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Economic Recovery Programme: Imperative of a Real Debate

We are all aware of President Buhari’s three point agenda and we have seen the policy framework developed by his campaign team. It’s clear that the framework needs to be re-aligned to the vision of the president but we are yet to see a team that will engage us on the details. Finally, it would be useful for government to return to the formal policy development process that used to guide how government works on reform.

I am very concerned that there is no real debate on our economic reform agenda at this conjuncture when even non-economists like myself are very aware that we are in a real economic crisis following the collapse of petroleum prices and the payments crisis facing the nation. Of course there has been a shouting match between two camps – WE MUST DEVALUE versus WE MUST NOT DEVALUE. As the value of the naira relative to the dollar continues its steady and fast slide, the strident debate has become louder and defenders of each side are becoming more upset and angry with the other side. We all know why the naira is in crisis and it’s fairly clear that there is no easy solve-all solution. The problem with the shouting match is that its not clear what the broader economic recovery strategy is that underlines the approach of government so that we as citizens can critically engage the process evaluating, accepting, rejecting and above all trying to suggest improvements to the strategy. My reflections today consists of nostalgia about the last Obasanjo Administration when we knew the strategy and could engage and fight against it.

In 2003, President Olusegun Obasanjo established an economic reform group that became known as the “Dream Team”, composed of a crop of technocrats who had proved their mettle professionally. The team was led by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Minister for Finance recruited from the World Bank, the institution so many of us love to hate. Professor Charles Soludo, Governor of the Central Bank and Professor Ode Ojowu, Chief Economic Adviser to the President. Other members were Nasir El Rufai, Minister of the Federal Capital Territory and Oby Ezekwesili, Head of the Due Process Office in the Presidency. This core team was complemented by other academics and technocrats such as Professor Julius Ihonvbere in charge of the policy monitoring team in the Presidency, C. Chikwelu, the Minister of Information, Bode Augusto, the Director-General of the Budget Office, Ad Obe who led on returning the public service to service provisioning, Dr. Goke Adegoroye leading on the Bureau for Public Service Reform and Dr. Mansur Mukhtar handling the Debt Management Office. We knew who was doing what.

I am very concerned that there is no real debate on our economic reform agenda at this conjuncture when even non-economists like myself are very aware that we are in a real economic crisis following the collapse of petroleum prices and the payments crisis facing the nation.

The team drew up an economic reform agenda – the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS) and engaged civil society and the wider public on it. They were constantly in the media arguing that they had a comprehensive economic reform programme aimed at laying the foundations for economic growth and employment creation based on four basic elements. They were a reinvigorated effort in combating corruption and promoting transparency and accountability; promoting macro-economic stability through the acceleration of privatisation and liberalisation of the economy; public service reform, including reform of public expenditure, budgeting and the civil service; and strengthening basic service delivery through improved governance and institutional strengthening.

Some of us did not like the package and fought it. We argued that the anti-corruption element was a lie. We pushed the case that the liberalisation programme was a disguised form of the promotion of crony capitalism in which those in power were personalising public assets. We contested the plan to make massive cuts in public service employment and attacked it as cruel and unworkable. The dream team members were believers in their strategy and they regularly took up their critics and there was a healthy debate on the strategy for economic development.

To tell a government that its plan is crazy, you have to know the plan first. President Buhari has to establish a coherent economic team and they need to tell Nigerians their plan.

Of course part of the task of the “dream team” was to address the situation created by President Obasanjo himself. It would be recalled that on May 1st 2000, he had been inspired by Adams Oshiomole, the then President of the Nigerian Labour Congress to increase the national minimum wage to N7,500 thereby offering a general pay rise of 250 percent – 350 percent to public servants without examining the capacity to pay. For one year, the country erupted into agitations and strikes for Obasanjo’s promises to be implemented in a context in which the capacity to pay was limited. Obasanjo finally paid up and the result was that 70 percent of federal government spending was used on running the federal bureaucracy. As the “dream team” argued, however, notwithstanding this pay rise, remunerations in the civil service remained grossly inadequate and morale was very low. Virtually all-public institutions were under-resourced and under-skilled. They argued that there was a clear lack of capacity to capitalise on technological changes and to modernise the public service. The proposal from the “dream team” was to “right size” the federal bureaucracy by sacking 160,000 people, about 40 percent of the workforce. Of course it was impossible to sack 40 percent of the workforce and everyone did tell them they were crazy. To tell a government that its plan is crazy, you have to know the plan first. President Buhari has to establish a coherent economic team and they need to tell Nigerians their plan. In 2007, a major review of NEEDS that took on board a lot of the criticisms made was carried out and President Obasanjo handed it over to President Yar’Adua with instructions to implement. But then power had changed hands and the new administration decided to formulate a new plan based on a Seven-Point agenda.

We are all aware of President Buhari’s three point agenda and we have seen the policy framework developed by his campaign team. It’s clear that the framework needs to be re-aligned to the vision of the president but we are yet to see a team that will engage us on the details. Finally, it would be useful for government to return to the formal policy development process that used to guide how government works on reform.

President Buhari, please tell us your plan.

It used to start with a green paper – a process of extensive consultations between government ministries, departments and agencies to elaborate a new policy direction in relation to analysis of the inadequacies of existing policy and the resources available – this process leads to the publication of a Green Paper. The Green Paper is then widely distributed to stakeholders including the media, universities and research centres and all interested parties for comments, criticisms and inputs on the suggested policy direction. Thirdly, the Government will then issue a white paper in which it revisits the Green Paper following the stakeholder inputs and then adopts a revised policy direction, which it then issues as a White Paper. Finally, if the new policy direction requires legal backing, it is translated into an executive bill, which is sent to the National Assembly to be made an Act of Parliament. President Buhari, please tell us your plan.


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Jibrin Ibrahim

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