Tunde Leye: What We Must Do (1)

By Tunde Leye

Credit: Tunde Leye
Credit: Tunde Leye

It is important we tell ourselves some truths as a nation and remove our rose tinted glasses. And one of the first truths that a people must come to terms with as a nation is that powerful nations act in their own interest over and above any other stated flowery intentions communicated. Some nations are brusque and unabashed with the pursuit of these interests, while some prefer to couch these intents within more lofty sounding narratives, but the endgame is the same. Pragmatic nations that have risen from the doldrums to prominence have realized this, and begin to pursue courses of action that are for their own benefit first, irrespective of what these powerful nations attempt to dictate as their interests. What they do is to play in their areas of strength and then expand to the rest of the world. It is typically the first signs that a nation is rising, not a plethora of government growth statistics.

It is why I wonder what our foreign policy drive is. We invest heavily in bringing peace and stability to other African countries yet we do not position ourselves to benefit the most from the resources there when the peace is won. In fact, in many cases, Nigerians become despised and treated as a pariah in the countries where the peace was won by the shedding plenty of Nigerian blood. It is absurd as a nation to continue to make these investments without deriving much in terms of economic benefits. It is a myopia created by the over dependence on oil revenue, blinding us from the possibilities of economic growth by other means. Westerners and Asians have not exhibited such naiveté, as typified by French, British and Chinese involvement on the African continent and America’s almost negligible direct involvement. The economic gains dictate the foreign policy, and the degree of economic importance is what fuels the degree of involvement, not just altruistic goals to bolster egos as the giants of any realm like we do in Nigeria, pandering to our giant of Africa nonsense.

The interaction of most of the rest of the world with Africa, over history and into the present, starting from the Trans-Saharan Trade with the Arabs, to the Trans-Atlantic Trade with the Europeans has been one of exchanging low end consumable manufactured goods from these places with African natural and human resources that these people use to fuel their own growth.

This is always what the trade between powerful nations and less powerful nations mean. It is the reason why most nations that have clear intent to grow always do two things – first they adopt some protectionist policies towards trade domestically and then explicitly support their merchant class in foreign trade.

The Chinese do this today, the Americans do it, and the British and the Dutch did it in the heydays of their trade empires. The wars the then powerful British fought against the Chinese were called the Opium Wars for a reason.

When the Europeans came to Africa, most of the trade was for extractive primary resources that cannot be replaced, while giving the African elite the tools to subjugate others and extract these resources, and consumables the Africans could not produce themselves. Hence the Africans became totally dependent on the Europeans for means of maintaining their power and the supply of the various inferior finished goods they had become used to. One of the things this influx does is to kill any fledging production as everyone turned to the cheaper trade items for supply. In Samuel Johnson’s seminal book on Yoruba history, he comments that prior to the entrance of the Europeans, iron products were produced extensively in Yoruba land. However, when the Europeans came, they brought loads of finished iron products that were much cheaper but less durable. Another example was about umbrellas. In those days, top chiefs and kings had royal umbrellas which were made by highly skilled artisans using native materials. That was eventually replaced by more colorful but less durable European imported umbrellas, killing such domestic production. Sounds like what the Chinese all over the world are doing today.

Colonialism of Nigeria (and all other colonies for that matter) continued this trend, arranging the area primarily for extracting resources for production in Britain, with cheap finished goods returned as payment for the elite to consume.

Post independence, the situation has not changed much – the only difference is that the destinations of the resources extracted from Nigeria as well as the sources of the finished goods are much more diverse than our former colonial power.

Fortunately, we are not the only ones who have been in this situation in history. The greatest power of today, the USA was set up to be just what we are now, a source of resources for the British. The greatest emerging power of today, China, was also once seen as primarily a resource pool for great powers like the British, the Japanese and then the Russians. But these two have broken out, and we can study to see what they did, and then see how it can be applied to us.

The first thing that happened in both China and America was a break politically and ideologically from the power that dominated them, the British in the case of the Americans and the Russians in the case of the Chinese. In those days, such a break was either bloody or with catastrophic economic effects, but in today’s world, this can be achieved without such bloodshed and a healthy dose of political will from leadership. What such a break does is to ensure that the nation first begins to think of its own interests in its dealings, rather than what such a power would think. It is the culmination of the growth of a clear identity of what it meant to be American as against a British immigrant or what it meant to be a Chinese communist as distinct from a Russian communist. A clear narrative of national identity in a way that the common people can understand it, and which is not aping of a foreign power (their laws, their system of politics and government, etc) is the essential first step – it is what the Ghanaians have that has enabled them begin on a path of growth. It is what the people of Botswana have. You will find it amongst the South Africans. It is such a clear identity that will allow a man to find no contradictions in identifying as from any of the ethnic groups and yet have unflinching loyalty to Nigeria.

