OUTSIDE THE BOX
BY ALEX OTTI
‘A really hungry person does not twice walk past food offered as sacrifice to the gods’ – Old African Proverb
‘Economy is not important or unimportant, it simply IS’ – Andrej Chudožilov (Prague-based Modern Day Philosopher)
One of the most memorable legacies of the Presidential Campaigns of 1992 in the United States of America is a now-famous slogan, coined by James Carville, Bill Clinton’s political strategist. ‘The Economy, Stupid’ was the galvanising cry that helped usher President Clinton into the White House against seemingly all odds. Since then, the slogan has acquired global acceptance and is now usually rendered as, ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’.
By way of explanation, the 41st US President, George H.W. Bush had been a very popular President, in the wake of his invasion of Iraq in 1991. The American public’s approval rating of his administration had reached an all-time high of 90%. However, by the summer of the following year, his approval rating plunged to as low as 64% as recession loomed. The young challenger from Arkansas, Governor Bill Clinton, had put together a brilliant team to run his campaign and Mr. Carville was part of the cutting edge of that team. He quickly identified the adverse impact the dwindling fortunes of the American economy had on the populace and latched on to it as the campaign theme. Needless to say that it was what helped sweep George Bush Senior out of office in favour of then largely unknown Bill Clinton.
While it must be said that the result was possible through the creative use of media and marketing, it is clear that issues of food, clothing, shelter and school fees, remain the basic primordial factors that control the emotion of societies, the Nigerian society very much included. It is only when these basic needs are met that people can begin to consider the finer points of ‘civilised society’. Karl Marx would refer to it extensively as ‘Economic Determinism’. As a Nigerian popular musician would sing, ‘It’s all about Benjamin’! Benjamin is a colloquial name for the US Dollar. In the recent times, one Nigerian politician has aptly described it as “stomach infrastructure”.
Since the beginning of this year, two major issues have dominated Nigeria’s own public scene, namely security and politics. The news media have been daily dominated by accounts of insecurity in their various forms all across the Nigerian landscape. From Boko Haram insurgency in the North East and the inevitable displacement of millions of the populace, to the nebulous Zamfara clashes that result in massive destruction of lives and property. The Middle Belt has had its own tale of woes, suffering and death. In many other parts of the country, it would appear that kidnapping, violent robberies and homicides have become a daily occurrence.
In politics, this year has been a watershed in the domain of political drama in Nigeria. With the impending general elections early next year, the dozens of registered political parties in the country have witnessed intense activities. Alignments and realignments have become the order of the day. In the run up to the Primaries which by the way, are yet to be fully concluded in so many of the parties, defections, betrayals, electoral malfeasances and violence, have become common features.
In addition to the unsavoury developments I have described above, there are clear signs of general despondency and spike in many of the social ills that plague any failing society. Young people are leaving the country illegally in droves in search of better life, many of them meeting very dastardly consequences along the way. Crime is growing and poverty is on the rise with Nigeria overtaking India as the poverty Capital of the world.
In spite of these developments, there is the curious growth of interest among the developed economies in the Nigerian market. In quick succession, the Western countries, Asia, Russia and China have practically been tripping over each other either visiting the country or inviting Nigeria’s top officials to visit them in their countries. Even more curiously is the fact that lately, those who visited simply touched Abuja, the nation’s capital just to say ‘hi’ to the President and fulfil all righteousness and the next minute they zoom off to Lagos to spend the night, sign deals and even dance Afrobeat? Macron was quick to seize on his days here in Nigeria to come visiting and dancing. Theresa May gave Abuja some minutes and immediately flew down to meet the young and energetic Lagos State Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode and his equally young and energetic constituents. Angela Merkel also did her own cameo appearance in tow. Surprised? Well, nothing happens by chance.
I myself have since given this much thought to this phenomenon and the more I do so, the more I come to believe that the words of Carville are true, it is really the economy that is most important in this game of governance and daily pursuits. Moreover, after considering the on-going events in today’s Nigeria, I am further convinced that the statement rings true. In fact, it is still the economy, stupid!.
