(TEXT OF A KEYNOTE ADDRESS DELIVERED BY ASIWAJU BOLA AHMED TINUBU AT A MEMORIAL CONFERENCE ORGANIZED IN HONOUR OF THE LATE DR BALA USMAN BY THE CENTRE FOR DEMOCRATIC DEVELOPMENT, RESEARCH AND TRAINING, ZARIA, ON 18TH DECEMBER, 2015)
We gather today in deep respect and appreciation because this nation owes an unredeemable debt to DR. YUSUFU BALA USMAN. His love for Nigeria had no exception. He cared for us all, the great and the lowly, the rich and the modest, the arrogant and the humble, those from the North, South, East and West. The Moslem and the Christian. The beam of his keen, unquenchable intellect was only equalled by glow of his humanity.
Now a decade since the great teacher, researcher, thinker, writer, polemicist, nationalist and pan-Africanist departed this side of eternity on 24th September, 2005. Yet, the light of his incandescent life continues to shine brightly, showing the present and future generations the path to personal and collective national greatness.
This unique and distinguished institution, the Centre for Democratic Development, Research and Training (CEDDERT) founded by Dr Usman is an enduring testament to his undying spirit and deathless vision. I commend the management and staff of CEDDERT for holding aloft Bala Usman’s banner of commitment to truth, equity, human nobility and justice.
I most sincerely thank the organisers of this event for the honour of considering me worthy to deliver this keynote address. Let me quickly say that Dr Usman was no stranger to me. I recall with nostalgia how hard he worked and how we joined hands in common purpose to help achieve the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola’s emphatic victory in the historic June 12, 1993, Presidential election. Indeed, so committed was Dr Usman to the cause of democratic restoration in Nigeria that he translated Chief Abiola’s manifesto, ‘Farewell to Poverty”, into Fulfude.
Reflecting upon that momentous election that might have changed the course of our history had it been allowed to hold, I must sound a caution for our times. Dr Usman would have been pleased by the result of this year’s contest. It presents a chance for Nigeria to renew its march toward progress based on the ideals usman espoused. This change requires not only a change in policies; it requires a change in politics; it requires a change of heart.
While we have put forth a new government, too many of us who should be allied in changing the prospects of this nation have not put forth a new politics. They remain mired in the broken ways of yesterday, placing every conceivable personal interest above the national concern. Had we allowed such blindness to rule us, we never would have accomplished the historic merger that led to election victory and this opportunity for progressive change. What we accomplished was through sacrifice and cooperation. I have sacrificed much for this day to come to pass thus I want the day to endure. I have done so by placing the welfare of Nigeria above my own advancement. I have done so because it is a lesson Bala Usman taught me many years ago. Those who consider themselves his students should do so not only while reading his books but in our actions. The proof is never in the word but the deed. We must remain united in cause – the development of this nation — and must do so from beginning to end.
You see, Dr. Yusufu Bala Usman was an intellectual not for the sake of intellectualism. He was an intellectual because he understood knowledge was the most vital weapon a besieged nation and its people could acquire. Knowledge can dismiss the fetters of poverty that many people had come to mistake for the natural order of things. His love of people and wisdom led him to see that the economy we were given was not the economy intended for us. We had become the victims of an unfair economic architecture arising from an unjust history.
Dr. Bala Usman dedicated his adult life and monumental intellect to disavow this false legacy so that we as Nigerians and Africans may reclaim what is truly ours. His voice was that of a prophet of old, speaking eternal truths many felt but only a few had the courage to express. Bala Usman dedicated himself to dissecting false doctrines that sought to keep us low. He dedicated himself to opening our eyes that we may see the truth of this world and its economic process. He wanted us to be sufficiently learned that we may harness what we can and harvest what we must so that we as Nigerians — and no one else — would define our economic existence.
Dr. Usman accepted a profound, unique mission. He sought to emancipate us from the yoke of past yet warning that old forms of oppression would give rise to new forms of the wretched game. Colonialists might leave but the injustice they spawned would reshape itself into the imperfections of an independence nominally gained but superficially evolved. Nigeria was declared a nation. But of nationhood, little was to be found. We were an independent country but our economy remained the appendage of others. We lived in the shadows of global forces that mocked our economic freedom and democracy. The nation trembled and stumbled because we were always unsure, afraid or both. We never knew whether the shadows were our own harmless reflection or that of a force with motives and means sinister to our development. Unable or unwilling to join together to resist the external challenge. We spent the bulk of our energy chastising each other.
The title of this address, “Towards the Economic Liberation of Nigeria: Bala Usman’s Enduring Relevance”, is patterned on Bala’s 1980 landmark publication ‘For the Liberation of Nigeria’. In that book, he wrote: “Whatever specific issue or subject they may deal with all these lectures and articles have a single and common engagement. They are all about the liberation of the people of Nigeria from western imperialist domination at the national and international levels”.
