THE IMPERATIVE OF REFORMS


Dr. Chu S. P. Okongwu

An introduction to the book, Echo of Reforms, a published collection of speeches delivered on the occasion of the public presentation of IBB: a Heritage of Reforms, which took place at the International Conference Centre, Kaduna on the 17th of December, 2002.

I salute the motivators and organizers of the public presentation of the book-set: IBB: A Heritage of Reform: I rejoice with them.

The reform imperative, I believe, is clear before us, whether we wish to hide our heads in the sand or not. As part of the world crisis in underdevelopment or regress, African economies are in need of urgent overhaul, particularly in the current unpropitious global conjuncture characterized by severe internal weaknesses, impeded access to world money, capital and commodity markets, turbulence, spill-overs and awesome global challenges. As a society, we must reform or die.

If reforms were necessary during the IBB years, the current dire national socio-economic predicament makes them even more compelling. A dear friend of mine assures me, however, that a major problem is that Lagos editors do not want to hear about reform. Tough luck for them, I say. Let me be clear: The bleak and worsening conditions of the masses cry for reform; Nigeria’s resource potentials command it; expectations by Nigerians, by other Africans on the continent and in the diaspora, dictate reform; Nigeria’s genuine external friends expect it; considerations of the legacy to our children and our children’s children demand reform now. Experience teaches us that if mandatory reform is not undertaken today then a more stringent therapy will be administered tomorrow – if the parent body survives the ailment.

Against this dire need, what is currently going on in the name of national economic management is a travesty of public policy, an unmitigated disaster to the Nigerian socio-economic process. I have elsewhere considered this sad development in some detail. Here I shall only note that virtually all socio-economic fundamentals – domestic output, growth rate of output per caput, unemployment, price levels, inflation, interest rates, exchange rates, the states of public organizations and infrastructure, security of life and property, and social stability – are at crisis levels. Arrears of salaries and debt have not only re-emerged but have been sustained at all levels of government. Pensions remain unfunded and in gross arrears, with unspeakable hardship on our senior citizens. The disarray in the foreign exchange market has led to the appearance of significant parallel market premiums and, effectively, a multiple exchange rate system. The exchange rate remains highly depreciated and unstable. The interest rate regime is scandalously usurious, serving only the most desperate borrowers. Medium- and long-term banking have not developed. Loan assistance windows for SMEs have been virtually shut for almost three years, while government goes through its administrative changes.

But, perhaps, the greatest damage has been the wreckage of the institutional fabric of society: the decay of public organizations and infrastructure, the unprecedented levels and percolation of corruption, the worsening hyper-praetorian state of society with its lawlessness and banditry, the blight and suffocation of our towns, growth centers and villages are merely symptoms of this more fundamental ailment. This adverse record obtains despite generally enhanced oil revenues: the second such surge since the mid-1970s. Never, since the beginning of the Republic, has society been so desolated. Evidently, the state has abandoned its responsibilities for governance.

Where now is the magic wand of those sorcerers who would fix the external value of the naira at N2.50 or any amount to one US dollar or adjoin a human face to economic process? Where now is the anti-reform battle group that would erupt if petrol prices exceed NO.67k per litre? It’s certain that fashions are apt to become bizarre when carpenters profess to be tailors.

I rejoice not because a cynic may distil from our dismal national process since the IBB years, especially current events, some psychic satisfaction to compensate for the loneliness and pain of those reform years. No. The life of the reformer is inevitably filled with loneliness and pain; and the dismal national process saddens the reformer, as a patriot.

I rejoice not because of the prescience of the contributing scholars and writers, editors and producers who, after due assaying, judged that the essential contribution of the Babangida Administration to our national process is “A Heritage of Reform”. Sixteen years ago, I told President Babangida and resolutely maintained against much derision and traducement, that the legacy of his Administration would be found in the economic reform measures and the allied political-social reforms on which we had then embarked.

