By Ike Okonta
At the height of the campaign for last February’s presidential election, Arise Television extended an invitation to Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), to participate in a televised debate with the other presidential candidates. According to Arise Television officials, this was to enable Bola Tinubu articulate his policy platform and sell it to the Nigerian public. Tinubu turned down the request and indeed subsequent requests from other public fora. Consequently, Nigerians, other than what was put out in the APC presidential campaign manifesto, did not have a clear idea of how Bola Tinunu planned to govern the country if he won the election.
Following his inauguration as President in May 2023, Bola Tinubu has been making weighty pronouncements, not the least of which is the removal of petrol subsidy and the harmonisation of the previous dual foreign exchange rate. Perceptive Nigerians see these policies as in step with the position of the World Bank, whose neoliberal economic policies African countries including Nigeria have been implementing since the mid 1980s. A key part of these policies is the rejection of national planning and the installation in its place a market-driven regimen in which the private sector is seen as the primary determinant of economic planning.
It is interesting that when General Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s military Head of State at the time, accepted the World Bank recommendation that the practice of national planning be abandoned, his stance was widely criticised by leading Nigerian economists like Dr Ibrahim Ayagi, Professor Ojetunji Aboyade, and Dr Pius Okigbo. These three economists were the finest Nigeria had to offer at the time, and they had on several occasions participated in drawing up national development programmes for the country since independence in 1960. These economists argued rightly that a developing country like Nigeria needed development signposts to guide her in the journey to industrialisation and overall economic development and that the developed economies of Europe and North America instituted development plans in their teething period.
General Babangida’s Minister of Finance, Dr Kalu Idika Kalu, working closely with the World Bank and the IMF officials resident in Nigeria, ignored the advice of Ayagi, Aboyade and Okigbo and proceeded to unleash a harsh neoliberal regimen that saw the Naira drastically devalued, national development planning thrown out of the window and other right-wing economic policies that, forty years later, are yet to deliver the promised economic dividends. It is therefore clear to unbiased economic observers that neoliberalism has failed in Nigeria and other African countries.
When Joe Biden assumed office as the President of the United States in January 2021, he made it clear that his administration would take another look at these neoliberal policies which the World Bank and the IMF were promoting all over the world including in his own country. For the past two years President Biden has implemented a set of policies that have made it clear that he has rejected neoliberalism as an economic strategy. Last week, Biden gave a speech in Washington DC in which he declared that ‘the trickle-down’ policies of neoliberalism were not working and that he was determined to give new life to the American middle class by encouraging manufacturing in the United States against the former policy of outsourcing it to China and other Asian countries.
Bola Tinubu and his advisers should pay attention to the new economic wind blowing from the United States. When economic policy fails to deliver dividends, it should be discarded forthwith and a new strategy put in its place. This is what President Biden has done and Tinubu should follow suit. What is required of the Tinubu administration right now is a major policy speech promising to put in place a team to draw up a new national development plan for the country. The administration’s present practice of piecemeal policy pronouncements is not sufficient. The Nigerian economy has been so battered by forty years of disastrous neoliberalism that nothing short of a radical reversal, and the articulation of a brave new road map will do.
In this new national development plan, a primary role should be given to power generation. Economic development is impossible without reliable and affordable electricity. Bola Tinubu recently signed a bill making it possible for the various states and indeed all actors to participate in the business of generating, transmitting and distributing electricity. This is a good step, but it is not far-reaching enough. Power generation is a capital intensive industry and it is also highly technical. I do not see any state in Nigeria with the financial muscle to embark on this multi-million dollar venture successfully – with the exception of Lagos – and so what you are likely to have is a patchy outcome, with only one state in the business while the rest are enveloped in darkness.
What is required is for the Tinubu administration to commission a power road map with a view to finding out the country’s electricity requirement, whether the present generating and distributing companies are capable of meeting this requirement in the nearest future and if the answer is no, what is the place of the Federal Government in leading efforts to power up the country? Then there is the perennial question of the Ajaokuta steel mill. It is a tragedy that Nigeria has been struggling with steel production since the early 1960s. The government of Olusegun Obasanjo took puny steps to concession Ajaokuta in 2005 or thereabouts but the entire process collapsed. Former President Buhari did not even bother. Bola Tinubu should give Ajaokuta another go with a view to giving the country a steel industry capable of powering up her industrialisation process.
A third leg is heavy investment in infrastructure. If the Bola Tinubu administration is serious about attracting foreign investment, then it must modernise Nigeria’s creaking and dilapidated infrastructure – roads, railways, bridges, ports and the like. This will take money and time, but if this project is tackled with the seriousness it deserves, the financial outlay it will gulp will be recouped when foreign investors, attracted by a Nigeria with sparkling infrastructure, will begin to bring in their money to set up enterprises in the country. Finally, there is the question of human capital development – and this really means universal health care for Nigerians, qualitative and heavily subsidised education, and social housing. With these in place, ordinary Nigerians will have the disposable income to meaningfully participate in powering up the national economy.
The World Bank’s neoliberal regime is in its death-throes world-wide and no less a personage than President Joe Biden has said so. Bola Tinubu should take heed and return Nigeria to the glory days of meaningful national planning.
Dr Okonta was until recently Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Politics, University of Oxford. He now lives in Abuja.