Breaking the mould
By Kemela Okara
1 Jan, 1900

Changing Our Politics

The late Claude Ake writing on two complementary aspects of politics and economics – democracy and development wrote in his aptly titled book Democracy and Development in Africa “the assumption so readily made that there has been a failure of development is misleading.” Ake went on further to say, “The problem is not so much that development has failed as that it was never really on the agenda in the first place. By all indications, political conditions in Africa are the greatest impediment to development.” The point Ake was making was that in the African context and by implication the Nigerian context as well – development as a measurement in improving the material and social wellbeing of its people has never been on the agenda of the political elite. Claude Ake unfortunately died tragically soon after making these prescient statements in a plane crash in the wetlands of Epe, Lagos State sometime in November 1996. Fortunately, we have The Brookings Institute, Washington DC to thank for the posthumous publication of this particular book.  


In the same book Claude Ake would also argue that our political elite are singularly consumed with the business of capturing and maintaining political power as to have no time for other meaningful ventures such as development. He would also posit that the root causes of this seemingly unbelievable disinterest in development, stems from our colonial masters who handed over to our founding Fathers the apparatus of government that had one sole objective – the extraction of economic benefit for the colonialists. In other words therefore, though colonialism is long gone the objective of colonialism marches on nevertheless i.e. economic extraction for the few through the instrumentality of the State. If Ake is to be believed it would appear that each new set of political actors has wittingly or unwittingly followed the colonial script – the self-serving extraction of maximal economic benefit for those in control of political power.


This analysis is so alarming, and contrary to our expectations of democracy that one might be quick to argue that Claude Ake a Political Economist of yester years wrote in the context of the early years of independence and the long periods of military rule that came afterwards. But if we pause for a moment and critically consider the twin subjects of democracy and development in the light of current political and economic developments in Nigeria there might be cause for us to see that perhaps Ake was indeed prophetic in his observations. Consider for a moment the much discussed recent World Bank Country Report for Nigeria this year. In the introductory note, the writers of this first ever country report on Nigeria state “This first Nigeria Economic Report will give some attention to longer term trends in the country, including the puzzle of why a decade of rapid GDP growth by official statistics, concentrated in the pro-poor areas of agriculture and trade, did not bring stronger welfare and employment benefits to the population.”

We may argue for any number of reasons about this “puzzle” which puzzled the writers depending on our interpretation of the data presented in the report. However, one fact is unarguable and that is that the rate of unemployment in Nigeria going by the 2011 data referred to in the World Bank report averages at 44.6% of the adult population. In other words despite our unprecedented GDP growth, unemployment and by implication poverty prevails. High unemployment creates huge economic and social problems that are beyond the scope of this article to discuss in detail. Nevertheless, simple arithmetic would indicate that if close to 50% of our adult population are apparently unemployed, then in the absence of a  funded social welfare scheme, poverty, ill-health, illiteracy and insecurity are bound to proliferate and deepen the divide between the rich and the poor. More so, where this unprecedented GDP growth sits side by side with record unemployment.


Countries that have succeeded in lifting huge sections of their populace out of poverty have done so through the creation of jobs. This in turn depended largely on the macro-economic context set by their political leadership to create the context for the Real sector to grow. In Brazil for instance, over 30 million people were lifted out of poverty in a 10year period under the Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva government. China through purposeful leadership sidestepped its Communist ideology, shifted from centrally planned retrogressive economics to creating a market-based economy. China today has become the 2nd largest economy in the world, achieving this feat in 30 years.  


That being the case we are faced with some hard economic realities whose solution lies squarely within the political space where policies and implementation mechanisms must create conditions for the wholesale lifting of huge numbers of our populace out of poverty. It is a tragic milestone that in a 10year period of unprecedented growth in our nation’s GDP adult unemployment stands at 44.6%.


A close look at the factors behind our GDP growth reveals the obvious secret to this year on year growth - unprecedented world demand for Oil accompanied by record prices. Fiscal prudence such as savings made through the Excess Crude Account has undoubtedly also created a buffer from the cyclical nature of commodity prices. But this has not created enough new jobs for our teeming population of unemployed men and women.


Job creation and entrepreneurship require growth in the real sector which itself depends on creating a development focused political environment. The challenge is whether we will exercise the political will to shift our politics from a paradigm of political power focused on economic extraction for the few to an all inclusive development minded politics that creates jobs and wealth for the many. I believe we have no choice but to adopt the latter objective. Continuing along our current path carries the risk of even greater insecurity and the worse risk of social implosion such as we have never seen.




