Whatever choices you make from today for the purpose of helping build a New Nigeria will most certainly cost you something. Such is the reality of nation rebuilding.
The wealth and poverty of a nation – Who will restore the dignity of Nigeria?
Being the concluding part of a speech by Dr. Oby Ezekwesiliat the 42nd Convocation Lecture of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
For Nigeria’s dignity to be restored your generation must build a coalition of your entrepreneurial minds that are ready to ask and respond to the question “What does it take for nations to become rich? Throughout economic history, the factors that determine which nations became rich and improved the standard of living of their citizens read like a Dignity treatise in that they all revolve around the choices that ordinary citizens made in defining the value constructs of their nation. We learn that it takes a very strong interplay of political and economic dynamics for nations to climb out from the rung of poverty and raise the standard of living of citizens. The political foundation of nations emerges as the principal reason why some nations grow rich while others remain poor in the field of development economics. A ground breaking work by Daren Acemoglu, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and James Robinson (economist), a Harvard professor has brought politics to the center stage of economic development. Although sound policies and access to capital for investing in development priorities remain very important for economic success no country can however achieve development without having a strong political foundation made up of political players, system, processes and structures that are grounded in inclusivity and accountability. The active participation of the citizens who seek to restore their individual and collective dignity in the politics of their nation is what ensures that THE PEOPLE and not a bunch of power hungry and extractive elite will set the agenda and determine the quality and substance of governance.
The simple version of this thesis is “sort out a nation’s political mess and you improve the chances of getting a productive economy that grows and delivers the benefits of growth in the form of jobs and improved incomes to all citizens”. Although this advice is rooted in empirical evidence from economic research it does sound very basic. Not being one of those earth shattering solutions that Nigerians are often enamored of, we may choose to ignore it. Yet if we are willing to confront our past and present reality with sincerity and ruminate on our political history, this thesis may actually be a Turning Point “Aha” moment for us. The Turning Point is that moment when we all suddenly realized that Politics- a process that defines the How, Who, Which, Where, When and for What any individual or group of persons who seek to govern Nigeria- is indeed the root cause of our repeated failures. Neither our thirty four years of cumulative military governance nor the nineteen cumulative years thus far of our democratic governance provided us “inclusive and accountable governance.” Evidently, it is the undeveloped character of our political history, inchoate political structure and system and mostly uninspiring cast of political leadership that threw Nigeria into a hole from which it must climb out quickly to secure its continuing existence. Instructively, a person or as in our own case; a nation is counseled to “stop digging when in a hole”. Lamentably, in our case we have consistently rebuffed the wisdom behind that counsel. We have instead dug deeper and the more we have dug, the deeper into the hole we have sunk and all because of political misadventures.
Trace the political history of our country since independence in 1960 and you will better understand the horror of our faulty political foundation. The first democratic government ushered in an independent Nigeria but was cut short by a coup in 1966, a counter coup in 1967, civil war from 1967 to 1970, military rule from 1970 at the end of the war until another coup in 1975, another unsuccessful coup in 1976 the then Head of State was murdered, continued rule of the military until 1979 when a successful political transition ushered in the second republic but it became a democratic process that was known more for its prodigality than for governance until it was cut short in 1983 by yet another military coup but this new junta was itself sent packing by a coup in 1985 with a new military junta ruling from 1985 until 1993 when it thwarted the political rights of citizens who had elected a democratic president by annulling the elections. It responded to the public disturbance and agitation that followed by installing an interim national government that lasted only three months following yet another military intervention that was more heinous than ever until 1998 when divine providence cut short that particular leadership ushering in yet another military ruler who committed to and successfully conducted a transition that ushered democratic governance in 1999. That it is now fourteen years of uninterrupted even if fledgling democratic governance since 1999 is perhaps the very tiny ray of light in what is otherwise a canvass of political tragedies.
