BY SIMON KOLAWOLE, JANUARY 29, 2024 | 03:12 PM
Nigeria is the world’s poverty capital. Most Nigerians live on less than $2 a day. Nigeria’s economy is powered by only 4,000MW of power. Even Republic of Benin has better road infrastructure than Nigeria. Over 70 percent of Nigerians are unemployed. Nigeria has a housing deficit of 28 million. Some 16 million Nigerian children are out of school. The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria was written by the military. Unless we ditch the 1999 Constitution and write a new one, Nigeria will never develop. Governors run to Abuja every month to share federation allocation. Nigerian president is the most powerful in the world. Etcetera etcetera and so on and so on.
If you have ever held any of these notions, or reinforced them without fact-checking, Mr Babatunde Raji Fashola, former governor of Lagos state, has a message for you: take a chill pill. That is not exactly how he puts it in his book, ‘Nigerian Public Discourse: The Interplay of Empirical Evidence and Hyperbole’, which will be presented on February 8, 2024 in Lagos. His underpinning arguments are: one, some collective assumptions about the development indices of Nigeria are not based on verifiable facts; two, policy decisions must not be founded on assumptions, suppositions or facts of dubious origins. A wrong diagnosis of an ailment will lead to a wrong prescription and treatment.
Fashola — who was minister of power, works and housing from 2015 to 2019 and thereafter minister of works and housing for four years — keeps to a theme that cautions public analysts, social commentators and public servants on the assertions they make while discussing the state of the nation. Some pronouncements are disseminated with such “unwavering conviction” that it becomes hard to summon the courage to critically examine their veracity without appearing either naïve or contrarian, he notes, warning that “a mere conjecture or personal opinion, expressed with authority on a national platform, assumes the guise of an empirical principle which cannot be disputed”.
For a start, anytime you say most Nigerians are living on less than $2 a day and use it as a measurement of the poverty incidence, Fashola would want you to apply the brake. He famously challenged the $1/day measurement and is still not satisfied despite the doubling of the figure. His explanation may be controversial but it is profound, nonetheless. To be clear, he is not questioning the incidence of poverty in Nigeria, but he is unsure of the reliability of the data being used to declare Nigeria as the “poverty capital of the world”. Politically, this dubious distinction has been a potent campaign tool in the hands of opposition parties, which is to be expected in election seasons.
Advertisement There are two issues here, as pointed out by Fashola. The first is that the World Poverty Clock used data from 2013 and its forecast based on that to arrive at the conclusion that Nigeria was the poverty capital, effectively discounting economic interventions that took place years before the report was written. The report also used the General Household Survey of 2012/2013 and not the Harmonised Living Standards Survey. Using dollar as a measurement without considering the purchasing power parity is also questioned by Fashola, who argues that what one dollar can buy in Nigeria is more than what it can buy in, for instance, the US. He uses the price of a bottle of Coke as a simple example.
The second issue from this is that the poverty data “presents a stark disconnection with the true identity of the Nigerian populace” by a narrow interpretation of “indigenous economics” — in Fashola’s words. The data neglects people’s disposable income. Fashola calls this “cultural economic relativity” which he says Western economists may not understand. The extended family system in Africa is so potent that “it could assist family members to offset rent, school fees, medical bills, sponsor children in school, and other expenses”. He quotes a study on Informal Safety Net which shows how people regularly receive helps ranging from N1,000 to N500,000 from family members.
Fashola’s proposition here is that these are also incomes, howsoever defined, but the poverty data does not countenance them and is confined to what is formally earned by the average Nigerian. He proposes a comprehensive study within the context of the African social support system for a more accurate assessment of poverty. He insists that efforts to reduce poverty in Nigeria by all tiers of government are not insignificant as evident in investments in transport, education, water, health and related services. Above all, he wants the public to demand the provision of more amenities that will tackle poverty rather than weaponise the “poverty capital” claim that is, at best, “an estimate”.
Advertisement There is also the interesting anecdote of a Briton who asked Fashola if there were banks in Nigeria. He found the question frivolous and uninformed. Fashola took time to explain to the man that Nigeria has over 20 banks, with many of them ranked among the world’s Top 1000 by reputable institutions and publications at various times. The man apologised but explained his question: “I was intrigued by what I read online about the federal government and state governments distributing money in Abuja. Whenever I encounter such a headline, I am left contemplating why states must convene in Abuja… and collect cash. Could this not be facilitated through the banking system?”
The senior lawyer takes time to explain the revenue allocation mechanisms. The constitution and relevant laws are very clear on the membership of the Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC): minister of finance (chair), commissioners of finance of the 36 states, two persons appointed by the president, and accountant general of the federation (AcGF). Governors are not members. Two meetings are convened monthly, the first by the AcGF and accountants general of the 36 states where they receive and verify statements of income from revenue-generating agencies, and the second by the FAAC where metrics are used to calculate the revenue to be shared by the three tiers.
(I would like to quickly insert this here: what the three tiers share at FAAC is “federation” — not “federal” — allocation. The use of the word “federal” is part of what distorts debates on our nationhood. Using the word “federal” allocation suggests that the money is coming from the “federal” government to the states and councils. This is incorrect. The money belongs to the federation, and federal government is just a tier of the federation. The constitution mandates that all revenues collected on behalf of the federation be paid into the consolidated revenue fund (CRF) from where they are shared by the three tiers. This little detail is sometimes lost in public discourse.)
