PITY THE PRESIDENTIAL ECONOMIC ADVISORY COUNCIL.
“Fighting for lost causes is sure way to destruction.”
Anonymous. VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, VBQ p 60.
Members of the Presidential Advisory Council, PEAC, have my sympathies despite my serious disagreements with two of the appointees in the past. At any rate, it is a new situation and their success or failure will have lasting impact on all of us alive today and million more unborn for years to come. If a reader sensing espirit de corps in my anxiety for their individual and collective reputations, let me quickly admit guilt. They are my colleagues – practitioners of what one jealous critic had called the “dismal science”. He was furious at the common pronouncements by economists – “on the one hand..and on the other hand….”. “Why can’t you fellows talk of just one hand”, he exploded. So, I start with our usual caveat when making tough recommendations to our principals.
Dr Doyin Salami, Professors Soludo and Ojowu etc have been handed a cadaver to revive longer dead than the Biblical Lazarus. I pray they receive Divine intervention to succeed in this assignment. It is our last hope as a nation. After this, it is “say your last prayer”. On the one hand they will succeed if the President will develop the courage to implement their recommendations. On the other hand, the chances of failure are so high that one must start by saluting their enormous courage. They must have hearts of stone. I personally will bear that in mind any time there is disagreement with any of their proposals. Consequently, they already enjoy the benefit of doubt from me. I wish them luck.
“Allow an unsustainable to go on for a very long time, and after a while, there are no good solutions left.” Arthur Burns, former Chair US Federal Reserve. To this we must add, “In a sick country, every step to health is an insult to those who live on its sickness.” Bernard Malamud, in THE FIXER.
The first problem the PEAC confronts is certainly the entrenchment of too many unsustainable situations in Nigeria but which have also created a pattern of “entitlements” benefiting a few powerful individuals whose removal or termination will be resisted at all costs. Nobody, in his right senses can now deny that Nigeria is a sick country in many ways. The two most obvious maladies are security and economy. In reality, the two are like Siamese twins which cannot be fully separated. High insecurity retards economic progress and a devastated economy breeds insecurity. Only nations like China, Japan, USA, Canada, Germany etc which had managed to control the two thrive in the global economy. Syria, Afghanistan etc represent the other extreme – nations at war, where nobody expects rapid economic growth. Who will erect a factory today which might be blown up tomorrow? Nigeria is a nation in-between. We are not fully at war, or at least not yet. We are also not totally at peace. Pity.
It is against the background of “no war, no peace” that the PEAC must first of all make its recommendations. Certainly, they will have a tough time advocating for investments in the North East as long as the Boko Haram conflict remains unresolved. Some individuals actually live on the sickness of that conflict.
Unfortunately, the North West has evolved its own brand of insecurity. Banditry, cattle rustling and kidnapping — almost unheard of six years ago– have become daily occurrences. Bandits now call Governors to meetings at time and place of their choice. Katsina, Zamfara and Kaduna which until three or four years ago were among the most peaceful states in Nigeria had raced up the national crime chart. Many other states are only marginally better than those in the Northern corners of Nigeria. Again, it will be interesting to read the recommendations for economic development of these states and when the economic activities leading to rapid growth are supposed to start.
Daunting as those problems might be, they pale by comparison with the more formidable one of the mind-set of government’s appointed officials. From all appearances, some people have made up their minds that certain unsustainable payments by government to certain well-connected individuals must continue.
Last week, the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources was giving assurances to beneficiaries of fuel subsidy which had long been recognised as one of the most corrupt payments made by government. Yet, one of the cardinal reasons for appointing the PEAC is to look into fuel subsidy which remains one of the last vestiges of funds transfer from public to private purses. Mr Sylvia would appear to be pre-emptying what the PEAC might recommend on this matter; while at the same time signifying at least his own opposition to subsidy removal. One can hope the Minister was speaking for himself.
Other fiscal policy issues which must be addressed by PEAC and on which hard positions have already been taken include, but are not limited to: diaspora remittances, toll gates on federal and state roads, increased value added taxes, either comprehensively or selectively imposed to close the gap with global rates, widening the tax base, increasing the tax paid by the rich and wealthy, stiffening the penalty for tax evasion and eliminating the dual exchange rate regime which still encourages rent-seeking by the powerful while distorting economic efficiency. There is not a single one of those issues mentioned for which those who live on it are not prepared to fight for its retention with every arsenal at their disposal – including heavy bribery of officials.
Unless Buhari makes a radical departure from the norm, whatever set of recommendations PEAC comes up with will be subjected to another review by a small group. Subsequently, a White Paper might be released by the FG stating what government accepts or rejects. The Review Committee or group has always constituted the Devil’s workshop. Lobbyists for retention of various claims find it easier to lobby small and secretive committees and to either water down the original recommendations or get them rejected totally. In the end, the PEAC set of coherent recommendations would have been butchered beyond recognition. What might emerge as government policy which will bear the name Doyin Salami Council Economic Reform Recommendations or some such title would have very little resemblance to the original set of recommendations made by the Council. Its guaranteed failure will however be for ever charged to the collective accounts of PEAC members. It has happened before.
“History is, indeed, a little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” Edward Gibbon, 1734-1794.
That was the conclusion of Gibbon, one of the greatest historians the world has produced after writing his epic THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. It also explains my reasons for feeling very apprehensive about what will happen to an unwritten document and the reputations of its authors. There were several precedents, but one will be sufficient to warn my professional colleagues of the dangers ahead.
The Gowon administration empanelled the Udoji Committee to help undertake a comprehensive wage and salary review when Nigeria suddenly became extremely rich on account of unprecedented oil revenue. Chief Jerome Udoji, a Permanent Secretary of the old school was well-trained by the British and was not given to extravagance. He could keep his head while others around him lost theirs. What the Udoji Committee recommended could not have landed Nigeria in the disaster that followed. Operating under the illusion that “money is not our problem but how to spend it”, the recommendations were bastardised by the Gowon regime. Ignorant Nigerians clapped. But, Nigeria is still suffering from the repercussions of tampering with Udoji’s professional advice by government.
Nothing suggests that the same fate is not awaiting the Salami Council report…