Yet, despite the general consensus satisfaction with the record number of democratic years since 1999, darkness still ominously clouds our political landscape. While the nation continues to experience the paradox of plenty and citizens are once again provoked by this latest round of prodigality of our political elite one cannot but sigh in disbelief that these casts of gladiators seem not to have learned anything from our inglorious political history. The recklessness and impunity with which public institutions and resources are being handled; the daily news of systemic and now democratized corruption by political office holders and their business elite collaborators has entrenched cynicism and pessimism in the land. How can our political elite not see that we are all sitting on kegs of gun powder? How can they not see that whatever peace we may appear to have at this time is like the peace of the graveyard? How can they not see that the teeming population of extremely angry and more interconnected young people cannot be silent for too much longer? How can they not know that preachments of patience and sacrifice will no longer placate the two million young people who annually enter the terribly constrained labor market pushing up the already worrisome 40% unemployment ratio among our youthful population? How can they not see the hypocrisy of the platitudes on sacrifice to poor citizens who thanks to greater access to information are able to closely follow the lifestyle of delusional grandeur and debauchery that their leaders finance from the public treasury? Where is the much needed innovative and entrepreneurial mindset that the public sector must earnestly deploy in solving the multiple problems of our nation? Why does our own variant of political elite not even understand the most basic necessity for change of the status quo methods that have failed to deliver benefits of governance to citizens? “Elites resist innovation because they have a vested interest in resisting change — and new technologies that create growth can alter the balance of economic or political assets in a country. Technological innovation makes human societies prosperous, but also involves the replacement of the old with the new, and the destruction of the economic privileges and political power of certain people,” wrote Acemoglu and Robinson. Yet when elites temporarily preserve power by preventing innovation, they ultimately impoverish their own states. Sadly, they most often do not care what happens to the rest of the nation, and that arguably has been the lot of Nigerian through the years.
In the course of the last six months of my returning home to Nigeria after five year in international public service at the World Bank in Washington DC, I have many times come across the cutting anger of unemployed, disillusioned citizens who are louder in their disaffection with the condition of the country. The strident voices of citizens in public debates of national issues are louder and more penetrating than ever before. We are indeed at a turning point. How it turns however will be determined by you my dear friends. Today, you are the generation that holds the ace. You are the generation for whom the stakes are highest on the issue of how well this nation turns its governance corner. You are the generation that can define a new character and quality of politics in Nigeria and inherently the quality of governance outcomes in the decades and century ahead. You are the generation that can birth a New Nigeria devoid of all negatives that have inhibited our greatness and one in which every citizen is mobilized to construct a “National Integrity System” which is imperative for the building of every decent society.
You can do so by seeking to understand and to engage the stunted political context and nation that you have inherited. You will have to take hold of both and turn them around into a mature democracy and nation. What you must seek to do is to create a new political context in which citizens’ demand for good governance and accountability begins to compel those who govern to persistently make choices that will more likely improve the outcomes of economic management for the larger number of Nigerians. You have the tools needed for massive political and civic education of your illiterate peers on the importance of political rights and participation in the political process. By virtue of your university education and experiences you understand the economics of politics in Nigeria better than your illiterate peers who ignorantly trade off their political rights and chances for better governance outcomes for a mere mess of porridge.
Economics teaches us that there are some basic Smithian conditions (as espoused by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations) for sustainable economic growth. No country has become rich, and stayed that way, without establishing these conditions. Countries such as Great Britain and the United States became rich because their citizens overthrew the elites who controlled power and created a society with political rights more broadly distributed and the government accountable and responsive to citizens. In these countries the great mass of people could take advantage of economic opportunities and so the entire nation prospered. To the contrary, nations dominated by self-centered elite fail and they are extremely poor.
Your generation can work as collectives across this country and set the agenda for lasting positive change in the political architecture of Nigeria. Only after reading Why Nations Fail did I finally understand the wise words of Plato that “one of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”. Therefore, do not be like me and my kind who have ignored politics and left it to professional politicians to determine its character and substance. The incentive that must drive your own impulses on whether to engage or not is the knowledge that except the insalubrious political context that has produced a persistently failing Nigeria changes positively; your individual talents, opportunities and greatness will not materialize nor be maximized. In deciding to free Nigeria from its legendary political failures, you will actually free yourselves to excel like your contemporaries in the rest of the world. “The positive dimensions of succeeding at this task democratizing political powers beyond the minuscule are accountability, property rights and rule of law, which in combination provide low transactions cost so that markets can work effectively and efficiently. When these conditions are absent, a society faces corruption, instability and poor human rights. Investors, including domestic investors, flee such settings”. Do you now see how inextricably connected our political and economic fortunes are in determining the quality of life of the Nigerian? Do you now see what our Big Problem is?
