Well travelled Nigerian, and currently based in Canada Wolé Akínselóyìn, who is a political social and economic commentator in this explosive interview with Yínká Erínfolámí, talked about trending COVID-19 pandemic, the decaying education sector, Nigeria’s overdependence on petroleum oil and other matters arising:
KP: It is widely believed that social media is educative, but at what point should the society draw a line between educative information and fake news?
WA: Social media like most platforms can either be positive or negative. It is a medium where people can organise, be educated and make their government accountable putting pressure on those that lead the society. However, it is a landmine for fake news. In most societies they have fact checkers but, in our society, even reputable news outlets join in peddling the fake news. I am for free expression, but I can’t stand fake news and it’s propagation. It should not be difficult for anyone to do a research on what they post. I think and I’m being careful, that there should be a regulation where Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and those who have these platforms to flag fake news and take them down. I watched Mark Zuckerberg last week saying they pull down those that can immediately harm people but the rest they just put a mark on them, so that you know what you are reading isn’t factual. I’m for liberty, but also for responsible information sharing, but I’m not for the draconian laws you see in Nigeria.
KP: The world is experiencing a pandemic on an unprecedented proportion. What is your view on COVID-19?
WA: Pandemic is a fact of life. I don’t want to go far into history, but there was black death that wiped out arguably the third of world’s population, there was bubonic plague more than once, cholera outbreak almost 3 times, there was Spanish flu that killed estimated 50 million people, there was Asian flu that killed about 2 million, there was HIV that killed over 30 million and others like SARS, swine flu etc. Covid-19 has 2 things making it have serious attention – Its high infection rate because asymptomatic carriers can infect people, and it has high fatality rate. Above those 2 it is novel, that is new, unknown to human beings, so everyone is learning, and that is why it seems there are mixed messages from even the experts. I believe the most effective way against it is when we come up with a vaccine or treatment like HIV without vaccine but highly effective medications.
KP: What is your assessment of governments’ use and implementation of ‘stay at home’ strategy considering the economic situation of the common man in Nigeria?
WA: African countries like Nigeria are at crossroads using physical distancing in mitigating against the spread of the virus. Both the state and the people are poor – The stats are grim, 92.1% live below $5.5 per day, that is lower than 2 cups of Mocha or Latte in Starbucks. About 8% earn more than $135 per month. This is from World Bank when the exchange rate was officially ₦305 which means those figures are even worse. Our shadow economy is larger than our official economy. These people mostly live on daily income because we have ignored substantive poverty alleviation programs for years. We are low on Human development index because education and health don’t get much from our national budget. The economy is monolithic depending on commodity that is susceptible to external shock, yet we have refused to diversify. Revenue at 6% of GDP is about the lowest even by African standards and budget to GDP about 4-5%. There is simply no buffer fiscally to alleviate the suffering of those that will be highly impacted by the stay at home order. To make matters worse we have no data of the most vulnerable and so government paying money in cash gives room to massive fraud. In Nigeria you can transfer money to people without an account and they can cash from the ATM without a card and that would be better. The Federal Government may have to hire an army of people for contact tracing and improve on their testing and isolate/treat so the stay at home could be shorter but now they are not doing enough of this.
KP: Provision of quality public education is central to upward social mobility. But public education has collapsed in Nigeria due to decades of neglect by governments at all levels. What is the way forward?
WA: Education is extremely important in nation development, especially if you have to get millions out of poverty. About 60 million in our country cannot either read or write. About 13.1 million out of school children , when the Minister of education says 16 million. In 15 to 20 years from now, what kind of future lies ahead of them? Unfortunately, we don’t see this as an emergency situation, so we allocate average of 7% of our budget to this sector. Even as low as that, about 80% would go on recurrent expenditure while the capital part would be about 50-60% implemented. The educational system is in shambles. To start with, primary and secondary schools must be mandatory not just on paper but must be implemented. We have that to JSS 3 now, but not implemented. The Federal government will have to do more than what they are doing through UBEC. The states will have to see this as a priority. Investment in early childhood education and teacher’s training will be incredibly important. The states and the federal government through the states should invest heavily in apprenticeship program and technical colleges. We cannot all be University graduates, we need trained tradespeople across the economy. The universities will have to source more funding from the private sector either outright funding or endowment. They need to partner with private sector in funding of R&D where those companies can also benefit immensely. Our curriculum should be such that people can compete in today’s world not just go through the University system. Our institutions should get into collaboration with foreign institutions, by so doing they will be forced to make some changes to meet the terms of the collaboration, which will improve their standard to international standards. Government should make education a priority and at least allocate 15-20% of our budget to it. Qualitative education can be a huge source of revenue and forex, as we attract foreign students. We have done this in the past and can be done again. In 17 years, the budgetary allocation to education is ₦4.5tr that’s $14.5b. What miracle are we then expecting from our schools?
KP: Nigeria is one of the world largest producer of oil and gas with little to show for it. We export crude and import refined petroleum products. How did we get here and what is the way out?
Let’s go back into history how we came to depend solely on oil and that’s as a result of our faulty fiscal federalism. We had 1953 Sir Louis Chick commission where Income tax, mining rent and royalty 100% went to the regions, but export duties were shared 50-50 by region and federal government. In 1958, it was the Raisman commission where derivatives to states/region reduced to 50%. The other 50 shared as follows, 20% to the federal government, 30% to distributable pool – shared by the 4 regions, north 40%, east 31% and west 24%, southern Cameroon 5%, and export duty 100% to the region.
