Bala Usman’s Enduring Relevance to Nigeria’s Economic Liberation, By Bola Tinubu
It has been a decade since the great teacher, researcher, thinker, writer, polemicist, nationalist and pan-Africanist left us to enter into eternity on September 24, 2005. Yet, the light of his incandescent life continues to shine brightly, showing present and future generations the path to personal and national greatness.
This unique and distinguished institution, the Centre for Democratic Development, Research and Training (CEDDERT) founded by Dr. Bala Usman is an enduring testament to his rare spirit and vision. I commend the management and staff of CEDDERT for holding aloft Bala Usman’s banner of commitment to truth, equity, human nobility and justice.
Let me say that Dr. Bala Usman was no stranger to me. I recall with nostalgia how hard he worked and how we joined hands in common purpose to help achieve the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola’s emphatic victory in the historic June 12, 1993, Presidential election.
So committed was Bala Usman to democratic restoration in Nigeria that he translated Chief Abiola’s manifesto, ‘Farewell to Poverty”, into Fulfude.
Reflecting upon that momentous election which might have changed the course of our history had it been allowed to hold, I must sound a caution for our times.
Bala Usman would have been pleased by the result of this year’s contest. It presents a chance for Nigeria to renew its march towards progress based on the ideals Usman espoused.
This change requires more than a change in policies; it requires a change in politics; it requires a change of heart.
While we have put forth a new government, too many of us who should be allied in changing the prospects of this nation have failed to put forth a new politics.
They remain mired in the broken ways of yesterday, placing every conceivable personal interest above the national concern.
Had we allowed such blindness to rule us, we never would have accomplished the historic merger that led to election victory and this opportunity for progressive change.
What we accomplished was based on a matrix of sacrifice and cooperation. I have sacrificed much for this day to come to pass. Thus, I want this day to endure.
I have done so by placing the welfare of Nigeria above my own advancement. I have done so because it is a lesson Bala Usman taught us every day of his life.
Those who consider themselves his students should do so, not only while reading his books but also in our actions. The proof of our collective endeavour is not to be found in the word but in the deed.
We must remain united in cause – the development of this nation – and must do so from beginning to end.
You see, Dr. Yusufu Bala Usman was an intellectual, not for the sake of intellectualism. He was an intellectual because he understood knowledge was the most vital weapon a besieged nation and its people could acquire.
Knowledge dismisses the fetters of poverty that many people come to mistake for the natural order of things.
His love of people and wisdom led him to see the economy we were given was not the economy intended for us.
We had become the victims of an unfair economic architecture arising from an unjust history.
Bala Usman accepted a profound, unique mission. He sought to emancipate us from the yoke of the past, all the time warning that old forms of oppression would give birth to new forms of the inhumane contest for dominion of man over man, nation over nation.
Colonialists might leave; but the injustice they spawned would reshape itself into the imperfections of an independence nominally gained but superficially evolved. Nigeria was declared a nation. But of nationhood, little was to be found.
We were an independent country but our economy remained the appendage of others. We lived in the shadows of global forces that mocked our economic freedom and democracy. The nation trembled and stumbled because we were always unsure, afraid or both.
We never knew whether the shadows were our own harmless reflection or that of a force with motives and means sinister to our development.
The title of this address, “Towards the Economic Liberation of Nigeria: Bala Usman’s Enduring Relevance”, is patterned on Bala Usman’s 1980 landmark publication For the Liberation of Nigeria.
In that book, he wrote: “Whatever specific issue or subject they may deal with, all these lectures and articles have a single and common engagement. They are all about the liberation of the people of Nigeria from western imperialist domination at the national and international levels.”
Dr. Bala Usman’s activities as an academic and activist were motivated by his ardent commitment to the complete political and economic liberation of Nigeria as the precursor for the emancipation of Africa and the black man everywhere. Ideas he espoused over the decades apply with ever-greater force today. Here I give clear warning.
I do not aim to pay gentle tribute to man so that you may politely applaud once I sit down. Then we all depart upon our merry way as if nothing profound awaits our economic future. Or, worse, as if the works of Bala Usman are intellectually stimulating but have no practical application to the situation at hand. I reject that notion.
The truth always has relevance. Meanwhile there are many great untruths this nation must erase before they turn our desire for a better Nigeria into something counterfeit.
Unless we embrace the truths that shaped the prescriptions of Bala Usman, Nigeria will remain a land of false mirrors, where we look at ourselves but see something else, a land of past potential but with its future gone astray.
