Not Every Government Policy Is Bad, By ‘Tope Fasua
…no matter how far we are in opposition to government, we must at least take note that even dead clocks are right at least twice a day. Taking a diametrically opposed view to every policy, especially as it pertains to the economy, damages our arguments…strips us of that intellectual garb we cherish so much, and may sometimes seriously embarrass us in the event that government gets it right.
I feel compelled to write on this presently. I have just seen the most egregious of comments by a prominent All Progressives Congress (APC) stalwart and commissioner nominee in Lagos State, Joe Igbokwe. I have known him from a distance, especially in the days of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) struggle. I used to respect him. For his age, let me say I still respect him. But his politics can be galling. He commented that the state government decided to pull the plug on Gokada, a bike-hailing service operating in Lagos, because the government saw that initiative as a competition against its investment in buses. He mocked the $5.3 million that owners of Gokada have invested in the business, while promoting Nigeria’s robber-baron capitalism that is misshaping Nigeria’s future. I had read earlier today, a statement from the Gokada CEO, in which he said they will be shutting down, hopefully to come back stronger. Apparently that was just some PR stunt. Joe Igbokwe and his bosses have killed Gokada!
Gokada has solved many problems for many people. In unpredictable Lagos, with all the traffic snarls, a few lives have been saved by the service, which is simply the same okada (bike) business, but spruced up – with trained riders, helmets and some internal and external regulation. One would have expected that the Lagos State government would position itself to extract taxes from such an idea, but not them. They want it all and anyone within that sphere must be obliterated. Many will miss Gokada though. I still rode an Okada to catch my flight in Lagos two weeks ago. I had a board meeting in Abuja at 10 a.m. I set out from the hotel at 6 a.m. to catch a 730 a.m. flight in time for my meeting. All went fairly well until we got stuck before the Air Force cantonment. They had some massive exercise/marathon going on. I would have disappointed my board for the third time in a row if I didn’t have the sense to jack my luggage and walk for about two kilometres before finding a bike that took me to Arik. Parcels have been delivered. Many have fulfilled appointments that would have threatened their livelihoods had they missed such appointments.
Perhaps in the books of Joe Igbokwe, Nigerians are better subjected to the regular Okadas, driven mostly by citizens of Niger Republic and Almajirai graduates, many of who have no training in anything and who drive dangerously. Anyway, his statement is the lowest that I’ve heard government policy sink to.
But I want to say that it is not all government policies that are bad.
Recently President Buhari casually announced in his hometown, Daura, perhaps the most controversial policy since the beginning of his regime – that he has instructed the Central Bank to stop selling foreign exchange to anyone whose business is the importation of food. This policy will have reverberating effect because the spectrum of the effective ban is super wide – food. Many people’s dogs will now have to make do with eba, and maybe human faeces as their local compatriots have been doing for way too long. No more imported Pedigree. Ajebota fatcats too will suffer. The effect of no forex sales for food is that the prices of those items will skyrocket. Customs will extract more. There will be more bribes from importers too. And many will just cease to trade in those items altogether. The items are actually many! It may be a strategy to begin to manage the foreign exchange reserves upon which our poor currency is hinged. The reserves have dwindled by over $450 million in the last one month, and crude oil is trading presently around $57, which is $3 below our set budget benchmark. Perhaps the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor had a meeting with the president and explained a few of these issues to him and the president is taking the ‘glory’ for that policy. Who knows?
…I support the initiative, warts and all. Let us get serious. Everything we eat, our basic housing for the poorest among us, the clothes we wear, and or security, should be irreducible minima that we must provide ourselves. We are damn too lazy, deluded and cocky for no reason in this country.
For me, though, asides the shock therapy that this is, and the fact that such policies must have some mitigants – such as a robust plan to boost productivity beyond asking banks to lend some more to small and medium scale enterprises – SMEs (a fair policy many of the banks and my right-wing economist friends are resisting), I think it is not a bad idea to force this country to produce what she eats. I don’t subscribe though to Buhari’s claim that we are food-secure or food-sufficient, but we can be if we try, sincerely. Science must make it into agriculture in this country though, for that to happen. Our agriculture is still largely retarded. The Netherlands, a country that is a mere two-thirds of Niger State, at a barely 41,000 square-kilometre landmass, is the world’s second largest exporter of food, because of the infusion of science into agriculture. I had written earlier that our focus should really be on internal food sufficiency, because no country is waiting by the wings hoping Nigeria will get her agricultural act together. As a fact, Nigeria still belongs among the most food-insecure and vulnerable countries in the world, where malnourishment is a problem for a great number of children. Most of those countries are in poor old Africa. To add insult to injury, even within Africa, we have lost ground on crops like palm oil and cocoa, to the likes of Cote D’Ivoire (which produces ten times the cocoa we produce yearly), Cameroon and Ghana! We are also not consolidating our positions on the food crops we excel in – such as Sesame, Okra, Sorghum, Soya and a few more.
