• Saturday, July 13, 2024
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BusinessDay

Economic imperatives of political reform

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I am not one of those who are so pessimistic as to dismiss the National Conference as a worthless exercise. The other week, heavily armed men descended on the sleepy villages of Southern Kaduna, massacring hundreds of innocent, defenceless people. At the deepest spiritual level, we are no longer one people. Unless we can really address the foundational issues of our collective existence, the survival of Nigeria would be in mortal peril.

I shall have occasion to make my own contributions to the political debate. However, my column this week will dwell on the economic aspects of political reform.

Nigeria is a land of veritable paradoxes. We are a nation well endowed by the Almighty with a surfeit and embarrassment of natural resource riches – the sixth largest oil producer within OPEC. We have the potential to be among the leading nations of the twenty-first century. But we remain one of the poorest nations on earth. Average life-expectancy stands at a frightening 53 years while maternal mortality rates and infant deaths remain at abysmal levels. Our educational system is so backward that our emerging middle classes take pride in sending their children to Ghana; a country whose economy is smaller than that of the City of Lagos. Several Nigerian students have been murdered on Ghanaian campuses recently. Our physical infrastructures remain in a parlous condition. We do not have speed trains. Steady electricity supply remains largely a luxury for the lucky few. Lawlessness reigns supreme while the culture of random, nihilistic violence remains the order of the day. Our roads have the worst carnage record globally.

Nigeria can be such an amazingly wonderful place; but its capacity for shocking brutality is so dispiriting that it can drive one to complete bewilderment. The youth are so desperate that a small matter of a recruitment exercise by the immigration department led to the death of 23 desperate jobseekers. Youth unemployment stands at a staggering 60 percent. Jobless youths with no hope and no social safety nets have little options than the seedy streets of prostitution and the highway. We are land of sorrows; a people acquainted with grief.

From the economic viewpoint, the Nigerian system is a monumental failure, never minding the impressive macroeconomic growth statistics that are being bandied about. It used to be said of Brazil in those days that “the economy is doing well but the people are not”. The same can be said of Nigeria at the second decade of our new millennium.

From the viewpoint of constitutional re-engineering, several questions emerge: Does the current 36-state structure make sense from the public-finance point of view? Does our expensive presidential system deliver in terms of value-for-money? Do we need 774 local governments with their own paraphernalia of cabinets, councillors and what have you?  Do we need a bicameral legislature with 109 senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives? Can we afford full-time legislatures at the State level? And do we need such a bloated public service at the federal, state and local government levels?

One of the most worrying trends in public finance is the fact that capital expenditure has actually been falling instead of rising. It has fallen from 32.50 percent during the 2013 budget to 23.50 percent during 2014. A country that spends the bulk of its resources on consumption rather than long-term investments cannot have much of an economic future to speak of. We in Nigeria seem to have reversed the trend for emerging economies such as China, Brazil, Malaysia, Turkey and Indonesia who spend over 70 percent of their budgetary resources on capital expenditure.

It seems clear that our current constitutional model does not support the logic of economic prudence. The debate therefore has to move in the direction of how to evolve a more cost-effective political system that delivers, in the words of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, “the greatest good for the greatest number”. Elder statesmen such as Chief Emeka Anyaoku and others advocate a return to some form of regional structure. I would tend to agree with them.

But it would be foolhardy to return to the political structure that we had in the 1960s. Nigerian federalism collapsed, according to Dame Margery Perham, the eminent authority on British colonial administration, because it was based on a “tripod”. In geometric terms, a tripod is an inherently unstable structure — more so because the North was overwhelmingly dominant. Federalist scholars such as Kenneth Wheare and others have taught that federating units should be such that no one unit becomes overwhelmingly dominant.  But I would not support adopting the current six geopolitical zone structure; a concept inherited from the military rulers that does not reflect the real political interests of the collectivities that make up our country.  We need perhaps no more than seven provinces or regions, each with a regional and provincial government.

I am also a convert to constitutional parliamentarianism in which the Prime Minister is the executive, with a ceremonial President constitutionally empowered to dissolve the government in the event of a constitutional crisis.  We need a parliamentary system in which ministers are also elected parliamentarians, with the government having prerogative in appointing a number of cabinet posts.

Nigerians demand economic institutions that can deliver on collective welfare. Across most countries in the world, the norm is in favour of autonomy for central banks. But I am persuaded that the 2007 CBN Act should be reviewed. Only an angel would not be tempted to abuse the kind of power that was accorded the CBN Governor through legislative stealth.

We must also break the power of the iniquitous cartels.  A free market economy without a system of transparent regulation and anti-monopolies legislation is like playing Hamlet without the Prince. Every schoolboy knows that the Nigerian economy has been hijacked by cartels whose prisoners we have become. Nigerians are paying a heavy price for having both an expensive government and an expensive private sector. Such iniquity cannot prevail.

OBADIAH MAILAFIA