“Meant Well, Tried Little, Failed Much”

01.12.2004

Obasanjo failed muchI borrowed the title of this article from that of a lecture delivered in New York by Anne Krueger (First Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund). She in turn borrowed it from one of the works of celebrated Scottish novelist, essayist and poet, Robert Louis Stevenson. The words easily evoke dreadful solitude on President Obasanjo’s legacy after he possibly steps down in 2007.

President Obasanjo’s first term in office is still a subject of analytical conjecture. If songwriters would write a song for the president’s men in his first term, I am sure the title will be “The President Means Well”. They made it sound so good and believable. But many Nigerians will rather remember Obasanjo’s first term for Odi and Zaki-Biam; the fraud during the PDP convention at Eagle Square in 1999; harassment of the National Assembly; construction of the Abuja National Stadium without budgetary provisions; non-implementation of Appropriation Acts signed into law; Electoral Act fraud; the “shut up!” incident with displaced, homeless and crying victims of the Ikeja Cantonment bomb blasts; the confusion on the conduct of the Local Government elections as at when due; the strike by the rank and file of the Nigeria Police over non-payment of salaries; a comatose economy; and according to Chief Peter Enahoro, the love to travel and occasionally visiting Nigeria. It is actually safe to say that President Obasanjo blew a lot of goodwill away in his first term.

This was made even worse by the conduct of the 2003 general elections. Even though the presidential elections is still a subject of judicial litigation, the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Dr. Abel Guobadia while reviewing the conduct of elections at a public forum admitted that he was “under no illusion that all was well with the elections.” He went on to enumerate the issues and problems arising out of the elections as: legal and constitutional issues; funding; logistics and operational problems; voters registration and education; polling day activities/results management; political parties (issues of monitoring, party auditing, campaign and fund raising); and electoral violence. As the Umpire-in-Chief, there is no further confirmation that the elections were gravely flawed and with it the erosion of further substantial capital from President Obasanjo’s goodwill.

At the commencement of his second term, the president described himself as brand new. The president went on to constitute an economic team that is led by the former Vice President of the World Bank, Dr. Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The team drafted a reforms agenda tagged the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS). I am one of those who believe passionately in the ongoing economic reforms programme and I have written a number of articles to this effect.

My belief is borne out of the quality of human capital and technocracy that is driving the programme. I believe that the works of Dr. Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala along with Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, Prof. Charles Soludo, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili and Mr. Bode Augusto will put us on the path of economic growth. If we can successfully make progress on the management of our finances, maintain fiscal discipline using the budget, reorder our public expenditure priorities, improve our public procurement processes to achieve value for money, build a stronger financial sector and embark on public sector reforms, then we would have turned the corner with respect to the economy. As Professor Joseph Stiglitz, 2001 Nobel Prize winner in Economics wrote in The Roaring Nineties, “Economies are like large ships: they cannot be turned around quickly.” But it is one thing to turn the corner, and another to stay the course. Faced with a grim likelihood that this economic team will leave office in 2007, I am struggling with my sanity to ward off fears caused by Stevenson’s words.

The underpinnings of economic growth and development are institutions and infrastructure. Institutions and infrastructure ensure that we stay on course. I have studied many reforms scenarios around the world and the truth is that we cannot run away from this fact. NEEDS acknowledges this fact too. However, rebuilding institutions is a longer-term process as it could require qualitative human capital, increased social capital, modern technologies and leadership. But it is in the area of infrastructure that the government can score a quick win. Infrastructure encourages investment in less developed areas. To this end, the three priority categories for infrastructure development are telecommunications, power and transportation. These are the wheels of economic activity and facilitate the sustenance of economic growth.

By now we have all had our fill in celebrating the GSM revolution. At least we are no longer intimidated by the news that “even taxi drivers in Ghana have mobile phones”. Despite the shenanigans that came with it and the fact that we are still at the mercy of some GSM operators, this is good for the economy. Fixed wireless telecommunications have also greatly reduced the tyranny of NITEL while we earnestly await the commencement of the Second National Operator.

However, we need to make the move on power and transportation. The Electric Power Sector Reform (EPSR) Bill presently with the National Assembly is aimed at unbundling the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) into 18 separate entities: 6 generation companies, 11 distribution companies and 1 transmission company. If passed into law it will transform the economic landscape. Power permits the use of modern technologies and processes. With a population of about 120 million people and an annual electricity consumption estimated at about 10.74 Terawatt hour (Twh) in the year 2001, Nigeria has, by far, the largest electricity market in West Africa and the sixth largest in Africa, behind South Africa, Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Morocco. But our present per capita electricity consumption of 85Kwh is relatively low compared with other leading countries such as South Africa (4,533Kwh), Egypt (1,039Kwh) and Libya (3,921Kwh). The EPSR bill has been in the National Assembly for too long and we need presidential leadership to get it passed and signed into law. If it becomes operational and delivers some results before 2007, the president’s legacy will be better for it.

In the area of transportation, a lot of emphasis is being put into hyping the progress that is said to be made in road construction. But important as it may be, we need an efficient railway system as soon as yesterday. I cannot understand why we have stagnated on the railways for five years. Is it that policymakers do not appreciate or understand the transformational power of the rails on national development? This is absolutely unacceptable. By efficiently moving goods and services to where they can be used more effectively, the railways add value and spurs further growth. We have heard a lot of talk on private sector participation and concessioning arrangements but it is time to get rid of the rhetoric and begin to walk to the talk.

If we add these to the muddle in the deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum sector then the legacy puzzle looks to develop a dead end. Where are we on the issue of refineries? I have been told that in Libya the ownership of a refinery in the country is a precondition for lifting the country’s crude oil. Is that not a wise policy for Nigeria too? Where does deregulation start and price fixing stop?

Unfortunately, the president has only one year left to get the job done because once we enter the hullabaloo of next year’s PDP convention, presidential politics for 2007 will commence. He may find out that he alone will take his words, actions and directives seriously. But within this one year he can still accomplish these tasks while he still commands respect and authority. I am convinced that the president still has time to achieve these simple objectives and leave an enduring legacy but if he does not, then what will Stevenson make out of the words he wrote in one of his works, Across the plains: “… one who meant well, tried a little, failed much …”?

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