Obasanjo and His 25 Billionaires

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THE HORIZON BY KAYODE KOMOLAFE  kayode.komolafe@thisdaylive.com

The State shall direct its policy towards ensuring that the economic system is not operated in such a manner as to permit the concentration of wealth or the means of production and exchange in the hands of few individuals or of a group — Chapter II, Section 16 (2c) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo flaunted at the weekend a curious achievement of his administration: “My delight is to be able to create Nigerian billionaires. I always say it proudly that my aim when I was in government was to create 50 billionaires from Nigeria. Unfortunately I failed, because I created only 25.” He spoke in Lagos at the second edition of the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Forum. As a matter of fact, he was seemingly giving the Buhari administration a lecture on how to provide “a conducive atmosphere for entrepreneurs.” The foregoing says something significant about Obasanjo’s concept of development.

The former president, who doubtless still remains a political force, should not be ignored for making this intriguing statement. This is because his claims have reinforced the need to properly interrogate the worldview of those who have the privilege of superintending the serious business of economic management in this country.

This is the time to provide answers to the central questions of development. The philosophy underpinning any strategy of economic development should be rigorously examined. Otherwise the path of development would remain foggy. When a president says he is working for the development of Nigeria, we need to ask him to state his understanding of the concept. It is because the genuine progressive forces lack the capacity to pose this question politically that the majority of the people are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty.

Obasanjo claims to have created 25 out of the 50 billionaires he aspired to make. But he has not told us in figures the impact of these palace businessmen on the economy in terms of job creation, poverty reduction, technological advancement and industrialisation. In a clime in which accountability is a code of conduct he would be required to provide these pertinent figures. The former president cannot say that a good mix of policies in his eight years in the office lifted 25 million out of poverty. Neither could he flaunt the fact that his 25 billionaires have created 5 million jobs.

These are the numbers that should be a delight. Elsewhere, former presidents measure their achievements with those parameters. In Obasanjo’s eight years in office Nigeria was rated low in Human Development Index of the United Nations Human Development Programme (UNDP). The millions of people who had no access to basic needs when Obasanjo became president in 1999 still continued to live with this socio-economic injustice at the end of his tenure.

The story is yet to change. From primary to the tertiary level, public education collapsed under Obasanjo. The trend of most members of the elite shunning public schools and seeking places for their children in outrageously expensive private schools has continued. Obasanjo and his deputy, Vice President Atiku Abubakar, are major players in this market where education has become a commodity available only to those who can afford it. Meanwhile, the Obasanjo administration was perpetually at war with university teachers with the consequential long strikes on campuses. . Parents continued to rule out their old public schools when pondering their children education. The undeclared policy was that those who could not afford the designer education of the private schools should make do with what public education has become in our land.

Facilities in health institutions deteriorated. The result: those who could afford it had to spend millions of dollars to access quality healthcare abroad. The hospitals at home became theatres of strikes, as the government did not see funding health sector as a priority. The Obasanjo administration loathed spending in the social sector. Potable water was a luxury to millions of people especially in the rural areas before Obasanjo became president. Can he tell the nation what percentage of these millions had got access to clean water by the time he left office in 2007? A few months to the end of his tenure, Obasanjo himself was reported to have said that he was “ashamed of the state of the roads.” The collapse of the federal highways across the country was a legacy of his administration.

Obasanjo now talks of “conducive environment for entrepreneurs.” But he failed to make a difference to the poor energy situation he met on ground in 1999. The electricity question was not adequately answered when time was up for his government despite the power projects and investments at the twilight of the administration. The national shame of a crude oil-exporting country importing fuel for his domestic consumption began before Obasanjo’s presidency and this economic illogic has continued till the end of the administration. The importation of fuel has continued to this day.

The former president failed to stop the hemorrhage on foreign exchange caused by this gross advertisement of the incompetence of economic managers in Nigeria. Yet the revenues accruing from the sale of crude oil were highest during this period. Future economic historians would have a job to do in resolving this contradiction. In fact, a proper development audit of the Obasanjo administration ought to be done by experts as he parades these billionaires he claims to have proudly created.

