On Buhari’s Economic Conference: Learning From History By Leonard Karshima Shilgba

Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his book, From Third World To First: The Singapore Story (1965-2000), the following insightful words: “After years of disheartening trial and error, we concluded that Singapore’s best hope lay with American Multinational Corporations (MNCs). When the Taiwanese and Hong Kong entrepreneurs came in the 1960s, they brought low technology such as textile and toy manufacturing, labor-intensive but large-scale. American MNCs brought higher technology in large-scale operations, creating many jobs.”

Nigeria, like the nations of Israel and Singapore (of the 1960’s), is surrounded by a plume of isolation and hostility (against our economy and people) within the African sub-regions and continent. We have and are still suffering from invasions by African belligerents—both economic and militant terrorists—including home-grown, who, for various reasons, have imagined their personal interests to lie in taking up economic (e.g. currency manipulation, smuggling, black-marketing, etc.) and military arms against their nation. Nigeria is fast losing her attractiveness as a destination for business investors. We are generally not attractive, except for various exploitations by external predators, who work hand-in-gloves with strangely deranged brethren.

In the midst of erratic pendulum-like swings of the naira, plummeting of global oil prices and resulting low external reserves, gargantuan corruption that has sunk its teeth into our educational, economic, religious, and social menu, and security challenges, some Nigerians have called for an emergency economic conference. And President Buhari has responded by approving an Economic conference, which according to reports, shall hold in a matter of weeks from now. There we go again! Like Singapore, we have suffered years of disheartening trials and errors—organizing yearly economic summits, conferences on political and socio-economic Nigeria (We just concluded one expensive National conference in 2014, whose proposals or recommendations are still gathering dust on Buhari’s office shelves; that is if his government has not already binned them). We talk and talk, without meaningful and serious actions! If President Buhari’s government cares for the advice of a “non-consequential university professor”, let me offer one: Nigeria does not need to waste money on a national Economic conference. No Nigerian government has ever lacked sound advice; rather, what Nigerian governments over the years have lacked, is sound courage, selfless will, prioritization vision, and altruistic commitment to the good of the Nigerian people. Advice alone does not make a great leader, timely and right actions do. After receiving many pieces of advice, the leader is his last counsel before actions are taken; and he is responsible for them, he alone.

In order to overcome both the geographical disadvantage and the disadvantage of size and paucity of natural resources, Prime-Minister Lee Kuan Yew came up with two broad strategies:

  1. To leap-frog his city-state (of only two million people at the time) over its neighbors, and build strategic alliances beyond its stifling and hostile neighborhood.
  2. To bring First World standards to a Third World environment. In Mr. Yew’s words, his strategy was to “create a First World oasis in a Third World region.”

With regard to the first strategy, Lee Kuan Yew chose to reject the fear mongers of “dependency school” economists, whose alarmist theory of neocolonialist exploitation sought to alienate the Third World from the First World. He reckoned that since Singapore had no natural resources to be exploited by neocolonialists a strategic alliance with America’s MNCs would not hurt. All Singapore had were “hard-working people, good basic infrastructure, and a government that was determined to be honest and competent.” I guess that only very few scholars will disagree that of the three ingredients, Nigeria presently lacks only the one in the middle—good basic infrastructure. I don’t think we need an Emergency Economic Conference (EEC) to arrive at this diagnosis. The big question is, do we have the resources and will to provide the good basic infrastructure to both turn our hard-working citizens into smart-working fellows, and reduce production cost? I think Buhari’s proposed budget and his government’s ongoing global engagements all answer in the affirmative. His government is looking for both internal and external funds for the development of good basic infrastructure such as roads, railways, electricity, public water, etc. I have already written copiously on how to turn around our education sector (I don’t need to bore you with that here). I must affirm, however, that we have done great damage to our physical environment, and are paying dearly for this. I hope the ministries of environment at the national, state and local levels across Nigeria, will come up with nifty waste- and erosion-management strategies, engage in beautification of the environment, and create many leisure parks that enervate the brains. Our cities, towns, and villages are too dirty, being the capitals of garbage, eye-sores that can make your thought process to be clogged! And in building profitable alliances, we must avoid branding such as “Islamic”, “Neocolonialism”, etc. We must identify our interests clearly, and build a colony of friends based on equality and equity. And we must not sacrifice our interests in order to accommodate “foreign investors.”

