Obasanjo’s Introspection on Zakaria’s Night

22 Nov 2012

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The Nigerian subsidiary of the Indian telecoms giant, Airtel, last Sunday night brought internationally acclaimed scholar, Fareed Zakaria, to Lagos to share his thoughts on “Political Economy of Africa: the Challenge of Leadership”. Tagged a “Night of Influence”, Zakaria spoke to our failings as a nation (and a continent) as well as to the promise tomorrow holds if we begin to do the right things. But in a rare public moment of introspection, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, in his remark after the lecture, tacitly admitted to leadership mistakes within the continent.

On a personal note, I also had an encounter with the former president over what he considered a false characterization of him in my book on the Yar’Adua years. Even though Airtel Chairman, Mr Oba Otudeko, played the role of a mediator, the uncharacteristically mild tone with which President Obasanjo expressed his displeasure last Sunday night really got to me and I intend to sort out whatever the issues are with him.

But back to the event. Shortly before Zakaria took the stage, Lagbaja gave a commanding performance in which he weaved the compelling history of the talking drum down 400 years into a tapestry of the African heritage of slavery, ending with the lyrics, “the body can be a slave but not the spirit.” That perhaps set the note for the night in which the Master of Ceremony, Ali Baba, was also at his comedic best. He even poked fun at the expense of the Oba of Lagos whom he said he rarely visits because, with the Kabiyesi being a retired Assistant Inspector General of Police, that might entail him (Ali Baba) having “to pay toll” at the palace! Then came the big moment as Zakaria appeared on stage following an introduction by Professor Pat Utomi

Laying a foundation for his intervention, Zakaria described himself as an incurable optimist who always viewed any half-filled glass as half-full rather than half-empty. And because of that disposition to life, despite the current gloom and doom that pervade the global economic environment, he remains upbeat that the world would come out of the recession bigger and stronger as was the case in the past.

This optimism, Zakaria argued, was founded on the familiar sequence of asset bubbles and financial crises that have characterized the last forty years and the boom and bust they have always engendered. He sees a consistent pattern where every of such upheavals was usually followed by a period of prosperity even when experts usually spoke in absolute terms in painting doomsday scenarios that almost always turned out to be grossly exaggerated.

Africa, according to Zakaria, is today in the same situation which drew many people from across the globe to the United States in the seventies when all everyone could see was hope. That sense of optimism, he argued, now eludes Europe and America whose peoples now feel depressed and uncertain about the future. But he doesn’t share the feeling of despondency.

Zakaria traced how the oil crisis of the seventies was followed by the “Ronald Reagan Revolution” of the eighties. Then there was the economic downturn which sent the first George Bush packing from the White House in 1992 despite an unprecedented approval rating of 91 percent a year earlier. That era of bust was soon followed by the boom era of Bill Clinton. Then came the dot-com bubble of 2000 which generated another boom and bust. In between all these was the unraveling of the ASEAN Tigers which created its own global economic fiasco. But the lesson of it all, according to Zakaria, is that there was always a recovery after every crash. “For me, the optimists have always been right,” he said.

Using the advancement in technology to illustrate how the world has changed so dramatically in the last two decades--to the extent that it has broken the monopoly of information by the state--including in authoritarian regimes, Zakaria sees a better future for Africa. “It is now inconceivable that someone would take over some radio and television stations and think he can successfully stage a coup d’état. Those days are gone with the advent of satellite television, the internet and the mobile phone revolution”, he said as he narrated his experience in Egypt before and after last year’s “Arab Spring” that ended the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.

According to Zakaria, building enduring political institutions is the critical challenge. He said the idea of relying on “good men” in what is usually referred to as benevolent dictatorship could be perilous. Obviously cynical of the Singaporean model, Zakaria said he once argued with some people about it and his summation was: “Yes, it produced a Lee Kwan Yew. But what if the leader turned out to be a Mobutu?” Given the unpredictability of the character of the big man, he would rather recommend strong institutions that guarantee private property, rule of law, and separation of church and state. Looking at the nexus between business and politics, he shared a hilarious but true saying: In the West, people get rich so as to secure the means to buy political influence whereas in Africa and most underdeveloped societies, people buy political influence as a means to getting rich!