For this to happen, the emergence of a group of men, spearheaded by a visible leader who would not attempt to personalize power is essential. This was what Mandela was for the South Africans, what Deng Xiaoping was for the Chinese, what Seretse Khama was for Botswana and what George Washington was for the Americans.

Nkrumah was the man in the Ghanaian case, although he almost bungled it for Ghana when he tried to perpetuate his power, but that is another story. In Nigeria, we are yet to have a crystallization of what it is to be Nigerian, a sense of identity that is powerful and a narration of who we are that echoes from Lagos to Maiduguri, from Sokoto to the Delta. We need men who will rise to craft this narrative and sell it all over the country, led by a figure in the mold of Xiapong, of Khama, Nkrumah, Nyere, Washington and Mandela. This is the starting point, and we will only dillydally until this happens.

(The Second Part of this piece continues next week)



Tunde Leye @tundeleye is a fiction writer. He believes that the stories written form a priceless resource that is the basis of society, all the other arts (film, music, theatre, visual arts) and hence he is committed to telling stories out of Africa that show it as it was, is, and is going to be.





  1. […] The first part of this piece is published HERE The narrative of what it means to be Nigerian must be crafted. It is this narrative that will drive every other thing. Today, even though Ghanaians have their own ethnic fault lines, the contradictions between being of Asante ethnicity and being Ghanaian is little. Our ethnic affinities do not preclude a robust Nigerian identity and it is the kind of leadership I discussed in the earlier piece that delivers this kind of narrative and sells it to its people until it resonates through the length and breadth of the land. Once this is done, the next step is evident – there must be the beginnings of production of some form of processed goods. Truth is this; economies based on the sales of an abundance of extractive resources do not produce the most innovative people. It does not require a great deal of education of its people and in fact, skilled labor can be readily imported to the extraction while the elite outsource everything from the education of their children to their own healthcare and even the food that they eat. It is people that manufacture things, that process things, from the raw form to some finished goods that have to surmount challenges. It is the effort it takes to surmount these challenges that births innovation. The problem is that we in Nigeria try to start from the top. All the nations that industrialized did so bottom up. They started from producing small, low end goods, moved on to poor imitation of higher end goods, fine tuned their imitations and then began to produce and sell the high end stuff. Remember what made in China or made in Taiwan represented not so long ago in our consciousness. It was what made in Japan was, further back into the past. It is what made in Aba once stood for. It pains me that Aba has become what it is today. It could have been the starting point of our industrialization, those low end goods and poor imitations. It is essential we begin again. We lost the chance Aba of way back provided for us, but we can begin again. We can begin to produce, rather than merely use. After the unsustainable employment boom provided by financial services a few years ago, the reality is setting in. Financial services cannot provide employment for the number of graduates we produce annually. If we are not producing stuff, being financial services people, consultants and all the other support and analytical stuff will get us nowhere. There will be nothing to support – what they should support is production and this is still lacking here. The truth is, when we produce those low end goods, we will not be able to sell them to the big boys. Their tastes are high; their purchasing power is equally as high. What we need to look for are those who have lower purchasing power, but aspire for these goods. China, Taiwan and South Korea did not try to sell their imitation goods to the Americans first. No! They sold to other developing Asian and African countries. As their capacity for production grew, they were able to take on the bigger boys until today, the Chinese have become the second largest economy in the world (as an aside, their growth has transformed them into the most resource and power needy nation in the world too). Here’s a template we can adopt – we produce low end or even imitation goods, and sell to other African nations. The same way most of us in Nigeria could not afford many things until Chinese imitations flooded our markets at much lower prices, many of our African neighbors might not be able to afford even the current Chinese alternatives but might be able to afford an even lower priced Nigerian alternative if we made it available. This is the market we must first explore, then capital accumulation, experience and infrastructure can happen to enable us take on larger markets. Of course, one of the great limiters of being a processing rather than an extractive nation is the infrastructure available. No one starts at the top end of the infrastructure spectrum, so it is a problem that others have surmounted before. We must begin to develop the infrastructure that drives production on the one hand, and that which improves the base level quality of living of the people on the other hand. Each achieves a different but essential thing. One drives production at reasonable cost, the other helps people believe that things are getting better and frees them up from using all their energies and resources for survival, unleashing their creative potential. The colonialists were not stupid when the first thing they would do was to build the infrastructure needed for production – the