2 October 2019
It was Nigeria’ Independence Day yesterday and I woke up this morning thinking I should write about President Muhammadu Buhari’s address to the nation. But then thought to myself that many Nigerians have had enough of the president’s monotonous incompetence. The more Buhari’s incapacity to govern Nigeria manifests itself, the more many Nigerians look longingly towards the likes of Charles Soludo, with all his airs of technocratic competence. Soludo, a former Central Bank governor and professor of economics, stands in stark contrast against Buhari with his questionable academic credentials.
So I chose to take a look at Soludo’s “alternate” Independence Day speech, which he delivered yesterday at the Platform on “Re-Designing the Nigerian Economy with New Ideas”, at The Covenant Place, next to the National Theatre, Lagos. The speech was not for the fainthearted or intellectually lazy. It had 6,302 words. But before anyone accuses me of negativity, it is pertinent to highlight the only two occasions in such a copious amount of verbiage where Soludo hit a home run. He said just before his conclusion that: “Only a vigilant and active citizenry that holds public officers to account will secure the future”. A vigilant citizenry is essential for democracy to flourish. Sadly, Soludo never adequately addressed the requirement for the citizenry to be informed for their vigilance to have any effect. You can’t be on the watch without knowing what to look out for.
His other valid point was at the very end and in the form of a Martin Luther King-like “I have a dream”: “I dream of a future United States of Africa, and possibly with Nigeria as its California”. Once again, Soludo seems to have stumbled on such a good idea, without articulating how this “dream” could be a reality and the rational arguments for stronger African integration, which were highlighted here using evidence from Kwame Nkrumah.
With the exception of those two nuggets, the rest of Soludo’s speech was filled with empty soundbites, a litany of Nigeria’s ills, positions that barely scratched the surface, and banal appeals for change that were masquerading as solutions.
Watch the speech below.
He said it was time to “think outside the box” or even “without the box”. The irony is lost on Soludo that an orthodox economist like him and his orthodox economic theories, especially from his time as Central Bank governor, played a major role in the Nigeria of his “lamentations”. He has now been brought back into the president’s Economic Advisory Council, to peddle yet more orthodox economics. Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang in his book – “23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism” wrote: “Good economic policy does not require good economists. During their miracle years economic policies in Japan (and to a lesser extent) Korea were run by lawyers. In Taiwan and China, economic policies have been run by engineers. This demonstrates that economic success does not need people well trained in economics – especially if it is of the free-market kind.”
Soludo enhances that claim from Chang with this: “As the Western population ages and declines, they would need productive labour and Nigeria can smartly position to become the largest supplier of such labour- indirectly through outsourcing or directly”. While the country benefits from remittances from Nigerians abroad, which is now its highest foreign exchange earner, this is a questionable development model and Soludo contradicts himself by drawing from “the 12 clusters of variables that are considered in computing the Fragile/Failed States Index by the U.S Fund for Peace”. One of those is “human flight and brain drain”. A brain drain in Nigeria with Nigerians becoming a supplier of labour to the West is standing development economics on its head because Nigeria will be the net loser.
He then turned his attention to what is now becoming a favourite pastime of the Nigerian chatterati – constitution-bashing. He said it has created a “command and control” system and led to uneven economic development with particular reference to Section 162. This section deals with disbursement from the “federation account” – all the revenue that comes into government coffers. The money is distributed from the centre to the states and then to local government areas. Soludo essentially believes that people on each tier of government sit around waiting for this money to come. So if that system wasn’t in place, Nigeria would be a better place. He points at the “self-financing” and “productive” regions of the First Republic as evidence in support of this position. Soludo may be an expert in orthodox economics, but his history doesn’t seem to be up to scratch. Nigeria’s regions in the First Republic may have controlled the resources produced in each region, but they were far from “productive”. These were economies that relied exclusively on primary products – groundnuts, cocoa and palm oil. There was precious little diversification and if those regions were working very well, the political system wouldn’t have collapsed in chaos six years after independence. Soludo would do well to learn this history lesson.
He continued along his constitution-bashing trip arguing that too much was on the “exclusive list” – under the federal control, with public services like the police controlled at federal level. This meant that “Abuja was holding the country down”. The devolution argument sounds great in theory. But it is an argument not based on Nigerian reality. To argue that some things are better off being devolved to states, Soludo and his fellow travellers need to show that the few things not on the “exclusive list” are being run well by the states. Nigerian states are in charge of education at primary and secondary level and state-owned universities. They are in charge of general hospitals in their states. They are in charge of water corporations. They are responsible for the network of state roads. There is practically nothing under state control in Nigeria that is being run well. No single state in Nigeria, by their record and performance, inspires confidence that they can function better if only they were given more powers. But people like Soludo carry on regardless, proposing further devolution as a solution. Of course, the federal government is not running the police service properly. But a country in which the police can arrest someone for what they wrote about a governor’s wife on Facebook, can’t solve those problems by simply letting the governors control police forces.
Soludo’s shaky grasp of history was only matched by his shoddy understanding of real democracy. He said Nigeria needed to “fix our broken politics via ideologically and value-oriented mass participation”. Like all soundbites, this sounds great but is devoid of meaning and there was little in terms of practical steps to achieve whatever it meant. He argued that if Nigeria could make votes count, it would transfer power to the people. This is a romantic notion of voting, completely divorced from reality. Even in advanced liberal democracies in the West, where electoral fraud is minimised, power still doesn’t rest with the people. Power rests with those with money, who have politicians doing their bidding, as they present false choices to the people. This was why Mark Twain said: “If voting made a difference, they wouldn’t let us do it”.
It is clear from his speech that Soludo has little interest in fundamental change, and would like to see tinkering around the edges of the system that has little chance of transforming Nigeria from its failed state situation. Despite his posturing, the mask slips when he thinks that the richest black man and woman in the world being Nigerians is worthy of celebration. The policies of Soludo and his boss, then President Olusegun Obasanjo, helped enrich billionaires like Aliko Dangote and Folorunsho Alakija. Franklin Roosevelt said: “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little”. Soludo doesn’t seem to understand that the increase in the wealth of the few like Dangote and co is related to driving more Nigerians further into poverty. The charity Oxfam clearly made the link between Dangote’s riches and poverty in Nigeria.
Soludo also used some of his time to praise Obasanjo and Emeka Offor. Offor’s company was offered the contract to maintain Nigeria’s refineries by Obasanjo. None of the four refineries have functioned to full capacity ever since, driving an oil-producing country into reliance on imported petroleum. The import of refined petroleum is a huge source of corruption and a huge factor in poverty in Nigeria because it helps deplete already scarce foreign exchange. Soludo was, not surprisingly, silent on this while being effusive in his praise for Obasanjo and Offor.
After ploughing through what he called “Economic and institutional restructuring for the next Nigeria”, it should be quite clear to any critical thinker that Soludo is part of the problem that he described in over 6,000 words, and he is neither part of the solution nor has a remote interest in presenting viable solutions. With so many Nigerians looking up to him, that “next Nigeria” will continue to be a mirage on a very long, dusty and hazardous road.