By Obiageli Ezekwesili
The wealth and poverty of nations inexorably depend on their domestic productivity and relative competitiveness. Hence the economic welfare of every citizen can only be guaranteed by nation-states that are governed by people who understand this very basic economic thought. No nation that has developed did so by having leaders who remained complacent in the face of the stark reality of very poor and declining performance of national productivity and competitiveness indices.
History is replete with nations that were once great but became complacent or distracted at some point only to be overtaken by nations they previously looked down on. How many people still remember that Argentina’s economy was once highly considered during its most vigorous period, from 1880 to 1905, when its expansion resulted in a 7.5-fold growth in GDP, averaging about 8% annually? One important measure of development, GDP per capita, rose from 35% of the United States average to about 80% during that period. Growth then slowed considerably, though throughout the period from 1890 to 1939, the country’s per capita income was similar to that of France, Germany and Canada. Compare Argentina’s economic performance with those of these countries today and you learn a lesson in how nations, like individuals regress.
Even more instructive is the history of many nations which were several thousands of miles behind others economically but which today are the locomotives that are keeping the global economy from completely running out of steam. No economic discourse is today complete without some perplexed acknowledgement by even the most cynical that China, India and Brazil have indeed come of age and have become the economies most deserving of the respect of all other economies. At another level, many a Nigerian perennially recalls when Singapore, Taiwan (China), South Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam were economic contemporaries of our country. Nigerians rue the missed opportunities that made us the laggard nation among these former peers. For each of these countries, the stage was set for commencement of their economic transformation from Low Income Country (LIC) status to Upper Middle Income Country (MIC), MIC or close to MIC respectively by the advent of quality leadership at both their political and public institutions that in turn resulted in high public sector efficiency. At the epicenter of this efficiency was and remains the investment in leadership of the kind that drove a national vision which placed education, intellect, values, reward for only strenuous effort and hard work at the center of their development strategy. Once the public sector was set aright, it freed up the private sector and the rest of society to aspire to perform at their maximum possibilities. This explains why even for the US which is the bastion of capitalism, it was through the instrumentality of its public sector leadership that it used public policy, public investment, and public institutions to set the stage for the world leading economy we all admire.
Productivity and increasingly today, national competitiveness will continue to be the lynchpin to ignite and accelerate the capacity of nations to make economic advancements and play in the big leagues of the global economy. Those economies that consistently improve their efficiency, productivity and competitiveness are the ones that guarantee their citizens progressive improvement in their quality of life. Every government whether rich or poor after all has a universal responsibility which if performed confers it legitimacy not just constitutionally but from the hearts of citizens- and that is that through the leadership of the nation-state, citizens will on a sustainable path enjoy increases in standard of living. In recent years, the concept of competitiveness has emerged as a new paradigm in economic development inferring that increasing national productivity is not enough but the pace of that improvement must surpass that of other nations to avoid losing share of the international markets.
Government, business and citizens- through civic engagement- play different but profoundly complementary and collaborative roles to engender economic productivity and competitiveness. Of the three sectors that interact to crystallize the productivity and competitiveness of nations; namely, government (public sector), business (private sector) and civil society, it is the political class and the public sector leadership that is ultimately most responsible for how well the country performs. The Public sector is made up of these two key layers, the political leaders who are subject to more frequent turnover based on constitutionally-mandated electoral processes that promote democratic competition on the one hand, and the tenure-track civil service of technocrats which have a considerably longer term mandate to manage the bureaucracy that helps translate the vision of the former into concrete deliverables in the form of services to citizens. Hence, whereas the political actors are subject to the electoral test in deriving their legitimacy, the civil or public servants in the wider spectrum that includes not only the ministries and departments of the core civil service but also the agencies or parastatals, derive their legitimacy from a competitive professional process that recruits them on the ground that they are capable of implementing programs and providing efficient and effective services. Usually of course, the political leadership can to a very significant extent determine the quality of the leadership of the technocratic leadership of the public service through the appointments they make regarding the heads of public institutions and the civil service.
