The elusive search for unity is one of the key issues currently engaging the minds of the stakeholders in Nigeria. In this interview, Prof Segun Ajibola examines the socio-economic dynamics that make attainment of national cohesion almost an impossible task.
What is your assessment of the state of the nation as at today?
Nigeria has gone a long way. If you look at where we were 60 years ago compared to where we are today, you will see that we have made a lot of progress in so many facets of our national life. If you look at political and socio-economic aspects of our national life, we can identify lots of changes, lots of progress. If you look at agricultural development, our educational system, our technology as well as the growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and other indices of measuring economic progress, I think we have made a lot of changes. However, if we compare all these with our peer groups, countries that we attained independence about the same time – Ghana, India, Bahama, Malaysia and the far East countries, I think our performance cannot be adjudged to be the best. They have all gone far ahead of us. So, we can say comparatively, we cannot rate ourselves as excellent. If you also look at the welfare condition of Nigerians, it is another aspect we cannot rate ourselves as having done quite well. We have not been able to translate the abundance of resources that we have into improvement in the welfare standard of Nigerians in the last 60 years. Politically, even though we can always talk about the military interjection into our political structure, but then, we are still struggling to put the best democratic structure in place. All the same, we can also say we have made some improvement politically compared to where we were in the First Republic. If we look at other challenges of our nation in terms of religious matter, cultural matter, ethnicity and so on, these are also issues that we are still struggling with, while so many other countries of the world have been able to put most of these behind them and forged a national unity. Again, there is also the problem of over reliance on the rest of the world for basic necessities of life – food, medical facility, industrial materials and spare parts. We can, therefore, say that as a country, we still suffer traces of colonialism and imperialism. We have not done well in diversifying our economy. Agriculture used to be the mainstay of the economy shortly before and even immediately after independence. Agriculture has lost its pride of place in our national life because of our reliance on monolithic product, which is oil. We have not been able to apply the proceeds of oil revenue to better the lots of majority of Nigerians. We still rely on refined product more than 50 years after the discovery of oil in commercial quantity. That is also an area we have not fared well.
Nigeria is now world poverty capital. How did things get to this sorry plight?
We have a very large population and abundance of resources we have not been able to harness to translate into improvement in economic welfare for the majority of Nigerians. We also have lopsided income distribution where we have the super rich and the poor majority. We still have 90 per cent of our resources in the hands of less than 10 per cent of the population. That is why the majority still suffers lack of basic necessities of life like food, clothing and shelter. That is why we are saying that about 60 per cent of the population is living below the poverty line. Because of the way we harness and distribute the national resources, we have not been able to device a formula that will get the best for everybody in and around the country.
Is there a way the middle class can be recreated?
The definition of what constitutes middle class is a bit confusing. Middle class represents those who are sufficiently comfortable to meet their basic necessities of life. That used to be the definition of middle class. But because of the high cost of living occasioned by inflation, unemployment, lack of access to basic necessities, it is like there is a very negligible percentage of the population that can boast of these things, which is why the middle class is no longer there. I think the most important thing is making job opportunities available as well as development of spirit of entrepreneurship through micro and medium enterprises so that people on their own can cater for themselves without relying on palliatives. Then, we can have the middle class back.
It appears Nigeria is increasingly becoming more and more divided by the day with the renewed separatist agitations. Why the sudden resurgence of agitation for self-determination?
Let’s be honest with ourselves, agitation has been as old as Nigeria. It was through political agitation that Mid-west region was created from the old Western region. There was agitation in the Middle Belt; there was agitation in the South-south by the Ijaw. I still remember Major Adaka Boro agitating for the Ijaw in the 60s. So, it’s long we’ve been having agitations. As at today, there is increased pressure occasioned by so many other issues like insecurity and resource allocation. In those days, each region had its own strength through which it used to survive. There was Cocoa in the West, groundnut and cotton in the North, palm produce in the East. But now, oil has become the major source of revenue for everybody, including local government because there is always this belief that the closer you are to the government, the more opportunities you have to access resources. So, where we don’t see agitation for nationalities, we see agitation for creation of states. That is why the pressure is coming from all these ethnic militia or nationalities. Again, within the political class, there is a problem of mutual suspicion.
Do you think that the agitation for Oduduwa Republic by some groups is in line with the position of the Yoruba elders?
That is a political question that I may not be able to answer because I am not one of them. So, I don’t know their mindset. I don’t know what is in the mind of the Yoruba elders. Like I said, agitation has been as old as man. Even if you have Oduduwa Republic, Arewa Republic or Middle Belt Republic today, there will still be agitation within the agitation. If you have Oduduwa Republic, will there be no agitation or superiority between Ijebu and the Egba, Ekiti and Ondo, Oyo and Ife and so on? Agitation is as old as man. When you leave one level, you move to the next level. If you have Oduduwa Republic today, you will have 30 requests for independent states within that region. If the Arewa becomes a Republic, you will have 60 requests for creation of states within that region. So, it is an unending argument. The most important thing is to have a nation where everybody has equal opportunities for survival. What is causing all these is because people want a share of the national cake. The agitation that has been there prior to independence is still what we are seeing today.
Now that Nigeria is gradually coming out of COVID-19 pandemic, what is your outlook of the economy in the months ahead?
It is a good development. But you know the economy has been on the lowest ebb for some months now which caused negative growth rate in the second quarter of the year. This means we need to do a lot of things to fix the various sectors of the economy. And I think the Federal Government, agencies and Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) are rolling out palliative measures as incentive to encourage the various sectors of the economy to recreate wealth and employment opportunities so that we can reverse the negative trend that we are seeing today. But with the projections by international organizations like the World Bank and IMF, Nigeria may not completely get out of the woods in this year 2020. But the time to re-fix the economy is now.
What then will be the likely effect of the deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum industry and the simultaneous increase in electricity tariff on the emerging economy?
All these will cause what we term in economics as push inflation because cost of doing business, cost of living by household and other segments of the economy will go up. That is going to have implication on the economic wellbeing of the people. However, if there is total and transparent deregulation, for the time being, the pains will be there initially. At the end of it all, the market will be better for it, every Nigerian will turn out to be the beneficiary. To achieve total deregulation, NNPC as an organ of government must take its hands off the importation of petroleum products. If government cannot maintain the refineries, let them concession them out to those who sincerely have the capacity to maintain them. As for the increase in tariff, I am not sure the concept of DISCO will solve the problem in that sector. I think government should reconsider the template and take another look at the agreement reached with the DISCOs. It is like there are gaps somewhere.