The Danger of Failed Expectations
I remember that day in May 1999. As General Matthew Olusegun Okikiola Aremu Obasanjo took office to become the elected President of Nigeria, the Nigerian people surrendered to him their hopes and expectations. The first term of the Obasanjo presidency is still a subject of contextual debate but ten months into his second term, the government finally launched a reform programme called the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy – NEEDS. It is the belief of the Federal Government as stated in the NEEDS document that a coordinated implementation of NEEDS with that of the states (SEEDS) “is expected to create at least seven million new jobs over the period, reduce poverty, and lay the foundation for sustained development”.
However, the archetypical attitude of many Nigerians to NEEDS is that “it will not work.” Undoubtedly, NEEDS is a victim of incipient pessimism. This is borne out of Nigeria’s history and experience since independence in 1960 regarding the processes of development, which is one of failed expectations despite the truism that this is the most populous country in Africa, the 10th in the world and a nation endowed with enormous human and natural resources – one in seven Africans, about 120 million people, nearly 300 ethnic groups, abundant oil and gas reserves, vast arable land and various solid minerals deposits.
Sadly, decades after independence, the country was still plagued by a plague of plagues: a traumatised and rent-seeking economy, mistrusted leadership, over-bloated bureaucracy, inefficient public service, insensate executive, weak legislature, frail judiciary, complex and cumbersome legal system, large-scale unemployment, low capacity utilisation, mucky electoral practice, heavy debt burden, institutionalised corruption, high levels of crime and debauchery, gross violations of human rights, battered foreign image, decayed social and physical infrastructure, fragile federal structure, corrupt police force, over-ambitious military and so on and so forth. Clearly, these are symptomatic of a nation on the verge of collapse and it is the history and experience that not a few Nigerians know and can remember of their nation. In the year 2000, the title of a best-selling book on Nigeria was: “This House Has Fallen”.
But the present Obasanjo administration believes that NEEDS would stem the tide. It is the ultimate goal of NEEDS to “build a solid foundation for the attainment of Nigeria’s long-term vision of becoming the largest and strongest African economy and a key player in the world economy”. As encapsulated in the NEEDS document, the programme aims to achieve this by creating a consistent macroeconomic framework that will ensure predictability and sustainability of the macro economy, and high but broadly shared, pro-poor growth; reforming government and public institutions to provide greater transparency, accountability and workability of their operations; growing the private sector to be more resilient and competitive in order to serve as the engine of economic growth and development as well as strengthening the public-private sector partnership; instituting a social charter that will improve the quality of life of Nigerians significantly and create social safety nets for the vulnerable section of the populace as well as to cater for those displaced by the dynamics of the reform process; among other noble objectives and targets.
Confident of its package, the government put NEEDS on a national walkabout to sell its components to the Nigerian public and receive inputs into the programme. The road show involved stakeholders’ consultations at the six geo-political zones of the country and dialogue sessions with the academia, elder statesmen, business, civil society, etc. Obviously, as this progressed and with the proclaimed high value targets of NEEDS, hopes are rising and once again expectations are high.
Democratic governance with constitutional rule are by nature conferred certain inherent and distinguishing features and characteristics as opposed to other forms of government. It is therefore very imperative that the government delivers on its NEEDS targets and promises because this time the danger of failed expectations might be ruinous, if not, catastrophic.
Firstly, the government must succeed on NEEDS in order to make the reforms sustainable and, more importantly, outlive this government. This is possible. Former President Jerry Rawlings of Ghana instituted reforms in that small West African country. The reforms were adjudged to be working for the good of Ghana and Ghanaians. At the expiration of Rawlings’s two-term tenure in 2000, Vice President John Atta Mills and the presidential candidate of the ruling National Democratic Congress lost the presidential election to the leader of the New Patriotic Party, John Kufuor after two rounds of voting despite the massive support he received from the incumbent but outgoing President. Notwithstanding the elemental change in leadership, the reforms are still on and even on a faster pace. All successful reform agendas across the world require some time to yield maximum results. A successful implementation of NEEDS will put the very idea of reforms on an autopilot and every Nigerian will inculcate the habit of reforms. If, on the other hand, the present administration does not deliver the goods, a new administration will have a good cause to jettison the programme. This would mean another series of expenditures to prepare a new package, which usually creates a gaping hole in our resources. It will also deepen our reforms fatigue. At an unthinkable extreme, we could have a recrudescence of economic and political underdevelopment whose effect will be of untold proportions.
Secondly, since independence in 1960 this nation has witnessed several military coups and countercoups. In 1966 and 1983, constitutional governments were actually vacated from office by the military. The soldiers drew their inspiration from the despair and dejection of the populace. They subsequently wrought upon the country an era of developmental barbarity. Therefore, it is widely believed that the only weapon against military coups is good governance based on sound economic policies. The primary essence of NEEDS, therefore, is to restore the nation on the path of real economic growth and development in such a way as to impact positively on the lives of the common man in the shortest time possible. After many locust years of despondency, the truth is that the people of Nigeria do not deserve another day of misery. If this government fails to deliver on NEEDS, the groans in the society could, once again, sound as sweet music to the ears of the barracks. It will weaken the defences of democracy against military rule. This time, it could also lead to instability and threaten our unity. History has always shown us that strange things happen and do happen again, if we drift into complacency.
Thirdly, we are in another age of reforms. From Europe to the Middle East, Asia to the Americas, Africa to Oceania, countries around the world are on the path of reforms. Globalisation has meant that the leitmotif of reforms is universal and Nigeria cannot afford to sing a discordant tune. In Africa, a country that was once described by our Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka as the ‘open sore of a continent’ has another opportunity to lead the countries that constitute an axis of reforms in the continent. The success of NEEDS will create a domino effect among our neighbours. If reforms work in Nigeria, the country can drive reforms in countries of the sub-region and the entire continent. To think of failure is claustrophobic. It will also transform the country from a sleeping giant to a comatose giant. The leadership of Africa’s nearly 800 million people, which should be provided by Nigeria, will peter out and we will become mere spectators in the emerging African Renaissance.
Fourthly, the framers of NEEDS are among the brightest and the best in the land. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, Professor Charles Soludo, Mrs. Nenadi Usman, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, Mr. Bode Agusto and other members of the present economic team possess a profusion of the skills, knowledge, experience and passion of the respective areas of their core competences. The presence of some of them in government has also generated excitement and high hopes. They represent not only a generation of Nigerians with a different attitude but also a nexus of excellence. NEEDS has placed a heavy burden on them. Their success will encourage other Nigerians of similar descriptions at home and abroad to take up the ‘risk’ of public service. However, if the reverse becomes the case because of the failure in the implementation of NEEDS, it will validate the ascendancy of mediocrity in our country. Governmental and public service will be consigned to the notion of ‘come and eat’ and our finest brains will remain either abroad in the service of other nations or at home in the service of the private sector.
In conclusion, if NEEDS fails it will signify a return to an economy that is still amuck, a currency that still lacks value, an agricultural sector that is still ineffectual, unemployment that is still ravaging our population, infrastructures that are still crippled, malfeasances that are still pervading the corridors of power and many more Nigerians still lacking the basic needs of life while perpetually living in a state of fear. Worse still, Nigerians will begin to gravely question the essence of democracy in relation to growth and development. This could strike the death knell on democracy. So it is the sacred duty of the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy to ensure that government of the people, for the people and by the people will never perish in the Federal Republic of Nigeria.