Seeing that Government is the sector among the three that holds the strongest levers and the authority to provide the compelling vision around which all other sectors can construct their effective role playing, should the Nigerian citizens not immediately begin to take more than a passing interest in how entry into both the political and public service leadership space is regulated for quality? Effective public sector emerges at all levels of government where there is strong leadership capacity for it at the highest level of political authority. The criticality of the public sector’s role in national vision and strategy formulation, oversight, and implementation compels every nation aspiring to be productive and competitive to endeavor to have strong dynamic leadership of its public space and all its institutions. From the outset, the public sector in its vision setting role must have persons at both political and technocratic levels that can provide clear diagnostic of the problems facing the economy and articulate the compelling vision and solutions that appeal to a broad set of actors who are willing to seek change and implement global standard strategies to keep the nation’s productivity and competitiveness on a never ending race to the top of the global economic ladder. It is the primary responsibility of politicians and bureaucrats to set rules and practices that enable the productivity and efficiency of their national economies and progressive improvement of their country’s social indicators. When public decision makers possess the intellectual competence, the value constructs and the resilient capacity to use public policy, human and financial resources and institutions appropriately they set the stage and enhance the probability that their nation will climb up the league of productive and competitive nations.
The moral of my preamble therefore is that each of those previously contemporaneous economies succeeded while ours failed fundamentally because of the wide variability in the quality of leadership that pursued their nations’ visions compared to ours. Every great performance in life first starts with great ideas. As it is with individuals, so it is with nations. It is in the realm of ideas of that leaders espouse the kind of nation they really want to lead their citizens to build and bequeath to future generations. The Elite of every successful society always forms the nucleus of citizens with the prerequisite education, ethics and capabilities operating in the political sphere and the public service, providing the great ideas to build the nation and possessing the moral rectitude to always act in the public interest. Access to quality Education ensures that the elite group evolves constantly in every society. For as long as nations have public education systems that function, the poorest of their citizens is guaranteed to move up the ladder and someday emerge as a member of the elite class through academic hard work, strenuous effort and ultimate success at the higher levels of education. For every society that has succeeded therefore, it has taken such progressively evolving elite class to identify the problems, forge the political systems and processes, soundly articulate a rallying vision and use sound Public Policies and Prioritization of investments and requisite actions to over time build those strong institutions that outlive the best of charismatic and transformative individuals. But it always does start with quality leadership in the public space investing in a sustained manner for lasting institutions to eventually emerge over time. Institutions do not just happen or emerge in fast food style. Period.
Sadly, it is here that the quality of the leadership of our political and public sector levels failed us the most. Truth is that there was no other time resembling now that we have most been faced with the preponderance of such variable quality of leadership of men and women in our political and public service all over the country with hardly the stretch of cognitive or values anchored ideas of what is needed to turn our nation around. We today find in our political and public sector space a “less than elite bunch” that has established a world record in their omnivorous and parasitic attitude to the public treasury. I have always maintained that it smacks of the lowliest vision for anyone who has an opportunity at the Federal level to serve in a way that is beneficial to our over 140 million citizens to obscenely choose to reduce that opportunity to feathering personal interest and serving a paltry collection of at most 3000 direct or indirect relatives and friends that can statistically be traceable to anyone individual. Just imagine the stupendous difference in impact ratios of those two widely different choices! How else can one explain the specter of majority poor quality actors at all levels of our national life once again seeking to gain ascendancy into the public space of our nation for local government, state and federal offices? Pray, what quality of productivity through compelling vision and policy articulation could some of these fellows ever generate to stem the tide of our seemingly endless descent into absolute mediocrity? In the face of our empirically established and globally acknowledged potential to have emerged one of the economic locomotives even as far back as two decades ago, should the citizens north, south, east and west of Nigeria not be more collective in mobilizing toward a successful legitimate action to show the Red Card to all such uninspiring cast of actors?
The quality of public debates of issues in nations can tell a whole story on the strength of performance of the leaders, the institutions and citizens’ participation. Such strength ultimately determines the performance of their economies and the well being of their citizens. What is the quality of economic discourse and policy making in our society today? Beyond the rhetoric and anecdotal mouthing of pedestrian solutions to deeply complex and protracted problems of our economic, social and political underperformance, what else have we been offered by this “less than elite bunch” of operatives of our public space? Unfortunately the abysmal, asinine basis for policy choices and the absolute absence of empirically tested contest of ideas in our clime is frequently followed by the rest of the world because of the power of information globalization and democratization. The summation of both our foreign friends and our foes alike is that all is not well with our leadership class. This has often earned me the empathy of some of the leaders on the continent to whom I have the privilege of providing economic advice by virtue of my professional responsibility. I have come to expect with embarrassment the “what is wrong with your country, Oby” question. Many a time as soon as an outstanding and well-meaning African leader to whom I provided advice that was adopted and found efficacious finishes expressing appreciation; they follow up with that uncomfortable question. While I listen in deep pain, they then go on to recall the brilliance of one or two Nigerian acquaintances in their college days or in a previous career- and end the empathy talk with well-meaning utter wonderment at how a nation so blessed with such high quality human capital somehow always manages to monumentally underperform.
