By Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala
Of the many challenges facing our country, the most fundamental, in my view, is improving the economy and enhancing the welfare of our people. It is fundamental because the state of the economy is a barometer for measuring the health of other aspects of society, be they social, or political.
A weak economy is a recipe for societal breakdown: the political chaos that trailed the recent debt- crisis in Greece and other parts of Europe, and the recent public overthrow of governments in the Middle East and North Africa, are all traceable to fundamental economic problems.
The home truth is that the South East as a region is operating far below its economic potential. An area roughly the size of Belgium in land mass, and 11.7% of the Nigeria’s population (according to official statistics), can contribute more to the national GDP in view of enormous endowments of resources, both human and natural. This is the challenge that is confronting us today – a challenge that warrants our attention urgently, for the sake of present and future generations. To borrow the words of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, “economy is the method by which we prepare today to afford the improvements of tomorrow”.
Why is the South East zone so special? In addition to abundant natural resources, like oil and gas, coal, salt, and so on, the region still has one of the best arable land in the country – it is often said that everything grows in Igboland. The region has comparative advantage in the production of subsistence crops like yams, maize, rice, plantains, and cassava. Cash crops like oil palm, rubber, and wood are also in abundance. In this era of rising food prices, the region could potentially offer food security to the nation, and generate export revenues: Nigeria’s food imports cost more than $10 billion yearly. The development of agro-based industry could also rid the region of its high rates of unemployment.
However, the region is still a net consumer of food – a reflection of the poor state agriculture sector.
The South East Zone has also seen an increase in industrial activity in recent years, with the development of industrial clusters in various axes of the region. These clusters, including the Onitsha Plastic Cluster, Umuahia/Aba Garment Cluster, Aba Leather Cluster, Nnewi Automotive Cluster, to mention a few, are the flag-bearers of “made-in-Nigeria” products, and are in many cases, the only competition to foreign products that cost our nation significant amounts in foreign currency every year. However, the industrial sector is still employing rudimentary production processes, which curtail productivity and limit the amount of jobs created. With the right investments in technology and infrastructure, these industries could really take-off.
Again, the South East zone has one of the best Human Development Indicators in the country. It has the lowest poverty levels in the country, and the quality of human capital – specifically adult literacy rates, and gender development indicators, are the highest in the country. The potential for other service-based industry, apart from the wholesale and retail trade sector for which the region is well known, is therefore enormous. Overall, the economic opportunities that exist in the three sectors of economic development – primary, industry, and services, are vast, and quite unique to the South East zone in Nigeria.
Let me also briefly outline the significant challenges that lie ahead for the zone to realize its true economic potential. Firstly, there is a need for adequate infrastructure: The region’s road infrastructure is in a poor state, and is a major constraint to the development of agriculture and trade. While I commend efforts by the various state administrations to improve the roads networks, I also want to say that the federal government is willing to work hand-in-hand with the states to develop the region’s roads, particularly the Enugu-Port Harcourt road; the Second Onitsha Niger bridge – a key to unlocking inter-regional trade with the rest of the country; and, also rail transport links to the rest of the country. The environmental problems of soil erosion and waste management confronting the region as a whole is beyond the capacity of the States to address individually, and requires the involvement of the federal government. Efforts to implement the Inland Ports Development programme will also be ramped up at the federal level vis-a-vis efforts to improve trade logistics and cut clearing times for goods at the nation’s ports.
Secondly, improving the investment climate is paramount: According to the World Bank’s Doing Business in Nigeria Report (2010), the South Eastern states are ranked below other states and the FCT i.e. from 30th position to 36th, in the “ease of doing business” category – a reflection of the poor state of the business environment. The zone is particularly weak in the “enforcing contracts” category, suggesting the need to improve the justice system in the region. Business regulatory systems clearly need to be more efficient. The workforce in the region could also be better equipped with the right skill set, involving vocational training, to support the potential growth of the various economic sectors.
While the South East zone is one of the most homogenous and cohesive zones in this country, there is a need for continued cooperation among the various states and interest groups. I am confident that our commitment to work hand-in-hand is vital to the region’s development.
Economic development is not only about the right policies and programmes or even the right leadership. No doubt these are important factors which contribute to the achievement and sustenance of economic development. But they do not stand alone. A critical factor which drives and sustains economic development is the system of values which provides a foundation. I know that some of us sitting here think that values and character are luxuries which smart people can do away with in the pursuit of money and fame. I beg to disagree. I make bold to say that one of the reasons why we have not done as well as we should is because we have not displayed the necessary strength of character, that collective focus on the best interests of our people.
Our values should help us come together, make us treat each other better, help us build the bonds of brotherhood; help us reject the temptation to cheat each other. Our values and character are the critical ingredients we need to forge ahead as a people. A few of us have given our people a bad name through their selfish actions. But I believe it’s time for us to reject the bad name by categorically rejecting the negative values that have also contributed to stopping us from putting our best foot forward. There is no better time than now.
Originally published in Business Day Nigeria, Monday 12th September, 2011
Okonjo Iweala is the Finance Minister and Co-ordinator of President Jonathan’s economic team