There are several stimulating essays for those who are sincerely interested in discussing Nigeria’s development trajectory. We are fond of saying Nigeria produces only 4,000MW to power a $448 billion economy. Fashola thinks we are missing something. South Africa with 58,000MW has a lower GDP of $351 billion. This is not adding up. “By accepting the erroneous figure of 4,000MW, we have overlooked the substantial amount of electricity generated by solar power, industrial and individual diesel generators and independent power producers across the country,” he asserts. Chief Adebayo Adelabu, the minister of power, recently said Nigeria gets an additional 40,000MW from generators.
Advertisement What is Fashola’s point, though? He believes off-grid power is usually discounted but it is valuable. He lists the power projects executed in Lagos state when he was governor. They are off-grid but their outputs outstrip actual generation in The Gambia. He also lists the off-grid projects he inaugurated across the country when he was minister of power. The Rural Electrification Agency (REA), owned by the federal government, is undertaking solar projects in rural areas across the country but the outputs are not included in the assessment of total Nigeria’s power supply. Basically, Fashola is saying we use incomplete data in making categorical statements on power supply and GDP in Nigeria.
He says an assessment and redefinition of the problem led to the introduction of the mini-grid policy, with residential estates and small-scale factories encouraged to generate their own energy instead an endless wait for connection to the national grid which would require laying cables across thousands of kilometres, among several other costs. Sticking to popular sentiments about the state of power supply in Nigeria would not have helped, he maintains, also contending that “it is not necessarily accurate, nor is it academically rigorous, to attribute all developmental challenges to the paucity of electricity”. Even if we have 24/7 power supply, manufacturing still faces big challenges.
No doubt, this book will invite controversy. There may be questions as to what we should be more concerned with — waiting in pain and in vain for the accurate stats or confronting the largely unaddressed stark reality even without reliable data? More so, if the popularly held datasets are not realistic, why doesn’t he provide the accurate figures? If the housing deficit is not 28 million, what is it then? His approach is that we should wait for the census so that we can be more scientific, but the last one was in 2006 and we don’t know when the next will be. There may also be critical comments of some submissions which many will view as an attempt to offer excuses for government failures.
In all, I have three take-aways from this book. One, a major problem confronting us is the misrepresentation of the problem — “often in bombastic and hyperbolic terms” — which diverts our attention from an accurate diagnosis, to paraphrase Fashola. We will thus be looking in the wrong direction in trying to solve the problem. Two, how can we assess and address our challenges decisively if we are led more by sensational hyperbole and less by verifiable evidence? We need to interrogate certain assumptions, datasets and analyses that we have adopted in making policy decisions. Three, beware: hyperbole has the tendency to make us downplay our little wins.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS… KILLING FIELDS
Plateau state is back as Nigeria’s killing fields, with the renewed ancient ethno-religious war. The killings are not spontaneous; they are orchestrated. Nigerians will keep taking sides on the basis of religion and ethnicity but there will be no winners. Government must revise its security strategy in order to protect lives and property better than it currently does, but I reckon that the fuel of the killings is hate. Armoured tanks cannot extinguish it. Only love and tolerance can. I will continue to say this: until those who matter in these communities decide that they have wasted enough blood, there will never be peace and progress, no matter the number of soldiers on duty. Troubling.
Advertisement POLITICAL CAPITAL
The decision of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to move one of its units from Abuja, the federal capital, to Lagos is “heating up the polity” (don’t laugh). Those opposed are classifying it as anti-north and are making political capital out of it. But dig deeper and you will realise it may have nothing to do with the north. Most of those to be transferred are said to be children of the powerful, some of whom got the job by connections and hardly come to office in any case. But framing it as an anti-north move is a sure winner in an emotionally charged country like ours. This government has, like the one before it, been very poor and clumsy with communication and engagement. Shame.
The Lagos state government woke up one day and banned single-use plastics “with immediate effect”. No previous warning, no transition plan, no stakeholder engagement, no sensitisation. Just “with immediate effect”. Companies had produced goods already packaged in these plastics and on the way to delivery points; some had stockpiled supplies for months ahead with bank loans; factories are fully in production and there will be consequences for jobs. And then you ban “with immediate effect” — reminiscent of the days of military rule. After the ban, sensitisation and stakeholder engagement will begin. Welcome to public policy making in 21st-century Nigeria. Wonderful.
Have we heard the last of the curious case of Umar Sadiq, the Nigerian striker who plays for Real Sociedad of Spain? He was in Nigeria’s squad to the Africa Cup of Nations in Côte d’Ivoire but was dropped at the last minute because of a report by the Super Eagles’ medical team that he had a knee injury and would be out for a while. It turned out it was just a bruise. He was back playing for his club a few days later. “Upon returning to my club and undergoing thorough examinations, the medical team revealed that I had only suffered a bruise, and as a result, I was cleared to resume training,” he explained, after an uproar. Is this the misdiagnosis that we are so used to in Nigeria? Fantabulous.
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