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Amplifying David Pilling – Yes, what really is Nigerian government for?

Recently, David Pilling, Financial Times of London’s Editor for Africa wrote an article titled as above. He asked, “What is the Nigerian government for?” Trust…

Recently, David Pilling, Financial Times of London’s Editor for Africa wrote an article titled as above. He asked, “What is the Nigerian government for?” Trust the British, masters of subtlety and understatement. For in that article was loaded a lot of messages, some of which the Nigerian presidency got and others it ignored or could not process. The article, which can be found in full at https://theeagleonline.com.ng/what-is-nigerias-government-for-by-david-pilling/ has however not left my mind and I believe it is worth amplifying.

We shall look at the crux of the article shortly, but let me recall that Mr Garba Shehu, the presidential spokesman, in responding to the article, called out David Pilling for ‘criticizing British Airways’ and also veered off to regale his readers about how the Western nations induced the war that imploded Libya. This is the same Libya on whose great leader (Gaddafi), Garba’s principal had severally dumped the insecurity problem that has since enveloped Nigeria. One wouldn’t have thought that our presidency also subscribed to conspiracy theories like the rest of us mortals. Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan was the first African leader to sign the fraudulent resolution 1973 with which Gaddafi was murdered and Libya sent back to the Dark Ages though, just as we jumped into the ongoing Ukrainian war when we could have been strategic. But I digress.

In his article titled ‘What is Nigeria’s Government for?’ Pilling had written, inter alia:

“On the British Airways flight between London and Nigeria’s administrative capital of Abuja, one of the airline’s most profitable routes, nearly all the space is taken up with flatbeds. The unfortunate few making their way to a crunched economy section at the back must trudge through row after row of business class… Evidently, there is plenty of money to be made in Abuja’s corridors of power. Nigeria’s economy may be flat on its back, but the political elite flying to and from London will spend the flight flat on theirs, too… Next year, many of the members of government will change, though not necessarily the bureaucracy behind it. Campaigning has already begun for presidential elections that in February 2023 will draw the curtain on eight years of the administration of Muhammadu Buhari, on whose somnolent watch Nigeria has sleepwalked closer to disaster… Buhari has overseen two terms of economic slump, rising debt and a calamitous increase in kidnapping and banditry—the one thing you might have thought a former general could control. Familiar candidates to replace him, mostly recycled old men, are already counting their money ahead of a costly electoral marathon. It takes an estimated $2bn to get a president elected. Those who pay will expect to be paid back… There are some promising candidates. If Yemi Osinbajo, the technocratic vice-president, were miraculous to make it through the campaign ticket and emerge as president, the hearts of Nigerian optimists would beat a little faster…But that may be to underestimate the depth of Nigeria’s quagmire. The problem is not so much who leads the government as the nature of government itself… As is said of India, Nigeria grows at night while the government sleeps — hardly surprising that some libertarian tech entrepreneurs want the government to withdraw and leave the private sector in charge… In reality, the government is not too big. It is too small. The federal budget — not counting money transferred to states — is about $30bn, derisory for a population of more than 200m people. Only trust in government — and a willingness to pay taxes — can redress this balance…Nigeria desperately needs an administration whose energies go not into preserving its own privilege but into providing public goods — basic education and health, rule of law, security, power, roads and digital infrastructure. It must remove distortions and subsidies that direct entrepreneurial activity from production to arbitrage.”

As a fact, I write this from the ‘unfortunate’ but-no-longer-so-cramped economy section of British Airways. Before, the economy section was unfit for human habitation due to its tightness. I could tell you that for free as an economy class aficionado who travels on his dime.  And indeed very bizarrely, about two thirds of this aircraft is first class and business. If we add premium economy, that could be four fifth. It wasn’t like anything I had seen before. But you cannot blame the airline for identifying that Nigeria has much money and that most of our people prefer to flaunt it by stretching out for a mere 6-hour flight – most of them civil servants and their children travelling on our taxes. David Pilling’s analogy about an economy flat on its back as we spend borrowed money flying flat on our backs should be sobering. But trust Garba Shehu to try and send BA after Pilling. He certainly does not care for Nigeria to be better. Buhari’s government will soon hopefully end, together with its failed promises, utter let down of the people, and its hypocrisy.

But the key lesson I think everybody should draw from the write-up is what I have always said; government is very small in Nigeria, contrary to what economic liberals will have us believe. They deliberately and willfully ignore the data. Many of them are ensconced in countries where the public sector functions well and is big enough to cover critical human functions. However, they don’t want their country to move ahead and have a public sector which really provides services that the people need. Perhaps it will make them irrelevant. In 2019 prequel to the elections, I did a survey on this matter, detailing how the National Health Service and the Department of Defence were the two highest employing companies in the world, with about 1.9 million and four million employees for the UK and the USA respectively. For us here, we don’t have much by way of good, customer-facing government personnel on the field, and that is where we must start from.  What we have are wicked souls extracting rents and bribery and making life difficult for ordinary Nigerians. We also don’t need people shuffling papers and hiding files in offices and secretariats. We need them in the field where their work could be benchmarked.

We shall localise the issues next week.

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