EDITORIAL: When Bill Came Calling, and Spoke Startling Truth To Power
When President Muhammadu Buhari and his advisers agreed to have Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft Corporation, address what was described as an expanded meeting of Nigeria’s Economic Council, they must have thought, among other things, that it was a public relations opportunity too good to miss.
After all, Bill Gates is the most successful anticipatory revolutionary of the digital era. For the uninitiated in many parts of the world, Gate’s Microsoft Corporation it was that once epitomised the computer age through its ubiquitous software applications. Microsoft brought computing to the ordinary person by simplifying the ‘user interface’ in a manner that reduced the most complex undertaking to a new type of simplicity. The erstwhile gentleman geek has become one of the world’s best-known charitable donors since 2006, through the activities of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which promotes good causes in healthcare around the world.
A man of Bill Gates’ standing has the right credentials to muster Mr. Buhari and his presidency into the hall of fame of those much-sought but ill-defined good governance providers. And given that Nigeria is less than a year away from another presidential election in which Mr. Buhari seems likely, rather than less, to be a contender yet again, praise from Mr. Gates could have proven to be an invaluable asset.
However, Mr. Gates seemed less interested in that sort of nonsense. Or simply put, the man is not obsequiousness to power. That should be no surprise. By his own admission, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed nearly $1.6 billion into assisting Nigeria with tackling maternal deaths, infant mortality, the spread of polio, etc. in nearly 12 years. He is also promising more to follow.
In the years since he has become interested in Nigeria, Mr. Gates has watched the mesmerising zeal and energy of an ambitious people transform the country into “the biggest economy on the [African] continent…rapidly approaching upper middle-income status, like Brazil, China, and Mexico.”
However, like many who pay serious attention to economic statistics, Mr. Gates has not seen this continuously lauded economic progress reflected in the substance of the everyday life of the ordinary Nigerian. To use his words exactly, “From the point of view of the quality of life, much of Nigeria still looks like a low-income country.”
The Nigerian government’s Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) identifies, “investing in our people” as one of three “strategic objectives”. But the “execution priorities” do not fully reflect people’s needs, prioritising physical capital over human capital.
As Mr. Gates pointed out, “To anchor the economy over the long term, investments in infrastructure and competitiveness must go hand in hand with investments in people. People without roads, ports, and factories can’t flourish. And roads, ports, and factories without skilled workers to build and manage them can’t sustain an economy.”
Fresh as this observation might have sounded, it was what most intelligent Nigerians have said repeatedly since the rise of the number crunchers at the heart of our national government. Clearly, something has gone badly wrong with the management of the economy since October 1979. It was from then that the post-civil war consensus of limited welfarism began to fray at the edges, pressured by the then new but now institutionalised logic of unfettered market forces. Successive military regimes since the 1979-83 federal government made a bad situation worse by signing up to the dicta of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), or what is summarised in informed cycles as living by the norms of the Washington Consensus.
According to one academic expert, the dicta work by entrenching a technical policy discourse, in which decisions regarding resource allocation or economic regulation are expressed in an economistic and ‘scientific’ language which appears to be ‘value-neutral’ and therefore beyond the understanding of the ordinary person.
Mr. Gates obviously is not a development expert or an economist in the sense of being a learned man who speaks in abstruse vocabulary. His experience from another world, coupled with his own innate human sympathy seemed enough to tell him that Nigeria’s problem may not be growth per se, but the self-evident lack of social contract in how the country is governed.
As a philosophical idea, social contract is perhaps too complex for the current corps of the country’s governing elite to understand. Simply defined, it means that public affairs, including how resources are managed and allocated, will be conducted for the promotion of public good. A simple test of how public good is promoted in practice is how often do those running the affairs of the state ask themselves such mundane questions as ‘who benefits?’ or ‘who is paying for this and to what end?’, when making their decisions.
If Mr. Gates had made such a delicate philosophical distinction between the pursuit of growth for its own sake and growth as the pursuit of a virtuous economic cycle that is built on public good, he would have been vulnerable to accusations of talking down on his hosts, or worse, of lecturing ‘leaders of a sovereign state’ at worse.
It was a stroke of genius therefore that Mr. Gates instead used the same terrain much-loved by his audience. That is the economic growth and development mantra. You can have as much growth as you like, but what matters most is the quality of life of those for whom the growth is meant to produce better conditions of living. Hear him:
“In upper middle-income countries, the average life expectancy is 75 years. In lower middle-income countries, it’s 68. In low-income countries, it’s 62. In Nigeria, it is lower still: just 53 years. Nigeria is one of the most dangerous places in the world to give birth, with the fourth worst maternal mortality rate in the world, ahead of only Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, and Chad. One in three Nigerian children is chronically malnourished.”
That was not all. Whether on education, taxation, agricultural policy, or even fiscal and monetary policy to aid development, Mr. Gates sounded as a man unmoved by the attention of his hosts to fine details. He said:
“Of the 37 million micro, small, and medium enterprises in Nigeria, more than 99 percent are micro. Their lack of access to finance is a leading reason why these businesses can’t grow.” That was indeed an “ouch” moment, given how successive regimes since 1999 have lectured citizens about the virtues of ‘enterprise culture’. How can enterprise culture develop where 99 percent of micro businesses have no access to the capital market?
That last bit was an assault, carefully stated, on both the monetary and fiscal policies on which the country is being run. For years and most recently since the misadventure of a former highly hyped minister of finance in the euphoric years of Olusegun Obasanjo’s last rule, the already entrenched plans of Nigeria’s treasury for a sustainable economic development through marketisation and public spending restraint was raised even higher. The argument is not about whether these policies failed, but that they ought not to have been in the first place. A country that is severely lacking in manpower, has a poor and inadequate infrastructure, an under-skilled if beleaguered public sector and so on, has no business buying into the idea that the state needed shrinking.
It is such logic that Mr. Gates called to question in the manner that he spoke to his hosts. In doing so, Mr. Gates reminded those who are familiar with America’s history of industrialisation of an era when the American businessman was happy to pay higher taxes so that the state could finance not just roads and hospitals, but also schools, colleges and research institutes. As that generation of wealth creators saw it then, these are means of producing the informed and knowledge-savvy workers that would help them build industries and create profit. In that particular American experience, nothing has succeeded in advancing the common good in the 19th century as much as enlightened self-interest. One could say that in the manner he stated his case, Mr. Gates managed to indirectly teach a history lesson that the governing classes in Nigeria needed to learn. Pity they were not given a reading list beforehand. If they had had one, they might have read also that no country struggling to escape into economic and technological modernity has done so where interest rates on business borrowing or any borrowing for that matter starts at a whopping 27 percent.
In a country where the end of politics is all about power for itself, philosophy seems a strange concept. Nigerians owe Mr. Gates a debt of gratitude, in addition to that already owed for his philanthropic work in the country. He spoke truth to power in a language of power’s own choosing. There may be no algorithm for that, but who cares?