They are right. It takes a nation that is the epitome of a paradox and which lacks the capacity to deploy its leadership endowments prudently to end up the way we have once again done by ending a decade that started so promisingly for us in 1999/2000 in a spectacularly horrible way. We have squandered an incredible stock of excess crude account savings of over $27B (equivalent to the combined annual budget of over twenty five Africa countries) in just a period of four years with nothing of a productive investment to show for it. Neither our human capital nor our physical capital was built up from yet another tranche of huge exchange earnings and receipts from depleting natural resource just like it happened in the 70’s and the 80s. As I write, our Human Development Indicators are at the level of Chad’s! We simply once again in a new Millennium repeated the cyclical pattern of bad behavior with the common wealth from petrodollars. Each time I think of the scandal of our entrapment by the “resource curse”, I find myself concluding that it all happens because our nation is a place where the worst among us increasingly govern the best among us. Each time you assume we have hit the bottom in terms of the lowest common denominator of quality of leaders in our politics and wider public sector, another set comes along that makes the previous appear seemingly “not that bad after all”. For how long shall we continue to tolerate this deadly Russian roulette of the one eyed man (it has to be a man) in the land of the blind becoming king?
All this came into sharper focus for me when I was recently home as a Guest Speaker for Pat Utomi’s Center for Values in Leadership on the role of public policy in education and the future of Nigeria. It afforded me the opportunity to interact during the question and comments session with an amazing array of youths from all over the country. The painful mix of hope and despair that came through from their questions and comments, their vein busting angst against a nation-state that they evaluated as having failed them, their restiveness to have silver bullets that can solve the myriad of problems and constraints that hold captive their individual potentials, their trenchant distrust of the public space and most that operated or operate within it, their quest for a new nation where effort, merit, hard work, ethos and values of consistent integrity pierced through my spirit as I listened to them that afternoon. The experience brought back the fiery anger that rose up in me in 2006 upon reading the terrible findings of the various Education sector and system diagnostics that I had invested in as a basic fundamental for understanding the problems of the sector when I was asked to lead the reform efforts at that Federal Ministry.
That anger had fuelled the impatience with which I led the team effort for a comprehensive analysis-anchored restructuring of what had become a perfectly dysfunctional system that was failing our children especially the majority of them from poor homes that could not purchase the best private education. The “reform resistance army” that was used to mortgaging the future of our children fought with all their might to misrepresent, to distort and truncate those reforms from the outset but they had not imagined the depth of my angst-fuelled resolve to effect change even for the few months I was leading the effort. That same “less then elite” bunch remains in the public space today both within and outside the Sector indifferent to the fact that all of the most important indicators of failure of the education system that we had pointed out to the nation five years ago continue to worsen daily.
For example, we had been aghast at the trend that revealed that following yearly decline over the previous ten years, in 2006 only 26% of the children passing out of our secondary schools nationwide were passing with 5 credits including in English and Mathematics! Of course we proceeded to layout a menu of actions to stem the tide in 2007. Well, fast forward to 2010, the percentage had declined to 2%! And now there is no consequence and no accountability on the part of those that occupy the public space that is producing such monumental underperformance. Consider also that some 1 million youths annually seek to acquire University education but only some 250,000 will ultimately get a placement. Just imagine what that means in terms of the army of poorly educated, unskilled, disenchanted, frustrated and dangerous young people that constitute a huge productivity loss for our country. Consider that for the ones that end up graduating from higher institutions in the country, a well administered survey to track a sample of them over the last decade at that time came back with the sad revelation that over 82% of them had over the decade been without jobs with just about 12 % of this lot being under employed- that is, having a job that is really not at par with their training. Yet, what articulate voice of concern have you heard from our political class on such ticking time bomb? So, which elite are we grooming for the future leadership of our nation?
