A cursed land of plenty
Nigeria is effortlessly one of the most resource-rich countries. The nation boasts of enormous deposits of natural resources. In terms of arable land, we have no shortage. We have everything we need to be a great economy, but so far the reverse has happened. This begs the question “are these natural resources for our benefit or are they curses in disguise?” Many theories have attempted to explain this paradox, including the resource curse theory or the abundance paradox.
The Resource Curse Theory in Action
There have been many disturbing stories used by the government to justify sudden disappearances of funds or simply cover up other forms of mismanagement: snakes swallowing naira bills, a monkey taking money, rats eating money. important documents, a treasure house on fire by coincidence during an investigation. The validity of these facts is not within our scope, which however is our attitude towards them. We found them to be a lot of fun, we laughed at them, made funny memes and skits and that’s it. Forget!
What do natural resources have to do with this, you might ask. The main source of government revenue is our natural resources – mostly crude oil. We don’t care what happens to public funds, at least not as much as our counterparts in other countries would simply because those funds – the majority – did not come straight out of our pockets. Now for the background imagine you are making 100,000 N per month and you have to pay 20% of that amount as tax. You would only have 80,000 N. If you wake up the next morning to hear that government funds that came directly from you have been swallowed by a snake, we would be very unlikely to find it funny. We would have a better incentive to criticize the government and ask relevant questions.
There is, however, an unanswered question in this theory. Some first world countries are rich in resources: the United States is one of the main producers of coal among other rare earth metals and resources, Russia has the largest mining industry in the world, Canada has the third largest oil fields after Venezuela and Saudi Arabia to name a few. So why do these aberrations exist? Why do these resources tend to bless some and curse others?
In addition to the correlation between taxation and government irresponsibility, the availability of resources also ignites the potential for conflict. Contrary to public opinion, control of resources plays a major role in the endless conflict that has plagued the nation. Militants from the Niger Delta and secessionists from Biafra are all by-products of the struggle for control of resources. There is a theory that the entire Nigerian Civil War was just a proxy fight between France and Britain over who gets more control of Nigeria’s oil reserves.
What then is the way forward? How can we as a nation free ourselves from this curse that continually afflicts us?
The path to follow
There is no classic solution to these problems, nor a simple answer. But one thing remains certain, the central government must give up its monopoly hold on our resources.
Each region must scale up and manage its resources while paying taxes to the central government. Perhaps that would give the government an incentive to diversify, to use resources creatively and to become responsible. Perhaps that would also rouse our lazy politicians from their reverie.
Under the First Republic, when the regions master their resources, the nation experiences rapid development thanks to the competitiveness of the regions. The northern regional government controlled the region’s natural resources, while the eastern and western regional governments did the same in their respective regions.
Motivated by this right of control, the Palm Produce Marketing Board, which controlled the income from the export of palm products to the UK, empowered the government of Dr Michael Okpara in the Eastern Region. This facilitated funding from the African Continental Bank and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, among others. In the north, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Prime Minister of northern Nigeria, established the Groundnut Marketing Board. He used the income generated by the export of peanuts for the development of the northern region. This includes the establishment of Ahmadu Bello University and the Bank of the North, among others.
In the Western region, Obafemi Awolowo set up the Cocoa Marketing Board. Like his counterparts in the East and North region, he also used the income generated by cocoa exports to the UK to fund a policy of free primary education and establish the country’s first television network.
Economically, Nigeria was on the way to greatness, until Decree 34, the torrid mistake that turned Nigeria’s beautiful history upside down. Decree 34 guaranteed that all powers, resources and responsibilities rested with the “Supreme Military Council” of the army. The army would then hold power for 13 years (1966 and 1979) before Nigeria began to practice federalism.
Like the messiah story with which the current administration came to power, federalism came with a lot of promise. It was touted as the best system for a large country like Nigeria, given that it allowed some form of autonomy and, more importantly, allowed each region to develop at its own pace. The biggest mistake, however, was to put the control of resources under the exclusive control of the federal government, as it made sure that each region and the exploration of its resources were under the control of the central government.
It is high time to rectify this mistake. Whether it works or not is another matter. One thing, however, is certain: this current system does not work.
Jonathan Franklin is an Awka-based learning facilitator.