[By Jonathan Franklin]
Nigeria is effortlessly one of the most resource-rich countries. The nation boasts of huge deposits of natural resources. In terms of arable land, we are not lacking. We have all that we need to be an excelling economy but so far the reverse has been the case. This begs the question ‘are these natural resources to our advantage or are they curses in disguise?’ Many theories have tried to explain this paradox, one of which is the Resource Curse Theory or the Paradox of Plenty.
Resource Curse Theory In Action
There have been many disturbing stories used by the government to justify sudden disappearances of funds or just conceal other forms of mismanagement: snakes swallowing naira bills, monkey carting away money, rats eating up important documents, treasury house coincidentally on fire during an investigation. The validity of these facts is not within our scope, what is, however, is our attitude towards them. We found them very amusing, we laughed over them, made memes and funny skits and that was it. Forgotten!
What has natural resources got to do with this, you might ask. The primary source of government revenue is our natural resources – crude oil for the most part. We don’t care what happens to government funds, at least not as much as our counterparts in other countries would simply because those funds – a majority of it – were not directly sourced from our pockets. Now for context, imagine you earn N100,000 monthly and you’re required to pay 20% of that amount as tax. You would be left with just N80,000. If you wake up the following morning to hear that government funds which were directly sourced from you were swallowed by a snake, it would be very unlikely for us to find this funny. We would be better incentivised to criticise the government and ask pertinent questions.
There is, however, an unanswered question in this theory. Certain first world countries are resource-rich: the United States is a leading producer of coal among other resources and rare earth metals, Russia has the biggest mining industry in the world, Canada has the third-largest oil deposits after Venezuela and Saudi Arabia to mention but a few. So why do these aberrations exist? Why do these resources tend to have blessed a few and cursed some others?
Asides from the correlation between tax and government irresponsibility, the availability of resources also ignites the potentiality for strife. Contrary to public opinion, resource control plays a major part in the unending conflict that has plagued the nation. Niger-Delta militants, Biafra secessionists are all byproducts of the fight for the control of resources. There’s a theory that the entire Nigerian civil war was merely a proxy fight between France and Britain for who gets greater control of Nigeria’s oil reserves.
What then is the way forward? How can we as a nation break free from this curse that continuously plagues us?
The Way Forward
There is no textbook solution to these problems, neither is there any straightforward answer. But one thing remains certain, the central government must relinquish its monopolistic hold on our resources.
Each region must step up and manage its resources while paying taxes to the central government. Perhaps that would incentivise the government to diversify, utilise resources creatively and become responsible. Perhaps it would also jolt our lazy politicians from their reverie.
During the First Republic, when regions controlled their resources, the nation witnessed rapid development owing to the competitiveness of the regions. The Northern regional government controlled natural resources in the region, 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 had control of the revenue accruing from the export of palm produce to the United Kingdom, empowered Dr. Michael Okpara’s government in the Eastern region. This facilitated the funding of the African Continental Bank and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka among others. In the North, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of Northern Nigeria, set up the Groundnut Marketing Board. He utilised the accruing revenue from the export of groundnut 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 Eastern and Northern region, he also utilised the accruing revenue from cocoa export to the United Kingdom in funding a free primary education policy and establishing the first television network in the country.
Economically, Nigeria was on the path for greatness, until Decree 34, the torrid mistake that disrupted the beautiful story of Nigeria. Decree 34 ensured that all powers, resources and responsibilities rested with the military’s ‘Supreme Military Council’. The Military would then go to hold power for 13 years (1966 and 1979) before Nigeria began practising federalism.
Like the messiah narrative with which the current administration rode into power, federalism came with a lot of promises. It was portrayed to be the best system for a large country such as Nigeria, given that it allowed for some form of autonomy and more importantly, that it allowed each region to develop at its own pace. The biggest mistake, however, was placing resource control under the exclusive preserve of the federal government, as it ensured that each region and the exploration of its resources were under the control of the central government.
Rectifying that mistake is Iong overdue. Whether it will work or not is another matter. One thing, however, is sure – this current system is not working.
- Jonathan Franklin is a learning facilitator based in Awka.