Nigerians could be forgiven for believing (erroneously) that ours is an incredibly complex country and that governing and taking it to prosperity is nothing short of rocket science. Nothing could be further from the truth. I make these admittedly bold assertions based on a combination of personal experience in international and Nigerian institutions, empirically researched and established facts, and some insight into the art and science of strategy.
Note that I make reference to “strategic thinking” rather than the more popular phrase “strategic planning”. It is no accident. Why? Because strategy, a constant in war and peace, and in the successful governance and economic management of nations, businesses and even personal affairs, is first and foremost about THINKING before it is about plans. Those who “plan” without thinking deeply will either fail or not succeed to the level of those who think seriously. Thought creates visions, which create possibilities, which in turn create goals.
On the basis of these three things, a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) can take shape. Plans are then made to achieve this goal, including plans to execute the plan. This should be backed up by the discipline of actual execution of strategy, including process integrity and goal achievement monitoring and measurement. This is how nations, corporations and individuals achieve genuine, sustainable success. The success and prosperity of nations are never accidents. Let us bring the matter home and down to earth.
Nigeria is at an important juncture in its evolution. President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) has a historic opportunity. But one senses a tension between two competing impulses in Nigeria today as we wait for PMB to fully unfold his agenda. That tension is between the past, the present and the future, but more between the first and the latter, with the present as a bridge between the two.
It is not by accident that, in electing in a keenly contested vote a former military ruler who held office three decades ago, Nigeria had to return to its past in order to forge its future. Buhari has zeroed in (so far) on combating corruption and recovering stolen funds, on the one hand, and preparing to give Boko Haram a bloody nose, on the other. There is no contention about the importance of security.
Nor is there, even, any contention about the importance of combating corruption. But there is some dissonance on the matter of the balance between focusing heavily on probing and punishing past corruption and the task of constructing a future that can take us from being a poor country to a truly wealthy one, from a physical country to a real nation with a common goal and destiny. What is the balance between facing the past and building the future?
Some may view this as a false dichotomy, since in fact there is a link between corruption in Nigeria and the country’s poor economic performance, and the amounts of funds believed to have been stolen over the decades certainly have significance in economic terms beyond morality. But it is a valid question, for the reasons that follow. First of all, accountability, especially for egregious acts of corruption, is necessary as a deterrent against impunity.
But beyond this, the truth is that corruption, in the case of Nigeria and horrendous as it is or has been, is only a symptom of two underlying problems. The first is the absence of a real worldview, in which a value system is proactively embedded, and which keeps corruption in check lest it prevents or undermines economic and social progress.
The second is the reality that our country’s constitutional and political structure, which birthed the deformed federalism we have today, has blocked both Nigeria’s economic transformation and the emergence of a true national unity in diversity. That unity can be better attained through a manufacture of consent that breeds a sense of justice done and seen to be done. A country in which these two fundamental determinants of societal destiny are suppressed, faces a serious obstacle.
That obstacle is more foundational and important than whatever symptoms the “original sin” breeds. This is precisely why politics in Nigeria are not a competition of ideas. Rather, it is a bitterly divisive struggle for power by ethnic nationalities, for the purpose not of a broad-based national progress but that of parochial patronage and client networks. This is the foundation of massive corruption in Nigeria. For Nigeria to achieve true economic power and fulfill its destiny, we must re-imagine, redesign and reconstruct our country.
PMB has enormous political capital, far more than perhaps any other politician in Nigeria that can be deployed to this strategic imperative. Strategic thinking about Nigeria’s future requires, beyond the humdrum yo-yo of daily governance, that we address the following questions. Is the Vision 2020 a real BHAG, and if so, where are we with it? What type of free market economy is best for Nigeria, and how can we move from mere economic growth to economic development? The latter two are not the same thing.
Between neo liberalism and a developmental state, which approach will lead us there? How can industrial policy help Nigeria achieve economic complexity and how can we build the “productive knowledge” that is a sine qua non for complexity? How can the combination of a real industrial manufacturing economy, which is what determines the real value of a country’s exchange rate, combine with fiscal policy to incentivise a monetary policy that creates access to real capital at affordable prices? In other words, how can we put capital into our capitalism? At the political level, what type of federalism is best for Nigeria?
How will a re-engineered division of powers and responsibilities between federating units and the central government, revenue allocation formula, and derivation principles (“resource control”) of oil and solid minerals bring about a sense of equity and act as incentive to unleash massive economic production and hence transformation? These are the real questions that will determine our future. To demonstrate why it is important to think strategically about Nigeria’s future beyond the (necessary) fight against corruption, let us look at Rising Asia.
In China, Deng Xiaoping began a period of stunning economic transformation in the late 1970s which fundamentally altered China’s communist state to a capitalist one, unleashing the latent productivity of over one billion Chinese. This was a fundamental redesign of the basics on which modern China was established in 1949 by Mao Zedung after a debilitating civil war.
Today, China is the world’s second largest economy, set to overtake the United States as the largest in the next two decades. Corruption has risen, along with China’s meteoric ascent, but President Xi Jin Ping is fighting back, with success. But wide scale corruption has not stopped China’s rise, even as it is rightly considered a strategic threat. Why? Because 400 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty in the past three decades.
Malaysia, with 27 million people is a rising emerging market that, in the early 1960s was well behind Nigeria in terms of economic prospects. Today it is a newly industrialised country with a GDP per capita of $11,000 (compared with Nigeria’s $3,000), foreign reserves of $100 billion, and a sovereign wealth fund with $41 billion in assets. In 1991, then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammed set a Vision 2020 BHAG in which his country would achieve the status of a self-sufficient industrialised nation by that date.
That target has since been met. Manufacturing accounts for 40 percent of GDP, and Malaysia is the 14th most competitive economy in the world, ahead of Australia, UK, South Korea and Japan in competitiveness. Meanwhile, what about corruption in Malaysia? It hasn’t disappeared, but strong institutions confront the menace. As I write, a special task force is investigating allegations that Malaysia’s current Prime Minister Najib Razak received $700 million from a state investment fund into his personal bank account.
The point from these examples is that facing forward and building our future successfully will take more effort than facing the past. Justice is an irreducible but complex phenomenon. Once it deals with certain categories of past crimes (as opposed to present crimes) such as war crimes or governmental corruption, it all becomes political and prone (rightly or wrongly) to perceptions of selectivity. The pursuit of accountability for past corruption in Nigeria should be carefully targeted and controlled, building anti-corruption systems and avoiding vendettas.
It should be balanced with the need to avoid sapping the energy and focus required to build the future, breeding resentment, and interfering with the even more fundamental futuristic task of manufacturing consent. That is why the Japanese Emperor Hirohito was ultimately not prosecuted in the Tokyo war crimes trials after World War II, because the conquering Allied Powers needed a bridge between Japan’s past as an enemy Axis Power and its future as a new Western ally. As the American scholar-diplomat and statesman, Henry Kissinger so pithily put it: “It is the temptation of war to punish; it is the task of policy to construct. Power can sit in judgment, but statesmanship must look to the future.”