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From Ajaokuta to rice ban, Nigeria suffers from a poverty of ideas

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From Ajaokuta to rice ban, Nigeria suffers from a poverty of ideas

Some years back, I joined my family in the living room to watch the confessions of a robbery suspect on then popular TV programme, Crime Fighters. Asked about his biggest regret, the young man, with a straight face, said he wished he had planned the logistics of the robbery better as he was caught because he ran out of bullets.

Expectedly, we were gobsmacked. For any ‘normal’ person caught in an act of crime and facing a possible long sentence, the actual thing to regret is the involvement in crime – as without that, there would be no need for logistics (failure) in the first place.

Weird as this felt then, I’ve learned to now get fully accustomed to the line of thought, especially because it is the official approach of Nigeria’s government to governance.

The government conceives a bad idea, formulates terrible policies, spends billions of naira to implement them and at the end of the day, in the rare event that a review is done, the conclusion is always that the implementation should have been better [cue more money]. This conclusion is promptly followed with another grand launch of the same failed policy with redundant titles such as “reformed” or “new”.

Take for instance the Ajaokuta Steel Mill. A report written in 1988 claimed that the feasibility study conducted by the government – in collaboration with other experts – for the siting of the company recommended Onitsha in Amambra state as the most economically viable location given the availability of local ores which would save foreign exchange and enhance the chance of breaking even. But the Nigerian government did what it always does; it ignored sound advice and settled for Kogi state due to suspected ethnic reasons. More than 30 years later, due to this bad idea and torrent of other ones, including poor technology, Ajaokuta Steel Mill has only succeeded in producing retirees and pensioners who bloat the country’s recurrent expenditure spending.

Another example is the clampdown on rice. Driven by the desire to stimulate local production, the government decided to essentially halt the import of the country’s most popular food staple and hand out millions of dollars in loans with little or no conditions to selected farmers. The result of that [mis]adventure is cost inflation as local production remains incapable of meeting demand, thereby compounding the woes of an already impoverished population as they are now, in addition to myriad of other problems, incapable of purchasing food.

While the government may hold out a 60% spike in local production as a sign of progress, an analysis showed that this increase is due to expansion of land used in rice cultivation, not yields per piece of land. What this means is that we haven’t gotten better at rice farming.

For context and illustration, in 2016, according to the UN, Germany grew 7,200kg of cereal crops for every hectare of land, while Mozambique grew a measly 820kg per hectare; the key difference being tooling and efficiency.

Every available data points at the fact that the rice ban, which is largely ineffective considering the country’s porous borders, is an unsuccessful policy. But that’s not according to the Nigerian government. From the CBN governor who thinks it is ideal because the country saved forex, to the Agric minister who lied blatantly that the policy has put rice mills in Thailand out of jobs, the government is already celebrating it as a success and now set to double down.

This bizarre behaviour pervades the entire Nigerian system where facts are twisted, misconstrued or ignored to accommodate pet theories of often ignorant and stubborn leaders who are propelled by sycophants seeking to gain more influence.

The consequence of this for the people, dazed and confronted with a deluge of propaganda messages from these aides who dismiss data and impugn “intellectuals”, is poverty of thought and finance. It doesn’t look like this is going to change anytime soon.

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Peter Adeshina is a journalist who reports politics, policy and governance.

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