Dr Usman’s activities as an academic and activist were motivated by his ardent commitment to the complete political and economic liberation of Nigeria as the precursor for the emancipation of Africa and the black man everywhere. Dr. Alkasum Abba, a disciple of the Bala Usman, captures the essential Bala Usman when he wrote, ‘’Dr. Bala Usman did not limit himself to just teaching and research in the confines of the Ahmadu Bello University. He was concerned about generating ideas, which could directly contribute to the emancipation of the people from oppression and exploitation. This was the context in which he moved around the country between 1969-1979, giving lectures and writing articles in newspapers on various topics, with the aim to educate and mobilise Nigerians to understand the nature of the economic and political system entrenched in the country and in the rest of Africa, which undermined the unity of the oppressed and their struggle for the achievement of social justice, freedom and democracy, under the rule of law. ’’ Of course, the world has changed since Dr. Usman brought forth these great works. Yet, in many ways, the world has also stayed the same.
Many ideas he espoused over the decades apply with ever greater force today. Here I must give clear warning. I do not aim to pay gentle tribute to man that you may politely applaud once I sit down then we all depart upon our merry way as if nothing profound awaits our economic future. Or, worse, as if the works of Dr. Usman are intellectually stimulating but have no practical application to the situation at hand. I reject that notion.The truth always has relevance. There are many great untruths this nation must face and erase before they turn our desire for a better Nigeria into something counterfeit. Unless we embrace the truths that shaped the prescriptions of Dr. Usman, Nigeria will remain a land of false mirrors, where we look at ourselves but see something else, a land of past potential with a future gone astray.
Look, we have used much too money to purchase the poverty we now suffer. Poverty should be much cheaper than what we have been made to pay for it.
Past administrations have claimed tremendous GDP growth but all around we see more factories closing than opening, too many projects left undone, too many farms left dirt scrabble poor, too many homes unlit, too many roads unpaved and too many people with too few jobs.
Whether his thoughts on the Economic Crisis facing Nigeria, or the Manipulation of Religion for political advantage or his analysis against foreign economic oppression as espoused in his stance against the IMF loan in 1985, Dr. Usman traded only in truth and honesty at a time when neither honesty nor truth was the expected currency of our political discourse.
For decades, Nigeria has danced in close confines with economic disaster. In the past, higher oil prices allowed us to dodge the worst. We have survived but not thrived. Improvised but not planned. Spent but not invested. Laughed, drank and feasted but did not build, construct or maintain. Now, Nigeria has collided into a wall, merciless and immovable. The present downturn in oil prices may be more than a slump in the business cycle. Global economic, geopolitical and technological currents suggest the price drop may be a long-lasting secular development.
To maintain market share and its overall influence on the global market, Saudi Arabia is keeping production high. Should Saudi Arabia slacken production in a material way, North American production may escalate and seek to capture a share of the European export market from Saudi and Russia. We also note that China is investing heavily in domestic and renewable energy sources. All this means that oil supply is low and demand has flat-lined due to a flaccid overall global economic activity. We will be collateral damage in all of this. However, to us, the damage will not feel collateral. It will be central and it will be hard.
Even during the best of times and high oil prices, the economic model upon which Nigeria has been based has poorly served us. That model has evaded broadly shared development. The only things its continuity promises are perpetual poverty for most Nigerians and the forfeiture of the best of our national economic promise.
Nigeria needs economic liberation. Before we can free our economy, we must free ourselves of the economic myths consigning us to our current predicament. To achieve this objective we must return to Dr. Bala Usman. Confronted by the harsh realities of dwindling national revenue occasioned by crashing oil prices, saddled with collapsed infrastructure and an abused and wary citizenry, Nigeria demands a new paradigm.
Here, I must give the Nigerian people their due. They had a stark and important choice to make during the 2015 election. They could have re-elected the government in place. This would have been the easier thing to do. In matters of state, the easier thing to do is rarely the better one. Reelecting that administration would have lowered the curtain on our future. The last government had become threadbare of ideas. Its reaction to our challenges was more of biased reflex than of careful thought. They intended to rope the people to mast of austerity then command that we ride out the storm. Their hope was that the storm would quickly pass. They forget that economic storms are mostly man-made. Thus, it takes man to unmake them.
President Buhari is an earnest leader who seeks to give Nigerians the lives they deserve by giving the vibrant economy and security they deserve. My faith in his commitment to help the people is deep and abiding. I believe he is on the right path and will continue to follow it.
