CAN Nigeria attain a multi-trillion dollar economy? Yes we can, after all we were on path to a trillion-dollar gross domestic product in the first 15 years of this 21st century with GDP quadrupling to $0.6 trillion. Then oil prices crashed and a statist regime happened on us thus dousing the engines of growth. Seven years on, the economy is barely at the 2015 level, the year the dirigiste took power. To understand what happened to us in the last seven years some historical perspective is necessary.
Before the onset of self-government and independence of the 1950s and ‘6os, the ruling colonial masters did not have to canvas for votes and make campaign promises. Indeed, they expended very low budgets on the welfare of Nigerian peoples. Therefore, progressive Nigerian communities through self-help efforts built up their social infrastructure like schools and inter-city roads. This spirit of communities implementing self-help projects spread across the country. At the same time, Nigerian-owned businesses were growing alongside foreign companies. We had the Sir Ojukwus; the Odutolas; the Ajanakus; the Dantatas and the Rabius (both of Kano City.) A strong laissez faire and ‘can do spirit’ was growing in the populace before self-government and independence.
With the approach of independence, vote seeking politicians went agog with campaign promises of free this free that. With the semblance of success of Nigerian governments meeting these promises, politicians assumed a messianic role, they would eventually provide a good life for all. The community self-actualization spirit and individual entrepreneurial character that had germinated and was growing in colonial Nigeria was replaced by a dependency spirit; this time dependence on politicians and governments.
Then oil happened to us! Governments loomed larger and community-owned developments receded. More messianic propaganda from governments were rolled out. All schools, including mission schools, were taken over by governments. Housing for all by the year 2000, free education to university, drinking water for all by 2000 were usual government pronouncements. Governments loomed large in business too, taking over the first refinery in Nigeria then owned by Shell. A private power station supplying Jos metropolis was also taken over by the Federal Government. Forced indigenization of private companies meant compulsory takeover of private companies. This is definitely not how to groom entrepreneurship.
By the end of the ’70s, perception had changed governments were to provide all and for all. The budding self-help community spirit and entrepreneurial spirit receded. Government body language led to high expectations from the populace. Government parastatals were set up to produce steel, power, roads, shipping, etc. The leading entrepreneurs of earlier years receded from public view to be replaced by these parastatals and other leeches on government. Imagine what this did to the dreams of young adults coming of age in these post-colonial years when government loomed larger than life. Many of us could not dream beyond owning a small to medium service providing business. Owning refineries, cement plants was beyond our dreams.
From the dizzying heights of the economy, government went down to the lows as well, promising rural roads, universal free primary education, primary health care, and conducting marriages. Indeed, government had bitten far more than it could chew and it started to tell. Failed promises across board, poor quality in all services government attempted to provide. All parastatals in the commanding heights failed. Roads failed right from construction. They mauled education offering ‘maulducation’. There were no more drugs, oxygen, blood or equipment in hospitals. No piped potable water from water boards.
Meanwhile the masters, politicians, military and civilians, grew richer in both times of boom and times of lean. Politics became the biggest and most enticing but damaging business in the country. As an anonymous writer opined ‘No country can progress when it’s politics is more profitable than it’s industry’
However, you can’t fool people all the time. While the Nigerian elite hung on to and believed government promises, the ordinary man had moved on upon realizing it was all a farce. They took charge of their lives again. They started private primary and nursery schools, treated water and packaged them for sale. Restless and creative artists with simple video cameras churned out home videos and in no time Nollywood was born. Let me ask which government policy produced Nollywood? While the Nigerian elite were complaining of one government or the other, the ordinary man went about his business. The nursery and primary schools that started from a rented apartment grew to become better built and equipped. Same for private secondary schools and later private universities. Nollywood became the third largest after Bollywood and Hollywood, watched all over the world.
This undercurrent went virtually unnoticed by our economic planners until banks were told to increase their capital base by a factor of around ten. Going to the capital market, these banks’ shares were oversubscribed. Mobile phones debuted and more people than expected could afford them. Most Nigerian cities were busting at the seams. These sent signals to planners and they were forced to reassess the economy. Our people’s mentality had changed; they had become ‘libertarian’, much so that they defended selling their votes to politicians, saying ‘that is the most they can get from politicians anyway’. They no longer believed campaign promises, they would rather take the dividend of democracy upfront!
This liberation from government dependency, I believe, contributed markedly to growth during the period under review 2000 – 2015. It can be likened to the year when Chinese leader Xiaoping Deng declared to the Chinese people that it was “okay to be rich” or that it mattered not whether a black cat or white cat caught the mice so long the mouse was caught—Deng’s defense for jettisoning central planning for the free market. Nigeria has never had a Deng in leadership but we have had a rebirth amongst the unlettered making up the common people.
Why this acknowledgment of the entrepreneurship of our common man? Because their role and contribution to economic growth and development is never recognized by the intelligentsia. Listening to these scholarly people on ways to drive development, all they tell us is how or what government should do. To them economic development starts and ends with government. Where was government when Nollywood over took Bollywood and is now second largest. Is our biggest non-oil export earner, polished sesame seed, a direct result of government policy? Where is the government Sesame Seed Research Institution?
Policies are built around top-down, trickle-down visions that have failed us repeatedly. When will our scholars come to the realization that Nigerian governments are the biggest obstacle to the transformation of the country through wrong policies, over regulation and excessive taxation? Add to this the expensive lifestyle of the politicians and their partners, the career bureaucrats. The common man, the informal private sector and organized private sector are driving the economy and should be in the driver’s seat, not the bureaucrat or politician in Abuja or Abeokuta or Enugu.
To lift tens of millions into middle class, Nigeria needs to get on the path of double digit economic growth. This can only be done by harnessing this spirit of enterprise that cuts across the peoples of Nigeria. Unfortunately, while governments say our country is open for business, in real terms they stifle their people’s zeal by placing obstacles in the path of small scale investors. Furthermore let us kindle the spirit of innovation in our peoples because innovation perpetuates societal wealth. As in China, Nigeria has to move from its present dirigisme to a more liberal almost libertarian outlook.