Mahmud Jega

In Order  To Be Like China, By Mahmud Jega

Why did I involuntarily yawn on Wednesday last week when I read stories of President Buhari inaugurating the National Steering Committee to develop a Nigeria Agenda 2050 and a Medium-Term National Development Plan, MTNDP? I am not a chronic pessimist. In fact for most of my life I was a chronic optimist until a series of dashed hopes and disappointing events and outcomes over several decades made me to reconsider my outlook in life.

According to the President, the Agenda 2050 to be worked out is because two subsisting national development plans, namely Vision 20:2020 and Economic Recovery and Growth Plan 2017-2020, both expire in December. If your plan is about to expire and you are thinking of making a new plan, is it not fair to ask yourself whether the outgoing plan made any progress? Because if it didn’t, why do you want to make an even grander plan and what makes you think it will succeed? According to Vision 20:2020, this country should be one of the world’s 20 largest economies by this year. I am not sure what our ranking is today but I take note that we were not invited to the G-20 meetings.

Vision 20:2020 itself succeeded Vision 2010, which was elaborately crafted by the Abacha regime with Chief Ernest Shonekan in the lead. As soon as Abacha died in 1998, no one mentioned it again. President Olusegun Obasanjo, for one, would never touch anything to do with Abacha even with a long pole, so he made his own plan, called National Economic Empowerment Development Strategy, NEEDS. States too were goaded to do State Economic Empowerment Development Strategy, SEEDS. Both plans fizzled out after a few years.

Nigerians of my age were not very surprised because previous governments had touted national plans and promises even loftier than those three, only for them to wither away. Universal Free Primary Education [UPE], which took off in 1976, was one of them. After 44 years, we still hear of 12 million out of school children. From 1977, government propounded another, highly publicized plan called Health For All By The Year 2000. We were convinced it will happen but 20 years after the target date, we still have rustic public hospitals with doctors frequently on strike and with everyone of means running to foreign hospitals to treat basic ailments.

This newly envisaged Buhari plan has a thirty year life span. Unlike the aforementioned ones, I do not expect to be around to witness its outcome. But I will not be surprised if it turns out to be another waiting for Godot, the way my generation of Nigerians did over several decades.

In his speech inaugurating this plan, Buhari spoke about other supra-national plans that Nigeria should key into. They include ECOWAS Integration Agenda 2050, African Union Agenda 2063 and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals 2030. Not one of those three international bodies has proved itself to be capable of delivering on lofty development goals. Where is UNESCO’s New World Information Order? Where is FAO’s Food For All By The Year 2000? Where is ECOWAS’ free movement of goods and persons? Where is OAU/AU’s African Peer Review Mechanism?

I agree with the president that we should always have some kind of national development plan because as one sage said, if you don’t have a plan to succeed then you are planning to fail. However, I am skeptical about the lofty goal he set for this plan. I do not want our children and grandchildren to suffer the same raised and then dashed hopes as my generation did. Buhari said the new plan should aim to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in ten years’ time, since the World Bank projected that Nigeria will have 400 million people by 2050.

You see, when any company manager is balancing his books, the prudent thing to do if he cannot increase revenues is to cut his expenditure. Instead of doing a plan to lift 100 million people out of poverty by 2030 and still be left with a surplus 200 million people by 2050, isn’t it better to ensure that we disappoint the World Bank and not reach that number by 2050? I know some people who still argue that population is an asset, but not when you will have millions illiterate, in poor health and in abject poverty.

One of the biggest problems we have in Nigeria is lack of continuity. Every new government spends half of its tenure heaping blames on the previous one. Vice President Atiku Abubakar, for example, spent the better part of 1999-2003 blaming the military for every societal woe. President Obasanjo himself constantly said in his media chats how many Nigeria Airways planes and Nigeria National Shipping Line ships he left behind in 1979 and the very few that he found when he returned in 1999. By the time he left again in 2007 they were down to zero. The Buhari administration also spent the better part of the last five years blaming PDP for “the rot.”

To get an idea of how serious this problem could get, I recall a story that a state governor once told us in 2004. Elders from an area that gave him a lot of votes came and demanded that he complete a hospital in their town that his predecessor started. His answer was, “Alright, since it is a hospital you want, I will give you a hospital but I will not complete that one, because forever people will say it was my predecessor that built it. So you should show me another space somewhere and I will build a hospital for you within six months.”

President Buhari awakened to this national malaise because he charged this new committee to “recommend measures to ensure continuous implementation of the Plans even after expiration of the tenure of successive administrations.” This is a tough nut to crack, honestly. He suggested that this could be done through legislation. In so far as too many Nigerians regard law as a mere inconvenience to be circumvented, I don’t think so.

How then do we get around this problem of discontinuity? President Buhari mentioned China, which he said lifted 700 million people out of poverty in four decades and had a positive economic growth rate from 1992 until the pandemic halted it this year. I am glad he mentioned this example because to be able to replicate it, we need to identify some of the elements that made China to succeed in such a spectacular manner.

To begin with, we need not 100 years of Amalgamation but a 3,000 history of civilization, including inventing writing, forming huge empires, building the only man-made structure visible from outer space, having a Confucian-style unifying national philosophy, introducing Europeans to tea drinking and adroitly repelling all foreign invaders.

That is for a start. More modestly, we need a visionary national leader like Deng Xiao-ping. Though nearly a dwarf, he propounded what turned out to be the tallest ambition in modern human history. Deng’s plan was not conceived by a committee, as far as I remember. It was very short, called The Four Modernisations. He identified four areas, namely agriculture, industry, defence, and science and technology and set out to modernize them. They impacted on all other areas and within a decade, China’s economy was galloping along in double digits.

Deng’s plan, however visionary, would never have succeeded without the Communist Party of China. CPC has its tentacles in every nook and cranny, highly organized, superbly motivated, ably led and all its cadres imbued with missionary zeal. Compare CPC to APC or PDP. There is also the stability factor. Nine years ago when President Jonathan publicly marveled that Saudi Arabia had one Oil Minister for 25 years, the media here ridiculed him and said he wanted to elongate his tenure. If only PDP or APC has shown the capacity, focus and selflessness of CPC, personally I would have pleaded with Nigerians to allow it to rule for 60 years and deliver this plan. Afterwards you can have democracy if you like.

Monday Column, September 14, 2020.

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