The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic exacerbated some of the lingering issues in Nigeria; notably poverty and insecurity. Also, some of the economic gains of the previous years were wiped away, unemployment grew and many people lacked the opportunity, technology and infrastructure to transition to remote working, leaving Africa’s largest economy behind. Olugbenga Adesida, lead advisor, Imagine Nigeria, spoke about a report on multi-stakeholder efforts garnered to create a desirable future for Nigeria beyond its current realities in this interview with DAVID IJASEUN. Excerpts:
As a team member that worked on the Imagine Nigeria Initiative, can you give us an overview of what it is about?
Imagine Nigeria was initiated at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, not as a project in the typical sense, a medium-term development plan, or a vision document. It was initiated by the Federal Government in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The initiative was launched to provide a framework for collective reflection on the future of our country. It is also a participatory, strategic foresight to ponder on some basic but critical questions: where are we as a nation, where are we going, where do we want to go, and how do we get there? These questions formed the basis of our engagement with experts and stakeholders in and outside of Nigeria. The goal was not to draw up specific plans or projects but to come up with ideas and frameworks that can be the basis for Nigeria’s transformation. The report and other outputs of the exercise were launched by Yemi Osinbajo, the Vice President of Nigeria, who served as the Chair of the High-Level Panel that led the exercise; made up of distinguished personalities from various sectors of Nigeria that provided the leadership and guidance needed. Following the public presentation of the reports, we are now in the process of engaging with stakeholders on the recommendations and trying to stimulate a national conversation on the future of Nigeria and hope in the process to mobilise for actions. For more information on Imagine Nigeria and to engage with the team, do visit our website (https://imaginenigeria.ng/).
During the process of preparing this report, what were the challenges faced by the team in coming up with the recommendation?
As indicated earlier, Imagine Nigeria began at the height of the COVID lockdown in 2020. As designed, the initiative is a strategic and participatory foresight exercise. This means we need to engage with people across Nigeria and in Diaspora but we could not organise meetings. I have done foresight exercises in many countries over the years; a critical part of the process always involved face-to-face meetings whether it is retreats, learning workshops, or stakeholder consultations. Here, we were at the height of COVID-19 lockdown, and could not organise meetings. Even the team could not really organise face-to-face meetings and we had to shift everything online. That poses it is own challenges.
The other major issue is reaching a consensus on the things that will drive the future of Nigeria.
Given the enormity of the challenges facing the nation, it is tempting for one to list and recommend that we do everything which is not realistic.
So, the process of coming up with and setting priority recommendations took us time. But at the end, we are confident that the set of recommendations we have made in the report are the key to Nigeria’s transformation.
To the average Nigerian, this report can look like the government passing the buck to the citizenry? Can you tell us why a large part of this initiative is citizen-leaning?
We need to be careful not to make an erroneous assumption that development is something for the government to do or bring about alone. We as a society cannot outsource development to government. Government alone cannot develop or transform a nation. The private sector has important role to play so also is the civil society. More importantly, we the people must be engaged and in some cases, we must take the lead. The report is not to pass the bulk from the Government to the citizens. It is about recognising that all stakeholders in the “Nigerian enterprise” have important roles to play. The government has to formulate policies to ensure an enabling environment; set the rules and guarantee enforcement, as well as mobilise the various sectors towards a national agenda. The private sector does the business, creates opportunities and plays an outsized role in creating and building wealth. The citizen in any society occupies the most important position. They are the driver especially in democratic societies. They elect the leadership at all levels of governance. They are the watchdog; they can encourage and sanction leaders. They play a determinant role in setting up businesses and in driving civil society organisations.
As such, this is not passing the bulk but recognizing an important fact which must be recognized if we are to ensure our nation is transformed in the coming decades.
Tell us about the national narrative and what the government is doing to let it permeate the country?
Narrative is the story we tell ourselves and others about ourselves; who are we as Nigerians? The Imagine Nigeria exercise strongly recommends that we develop new stories about ourselves based on facts and deeds, what we believe, and what our nation can always strive to attain. What we are proposing for our nation is to begin the process of developing the narratives. It should also be about defining who we are as a people. What are our values? What do we stand for as a nation? And, importantly, developing a social or national compact that all Nigerians can subscribe to, including foreigners who will want to be part of this new Nigeria. After all, many in the world strive to go to America, in the search of the American dream. Why not Nigeria? What is our Nigerian dream?
We can define our Nigerian dream. But it is not going to happen overnight. It is not something that the government can decree or could come one group of people. It has to be an organic process but with strategic push and support from various quarters, including the government, the creatives (including musicians, artists, and film makers), etc.
For example, assistance and grants for our creatives to tell our stories will be part of the solution. Essentially, the entire nation will have to be engaged. At different times Nigerian governments have had different programs within the Ministry of Information and we also have the National Orientation Agency. These and other parts of the government have over the years been engaged on this issue. What is necessary now is that we need to be more strategic as a nation and we need to engage everyone in the effort. It must be a collective endeavor.
Due to the inefficiency of public office holders, there is a trust deficit between government and the people. Can you tell us in practical ways how this trust can be built?
Trust is a major problem today globally, not just in Nigeria. It is what has led to improved performance by extremists in European and American elections. The origin of the trust deficit is multi-faceted and it is fueled by many things; some real and some not.
In Nigeria, we can ascribe the trust deficit to many issues, including economic performance which has been below par for decades and in the process limit opportunities for most families to meet their needs; the increasing levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality are indicators of this also.
