Time for Harvest of Ideas

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THE HORIZON BY KAYODE KOMOLAFE,  Email: kayode.komolafe@thisdaylive.com

The Buhari administration came into being riding on the crest of a wave of public confidence that it would tackle corruption, make the nation secure and run the economy better. There were immense expectations of positive changes embodied in this platform on which the election campaign of President Muhammadu Buhari was based.

Today the most severe judgment on the 17-month old government is on its economic management. Again, the primacy of the economic factor has hugely come into play. And if you permit the invocation of Karl Marx once more, the most revolutionary political economist of all times said a man must eat and be clothed and sheltered before he could think of politics, morality, nationalism, religion, arts or ideology etc. By the way, Marx’s formal training was in law. All told, economy is the issue. That is the truth Nigeria faces at the moment.

However, the discussion of the economic problems (with the hope of finding solutions) is less than rigorous in the public sphere. To start with, the political parties are bereft of grand ideas about the economy. The All Progressives Congress (APC) in power is not defending any policy option much less a grand strategy of development. In any case, that would be a tall order for an inchoate and inorganic political party such as the APC. The disparate forces that hastily put together APC on the eve of the 2015 election could not forge any programmatic unity.

It remains a party without ideology. The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has equally demonstrated an abysmal lack of capacity to articulate any alternative path to development. It is even yet to summon the needed sobriety to draw pertinent lessons from its disastrous running (or ruining) of the economy for 16 years. Each of the smaller parties is a mere franchise to purchase by those seeking electoral platforms. They are hardly passionate about any idea for economic development. That is not the way things are done elsewhere; parties win elections on the basis of the ideas they popularise in the polity.

This is partly the point Professor Kingsley Moghalu made in his erudite piece on this page on September 20, 2016 entitled “Do Economists Matter?” Subsequently, Dr. Alex Otti counselled in his column in the October 18 edition of this newspaper “Mr. President, You Do Need an Economic Team.” In the Nigeria of 1970s and even the mid-1980s, such provocative interventions would engender liberal debates enriched by multiplicity of perspectives. Not any more! The shouting matches and primitive hate speeches in the cyber space have replaced the robust debates for which the Nigerian public sphere was once reputed.

Nigeria is in the midst of a grave economic crisis, but there is no bounteous harvest of ideas. Not even from the academia! For instance, it is not enough to respond to Otti’s well-argued essay by pointing to the National Economic Council chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. Abuja talks of some economic team, but there is no well-articulated strategy of development on the national horizon. The plethora of ministerial road maps is no equivalent of a strategy of economic development.

The team that Otti is proposing could help in developing such a strategy. The proposition of Moghalu can hardly be ignored. For instance, this reporter fundamentally disagrees with his ideological standpoint, but there is a lot to admire in his deep recognition of the centrality of ideas to development. For Moghalu, at a time like this the nation is in dire need of the professional services of economists.

But more important, he calls on “economic thinkers (who) have philosophical foundations” to come forward with their perspectives on the problem. As he amply demonstrated the point, these economic thinkers comprise professional economists and non-economists alike. To be sure, the business of economic management is too important to be left for technical economists alone. Moghalu is absolutely right to stress the importance of “philosophical foundation” of economic strategies and policies. After all, a lot defenders of free market often quote Adam Smith’s pivotal work, Wealth of Nations, while ignoring the earlier philosophical publication, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which substantially shaped the thoughts of Smith in later works.

So, a major malaise afflicting policymaking in Abuja is the insufficiency of attention paid to harvest of ideas. Instead of constituting an independent advisory board of economic thinkers (a judicious mix of economists and non-economists), the government is content with occasional invitations to experts making presentations to ministers and governors. Yet, it is undeniable that historically a period of crisis should be fecund of breakthrough ideas.

The symptoms of the policymaking malaise are evident in the manner in which the economy is run or not run. This is reminiscent of the unconventional remarks of Cambridge political economist Ha-Joon Chang; in his famous 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, that good economic policies do not necessarily require good economists. If some of the commentators realise the historical validity of this point the critique of the Buhari economic management would be better nuanced. Instead of the emphasis on technical economics, the primary question to ask should be this: what is the underlying philosophy of the economic strategy adopted and the policies issuing from it? After the senate screening, the interest should shift from the curriculum vitae (CVs) of ministers to their policy world outlook.

After all, even when a non-professional economist is at the helm, the ministry or department is peopled by technocrats including economists with diverse specialist skills. So the question should be this: are the ministers disposed to pro-people programmes or are they merely revelling in elitist fanfare in the name of project execution? Come to think of it, even in the current campaigns of the presidential candidates in the United States of America, the argument is still whether policies such as the one on taxation would benefit only a few at the top or the majority of the citizens in the lower rung of the ladder. The class bias in policymaking is real.

Unfortunately, the current mood in Abuja is too technocratic to entertain grand ideas. Economic management is being presented as bookkeeping. Yes, all the holes should be plugged, the books must be balanced and savings should be made. However, the philosophic basis of policy choices made is not yet clear.

Perhaps, the most glaring symptom of the dearth of big ideas in policy making is the utter pretence by policymakers that they operate in historical vacuum. In the last 30 years especially there has not been sufficient evidence of a sense of historical purpose in economic management. Sometimes those who claim to be oracles of the Nigerian economy pontificate as if they are oblivious of even recent economic history. In terms of philosophical underpinning, nothing fundamentally has changed since the military regime of President Ibrahim Babangida began to recast the Nigerian political economy in 1986. The recent dispute on the sale of national assets brought this point into focus poignantly. How can any one be celebrating the virtues of sale of assets without interrogating what has happened to the policy instruments of privatisation, liberalisation, and deregulation, commercialisation etc. since 1985? When will there be a proper audit of earlier sales of national assets so as to determine the economic wisdom in that policy direction?

If the bad news is that there are daunting economic problems, the good news could be that the time could be ripe for harvest of useful ideas for socio-economic development.