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Learning from Philip Asiodu: the Importance of Implementing Plans

Philip Asiodu reminds us that the Yakubu Gowon Administration had developed the 1975 to 1980 development plan precisely to diversify the economy. The analysis then was that oil is a wasting asset and that we must use the windfall to diversify the Nigerian economy so that when the inevitable happens, when oil would dry up, we could still have a buoyant economy.

The Daily Trust of October 30 had a long interview with the famous Philip Asiodu, one of the members of the small and closely-knit group of “super perm secs (permanent secretaries)” who were the bureaucratic and thinking pillar that advised the government and guided governance during the Gowon regime, and subsequently. He raised numerous issues that are germane to the current problems of governance and today I will address issues he raised about planning and diversification of the economy. Currently, the Buhari Administration has been repeating with insistence that after their review of the state of the economy, they have discovered that diversification is the way forward. The fact of the matter is that we have been saying exactly the same thing for fifty years – that we must diversify the economy, but we are simply not doing it.

Philip Asiodu reminds us that the Yakubu Gowon Administration had developed the 1975 to 1980 development plan precisely to diversify the economy. The analysis then was that oil is a wasting asset and that we must use the windfall to diversify the Nigerian economy so that when the inevitable happens, when oil would dry up, we could still have a buoyant economy. It is worth recalling, he tells us, that both Generals Murtala Muhammed and Olusegun Obasanjo were members of the Gowon cabinet, which approved the plan and were therefore well placed to have superintended the implementation process but it simply did not happen. He also reminds us that then, just like now, the key priority of the plan was agricultural modernisation and the development of agro-allied industries. The plan had detailed projects selected in all states of the federation that were to be developed. These included the Bacita Sugar Company and pulp and paper mills to place us on the path to self-sufficiency.

The second priority was developing the oil and gas value chain. Partners were already sourced to build refineries so that Nigeria would be a major exporter of petroleum products. The idea was to build on the decision of the Balewa Administration to make Nigeria self-sufficient on petroleum products for which the Port Harcourt refinery had been built and commissioned before the 1966 coup. The Balewa Administration had provided for rail transport for petroleum products and 24 depots had been provided all over the country to ensure that there was no shortage of the products. The Gowon Administration then decided to modernise the distribution system by building product pipelines. Asiodu then expressed his disgust at the ridiculous situation today where our crude oil is taken to Ghana or Abidjan to be refined and is brought back to the country as imported petroleum products because of the regime of corruption and insensate greed reigning in the country.

The impact of our decision to abandon planning remains visible with the way the Buhari Administration operates today. This week, the Senate was unable to debate the request for a $29.960 billion external loan to execute key infrastructural projects across the country for the next three years. The key problem appeared to be that they do not have a detailed plan for what they want to do.

The Minister of Petroleum, Ibe Kachikwu’s ‘new’ plan for the development of the oil and gas industry was already in the 1975 to 1980 development plan and it is interesting to see how it was launched this week as brilliant new ideas. Precisely because we have closed our eyes to our history, every repetition of what previous governments had proposed becomes brilliant new ideas. Ministers surround themselves with consultants who simply reprint old plans and present them as new, and since no one checks, we get impressed. Meanwhile, the essential things that need to be done are left unattended to. When Kachikwu was appointed to the NNPC, he promised Nigerians that the key challenge is getting a good petroleum industry bill passed and promised to have one ready within three months. He has completely forgotten his promise and no one is reminding him. It was in the context of this absence of a Government Bill that Senator Donald Alasoadura proposed the private members bill – “A bill for an act to Provide for the Governance and Institutional Framework for the Petroleum Industry”. President Buhari had been minister of petroleum and Head of State long ago and has said repeatedly that he is aware of the importance of healthy regulation of the oil industry. How can we explain the absence of a solid PIB 18 months after the elections?

Asiodu reminds us that the Tafawa Balewa government was influenced by the Indians to adopt their planning approach. Implementation of our own plan from the beginning would have curbed this debilitating corruption. If there is a twenty-year plan with clear deliverables for each tranche coinciding with an administration, the country could have remained focused on a programme that is meant to be implemented. The practice of each administration spending one or two years looking for what to do is completely unacceptable in modern governance. We must get back to that he advises.

If today we are still proposing to do what we had already outlined to do forty years ago and didn’t do, it’s simply because of “our absolute refusal to pursue goals.” Nigeria’s leadership, Asiodu explains, “rejected the discipline of planning”. Of course what happened was that with the explosion of the culture of corruption, following the plan became a fetter to stealing. It was simply more effective for stealing for each new regime to give out new contracts for new projects rather than keep to the discipline of completing what had been started. As plans and policies were no longer being followed, it meant that we no longer needed a competent technocracy to run the public service. In a sense, our leaders focused in identifying and training a new breed of public servants with skills in fiddling to steal. The next step is to stop the teaching of history so that new generations would not even get to know what happened in the past so that their only perspective would be the contemporary reality of mega looting.

In a serious country, no one would dream of asking for such an approval without doing the necessary work. In any case, our laws do not allow for anticipatory legislative approval so it is really incredible that the request would have been made before thinking about the implications.

The impact of our decision to abandon planning remains visible with the way the Buhari Administration operates today. This week, the Senate was unable to debate the request for a $29.960 billion external loan to execute key infrastructural projects across the country for the next three years. The key problem appeared to be that they do not have a detailed plan for what they want to do. As this would be the biggest loan in Nigeria’s history, everyone would assume they know what they want to do with the money. It appears however that they want the approval, which they will then use to shop for the money and think about the projects later. In a serious country, no one would dream of asking for such an approval without doing the necessary work. In any case, our laws do not allow for anticipatory legislative approval so it is really incredible that the request would have been made before thinking about the implications. Clearly, we do not have technocrats in the public service today that can tell their political bosses what they could or could not do as the “super perm secs” used to.

In 2005, the Nigerian government had opted to exit the debt trap by paying off $12 billion so that $18 billion in dept could be wiped out. The promise of government at that time was that we no longer want to burden the next generation with crippling debts. As at June this year, Nigeria’s debt profile was N16.29 trillion, representing $61.7 billion at N283/$1 exchange rate, according to the Debt Management Office. The allocation for debt servicing in the 2016 budget is N1.48 trillion, far higher than the country’s N221.7 billion budget for health and the N369.6 billion for education. How can we even consider taking such a huge loan without considerations of capacity to pay and impact on future generations? Currently, two thirds of the states in the country cannot pay salaries regularly because they have taken external loans that have made them insolvent. No one seems to know the conditions under which these new loans are to be taken so there have been no discussions on the implications. Thanks Mr. Asiodu for reminding us about some essentials.


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