A New Year, A New Beginning?



Uba Group

It’s a new year, a new beginning. Or it could simply be a continuation of the old. Much depends on us. Of his 2016 budget proposal, President Buhari said, “I know many people will say “I have heard this before”. Indeed, trust in government, due to the abuse and negligence of the past, is at an alltime low. This means we must go back to basics. Our actions will speak for us.” He was speaking of the government, but the actions of the Nigerian people will speak as well. Are Nigerians ready to begin pursuing a development agenda in 2016?

The road to economic development is rarely straight and smooth. Even for Great Britain, which had the advantage of being the first country in the world to break out of the then near-ubiquitous peasant agrarian economy and industrialize, it was always a delicate balancing act. The economic policies the government adopted forced a significant proportion of their population off the rural lands they had lived off and on for generations, and there were not always enough factory jobs in the towns and cities to absorb the newly unemployed. It was England’s good fortune that it also held colonies, which gave it resources it could draw on for managing such development-related problems.

As Cecil Rhodes famously declared, “We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap labour that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories.” And of course, colonies were also places to settle a significant proportion of the population.

The development course is the harder road. It is little wonder that the few other countries that have been able to develop without having colonies of their own were also places whose states had capacity and legitimacy usually resulting from the demands of waging war; and whose people, often faced with an existential threat forged a sense of unity of purpose with the government, the will to face together whatever may come. Countries like Germany and Japan that rebuilt their industrial base after World War II, or South Korea after the Korean War, and China after the war of liberation, and Singapore, which was kicked out of Malaysia, fit that mould.

Rwanda and Ethiopia, two countries in Africa which are not only among its fastest growing but also among its fastest performing on the U.N. human development ranking, also follow this pattern. Nigeria has not fared well in its pursuit of development. In a manner of speaking, petroleum served the same function in Nigeria that control of a colony served colonialists as it provided significant resources not tied to the local economy. However, just as having a colony in itself is no guarantee that the colonial state would successfully use the resources accruing therefrom to make the transition from a lower productivity economic system to a higher one, the potentially negative effect of oil is well documented.

Called the Dutch Disease on account of the experience of the Netherlands, oil is often a curse for the countries that have it, with much depending on the strength of the state ab initio. In Nigeria, oil windfalls have largely been squandered. Bringing us to end of 2015, with a country that ranks 152nd of the 188 countries in the UN Human Development Report, where corruption has eaten into every facet of society including the defence of the country, going by recent revelations of how the money earmarked for the nation’s fight against Boko Haram was disbursed. It’s hard to tell if we are finally ready to try something new.

The state, under the new administration may be keen to usher in change but are the people, too? The aggressive anti-government attitudes I read on some of social media sites that I am part of suggest that there are those who are not. Of course, some dissent is to be expected. The President’s comment quoted above suggests as much. One only hopes that dissent is informed by a desire to ensure that Nigeria gets it right this time and not because the person leading the charge is not ‘our person,’ a losing proposition given that no-one can be from every part of the country.

A big highlight of 2015 for me was the opportunity to visit Rwanda for the first time in December. The trip wasn’t long, less than three days in all, and it was confined to Kigali, the country’s capital, so I am far from an expert on the small central African country. However, just from listening to the taxi drivers, to government officials who represented the three ethnic groups of the country (the Hutu, Tutsi and the pygmies, called Twa), and from walking through the market and looking around, I had a sense of déjà vu.

Kigali, Rwanda reminded me so much of Beijing, China, where I moved to in 2006 with my husband and baby. As in China, the Rwandese spoke of a country transformed in a matter of two decades. Unemployment was low, the country and leadership were indisputably on the move.

If Rwanda, small as it is, needed to come together to make the remarkable journey it is making now, imagine how imperative is the requirement of unity for Nigeria. If our actions must speak for us, let them say we have learned the limits of striking out on our own, and that we have gained the maturity to forge a way forward as one.