Several years ago, The Economist newspaper made a call on the transition, in Nigeria, from state-owned provision of certain services to a market-based model. In the newspaper’s estimation, the transition would flounder on the back of regulatory issues. It did not think that, as an economy, we had enough economic nous locally to force competitive practices on sectors that were until quite recently, state monopolies. And any one with a sense of our penchant to cut corners would have been hard pressed to deny this. Ten years after the most successful such transition, in the telecommunications sector, the jury is still out on this question. However, it is a fair comment that compared with the activities of Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s independent regulatory and competition authority for the communications industries, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) barely scratches the surface.
I confess that the debate around The Economist’s position then was one of the more useful that I’d been involved in. There was (and might just still be) a lot to be said for the arguments leading up to this conclusion. But the one inescapable conclusion from the conversation around this proposition was that the two major problems with the organisation of the Nigerian state are its failure to seek solutions to its difficulties by interrogating first principles; and it’s visceral aversion to choose from the suites of options confronting it based on competitive bids.
To take but two examples, given that the office of vice chancellor in a university is almost entirely administrative, why permit a brilliant scholar to waste away balancing books of account and attending meetings? Why not instead find professional managers for that position, and leave our brightest minds free to pursue the basic and applied research without which we will remain stranded in the 20th century? Next, the office of the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) should become vacant early in 2014. Why not advertise for this vacancy in major newspapers here and abroad? Ensuring thereby that the most qualified person, local or foreign, gets the job? The operational and legal independence that the CBN needs to keep a decent handle on monetary policy kind of recommends this approach.
All this said, for many economies, regulation is always going to be a default setting. Resorted to where scant opportunities exist for competition to drive efficient production and investment, spur new product development processes, and improve customers’ net welfare gains. However, few would, today, agree with The Economist that in order to ensure that competition does not encourage incentives to gold plate or remove incentives to efficiency, but instead compels providers to respond to signals from consumers’ spend, it is necessary that we appoint the big consulting outfits into the regulatory functions. This it must be said is not just because the big consulting and tax outfits have been shown themselves to have clay feet.
On the question of the talent necessary to drive the newly competitive industries, The Economist did also provoke many years back. It argued that our hope as a nation rests with the diaspora. These young men and women are better educated nationals having attended some of the best educational institutions in the world. And more importantly, they’ve had the benefit of much more organised societies. Because of this last consideration, the diaspora is presumably more morally prepared to lead the country’s renaissance. If nothing else, they understand what it means to live in a law-based society.
If the debate around the country’s regulatory deficit was civil, the one around our skills deficit was less so. In so many words, The Economist glossed over “our” value. “Our”, being resident nationals, who’d been to school here and consequently are not suited for much. Of course, the one error at the back of The Economist’s conclusion was the assumption (usually made by non-Nigerians) that this country fails because we don’t know better. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. We fail, because we’ve chosen to.
The collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, provided the strongest test for this conclusion. Suddenly, out of work members of the diaspora made a beeline for “home”. Schadenfreude would drive one to ask The Economist whether it followed the professional trajectory of the returnees? For not only have they on balance failed to raise the bar of local practice, in my personal experience, I’ve found many with their snouts in the trough. Talk about taking the monkey out of the jungle, and not the jungle out of the monkey!