That said, the task before us, is grave and daunting. With oil prices having declined so steeply, the question becomes how must the federal government shape fiscal policy so that we achieve optimal economic production and employment under the given circumstance?
The voices of old conservative mainstream economics will try to convince us that there is but one way to go: Austerity now. Austerity forever.
They will state that they people must tighten their belts then lift themselves by their own bootstraps. However, they do not realize that the people will choke should they tighten that belt any tighter and that most of them cannot pull themselves up alone because they could never afford to buy any boots to strap. This austerity advice might be right for another time and place. However, it is the wrong medicine for Nigeria here and now.
Last year, I published an open letter to then President Jonathan. My critique of his economic policies was informed by the fact that the Nigerian economy had entered a critical stage. His government was set to foist austerity on the people. This equated to taking the lash to their economic future. Although, we were in the throes of an election, I thought it vital that we offer even our opponent the best advice we could give because he was our president at the time and our overall welfare was in the balance. His failure would be our deepening poverty.
The positions I held then remain relevant. Let me recall my opening statement.
“No matter who is in power, we must do whatever is in our capacity to do to steer the nation away from economic woe. The people have suffered too much hardship already”.
I submitted that Nigerians economy was as if in chronic depression.
“…After viewing these statistics, most objective economists would conclude Nigeria is mired in a long-term, secular depression. Forget the rosy GDP numbers. They signify a great economic and financial segregation between those who have and others who have not. If we continue with the policy preferences of the current administration, the haves shall become the “have–mores” and the “have-nots” shall become the “have even less…. The vast majority of the claimed GDP growth has fallen into the laps of those already enjoying obvious luxury. The rest of the people are left to gaze at the enormity of the income and wealth chasm separating them from the cabal orchestrating the discordant political economy. While a small group flourishes, the rest of the nation subsidises their economic bounty. A tight confederacy rides an economic sky-rocket while the bulk of the people languish in the swamp. For one group, the economy is effervescent. For the other, it is catatonic. Nigeria is one nation with two economies.”
I opposed austerity because it would compound not alleviate the economic weakness. Indeed, as best exemplified in the Euro zone since the 2009 global financial crisis, austerity has not solved the dire economic weakness of the nations that employed this sickening remedy at a time when economic demand has already slackened. ’’Austerity weakens aggregate demand, deflating an economy already fatigued and against the ropes… Jobs and commerce disappear. Debt climbs. Deflation turns a noble but poor household and neighbourhood into a committee of beggars and street urchins…. Austerity undermines our economic pillars and breaks the spirit of the people… If you desire a nation of thralls, by all means continue this bleak path. If we want a nation of prosperity and economic justice, a different course is our due.”
The contours of the economic challenge facing government must be clearly postulated so that we see the vastness between where we are and where we should be. What is ought not to be and what ought to be does not yet exist. We must create it.
> The first order of business is fiscal in nature. Do we continue to peg our naira expenditures to our dollar intake or do we affix our domestic expenditure to a measure more apt to grow the economy. To continue to link the government’s naira expenditure to dollar intake is to allow the decisions of foreign actors hold undue influence over our fiscal policy. There is no logical necessity that foreigners’ taste for oil must determine our fiscal expenditures. While no economy is completely independent, this linkage amounts to servitude almost restrictive as if the colonial tether was never severed.
The second order of business has to do with the extent to which government help directs and encourages private sector activity. Do we allow ourselves to be slaves to the forces of the market even though we know that the market itself is not free? Or do we engage in some level of national industrial, infrastructure and employment planning, as has ever large and important nation that has ever achieved prosperity – from England, to the United States to China?
Regarding fiscal policy, I advocate the close dollar linkage be explicitly broken. The last I looked, Nigeria operates a Naira-based economy not a dollar-based one. The last I looked, the federal government has the sole power and sovereign right to issue naira. It does not need the approval of the American Federal Reserve, the Bank of England or of the host of global oil buyers. There is no legal or moral restriction strictly limiting the amount of Naira placed in the system to spawn employment to match the amount of dollars collected via oil sales.
To continue in this way is to effectively place the Naira and thus our fiscal policy on an implicit “dollar standard” at a time when such a custom is harmful and ill-advised.
The world jettisoned the gold standard in 1971 because it proved unworkable, reducing the policy space in which governments could pursue fiscal programmes promoting full employment and social welfare. We should likewise reject this implicit dollar standard on our nation’s fiscal operation.
Because we operate a sovereign fiat currency that the federal government issues at its sole discretion, the federal government can never be rendered insolvent in Naira.