Our Politics Needs A Rebirth


By Kemela Okara


Previously, I made the point that development has seemingly never been on the agenda of Nigerian politics. The point I was making was that our politics appears to be defined by one singular objective – capturing political power and the resources that come with it. It would appear that our hopes and aspirations as Nigerians are of little or no consequence, because we have not as yet successfully negotiated a proper social contract with those we supposedly elect to represent us. The Nigerian variant of party politics has a strong selfish retrogressive flavour to it. Impunity, lawlessness and mediocrity are the predominant feature in our case; almost as it were our own grundnorm. In the long run, these can only lead to the perpetuation of poverty and national underachievement on every front.


If you were in any doubt about our type of politics, the mayhem in the Rivers State House of Assembly provides a good case study. I was fascinated by the events that took place especially the sheer ferocity of the violence that YouTube obliged us with. The image of a member of the Rivers State House of Assembly wielding a mace and clobbering a fellow member on the head will remain forever etched in my mind. It became a seminal definition of our crude and self-serving politics. The violence was so repugnant that YouTube warned viewers about the violent nature of the video they were about to watch. Next was the comical video showing 5 members of the House of Assembly supposedly impeaching the Speaker of a 32member Assembly. These 2 events despite their crudity provided a useful insight into the thinking that underpins our politics. First, that political power and its privileges must be preserved at all costs even at the risk of clobbering another man to death in the full glare of the public and in the hallowed chambers of law making at that! Second, that no institution is sacrosanct when it comes to subversion of the rule of law and norms of decency in the pursuit of political power.


In these circumstances the urgent question our politics presents is this: who articulates the vision of a shared future that can inspire all Nigerians to work hard for? Who assures us that certain shared ideals will be upheld in all circumstances? President Jonathan’s vision is the Transformation Agenda. Before this it was the 7Point Agenda of the late President Umaru Yar’ Adua. In Obasanjo’s era it was NEEDS. Going further back I cannot recall if General Abdulsalam had any clear-cut vision during his brief tenure after Abacha’s death. Abacha himself had the Vision 2010. Before him Babangida gave us the Structural Adjustment Programme. Buhari introduced War Against Indiscipline (WAI) after the profligate Shagari era. Lest we forget, Shehu Shagari’s vision was the Green Revolution. In the last 28 years therefore we have had various visions and policies regarding Nigeria’s future. Yet nothing fundamentally changed. In the same period China lifted itself out of poverty to become the 2nd largest economy in the world. The last 14 years of democracy have been no different in terms of the proliferation of visions and policies. First it was NEEDS and then Yar’Adua’s 7 Point agenda which sought to dismantle the policy imperatives of Obasanjo’s NEEDS. Incidentally, Yar Adua was Obasanjo’s anointed successor elected on the same party platform. Now consider that despite these great lofty visions and policy statements adult unemployment stands at 44.6% in 2013. Clearly something is wrong if we cannot align lofty visions and policies to commensurate improvements in the human condition.


As a nation we cannot afford to continue along this path where our politics is perceived as a narcissistic self-absorbed exercise divorced from the hard economic realities faced by the vast majority of the Nigerian populace struggling with poverty and unemployment. To do so would not just be irresponsible it would ultimately be suicidal. Thankfully in the Niger Delta the guns are silent and the creeks are safe. But for how long? What happens next after Boko Haram is contained? Will a worse menace take its place? In the Niger Delta, poverty and unemployment provided a pipeline of ready recruits to militancy. In the North, poverty and unemployment likewise presented Islamic extremists with a rich recruiting pool. If unemployment does not decrease or worse still if unemployment continues to grow, will we not have fresh recruits for new variants of the Niger Delta militancy? In the North, would these conditions not lend themselves to a proliferation of Islamic extremists who want to spread terror?


Our politics clearly needs a rebirth. We have hitherto addressed our backwardness from a technical point of view requiring the adoption of appropriate technical measures other previously backward nations adopted to overcome poverty and unemployment. Singapore for example has become a mantra amongst our technocrats. However, as many of these same technocrats who have served in successive governments would tell us where the political will is lacking the best policy proposals simply gather dust or are soon forgotten. Ask those who were involved in articulating Vision 20:20 one of the best technocrat driven attempts at national blueprint. Clearly therefore our problems are not simply technical but also adaptive in nature. Our problems are also adaptive because the solution requires our politicians to change their underlying motivation. Though this itself is a tall order we have no choice because of the stark realities of the Nigerian condition.


With 2015 elections less than a year away we do not have much choice but to change. It would be foolhardy to expect that Nigerians who have displayed a seemingly inexhaustible capacity for endurance in the face of hardship would continue as before. The danger with a people who seem to have perfected this art of endurance is that you don’t know when they would snap with irreversible consequences in tow. In Tunisia they snapped. In Egypt they snapped. We must choose to learn from history.