Like most Nigerians of my age, I’ve never really been a big fan of economic theory. The subject seems so complicated, so diverse and, often, so violent. It astonished me for a long time that revolutions could rise and governments could fall on economic theories. Yet, as I would grow to understand, economics is a very real and functional aspect of individual human activity.
I think of my own economic development in three stages. My first stage was one of indifference. I was introduced to the subject in the form a secondary school course “Economics” whose periods I dreaded partly because the teacher had a fine habit of sending students out to kneel under the noonday sun on the slightest provocation and partly because, no matter how hard I tried, my brain always had some difficulty distinguishing between the supply curve and the demand curve. At that stage, economics was not my concern. It was, instead, the business of the teacher who seemed more willing to flog us than to carry us along. As I had a healthy aversion to being flogged, I simply did with economics what she advised that we do with economics, that is, to shut up and listen to her teach it.
I managed to pick a few words and phrases, from those sweaty and tiring classes: ceteris paribus, equilibrium, and that, like university students at a weekend party, some things go high while some things go low. I also learnt that when it came to the task of educating young West African students on arcane academic theories, both supply and demand were lacking.
My second stage of economic development was a matter of survival. I was in university then and I had the challenging task of managing my rather scarce monthly allowance against the unlimited wants that were the social and academic life of the University of Lagos. Since I could not satisfy all my wants and remain honest, I was forced to draw up a budget using a scale of preference, and I learnt how to borrow reasonably against my allowance from home. Although I use these economic terminologies now, the truth is economics was the last thing on my mind then. I was just trying to get along without disgracing my family and myself.
This second stage is usually enough economic development for people with access to family wealth—and people who lack a sense of shame. They can build a reasonable life by collecting rents or handouts. Depending on your ethical philosophy, you could consider this as either a good or a bad lifestyle. But, I would say it is bad if that lifestyle is dependent on looting other people.
Luckily (or unluckily) for me, I moved to a third stage of economic development. This was the stage where my income was tied to my ability to be of use — that is, my productivity. In any case, I had little choice in this matter. My parents had already stopped giving me money as soon as I was enrolled into national service. Years after this, I would also learn that my productivity was not a fixed quality; it could increase or reduce with the bonus that the higher my productivity, the more likely my earnings.
Today, I am still not a fan of poring over economic theories, but I have come to understand that individual economic development is tied to individual productivity.
Which is why it alarms me when it seems that our political leaders cannot seem to grasp this simple fact when it comes to the national economy. To our political leaders, economic policy is an issue of revenue generation for the government: if Nigeria produced 2.5m barrels of oil per day in 2015, how can we make it 2.7 in 2016?
But I think of national economic policy this way: If Ada, the tailor, sewed two hundred dresses in 2015, what can the government do to enable her to sew 250 dresses in 2016? If John, the agro-trader, sold fifty baskets of mangoes in 2015, what can the government do to enable him to sell 70 baskets in 2016?
This is because the growth of a national economy is tied to the capacity of individual citizens to increase their production. Economic growth is not, as the president suggested in Riyadh last week, tied to the capacity of the government to generate more money from agriculture or mining. Really, this is just the equivalent of school students on an allowance thinking up new ways to squeeze their parents for money. Yes, government revenue (and the Almighty Federal Budget) may be tied to this type of increment—but that is merely Stage 2 economic development.
What would be quite pleasant is for President Buhari to demonstrate his familiarity with the workings of a productive economy by defining productivity beyond rent-collecting terms—more taxes, more oil, more agriculture, more mining—and by actually initiating policies that ease the cost of doing business, delivering services and conducting trade. For example, by: connecting trading communities, identifying and reducing administrative roadblocks, and reducing government control of productive resources.
More importantly, the government has to carry Nigerians along right to the grassroots level.
If increasing the production of Nigerians is the overall economic goal, then communicating this process to Nigerians is very important. Yet, it seems President Buhari doesn’t understand that he owes Nigerians—not other Africans, Americans, Arabs, Europeans,or just Ms Adeosun and Mr Emefiele—some communication. He may not necessarily owe us an explanation for the state of the economy—the economy and the naira had already started its downward turn under the Jonathan administration—but he owes all Nigerians communication on his economic goals: do we have a six-month plan? Do we have a 10-year plan? Do we have any plan?
And if there is a plan, can we understand it, debate it and participate fully in its execution? Why is there an unnecessary aura of secrecy around fundamental national issues? What is it with this odd style of presidential-only economics?
But, I fear President Buhari is quite like my secondary school Economics teacher: charged with the handling of the subject but lacking in the ability to carry the students along. Maybe, the solution is a regression to economic stage one: indifference.
That is, shut up and watch the president do economics.
Originally published here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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