Regarding Buhari’s latest bombshell, we can take him apart for boasting about how he instructs the CBN on monetary policy – a terrible image damage for the bank. We can shred him for delaying a policy that could have jumpstarted his first tenure. We must also castigate him for instituting that policy when there is no mass mobilisation on the ground to ensure Nigerians fill that space, and so with this policy, basic items will elude some of our most-vulnerable people. For now, the only vibrant local content development is in the oil sector. The entire agricultural sector is left to the efforts of local (almost subsistence) farmers, and a few big men who claim so much land and underutilise this. In fact, agriculture has become a racket for collecting government loans and grants. The same people feature in all the sub-sectoral credit lists. Some people have become professionals at extracting these loans from government banks, of course, for a fee. Hardly do these loans get repaid. This is not the kind of grounds upon which we can build such a radical initiative.
But I support the initiative, warts and all. Let us get serious. Everything we eat, our basic housing for the poorest among us, the clothes we wear, and or security, should be irreducible minima that we must provide ourselves. We are damn too lazy, deluded and cocky for no reason in this country. Do we want to go into the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement not able to even feed ourselves and depending on small African countries to survive? Do we want to continue plundering our foreign reserves? Is our profligacy and corruption not enough already?
I supported the Milk Initiative too. That one came first, perhaps as a precursor to what government had in mind for that sector. I believe – just as does Emefiele – that milk production should not be rocket science. But I had an even more profound reason for supporting a forex restriction on milk; the argument on Ruga should now move away from tribalism to business. We had started hearing of long-forgotten ranches and farm settlements, especially in the South-West of Nigeria. Why were those settlements abandoned in the first place? Why did we allow ourselves get to a point where the entire nation became dependent on itinerant cattle herdsmen, many of who are not Nigerians? Why did we start to show so much care and respect for cows at the expense of our own children? Why can we not produce milk anywhere in Nigeria? So, yes, ban milk importation and let us get serious. My own branch of economics combines several other disciplines – political science, sociology, psychology, up to pure science. No holds barred. Of course I drew heavy flak from efficient market believers for my stance. I have no apologies for this.
Let me add one more policy I like presently; that one from the CBN that compels banks to lend 60 per cent of whatever is left from their sterilised deposits, rather than park the money at CBN in treasury bills, with risk-free rates. I read recently that banks like Guaranty Trust, Zenith, Stanbic, Standard Chartered and so on, must now lend more in order to avoid penalties.
But the more surprising resistance I have seen to government policies recently is the reaction of many bankers and ex-bankers, as well as right-wing economists, to the expansion of the Assest Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON)’s powers. Here we are, with a few guys sitting on trillions which can turn around the whole economy. Then some are saying it is wrong for AMCON to be able to retrieve these loans from the accounts of any of these debtors, no matter where their money can be found within Nigeria. The CBN has put up money to bail out these banks. Such monies belong to all of us. So, monies that could have been deployed for infrastructure and educating our children is being used by a few to live large, and people are pushing back against an opportunity to bring defaulters to account! The things people get away with here, they could never in any other country. Nigeria is basically lawless, a gangster’s paradise, a country run by robber-barons. It must somehow change and soon too, else it will destroy itself. I told some banker friends that they should note that the prostration of Nigeria is not only the act of politicians alone. Bankers, oil workers, private sector big hitters, are all culpable.
Let me add one more policy I like presently; that one from the CBN that compels banks to lend 60 per cent of whatever is left from their sterilised deposits, rather than park the money at CBN in treasury bills, with risk-free rates. I read recently that banks like Guaranty Trust, Zenith, Stanbic, Standard Chartered and so on, must now lend more in order to avoid penalties. And the new lendings, says the CBN, must go to SMEs. Let the banks worry. Let those in need of genuine loans, who never got any access before now, approach their banks. Our credit culture is horrible. Now may be the time to start rearranging this culture. The banks can put up serious mitigants and de-risk by being smart, but let the focus shift from giving trillions to a few guys who will never repay.
One of Nigeria’s biggest problems is our selfishness as human beings, simple. I watched as one of our religious leaders asked his congregants to pray that, ‘I will never die poor in Jesus name!!’ Then I wondered why Andrew Carnegie, one of America’s all-time-greats, stated that ‘Anyone who dies wealthy, dies disgraced’. See two extreme mindsets. I believe we Nigerians are still firmly in the grip of that poverty of the mind. We acquire, because we are unsure that we can rebuild our average lives in the event that we lose our acquisitions. We also acquire, because we want to show our friends and neighbours how we are better than them. Our best acquisitions – the most expensive cars, plushest houses etc – are therefore no better than the famous ‘I beta pass my neighbor’ generating sets, in essence. So, let us develop a new mindset. And as for public policies, no matter how far we are in opposition to government, we must at least take note that even dead clocks are right at least twice a day. Taking a diametrically opposed view to every policy, especially as it pertains to the economy, damages our arguments, leaves us holding the short end of the stick many times, strips us of that intellectual garb we cherish so much, and may sometimes seriously embarrass us in the event that government gets it right.
N.B: As I searched for a picture to use for this article, I found that a few big countries around the world have used outright bans on some items in the effort to reposition their economies. I will research that and revert shortly.