Africa & Beyond

An Open Letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown

Mr. Prime Minister, let me address the items one after the other. Agriculture. The country used to be self-sufficient in food production and the Northern Region was a major reason for that self-sufficiency. But once the country turned to a mono-product, oil-based economy, the famed groundnuts pyramids of the North, for example, vanished. Subsequent governments have tried to revive the agriculture sector through public campaigns and fertilizer subsidies to individual farmers. Mr. Prime Minister, it seems to me that the latter is a wrong-headed approach, because it seeks to preserve a system that sufficed for a population less than half the size of the current population of the country. If the country must rise to the challenges of food production for its present population and for export, individual farmers would have to come together to form big farming entities, where they can pull their resources together and make more effective use of modern technology. I suggest too that state governments make it possible for colleges of agriculture and business schools of universities to join these entities as technical partners, and take shares in them worth, say, 20 percent. That way the colleges of agriculture can channel the best practices and ideas in farming technology to the farming entities, while the schools of business can provide the best marketing strategies for them.

Mr. Prime Minister, it will be a win-win situation for town and gown, and cause an explosion in food production, as well as provide the basis for the rapid development of a biotechnology industry. The country’s agricultural scientists, researchers, and engineers would increasingly push the frontiers of their growth into areas such as alternative energy supply to fossil-based fuels through agricultural products. A useful plus for participating universities and colleges will be increased financial resources for their activities.

Mr. Prime Minister, what I am envisaging here with regard to solving the nation’s problems, including the lack of sufficient food production, is the assumption of an at-war mentality by the nation’s ruling elite to enable them create a sense of urgency in the country for the pursuit of the common good. We saw this mentality on the Biafran side during the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War, and it led to some remarkable achievements, achievements that were unfortunately never harnessed after the war. I suggest, therefore, that town and gown cooperation be extended to include the tackling of some of the nation’s most problematic sectors.

The Steel Industry. Mr. Prime Minister, the nation has lost billions of dollars through outright embezzlement and mismanagement of the funds meant for the development and production of steel, and all that the nation has to show for its huge investment is a steel production company in deep coma, yet there were great dreams in the nation about how the steel industry would provide the basis for the nation’s entrepreneurs to venture into automobile production. Since the nation’s rulers have seemingly tried all measures and failed, I suggest that it is time we invite a consortium of the nation’s top engineering and business programs to bid for it and run it as a successful business venture. Whatever challenges they face on the engineering side, they could solve by taking short sabbaticals to learn from nations that have successful steel industries. In the alternative, they could bring from elsewhere those with the know-how to help them with their areas of difficulty. Not only will the steel industry eventually take off and indeed provide the expected basis for daring entrepreneurs to venture into automobile production, it will also spread a wealth of knowledge by osmosis into the academy and the rest of society.

The railway system and power generation. Mr. Prime Minister, the railway system is another vital sector in deep coma. Yet, if during a war, a section of the railway is bombed, the army corps of engineers will be asked to quickly fix it, if fixing the damaged section is seen as crucial to winning the war. The same goes for bombed-out power lines. Usually, where the army corps cannot do the job, they turn to civil society, for example, companies with the necessary expertise. Mr. Prime Minister, because such companies did not exist in Nigeria and in many formerly colonized countries, since the colonial masters, including Britain, saw these countries merely as the sites for the exploitation and appropriation of raw materials, facts that Albert Memmi documents so well in The Colonizer and the Colonized, and Franz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, the academy in form of Biafran university teachers stepped into this role during the Civil War. Unfortunately, by the end of the war, visions of fabulous oil wealth had so eaten into the consciousness of the rulers of the country that the ingenuity of the Biafran intellectuals was never capitalized upon as a basis for the nation’s technological advancement after the war. Mr. Prime Minister, it is time for the nation to seize on that spirit by using top mechanical and electrical engineering as well as business programs to run these entities. To spread the goods around and for greater efficiency in the running of the railway and power sectors by the top engineering and business programs, the Railway Corporation of Nigeria and Power Holding Corporation of Nigeria should be broken into smaller companies.

Potable water supply and the refining of crude. Mr. Prime Minister, while the former is a lot easier than the latter, the awful truth is that four decades and nine years after attaining independence, the former is still beyond reach even though we are blessed with abundant natural water supply. Meanwhile, the latter appears impossible to attain. Yet, these are two areas, where we can get our academics in the engineering, computer, physics, chemistry, and business departments marching. The Nigerian government should give them the necessary incentives for the creation of companies to handle these sectors in small portions, and challenge them to rise to the occasion, and I am sure that they will not disappoint the country. These ventures are after all not a satellite launch. The knowledge base is there, and they who are practitioners of knowledge in these sectors should be able to seize that knowledge and run with it.

Of course, Mr. Prime Minister, the proposed domination of the academy in the knowledge-driven economy will only be a transitory phase to an explosion of a wider knowledge-driven economy in which elements of society, or students and former students of the academic entrepreneurs will enter the fray to compete with the academic entrepreneurs. Colonialism made no provision for this, but Biafran academics showed us that it could be done. And Mr. Prime Minister, if Vision 2020, which is just eleven years away, is not to be a mirage like the ones before it, then the nation must in the next eleven years act as if it is at war, not with the Niger Delta, but with the seemingly intractable problems of the nation, and work with a sense of laser-speed-like urgency to get to the finish line of Vision 2020.