On governance, Zakaria lamented a situation where the Mo Ibrahim Leadership Prize for Achievement in African Leadership (which goes to “African heads of state who deliver security, health, education and economic development to their constituents and democratically transfer power to their successors”) could not be awarded for the third year running. Inaugurated in 2007, the first edition of the award was won by Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique who left office in 2005; and in 2008, the award was won by Festus Mogae, the Botswana president who left office that same year. Verona Pires, the immediate past Cape Verde President, won the 2011 prize whereas in the two years before (2009 and 2010) nobody was considered worthy for the prize. The same thing happened this year when the committee announced last month that they could not find any former African leader worthy of the prize which offers $5 million with additional $200,000 annual payment for life to the recipient.

In advancing arguments for representative governments run on taxation, Zakaria contended that “a government that is forced to rely on its people will be forced to enrich its citizens whereas a system that relies solely on natural resources is endangered”. Citing as examples the growth rates being witnessed by resource-less countries like Taiwan and South Korea as against resource-rich Nigeria, S/Arabia and Venezuela, Zakaria said it has been proven that the higher the natural resources, the lower the growth rate.

Playing with the time-tested slogan of “No taxation without representation” which formed the kernel for the American Revolution against the British, Zakaria said in most countries that depend on rent, the underlying philosophy is “no taxation, no representation” in which case no accountability is demanded of leaders, and most often none is rendered since government is funded largely from unearned income. Even when Zakaria did not say so, it was not lost on his audience that he could have been speaking about the Nigerian model. But he nonetheless ended his presentation on a note of cautious optimism.

Africa is currently undergoing what he called the Low-Base growth, because he believes our leaders have stopped doing what is generally regarded as “stupid things”. The second phase has to start with doing smart things. The third phase will be in modernizing the whole society through investment in critical infrastructure and reform of the legal system. Zakaria can see the rise of human talent across the globe and for which Nigeria is far blessed. But he admonished: we must first begin to invest in the future, that is by investing in the education and health of our children. “Don’t invest in consumption today at the expense of tomorrow. Educate your children and don’t subsidise the present to compromise the future.”

With his presentation done, Otudeko invited to the podium President Obasanjo and Mrs Obiageli Ezekwesili, (former Vice President for Africa at the World Bank) who was recently appointed into the global board of Airtel. Their task was simply to present Zakaria with a plaque but prodded by Ali Baba about whether he had something to say, Obasanjo hesitated a bit, then took the microphone. He hesitated even more before he uttered the first word and in the intervening period, many people within the audience did the all-too-familiar clearing of throat for him.

Having collected his thoughts, Obasanjo turned to Zakaria and said: “I want to thank you for making us to know what we should have known. In this country, we have what we need to make the progress that we should make but when we have friends like you to ginger us, it helps so that where we are dormant, we will wake up.”

But Obasanjo was not done: “We have no choice other than to move forward…in the past we may have made some mistakes, but we have to make one choice today other than the choices we have made in the past. And given the fact that we have not made much progress as a nation, it is not our fate. It is not our destiny. And it is not an act of God. It is the choice of our leaders. But we now have to wake up and do what is right. If we don’t, the future may be more distant than it should be.”

That for me was some remark but as I reflected on Zakaria’s presentation, I cannot but wonder whether we have actually stopped doing “stupid things”. It is instructive that at about the same time the Zakaria session was going on in Lagos, President Goodluck Jonathan was on a live media session where he told Nigerians that the fuel subsidy regime that has proved to be grossly inefficient, hopelessly wasteful, and monumentally corrupt will stay.

But I understand why: with the multi-billion Dollar fraud that took place last year in the name of subsidy payments and the resultant trust-deficit, it is now very difficult for government to muster the courage to take the painful but critical decision that is needed if we must reposition the downstream operations of our oil and gas sector. I also wonder whether we have stopped doing “stupid things” when governors are now busy not developing the human potentials in their states but rather searching for some imaginary oil wells or fighting over existing ones. How can we explain a situation where we dig ourselves out of one hole by way of debt repayment only to begin a new frenzy of fresh borrowings not targeted at any meaningful investment at a time we are also accumulating reserves? Can we indeed be said to have stopped doing “stupid things” when overhead still takes not only the lion but also the elephant shares of our national budget?

Well, to borrow a colloquial expression, Fareed Zakaria has said his own. But we must commend Otudeko and the management of Airtel for what was a most enjoyable evening.

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