Mr. President, You Do Need an Economic Team

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That we are facing challenges with the economy is no longer news. Oil prices have remained low and around $50 per barrel in the last couple of months. This situation is exacerbated by the drop in crude export capacity from about 2.2m barrels of crude per day to less than 1.7m barrels owing to the activities of militants in the Niger Delta. Exchange rates have refused to come under control as N500 per dollar stares us in the face. Recall that not too long ago, it was less than N200 per dollar. Inflation rate is chasing 20 per cent from single digits in not too distant past. Youth unemployment is now over 24 per cent, though some analysts believe the figure is much higher. Industry capacity utilisation is at its lowest ebb. GDP has continued to decline leaving leadership with no option than to announce officially, that we are in a recession. These are therefore not normal times. In normal times, the economy must be positioned at the front burner of government activities.

Previous governments have underscored the importance of the economy by assembling experts and people who operate at very important sectors of the economy as an economic team to brainstorm and support government in maintaining optimum economic indices for the country. I would not give all the credit of successes recorded in the past to them, but I must acknowledge the work they did in stabilising the economy. It is important to note that besides putting sound economic policies in place, economic stability has a lot to do with confidence. Today, we talk about the activities of speculators as if someone brought them from outer space to attack the naira or is it dollar? The reality is that everyone can be a speculator. The only way to tame their activities is for them to have confidence that sound policies would continue to be implemented to protect their money.

Once their confidence “shakes or blinks”, they would act the way a rational being would. They would rather hold currencies that they don’t expect their value to depreciate significantly in the short to medium term. Foreign investors as well will hold off until some degree of stability is restored in the financial system. Confidence can be reinforced by the government having people who the market perceives to be sound, skilled, and experienced in its decision making process, particularly in the economic space. Today, other than the Minister of Finance, I am not sure there is any other economist on the president’s team. Considering that the subject matter of economics confuses a lot of people and even economists hardly agree on most major issues, the more of them you have, the better for the system, subject to those economists being sound and up to date. It is in this light that I advocate an economic management team for the president.

Before I continue, I must first of all, disqualify myself. I will not be part of the president’s economic team, if he agrees to constitute one. I hereby apply NOT to be considered for appointment and my reasons are simple. Even though I read Economics, because I have decided to comment on this matter, I have deliberately put myself in a position of conflict and therefore, hold myself disqualified from being a beneficiary of the outcome, if it turns out positive. It becomes very necessary in these days when different conspiracy interpretations are given to otherwise altruistic actions that I clarify my intentions. I will explain this with a story of what a former president of this country shared with a friend of mine a few years ago. He had visited to discuss a few matters with him. Midway into the discussion, he interjected with a remark that shot like a bolt from the blues. “Nigerians are very interesting people. Anytime they come to you with suggestions that look credible, there are always some hidden agenda. A few otherwise respectable people had visited me in the last couple of days to discuss the vacancy in so so institution. They will make a lot of sensible argument about the need to appoint a very well qualified and competent person for that role. When I enquire of an example of the person they had in mind, they would not only present themselves, they would hand me their already prepared CVs. That leaves me wondering where decency and selflessness have gone to”. It is in that light that I need to demonstrate that my “selflessness” has not taken flight.

Secondly, by the time I am through, I would make recommendations of more qualified, more accomplished, more experienced and better economists than myself who would add more value to the administration than I will be able to do. So, why would I want the president to settle for second 11, when he can get first 11? And I say this with all sense of responsibility. Some of them are actually people we learn from. Some have even had course to intervene publicly in the recent times. Where I come from, there is a saying that it is only a fool that does not recognise someone who is greater than him.

The third reason is that there is nothing I want to tell the president that I cannot say on my fortnightly column, ‘Outside the Box’, and I am told by those who have access to the president that he reads everything we write. I hope this information is correct. If it is, I will encourage the president to keep it up. If not, I will encourage him to start reading because there is a lot to learn from reading. I will continue to use this medium to make my own intervention. I am of the view that those who have something to say but don’t have my kind of platform are better appointed than those of us who you will hear from anyway, whether you like us or hate us.