Look, we have expended much too much money to purchase the poverty we now endure. Poverty should be much cheaper than what we suffered to pay for it.
Whether his thoughts on the Economic Crisis facing Nigeria, or the Manipulation of Religion for political advantage or his analysis against foreign economic oppression as espoused in his stance against the IMF loan in 1985, Bala Usman traded only in truth and honesty at a time when neither honesty nor truth was the expected currency of our political discourse.
For decades, Nigeria has danced in close confines with economic disaster. In the past, higher oil prices allowed us to dodge the worst. We have survived but not thrived. Improvised but not planned. Spent but not invested. Laughed, drank and feasted but did not build, construct or maintain. Now, Nigeria has collided into a wall, merciless and immovable. The present downturn in oil prices may be more than a slump in the business cycle. Global economic, geopolitical and technological currents suggest the price drop may be a long-lasting secular development.
To maintain market share and influence on the global market, Saudi Arabia keeps production high and prices low. Should Saudi Arabia slacken production in a material way, North American production may escalate and even seek to capture a share of the export market from Saudi and Russia.
We also note that China is investing considerably in domestic and renewable energy sources. All this means that oil supply is high while demand has flat-lined due to flaccid global economic activity. We will be collateral damage in all of this. However, to us, the damage will not feel collateral. It will be central and it will be hard.
Even during the best of times and high oil prices, the economic model upon which Nigeria is based has poorly served us. That model has precluded broadly-shared development. The only things its continuity promises are perpetual poverty for most Nigerians and the forfeiture of the best of our economic promise.
Nigeria needs economic liberation.
Before we can free our economy, we must free ourselves of the economic myths consigning us to our current predicament.
To achieve this objective we must return to Dr. Bala Usman. Confronted by the harsh realities of dwindling national revenue occasioned by crashing oil prices, saddled with collapsed infrastructure and an abused and wary citizenry, Nigeria demands a new paradigm.
Here, I must give the Nigerian people their just due. They had a stark and important choice to make during the 2015 election. They could have re-elected the government in place. This would have been the easier thing to do.
Yet, in matters of state and governance, the easiest thing is rarely the right one. Re-electing that administration would have lowered the curtain on our future. The last government had become threadbare of ideas. They intended to handcuff the people to the mast of austerity, then command that we ride out the storm. Their hope was that the storm would quickly pass.
They forget that economic storms are mostly man-made. Thus, it takes man to unmake them.
President Buhari is an earnest leader who seeks to give Nigerians the lives we deserve by giving us a the vibrant economy and uncompromised security. My faith in his commitment to help the people is deep and abiding. He is on the right path and I have faith that he will continue to follow it.
That said, the task before us, is grave and daunting. With oil prices having declined so steeply, the question becomes how must the federal government shape fiscal policy so that we achieve optimal economic production and employment under the given circumstance?
Last year, I published an open letter to then President Jonathan. My critique of his economic policies was informed by the fact that the Nigerian economy had entered a critical stage. His government was set to foist austerity on the people. This equated to pulverising their already bruised economic circumstance.
Although, we were in the throes of an election, I thought it is vital that we offer even our opponent the best advice we could give.He was our president at the time and our overall welfare was in the balance. His failure would be our deepening poverty. Today because he didn’t heed the genuine advice we are faced with a threatening depression.
Let me recall my opening statement. “No matter who is in power, we must do whatever is in our capacity to do, to steer the nation away from economic woes. The people have suffered too much hardship already”. I submitted that Nigeria’s economy was indistinguishable from one in the state of a chronic depression.
The contours of the economic challenge facing government must be clearly postulated so that we see the vastness between where we are and where we should be. The first order of business is fiscal in nature. Do we continue to peg our naira expenditures to our dollar intake or do we affix our domestic expenditure to a measure more apt to grow the economy?
To continue to link the government’s naira expenditure to dollar intake is to allow the decisions of foreign actors to hold undue influence over our fiscal policy. There is no logical necessity that foreigners’ taste for oil must determine our fiscal expenditures. While no economy is completely independent, this linkage amounts to servitude so restrictive that it is as if the colonial tether was never severed.
Some will say the dollar linkage is fiscal prudent or they defend the practice by asserting this is the way we have always done it. But haven’t we also always fallen short?
