Beyond ‘Bread-and-Butter’ Governance

By Bolaji Ogunseye

Despite this article’s title asking Nigeria to move beyond bread-and-butter governance, I paradoxically start with precisely those bread-and-butter issues!! This is because they need to be cleared out of the way very fast, to enable the country’s leadership, including all other critical stakeholders (private business, academia, research, banking sector, etc) begin the earnest task of looking at tomorrow’s global challenges as they will unavoidably affect us as an economic system and as a society. We also must favourably position our country for the on-coming ‘techno-production-economic’ revolution.

lt really should sadden us that in 2015 (almost six decades into independence), our key administrative and governance issues remain mundane matters like how our children can pass WAEC/WASC in adequate numbers, JAMB entry conditions, persistent residential and public-road flooding (despite having no monsoon-rain disasters!, paying civil servants’ and teachers’ salaries, primary health care delivery, reliable electricity supply (electricity has been around internationally for over a century; we still can’t master it!, safe water and sanitation, good teachers, research funding, transforming our banking sector from a ‘commercial’ operation (focused mainly on currency and general trading) to a developmental sector. We struggle daily with a terribly-corrupt and inefficient transaction interface between citizens and business entities, on the one hand, and government departments on the other. Clearing drainage, filling pot holes, repairing constantly broken (usually poorly-built) roads, and similar mundane endeavours still remain the big-ticket items of Nigerian governance. Even paying pensions! That really beats me. Why can’t our Governors pay pensions as and when due? Are pensions no longer pre-planned re-payments to ex-civil servants who have saved for the rainy day through their employers over two to three decades? Why should governors link pension re-payments to monthly Federal allocations? I’m probably missing something.

Yet, this is a country endowed with a jaw-dropping array of natural and circumstantial resources. We are even spared, by the way, the countless natural disasters that afflict many advanced and developing countries across the globe. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to avoid the regretful sentiment that but for the ‘un-natural disaster’ called ‘Nigerian leaders’ (most of them), this country should have been Africa’s model of governance and economic-development excellence. And please, no self-paralyzing excuses – slave trade, colonialism, neo-colonialism, cultural brain-washing, imperialism, even the ‘Washington Consensus’, etc. We always could have chosen a better game viz-a-viz some of those historical disadvantages – especially neo-colonialism, cultural brain-washing, Washington consensus, etc. We just made the wrong choices, resulting from decades of bad leadership, inefficient macro-policy priorities, import-dependent and de-industrializing policies, poor project implementation and generally corrupt governance. I’ll keep going back, for example, to the criminal over-inflation of road construction costs by governments across the board in Nigerians. As I have asked on many media platforms: why is a ‘green-field’, 1,080 km (one thousand and eighty-kilometre) road construction across five (5) ECOWAS countries – Abidjan to Lagos, costing roughly the same – about N180 billion naira – as the 185-kilometre project to expand and repair our own Lagos-lbadan expressway? Our usually poor-quality roads typically cost four to five times more per kilometer than internationally-defined cost benchmarks (e.g. the World Bank). To really save money, this President should address that issue once and for all.

Whatever the political pressure, he must keep his promise to fight widespread endemic corruption in government. Nigeria’s ‘mind-boggling’ scale of corruption breeds mass poverty among individuals, which results in the developmental poverty of our economy. While many believe that the President and his Deputy are sincere in slashing their own salaries, for example, there are certainly other top office holders out there who may hope to send Nigerians to sleep with the now highly-publicized drama of voluntary salary cuts. They may wish to divert our attention, so that they can continue corrupt self-enrichment through the outrageous over-pricing of services and infrastructure projects. It’s said that many top office holders don’t even care an inch about their monthly salaries, because that’s not the Real Thing Coke! As long as these basic issues of policy and administrative efficiency, which should long ago have been mastered and routinized in governance culture, remain the ‘big-ticket items pre-occupying our public leaders, so long shall we be missing out on the quality time needed for more strategic forward-thinking around the over-arching challenges of our country’s future. Although they should remain important, we cannot, as a society, allow bread-and-butter governance issues to blind us to the tsunami of technological, engineering and economic revolution that is just under two (2) decades away. We need time to prepare for tomorrow’s grand global challenges, and figure the insights, organizing principles, appropriate policies and actions needed in response.

