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The march of delusion

Klump. Klump. Klump. It is the sound of the march of human progress. All nations are on the march. Ours has been on the march…

Klump. Klump. Klump.

It is the sound of the march of human progress. All nations are on the march. Ours has been on the march since its independence from British colonial rule 63 years ago. It is marching towards what our second national development plan called “a united, strong and self-reliant nation (and) a great and dynamic economy.”

The country is yet to arrive at that destination. Part of the reason for our long march that is yet to gain the shore, as it were, is that the march of human progress is not linear. It is absurdly circular. In her seminal work, The March of Folly, Barbara W. Tuchman, argued that much of the march of human progress is a march of folly. It is difficult to disagree with her. Human history shows that governments are inclined to take decisions that sabotage their march towards whatever destination they might have chosen for themselves.

Tuchman wrote: “A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.”

Nations march in different directions for a variety of reasons. But all nations share a common interest and determination to march alone or in concert towards a stable national economy that makes them rich. This is perhaps the most important march in human history. It is also the most competitive at all times. It is a complex and complicated march characterised by the ambition of one nation to dominate other nations and secure the advantages of its dominance. It is a march that has polarised countries into rich and poor nations; the haves and the have-nots; the independents and the dependents.

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Our dear country, as noted earlier, is not just part of the great human march, it is also marching towards “a great and dynamic economy.” It has been a frustrating march in which, to quote former President Ibrahim Babangida, “We have witnessed our rise to greatness followed with a decline to the state of a bewildered nation.”

The economy was the problem, and it is the problem. We have not been able to get it right. All our rulers, past and present, promised to solve the problems that beset it but all their attempts, singular or collective, have had little impression on an economy destined, given our natural and human endowments, to radically move the country to greater heights. As I have repeatedly written in this column and elsewhere, the paradox of our being a rich but poor nation, is a consequence of our unwillingness to take the tough decisions needed to free the economy from its primitive mooring.

Babangida once put it correctly when he said that “…despite what you have, you still have to take some tough decisions, you have to make life uncomfortable for others; things have to go bad before they get better.”

In other words, our natural resource and human endowments are means to an end; that end would be achieved by doing the needful, no matter the pain it causes in the present in order to prevent greater pains in the future. The general took that tough decision with his structural adjustment programme, SAP. It remains the only economic policy that took the axe to the root of our economic problems that impeded our march to our economic Eldorado. It had three objectives, but the core objective was “to restructure and diversify the productive base of the economy in order to reduce dependence on the oil sector and imports.”

The policy made “life uncomfortable.” This was the basis for its criticisms. According to President Obasanjo, the policy did not have “a human face and the milk of kindness.” Politics trumped the policy. Tough economic decisions are intended to solve problems inherent in the economy. It is not about a human face or the milk of kindness. But politics and criticism won. And it did despite the positive signs that SAP unleashed creativity in young Nigerians made dormant by the crude oil/rentier economy.

The future towards which we marched in 1986 is now the present. The pains we refused to endure for a better today are the pains we bear now. The Tinubu administration complains of inheriting from the Buhari administration an economy in a mess. It apparently does not have a human face or the milk of kindness. The problems of the economy are not only still with us, but they have also been made nastier and more brutal by policies that celebrated cosmetics at the expense of tough decisions. According to Dr Akinwunmi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, “…Nigeria is still unable to replace its imports of petroleum products, despite being one of the largest exporters of crude oil in the world. For now, Nigeria is developing slowly and far below its potential.”

It may be considered academic now to ask the question: what if SAP had succeeded? My guess is that it could have repositioned the base of our national economy and possibly achieved the dreams of the Nigerian Enterprises decree of 1972 and amended in 1977 and put Nigerians in the driving seat of the national economy. To avoid the pain of tough decisions, we chose over the years to put in place economic policies that were/are contrary to or sabotaged our national interests.

Our annual budgets at federal and state levels have moved from mere millions to trillions of Naira. The federal government, for instance, budgeted N27 trillion for the fiscal year 2024. Arguably, this quantum of money is an indication that the economy is healthy and the country, despite being classified as the poverty capital of the world, is not poor.

In truth the budgets paint a false picture of where our economy is. It is anything but healthy. We have a crushing debt burden. Buhari left us with N77 trillion. The Tinubu administration has taken the figure to some N87 trillion. It keeps rising; the burden keeps getting heavier with a telling effect on the cost of living and thus deepening our national poverty level. It is both the march of folly and the march of delusion.