This is not prudence. It is the strange vocation of being pennywise yet pound foolish. Perpetuating this linkage will confine us to the single-commodity economic model in such a manner making us further delude ourselves that we must adhere to this linkage even more. All the while, our national privation will become our main growth industry.
The second order of business has to do with the extent to which government helps direct and encourage private sectors activity. Do we allow ourselves to be slaves to the forces of the market even though we know that the market itself is not free?
Or do we engage in some level of national industrial, infrastructure and employment planning, as has every large and important nation that has ever achieved prosperity – from England, to the United States to China?
Regarding fiscal policy, I advocate the close dollar linkage be explicitly broken. The last time I looked, Nigeria operates a Naira-based economy, not a dollar-based one.
The last time I looked, the federal government has the sole power and sovereign right to issue naira or financial guarantees based thereon. It does not need the approval of the American Federal Reserve, the Bank of England or of the host of global oil buyers.
There is no innate legal or moral restriction strictly limiting the amount of naira or the value of naira-denominated guarantees placed in the system to spawn employment to match the amount of dollars collected via oil sales.
Oil is a passive asset in the ground. When cash-strapped yet in need of more revenue presently, a nation should also consider issuing guarantees on the future oil shipments on a price certain paid now; or selling a portion of its equity in the joint ventures.
Some may call this a variant of an oil futures. Whatever it is called, it should be considered particularly as a measure to improve our foreign currency position.
Not to explore more creative approaches is to effectively trap the naira and thus our fiscal policy in an implicit “dollar standard” at a time when such a custom is harmful and ill-advised because of our diminished dollar intake.
The world jettisoned the gold standard in 1971 because it proved unworkable, reducing the policy space in which governments could pursue fiscal programmes promoting full employment and social welfare. We should likewise reject this implicit dollar standard on our nation’s fiscal operation.
Because we operate a sovereign fiat currency that the federal government issues at its sole discretion, the federal government can never be rendered insolvent in naira.
The position I espouse sounds heretical and some of you will say it is a recipe for runaway inflation. At this, I say listen very carefully for I am aware of the ravages of excessive inflation. I am also opposed to anything that will bring it about.
The outer boundaries of our fiscal policy should neither be our dollar intake or some unfounded fear of naira insolvency. It actually may be a better trade-off to live with a bit more inflation at this recessionary time. Instead, that boundary should be that we never ever allow fiscal expansion to the extent that it prompts damaging inflation rates. But we can live with and manage a notch of it.
The correct perspective is not to mechanistically restrict naira expenditure to dollar intake. Continuing this peg is tantamount to donning economic blinders then praying that somehow we avoid the pitfall set before us. It points to deflation, recession and worse.
The second pillar is the need to engage in some level of efficient economic planning in order to position the private sector to thrive. I commend the Buhari Administration for its economic policy coherence by merging government’s budget and planning operations in one ministry. We hear talk of free trade but the reality is different.
In their formative stages, the English, American and Chinese economies were highly protectionist. America was known as the most protectionist of the western nations during the century when it emerged from a second-rate economy to become the largest in history.
The Chinese economy – the world’s second largest – remains a den of protection. If this is the way of the most successful nations, we should do as they did but not do as they say we should do.
The industries and manufacturing activities essential to our national maturation and development, we must protect. This may not be textbook economics. But we do not reside in textbooks and neither do our challenges. This is the way of the real world. We would be wise to adhere to it.
Thus, we must identify those industries strategic to the nation we seek to build and provide incentives such as tax relief and help in the form of effective tariffs to insulate them, allowing them to grow in productivity and competitiveness in a conducive atmosphere.
The important thing is that we grow our industrial base so that we lessen our import dependence and provide jobs for a growing urban population.
One of the critical paths to Nigeria’s economic liberation lies with employment for the youth. The nation’s economic engineers should focus primarily on allocating value and opportunity to our under-utilised labour force and our idle, yet potentially productive capital in ways promoting wealth creation and expansion of aggregate demand.
And we should do this without bending to the wishes of the IMF, WTO and the league of global money masters who would keep us low.
It is sustained aggregate demand that empowers the nation to rescue itself from the whirlpool of economic contraction.
I must add a thought about the fuel subsidy. It was once a good idea that has been perverted into its opposite. Created to aid the common man, it is now a device used by the crooked to produce a windfall for which they are not entitled.
In a perfect world, I wish we could sanitize the subsidy regime and thus continue it. However, I have reached the conclusion that there are too many demons in the system for this hell to be converted into good earth let alone heaven.
