The phrase “robbing Peter to pay Paul” is not new to us. It was in 1661AD that Peter Heylyn in his Ecclesia Restaurata sought to explain the origin and import of this phrase. Though his attempt has been punctured severally by other etymologists, the phrase suggests a calamitous sequence of events where, before the Reformation, taxes had to be paid from the treasury of St. Peter’s church in Rome to defray the running costs of St. Paul’s church in London. At this time, the lands of Westminster upon which St. Paul’s church stood had become so dilapidated and badly run by Bishop Thirlby, that there was almost nothing left to support its dignity. Originally it referred to neglecting the Peter tax in order to have money to pay the Paul tax. In its proper context, this phrase simply means solving one problem in a way that makes another problem worse.
When this type of approach is adopted in managing the economy of a state the outcome is always disastrous especially for countries with teething economic problems. That is what I call casino or lottery economy and no country makes progress in this type of scenario. Even Adam Smith, variously referred to as the father of economics did not prescribe this type of voodoo economics despite the fact that some modern economist have interpreted his economic model as laissez-faire economics because of his insistence that the best policy by which a state can manage its economy was to leave the economy to the free play of market forces.
Evidently, the interpretation of Smith’s postulations as laissez-faire economics could be linked to his polemics against what he called mercantilism, which was based on the principle of “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. One important role of the government in managing the economy is to provide the institutional framework required for competitive markets to function. In other words, a well-structured political system should be able to provide a secure framework for the market system to work efficiently.
More broadly, the role of the state is to protect the members of society, both as participants in market transactions and in their private lives, from violence and invasion from other societies and oppression by other members of society. A good reading of Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” will reveal that although well-functioning markets are good for society, individual producers might well find it in their individual interests to limit competition by entering into “conspiracies against the public”. Therefore, an important role for government is to design an economic system that as far as possible discouraged the creation of private cartels and monopolies. Buhari’s economic management policies since he came on board are deficit on this principle.
I recall vividly that one of the numerous campaign promises by Buhari is that his administration would pay every unemployed Nigerian the sum of N5000 every month as welfare package pending such a time the person will be gainfully employed. At the time the promise was made and now, I have always maintained that this promise is neither feasible nor achievable for several reasons. I have read from the papers that Jigawa state government has slated March this year for the commencement of disbursement of this money to the unemployed and the poorest youths in the State.
I am not unmindful of the fact that most Nigerians, especially the Nigerian youths would readily applaud this as an indication of better things to come and that it is indicative of the Federal Government’s commitment in fulfilling its campaign promises and alleviating the sufferings of the common man. However, for discerning Nigerians, we know that it was like the promise a dandy cockerel makes to the hen at the moment of carnal arousal. The promise was part of the grand plot by the APC to woo Nigerians essentially because many Nigerians understood that in a bid to win the 2015 elections, the APC made a lot of unachievable promises.
In making such outlandish promise, the APC was merely putting the cart before the horse. I am a realist and I know that in today’s world it is more convenient for Nigerian politicians to tell you that they will build a bridge across Atlantic Ocean and be able afterwards to tell you why it is not possible to fulfill the promise. So when a few days ago, the government came out to tell us that it will make good its promise of paying N5000 to unemployed Nigerian youths, so many questions raced through my mind. For instance, what mechanism has been put in place or what mechanism would the APC put in place to ensure that indeed only the unemployed and poorest people benefit from this money? What parameters will be used in measuring those regarded as poor? Will it not be repeating the same mistakes of the past by enriching a few pockets at the expense of the intended targets? Does the APC or Nigeria have a record or database of the unemployed Nigerian youths and the poor?
If, for example, a graduate who is unemployed today, is set up in business by his family and he becomes gainfully engaged tomorrow, how do we get that update on his change of status and even when the update is made, how are we sure that those who are in charge of disbursing this money would not be tempted to voluntarily continue receiving it on behalf of the once unemployed youth knowing the level of corruption bedeviling the civil service and our society at large? Too many questions to ask but very little answers to give. In carrying on with this initiative, there is no doubt that the Buhari administration wants to create another avenue for scam on a huge scale, which will further destroy the Nigerian economy.
Using the statistics of 2014, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former finance and coordinating minister of the economy noted that about 1.8 million graduates enter the labour market every year and that no fewer than 5.3 million youths are jobless in the country. Also in 2014, the National Bureau of Statistics put the population of Nigerians living in poverty at 112 million representing about 67 per cent of the country’s estimated 167 million persons. If we use this 2014 statistical baseline, the question we must ask ourselves is: Can the Buhari government sustain the payment of N5000 to an estimated target of 112 million Nigerians monthly considering the country’s over-dependence on the oil sector and huge recurrent expenditure? At present, about 33 states in the country, including Jigawa, are unable to pay their workers, a situation they have been quick to blame on the dwindling allocation from the Federal Government. Some states owe as much as 8 months of salary arrears. Bearing all these in mind, how sustainable and viable is the initiative?
From my own binoculars, this initiative is largely unachievable and manifestly unrealistic. The great economies of the world were not built like this; on the quicksand of deception and voodoo economics. The great economies of the West and the bullish economies of East Asia were built through dedication, sacrifice and massive commitment for self-denial. These leaders saw their entire country as their constituency and did not apportion political patronages on the basis of voting patterns.