The history of reform is covered in some detail in the volumes of Heritage of Reform but the following can stand highlighting. It is to the credit of the Babangida Administration that:

  1. It had a clear perception of the imperatives for reform – the need for a new orientation in national economic management based on creating the right incentives framework for productive endeavours, resource use and allocative efficiency;
  1. It had the political courage to initiate the requisite reform – particularly, in the difficult circumstances of severe resource compression and payments crisis [For example, the country’s total foreign exchange receipts plunged from some US$26 billion in 1980 to some US$12 billion in 1982 and 1985, and again to only some US$6 billion in 1986 and US$7.5 billion in 1987]; and
  1. The reform programme was home-grown.

On this last point, the home-grown nature of the structural adjustment programme, I would like to reveal that my Conference Room table in the Federal Secretariat building, Ikoyi, and my dining room table at 46 Bourdillon Road, Ikoyi, served as the drafting tables. The fine public servants who laboured days and nights can confirm this, and I have paid tribute to them by name in my contribution. I believe most of them are still very much alive.

The rabid opposition of the media is thus both uninformed and misplaced. My erstwhile colleagues, the ladies and gentlemen of the Press, I should quickly add, must bear their full share of blame for the present sad state of affairs: for they were in fact both the mouthpiece and shock troops of the anti-reform army. And they have helped engender a curious but entirely unfortunate aspect of Nigerian public life in which facts assume different complexions depending on the provenance of the proponent. Persistence in the validation of “our man” regardless of the damage to society, and the counterpart refusal to give accurate reportage or fair publicity to others not perceived as “our men”, has resulted in a structural jaundice that blots the press. This defect has to be firmly redressed if the press is to play its key role in helping to progress society along a democratic course.

It is true that the economic reforms did not carry through due largely to the drift towards populism, resultant policy disarray and the transient victory of oppositional forces, particularly from 1990 onwards; and that provides object lessons. If nothing else, it is now clear that success requires building a reform constituency and resolve in programme implementation.

But it is also true that this legacy has operational significance: what sustains domestic society today, despite its evident desolation, is the set of inviolable policy measures (foundations) taken (laid) in that period. Likewise the categories of discourse and conduct of public administration developed in that period are still widely in use.

I rejoice not because the critics of structural economic reform, our erstwhile ideological adversaries, have been proven wrong with the passage of time, and thus the anti-reform army is vanquished, and some may construe the presentation of IBB: A Heritage of Reform and the august occasion for presenting the volumes formally to the general public as part of a triumphal scenario. Of course, the critics were wrong and are wrong; and I said so from initial time. I persistently urged the view that “Structural adjustment is entirely unavoidable if we desire growth.” And I affirmed, “That the positive verdict of history will be the side of this Administration’s economic reforms,” at the conclusion of my Press Briefing on September 23, 1987 in my earlier incarnation as the Republic’s Finance Minister.

Above all, I am happy because this intellectual conclave encourages me to believe that we are at last on the road to development. We should have more of them to guide and strengthen us. Accordingly, it is appropriate to use this opportunity to re-affirm the imperatives of reform so vital to the regeneration and repositioning of our dear country.

First and foremost, the reformer is a warranted optimist. He (no gender bias implied) has an admissible and ennobling “system worldview”: his view of the place and role of the society in the context of the world system. This includes correct perception, even if only in outlines, of present and probable future challenges and opportunities for the society. He believes that the future states of society will be stable, but knows fully well that such desirable states are only attainable through intelligent, hard work. The worldview and the envisaged process for the attainment of the objective, usually split for convenience into different (plan) periods, then inform the reform agenda.

As the patriot par excellence, the reformer is not self-seeking, placing duty to the nation above all else. To the reformer nothing is nobler than improving the social conditions of his fellow citizens and repositioning his society to play its rightful role in the world system. These are his abiding concerns. He is truly valorous and dedicated in the goal pursuit process. But it is clear to him that by acting alone nothing can be achieved. Therefore he mobilizes society to accept, indeed appropriate, his worldview through co-education. At the same time he establishes solidarity with the polity by engaging in consensus building, reinforcing a perception of shared burdens, and continually demonstrating his commitment to the reform agenda. Consequently, the reformer, though firm, is humble and reachable; he is not imperious, omniscient, arrogating or divisive.

