Government Economic Policies Will Start Yielding Results After Some Years – Prof Ocheje

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In this interview with ISUWA SUNDAY, OMONU YAX-NELSON and EMAMEH GABRIEL, Prof Paul D. Ocheje of Windsor University, Ontario, Canada, laid bare, the challenges with the Nigerian economy, the hiccups with the anti-corruption war and how to get it right, once and for all.

What is the missing link in the Nigerian economy and why is the crisis so intractable?

The Nigerian economy, as part of the world economic system, has been on the periphery, some say since independence. We have not really had a huge part to play in the world economy. What we have is what is referred to most of the time, as jewel economy. Meaning that, we have an economy, that is divided into two; the local economy and modern economy. The modern economy is very small, it was established by the colonial masters. We have not really moved much beyond that level.

The colonial masters established the modern economy to service the metropolitan centres. By that, we mean the industrialised nations. We specialise as producers of raw materials. Since then we have not developed our industrial base. So all we have been doing is to provide the industrial countries with our raw materials and the prices of the raw material we sell to them are not determined by us, as the prices keep fluctuating. Sometimes they are stable, at other times, depressed.  Sometimes, they make a little movement up, such as we have had with oil.

The modern sector is where most countries achieve their industrial development. The local sector which comprises of peasant farmers, labourers and those who work in huge plantations has remained what it has been. It has not expanded beyond what it was at the colonial time. And so, that sector has not much to contribute to the development of the modern sector. If we had developed our industrial base, we would have fallen back on it, to bolster the modern sector. That has not happened.

Talking generally about the economy now, we see that, we can’t even compete within our own economy. If you go into the market, you will see Chinese operators in our market. I think our country has indiscriminately bought into the neoliberal system without considering our own interest. No developing country can move beyond where they are without taking their own interest into consideration. If we continue to produce raw materials without creating employment here or developing our industrial base, it means we have accepted the division of labour where we are. And, we are not willing to move beyond that point.

If you look at the tenets of neoliberal philosophy, which govern world economy right now, you will find that, none of the tenets is designed to uplift the third world. It is not a surprise that since 1945, only Japan, has succeeded in joining the developed countries. All the others will move a little bit forward and, then backward. It is as if there is a conspiracy to push them down.

Look at commercialisation and liberalisation for example, they talk about liberalising our economy, let our currency policy cut down on public spending, privatise all the services that government used to offer, and eliminate subsidies. It is not possible for any developing country to do all these without an industrial base. It is very difficult.

Look at our education system for example, they said, privatise, which means that, all the services will achieve their value through a publicly flouted system. Meaning that, if you are going to school and you are to pay commercial rates, a lot of people would not be able to afford to go to school at all. If people are to pay commercial rate at the hospital, some people would rather die than to go to hospital. If water is privatised and you have to pay commercial rate to drink water, most people cannot afford it, because, to begin with, there is huge unemployment. We are generating very little within the economy to sustain our population.

It is not possible, if you want to move forward, to carry out the tenets of neoliberalism in economic terms, without considering your own interest. You have to always adapt whatever they prescribe to your situation which is what we are not doing. The government of Muhammadu Buhari has tried to say no, we are not going to float our currency. We are going to fix the rate, which is directly against the neoliberal system, as propounded by the IMF and the World Bank. And, he held unto that for a while, then, he came under all kinds of pressure, some generated within the country, the industrialists; so called, industrialists, because there are not much industries here. And then, IMF came forward, we can understand their reason for coming forward, because, it was the uncoordinated way people control their currency that led to the first depression; the huge depression of 1929-1933, some devaluing them while some raised theirs. The IMF came into being to make sure that there is not much turbulence in foreign exchange and international trade.

You can see that the dollar exchange to the naira, hovers between 409 and 420 right now. We have not seen the worst yet. If nothing is done to shore it up, it is going to continue the downward slide and there would be nothing to stop it. Zimbabwe is an example of what has happened to countries that do not have an industrial base who try to compete with their currency in the international market.

