Thursday, July 21, 2022



Ayo Olukotun

"In the early 1990s, Nigeria's palm oil production accounted for 43 percent of the total world production of palm oil. However today, Nigeria is currently struggling with less than 2 percent of global output. From a major exporter, Nigeria has become the largest importer of Malaysia's palm oil in the sub-Saharan Africa Region.

Professor Banji Oyeyinka, Paper delivered to the 8th Edition of the Annual Distinguished Lecture Series of the Nigerian Society of Engineers on Tuesday, July 19, 2022.


Public discourse in Nigeria is overwhelmingly dominated by politics, a feature which the late Professor Claude Ake once described as the "overpoliticization of social life". We carry on as if once the political kingdom is manifested among us Nigerians can live happily ever after. This has regrettably led to the shunting aside of many fundamental issues that are consequential for the uplift or alternatively, the decline of the nation. It is refreshing, therefore, that one of our leading political economists, has returned our attention to issues which cohere around the development shutdown or, in his words, development reversal of Nigeria .

As the opening quote suggests, on too many fronts, including agriculture, the nation is not merely static but is undergoing development reversal. Stagnation or arrest is a shade better than reversal, considering that reversal connotes not just a shutdown on critical frontiers of growth and development, but a situation which reverses the progress made in earlier decades. It also indicates that countries which had several things to learn from Nigeria in earlier times had overtaken it on crucial indices of development, human survival and insertion into the technological age.

To buttress his analysis, Oyeyinka who is currently Senior Special Adviser to the President of the African Development Bank on Industrialization gave the examples of China and Nigeria in the development race. According to him, forty years ago, Nigeria's income was six times that of China. In 2019, however, Chinese income had ascended to nearly 3.5 times that of Nigeria not to talk of the lamentable fact that Nigeria has continuously looked up to China for serial loans, experts and imported goods. In other words, a country to which China was subservient had rushed past Nigeria in its ascent to global power status, influence and industrial prominence. Needless to say that China is not the only country that has left Nigeria way behind. There are others such as Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea which succeeded in diversifying their economies and export bases, an agenda long articulated in Nigerians successive development plans but hardly implemented. That is not all.

The lecturer brings up the fact that between 1980 and 1996, Nigeria's poverty level cascaded upwards from 28 to 66 percent; going up further, by 2020, to include or leave stranded 83 million Nigerians in poverty. It is projected that this figure will increase to 90 million Nigerians in 2022. Taking into account that there have been many poverty alleviation programmes launched with fanfare in those intervals, Nigeria can be described as the sick man of Africa swimming in a plethora of development programmes with very little to show for them. Why is Nigeria in this mess?

The lecture provides explanations such  as: the poor quality of governance, weak leadership the failure to invest in science and technology which would have provided the capability to produce goods of high quality, monumental corruption, the lack of vision and focused leadership among others. According to him, while rich nations have accumulated over time a proficient stock of knowledge and scientific capability which enable them to industrialize, innovate and transform their economies, countries like Nigeria have failed to promote scientific expertise and technological development except in blueprints that would have resulted in the ability and capacity to produce high value goods. Illustratively, Nigeria which has the second largest oil reserves in Africa is a net importer of Liquefied Petroleum Gas. Not just that, as a result of the breakdown of the country's refineries, the country has been pushed to the extremely narrow path and cliffhanger of fuel importation with the never-ending controversy on fuel subsidy. Oyeyinka's point here re-echoes some of the observations made by the Academic Staff Union of Universities which had been on strike for over 150 days because of breakdown in negotiations between it and the Federal Government. Even before the strike, our research institutions, most of them at any rate, are comatose and there is no systematic harnessing of the reaearch output of our universities as a device to jumpstart a knowledge economy. Oyeyinka argues that because knowledge and inventions are cumulative, countries like Nigeria which have pushed themselves to the periphery of global knowledge generation are unable to benefit from the massive uptake of scientific discoveries which has enabled industrial transformation in the East Asian countries, including China.

To put it starkly, Nigeria has been left behind in the industrial and development races because it has grossly neglected to develop its scientific infrastructure and to build a national scientific stock that could have assisted it to leapfrog stages of industrial growth and development. To bring the point further home, he cited the example of the Ajaokuta Steel Complex commenced in 1979 with an estimated project cost of $650 million. Many years later and after spending over $5 billion, the project remains uncompleted and a monument of national embarrassment. In contrast to this scenario, South Korea which flagged off its steel project at about the same time as Nigeria became a major steel exporter on the world stage, creating close to 65 000 jobs in the industry and now makes an estimated $60 billion per annum. That is not the end of the story. In view of the failure of Nigeria's steel enterprise, the country spent about 2.1 trillion naira, roughly $10.5 billion in importing steel into the country. This is an example of a double whammy in which an uncompleted or virtually abandoned project sparks off a haemorrhage of public finances to import products which would have been readily available in the country had the project been completed.

One of the issues raised by the lecture concerns the connection among leadership, governance and development reversal. Providing comparative lessons from Asian countries which successfully industrialised within two decades and managed to drastically reduce poverty, the point was made that leadership failure is one of Nigeria's repeated problems, if not crisis. In contrast to a situation where every prospective leader comes to power with a bouquet of campaign promises that are never fulfilled, the picture is drawn of how the Presidents of South Korea, China and Singapore employed a disciplinary ethos to rally their nations behind them for transformational development. That is to say that Nigeria lacks elite consensus on developmental goals as well as manifests a laid back posture in leadership in relationship to issues of industrialization and development. Given that the country has become a junkyard of abandoned projects and development fiascos, what then is to be done?

Oyeyinka suggests the establishment in Nigeria of a developmental state driven by visionary and purposeful leadership that can galvanize a demoralized followership in the journey to national industrial greatness. Regrettably, however, there has been little discussion around these issues in the current political campaign season.


Professor Ayo Olukotun is a director at the Oba (Dr.) S. K. Adetona Institute for Governance Studies, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye. 

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