The position I espouse sounds heretical and some of you will say it is a recipe for runaway inflation. At this, I say listen very carefully for I am aware of the ravages of excessive inflation. I am also opposed to anything that will bring it about. The outer boundaries of our fiscal policy should neither be our dollar intake or some unfounded fear of naira insolvency. Instead, that boundary should be that we never ever allow fiscal expansion to the extent that it prompts damaging inflation rates. The correct perspective is not to mechanistically restrict Naira expenditure to dollar intake. Continuing this peg is tantamount to donning economic blinders then praying that somehow avoid the pitfall set before us. It points to deflation, recession and worse.
The better methodology is to ascertain, then achieve, the level of Naira expenditure needed to expand the economy and create jobs without causing inflation to rise to dangerous levels. This is how broadly shared prosperity is generated in a sustainable I manner.
The second pillar is the need to engage in some level of efficient economic planning in order to position the private sector so that it can thrive. We hear talk of free trade but the reality is different. In their formative stages, the English, American and Chinese economies were highly protectionist. America was known as the most protectionist of the western nations during the century when it emerged from a second-rate economy to become the largest in history. The Chinese economy – the world’s second largest – remains a den of protection. If this is the way of the most successful nations, we should do as they did and not do as they say we should do.
Thus, we must identity those industries strategic to the nation we seek to build and they provide them incentives such as tax relief and some help in the form of tariffs if needed. The important thing is that we grow our industrial base so that we lessen our import dependence and provide jobs for a growing urban population.
One of the critical paths to Nigeria’s economic liberation lies with employment for the youth. The nation’s economic engineers should focus primarily on allocating value and opportunity to our under-utilised labour force and our idle, yet potentially productive capital in ways promoting wealth creation and expansion of aggregate demand. It is sustained aggregate demand that empowers the nation to rescue itself from the whirlpool of economic contraction.
We can contain inflation to acceptable levels by ensuring additional government expenditures are for items that can be supplied domestically, particularly labour. Naira paid to poor and working class people mostly circulates in the domestic economy, spurring additional local commerce and production. This is because their consumption patterns do not approach the level of import expenditures associated with their wealthier compatriots.
The chorus singing austerity and free markets will be vast and loud, coming from all corners of the globe. Those advocating as I do are few and far between. The rest of the world does not want these views to take root in Africa because they fear a true revival of African economic independence and prosperity defined by Africans, for Africans. A good day for the black race will be a bleak day for them.
I must add a thought about the fuel subsidy. It was a good idea that has been perverted into its opposite. Created to aid the common man, it is now a device used by the crooked to produce a windfall for themselves. In a perfect world, I wish we could sanitize the subsidy regime and thus continue it. However, I have reached the conclusion that there are too many demons in system for that hell to be turned into heaven. Better that we remove it, not for the austere purpose of saving money but to use the money more wisely that we might better save the people. Let us begin a process of a thoughtful but decisive subsidy phase-out. While this is occurring, we should simultaneously phase in social programs benefiting the poorest, most vulnerable among us. Programs such as transportation subsidies, school feeding, improved basic medical care and coverage for the poor, and potable water projects are some of the things that can be done with the same funds. This way we will can undertake this massive expenditure confident that the fruits will go to the hungry, not the already too well fed. End the fuel subsidy. Subsidize the people instead – Subsidize the people instead!
In conclusion, Bala could have combined his royal lineage with his academic erudition to enjoy the high and easy life. He could have been part of any government or ruling clique that suckled itself on toil, blood and patience of the people. Bala chose to side with the masses. Now it is our duty to side with him.
Bala was a pathfinder whose analyses and ideas were more than brilliant. They were true. He warned we must claim our identity by forging the institutions and political economic processes that promote our interests and ensure our future. The reality of our economic situation does not mock his words. It reveals their utter prescience. We must emulate Bala Usman. This requires that we shirk the weight and inertia of conventional wisdom to reform our political economy, its institutions and its policies. If we continue the current path, we will remain as we are. It is a mere walking in place while more aggressive nations change the world to fit their image.
As we gather here, powerful nations are entering unprecedented treaties forming large commercial and financial blocs and combines that will make it more difficult for nations like Nigeria to realize its dreams of industrialization. If we cast our fate to the wind by saying that we shall be subservient to the free market, that market will be free to enchain us. We would have flung aside our ability to shape our destiny. The well-being of Nigeria will be given to others to determine. We will be a sovereign nation on the map but not in economic function.
Bala seemed to know this day would come and he fought to prepare us for it. For a better Nigeria, I dedicate myself to the same fight. That is why I outlined two imminent decisions that must be now had –
- Do we choose the good of the people over the rationale of austerity?
- Do we better plan and guide our economy or allow happen-stance or the strategies of others to rule us?
I know how Bala Usman would answer these questions. I join in his response. I ask that you join him as well. What I have said here is more than talk. It is a call to action.
Thank you for listening.