Others factors include the rising levels of insecurity, the overall perception that corruption is increasing, and the separation between those that are “governing” and those that are “governed”; the leaders from the followers.
Moreover, the government’s inability to deliver on promises over the years has fueled cynicism around the world resulting in many people withdrawing from the public sphere.
(Re)Building trust will not be easy. It is not something that can be done by the government and delivered to the masses, it has to be a societal endeavor. In fact, the issue is complex and it is not simply about the people not trusting their governments or their leaders; it also has to do with people not trusting each other. Hence, we all have to be engaged in the process of rebuilding trust in our society. One of the fastest way we can begin to rebuild trust is by enhancing citizens participation and engagement in civic and political life. We as a society need to promote inclusion and make participation easier for citizens.
We need to be careful not to make an erroneous assumption that development is something for the government to do or bring about alone.
We also need to build institutions and seriously invest to end impunity. No one should be above the law; people, especially leaders, should face the penalties when they break the law.
We also need to invest in peace by building a national peace architecture, ensuring that we build a strong policing system, and digitise government services. Digitisation is critical to removing a lot of the discretion of civil servants that empowers people to seek bribes. Additionally, the nation needs to decentralise power to the states and local governments. The authorities at the sub-regional levels must be empowered and made accountable.
These are some of the ideas from the Imagine Nigeria report. We should be able start the arduous process of rebuilding trust if we as a society are able to implement some of these ideas.
A lot has been said about climate change and environmental sustainability with the effect that industrialisation had on it. Do you think a barely industrialised country like ours should be toeing the part that more developed economies are, keeping in mind that we have to embrace industrialisation if we are to develop our economy.
I think this question refers to our recommendation on the need for Nigeria to catalyse the green economy. We do need to make it clear to Nigerians at large; this is not about toeing the developed economies or the West. We also are not saying do not industrialise. What we are saying, let’s industrialise and be the leader in the green economy space.
We made these recommendations because it is in our strategic national interest, we have no choice.
The days of oil as the “black gold” are numbered. Many countries in the world are trying to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels and some cities around the world have set a date to ban the use of petrol fueled cars from their roads. In addition, consumers are also voting with their wallets by slowly going green. Likewise, we now have many investors and some of the major asset management companies around the world pledging to stop investment in fossil fuel industries. So, really, oil is not an option in the long term.
What we must do is to be strategic; explore where the world is going with the green agenda and see how we can get to the future first in certain areas or value chains. We need to put in place the policies to create the enabling environment; build a supportive institutional framework; incentivize our businesses and investors to invest in green industries; ensure our educational institutions are training people for the green sector; encourage our research centers to take on green economy as a key area of focus, and we must encourage linkages by our emerging innovative enterprises with research centers and industries.This has to be a national challenge. We cannot afford to miss the opportunities in the global green value chains that are emerging and would emerge in the future. We need to ensure we have the institutional framework to bring the different actors/stakeholders together and push forward.
We have to set the goal and work hard to lead the world in some of the emerging value chains in the green space. It is the only way we will be able to create wealth and jobs, end absolute poverty as we know it today with our fast growing population.
Innovation is integral to building a sustainable economy. What must we do to create a more enabling business environment for innovation to thrive?
Yes. Innovation is key! It is in our view critical for everything that we do. We must be more innovative, become more creative and strive to build an innovation driven society. How? In our view, the first goal must be to build a more robust national innovation system. The basic fact is that like many countries in the developing world, our innovation system continues to be weak and it is only just emerging. It is missing critical elements.
Innovation is a social activity. A country’s capacity to innovate is highly dependent on the strength of relationships and information flows among key stakeholders. In the earlier version, this refers to the triple helix; that is, the linkages between Industry, Government and Academia. In recent years, this has been expanded to the Quadruple Helix which adds the community/activists to the mix.
A key challenge and focus is to seek ways to strengthen the relationships and information flows among the stakeholders. Specifically, Nigeria must formulate and implement strategies and policies for innovation that promotes an enabling environment. There must be incentives to promote innovation.
Similarly, there is a need to build an adequate institutional framework that is responsive and able to drive the nation’s innovation agenda.
This might, in Nigeria, require the assessment, revamping and reengineering the existing institutions. There is also a need to make financing available to innovative startups and SMEs. This is key and there are various options.
The first approach is to make it profitable for people, firms and institutions to invest in innovative startups, provide the regulatory framework for pension funds and insurance companies to invest in venture capital funds, as well as providing incentives for big firms to partner and invest in innovative startups.
We must invest in incubation including providing support for networking, mentoring and coaching for the next generation of innovator-entrepreneurs that are solving societal problems. Another element of building an innovation driven society is the educational system. There is a need to invest in education, skills development and in research. We must invest in research and facilitate exchange between academia and research institutions with industry. Industries should also be incentivised to invest in research and development.
In addition, we must ensure that our educational system is centered on learning how to learn, as well as how to think so that students learn how to identify and solve problems. Coupled with this, is the need to focus on problems facing our society.
We can no longer, as society, afford to invest in training students for years and when they finish, they are unable to function in industry. This highlights the need for entrepreneurial education within our curriculum. Our goal as a nation should be to ensure that each graduate of our tertiary institutions must be trained as innovators, entrepreneurs and leaders.
In all, it depends on what we place value on as a society. Are we valuing innovators? Are valuing problem solvers? Are we valuing those who are the real builders? We as a society must begin to value people that are problem solvers, whether in the economy, business, social sector or others.