In 1963 constitution, mining rights, oil producing region allocated 67.4%, federal government allocated 20%, non-oil regions 12.6%, while the regions still maintained 100% export duties. Under the military we had the 1970 decree 13 oil producing 5% of their derivation percentage mining rights for oil producing states, 45% to the states and FG 55%. Later there was Decree 6 1975, derivation 20% to states and 80% to the federal government. Then in 1977 came Aboyade commission where derivation was abolished. 100% of the national resources now belonged to the FG and zero to states, export duties zero. From almost everything to regions in 1953 to zero in 1977 did not give the states any incentive to invest in anything.
Today everything goes to the federation account and the federal government gets 52.68%, States get 26.72% while the Local governments get 20.60%. Instead of derivatives, allocation was made on Equality which is 40%, population 30%, internal revenue generation effort 10%, land mass 10% and you have education, health and water all 10%. So, we went from derivatives based on resources to population and land mass of the State constituting a whopping 40% even if you don’t bring anything to the table. I know some would say but there is 13% derivation. Instead of the states investing in revenue generating projects, they simply wait till census and manipulate the figures.
Since there is no incentive to generate revenue but to wait for the federation account, everyone depends on oil revenue. The unfortunate thing is, oil like every commodity is highly vulnerable to external shock that’s not good for our economy. In the 1960s we accounted for about 43-47% of worlds crude palm oil, today we are number 5 in the world with mere 1.015 million MT, that’s 1.4% of world’s production while Indonesia and Malaysia 42.5 million MT and 20 million MT respectively. We were the second highest producer of cocoa but far behind today. We were number 1 with shelled groundnut with the pyramid in Kano, today it is gone.
Unfortunately, diaspora remittance is even higher than what we make from oil. We need a robust fiscal federalism or restructuring whatever we want to call it. I live in Alberta in Canada, one of the richest provinces in Canada, so much that there is no provincial sales tax and we rely on the same thing Ondo state have, bitumen. Imagine if Ondo state relied on bitumen and explore it, if Niger state and Kogi relied on electricity and export them to neighbouring states, coal in Enugu being explored by the state, Tin in Jos, agrarian economy in some parts of the North and the states/ regions are to compete in a healthy manner and just a small percentage and federal tax is sent to Abuja, revenues will be high and development will be rapid and only oil producing areas will use their oil money to develop their states/region. We will develop mechanised agriculture and light manufacturing. We will develop at different pace. In 2018, non-oil export in Vietnam was $245bn, whereas Nigeria’s non-oil export revenue I think was $2bn. The East will be like an Asian hub of manufacturing if we do this.
KP: Who should take the blame for the below average and/or non performance of the elected officials in Nigeria?
Everyone of us should be blamed for the performance of our leaders. The truth is every society deserves the kind of leader it gets. I have the opportunity and the privilege to have lived in other parts of the world and I see how the electorate put the feet of their elected officials to fire, make them accountable. Our leaders are from among us and not from the moon. They are a reflection of who we are.
We are generally unruly, and we don’t have the culture of delayed gratification and we abuse power irrespective of the little power each one of us have. I had to go out with a friend one day and his driver wears a kind of uniform I can’t even place. He is not a military man nor a veteran, but he gets away with things on the road. He would not put on his seat belt, blocked an ambulance, would face oncoming traffic, drive on BRT lane. I was boiling, had to tell him to use his belt. I wished we would be arrested. I later told my friend that I will never go out in their car if the guy drives.
Why did I say that? With a uniform that it isn’t even military, he feels he has some powers and he is using it to break the law, do whatever he likes and so offensive in his driving that he doesn’t care about other road users. That is the kind of the society we have. It is a culture thing and until that culture is changed nothing really would change. Another problem is gross illiteracy and poverty. With that democracy is bound to be in trouble. It does not take much to manipulate a country where over 100 million is living below $1 a day. If that were to be a country that would be I guess the 3rd or so largest country on the continent, it is why with ₦1000 that’s less just a little over $2, you can make them vote anyhow. When our leaders know that their actions have consequences, they would change.
KP: Do you see the world overcoming the current challenges with lessons learn?
I believe the world will learn from this, and be better should there be a second wave of this crisis, which is likely to happen in fall (months of September, October and November). Unfortunately, it is not likely that there will be a vaccine then. although two are looking promising from NIH and Oxford.
Possibly there would also be medications before the second wave, otherwise we are not going to return to normal life as we know it before the physical distancing protocol. I believe many nations will now ramp up production of important equipment, like the ventilators, masks, PPE generally, and stock up their national strategic stockpiles. Models are also probably going to be much closer to the real infection and death rates. It will not be novel again as we must have learnt a lot about the virus.
KP: During the 2015 presidential election you made the decision to vote GEJ against PMB, the preferred candidate of most southerners at the time. 5 years since his loss of the election, what are your feelings? And what is your message to Nigerians?
I have always been an activist and was even rusticated in the University for this. I have always hoped for a better Nigeria and prior to 2015 I was unhappy with the direction of the country. I wanted a strong opposition that could wrestle power from PDP as they seemed so comfortable since 1999.
I was however disappointed when APC handed their presidential ticket to General M. Buhari. I knew we were in for a terrible ride going from frying pan to fire. I was a young adult when he sacked a democratically elected government. His economic policies were static and our economy practically ground to a halt. The economy went into a recession, forex market crashed. Inflation ticked up and the nation practically lined up for what we regarded then as essential commodities.
Coming back at about 70 and perhaps the only ex head of state or president who has not improved/ developed himself and unlikely that a leopard will change its spot even at that age, I decided to throw my support for the status quo. Yes I received some flaks for it, but I’m one person that I doesn’t mind standing alone, once I am convinced of anything. My conscience is what matters. Even though I couldn’t vote as I was shuttling then between Canada and Nigeria, I was forced to support the regime I criticized for years because I believed we were heading something worse economically and I never regretted it.