Fixing economy without fixing monopolies: Mission Impossible

by Tabia Princewill 
All our talk of reforms, no matter the administration, never seem to quite tackle the root causes of issues, dancing instead on the periphery, latched on to the hypocritical desire to appear to perform rather than dealing with problems decisively.

It is no longer about simply encouraging Nigerians to engage in productive activities to revive the economy: how would that be possible without first creating the right environment for such activities to survive (and therefore thrive) in the first place? It is a shame that there seem to be so few behavioural economists in our midst, or, too few people with knowledge of psychology who could explain to those in power just how much the human psyche relates to every facet of our socio-economic lives: it isn’t profitable for Nigerians to engage in productive activities, or to slave in offices where they are owed months’ worth of salaries at a time.

As uncomfortable as this might seem, it is more profitable for Nigerians to engage in criminal, corrupt activities than to seek out honest work: the rewards for honesty and steadfastness are few and far between, whether we wish to acknowledge this or not. 

If we do not change the structural conditions which enable such a situation to endure, we might as well forget about moving forward as a country. We’ve spoken about legal reforms for decades, spoken about diversifying our economy, yet little has been done: change, as it were, can no longer “begin with me” — it’s too late for that. It must begin with our government.

Successive governments’, with their moralistic, hypocritical tendencies, have asked, encouraged young people not to kidnap, steal or vandalise pipelines — of course these are illegal activities. But in the absence of anything else, it would be unrealistic and quite hypocritical to imagine that anyone would patiently wait to die, while simultaneously feeling that nothing would ever be done for him or her.

One cannot expect that people who have so far been treated like animals, abandoned and left to their own devices, struggling to meet the most basic of needs, would suddenly and miraculously embrace new mind-sets and behaviours without being given concrete indices or reasons to do so. In a face-me-I-face you without electricity, running water and maybe even functioning conveniences, “change begins with me” means nothing. Nigerians need to feel the effects of their government to embrace change — it is both as simple and as complicated as that.

The millions of micro-aggressions we commit against each other simply mirror the huge blows dealt to us for decades by successive governments. In fact, one of those aggressions is the inability to reform successfully, trapping Nigerians in a cycle of greed and despair.

The Nigerian economy is still a small pond compared to the giant lakes and rivers of other diversified systems: it is precisely this inability to adapt to the unpredictable nature of markets which has led us into a recession. Our reliance on oil, the small mindedness of our political elite who failed to foresee that one day prices could drop and technological advances could mean that countries such as the US, for example, would one day prefer renewable energies, point to the monolithic nature of our thought process. 

After all is said and done, we refuse to tackle the causes of our society and economy’s static nature. Nigerians are extremely entrepreneurial people: yet the oligarchies encouraged by virtually every government since independence hold more sway than small businesses. No country has encountered sustainable development following this path.

There is little competition in our economy: prices are set by the same big businesses that control virtually 99% of the market — there is neither space nor escape for the little man whom in other societies opens “mom and pop shops”, corner stores and other small businesses which are the backbone of the economy. Big businesses in Nigeria, from oil to construction, have grown at the expense of the very country and people they should exist to serve. Their economic strength buys them political influence which in turn becomes a right to corner our economy, turning our entire country into a privately run enterprise.

If we are serious about transforming our economy and society long-term, we must look at strengthening anti-trust laws, that is, enforcing the rules of a competitive marketplace, guaranteeing better, more innovative products for consumers. Anti-trust laws level the playing field and allow new entrants, all in favour of lower prices, protecting both competition and the interests of consumers, rather than calling for Nigerians to go into business, manufacturing, etc, but without providing a blue print for how this will be made possible. By allowing the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few, governments ensured the death of innovation, that is, of new ideas and products.

The middle-class, small businesses were sacrificed, thus perverting the very ideals of democracy, rigging the future to favour only a few—this continues till this day. The pace and composition of our economic growth needs to radically change: our states and local governments need to engage in stimulus spending to encourage private sector investment. It is a tragedy that the huge funds received as bailouts have allegedly been either diverted or gone only towards salaries rather than more productive uses.

We must look at what has worked in other countries and take a leaf from their playbook: in 2009, Brazil invested heavily in infrastructure to fight its economic crisis, China, around the same time, invested in low income housing, rural infrastructure, health, education and interestingly, value added tax reform to reduce the burden on enterprises. Government ministries in Nigeria hardly ever appear to be working cohesively towards the same goals. It is time for government to share its plans for economic recovery, in a manner that is accessible to all and which ties in every agency beyond the obvious.

Health and education relate to wealth in a fundamental yet untapped way: rebuilding our nation’s schools and classrooms alone could provide employment across the federation. Improving the content of what is taught within said walls is directly connected to avoiding our next recession. Yet, hardly anything is ever said about health and education in Nigeria, beyond bemoaning unpaid salaries, etc. But most of all, we need to make sure, as we grapple with recession, that we are able to fix the monopolies and structural imbalances which got us into this mess in the first place.

Bukola Saraki: He was quoted as saying “my travails will fizzle out soon”. But what about the case against him? Isn’t it still in court? His bizarre declaration hints at a disturbing ability to decide the case’s outcome. Nigerians must be wary of the belief that every corruption case is politically motivated. The real question is: Was the offence committed or not? Till the legal system proves or disproves this, no politician has the right to tell the public that his or her “travails” will end. To dare suggest this is anti-change.
Tabia Princewill