The soundbites always seem bold and reassuring. At every opportunity, public officials trumpet the imperative of enabling the private sector to drive Nigeria’s economic development. Virtually all of them, publicly speaking, want to see a private sector-led economy. Nigeria, they say, is endowed with a resilient people, abundant natural resources and a young population eager to nurture the country’s next growth phase. However, they often omit something, deliberately or inadvertently.
Since the restoration of democratic rule in 1999, it was arguably the Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan administrations that made considerable effort to empower the private sector, albeit the privatization of government businesses. Establishing an enabling environment for the private sector to thrive; driven by such enablers as power, roads, energy, and transportation, among others, have largely remained elusive.
There is something illustrative. The current Senate President, Bukola Saraki, way back in 2000 was an Executive Director at Societe Generale Bank, an institution in which the family had substantial stake. He was in his 20s. In 2000, Saraki left banking to become Special Assistant on Budget to President Olusegun Obasanjo. From there he had gone ahead to be Governor of Kwara State, for eight years, and Senator since 2011.
Rotimi Amaechi gained national prominence when Obasanjo declared in 2007 that his triumph at the PDP governorship primaries in Rivers state had ‘k-leg’. Celestine Omehia was foisted in his stead. Through a Supreme Court ruling, Amaechi became Governor of Rivers State for eight years. Prior to becoming Governor, he was a legislator in the Rivers State House of Assembly and its speaker for eight years. Today, he is Minister of Transportation.
President Muhammadu Buhari, a trained soldier, was once military administrator, Minister of Petroleum, Head of State, Chairman, Petroleum Trust Fund and four-time presidential candidate. Nasir el-Rufai is threading a similar path.
Across the land, the likes of Saraki, Buhari, E-Rufai and Amaechi abound, symbolizing the unbridled pursuit of public and political office and failure to create other platforms.
It is not criminal or unusual to serve in government. Around the world, instances exist of individuals who transformed their countries through public service. Singapore, Malaysia and UAE readily come to mind.
Nigeria presents a different kettle of fish. The country is built on a faulty foundation, one largely sustained by force, elite manipulation and ethnic domination. The negative effect of the country’s defective structure on nation-building is visible to everyone, but those benefiting from the dysfunction don’t want to see any recourse. Any contrary view, especially from outside the major power blocks, is labeled unpatriotic and treasonable. Attempts to draw attention to this warped system have consistently been crushed. Curiously, those who foisted the debacle have become entrapped in their own machinations, and seem incapable of figuring out an escape route. Therefore, the country is stuck at the crossroads. The questions we trenchantly refuse to address are: why is Nigeria not a united nation? Why is Nigeria struggling to develop despite the enormous potential?
So, for most Nigerians, survival means involuntary conformity with the prevailing order and the adoption of an attitudinal disposition that manifests as corruption. Underlining Nigeria’s corruption, I believe, is a system that largely excludes people from access to opportunities and collective resources. A command structure, characterized by excessive concentration of powers and resources at the centre, continues to strengthen, while the states, which should nurture development, are nothing more than feeding-bottle centres for regional players. How a unitary structure can function effectively on a federal system is yet to unravel here, 57 years after.
Leadership is often blamed for Nigeria’s woes. This is not completely true. A system that deliberately perpetuates mediocrity, selfishness and disunity cannot be expected to breed visionary leaders. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system that produces the caliber of people that we have had as leaders. Leaders usually stay above the mundane and focus on the big picture. They generate transformative change and progress. What we have had are ordinary people who bludgeon their way into public offices riding on disorder. Young men in their 20s and 30s, barely educated and enlightened, found themselves in high offices. They subsequently Balkanized Nigeria. Today they remain an active bloc in governance, offering little hope.
To be in government almost eternally seems like the most effective survival strategy in Nigeria. Other options are limited or blocked and there is so much free money for easy picking. Public service in Nigeria is characterized by absolute lack of rigour and diligence; just hang in there, taunt patriotism and tribe. Afterall, there are constitutional provisions legalizing mediocrity and corruption.
Government is expanding and acquiring more powers, rather than constricting and enabling the private sector. The same people, who are disinclined to merit and hardwork, are the ones trumpeting the imperative of empowering the private sector that they loathe. Apart from agencies that bloat the civil service and reward interest groups, there is no strong mechanism that ensures public policy continues to support Nigeria-led private sector growth? Therefore, the private sector is for Nigerians who want to hustle and suffer or who cannot secure government employment. Nigeria’s private sector, discounting foreign investors and a sprinkling of Dangotes, will remain a critical mass of artisans and peasant farmers, all fending for themselves. What a way to build a private sector-led economy.