There is a lull and nobody seems to be talking about it as such. But you remember when Babangida did this thing for the first time. In 1986, they called it SFEM, that time. The Naira started its downward slide. Since then, the dollar has been on the rise and naira on a free-fall. What has happened now is a new version of what Babangida did. They decided to auction the dollar and then, it does not matter how many naira you need to put forward to get one dollar. The elite of this country must have the dollar to travel around the world for shopping and medical care. So they need dollar and you have to free-up the dollar by allowing anybody who has money to go and buy and this has been a real problem for us, the problem is that the situation is not likely to improve soon. But I think that President Buhari has an idea of what it takes to protect the economy of a country but the pressure against his stand is enormous.

Our economy is going to get worse before it gets better. All of the policies this government is putting in place regarding looking inward; going back to agriculture are not going to start yielding fruit until a year or two before we start seeing the result of the current government policies on the economy.  They may succeed and they may not succeed. There is no guaranty that because they put a policy in place, everything will work out well.

In this country, we happen to have people in politics who do not go to bed thinking about the future. Everybody is thinking about their own stomachs. They don’t realise that in the end, we will all perish in this kind of situation because no matter what they say, it is the elites, the opinion leaders, who shape the destiny of any nation. There is no evidence so far, that the elites of this country are willing to contribute to its progress. All the policies they put in place, excluding this government, for the time being, are policies that favour themselves to the exclusion of others.

In the Jewel economy I referred to earlier, you have a bifurcated economy where there is an elite, the modern sector, there you have the police, the army and the civil service and so on. And then, you have the peasants who are our farmers and constitute over 70 percent of our population.

There was a study by Michael Lipton, titled “Urban Bias in World Development,” where he tried to study the developing countries generally and found that the little infrastructure they can afford is concentrated at the urban centres. Then, poor farmers flock to urban centres to earn a living. And, then they are stigmatised as criminals. They live in shacks outside of the city centres. The elites refer to them as dirty and must be moved out of the city to live in squalour. That happened all-the time because the elites think they are the only ones who live in this country. Everything must favour them, they are not ready to make sacrifices at all.

Each time they call for sacrifice in this country, the ordinary people understand and they do contribute their own quota. But the elite of this country have never contributed anything. When we say it is ‘austerity measure,’ what do they contribute? They don’t! And, no country can make progress without an elite that is determined. In the 50’s, China was on the same level with us, Taiwan and all those emerging economies were all on this level with us. Nigeria was even considered to have better prospects than those people because they don’t have the kind of resources that we have here! Soon, the elite of those countries determined that they must move forward. They began to move, leaving Nigeria behind.

It is the people that have the sovereignty and wealth of this country. How long can we continue to ignore them?  It’s really sad, when you look at it. That we have squandered 56 years, since we gained independence. That may not be a long time in the grand scheme of things but 56 years could have been enough for us to lay a solid foundation, which we have not done.

The President has for the umpteenth time complained that the judges are frustrating the anti-corruption war. As a Law Professor, what’s your take and how is the image of Nigeria abroad?

The image of the country abroad is still very dark. People think this is not a serious country at all. The kind of corruption we have is systemic, meaning, from the top right to the bottom, everybody is involved in it. A lot of people give and take. It takes two to be engaged in corruption. That is the corruption of the commonest kind. But there is another kind of corruption which just by the stroke of the pen, someone steals a billion dollars. We no longer talk about naira any more.

As far as the courts are concerned, I think they are working with the rules that they have but those rules are not categorical. That is the problem. The rules give room for discretion.

Most of the judges have not bought into the anti-corruption war. So when matters come before them, they take the interpretation of the law that is not entirely consistent with the philosophy that governs the entire country at this time. The judges need to be cultivated to begin to understand where the government is going.

They should understand that, if there are two interpretations, they must adopt the interpretation that is consistent with the policy of the government. But when you start doing that, they will start complaining of encroachment on the independence of the judiciary, the judiciary is independent, and they should not tell them what to do. But no country can make progress without making use of all its structures in a particular direction.

