…a bit like planting seeds ahead of the season, such tariffs end up diverting citizens’ scarce resources into the pockets of “foresighted” entrepreneurs like Chief Festus, whose only claim to managerial savvy is that they either receive subsidies from government under the pretext of a national industrial policy, or have been protected from useful competition…


Arguably, one of the more revealing episodes, from a Nigerian perspective, in the late Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs (From Third World to First) was when in the evening of January 10, 1966, he met Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, then Nigeria’s finance minister, on the sidelines of a meeting of prime ministers of the Commonwealth. If my recollection serves me well, the Chief informed Singapore’s prime minister that he was soon to retire. As far as he could gauge things, he “had done enough for his country and now had to look after his business, a shoe factory”. And in order to provide a decent pension for himself, as finance minister, “he had imposed a tax on imported shoes so that Nigeria could make shoes”.

Mr. Yew reports that he retired for the night “convinced that (Nigerians) were a different people playing to a different set of rules”. If recent susurrations on social media are anything to go by, over the intervening period, not much has changed about us as a people, nor the rules we play by. This conclusion is not just about the general sense that the Buhari government is willing to asphyxiate MultiChoice in order to create space for a home-grown direct-to-home television services provider. Autarchic and import substitution policies appear hard-wired into our DNA. It shows up in the obstacle course of regulations that businesses must navigate to obtain licenses to operate, certification for their processes and products, and passports for their delivery vehicles to cross internal borders. It runs through the central bank’s intervention programmes, as indeed through its management of the national currency.

Yet, as Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew could have told us so many years ago, foreign investment in an economy, and the competition provided by an open economy, are possibly the two most important stimuli for economic development. Part of the benefits of this is from the additional capital that comes in. Some of it is from new management practices. Another part from new technology. And some from lower prices. All of these, doubtless, put pressure on domestic businesses to find increasingly higher levels of efficiency and improved service delivery.

When you raise tariffs on imported items, as the failing and flailing nativist revolution in the U.S. is minded to do, you may reduce the amount of such imported items making their way into your economy. But that is only because fewer of your nationals may now afford these items.


In the Nigerian case, our businesses have struggled to pick this challenge up ― and as the vignette about “Chief Festus” in Mr. Yew’s memoirs illustrates, this is a longstanding problem. To some extent, this failure explains successive federal government efforts to support domestic industries. But the explanation of this problem lies elsewhere. Part of it is the result of a wasteful bureaucracy and poorly developed regulatory space. Another part is attributable to run-down and inadequate infrastructure. A much bigger part is simply the consequence of an ineffable failure to invest in human capital. Collectively, all of these place costs on domestic operators that ensure that they may never compete with foreign imports. And when we refer to foreign imports, the foot-dragging over our accession to the protocols establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area, now seems to suggest that the threat is not only from China; but also, from former tiddlers like Rwanda.

Whereas government has committed to bringing down the domestic cost of doing business, including through the reduction of the number of processes and government institutions that would-be entrepreneurs have to go through to set up shop, it has struggled to fix the infrastructure dearth, to get our schools and healthcare facilities working, to eliminate the lets on interstate commerce, or to reform the bureaucracy. And so, as it was in the beginning (with Chief Festus-type industrial policies), so it still is towards the end. Our government remains persuaded that in order to improve the outlook for “Made in Nigeria”, we must destroy non-Nigerian value propositions.

When you kick a MultiChoice out in favour of an NTA, however, you simply reduce the quality of life enjoyed by that cohort of your citizenry who can afford such levels of consumption. When you raise tariffs on imported items, as the failing and flailing nativist revolution in the U.S. is minded to do, you may reduce the amount of such imported items making their way into your economy. But that is only because fewer of your nationals may now afford these items.

Any which way, the people, in whose names these policies are rolled out suffer. This democratisation of poverty occurs in two ways. Through the frittering away of scarce resources in support of effete private interests. And through an erosion of the people’s living standards, which happens each time they pay above market prices for sub-specification locally-made products.


All of these is understandable if the monies earned from the tariffs end up in government kitties. At least that way, chances are that they may then help fund investment in bridging the sundry gaps in the economy that are a necessary condition for boosting domestic productivity and competitiveness. But a bit like planting seeds ahead of the season, such tariffs end up diverting citizens’ scarce resources into the pockets of “foresighted” entrepreneurs like Chief Festus, whose only claim to managerial savvy is that they either receive subsidies from government under the pretext of a national industrial policy, or have been protected from useful competition by government’s leprosed hand.

Any which way, the people, in whose names these policies are rolled out suffer. This democratisation of poverty occurs in two ways. Through the frittering away of scarce resources in support of effete private interests. And through an erosion of the people’s living standards, which happens each time they pay above market prices for sub-specification locally-made products. Far better, instead, to fix the bottlenecks in the domestic supply chain ― transportation, power, the criminal justice system, schools, hospitals, and an unwieldy bureaucracy ― holding down our progress. Incidentally, these improvements will also have positive impacts at the retail end of the market.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.