Better that we remove it, not for the austere purpose of saving money but to use the money more wisely that we might aid then very poor people. Better to spend the money to save the people instead of expend the people to save the money.
I would choose to remove the subside and use the money to help people – let us feed our school children, with our local produce promote agriculture, create jobs and start erecting a social safety net for the vulnerable among us in true need. I am one of those enjoying or benefitting from the cheap pump price per litre, but I don’t need it. I’d rather pay for the availability and let the needy benefit more from higher pump prices.
Let us begin a process of a thoughtful but decisive subsidy phase-out. While this is occurring, we should simultaneously phase in social programmes benefiting the poorest, most vulnerable among us. Programmes such as transportation subsidies, school feeding, improved basic medical care and coverage for the poor, and potable water projects are some of the things that can be done with the funds.
This way we can undertake expenditures confident that the fruits will go to the hungry, not the already well fed. End the fuel subsidy. Subsidise the people instead – subsidise the people indeed!
Bala Usman would have wanted us to do this and do it now. Bold endeavour. We must do what we must to build railways and roads and bring light to those who have languished without it in darkness.
Put tax incentives in place to spur new refineries. End the queues at the fuel pump. The tax we would forfeit is but reshaped to become an investment in a better Nigeria.
On the continental level, Africa has reached the point where it can no longer allow extant trade outside the region to preclude the need to expand and deepen trade and investment among ourselves.
We must collaborate so that we no longer just sell what we extract from the precious soil. But that we deploy our ingenuity to shape and process these things into manufactured goods.
With his enviable international stature and the respect he commands, President Buhari is one to lead this Pan Africanist cause. Africa must use its God given resources to greater opportunities among the countries of the continent. We can achieve this by creativity, collaboration and determination to help our own people
I know talks in this regard should be ongoing between three nations leading the way.
Nigeria with its oil and gas and other resources, its vast population and commercial infrastructure can add much to any economic cooperation. Niger has uranium for energy and other uses as well as other valuable mineral deposits. Guinea has bauxite and iron ore of the highest quality and of plenteous supply. Both of these minerals are vital to industrial development. Guinea also has other rare earth minerals. Its hydroelectric capacity is large and can be harnessed for the good of the region.
I foresee these three forging organic partnerships that will amend investment, commerce and manufacturing for their mutual benefit. I mention this because what three can do, the entire continent can do even more, if we have the mind for it.
History commands it because Africa is where the next great economic step will be taken. The question is whether that step will be taken on our soil by our own foot or by a foreign one.
In conclusion, Bala Usman could have combined his royal lineage with his academic erudition to enjoy the high and easy life. He could have been part of any government or ruling clique that suckled itself on toil, blood and patience of the people. Bala chose to side with the masses. It is our duty now to side with him.
Bala Usman was a pathfinder whose analyses and ideas were more than brilliant. They were true. He warned we must claim our identity by forging the institutions and political economic processes that promote our interests and ensure our future. The reality of our economic situation does not mock his words. It reveals their utter prescience.
We must emulate Bala Usman. This requires that we shirk conventional wisdom to reform our political economy. If we continue the current path, we will remain as we are. It is a mere walking in place while more aggressive nations change the world to fit their image.
As we meet, powerful nations entertain unprecedented treaties forming large commercial and financial blocs and combines that will make it more difficult for nations like Nigeria to realise the dream of industrialisation.
If we cast our fate to the wind by saying that we shall be subservient to the free market, that market will be free to enchain us. We would have flung aside our ability to shape our destiny. The well-being of Nigeria will be given to others to determine. We will be a sovereign nation on the map but not in economic function.
Bala Usman seemed to know this day would come. He sought to prepare us for it. For a better Nigeria, I dedicate myself to the same fight. That is why I outlined two imminent decisions that must be had now –
1. Do we choose the good of the people over the rationale of austerity?
2. Do we better plan and guide our economy or allow happen-stance or the strategies of others to rule us?
I know how Bala Usman would answer these questions. I join in his response. I ask that you join him as well. What I have said here is more than talk. It is a call to action.
Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu is National Leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC). He delivered this excerpted address delivered at a memorial conference organised in honour of the Late Dr. Bala Usman by the Centre for Democratic Development, Research and Training (CEDDERT) on December 18, 2015 at Arewa House, Kaduna, Nigeria.