Whatever Happened to Planning?

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The Horizon KayodeK omolafe kayode.komolafe@thisdaylive.com

0805 500 1974

Minister of Water Resources Suleiman Adamu has been reported as saying that 54 million Nigerians lack access to potable water. Fifty four million human beings without clean water to drink! About 54 million is the combined population of six other West African countries namely Ghana, Republic of Benin, Togo, Liberia, Sierra-Leone and The Gambia. How to ensure water supply to such a huge number of people is a central question of development to ponder.

And to imagine how policy makers have been comfortable with this grotesque statistic for many years. The various ministries of economic planning at the federal and state levels should be familiar with this and other statistics of poverty. The lack of access to clean water is a problem in the 36 states and Abuja.

It is also instructive to ponder the explanation the minister offered for this national shame: There are many problems why we don’t have tap water… we are not planning our water scheme in tandem with the population growth in the country… For instance, when I was living here in Abuja in the 1990s the water scheme was for 500,000 people and at that time, were already 1.5 million people. The minister has said it all, you would probably say.

Access of all to potable water should be at the heart of any humane and just socio-economic planning. After all, it is a biological fact that water is life, as they say. At least 75% of the protoplasm, the basic unit of life, is made of water. Global advocates for access to water such as former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, are even pushing for giving effect to the United Nations’ recognition that water is indeed a human right.

It doesn’t take a futurologist to know that unlike the last century when oil was at root of some wars, many of the wars of the future might be on freshwater supply. That is why access to water is a development question to be answered by countries that take socio-economic planning seriously.

The grim situation painted by Adamu in the foregoing is only possible in a country where what passes for economic management is nothing more than impulsive awards of contracts to execute random projects. A former state governor once described it as “government by projects.” This governance culture can be demonstrated with poor supply of potable water. There is hardly any local government without borehole projects. Local government chairmen construct boreholes just as governors and legislators do. However, these are mere tokenist responses to critical issues of development.

That is why there are officially 54 million people without clean water despite thousands of boreholes dug in this country in the last three decades. How could serious economic managers be thinking of boreholes for water supply in a population of 170 million? In all tiers of government, the concept of development is fatally distorted when tokens are offered in response to the needs of the mass of the people. In the language of genuine development, you would be talking of running taps in homes and factories. People would not be carrying buckets to boreholes half a kilometer away to fetch water. Embarking on massive water schemes is the way of development.

Before this borehole era of governance, there used to be National Development Plans. In post-colonial Nigeria, there have been four of such plans, the last being the ill-fated 1981-85 National Development Plan. Even the colonialists had their own sort of plans. In such plans, socio-economic managers in those days would project 10 or 20 years ahead the litres of water that would be needed by the estimated population of people. This would invariably inform the magnitude of the water schemes to be established. Certainly, not by digging boreholes! What is said about water supply could also be said about school enrolment, social housing schemes and access to primary healthcare by infants and pregnant women.

For clarity, the problem should be ideologically located. Although there are ministries at the federal and state levels that go by the name of economic planning, serious planning has long been abandoned in Nigeria. There is hardly any evidence of planning in the development landscape. In the days of the cold war, planning was seen as a socialist category. In fact, the other name for a socialist economy was planned economy. In the post-cold war era the neo-liberals who now drive economic management treat scientific planning with contempt and prejudice in their ideological hubris.

In some policy-making circles, planning remains a dirty word. Yet it is by planning for human development that the qualitative impact of the statistics being brandished by our experts could be felt. What is the meaning of the status of Nigeria as the largest economy in Africa to the 54 million without potable water? What is the significance of increasing growth rates to these people? And of what benefits is the “medium-term plans” approved by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to this category of people? It is not acceptable in a country where governments treat their people as human beings that in 2016 54 million lack access to water.

The Flint water crisis in Michigan City in the U.S. is regarded as “unthinkable.” The water supply to the city is contaminated with lead. President Barrack Obama has had cause to visit the scene of the disaster to demonstrate the seriousness of the American nation about the crisis. A British newspaper described it as “America’s third world problem.” Governments at all levels in America are expected to plan ahead to ensure that the supply of clean water is steady for consumers.

The point being missed by our neo-liberals is that in developed capitalist societies planning is taking seriously to meet the welfare need of their people. Their various think tanks come up with projections of what the society of the future would need to make the lives of their people comfortable. That is why their legislators make laws to back up policies that could deliver speed trains for mass transit. Here, our senators buy motorcycles as “empowerment” projects of mass transit for their people.

A little bit of economic history may be helpful. The turning point for the worse in planning has been located to be in the mid-1970s. There are, of course, different perspectives on why and how things went wrong. One of the perspectives is that shared by those who were in the saddle in the immediate post-independence era. On the occasion of the 52nd anniversary of the nation’s independence, one of those who saw it all made a useful observation. He is Chief Phillip Asiodu, a former federal permanent secretary.

He put the matter like this: The (Murtala-Obasanjo regime) abandoned the critical 1975-80 plan, which was to lay the basis of genuine industrialization, economic diversification, adding great value to agriculture and agro-allied industry, oil and gas etc. It abandoned that plan, but worst still, abandoned the discipline imposed by the plan. And the discipline was tampered with. The whole civil service brought up in the strict compliance of official instructions, conformity to pre-identified priorities, that money was spent on one thing and not on something else, cost-effective public procurement, with discipline visited on any erring officials — that was set aside; and that was the beginning of relative degradation. That was when we parted from counties like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, with which we were at par, and today, we are importing things from these countries.

The last National Development Plan was to last till 1985. By 1986, the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) was imposed with its enormous social costs. Subsequently, Nigeria has remained a huge laboratory for all sorts of neo-liberal economic experiments. Indeed, some of these experiments have been wild and inhuman policies.

The nation has virtually been turned into what the French economist and author of the celebrated book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty, calls a “republic of experts.” These experiments carried out by generations of these experts and technocrats have never been about planning to eradiate poverty. Hence gross inequality and social injustice are the consequences now threatening the social fabric of the society. Our experts and technocrats cannot be celebrating Fitch ratings and endorsements of IMF and World Bank of their policies when 54 million people have no clean water to drink. The problem would be worsened by desertification. The search for water, just like the search for grazing land, may be the trigger of another major socio-economic and political crisis.

The way out is planning for people’s welfare. That is why President Muhammadu Buhari should embark on a paradigm shift in governance by returning to the culture of development planning.