A recent global survey showed that your generation around the world stands out as the most connected to the developments in international affairs. So, most of you will assuredly be aware that not just in our nation but that everywhere else world over, people are seeking for those who can solve the Big Problems in their respective nations. In several other nations the solutions to Big Problems are coming from your generational peers. Surely, having established that our own Big Problem is the failure of politics to deliver the right environment in which a productive economy can thrive outside of the extraction of natural resources that fuels the destructive choices of our ruling elite you have the information needed for driving change. You would have to decide whether you are ready to play the role a change catalyst or would rather adopt the safer option which is to “siddon look.” There is no better time to make such life changing decisions than the day of one’s graduation from College.
I should know about making decisions on graduation day! On my graduation day in 1985, my fertile mind having absorbed as much of the eclectic knowledge available on this campus as possible was budding with curiosity about the challenges of good governance in Nigeria. I made up my mind at that time to never lose my VOICE in the society and that for as long as I lived, I would always speak up on matters of governance, transparency, accountability and probity. Divine providence followed that decision and the supportive actions I took to back it and my steps began to be ordered on a trajectory that had me as one of the leaders of our own generations’ campaign for democracy and good governance- The Concerned Professionals with the likes of Pat Utomi, Sam Oni, Morin Babalola and many others. Staying committed to that decision that I made on graduation day was what provided me the rare privilege of becoming one of the few co-founders and a founding director of Transparency International the Berlin based global non-governmental organization that pioneered the work on anti-corruption and promotion of transparency. That decision that I made on graduation day informed all my life choices and paved the path for what you know of my vocational endeavors. So what decisions are you prepared to make today, dear friends? I assure you that the greatest gift of God to mankind is the power to choose. You are therefore empowered to make decisions and choices today that will ultimately determine what, where and how you will be in the next twenty eight years and beyond……..
But I warn you to be mindful and not rush to decide. You will need to fully assess all the possible costs of your decisions and choices and then determine whether you have the strength of will to bear them. Whatever choices you make from today for the purpose of helping build a New Nigeria will most certainly cost you something. Such is the reality of nation rebuilding. Those who truly build their societies pay a price. They are not For example you cannot be one given to the lure of free money, one who cannot defer gratification and one for whom the path of least resistance holds abiding fascination; and then say you are part of the Turning Point Generation. No! The willingness to “enjoy” wealth that is not earned is not consistent with such Turning Point paradigm. For example, for anyone of you in the Class of 2013 you cannot having perverted the maxim “reward for effort” cheating in exams or using forged certificates to gain your admission and say you are a catalyst for the emergence of the New Nigeria. If your decisions or choices from today are driven by some selfish interest of replacing the failed and fading generations so as to repeat their nation-hobbling pattern then please know that you are not of the Turning Point Generation.
I have spoken to you today to stir up your collective effective angst at the indignity of your inheritance. If I have succeeded in raising your determination to free our nation from the trap of oil, then my coming is worthy. If I have succeeded in helping you see how continuous education not more extraction of oil will help you outperform and take Nigeria up the economic development ladder, then my coming worthy. If I have succeeded in preparing you to embrace dignity of labor as your philosophy of life –never shunning legitimate vocation that helps you earn a living regardless of how lowly it might seem- then my coming is worthy. If today, I have succeeded in preparing you for a life of private and public integrity then my coming is worthy. If I have deposited in you a deep seethed contempt for poor governance, then my coming is worthy. If I have succeeded in preparing you for a lifetime of costly choices that invariably ennoble your path then my coming is worthy. If I have succeeded in helping you realize that you are not weak- that you are actually very powerful- and have both the exceptional opportunities and the tools like your peers in other nations to solve our own Big Problem then my coming is worthy. If I have moved you to decide that you will be one of those that will redefine and build a New Nigeria of our dream then is my coming worthy. If I have succeeded in inspiring a resolve within you to uphold from today a strong sense of personal responsibility for the political governance of Nigeria then my coming is worthy. Above all, if I have succeeded in getting you motivated and empowered enough to walk out of this hall seeing ready to walk and work as a part of the Turning Point Generation that courageously dares to restore the dignity of Nigeria then my BEING is truly worth it!
I salute you, the great lions and lionesses of the class of 2013! All of you, my dear fellow alumnae of the University of Nigeria are indeed the true Wealth, the Greatness and above all the Dignity of Nigeria!!
Thank you for listening.
OBIAGELI KATRYN EZEKWESILI
CLASS OF 1985, UNIVERSITY OF NIGERIA
SENIOR ECONOMIC ADVISER, AFRICA ECONOMIC POLICY DEVELOPMENT INITIATIVE
OPEN SOCIETY FOUNDATION.