by Richard Chilee
On my flight from Abuja to Port Harcourt, this intelligent lady engaged me in a conversation about the reasons Nigeria is still poor. She centred her argument on two major factors – foreign aid and colonialism. According to her, the British government has not given enough aid to appease the ills done to Nigeria during the colonial era and that the colonial masters are the cause of our problems.
As sound as her argument was, I vehemently disagreed.
I believe that any discussion that centres on Nigeria’s poverty, with respect to foreign aid, has to consider its relationship with the rest of the world. In Africa, there has been little correlation between foreign aid and rapid growth. Most countries that receive lots of foreign aid do not always perform better than those that received practically nothing. Why is this so?
One reason is that foreign aid keeps governments lazy and dependent; it also kills their drive for work which is the greatest means of survival and development.
Another reason is that rapid growth is not always the donors’ first priority while giving these aids, even where they are, the aids end up in the pockets of some thieving politicians who divert these monetary aid to their own use rather than energetically pursuing sustainable developments.
What Nigeria needs are qualitative trade and investments, not monetary aids. Rich countries should tear down their trade barriers. Trade allows specialization on a larger scale and countries increasingly prosper through these specialization.
When these trades and investments come into Nigeria, they will surely come with qualitative ideas too. With no foreign competition, local firms have no one to learn from and little incentive to make their own products better. Better trade brings new products which could be taken apart and be copied by local companies. Foreign direct investments spread and encourage skills and technology.
In South Africa, Chrysler and BMW have a building plant which trains South African engineers and transfer expertise to local suppliers. This is what we need in Nigeria. But before then, we have to create the enabling atmosphere for trade and investment. There is a huge correlation between openness to trade and economic growth. Trade openness boosts a country’s growth and productivity.
However, it would be too simplistic to cut out foreign aid entirely. If we must receive aids, donors must make sure their suggestions are carefully evaluated; projects must be approved if only the receivers could demonstrate that they are sustainable, as Botswana did with their diamond bonus. Aid programmes must be transparent as shown by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. Donors must come and inspect the project and observe how their money is being spent.
Like my lady friend in the plane, many Nigerians think that the colonial masters are the major cause of our poverty because of the 1914 amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorate. This pattern of erroneous thinking is what I consider one of the greatest impediments to our development; it has also kept us from taking responsibility for our own actions. I hear this argument a lot, from academicians to political activists to lawyers and journalists. In secondary school, my government teacher supports this line of argument, he once insisted I wrote an essay titled “The British exploited us; they came for our goods, not for our good.”
Let’s be clear that Nigeria’s modern problem and drastic poverty is not entirely the fault of the colonial masters. I beg to ask a question; are the colonial masters responsible for the outright carelessness and wanton greed and brazen corruption demonstrated by our political class? Are they responsible for our lack of basic infrastructure? By all means no! I stand by the fact that the greatest force holding us back is our own crooked and incompetent leaders whose idea of investment is to spend heavily on some frivolous projects.
History has shown that no country can create sustained wealth if the leaders continue to exploit the economy to enrich themselves and their cronies, or if the heads of major authorities are corrupt. Great developments depend on great leaders and a sane political environment. Good and responsible leadership, with a touch of global and best policies, are the ingredients that can unlock our potentials to great discoveries.
Nonetheless, I believe, though it’s gradually fading, that Nigeria can be prosperous. Any country can make that transition from poverty to immense riches; I know this because various countries have done it in times past and most of the technologies needed to make this transformation is already in existence and are almost free. Most of our policies are not yet on the right path but a few are at least pushing through the undergrowth, looking for that path of prosperity. When and where exactly that path will lead is entirely up to us, only us can choose what kind of economy we want to have and what kind of society we want to live in.
I have not met any Nigerian who does not want Nigeria to be like the European or American countries. Everyone wants that because we often compare Nigeria with the more advanced America. This is good but we must understand that industrialization takes time, it’s not magic, it begins with little and strategic changes which compounds into big and beautiful changes. And, nations do not become industrialized by talking alone neither do they become so by praying or being plainly irresponsible.
If Nigeria really wants to enjoy like the modern and industrialized world, we have to do two things. First, we have to responsibly endure the pains of discipline that the modern countries endured before they became modern. Secondly, we have to start now, we have to fold our sleeves and think, work, save and invest.
But then, how willing are we?
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