You may have noticed that the common thread in all the visits by the international dignitaries was emphasis on economy and trade. Wherever there is money to be made, the entrepreneur nations will seek it out and go there. More surprises; many of these business and political leaders had little time for politics and they went straight to Lagos after a few minutes with Abuja, where apparently there is nothing much for them. They all put Lagos on the top of their agenda – Macron, Bill Gates, Zuckerberg, Theresa May and so on. In spite of all the huff and puff in the media about growth and development in my own part of the country, not much interest has been shown by these international entities. On a sad note, the Eastern axis of the country is not in the picture at all. None of them has even thought of visiting any city in the East. The last major event of that magnitude was when the World Bank President visited Ariaria market clusters in Aba, Abia State and stayed a couple of days there. That was several years ago. I remember having a chat with the then Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Dr. Mrs Ngozi Okonjo Iweala after that visit. She shared with me the embarrassing question the World Bank President put to her. According to her, the visitor who may have been in the same car with her asked, “I can understand that the people here are poor, but must poverty and filth go together?” I am not sure that he won’t ask the same question if he were to repeat that visit today. Since it is the economy that rules, it says a lot about where we stand in the scheme of things and the kind of conversation we should be having particularly as we approach another election year. We must also pay more attention to the economy as we try to resolve the leadership question that has been the bane of this country at all levels as the great Novelist and Statesman the late Professor Chinua Achebe wrote in his famous book, “The trouble with Nigeria”. It’s the economy stupid!
From the global perspective, there is the new stance of these countries which can simply be explained by the sudden rise in Nationalism across the world. It is more euphemistically described as ‘Bilateralism’. The phenomenon has been given fresh and huge boost by the rise of Trump and his ‘America First’ mantra. By the way, yours truly is still waiting to sue him for plagiarism, when he leaves office, having copied without acknowledgment, my Abia First mantra used for my governorship campaign between 2014 and 2015. Several other right wing leaders have been elected across the world while pro-right groups have found their voices in countries like Germany, Brazil, France, Holland and Hungary. The growing influx of migrants as they seek better fortunes for themselves and their loved ones has also helped fuel this and it has led to rising intolerance for migrants in many countries. It has also resulted in a spike in religious and ethnic crises in Europe. The emerging feeling of bilateralism has led to a breakdown in global trade and security agreements. NAFTA, Iran Nuclear Deal, Kyoto Climate Deal, NATO, among others have become casualties in a hitherto multilateral world.
Finally there is Brexit, which is causing a complete redefinition of global markets in a way not witnessed since the Bretton Woods arrangements saw the creation of the multilateral agencies and the initiation of the Marshall Plan and the evolution of the European common market and union. Britain is resigning its fate to a hard Brexit in which it will exit the European Union without any soft landing. It will have no deals from her erstwhile European siblings and even Ireland will pursue her own economic fortunes with the rest of Europe. In response, Britain is looking further afield for economic partners and markets. It has turned on the charm offensive on its old Commonwealth markets. It has appointed a young and charming Prince William to be head of the Commonwealth and when Megan and Prince Harry wedded, every effort was made to emphasise the diversity of the ‘British Empire’. Apart from the performances by several non-British artistes, the wedding gown of the bride was adorned with flowers from all the Commonwealth countries. I hope this was not lost on freed British colonies.
The ultimate objective of governance is to generate the greatest amount of good to the greatest majority. This is attained when there is good governance and baseline evidence of good governance is the peace and security of the environment, which will lead to the tackling of economic challenges. This is why it is important for us to take the issue of economic development seriously and ensure that we create the ambient environment that will attract meaningful trade and investment. We must repair our economy, improve security, infrastructure and ensure policy consistency, and we can be sure the investments will come. Where we don’t do these, no amount of foreign trips by our leaders to attract investment or sloganeering will do it.
In all the dynamics of trade and investment, it is important to bear in mind that Africa is the last frontier. The West is losing ground to China and India in Asia. In fact, when it comes to Information Technology, India has not only become a power house, but is now the world leader. Korea is now an enigma and it may be the worst nightmare for a United Korea in which South Korea brings modern technology and North Korea brings nuclear and military power, any wonder about the face off between Donal Trump and Kin Jung Un? Russia is asserting greater presence in the Middle East and the oil wells of Middle and Near East are up for grabs. The Talibans are on the rise in Pakistan and Afghanistan. China fully well knows this and is running all over Africa to seek out business. Its ambitious ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is fast turning into a reality and the West has come to this realisation with great alarm and countering responses. Where do we stand in all this as a people and to know that we must be part of it or we will lose out in the emerging global economy that will see huge transformation in economic fortunes of those that take advantage of it. The sad reality is that with our apparent unpreparedness before the dinner, Africa may end up being part of the menu as the prepared parts of the world place their orders on the dinner table.
Must we stay and watch these opportunities frittered away? The answer is no! We need good governance and this can only come when we choose the right leaders to lead and drive change at all levels. Otherwise, we will continue to tell the story of our missed opportunities. I am sure we have began to sound like a broken record, but that is because the disc is yet to be mended!