CONVERSATION: Market Forces Can’t Sustain West Africa
Dr Hussaini Abdu, the Country Director of Actionaid Nigeria, is a political scientist whose interest has been people-centred and sustainable poverty eradication. He spoke with Terfa Hemen and Oluchi Agbanyim. Excerpts:
Poverty continues to increase across the region, in spite of many frameworks for economic integration and development what do you think is responsible for this?
Most of the countries rely cheaply on importation, production is not taking place, manufacturing is not taking place, even within the biggest economy like Nigeria. In Nigeria, manufacturers provide about 3.6 of the GDP, which is extremely very low. The biggest contributor is agriculture. Even at that, what are we producing? We are not seeing the intra regional trade.
What does the government have to do to alleviate the problem?
One, integration is important. Opening up our economy by allowing free movement of goods and people is very good. But again we need to address our fundamental challenges in each of our countries. We must build our individual economies to be able to maximise benefits in regional integration. How are we growing manufacturing industries in Nigeria for instance for us to be able to feed other West African countries? How are they growing the one in Ghana or Ivory Coast for them to be able to support other countries? What are the simple things we are doing to improve trade? Are we also looking at our comparative advantage in agriculture in such a way that Ivoriens are not doing what Nigerians are doing or Ghanaians what Nigeriens are doing? Or Malians what Burkinabe’s are doing? What can we do to maximise our comparative advantages?
Again, we need to begin to think beyond our neoliberal approach to economic management. Our current economic philosophy is that the market is elevated as more important than the people and when that is done you end up promoting only a section of the society. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Market cannot sustain the system and the government get withdrawn from the economy and there is so much indiscipline in the system. Government needs to get back the state into economic management issues. Governments need to provide strong regulatory framework that can allow for increased production and provide employment. If we do not do that we will continue to have these challenges.
How do you see West Africa in the next 10 years? Are we going to see a region of more strife? Or do you think somewhere down the line things will get better?
The indices we have now are not too good. We are seeing a possibility of famine in the next few months and years in some West African countries, particularly those within the Sahelian region. We are experiencing nutritional crises in most countries in Niger, Burkina Faso and parts of Mali. We are seeing that boiling down to violence. Almost half of Mali is lost to rebels, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb is having a lot of training centres within the Sahelian region bordering with West African countries and the Northern African countries; Nigeria with Boko Haram and what is going on in Senegal. With deepening poverty, mobilisation for some of these things thrives easily. Because poverty is not simply an economic issue, it is also a governance issue. It is the failure of the states that creates conditions for poverty. Poverty can affect people in two different ways; it can create a level of cynicism where people withdraw from the system and cater for themselves; the other side is that it can radicalise the people, as we have seen in Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. Each side has implication on government.
With Nigeria’s population on the upsurge, what do you think are concrete implications for the future of the country, especially in the light of the Harmonised Nigeria Living Standard Survey (HNLSS) conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics which shows poverty on the increase?
There is a surging population, but it’s not that bad. The population increase is by 3%, the economy is growing by about 7.6%, which is a very good case for a country. But unfortunately poverty is also growing. What we need to do is understand that structural disconnect between growth and poverty. Ordinarily the growth in the system should create more jobs for the people and increase productivity which should reduce level of poverty, but that’s not what we are having. It has to do with the nature of our growth. Truth is that about 70% of the population in Nigeria are agrarian; they eat what they produce and may not necessarily market it. The second major contributor to the economy is oil. It contributes about 14% GDP. It is also the biggest in foreign exchange earner for the country. Manufacturing is only 38%, telecom 5%. Production is not taking place, the gap between rich and poor is widening, and government need to define an effective way of responding to that. How are they investing enough in the power sector to at least ensure that there is enough power for our industries? Production in the country is quite expensive and most of the industries are closing up and moving to neighbouring countries. Secondly, we need to invest in agriculture sector seriously because it’s the biggest employer of labour; unemployment is growing and is at 23% now and 40% in some states. We also need to deal with corruption because it’s undermining practically everything including the best of programmes. Whatever we do as people in development sector we cannot be able to make any maximal or reasonable impact unless we transform the economy structurally to become self sustaining, job generating and inequality fighting economic system. If we are not able to do that we will continue to wallow in poverty.