The underpinning philosophy for the second strategy was that if Singapore was only as good as its neighbors, there was no need for businesses to seek to establish base in the city-state. Mr. Yew was determined, therefore, to establish First World standards in health, education, transportation, telecommunication services, and public and private security, believing that if achieved, Singapore would become a “base camp for entrepreneurs, engineers, managers, and other professionals who had businesses to do with the region.”

To bring this about, Mr. Yew embarked on aggressive training and equipping of his people with skills and habits to provide First World standards of service. Hear Mr. Yew: “I believed this was possible, that we could re-educate and re-orientate our people with the help of schools, trade unions, community centers, and social organizations. If the communist China could eradicate all flies and sparrows, surely we could get our people to change their Third World habits.”

I find the Singapore experience and its conscious and insightful leadership endowment a veritable learning scenario for Nigeria and her constituent states. Buhari’s government’s mantra of “security, economy and corruption” sounds good to the ears; however, when it comes to specifics on the economy, I only hear of diversification through emphasis on “Agriculture and Solid Minerals.” Mr. President is still incoherent on human resource development—functional education (re-education and re-orientation are required; you may read my proposals in my education series: Re-engineering Nigeria’s Education Sector) and engagement with ethnic leadership groups such as Ohaneze Indigbo, Mzough u Tiv, Afenifere, Ijaw Youth Council, Arewa Youth Council, etc., and social and labor unions, through education agencies and the National Orientation Agency. The people matter. If the government encourages service providers such as electricity DISCO’s and telecommunication companies to rip-off Nigerians through outrageous bills, its objectives will be defeated. More than two years after the defective “privatization” of our electricity commonwealth and questionable doling out of our billions of naira to the new owners as bailout, things are not positively different, and Nigerians are told to pay more for darkness! We the people matter. After “privatization” of our electricity commonwealth, many parts of Nigeria have been suffering from “load-shading” because those DISCOs cannot provide new transformers. For instance, in our area in Gboko, Benue State, where I own a house, for more than two years, the Jos DISCO has placed us on “load-shading” because they claim “the transformer cannot take everyone in the area,” yet, they have not provided the right transformer, and the bills keep climbing up; and Buhari’s government has approved hike in electricity bills! We the people matter. All I am saying is that in order to develop Nigeria’s economy, the people must be developed in mind and cared for and protected by their government.

In General Topology in mathematics, we learn of a kind of topology (place study) that Nigeria requires if we are going to free up states to compete and develop. Particular Point Topology (PPT) is the topology where open sets all include a particular point in the under-study set. If we agree to restructure Nigeria in such a way that all federating units must accommodate residents, who do their businesses there and pay their taxes, as “indigenes” with full rights, then we can make progress as a people. When we talk of the economy, we refer to the people, not only physical infrastructure.

One Republican presidential aspirant in USA has not hidden the fact that if he becomes president, he will “protect” America, engage in “smart” trade deals for his country, tighten immigration to his country, and re-define “free trade” in a way that favors America. The present occupant of the Oval office has since weaned America from foreign oil and stopped buying Nigeria’s crude oil (we are all feeling the impact of this). Do we think, if this fellow becomes America’s president and starts making good his promises, Nigeria and Nigerians will not be affected, even as China shall surely get the short end of the stick? What counter measures are we putting together? What strategies are we putting in place to reduce or discourage education and medical tourism that are both a drain on our foreign reserves and economy; do we have better home-grown alternatives? Do we have plans to attract back home the needed intellectual skills with good basic infrastructure and remuneration?

Let me conclude with this: Our needs are basic and not sophisticated. Our problem is not lack of money. Nigeria has not lost money, it is still with Nigerians. The confidence of many Nigerians in their country remains shaken, and that is recipe for social and economic decay and unrest. The people do not feel or believe their governments care enough for them to protect them from the unscrupulous business world; in fact, they are victims of the oppression of government agencies. We dread our government officials. In their imperious disposition towards the people, we, the people, have none to turn to, except to the supreme God, who is being poorly represented today in our country by very proud and equally imperious “men of God.” I have been so discouraged lately about Nigeria, and refused to write about her for a long time. But I could not resist the urge to write this piece. I weep, O, I weep for my country. We don’t have a nation yet.

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