railways, the roads, the bureaucratic systems and institutions – once their colonies were pacified. We need to reorganize the kind of rent seeking that we do. Our most sellable asset at this time still remains our natural resources, but the rent that should be acceptable is infrastructure, and capacity to manage and develop the infrastructure. Our constitution needs to be amended. The constitution of all great nations, from the Americans, to the Chinese and even the often rigid British has evolved over time to meet new aspirations of the people, even redefining fundamental concepts like “people” in the process. The constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria begins with the phrase “WE THE PEOPLE”. Well, at the point it was being crafted, what We The People wanted was to get the military out while preserving the unity of the country by playing a delicate balancing game. It served that purpose at that time. Fifteen years down the line, what We The People want has evolved, and the constitution needs to evolve with that collective will. Those Exclusive Lists must be whittled down. Government must be made less attractive, so that people do not see it as the only means to get wealth. It is an anomaly that the best way to accumulate great wealth in Nigeria is by entering government and not by building businesses that spawns new industries. Our laws need to be reviewed. Laws such as The Land Use Act essentially created to facilitate turning Nigeria into an oil rentier state need to go. More laws that create frameworks similar to those which spawned the power reforms and the PIB, if it is passed, need to be pushed through by our legislature. This legislature should actually be the hardest working one in Nigerian history, rather than being a lazy, resource guzzling collective. Our Civil Service is probably going to be the most difficult part to resolve. When people talk about systems and institutions working in other countries, what they are really saying is that the civil service and government agencies carry out their duties to the citizens efficiently and without a need for government intervention or citizen inducement. The civil service is the driver and often what citizens and foreigners interact with to get a feel of the government. People must be confident that the civil service will do what they should do, every single time, at every interaction. There is a reason Nigerians are more willing to pay their estate dues and their town community development dues than their taxes. They see the utilization of the dues paid to the former and they can effect changes based on this utilization whereas for the taxes, they find that they still have to pay bribes to access the services they have already paid taxes for. Civil service reforms are long overdue and must be carried out. We must also begin to demand more performance from our State and Local Governments. The Federal Government receives a lot of flack and rightly so, since they receive the lion’s share of the revenue generated. However, we must not take our eyes off the other tiers of government – they have very great responsibilities and are the ones who get away with the most in terms of doing nothing. In the same vein, people need to pay more attention to what goes on in the other arms of government – the judiciary and the legislature. Scrutinize your local government chairman and the legislators representing you even more than you scrutinize every other part of the government. Many times, they are the most responsible for the underdevelopment of your area, more than those bigger government bodies you look at. We need to do away with the “he/she is our son or daughter so he can get away with anything he/she does to us” mentality. Finally, education. I have written extensively on education before (Under-Educated Literate Africa) ) but it bears reiterating. There has been near zero qualitative and quantitative improvement in education since the early eighties and the world has really left us behind. This is especially sad, because most of the people who are meant to be the bulk of the innovative force of the nation were educated in this period, my generation included. The production we are capable of today is the product of both the infrastructure available, but even more critically the education we had growing up. While we start at the lower levels of production and build infrastructure, the people who will move the production to the full level of our potential as a nation are the ones we are educating today. We need to reform our syllabus and show more commitment to the education of our children and youths. The type, quality and content of education in post World War 2 Japan for example is very different from what they have today. It has evolved and Japanese innovation as followed in the track of its evolution. We have just entered 2014 and will soon begin the process of electing new leaders who will take over in 2015. We must ask questions about these areas I have highlighted in the two parts of this piece and weigh the answers of those who want to undertake leadership. What amount of thought have they given to issues of this nature? It should inform our choice, beyond any other thing. One thing is clear to me – our votes will count more and more in the elections to come and as it does, politicians will begin to understand that they must perform or answer to the people, at the polls. We therefore muse begin to take our votes more seriously, ask questions and cast them for the right reasons. I have attempted to cover the major points based on thoughts I have formed over the years. There might be some omissions, but the crux of the matter is clear – these are some of the key things that we must do to move from being a nation exploited from within and without, to one which achieves its full potential. […]

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