who never had much opportunity to invest or trade independent of government control and its patronage system) to deliver profit in the guise of taxation. This is nonsense.
In any case, this is just another example of the pedestrian approach of those in the Buhari administration to complex socio-economic issues. Fighting corruption—despite all its ramifications of nepotism, social inequality, patronage systems and the lack of transparency—has been flattened to public embezzlement and bribery. The economic recession has been dismissed as one of the effects of fighting corruption. Judicial reform has been reduced to sting operations against judges. Inadequate electricity has been simplified to the Niger Delta militants. This administration keeps providing the type of answers you would expect to hear from a newspaper stand debating society.
As for Emefiele, I recommend he watch Funmi Iyanda’s economy episode in the How To Fix Nigeria series. Hopefully, he might just be able to pick a thing or two from it.