The reformer must possess political acumen and sagacity for effective steering of the system. In this connection, it is important, particularly in a democratic context, that he:

  • selects a sound dedicated management team, placing accent on merit;
  • implements an appropriate incentives scheme for (the attraction and retention of) such management team and the supporting public service bureaucracy;
  • stresses good governance, including discipline, and distinction between the public and private interest; and
  • anchors helmsman ship on prudence, justice and fairness, simplification of laws and procedures, decentralization, deregulation and emulous competition. He champions the adoption of rules that stimulate the growth of productive enterprise and the acquisition of skills and knowledge, especially scientific-technical knowledge.

The key utility of these attributes is that they better permit the release of the factor of mobilization and the focalization of the resources – imagination, enterprise and capacity for work-of all the people on the urgent task of economic construction. Shrewdness is important also in system management in order not to let the reform programme be scuttled by adversarial forces. The details of a viable reform programme need not occupy us here. The broad aim is to get the domestic system “right” and to make it embark on true self-development, that is, always to respond favourably to shocks which may be internally or externally generated. High on our list should be:

  • Restoration of law and order;
  • Restoration of a sense of community everywhere;
  • (Social) justice for all;
  • National reconciliation and integration;
  • True federalism;
  • Full employment;
  • Reversing the deterioration of socio-economic infrastructure;
  • Promotion of productive endeavours, valid risk-taking and due compensation, and the view that hard work and merit pay;
  • Bringing the so-called informals, who constitute the preponderant mass of our citizenry, into the economic mainstream;
  • Sound education and skills development for all;
  • Ensuring unimpeded access by all communities to education, finance and infrastructure;
  • Social mobilization through various programmes (youth, women, etc.); and
  • Elimination of extant and incipient economic-financial imbalances.

Financial-economic imbalances are only one type of internal weaknesses. More serious domestic challenges exist, for example, in the form of vested interests, rent-seekers and policy negotiators, the core of the anti-reform army. Moreover, awesome challenges – not limited to polycentrism in world production and finance, advances in robotics, genetic engineering and nanotechnology – now present in the global system and define another crucial phase of world history.

Elements of global challenge are likely to be destabilizing. Together with the fragility of domestic society and the severity of internal shocks, they are likely to prove overwhelming unless system management is highly skilled and operationalistic. How do we ensure that the Nigerian, indeed, any African system responds appropriately to these challenges? Equivalently, how do we in Nigeria ensure that we satisfactorily contribute to and profit from evolving global dynamics? Success in this endeavour requires that we frame and answer these questions.

Accordingly, the reformer must look beyond the present stage of crisis –  a failed state system, of which the breakdown of law and order and attendant rise of social banditry; the economic desolation of the masses and widening gap between the rich and the poor; the loss of sense of community; the frequent social and religious conflicts; the political divisiveness and disarray and resulting emergence of buccaneers, neophytes and “me-tooists” in the political arena, overshadowing men and women of quality and goodwill; as well as the external payments crisis are but symptoms.

The historic task at hand is to urgently build on past achievements to form the basis of a bold, credible transformative programme that would urgently revivify the state system by:

  • Restoring civil peace and orderliness;
  • Improving the bleak conditions of the polity;
  • Reuniting the Nigerian people with themselves and their leadership;
  • Implementing a sound economic plan that would mobilize the imagination and energies of all Nigerians, stabilize the economy, and drive it on a self-development path; and,
  • Enabling the state system and the people to fulfil their legitimate aspirations and play their rightful role in global intercourse.

These steps will make Nigeria a place that one feels safe living in, a place where one is happy to work, a country that one will be proud to call his own. Given the damage to the system, especially in the present phase, and the cynicism of the people, this is going to be a daunting task. But it is a task that must be done.

The challenge is to find men and women of valour and nobility who, after thorough appreciation of the national predicament, are willing to commit to the immensely difficult reform process and step into history. While success in steering is not guaranteed it is a function of at least sound, sagacious, committed leadership, backstopped with sustained mass support and a continuously updated quality human capital core for system management. In this difficult process, helmsmanship is fortified by hearkening to that voice which continually urges: “Stay the course. Keep on the high horse. Despite all perturbations, despite all enticements, keep the faith. Stay the course.”