The heartbreak I felt for the young ones at the Utomi event whose voices rang with haunting fear that if nothing changed urgently, they risked becoming the “lost generation” is combined with the profound peeve that I have about the vexing syndrome that is fast becoming systemic and moved me to write these reflections publicly about my own country for the first time since I relocated from home a few years ago. The syndrome of shameful stratospheric rate at which our society now rewards leaders for their previous failures, their mind-boggling underperformance and their ignoble behavior is destroying our future. I listened intently and heard in the sometimes-rebellious tone of the many that spoke up at the event, their despondency and frustration at the fact that they feel trapped in a nation that fails to realize what the rest of the world knows about the average Nigerian. It is that we actually thrive better when an environment allows us to work hard, put our best foot forward, compete pure and simple. Whenever those conditions exist, the Nigerian always wins and stands out. It is therefore not asking for too much that these young ones seek from their leaders the quality governance and leadership infrastructure that recognizes that the young and not the oil or other minerals on which the leadership currently obsesses are the true and lasting capital for our future.
After all, which example of a nation does History teach us ever advanced economically, socially or politically by giving all the incentives for higher offices to those leaders at the different levels of governance whose records of past failures or aberrant behavior were already well documented? I know of none. How come in Nigeria, the political class and appointees in the public service leadership have appropriated to themselves the entitlement to lead no matter how grievous their past track record of failure? Why have we allowed ourselves the opprobrium of being a nation that gives completely unearned promotion to higher responsibilities as a reward for failing? We have a bizarre case of moral hazard leading to even more reckless, opportunistic behavior. We have unwittingly instituted a vicious cycle and certainty of humongous future failure usually always worse than the one before. Our indifference is what earns well-known underperformers and contemptible characters the opportunity and freedom to pillage and destroy the commonwealth even more dastardly the next time around. The time has come that we must all now listen to the wise counsel of a former leader of France, Charles de Gaulle who said “Politics is too serious a business to be left for politicians alone”.
We have performed considerably below our potential as a nation because lethargy and political manipulation by same locust class has stopped the citizens from coalescing in an effective way to demand for public accountability and sanction of bad, reckless, opportunistic behavior and underperformance of leaders. We had contrary to that wise counsel from the French statesman, left the business of managing the affairs of our nation to politicians and not even the best of them.
But there is hope. As our census data reveal regarding over half of our nation, we are presently one of the incredible nations of the young in an aging world. The generation that I refer to in all of Africa as the Turning Point Generation (TPG) do not carry the liabilities and albatross of their forebears. Their types in Nigeria for example are hardly moved by the spoils of the oil revenue dominant public treasury. They are eclectic in range and diversity of talents and are driven by ideas, creativity and innovativeness that push them to excel beyond the limitations that their own nation seeks to place upon them. The stoic among the Nigerian youths breaks through all constraints and aspires as a citizen of the globe to match or surpass the achievements of their peers in other nations. One thing holds them to a universal standard- the common language and ubiquitous social networking tools.
The incontrovertible fact is that it is an inextricable mix of great character, competency and capacity that are the core ingredients which progressively set off the best of public sector and political leadership for transformation of all the nations which we today envy. Inversely, those three ingredients have been on the decline in our nation over the decades since independence such that I could wager a safe bet that a tracking exercise of the trend in cumulative intelligence, integrity and capacity quotient of the actors in the Nigerian public space over the fifty years of our self governance would appallingly reveal a fast decelerating trajectory. When did we ever assess our leaders at every level of the public space of our nation based on these core attributes which are proven to make or mar nations? Most galling is how over the years as our standards eroded further, we watched with numbing indifference the orchestrated animus that this buccaneering group spews toward anyone that dares to stand against the grain.
I recall during our first term in government, the scorn and derision with which an eminently competent and capable Nasir El Rufai was treated by some of such fellows in that Administration when on one occasion as the DG of the Bureau for Public Enterprises he showed his strong character. He had reported to the National Council on Privatization and had one of his closest Deputy Directors sacked from the Public Service. This was an official that acted on the odious presumption that everyone that goes into the Nigerian public sector has a price either before or after a policy decision they are responsible for is made. So, he went ahead to collect and brought several tens of millions of Naira to Nasir from a celebrated entrepreneur who strictly based on BPE’s adherence to the rules of competition had won the right to purchase a publicly owned enterprise. Sadly, in a show of shame that followed, the one who did right was called names for not only being arrogantly competent and irritatingly capable but now also trying “to prove something about his moral superiority”. I recall the event here because at that time, it left such a lasting impression on me and was the catalyst that helped draw our kindred spirits closer as reform allies that we were for all those years we served together in the public sector.
