Poet, critic and social analyst, Odia Ofeimun in this interview explains to NKRUMAH BANKONG-OBI the roles played by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in pillaging Nigeria’s economy
This is Dr. Okonjo-Iweala’s second coming and the second major controversy she is bringing into the country. The first, if you recall, was the debt payment to the Paris Club which she championed. With this fuel subsidy removal, Nigerians are pointing accusing fingers at her directly. Where do you think this particular venture of hers is taking us?
I think it is not quite fair to Okonjo-Iweala, to say that it is because of her that Nigeria has gone the way it has gone. Nigeria had already taken the position that this economy needed to be deregulated, that the structural adjustment needed to become norm and the basic determinant of how policy is made in Nigeria. That position has remained the same since 1985. All the Federal Government has done is to shop for ministers of Finance and officials who make it possible for them to run a deregulated system, a liberalised system, without running into the bottlenecks and the dead-ends that all such programmes normally end with. Okonjo-Iweala has merely taken up the role that almost all the previous ministers of Finance since 1985 have taken. To insist that it is because she is around that we are having the current crisis is like saying a government that had already chosen to commit suicide brought a good doctor with amnesia.
What I can say about Okonjo-Iweala is that she needn’t have returned but for the fact that she did not finish the job of collapsing the Nigeria economy when Obasanjo was there. It is good to put it that way because the first thing IMF operatives are trained to do is to dismantle an economy so that it will be possible to insert what they regard as ‘bitter medicine’. The bitter medicine brings all of us to our knees, so that we are no longer in position to stand up to the battering that will come from outside.
In the case of Obasanjo, he was illiterate in economics, I mean, thoroughly illiterate, such that whatever they told him, the glory they told him would arise, he believed them. Obasanjo wanted to be a great president, somebody who would override everybody, and be so great that he would be the only one remembered in Nigeria’s history. But once he bought that destructive engagement with the Nigerian economy, sponsored by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, he was bound to collapse. By the time he realised the game he had played against himself, it was too late. That was why he wanted a third term. He wanted a third term so he could attempt to do something on a grand scale.
Is Okonjo-Iweala regarded as the devil’s chaplain because there are dissenting voices or because she is the unofficial prime minister?
There have always been Nigerians who opposed structural adjustment, but usually they are outside government. Within government anybody who was known to be opposed to such positions was shunted aside. If they are looking for a consultant in a university, they would not pick a consultant whom they know would oppose any of those policies, so that serious economists were side-stepped, were shunted aside, so that careerists who would mouth all the niceties of World Bank economies were the ones who were shining. Most civil society organisations, even while criticising it, bought into the logic of the World Bank position, so that across Nigeria, you had a creaming-off of the most activist population in favour of economic theories and administrative programmes that were destructive of production in the Nigerian economy. The reason why it has survived is because, as I said, they took over the universities, they took over the non-governmental organisations and they took over government departments. The people they had trained for the purpose are all over the place, they are still around. None of them would agree to how they contributed to the destruction of the Nigerian economy. Many of them are today telling you that they are opposed to subsidy removal because they helped create the situation that has made it important for us to either have a subsidy or not to have it, whereas as you and I know, that isn’t the crisis. The crisis is that because of the liberalisation they bought, the deregulation and the devaluation of the Naira that they bought, the privatisation and such unhealthy trafficking with undertaker theories from the World Bank, almost everything that mattered went kaput. If their theories were all so good, how come about 30 years after, we are still digging the same holes that we were digging yesterday. I remember in those days, anytime they talked about fuel subsidy, I got so annoyed, especially with the Nigerian labour unions because they talked fuel subsidy but never dared to touch the issue of the devaluation of the naira which was the source of the rise in prices. When they talked about it, they did it in a round-about fashion that never linked them properly, because you see, if you concentrated on hacking down their attempt at bringing down the Naira, you would be disagreeing with liberalisation completely, because once you remove the devaluation of the naira and privatisation and you started talking regulation, you were in business. Most of them today are pretending to be on the side, on which they are actually not standing because you see, if you do not build a refinery, you know you are creating a problem and you have to import. You know that if you import you will have to run into foreign exchange problems and if you devalue your Naira, it means the devaluation of the Naira will become the determinant to a very large extent, of what happens to your fuel prices and therefore the level of inflation in the rest of your economy. They know this. But this is where the real problem is, nobody suggests how to deal with it.
These days, we hear them saying that they always wanted to build refineries, they gave licences to so many people. Nobody has told us whether the people they gave those licences were qualified to get them and whether it was not a ruse, simply to lead the unwholesome into unwholesome business. Well, they never built other refineries and we are told that the refineries were almost collapsing or had collapsed. Obasanjo spent about $220 million yet nothing happened. How can a serious country say that it is because some foreign agents, whom they had paid, did not do a job that they are in trouble? First, we were not supposed to have started running a refinery without training the engineers who would run it or even build another one. There is no reason any serious country, 50 years after it started prospecting for oil, would not have enough engineers on the ground who can build refineries without foreign intervention. The fact that we have not thought about it that way, shows that whoever was designing the policy was either not an economist or hated his country so much and therefore, took only the bribes and let the rubbish take place. If you were genuinely interested in the future, you would know that if you don’t build refineries, you are in trouble.
