Between 1958-1966, Nigeria’s economy was making steady and enviable progress, depending on intense Agricultural production and Solid Minerals export to earn foreign exchange which was sufficient to meet its import needs. The North exported mainly Groundnuts, Cotton and Hides & Skin. The West focused largely on Cocoa and Timber. The Mid-West harnessed Rubber. Eastern Nigeria produced and exported mainly Palm Produce (Palm oil & Palm Kernel) and Coal.
Within the same period, the seeds for a bludgeoning industrial base were being laid across the nation for the production of consumer goods, essentially for the domestic market. Nigeria had no balance of payment challenges and did not need any loans to meet its budgeted expenditure. Salaries were paid on due dates. All the schools had teachers and many students went to school (Home & Abroad) on scholarships. The hospitals and dispensaries had doctors and nurses who never went on strike because of emolument disputes and the out of stock syndrome (O/S), was an unknown phenomenon in our country.
It is on record that the economic growth of Eastern Nigeria was the fastest in Nigeria, and in deed in Africa especially between 1962-1966. The discovery of crude oil in Oloibiri in present day Bayelsa State in 1958 helped to give Eastern Nigeria an edge. Though oil had not become such prized asset, it nevertheless boosted the earnings of the region. At that time, the regions kept 50 percent of their export earnings and only remitted 50 percent to the Federation account for sharing among the federating units and the Federal Government (in which case the Eastern region’s total share from oil was more than 50 percent).
Thereafter the military arrived on the scene in January of 1966 and the descent of Nigeria began. The fragmentation of Nigeria into states (12-18-21-36) and the centralised control of resources and responsibilities combined with easy money from crude petrol to halt Nigeria’s development. We walked away from Agriculture and Solid mineral exploitation and became a mono-cultural economy. Though some brave efforts have been made by successive governments since the end of the Civil War in 1970 to redirect Nigeria to the path of true Economic Diversification and Development, our inverted Federal structure, endemic and systemic corruption and poor incentive system have kept us chronically underperforming. The worsening unemployment, the growing poverty, the increasing violent crimes and a frightening loss of values show ample evidence of the decline. Most Nigerians continue to speak of a better yesterday.
Given the current difficulties facing Nigeria, it is evident that many states are on the verge of becoming failed states. If they were private companies, some may have been declared bankrupt and put on receivership. Many are having difficulties paying salaries of their workers and so can hardly offer any other reasonable service to the people. Talking of development in such circumstances may be unrealistic. With little to invest in Capital development, retrogression will set in, especially as population continues to ramp up. Again if they were private companies, we may have suggested Mergers and acquisitions. But this seems to be a no-go area. No state wants to merge. Indeed the demand for more states is still high among some Nigerians who are looking for turfs to plunder and territories to enslave.
Since it is difficult to dissolve the states, or to merge the states, it may be reasonable to recommend Strategic alliances and Economic Integration. Here the states can pull their limited resources to fund projects. They can agree on cross cutting projects that will yield incremental benefits to the constituent states. They can leverage resources to achieve projects and programmes that are currently beyond the reach of each state. Working together, they can attract private sector investments that would otherwise be out of the reach of individual states or would be unviable in only one state. They can change the narrative from pervading poverty and increasing criminality to that of economic prosperity, enhanced job opportunities and improvement in the standard of living.
This is why the plan of the South East-South South Professionals of Nigeria (SESSPN) to organise a Development Forum in Port Harcourt, Rivers State this week, with the theme: A NEW ROAD MAP FOR REGIONAL INTEGRATION AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT OF THE SOUTH EAST & SOUTH SOUTH resonates with me.
At this forum, the Eleven Governors of the States that make up these contiguous Regions with some of their officials, Private Sector leaders and other non-governmental agencies will be reviewing a Strategic Document -DEVELOPMENT AGENDA FOR THE SOUTH EAST & SOUTH 2035( DASESS 2035), put together by SESSPN. This 20 year strategic plan whose draft will be the major focus at the Forum has been in development in the last 3 years and has had the input of many Stakeholders at previous fora. The Plan is built around Four Pillars- Agriculture, Industrializaton, Oil & Gas, Tourism & Trade and anchored on Five Enablers- Infrastructure, Security, ICT, Education and Health Care. The Oil & Gas plan includes the creation of an Oil & Gas Corridor in the Niger Delta. Additional Focus will be on how to create an operating environment that will drive investment and lead to the aggregation of the resources to achieve the intended Regional Economic integration and Development in the SE-SS.
I believe that this kind of effort should be an opportunity to recreate the economic ‘miracles’ of the 60s and should be fully supported by all well-meaning Nigerians and leaders of the regions. Perhaps that’s why the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo has agreed to be the Special Guest of Honour, with Senators, Representatives and Ministers from the Zone as Guests of Honour at a gathering that will attract the best of Resource Persons from the Region including Prof Pat Utomi, Sen Ken Nnamani, Chief Henry Okolo, OCJ Okocha SAN, Ibim Semenitari,Dr Uche Ogah, E.E. Akpan,Dr Abraham Nwankwo, Uche Orji, Dr. Emi Membere Otaji, Eng.Pedro Egbe, Emeka Ene, Ifie Sekibo, Amb Joe Keshi, Capt Emma Ihenacho,Promise Beke, Emeka Unachukwu ,Giame Bokolo, Prof Denis Balogu, Rev Godfrey Nzamujo, Dagogo Karibi-White, Nnamdi Okonkwo, Nuhu Yakubu, Chike Okoroafor, Soki Graham-Douglas, Ugo Ohuabunwa, Hannibal Uwaifo,Toru Ofili, Ify Bozimo and the President of the group- Emeka Ugwu-Oju. Some investors and industrialists are expected to exhibit their innovations while the Development Agencies active in the region- NNDC, BRACED COMMISSION.
If the plan is adopted and it succeeds in helping to change the economic fortunes of the SE-SS Regions and with a change of the narrative- no more militancy, no more vandalization of Pipelines, no more kidnapping and no more election violence, it could become a model for other Regions to adopt and who knows, it could trigger a new paradigm in Economic resurgence of Nigeria building on our internal strengths and competences while leveraging resources for the optimization of comparative and competitive advantages. True, I pray that this Forum succeeds even beyond the expectations of the organizers. Nigerians need to hear of, read about and see new schemes that give hope for a better future. I believe this is one of them.