BY ALEX OTTI
The anecdote I am about to relate occurred sometime in 2007. My daily routine started with being at the gymnasium (gym) by 6am, work out for an hour and a half and head out to my office to be at my desk by 8am. This routine helped me achieve a few things on week days. It ensured that I maintained the discipline of working out at least five times a week. Those who know better about the subject of healthy living advise that we need to work out three to four times a week, particularly when age begins to knock on our door.
Beyond this, it also helped me avoid the very crazy Lagos traffic as there were hardly cars on the road by 5.45am when I used to leave my house. The commute from the gym to my office was also smooth as the gym was close to my office. More importantly, it helped me sustain a culture of being at my desk promptly by 8am. I recall that I used to achieve a whole lot between 8am and 9am before the pressure built up from different quarters when the rest of the staff resumed. This culture has remained with me even when there is no need to resume that early. Finally, the gym sometimes has become a rendezvous of some sort, where people go to chat, network and catch up with friends. Anyone, who showed up at the gym that early, must be serious at working out. Of course there were exceptions to that routine. There were days I may be otherwise busy till midnight or early hours of the morning and may not be able to hit the gym that early.
On this fateful day, as I was coming into the gym by about 5.50am, I noticed this plump (a euphemism for fat) lady, climb the scale and come down. I watched her with curiosity, even though she was so consumed in what she was doing that she failed to notice me. She repeated the climbing and alighting exercise for upwards of four times. It occurred to me that this lady was struggling with something. She had engaged the scale in a mental argument. She did not want to believe the result coming out of the scale. She was hoping that as she climbed the scale, it would produce a lower figure than her actual weight. I therefore decided to offer her some help that may give her a little comfort, even if momentarily. I then told her not to mind the scale as it was faulty. She screamed in excitement; “I thought as much! Oh thank you very much”. I immediately added, “The scale adds 5kg to everyone’s weight!” It was then that she realised that I was teasing her. She didn’t find this funny as she thoroughly abused me for making a joke out of an otherwise, very serious situation.
The import of the foregoing story is that there is always a tendency for people to shift the blame when something seems to be going in a direction they don’t like. It is natural. I remember several years ago when the consulting firm KPMG used to do customer service peer review of banks. They would go from bank to bank to present and take questions on their findings. The kind of responses and questions that used to come from departments that didn’t do well were predictable. They will start by questioning the methodology used for measurement and end up disputing the conclusions. You will hear comments like, “you are comparing apples with oranges. We have 10 million customers while the bank adjudged as the best has only half a million customers. You can’t be comparing us with them”. At the end of the day, what is important is customer experience. The customer does not care about the number of customers you are serving. His experience is 100% and if your service is below par, that you had millions of others to serve is just an excuse that is relevant to you and not the customer. Unfortunately, KPMG was interested in what the customer was saying not your lame excuses. By the way, I have always held the view that there is a reason why something that should have happened did not happen, or why something that should not have happened, happened. Those reasons, however, remain in the realm of excuses. Again unfortunately, excuses, do not count, results do!
This is also true about a lot of other measures including those that we don’t come out with good ratings. Recently, the world transparency watchdog, Transparency International, came out with its current rating on the Corruption Perception Index CPI which ranked Nigeria as No. 148 out of the 180 countries ranked with a score of 28%. This is against our ranking of 136 out of 180 countries in 2016 with a score of 27%. This means that we dropped 12 places in 2017 below our ranking a year earlier. As would be expected, many Nigerians particularly the government took turns to dispute the ranking. In fact, I read one analyst who faulted the entire ranking methodology and ended up arguing that because it was about perception, there was nothing scientific about it. Someone’s perception may be different from another person’s, indicating that it should be ignored. There was even an article published on the website of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, titled “Who influenced Nigeria’s ranking in TI Corruption Perception Index 2017? This write up concluded that “this whole episode may turn out to be just a political distraction….”
One area to which we had paid a lot of attention is the ease of doing business. In fact, the Federal Government set up a Committee headed by the Vice President to work on reforms to improve our rating. Just like in CPI, Doing Business Report is a World Bank measurement of the ease with which businesses can be done in about 190 countries around the world. In its ranking for 2018, Nigeria placed 145 as against its 169th position a year earlier. We applauded and praised the report. Success, sure does have a lot of friends. I must also not fail to note that some sub-Saharan African countries did a lot better on the ranking. Mauritius placed 25th, Rwanda occupied the 41st position, Kenya, 80th, Botswana 81st and South Africa, 82nd.