So why do you think Nigerian leaders are neck-deep in IMF policies, even when some European countries that bought into them are collapsing economically?
The truth is this: the West bought a theory that was thoroughly faulty. But they had powerful advocates. Thatcher and Reagan were the great apostles of liberalisation, deregulation, privatisation, devaluation of the currency, but mainly for third world countries because if we did not do those things, we would not lie prostrate enough for them to trade with or take over. Now, they had an angle to those theories which also destroyed production systems. Britain was de-industrialised, America was de-industrialised, all the people who bought into that Anglo-Saxon rubbish in economic theory, all of them destroyed their productive sectors. So it was very easy for them to force all third world countries beholden to them to do the same. While America was exiling productive sector to Asia and the rest of it, Nigeria was doing something just worse. We were also destroying our productive sector.
They used to tell us that if devaluation of the Nigerian currency kills a Nigerian industry, it means that industry was inefficient, it was bound to die. The truth is that a serious country does not allow even the inefficient industry to die. You protect that industry against invasion from outside because no matter how well structured the foreign invasion is, the one in your country is more protective of your interest. The Chinese are not stupid. They are running the world today with 80 per cent of government-owned industries. The industries can go to the stock exchange and play the game of capitalism but they are government-owned. Hugo Chavez is not a friend of America, but he is sensible enough to know that America is the market and that that is where Venezuela must sell to survive as a good country. He went into that country, made sure they built refineries, opened up gas stations where they sell their own oil to Americans. Nigerians keep telling you that government things don’t work.
What do they mean whey they say that? Why is Venezuela working enough to be able to reduce the price of fuel to barely nothing? The reason is that those who bought this destructive theory from the international system are too well entrenched in the corruption that it of necessity creates. In the Nigerian system, they are making too much a hell of money out of it, that the rest of us do not matter or count. You have a situation where you heard Lamido Sanusi talking about how government interventions made no difference to the building or destruction of the refineries. A serious government would remove him from the Central Bank, and ask him to go to Kano and build us a refinery and see what he will do. A man who cannot run a shop, who cannot run a factory, frankly ought not to be put in the node of any economy, and asked to manage it. If Okonjo-Iweala says that government institutions don’t work, she is not qualified to be a finance minister because the job of a finance minister is not just to award contracts. It is also to ensure that institutions are backed at the level of the provision of enough resources for them to thrive. And if they are not thriving, it means she is not providing enough protection for them. There is no way any of them can argue that it is because government owned the refineries. No, all they can tell us is that they are collaborators with the corruption that is ruining all the institutions, ruining all the industries. Anybody who cannot admit it but goes on telling us about how government does not work, is not just a liar, but a criminal, because there is a criminal propensity in anybody who says so. All that they called their economics is just plain, bloody corruption. The story of privatisation in Nigeria proves it so well; we don’t even need to go into all that. The truth is that, these days, you hear people using the deregulation of the communication sector as their excuse for not doing it. So? How come all the people who can afford to establish communication sectors don’t build factories? They know that other people build steel structures, they don’t build steel structures? It is just a matter of jumping into a myth and pretending. They didn’t build the technology, they bought it. It is like somebody giving you a technology to cut paper money and you are pretending that is deregulation. That is not deregulation. The communication sector is the most wrongful example to give. Why did all the factories close down? Where were they?
All the machine tool industries in Nnewi, Aba, Abakaliki, Ota, Kano, where are they? So when people are talking about deregulation, they should ask themselves: all the factories and industries that were indigenised, what happened to them? Is it because Nigerians are so stupid, that it is only in communication that they know how to do things. That is rubbish.
In the case of the refineries, which for me are at the heart of the current crisis, it is possible for us to run 30 refineries in Nigeria within one year. There is no state in Nigeria that cannot contribute to the building of such refineries. If we produce more oil than we need, we sell it abroad. The point is that the Nigerians who are benefiting from the system that exists would prefer to build refineries in other parts of the world and export oil to Nigeria from there. That we have allowed it shows the irresponsibility of government after government. Even those that are now telling us that ‘we didn’t do this in our time’ are liars. What they did was worse than what Goodluck Jonathan has just done. The terrible thing about Jonathan’s case is that instead of punishing those who steal the money, he has decided that the rest of us are the ones who need to be jolted. We are not being jolted. It is actually that he has removed the subsidy destroying the very basis upon which the economy can grow, because after you have removed the subsidy as you have just done, the Naira automatically gets devalued. The economy itself goes down on its knees, you start the process all over again because the fuel prices will start increasing. So we might get to a situation where the fuel prices might rise to N300 simply because somebody decides not to do the first things first – build and ensure that refineries work, and defend the Naira. To defend the Naira, it’s not something outside of productivity. You must design what I call industry targeting. You must decide which industry must survive in Nigeria, irrespective of whether they make profit or not. When we had those industries that were not making profits, we were masters of ourselves. But with the International Monetary Fund era, we no longer wished to suffer pain so that Nigeria will grow. We preferred to just borrow the money. And once you start borrowing money, it leads to the destruction of your production capacities back to where they want you to be. A country of slaves who are happy because they ride jeeps produced by other people, when it is actually possible for Nigerian engineers to be put together to give us a proper motor industry.
Photo: Odia Ofeimun
SOURCE: – TheNews