What is development? Development is goal directed behaviour. It means all of the resources you have must be marshalled towards where you are going.  A chain is as strong as its weakest link. If you have a link that is not strong, it’s going to bring down the rest.

There is a huge amount of work to be done, in getting our judges to understand where the country is going. Try to get them along with the policy of government. You have to tailor your own effort to fit your need as a country. We cannot subscribe to some acne kind of philosophy with which other countries are working, if it doesn’t work for us. That is why we are a country, we are different from other people. No matter how time-honour a principle is; we have to seat down and look at it carefully. If it doesn’t serve our interest, let’s move beyond it. All of the developed countries today, had a particular period like this! U.S. was even worse than what you are seeing now, because in the U.S, the municipal authorities virtually cornered all of the resources that were coming in and they were just sharing them among themselves. The mafia, the local politicians. It was a mess.

But what remedied all these for them is because they developed their industrial base. Whatever problem you have, if there is money to go round and take care of people, the country will make progress. Our own is so bad because we don’t have enough. It’s not that we don’t have enough resources but we have them lying idle which we have not put to work. If we put those resources to work, for example, and the country spends 10, 20 or 30,000 naira on each individual in this country, you will begin to see the effect.

That is the problem, the judiciary not working in tandem with the government is a result of them not having bought into the anti-corruption war of the government and government has a lot of work to do in that regard.

Are you then advocating for a reform?   

I will not advocate what they popularly call reform because then, you are actually calling the judges together and hitting them on the head with something, and saying, this is what you must do. If we start doing that, the judiciary would lose its independence. The kind of reform that is required is a statute kind of effort, to ensure that each judge buys into the anti-corruption effort. Seminars would have to be organised where people will come and speak their minds. The judges are bound by precedent, it is in hierarchical order. The courts are governed by the Supreme Court, whatever it decides, is binding on the rest.

A lawyer is not bounded by precedent. As a lawyer, if I have a case in court, I have to marshal all of the resources at my disposal, in favour of my client. That is why I am not advocating for reforms because it will affect precedents. The day we have judges at the Supreme Court who buy into the anti-corruption crusade, that day, we are going to have new law. You will see the Supreme Court beginning to upturn some of the decisions they have taken that are not in the interest of this country.

What’s your assessment of the performances of the anti-corruption agencies; EFCC, ICPC and CCB?

I think they are doing all they can within the available resources to make this law succeed. But we must understand that these are structures that were put in place when the law was not as keen as it is now and many of them are used to cutting corners. Even the anti-corruption agencies themselves are not free from the corruption that has enveloped the country. And, when you talk about corruption, it is a very open concept, it involves so many things.

These people operate within the system and they have relatives, friends and children that they must train. And, because our public system has broken-down, they have to spend money to train children and loved ones. When they are sick, they spend money to seek treatment themselves. When they want drinking water, they have to spend money to get clean water. When they want to secure themselves, they spend money to provide security for themselves.

When they are talking about corruption, our main focus too, apart from cleaning the system up, the way they are trying to do now, we have to ensure that the motivation for corruption is not there. Ultimately, that is how this anti-corruption crusade is going to succeed. It’s not going to be how many people you arrest or how much money you get back, though, that is good for deterrence, those things that breed corruption must be looked at! For instance, the public school system which most people can afford has broken down. You have to go to the private sector in order to have any modicum of good education. Primary schools are under staffed. There are not enough teachers, poorly funded and environment not conducive to learning. So, most people don’t send their children there. You know as it goes, if you are a top public servant and your own children cannot go to private schools, you are seen as a failure.

In all of these big ticket items where people spend so much money; health, education, shelter and food, government’s role in making it easier for people must be felt. People must begin to see what government is doing to alleviate the poverty of the people. Not until we can do that, the anti-corruption war, ultimately will not succeed.


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