Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hi All,

A guest blogger is filling my spot today. Enjoy and drop your comments..

It is a well-known fact that there are seven days in a week. At least that’s what the scientists have so skillfully convinced us of after carefully planned experiments and observations. This particular week is supposed to be special to Nigerians just because of one of its days – Tuesday May 29. On the 29th of May every year, Nigerians mark the glorious return of the country to democratic rule after spending a better part of more than a quarter of a century under military dictatorship. Talking to a number of individuals though, one has the feeling that the major excitement that Tuesday was around the corner is not because of our so-called fledgling and much-cherished democracy that has stubbornly refused to come of age but simply because it was a public holiday – Shikena!! Now the question begging for an answer is ‘Why’??

Charles Dickens, that brilliant English author, gave the world a classic novel which he named ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and the memories I have of that book when I read it as a boy was that of enraged French ‘masses’ sending people to an untimely death at the teeth of the horrendous guillotine and different plots and counter-plots spiced up with betrayals and loyalty issues. However, in this case we shall speak of ‘A Tale of One Country’ with the actors, stage and background set in our beloved Nigeria.

Different fora ranging from social to electronic to print media are already brimming with the disappointment people are feeling as the present administration ‘celebrates’ one year in office and deservedly so. Expectations were high! The election jingo by the ruling party was electrifying and appealing! Numerous promises were made! But alas, this chapter in our book ‘A Tale of One Country’ started with so much fanfare but the subsequent pages are full of horror and unfulfilled promises. However, I shall not list the numerous problems we have as a country or try to proffer sanctimonious solutions to the ‘very obvious’ issues. I shall speak of just one thing – THE NIGERIAN PEOPLE.

Everybody talks about ‘The American Dream’. The kid on the streets of India, Colombia, Sudan and of course Nigeria believes that there is something worth risking his or her life for in the quest to cross the borders into America.  ‘There has to be something special there’, they say. ‘The movies project a certain image of the country and everyone that goes there always seems to come back better than they left’. But in reality this is plainly because of what the US has to offer as a nation. They have a product and they have branded it excellently. You cannot miss it. You must buy it whether you like it or not. The Americans are very hardworking people and the freedom they enjoy today has come at a very steep price. But they are willing to pay the price and enhance their selling point. This is where Nigeria comes in.

As a people, we do not need 7-point agendas (‘I-Go-Dye’ actually believes we need just one and he has a valid point), we definitely do not need Vision 2010s or 2020s. We need a product and a unique selling point! What do we have to offer the global world as a people? That is the question to which we must find an answer to if we will gain any form of relevance and we need to answer this question both on an individual and national level. This goes beyond exporting crude oil or other agricultural products. It also goes beyond globe-trotting with the intention of creating an image of Nigeria to ‘would-be’ investors. This is about our character as a people and it has to start from within. We need to re-define our values and know what we stand for. It sounds laughable but the average person outside this country knows little or nothing about us asides from the fact that we are situated in Africa. A colleague of mine from a South American country actually asked me if there were lions in Lagos! You could imagine my mind’s response.
As we start the second year of this administration we need to start asking the right questions. It is not just about constant electricity, good roads and others. We need a bigger agenda as a people. That is the only way I think we can make any meaningful impact as a nation. Happy Democracy Day in arrears and cheers as we open a new chapter in our book - ‘A Tale of One Country’.

Taiwo Omotoso

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Article below was an op-ed in Punch newspaper. I feel the need to reemphasize the need to reevaluate our national spending. There were delays in the payment of  NYSC allowances and civil servant salaries. The government has embarked on a borrowing spree; yet the minister of Finance insists that Nigeria is not broke.

It is time governments at all levels begin to have serious discussions about Nigeria's financial health.

Happy reading.

Who will guard the guards?

I remember a cartoon in one of the dailies where a man’s SUV got into a ditch and was to be pulled out. The area boy that would   do the pulling asked for N500, 000. The owner asked why he was being charged that outrageous amount and the guy replied  that is what we charge National Assembly members'. Also recall that about two weeks ago, Senator Uzamere claimed he was dispossessed of  his car, eight million naira and other valuables at gun point by his driver.  That was a serves-you-right- moment for me and I wondered who will curb the excesses of our legislators?

Compared to other arms of government (the executive and judiciary), the legislature bore the brunt of Nigeria’s military rule and is fairly young (thirteen years old in this democratic dispensation). However, Nigeria’s national assembly is a very smart 13 year- old. How, you may ask? The National Assembly has ensured that about 20% of Nigeria’s federal revenue is allocated to them. The National assembly (same goes for the state legislatures and local councils) is one of the major reasons the cost of governance in this country is high and if most of the revenue we make as a nation goes into over heads for the executive and legislature, how do we develop as a country?

