Utomi: Majority Of Young Nigerians May Live Out Their Productive Years Unemployed
SUNDAY, 01 JANUARY 2012 00:00 MARCEL MBAMALU BUSINESS SERVICES - BUSINESS NEWS
In this chat with MARCEL MBAMALU in Lagos, Professor of Political Economy and Founder, Centre for Values in Lagos, Pat Utomi, warned of possible wastage of a generation of employable young Nigerians unless government delivers on its mandate to create jobs. He also spoke on a wide rage of issues, including the banking reforms, which, he said, had negatively affected financial intermediation and halved the collective worth of the banks in real terms. Excerpts:
How has the economy fared in 2011 and what are the prospects for 2012?
The Nigerian economy remains a paradox. The enormous prospect stare you in the face; yet, performance leaves much to be desired.
In 2011, the keys to quality of life went south on almost all the dimensions: Unemployment, by government’s admission, became much worse. The truth is that up to 70 per cent of Nigerian’s young employable people may live out their most productive years unemployed and ultimately unemployable. Yet one cannot see the evidence that public policy has seen this as a crisis that has assumed the moral equivalent of war.
There is still no grand strategy obvious to the outside observer. The government may have one but they have not told us. Surely, the entrepreneurship initiative announced cannot be the main response. In addition, infrastructure suffered further deterioration.
One government agency admitted that Nigerian roads were the second worst in the world. This is amazing for a country that won laurels in the 1970s for road development. Check the MDGs and the UNDPs Human Development Index and see how we are falling further behind much poorer African countries.
Nominal economic growth numbers have been relatively high. The reasons include generosity of the rains boosting agriculture, which makes up for a good portion of GDP, remittances from Nigerians abroad to relations, which has kept up consumption and trade in consumer goods and then oil prices.
Unfortunately, we have failed to honestly engage the damage the so-called Central Bank’s reforms of the banks have done. It has negatively affected intermediation, resulting in huge jump in unemployment. I recall a recent international conference at which a Goldman Sachs execution was perplexed that the reforms have resulted in a halving of the real worth of Nigerian banks, using traditional indices for measuring their worth.
Our collective guilt in allowing this wilful damage of the Nigerian economy, which I think will cost us two decades of progress, should still be part of one of two book projects I hope will be my next academic goals.
One, underway, is titled The Pursuit of Poverty, about how insultingly some countries opt to be poor. The second, to steal a bank will be the story of how a Central Bank can ruin an economy and be hailed while at it even though history’s verdict is obvious to the serious minded. I feel a big need to make this point because I still feel a huge burden of guilt that I did not shout loud enough when the Obasanjo debt deal was done. I complained that it was not the best use of our oil windfall.
When I spoke to people like Chief Philip Asiodu about it, I found that there were many more who shared my views. But I did not want to be too disagreeable.
As I reflect now and realise it was probably the worst blow the Nigerian poor have suffered in a generation, I am inclined not to fall into that trap again. History will be a harsh judge. The poor continue to have too few champions and as their voice is lost so the potential for their violent future revenge grows.
The 2012 challenge stems from a view enshrined in the budget and the fuel subsidy debate, which assumes that the solution is in government raising revenues. This is the exact opposite of the true problem. The trouble with government is that it has too much money in its pocket relative to the households and the private sector.
Given the pathetic state of corruption in that sector and the inefficiencies that breeds that has been negative for development, I have come to embrace Xavier Sala–i-Martin thesis in dividend distribution to citizens where the government has not utilised mineral resource wealth effectively. Sala-i-Martin and Arvind Subramanian had written this daming IMF paper that described Nigeria as metaphor-per-excellence of a failed development experience.
Has your position on a part-time or citizen legislature as cost-cutting measures changed?
Not at all, I am more convinced that Nigerians are living for politicians, whereas politicians should be people who have been accomplished elsewhere and come into the public arena to sacrificially give of themselves in pursuit of glory or immortality.
Besides legislators, who live and work with the people will better relate to their challenges than those cut off from the people in Abuja thinking only of their own good.
Even when they are altruistic, the burden on budget could be spared the people.
What do you think of the current security situation in the country?
It is painful and must be managed with great care. All must speak up and act up against the murder of innocents. Be they Christian, Moslem, animist or whatever, the death of every man diminishes us and drives down Nigeria’s prospects. We must condemn terror and contain it but it will be terrible to allow those who do it the victory. All who fail to act now will suffer history’s vilification.
You speak often about the debt you owe for the gift of life. As you turn 56 very soon, what is the biggest of this debt?
For this patch of God’s big space I occupy I know I am in debt of rent. The rent I owe I struggle to pay in a variety of ways.
I recognise that the most important debt is the duty of care for neighbour. The logic of the good Samaritan and human solidarity has in many ways defined the core of being most of my life. But it has not been easy in a culture that has suffered collapse as Nigeria has.
You constantly have to explain yourself. Few people in today’s Nigeria seriously believe you can do anything for reasons beyond material self-love. So, they constantly use their values to judge you. They ask what is he looking for. The common good and simple citizenship duty of raising your voice is not acceptable reason for acting in a manner that can be considered altruistic.
I do not even think of what motivates me as altruism. It is simple enlightened self- interest. The self- interest, I have repeatedly argued, is best pursued within the advance of the common good. But what rules Nigeria today is a sad narcissism in which you pursue whatever you can grab even if everybody else suffers from the burden of such conduct.
So, sometimes, I feel exhausted and wonder if I should continue to raise my voice against this unjust system that almost assures an anarchic tomorrow when the long held off revenge of the poor manifest.
Very sadly, at the heart of the short-sightedness that has caused our elite to act so narrowly, thus shooting themselves in the foot without realising what they are doing is poor education (the certificates they may carry not withstanding) and a crisis of values. A limited understanding of money and what it can do for you is at the root of this crisis of values in which delayed gratification is abandoned in favour of ephemeral and unsustainable instant gratification.