One such leader is Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. Singapore gained her political independence in 1965 from Britain, five years after Nigeria was granted political independence also by Britain. At the point of her independence, few people gave the new country a chance of survival. As in Nigeria, Britain bequeathed to Singapore a predominantly extractive economy. But today, Singapore has the best airline in the world; the best airports, the busiest port of trade and is numbered as the fourth-highest per capita real income nation.
Singapore was able to rise from the legacy of divisive colonialism, the devastation of the Second World War and general poverty and disorder following the withdrawal of foreign troops from her territory and has today become a typical example of “rags to riches”. Lee Kuan Yew, the charismatic leader of Singapore did not get Singapore from the ashes to where it is today merely by borrowing money to pay every unemployed Singaporean youth or the poor. He started by getting the basics right.
What are the basics that we must get right in Nigeria? There is no gainsaying the fact that Nigeria is a hugely endowed country with awesome possibilities. However, we have been less than fortunate in having our own Lee Kuan Yew. For Nigeria to make the much-needed move forward, we have to go back to the basics to seek anew the meaning and essence of our existence. First is that we must get our politics right. If you do not get the politics right, you cannot also get the economy right.
One of the basic things Singapore got right from the beginning was the restructuring of its polity. First, with the pulling out of Britain and its parting of ways with Malaysia, Singapore set out to building genuine national armed forces from the scratch from the welter of ethnicities in the new country. It did not build an ethnic army. So there was implicit confidence among the people that this truly is our army. This cannot be said of Nigeria. The events of 1966 created an opportunity for the creation of northern-dominated armed forces in Nigeria through the premeditated wiping out of senior officers from other tribes especially the Igbos and the south-south officers. As a matter of fact, there was a point, after the civil war, when there was an unwritten declaration that no Igbo should be promoted to the rank of a general in the Nigerian army. Even when this ceiling appears to have been broken, Buhari’s recent massive retirement in the military seem to have been targeted only on senior military personnel from the south of the country. His complete northernization of the all security departments in the country today bespeaks of danger and foreboding of disturbing proportions.
Next, the Singaporean leadership went out of its way to create an inclusive economy that emphasized the supremacy of the collective; discarded the extractive system inherited from Britain and weaved a nation out of the diversity of Singapore and instituted a culture of transparency and accountability in government. It is important to note that Singapore, like Nigeria, is a multi-ethnic republican state. The ethnic groups include Europeans, Eurasians, Native Christians, mostly of Portuguese descent, Armenians, Arabs, Malays (including other tribes of the Malay Archipelagos), Bugis (including Balinese), Javanese, Indians and other minority groups like the Cafres, Siamese, Parsis and Jews. Note also that Singapore is a federal state like Nigeria with a Republican Constitution and a one-chamber national assembly based on the Westminster model and a ceremonial head of state just as we had under the 1963 Republican Constitution.
In terms of political structure, Singapore is divided into five Geo-political zones known as Community Development Councils (CDCs) of Central, North-East, North-West, South-East and South-West Singapore. These geopolitical zones or districts are recognized by the country’s constitution and are also made up of district and federal constituencies. Power is significantly decentralized and devolved to the federating units. So in essence what Singapore did was to get its political structure correct, which in turn ensured its stability and created enabling environment for the blossoming of the economy.
This is the way forward, which I have consistently preached in this country in the last twenty-five years even at the risk of verbal assault, recrimination and imprisonment. Today we are faced with the inevitability of restructuring this country. No sensible government would just dip hand into the commonwealth and start distributing money to unemployed people all in the name of fulfilling a campaign promise, without recourse to the socio-economic implications of such action. On what parameter is this based? Will it solve unemployment? The answer is no! This initiative is outrageous and is designed to fleece Nigerians and create a perfect recipe for more corruption. More than anything else, this government has done nothing concrete in terms of creating sustainable employment opportunities for jobless Nigerians.
The Government has done nothing in the area of human capital development such as creating the necessary infrastructure for the development of small and medium scale enterprises etc. In all honesty, I am not surprised that the government has failed basically because it is a government concocted in deceit and with hidden ethnic and religious agenda. We need to borrow a leaf from Singapore and initiate a thorough-going process of restructuring.
Unarguably, so much has been said and written on the restructuring of this country. About three constitutional conferences have been convoked in this regard; the last being the one convoked by the past Jonathan administration. The safety valves for the continued existence of this country as a corporate entity are embedded in those reports. They are fresh and can still be sourced the government file cabinets. Why the Muhammadu Buhari administration has vowed to kill those reports worries me.
The truth is that no government can assuage the ethnic and religious agitations in Nigeria and by Nigerians through the sheer force of arm. Therefore, there is need for a round-table renegotiation of the basis of our existence. Until we renegotiate this country, such issues like the Biafran agitation will continue; the restiveness anchored on resource control and ethnic determinism will continue in the Niger-Delta, the subtle but intense preparation for an eventual Oduduwa republic will continue in the south-west; religiously-inspired ethnic cleansing will continue, not just in southern Kaduna but in other parts of this country and Boko Haram insurgency will continue in the far north- the fallacy of crushing it by government notwithstanding.
The renegotiation of the basis of our continued existence is inevitable. That is the only way to go. Time is coming, and it is at hand, when many ethnic groups in Nigeria would refuse anymore calls for negotiation, preferring to opt out of the Nigerian state. Anybody who is saying that the unity of this country is non-negotiable is merely deluding himself or herself. Indeed, if there is anything to negotiate in Nigeria it is the basis of its existence. Make no mistake about this.
By Arthur Agwuncha Nwankwo