I am particular about the NASS because of the role it plays as the representative of the people. In the presidential system of government that we practice, the legislature represents “we the people”.  This is because we elect people from our various constituencies and senatorial districts to represent our interests at the national level. Nigeria’s legislators have shown that they represent only their own interests. They pass laws that have no relevance to the issues that affect Nigerians, they set up probes that reveal much but change nothing and allocate outlandish allowances to themselves (to prevent them from being susceptible to graft and enable them carry out their duties) and occasionally share exercise books for students in their constituencies as constituency project- another unjustifiable allocation in the budget-.
One would expect that with the outrage and gripe Nigerians have expressed on the pay of NASS members, the 2011 class  would  know and do better. In this class we have 73 freshmen senators and 260 freshmen honourables. Surprisingly, the new legislators rather than change the system have joined the system.
The recklessness of our legislators begs the question who will guard our guards? The executive would not do it because it lacks the moral right to do so, the judiciary is yet to step in, Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) is also helpless. We know the legislators definitely would not pass a law to curb their excesses. So who will ensure that our legislators do not rip us off and actually do what they have been elected to do?
The answer lies in ‘we the people’. We can so this by recalling some NASS members  and make an example of them. We also need to be more involved in the process of choosing legislators. Yes, we Nigerians barely survive  and do not have time for active politics, but until we organize to ensure that NASS members are chosen by us and  not selected for us at the grassroot level, nothing would change and we would only continue to complain.

As a country, we need to take the task of curbing the excesses of  our legislature and reducing the cost  of thanking those who serve us because the current appreciation system is unsustainable. There is the false sense of prosperity that Nigeria is a wealthy nation. We are not.  The nations that buy our oil  are developing alternatives to oil. Nigeria runs on deficit budgets (our expenditures are more than our revenues. These deficits are not a result of  development projects but on overheads and this makes no economic sense.  We see our government shifting the costs of the deficits on the people rather than on itself.
During the fuel subsidy protests, the Minister for Finance justified the removal of fuel subsidy stating that Nigeria may go broke and go the way of Greece.  I agree that if we do not address the problem of cost, we would go broke not because of subsidy but because our system of entitlement and corruption is inefficient. Unlike Greece, Ireland, Italy and Iceland that had Germany to bail them out from bankruptcy, Nigeria has no Germany
We the people need to hold our leaders accountable and remind them that public service is a call to serve and not a call to enrich themselves. Let us start from those that represent us   - our lawmakers.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Writing out loud

This post is a short one on questions I wonder about.

I wonder if our culture and values are predicated on Africa’s poor economic situation. I wonder what our values would be like when Africa becomes economically prosperous. Would women be regarded as people or would they still be seen as properties? Would we be as religious as we are now when we have good roads, water etc.? Would parents still instill the values of honesty, respect and integrity in their children? Would children still respect and honour their parents. Would parents have to depend on their savings or whatever form of social security we come up with?
I ask these questions because a review of the West shows that at a point in the history of Western countries, we shared the same values.  Issues such as corruption, underdevelopment marital and domestic abuse, religiosity - the whole phase we are currently - was the Western Experience.  The West industrialized  and things changed. Western countries became better developed such that even though issues such as corruption and domestic abuse still exists, there are remedies available to address it. This is unlike the African situation where we are sitting ducks
Lets also take a look at China (minus her unique democratic ideal and system of government). The nature of china’s economic development is  different yet similar to that of the West.  The country has been able to retain her  values whilst rapidly growing and improving the life of her citizens. At some point we should achieve economic growth that would translate into higher standards of living. However, I wonder if we would retain our current values like China or follow the West and become “modernized”

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Man of the People 2.

Once again, it is scandal season in Nigeria- the revelation of one government scandal after the other has become a yearly event-. I can safely say that Nigeria has witnessed all manners of government corruption that possibly exists. In case you missed it, the latest scandals are the capital market probe, pension fraud and fuel subsidy scam. We can also add Boko Haram to the list as it is now clear it is a political issue and not a Muslim North vs Christian North issue.

This segues to the second lesson of a Man of the People- the problem of leadership. The story of Chief Nanga is a story of Nigerian leaders and politicians. It is a story of the greed and corruption that follows their assumption of power. By leaders I mean elected/selected officials, technocrats in government and political appointees- anyone responsible for public decision-making. It seems that because there are no structured institutions and systems, Nigerian leaders have an “everyman for himself” mentality. Odili in 1966 blames this on the fact that Nigeria is a newly minted country where levels of wealth had not yet risen.

 As Odili states: "We ignore man's basic nature if we say, as some critics do, that because a man like Nanga has risen overnight from poverty and insignificance to his present opulence he could be persuaded without much trouble to give it up again and return to his original state.  A man who has just come in from the rain and dried his body and put on dry clothes is more reluctant to go out again than another who has been indoors the whole time.  The trouble with our new nation as I saw it then lying on that bed was that none of us had been indoors long enough to be able to say, to hell with it.  We had all been in the rain together until yesterday." 

