Nigeria and the resource curse debate

| February 27, 2013 | 0 Comments

Uche Igwe

The natural resource curse and how it manifests in many resource-rich but poor countries has gained prominence in the conversations around the political economy of developing countries lately. Many scholars have documented the relationship between abundant mineral resources and a series of negative socio-economic and political outcomes. The manifestations include poor economic performance, distorted growth, weak institution, grand corruption and what many refer to as “democratic authoritarianism”. Suggested solutions emphasise sound macroeconomic policies, economic diversification, establishment of natural resource trust funds, transparency and accountability among others. Other scholars debate the reality of such a curse and hypothesise that it is not resource itself that is cursed but its management by greedy and corrupt leaders who, rather than consider future generations, concentrate on stashing their pockets and private bank accounts.

The second edition of the Prof. Claude Ake Memorial Lecture, held last week in Port Harcourt, incidentally became another arena for interrogating these issues in a manner that fascinated me in several ways. The atmosphere was serene and solemn. The audience was a bit of a mixed bag of diversity – there were activists, politicians, academics, community leaders, women leaders, students, etc.  The discussions were candid, sometimes combative, a bit surprising and generally entertaining. The counsel that Ake offered to African leaders many years reverberated in all the corners of the auditorium. Ake’s spirit reincarnated and hovered across the hall.  Memories of our sordid past resulted to disgust in the face of everyone. As I sat wrapped in astonishment, I took a deep breath and thought about our history. How did we get here? I reflected on how our leaders went on recklessly until they plunged us into this existential ditch. I remember that there was one of them who acquired notoriety for saying that money is not our problem but how to spend it.  As an ardent and probably addicted devotee of Prof. Ake, I wondered how he will be feeling now, watching the country he loved from the world beyond. I momentarily wished we could go back to the 1980’s and consider his guidance proactively. I thought about the visionless profligacy of Nigerian leaders since independence. In the midst of these and more, someone tapped me by my shoulders. Gosshhh….! I was sleeping!

The guest speaker, Dr. Ibn Chambas, outgoing Secretary General, African, Caribbean and Pacific Commission, set the tone by dissecting the topic exhaustively. He brilliantly highlighted familiar problems of institutional weakness; the Dutch Disease Syndrome, exchange rate volatility and state failure — yes state failure. It is no longer hearsay that Nigerian public institutions can no longer deliver public goods such as law and order, security, economic infrastructure and basic welfare to the citizens. The citizens are impoverished, nihilistic violence is multiplying, and political extremism is assuming destructive ethno-religious dimensions. He observed that Nigeria’s national priorities are misplaced, and her bureaucracy bloated in a pervasive culture of consumerism. An interesting aspect of the lecture was the comparison between Nigeria and Indonesia as documented by a Washington DC-based scholar, Dr. Peter M. Lewis. These two countries are both resource rich countries that underwent a similar historical trajectory of poverty, political instability and military authoritarianism. However, why Indonesia utilised its resources to develop itself, Nigeria’s petrodollars were frittered away by generations of thieving leaders and accomplices in the public service. The account has it that both Indonesian and Nigerian elites were very corrupt but while the Indonesians invested in their country and created jobs, their Nigerian counterparts frittered public resources and ferried them clandestinely to Dubai, London, Pretoria, Geneva, and Cayman Islands. So what do we do? The guest lecturer opined that Nigeria should enthrone meritocratic civil service, shun divisive politics, corruption, and embrace a fair and effective taxation and enthrone a developmental state.

The well-researched speech drew a multitude of reactions. First, from the Chairman of the occasion and former Nigerian ambassador to the United States, Prof. George Obiozor — himself an alumnus of Columbia University like Ake.  Ifueko Omogui Okauru, former Chairperson of Federal Inland Revenue Service; Dr. Ukoha Ukaiwo of the University of Port Harcourt; and Nkoyo Toyo of the House of Representatives. Mrs. Okauru drew the attentive audience to the interesting linkage between taxation, service delivery, democratic legitimacy and good governance – when citizens pay tax, they have a right to hold their leaders to account but when they do not, and their leaders can take them for granted. She reprimanded Nigerian citizens for not being responsive to bad policies in order to keep policymakers on check. Another discussant, Dr. Ukiwo, situated the problem of resource curse around distributional politics. He criticised the high premium political office holders placed on alternative structure where political offices will be less attractive so that it can draw in only those who are interested in service. Ms. Toyo, criticised the democratisation of disempowerment through the marginalisation of women, and recommended an inclusive approach to politics as well as a deliberate mainstreaming to the concerns of the womenfolk.

An important aspect of the resource curse debate was however missing during the conversation. No one brought up the issue of the environmental damage that is caused by the process of extraction of natural resources. The pollution of both the soil and the aquatic ecosystem in the Niger Delta means that the livelihood streams of the population are distorted as they can no longer practise their traditional occupation of fishing and farming. Combating the resource curse will mean a comprehensive clean-up and restoration of the environment.

One of the most controversial interventions came from the chief host, Governor Chibuike Amaechi. A self-confessed social democrat, Amaechi lamented the fate of a country where the minority political elite at the top (including himself), does well and gets everything it needs — police protection including private security, private water supply, private schools and private hospitals while an overwhelming majority struggles to get by.  No wonder the Nigerian political elite has developed a laisser-faire attitude to the fate of the masses. As I prepared to leave Igweocha (the original name of Port Harcourt), I could only thank those who put the lecture together. I commend the Governor for agreeing to revive Ake’s Centre for Advanced Social Sciences and support his immediate family. Ake was a devoted teacher and organic intellectual, who took to the trenches to fight for social justice and against the impoverishment of the people. But these questions continue to bother my mind: Which curse are we talking about and who actually is cursed? The natural resources underneath? The multinational companies who are exploiting them on our behalf? The politicians who are distributing them unjustly to their cronies and friends, or the communities who are agonising daily from the unpatriotic impact of the trio? Your guess is as good as mine!


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