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HOW COME WE ARE STILL SO POOR?

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HOW COME WE ARE STILL SO POOR?

BY DIKE CHUKWUMERIJE

Being a Nigerian, I have a slightly conflicted relationship with the concept of ‘economic growth’. Just the other day, the Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation asked the Coordinating Minister, ‘Madam Coordinating Minister, how come we are still so poor, even when (as you claim) our economy has been growing at 6.5%?’ It was a trick question. So, the Minister answered carefully: ‘Because we’re not growing fast enough.’

You see, Nigerians are leftists by nature. Yes. We have a niggling suspicion of privatization, can’t understand why every last kobo of oil revenue shouldn’t be spent immediately, and will take most government decisions lying down except any attempt to de-regulate fuel prices or university tuition fees. It’s in our DNA really, for we were born in the ‘60s when the height of sophistication was to be called a Marxist, or at least, a Keynesian economist.

The only problem is the facts; it’s difficult to argue with them, those annoying connections between what we did in the ‘70s and what we became in the ‘80s. You see, within ten years of Gowon explaining that our problem was not money, but how to spend it, we were broke. Obasanjo nationalized the ‘commanding heights’ of our economy, and we went on a spending binge with public funds. But, my brother, we didn’t grow for a decade after that, maybe even two. I know; the popular narratives like to blame it on the IMF.

So, let me tell you another story, since you insist that if Nigeria has changed at all it must be for the worse. In our darkest days, the Minister of Finance was simply the man who kept the keys to the Treasury for the Head of State. But today’s President would think twice about ordering the CBN Governor to devalue the currency. Yes. For, as hard headed as we are, two decades of economic disaster has driven this one lesson home – it is best to leave certain things to the professionals.

Please, do not gloss over it, the fact that macro-economic management is now one of the few areas in Nigerian public life where the need for competence is so glaring people don’t ask too many questions about tribe, region, religion, or gender. And – make no mistakes about it – that is the reason why we’ve got a decade of GDP growth to boast about now. Okay, I know what you are thinking, ‘Is that something to boast about, when there are ‘no’ jobs, and poverty is busy setting bush fires across the country?’ My brother, please allow me to say one thing: you can have clouds without rain, but you cannot have rain without clouds. That is the same relationship between economic growth and poverty alleviation.

Yes. It took me a long time to accept this, because in the house I grew up in we had pictures of Lenin, Nkrumah, Castro and Gueverra hanging on the wall.  But have you seen our brand new GDP, the one that says we are now the biggest economy in Africa? I know, I know, it will not put food on your table. Just hear me out. There is nothing that has exploded since 1991 – from Nollywood to Telecommunications to Retail Trade to Banking – that cannot be traced back to the implementation of capitalist economic policies in those sectors. It tells me something; that the nose of this aircraft is, at the very least, pointing upwards.

Honestly, you can ask anyone thinking of doing serious business here, that slight shift in the orientation of our economic policies is the ONE thing we’ve gotten right in recent times. In fact, if you think about it carefully – about the root causes of persistent poverty, about the lack of VISIBLE socio-economic transformation, about the worsening indices of life in what is really one of the world’s faster growing economies – if you think about all these things carefully, you will come to this same conclusion: it is actually Madam Coordinating Minister who should be asking the Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriation, ‘Mister Chairman, how come we are still so poor?’

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