However, Nigeria’s recycled leaders and their cronies have been out of the rain for so long that it is really time for them to say “to hell with it” and do something concrete like getting other citizens out of the rain. One cliché the OWS protest is “one day the poor would have nothing to eat but the rich”. Well, because Nigerians are not falling into levels of poverty and discontent at the same rate (i.e some people are well off than others and really have no reason to complain), a revolution may not literally occur but as we are already witnesses to, we are gradually declining into a state of anarchy and those out of the rain are no longer safe.
One would think that the avoidable deaths of government officials like Abdulkarim Adisa, Ishaya Aku, and President Yar’Adua due to  road accidents and lack of healthcare facilities would be a wake up call to others in their shoes. Surprisingly this is not the case. May be our leaders think they are invincible. If you know someone that knows someone that is in government tell them to make their time count and do what is right because no condition is permanent. Let them ask people others who “were in charge” yesterday. They can start with the those ousted in the 2011 elections.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Dying for growth

First off: Title is credited to WB president.

I heard stories about how beautiful and serene Cotonou and Lome are. I was told the cities have regular light (yes they do) and how they can be vacation destinations. A recent road trip to Togo set me straight. I was shocked that the Cotonou and Lome that I heard about was far from the reality. That trip illustrated the need for meaningful development especially in the areas of infrastructure, education and the economy. On my seat I thought why is Africa declining? When would the continent catch up with others? When would Africa get beyond issues such as good roads, good hospitals, affordable decent housing and promote a solid economic base? 
 Africa’s infrastructural deficits has hindered the continent’s economic growth and effective participation in the global economy. The consequence of this is that the social, economic and political well being of a considerable number of her citizens is on the decline. One thing that is clear is that only Africa can develop Africa. World bank, IMF and other IFIs cannot are limited in their capacity to drive growth. Apart from the fact that development trajectories are not linear across continents (China, India, and South America’s development process is very different from that of the West – that Africa tries to so hard to replicate), Africa is about 2 centuries late in the industrialization process. Second the current WTO (World Trade Organization) regime benefits only the developed countries and negatively impacts the area Africa has comparative advantage- agriculture. 
Thus, it cannot be emphasized enough that African countries need to diversify their economies whilst transitioning from producers of primary goods to manufacturers and service providers. Development and economic growth are vital now because Africa is the fastest growing continent in terms of population. And as the Dettol advert goes “if Africa does not take care of her own who will? How can the continent jumpstart growth? 
The answer lies in quick wins as African countries begin to build systems and institutions that would ensure good governance and its attendant benefits. These strategies include: 
1) Encourage and integrate the informal economy: currently Africa’s informal economy (artisans, self- employed people, domestics, farmers, "engineers") generate 40% of Africa’s GDP. This means carpenters, mechanics, hairdressers, tailors generate large amounts of revenues the government does not get in taxes-that however is not the gist here.) The gist is that these groups of people because of the prohibitive nature of our systems cannot grow and develop their businesses. Thus, the pepper seller at Balogun continues to sell pepper for donkey years and never becomes a de-rica producer and Nigeria imports tinned tomatoes from Asia. The carpenter gets stuck in his cycle of subsistence and cannot become another Sokoa Chair center. Why because the barriers to creating a structured business in Nigeria is prohibitive- all those CAC requirements, cumbersome tax laws and processes, overhead costs. Who needs that when I can make a 50,000 piece of furniture and rest?. This results in a lack of creativity and innovation. As mentioned earlier the pepper seller cannot think of new ways of rejuvenating the business and spends the incomes she earns on getting by.
What should governments do? – formulate pro-poor policies that can give SMEs a proper foundation, ease the government regulations that make managing a business difficult. I would also suggest protectionist policies for businesses in agriculture. 
2) Invest in public health: as it is said, health is wealth. Citizens of a country can never be productive if they are not healthy. Governments have to heavily invest in health care systems especially preventive health. How many people do you personally know that have died needless deaths because drugs are not available? 
3) Invest in practical education so that the current skills gap that exists between what students learn and what the job market requires is closed. In addition, technical and vocational schools have to be properly utilized so that the artisan who tiles knows how to tile properly and not continue in the 20th century method of tiling. Similarly a look at Nigeria’s oil industry would show that expatriate are still very much involved in the production process because Nigerians lack the know how. 
4) Carve a niche: China’s is known for technology, India niche is IT. African countries have to look inwards and discover what can differentiate them and bring in money. Benin and Togo can actively develop their tourist destination like Ghana and Kenya. Benin can also utilize her location as a transport hub for West Africa to attract investments. Nigeria can take her pick from “computer village”- Nigerians may be cheaper than India and China-, brand our aba made products, re-build our textile industry, and tourism too. 
5) Effective use of regional bodies: regional bodies such as ECOWAS are under utilized. Regional bodies can be used to jointly build and develop infrastructure. Imagine a train that goes from Lagos to Accra and the intra trade that this railway would engender. In addition, countries like Togo and Benin can benefit greatly from the large size of Nigeria’s population if their informal economies are properly developed. Nigeria is a ready made market for them. Lastly Africa has a whole needs to take a stance on the WTO regime. What would the above lead to? If African countries get their acts together, build and maintain the required infrastructure and harness the potentials of the informal sector would that translate to Africa becoming a developed continent? Not yet, because there is a lot of catching up to do but at least, Africa would be on her way.