Adedoyin salami, Chairman of Economic Advisory Council (EAC)

By RICHARD MAMMAH (Guest columnist)

After a long season out in the cold, the Buhari administration was finally forced to eat humble pie and put together an Economic Advisory Team to help it articulate both the broad outlines as well as the draft implementation modules for the Nigerian economy.

Indeed, to have thought that it could plod along with the very demanding rigour of national economic management through the ‘kick and follow’ mechanism of relying on political appointees with vested interests and system-entrenched and career-protecting civil servants was to say the least, a most befuddling exercise in mask-dancing. But it did this and the outcome while it lasted remains there for all to see.

Extendedly, a sub-text of the challenge could be located in what some say has been the somewhat personal resistance of President Buhari to almost not work directly with the leading lights of the Nigerian private sector who he viscerally believes are in bed with ‘the nation’s looters.’ For an aside, very sadly however, this viewpoint does not explain the continuing revelations and allegations of looting in which some of his own top administration players like the EFCC Chairman Ibrahim Magu, AGF Abubakar Malami, and the captains at the NEDC, NDDC, etc have been fingered. And so, whether there is looting or not (a most unfortunate situation indeed), we still need an economy, complete with an economic team and economic players.

The eventual decision to correct this error and the choice of the likes of Dr. Doyin Salami, Mr. Bismarck Rewane and Professor Chukwuma Soludo in the now set-up Economic Advisory Team has since come as most comforting for many. However, the taste of the pudding they say is in the eating and that is why this intervention has become necessary.

Recall that it was former President Olusegun Obasanjo who had made the famous line that ‘I have appointed you as adviser but I am not obliged to take all of your advice.’ While it is a moot point that executives are necessarily not beholden to every view of their advisers, the deeper truth indeed remains that ‘in the multitude of counselors there is safety.’ There is thus every need for leaders who would make and surpass the mark to make it a point of duty to seek the best counsel that they can find.

Obasanjo aside, part of the challenge that we continue to be faced with in this instance is the simple but most important fact that even coming down to set up the team itself also has a complicated history. It was at its base, chiefly a political move, indeed the lesser of two evils between having to do without a team and continuing to work with the rump of the stand-in edifice that had been built around the Office of the Vice President.

On a normal day, this should not have been a problem. The framers of the Nigerian Constitution may have somewhat presciently seen that given the dialectics of Nigeria’s geo-political construct, we may very well continue to be saddled with having to be led by chiefly political players who may not be seriously well-heeled in economic matters. And so they tended to give the nation a helpful complement at the leadership level by prescribing that the Vice President chair the National Economic Council. But even that had also become problematic in the Osinbajo instance where a conflicting heritage of worldview and economic orientations; one free market and the other statist, soon began to lead to differences at the top as had been seen in issues like currency exchange rate management, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, AfCFTA and the Ruga settlements debacle.

So the owners of the Presidency now elected to continue to work with the economy ministers, agency heads and civil servants, even as the inadequacy inherent in that arrangement was to continue to be seen in the critical non-achievement of the set national economic management timelines as evidenced for example with the non-realisation of targets outlined in the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, ERGP.

It is against this backdrop then that the leading lights of the present National Economic Advisory Team who had actually been previously invited in fits and starts while the administration was still holding on to its traditional line that it had all the economic ideas it needed in-house, were to now be formally assembled into the somewhat more definitive team that exists today, formally inaugurated and given more predictable terms of reference and meeting schedules.

To the credit of the administration, the team has now been interfacing more regularly with administration officials and the president. Indeed, other than the team’s celebrated show of disaffection somewhat earlier in the year when it was being brought in to essentially whitewash some predetermined views of the political echelon and bureaucracy, things have gone on fairly smoothly at the level of team-administration relations.

But no matter the level of rapport between team and administration, the bigger take in all of this is that indeed, we are living in times where there are indeed bigger challenges than friendly backstage smiles can address. COVID 19 is here, there was a lockdown and there is a continuing run of inflation, debt, borrowing, unemployment, spike in manufacturers’ inventory, etc. Something more urgent and more decisive is clearly needed to give the Nigerian economy a real shot in the arm.

Underscoring this view is the fact that data from the CBN, NBS, AFDB, World Bank and IMF have almost all painted a dismal picture of the economy going forward. But even when almost everyone appreciates that there is a presently a combination of challenges that makes real growth difficult to achieve, the other reality is that there is indeed a lot of reform that has also been begging to be introduced into the Nigerian economy for a long time now, and which the authorities had been misled to think they could simply gloss over. Besides, and most importantly also, Nigeria and Nigerians want to see results on their tables and in their homes. And that indeed is the ultimate relevance of an Economic Advisory Team.

This then returns us to the issue of what are the nation’s quick wins that the economic Advisory Team should be propounding now and almost insisting on their implementation.

From where we stand, here are some:

Deal with the NNPC challenge: The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC remains the single biggest revenue source for the country as things stand now. It however continues to post very embarrassing and most obnoxious loss returns from some of its operating units in a way that makes its continued retention as a single behemoth grossly unsustainable. We must confront the reality that the NNPC today is a drain pipe for the national economy and should therefore be unbundled.

Integrating the Diaspora: Remittances from the Diaspora have become an even bigger contributor to the economy. We now need to drive towards an even more coordinate programme of integrating the Diaspora into our national life. There should be Diaspora political representation at the National Assembly in the form of seats. There should be Diaspora voting.  There should also be reform to make the remittances process more seamless.

Implement Oronsaye Panel Report. The Oronsaye Panel has already recommended several slimmer bureaucracy initiatives that should begin to come on stream now.

Finding political solutions and diplomatic help for combating Boko Haram and other insecurity challenges in the nation. This would also come in most handy as we do not have bottomless pools of cash to continue to import very expensive military hardware to combat terrorists and insurgents that we need to do more in other respects to neutralize, and very quickly too. Add to this the cost of maintaining and sustaining expanding numbers of IDPs and rebuilding destroyed homes, assets and other critical infrastructure then we would see that there is indeed a solid economic case to be made for stopping this hemorrhaging.

Decentralising our policing infrastructure and sub-national economic arrangements. We should simply stop shooting ourselves in the foot. Restructuring the federation will give a new elixir, raise and renegotiate fresh consensus: Nigerians as presently organized are constricted, simply cannot breathe and so cannot go ahead to produce and create the much needed wealth that is required to meet the national goal of defeating poverty and raising the standard of living for citizens, and by extension, the corporate profile of the nation.