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Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Poverty Conspiracy


Nigeria is determined to be poor.  The evidence, at least to me, and quite a few others is overwhelming.  Elite culture, the politics of the land, citizenship behaviour or lack of it and unjust institutions, orient our endowed land, it seems, towards poverty and the strife that comes with it. 
The real problem is how this determination is likely to harm others and leave a region and race prostrate.  As the wind of change, beginning in what is, ironically, Africa’s most competitive economy, Tunisia, spreads, it is hard not to wonder about the choices that make us poor in the face of plenty and how to avert the coming anarchy.

Who are the conspirators in Nigeria’s war of attrition against progress.  I like very much to reflect on the views of Financial Times editorial staff person, the Economic Historian Alan Beattie in his book, False Economy, A Surprising Economic History of the World. 
  Beattie makes the point that the success,  and failure of nations is not the result of one pivotal event or the other but of a series of events which show that choices made, rather than some destiny, is accountable for the state of prosperity, or progress, in that sovereign entity.
Beattie picks one of my favourite examples, the divergence of the paths of Argentina and the United States. 
How did Argentina, competing and  more or less at par with the United States, and until the 1930s, one of the top 10 economies in the World, drop from first world to third world, as the US went on to become the world’s preeminent economy.  To quote Beattie from False Economy:  “There was no individual event at which Argentina’s at which Argentina’s future was irrevocably determined or its path set on a permanent divergence from that of the United States of America.  But there was a series of mistakes, and missteps that fit a general pattern.  The countries were dealt similar hands but played them differently”.

I am of a similar view as Beattie, and as such have dedicated the last two decades of my life, not to find the “dam event” in Arnold Toynbee’s frustrated depiction of how history is chronicled, but to identify those mistakes and missteps that have together led to a separation in the fortunes between once similar nations as Nigeria, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. 
With Nigeria as constant, I have tried to understand what went wrong, using its “development twin” Indonesia, which at the time Nigeria was hailed as a coming great power in the 1960s was written off by Nobel Prize winning economist Gunnar Myrdal in his Asian Drama as locked in the intrinsic stagnation.  For great clarity and the impact of leadership, I have compared Nigeria with Singapore which as Argentina was moving from first world to the third did the opposite journey from Third world to the first under Lee Kuan Yew, knowing that in the typical Nigerian manner, the size of Singapore will be used as excuse. 
But very often I have settled for the example of Malaysia which is somewhere in between or turned to South Korea to point to the difference attitudes to education and entrepreneurship can make. Whichever way you turn it, Nigeria is poor, and likely to continue so, except if radical transformation takes place, because of the missteps we take.  It should be fair therefore to say that judgement will come to this land and these times from global journalism, the anger of our children, the writers of history and ultimately, for people of faith, the creator of us all.

The trouble with Nigeria is that many think it will come mainly to politicians who have done a lot, no doubt, to damage our lives, either from greed or ignorance.  I see it coming to most of us; to the businessmen who will not lift their purses to encourage change, perhaps because their personal fortunes come from the misfortune of the absence of level playing fields; to middle class people so protective of their Land Cruisers they dare not speak truth to power; to policemen who allow ruling parties to convert them to uniformed thugs of the party, and judges who corruptly adjudicate; and even opposition politicians who see more of their ego than prospects of rescuing their country from bad governance when collaboration talks come up. 
I think history has the capacity to bring us all to judgement.  It will be deserved, but I worry more for the judgement of our children who, looking at Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and others may visit this generation that has voted to keep Nigeria poor, inclined towards the road to Somalia, and testing of Robert Kaplan’s Coming Anarchy; with a fire of judgement that can burn really wild.  I have chosen not to engage with the current pastime of guessing whether the fire will come sooner than later, and those who argue whether it can happen here or not.  I have opted instead to stay with how we will be judged and perhaps with providing an early draft historian can consider.

When I said Nigeria was determined to be poor, it was with a sense for the choices we have made repeatedly that set us on the course of damaging the dignity of the human person.  Speaking to a group of friends in Washington D.C. last week I had talked about how my scholarship has profited from activism in civil society and eventually as a political actor.
  It all has set me up on a course of inquiry in which my next book project has a rather peculiar title:  Nigeria – The Pursuit of Poverty.  In this track, I have found great fascination in how a fatalist streak of expecting Nigeria to be great, big and prosperous as a matter of course and God’s goodness, on the part of leading citizens and politicians.  This  goes on even as their actions lead logically to expecting the opposite consequence.

While  as this provides me good feed stock as a academic anxious to analyze the evolution of economic intercourse, it frustrates me as a politician and social engineer desiring “the end of poverty” in a Jeffrey Sachs sense of the usage.  As a citizen and patriot it brings pain to see our doings sacrifice the dreams of the founding fathers as I struggle to understand the depletion of foreign reserves. Collapsing infrastructure etc.

I stay awake sometimes thinking which way tomorrow’s economic historian interested more in systems, processes and institutions, in the manner of the Nobel Laureate, Douglass North, in his seminal book Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance   will treat our times, as different from the one looking for the damn event like military rule to explain how we dropped from forward looking to backwardness.  More importantly I wonder if Nigeria will tomorrow be the example of Haiti I use today when I talk about decline.  It shocks many to know that the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti, once had the highest per capita income in the world. 
As it happened to Haiti in the 19 Century, so it  happened to Argentina in the twentieth century.  With predictions from the US global trends surveys about possible failed state status for Nigeria, Kaplan’s vision of regional descent into anarchy etc, I ask myself if Nineveh is possible.  Can a serious elite emerge in Nigeria that says No as the message of the Prophet Jonah comes and recants its ways steering the country away from a disaster foretold.  As evidence exists that corruption, and state capture by the simple minded, enshrined in the culture of elite accommodation in the sharing of economic rent which the ruling party, the PDP symbolizes, are the main culprits, I wonder about a Mea cupla that can save.

There are many reasons I sleep badly.  One is watching former IMF Chief Economist, Raghuram Rajan speak in the documentary “inside job” about disaster foretold that became the global financial meltdown.  I had loved the thesis advanced by him and his old University of Chicago colleague Luigi Zingales in their book: Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists a few years earlier.  Like North they had preached that institutions were the key stone as I have for years. 
I lament that as US President Barrack Obama pointed out in Ghana Africa needs strong institutions, not strongmen. The institutions are weak and art weakened daily in Nigeria.  I look at my people and they are damaging our institutions and waiting for a Messiah.  Thank God I am not a Prophet.
•Prof. Pat Utomi

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