It is now more urgent than ever for us to reject being defined by the worst among us. How did we allow this “less than elite” class to cunningly convince our society that no one who goes into the public space can stand above the undignified mess of pottage that is public sector corruption? Why has our nation allowed them to set such dishonorable standard such that when anyone takes a contrarian stance it is merely an indication of “being holier than thou” and that if enough time is spent dropping untruths about the person somehow something would stick? While advocating public service careers to many promising young professionals who regard me as their mentor, several have vowed that such toxic and deplorable symbolism of our public space has kept and will forever keep them away from venturing to serve the nation. The fear of the machination of the morally repugnant group that has seized our public space is keeping our best from exactly where they should be if the lessons of other successful nations are a guide. It is surely bewildering that this bunch succeeded in capturing the public space deploying their tenacious wiles to prevent the massive entry of the right quality of people that would tip the balance between the forces of destruction and those of construction of our nation. Only a people united and acting as a collective can end this anomie. Otherwise, it shall be woe unto our land since according to wise King Solomon in the Book of Proverbs, it is indeed “woe unto the city (nay nation) in which the beggars ride on horses and princes walk on bare foot”. Take a look around you…… It is an aberration.
Therefore, it is on this crucial agenda of setting new and highest quality standards of leadership for our public space that I have the greatest hope in the Turning Point Generation. They have everything they need to be our nation’s Game Changers. The role of the young in societies and their individual as well as group redefinition of their relationship with the nation-state, its institutions and those that lead the public space is a phenomenon that as we see around the world is incredibly inspiring for its deterrence potency. Our youthful citizens’ willingness to invest time and effort monitoring public affairs is what can become the most effective filter for the quality of political leaders and policy-makers that emerge from among us and to be held accountable for what they do, and deterred from underperforming, pillaging and wasting public resources. Such public interest consciousness requires a shared set of values which go beyond narrow self-interest and, in particular, a widespread concern for public affairs. Once that subset of the youthful population -that was at the Education event- can make the connection between the causes of their stagnation, their nation’s underperformance and the incredible power they possess collectively to mobilize transformative change, they will instantly become the change they want to see happen.
For this youthful population, I wish to leave them with the knowledge that poverty in any part of our country leaves its victims with exactly the same devalued and depreciated human value regardless of the ethnicity of the non performing leaders who through egregious abuse of the public space consign their citizens to subhuman existentialism. It will take a nation state that has quality political and public sector leadership for the stage to be set for much needed stellar improvements in Nigeria’s productivity and competitiveness performance. It is such improvements that will begin to secure improved quality of life and a guaranteed future for our people, majority of whom are in their prime of youth today. Without doubt, it is the rot in the quality of leadership across the spectrum of our nation’s public space that has trapped our citizens in pernicious poverty. The common enemy of the poor should therefore be anyone who though possessing the power in the public space to change the course of the poor, blatantly chooses to do otherwise. Some that walked that space including yours sincerely tried but their best was not enough. The massiveness of our nation’s problems requires much more than the episodic flicker of light in the tunnel that we have occasionally experienced since when I was born three years after our independence.
The kind of transformation that Nigerians deserve urgently is inconsistent with incremental, marginal change in the cumulative leadership quotient of our public space from its current lowest base. To take the nation out of the deep rot it currently finds itself direly requires a tidal wave tipping point triggered by collective forcefulness of vision, intellectually grounded competency, uncompromising strength of character, and indomitability of the capacity of every of our public leadership at all levels of governance.
Let those youths hear me now, your generation has a historical opportunity at a season like this. As I recently posted on my Face Book page to my friends, “when stuck @ a low equilibrium level of performance, the same-same solution will not work. You need a shocker to rupture the stagnation. Find the shocker and go for it”!
Reflections by Oby Ezekwesili, former Minister of Education on events at a speech she gave about Public Policy and the Future of Education in Nigeria at the 5th Annual Pat Utomi Center for Values in Leadership in Lagos, February 7, 2011.