On Thursday, March 12, Bill Gates delivered what some people had variously described as a bombshell or hard knock to an expanded National Economic Council in Abuja. Those who had expected Bill Gates to adhere to the tradition of ‘speak no ill of your host’ were in for a rude shock. Reports were agog with rebuttals and arguments against the position taken by Mr. Gates. Some people argued that the man didn’t know what he was saying. Others insisted that he did not have the right to get involved in the internal affairs of Nigeria. They conveniently forgot that his Foundation has invested about $1.6b in charity in the country. Thank God, I read a comment from El Rufai, denying that he attacked Bill Gates, but just made a clarification. While I agree with him that there was nothing wrong with disagreeing with Bill Gates, it has to be when he is factually wrong. In this particular instance, he was right. I say so, because there is hardly anything he said that some of us had not said in the past. The only difference is probably who said them this time around. An argument, unfortunately takes a different colouration if it is made by a man with billions of dollars to his name than those of us living slightly above the poverty line.
Most of his argument revolved around the Human Development Index (HDI). HDI measures health, education, income, livelihood and security in a country relative to others. It is contained in a UNDP report published annally. In its most recent report released last year, Nigeria ranked 152 out of 188 countries. This was a drop from its 120th position the previous year.
Gates went further to speak about an all-inclusive growth. In his own words, Nigeria will only thrive when every Nigerian is able to thrive. “If you do not invest in their health, education and opportunities-“the human capital”…then it is very important to recognise that there will be a sharp limit on how much the country can grow”
He politely told us that in spite of the data that we are parading as the largest economy in Africa, we are still a poor country. Yours truly had made this argument several times in calling our attention to the fragility of the economy and also insisting that what is important is not absolute numbers but per capita numbers. In breaking it down, I had said that the number of tubers of yam harvested is not as important as the number of mouths that will eat out of the yam. Hear him, “in upper middle income countries, the average life expectancy is 75 years. In lower middle income countries, it is 68. In low income countries, it is 62. In Nigeria, it is lower still; just 53years”. However, if one relied on GDP numbers, we could be mistaken for a lower middle income country. In addition, he told his listeners that over 30% of our children are hungry while Nigeria is one of the most dangerous places in the world to give birth, with the fourth worst maternal mortality rate in the world, ahead of only Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, and Chad.
He made one important point which may not have been apparent in his speech and that is the need for accurate and reliable data. He congratulated us for revising our hitherto inflated immunisation coverage numbers to more realistic, but lower ones. The truth is that even though we end up working with available numbers, discerning people know that a lot of the numbers from official sources are not reliable. For instance, given the level of unemployment in this country today, the unemployment data of 15%, recently reviewed to 18.8% can only be misleading. Looking around us and making an intelligent guess about the number of unemployed people, it would be reasonable to conclude that it is more of three times those numbers we are bandying about. Our population figures are still estimates as we have not been able to conduct a reliable and acceptable census.
Our Economic and Growth Plan was not left out of the bashing. His worry was that even though it identified “investing in our people” as one of the key strategic objectives, “the execution priorities don’t fully reflect people’s needs, prioritising physical capital over human capital”. He advised that investments in infrastructure and competitiveness should not take precedence over investment in people. He demonstrates this by saying “People without roads, ports and factories can’t flourish. And roads, ports, and factories without skilled workers to build and manage them can’t sustain an economy”. It is interesting that these arguments are being made by one of the wealthiest men in the world. I had in the past made arguments along these lines. Some commentators who claim to be market economy theorists have literally called for my head. Their grouse is that it sounds welfarist to call for an increased spend on healthcare delivery and education as they are sometimes seen as social spending. I hope these ultra-right wing argumentators, will learn one lesson or two from one of the most successful capitalists in the world.
Still on creating opportunities for human development, Bill Gates encourages government to drive opportunities for employment in agriculture and small and medium scale enterprises. Agriculture which contributes over 40% to GDP unfortunately is denied access to finance as only 4% of Nigerian farmers have access to loans to expand their business. Interestingly, this figure of 4% was achieved under the Soludo/Sanusi era. Before then, it was below 2%. The case is not different with over 35million micro enterprises that operate in the country. He lamented the collapse of the health care delivery system particularly the primary system in the country.
To fund all the recommendations, he advocated for better tax collection system. He insists that our tax to GDP ratio of 6% is the lowest in the world. Bangladesh according to him, collects 10%, making it the second worst in the world. We could increase our collection by $18b, if we just match Bangladesh. The same arguments I had made in my two part column on taxation over a year ago were corroborated by Bill Gates. Government must do all to raise revenue from taxes to deliver on Human Development indices.
My take is that Bill Gates had not told us anything new about our economy. The only thing is that someone new who has a deep pocket is saying them. As usual, some people have taken to the traditional and social media to vilify him. That is expected in a democratic setting. It, however, belongs in the mould of living in denial. We can delude ourselves the much we want. At the end of the day, if we do not address the issues raised, we will turn out with worse numbers as the comparison and rankings will not stop. No one will also stop and wait for us to catch up.