Nigeria should consciously create strategies and opportunities for empowering her children and youth (by the millions) to become an active resource and viable participants in the fast-approaching, global techno-economic revolution. One big question, for instance, is how do we organize our educational and technical-skill acquisition system for maximum competitive advantage in view of an increasingly aggressive international trade and investment competition driven by the ‘knowledge economy’? This new, strategic techno-economic competition will sort countries into winners and losers by their technical effectiveness and capacity in producing and trading internationally. We need to start very soon to explore the possible short-cut (fair and foul) routes to industrialization. This is crucial to buy us some leeway viz-a-viz forces like the ‘Washington Consensus’, which, truth be told, will continue to be a global ideological mechanism (especially through the World Trade Organization – WTO Rules) for keeping technologically backward and pre-industrial countries in a perpetual mode of import-dependency. We should also ponder: what knowledge ‘means and methods’ should we quickly identify and deploy, so that Nigeria can specialize in the most advantageous products, services and skills-sets that will form the pillars of competitive advantage in the future knowledge society? This particular issue has incredibly huge strategic implications, because many currently viable products, production processes, services and skills are destined to become economic and technological dead-t!Mu\t*spi!!tidlly when the robotics revolution fully arrives. How should we rapidly diversify and industrialize our economy, so that we are prepared for at least the broadly predictable consequences of the robotics revolution, which promises to be the most drastic economic game-changer among many science-and-technology revolutions around the corner? Any country will pay a heavy price if they continue to specialize in mass poverty by exporting products with adjectives like ‘raw’, ‘primary’, and ‘crude’ etc, in a world where the strategies, tactics and aggression of international trade will favour mainly the countries that specialize in goods and services of ‘increasing returns’. As 99% of Nigeria’s current exports are goods of ‘diminishing returns’, which, structurally speaking, guarantee continued national poverty, the dynamics of global export-import-pricing (including factor-price equalization challenges) will spell clear economic-survival danger for an economy like ours when robotics technologies are fully and widely deployed in manufacturing from about year 2030; Same for services.

This is why, as a matter of the utmost national urgency, we must formulate clear ORGANIZING PRINCIPLES, to enable us act quickly to master and routinize those bread-and-butter administrative issues that continue needlessly to torment our country. Expending most governance time and effort on these mundane issues would make us miss the train to the knowledge-society. Some development analysts and authors have described the near future as the age of ‘Globality’, one in which ‘everyone (companies, countries) will compete with everybody, for everything, everywhere’. The ubiquitous deployment of robotics will dramatically re-define the economics and logic of production. Over the last century, technology gradually and pragmatically altered the relationship among the three famous ‘factors of production’ (land, labour and capital). But now, artificial intelligence (especially robotics) is poised to dramatically alter nearly everything we know about the economics of production, including unit costs of goods, products and services. Countries not industrialized, or without local capacity to compete globally, or to position themselves strategically as hi-tech ‘skills hubs’, will be doomed into the sorry league of ‘Permanent Importers of Nearly Everything’ (PINE). Such countries would be slavishly dependent (more than now) on the economies and societies that participate effectively in the knowledge society. We can’t wish it away. We can’t delay its coming.

But we can start in earnest to get ready. If, say, in about three years, and given sincere determination, we are largely done with the most disruptive bread-and-butter governance matters (e.g. power, education, technical skills development, public-regulations and  transaction management, developing the BoP economy, thereby reducing the burden of mass-poverty on national development, etc), we can/should start deploying the needed resources, analytical expertise, cutting-edge research, and, where useful, major pilot programmes, to put in place appropriate ‘transition mechanisms’ ahead of the inevitable knowledge revolution. By 2030 (some predict earlier), when robotics technologies are in the factories, shop floors, services provision, in packaging, medical-care services, hospitality business, etc, we should be prepared. Soul-less, super-intelligent and almost error-free, robots will beat billions of humans out of their day jobs, and render many currently valuable skills and production processes obsolete. Robots will work, work and work. No human error, no late-coming, no going to toilet, no lunch breaks, no maternity leave, no children, no salaries, no training courses, no sickness, no promotion, or rivalry for promotion, no unions -just work 24/71! Unit costs and prices of products, goods and services will plummet to yet un-imaginable levels, making it economically un-viable to produce most goods and services in (PINE) countries that have no competitive robotics capacity at the cutting-edge of technology and engineering. This will likely be the general rule. Of course, some truly local, low-end, consumption goods, products and services, which may be subject to what development economists call ‘Geographical Resistance’, will survive for some time. Yet, even ‘geographical-resistance’ opportunities may not be that many, or endure forever, as humankind literally moves into a new ‘mode of production’. No place to hide in the world of 2030 if you are a PINE country! Time is now to solve our basic governance problems, so we can turn attention to strategically more serious future business. This time to seek out the country’s best hands (here and in the diaspora), and deploy them for the sake of its present and future.

Bolaji Ogunseye wrote from Lagos, via erinje@yahoo.com

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