A lot of times, leaders are unable to benefit from genuine advice from their subordinates and appointees for a whole lot of reasons ranging from “respect” through fear to culture. First, we respect age a lot in this part of the globe. If the boss is the older person, there is a tendency to genuflect and say nothing that may come out as rude to him. Our president at 74 is much older than virtually all the members of his cabinet. I can therefore understand if his cabinet members are unable to tell him things the way they are. The second point is that he is the president and an executive one at that. He had been president (Head of State) some 32 years ago when the present minister of finance and some others in the cabinet were just teenagers. One can understand the generation-gap coupled with the enormous powers. Because of the too much power around the president, people around him would not want to make it into his bad books. One president turned on the heat on a governor sometime ago and was almost crushing him.

A few of the governor’s friends went to plead on his behalf. The president roared that he had not started dealing with the then governor as he had not even used 20 per cent of his powers. That speaks of the enormous powers presidents command. In like manner, a governor who served at the federal level before winning elections in 2015 shared his experience with a mutual friend. He said he had come to realise why governors failed. He was shocked that everything he said or did was right. Sometimes, he decided to say the wrong thing in a bid to do a reality check. All commissioners and senior appointees without exception, applauded him as being the smartest thing they had heard. He would then say something diametrically opposed to the earlier statement and the same people would find reason to give an even louder applause.

Comparing this experience with his sojourn at the centre, he found that there was a world of difference. At the federal level, he couldn’t hire and fire anyone, but at the state, everyone from his deputy down served at his pleasure. So, who says it is not time to look again at this “democracy” that we “photocopied” from the US to ensure that it is serving our purposes. The governor took a decision: he would be the last to speak at meetings to ensure against the popular phrase, “just like His Excellency has said”. It was only then that his people started speaking out.

This attitude is not peculiar to the public sector. Sucking up, as it is often called, also exists, even if to a lesser extent, in the private sector. In my early years in banking, I had this general manager who knew very little about his job but was extremely loyal to the CEO who he had worked with most of his banking career. His lack of capacity was very visible in the bank. To the surprise of everyone, the CEO who was a major owner of the bank bought another bank that was ailing at that time and seconded the general manager to the new bank as CEO. Before every meeting with his team, he would go for a briefing with his boss. At management meetings in the new bank, he would address his team thus, “as the boss has directed…” Someone had to always give him a nudge to remind him that he was the boss in the new place. Any wonder why both banks have since collapsed?

President Muhammadu Buhari has left not a few people in no doubt that he is not a private sector apologist. In fact, his comment about the reason he doesn’t want to set up an economic team or why he thinks he doesn’t need one is very instructive. He was quoted to have insisted that the private sector would normally make recommendations that would serve its interest. While I cannot controvert the president on this, I wonder what is wrong with it. It has been demonstrated that the kind of economy we run works, not out of the benevolence of the butcher or baker, but out of their self-interest. The only thing government should not lose sight of is its duty of regulation. Besides, no one is advocating a ‘private-sector-only’ economic team. Others like academics, labour and government officials must be part of the team.

Like we had argued in the past, economics is a very complex subject that requires very complex thinking. Most economists do not have agreement on different issues in the field as I had stated earlier. Having a forum to ventilate divergent thoughts and thoroughly synthesise all possible models and scenarios as it relates to our present and future challenges can only be to the benefit of this government. Most importantly, the president reserves the right to discountenance any advice that he does not agree with, but he should not deny himself the opportunity to be advised.

Again, it is said that one does not give what one does not have. We do have a lot of competent people who would put their wealth of experience, training and skills at the disposal of the government. I wonder what the president stands to lose. I would expect that this team like others would neither be employed nor paid by government to ensure its independence.

I have taken liberty to draw up a list, though not exhaustive, of the kind of people that the president needs to approach for membership of the proposed team which I will send to him confidentially since I do not have their permission to publish their names. The government may also wish to choose some people from the private sector and join the trio of Minister of Finance, Minister of National Planning and Minister of Trade and Industries and of course, the CBN Governor with the vice-president presiding.

Finally, if truly Mr. President has a problem with the nomenclature, economic team, then we can call it any other name. Anyhow, I believe that the president needs a crack team of economists, technocrats and experts to assist him manage our very challenged economy. He actually needs this team quickly. He needs it yesterday.