Mr. Prime Minister, let me now go to the next issue on the list of things that the NSF raised, namely, state creation. I am happy to hear that the NSF has dropped its opposition to state creation, since in Nigeria state creation still appears to be the surest way to the delivery of development. Mr. Prime Minister, the Ijaw are arguing that as the fourth largest ethnic group in the nation behind the Hausa-Fulani, the Yoruba, and the Igbo, as well as the largest contributor to the nation’s economic wealth, and the inhabitants of the area of the country that is most difficult to develop, they should have four states, so that they can take development to all their islands, including the far-flung ones. Whether they will get all four, I leave to those who have been appointed to speak on their behalf in their meeting with President Yar’Adua and

the National Assembly.

Mr. Prime Minister, on derivation revenue, the NSF has suggested that solid minerals should be added to the list of things on which it should be paid. To that I say a big hurrah. There is no reason why derivation revenue should not be paid on solid minerals. In fact, in an earlier write-up, I had suggested that every state should identify the solid minerals available in it and actively seek investors to develop them. It is also an area where a town-and-gown partnership might lead to very interesting results if the will is there.

Mr. Prime Minister, the NSF has said that it will not ask for a systematic overhaul of the current derivation system until oil is searched for and discovered in the North. I like the frankness of the NSF. Indeed, this is the first time reputable spokesmen of the North with authority to speak for it will be speaking with so much clarity on the issue. It shows progress. If by a systematic overhaul of the derivation system, the North means a delay to the return to the original fifty percent derivation revenue allocation, until the other sections of the country get on their feet, say by 2020, I am all for it. Additionally, it seems to me that a wide consensus now exists in the South that in the interim the thirteen percent derivation revenue allocation should be increased to twenty-five percent. I agree with the consensus.

Mr. Prime Minister, regarding fiscal federalism, which the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has listed as one of the issues for which it is fighting, fiscal federalism from the standpoint of those in the Niger Delta has meant one of two things: 1) a return to fifty percent derivation revenue allocation; 2) resource control of all mineral resources by states, who will then pay taxes on the revenue derived from the exploitation of the mineral resources to the central government. Mr. Prime Minister, I have already addressed the first, which to all lovers of Nigeria, is impossible at this time, since non-oil producing states and the central government must survive until we wean ourselves from the oil-based, mono-product economy.

Regarding the second point, the central government insists that even during colonial times, ownership and exploitation of mineral resources was vested in the center, so why should it give it up now? The central government makes a strong point, and, indeed, it will be entirely within its rights to firmly hold onto that right at the negotiation table because of precedent, but it will be doing so, and has done so, at great cost to the country.

Mr. Prime Minister, today no state can financially empower itself by authorizing the exploitation of natural resources within it, so it must go cap in hand at the end of the month to the central government to receive the money that it needs to survive, this is more so because the collapse of an earlier agro-based economy has cultivated a dependency syndrome in the states. With over one hundred and fifty million people, Nigeria is a vast nation-state that should not be subjected to the model of development of nation-states with far smaller populations where such over centralization of the means of economic empowerment may not have any disastrous effects. Nigeria, with its size and diversity, should be able to cultivate multiple sites of revenue generation, an ideal that will be a reality if the present order is switched and states, instead of the central government, are empowered to exploit the resources in them and pay the appropriate taxes to the central government. The central government will lose nothing, because it will continue to get through taxes what it currently gets in the present revenue sharing formula. Additionally, Mr. Prime Minister, under such an arrangement, even the states will continue to draw from the center what they currently get from it.

Mr. Prime Minister, what such an arrangement will do is to make each state a financially muscular entity, as it exercises itself in generating revenue from every resource available to it, instead of suffering from economic, muscular dystrophy that forces it to go cap-in-hand to the central government at the end of every month for all the resources it needs to run its affairs. As I said, Mr. Prime Minister, such an arrangement will not cost the central government anything, since it will continue to collect whatever it collects now in form of taxes.

Mr. Prime Minister, there are other benefits in such an arrangement. Let me return to the Niger Delta and oil and gas exploitation. As the saying goes, it is he who wears the shoes that knows where it pinches. Because Nigeria’s political dynamics have favored the control of the center by people of majority ethnicity, the problems associated with oil exploitation have continued to seem distant to those who control the center. That is the reason why the collapse of the rural-based, fishing industry as a result of reckless oil spills has not elicited any sense of discomfort from those at the center. And that is why the depredations of gas flaring have not pricked the conscience of the central government to act with a sense of decisiveness. In fact, Mr. Prime Minister, during the last constitutional conference in 2005 under President Obasanjo, some politicians from a majority ethnic group said that if the Niger Delta people do not like the harmful effects of oil exploitation, the central government should relocate them elsewhere. Apart from being very insensitive, Mr. Prime Minister, this statement shows a slash-and-burn mentality and a total lack of appreciation for the economic consequences of the loss of a rural, grassroots-empowered economic sector, the fishing industry, in the Niger Delta, and the socio-cultural as well as economic implications of relocating millions of people to new environments already under occupation. If states are managing their resources, the problem of gas flaring will have been abolished long ago, as the people would have forced local politicians to make a campaign issue out of it and would have rewarded or punished them based on where they stand on the issue. The same goes for the problem of reckless oil spills. While it may not be possible to totally eliminate oil spills, local political action would have made it very difficult for the laissez-faire attitude that the oil companies presently take to it. The state governors, through their local government councils, would more effectively monitor the situation and act accordingly.

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