The 1999 Constitution, which Obasanjo swore to uphold, does not give the president the mandate to create billionaires amidst millions of poor people. That is not the economic objective of the country. The quote above makes the matter quite explicit for any honest person governing Nigeria. The job of a president is constitutionally to promote the “common good.” The role of the state, according to the Chapter II of the constitution, is to “control the national economy in such manner as to secure the maximum welfare, freedom and happiness of every citizen on the basis of social justice and equality of status and opportunity.” When a president departs from this idea of development he has clearly violated constitution. The neo-liberals in our midst would be quick to remind us that these humane provisions in this important chapter of the constitution are not justiciable.

Yes, that is a severe limitation of liberal bourgeois democracy. The response to it is this: until these pro-people provisions in the constitution are abrogated by the greedy and insensitive ruling class government policies would be assessed on the basis of their conformity to the constitution. It is part of the culture of impunity that reigns supreme in the land that policymakers violate the constitution and trumpet their anti-people options as achievements.

Unfortunately, the Obasanjo school of development is the dominant one among policymakers including some of those currently in charge in Abuja. A trait of this school of development is an aversion for articulation of a coherent strategy of economic development. If you are set on the path for development you should tell the people the direction of the journey to progress. Did Obasanjo say on the hustings during the 1999 or 2003 presidential election that people should vote for him so that he would create 25 billionaires? It was only in his second term that a document entitled National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS) was produced.

But the strategy was never properly articulated and there is no evidence that economic management in the Obasanjo years was informed by the logic of the proposed strategy. Like other administrations in the last 30 years, Obasanjo’s own is deliberately against planning. They have all preferred the option of improvised short-term and medium- term documents sanctioned by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Successive administrations have treated with contempt the constitutional provision for the promotion of “ a planned and balanced economic development.”

Clearly, there is a big problem with Obasanjo’s conception of the role of the state in relation to the private sector. The Chinese economic success is not being toasted globally because the government under the Communist Party of China created some billionaires. The applause received by the Chinese government is for the millions that have been lifted out of poverty since the turning point of 1979 with the emergence Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping.

Other countries are not copying former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s widely acclaimed anti-poverty policies because he created tens of billionaires in Brazil. Lula is admired for creating a model of poverty reduction. When President Bill Clinton talks about his administration in retrospect he talks of millions of jobs created in the American economy during his time. He points to opportunities for millions of Americans in a robust economy. It was not his business to create a few more American billionaires. The normal logic of American capitalism could take care of such a creation.

The engagement of the government with the private sector in the success stories in other lands is quite different from the Obasanjo’s experiment. It even offends the competitive spirit of capitalism for the state to claim to be making some businessmen billionaires over the others. Creating 25 billionaires is not the same thing as forging a synergy of purpose with the Chambers of Commerce, Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), and the Nigerian Employers Consultative Association (NECA) etc. If Obasanjo engaged the organised private sector productively factories would not close down and jobs would not be so easily erased. If you have been reading the documents of these organisations of the private sector players, you would hardly find any expression of “delight” about economic management as Obasanjo is gleefully advertising things.

In fact, in some parts of the country there was a tendency towards de-industrialisation as a result of the decay of infrastructure needed for business. So much for conducive environment! Indeed it would be interesting to ask if Obasanjo’s story of 25 billionaires is music to the ears of the organised private sector.
All told, Obasanjo’s celebration of his 25 billionaires is symptomatic of an ideological malaise: the Nigerian ruling class is yet to sort itself out on the typology of capitalism it aspires to build.

Way back in 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel offered a classical definition of the state in the Communist Manifesto as follows: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” Obasanjo has further narrowed the role of the state. He seems to have a new definition of the state in 2016. Instead managing the affairs of all Nigerian capitalists, by his own admission, he elected to just make a few of his bourgeois friends billionaires while in power. For the people, that is certainly is no achievement.