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Oby Ezekwesili, just talking loud and saying nothing

The legendary and self-styled “godfather of soul” James Brown sang:

“You’re like a dull knife
Just ain’t cutting
You’re just talking loud
And saying nothing”

I always remember that song when I listen to Oby Ezekwesili, the former minister for solid minerals, minister for education, one-time World Bank executive, and currently loudmouthed self-appointed spokesperson for the Bring Back Our Girls campaign.

Ezekwesili never saw a TV camera that she didn’t like, and is quite without shame in her self-promotion. She is always ready with a lecture or two on how things can be improved in Nigeria, but has never adequately explained what she actually achieved when she was in the failed government of president Olusegun Obasanjo.

Several observers believe her current self promotion is in the hope of securing a ministerial position in the Buhari regime.

She was at it again on Channels 24’s Big Story last night. The presenter Seun Okunbaloye asked her opinion on the current situation with many states unable to pay workers’ salaries for months. She went off on a ramble that covered raising revenue either through borrowing or taxation, the necessity for cuts, the structural deficiency in the system.

Continuing, she said we needed to ask “hard-nosed questions” about “how much of government we need”. We needed to look at the size of government that is not “producing enough”. She said the petroleum sector needed better understanding and transparency and we needed to look at the “diversification agenda”.

As ever, she was quite loud with these soundbites, but there was little substance to the hot air. She seemed to be suggesting more of the same of what successive governments have done, even if she sounded passionate and had the haughty air that she was saying something profound.

Every government in Nigeria, including the discredited and voted out Goodluck Jonathan administration, followed the same script. You either borrow more when the over-reliance on oil is hit by the very predictable drop in oil price, or you cut public spending, or both. They all claim that they are taking steps to diversify the economy. Jonathan claimed to be reviving agriculture. It is a safe bet that after four or more years of Buhari rule, even with Ezekwesili in the cabinet, we will still be over-relying on oil.

This is because there was no mention of some key and genuine things the government could do to increase revenue. No mention of how reducing tax avoidance by the multinationals operating in Nigeria could increase government revenue and reduce over-reliance on oil receipts. Stephen Timms, a former Treasury Minister in the UK said tax avoidance: “costs developing countries billions each year in lost revenue – a major drain on often fragile economies and a genuine barrier to economic growth. These are vital resources for schools, hospitals and infrastructure”.

The African Union estimated that Africa loses about $150bn a year through tax avoidance by foreign companies operating in the continent. Tax Justice Network-Africa clamed that: “Illicit financial flows are amounts of income, which are legally or illegally earned in a country, and are illegally transferred out of that country’s jurisdiction in an effort to conceal that income from that country’s tax authorities. Every year developing countries lose staggeringly more money through illicit financial outflows than they receive in aid. This is a substantial amount of funds that could have been used to make huge strides improving the lives and livelihoods of citizens of developing countries.”

They also stated that: “Revenues generated by a fair and efficient tax system have the potential to be a reliable source of financing which governments can use to reduce poverty and develop our countries in a sustainable manner.” Jesse Griffiths of the NGO ActionAid said: “Getting companies to pay more tax in developing countries represents an open goal that could make a vast difference to raising the public finances needed to meet the Millennium Development Goals.”

Despite the loudness, at no point did Ezekwesili say anything about getting the foreign companies in Nigeria to pay their fair share of tax. This is not surprising as she worked for the World Bank, which is an instrument of foreign capital and has always encouraged the lax regulations that encourage tax avoidance.

Ezekwesili said we needed to diversify, we are not producing enough, etc, but never said a word about industrialisation and manufacturing. Korean development economist Ha-Joon Chang argues: “But throughout history, very few countries have built their prosperity on agriculture and services.” He added: “I support the manufacturing industry…. empirically speaking, that has been the sector that has shown the highest productivity and also shown the fastest rate of technological progress and productivity growth, and the biggest spill-over impact into other sectors. It is on those grounds that I see the future of developing countries in manufacturing.”

If you tuned in to hear Ezekwesili address how Nigeria could industrialise and make great leaps in development and productivity, you would have been disappointed.

Her argument about “structural deficiency” is also a non-starter. Chang claimed: “the so-called structural factors are really scapegoats wheeled out by free-market economists. Seeing their favoured policies failing to produce good outcomes, they had to find other explanations for Africa’s stagnation”.

Ezekwesili has nothing to offer us but the tried and failed. She is a windbag that talks a lot, she is very loud, but she’s got nothing of note to say.

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