In his 1998 book, ‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor’ the late Harvard Emeritus Professor of History and Economics, David Landes interrogated the paradox of our country. In 1965, according to Landes, Nigeria, an oil exporting country,
had higher GDP per capita than Indonesia, another oil exporting country. Twenty-five years later, Indonesia had three times the Nigerian level. Landes then posed a rhetorical question: “If Indonesia could do so well, why not Nigeria?”
While Dr Olusegun Aganga may not have set out to answer Landes’ question in his own book that has brought us all here today, he nonetheless provides rare insights into the structure and culture that have impacted negatively on the economic development of our country, Nigeria. And that of the continent. But ‘Reclaiming the Jewel of Africa: A blueprint for taking Nigeria and Africa from potential to prosperity’ is not another Book of Lamentation. Spanning 261 pages and broken into ten chapters, it is a compelling book that seeks to provoke conversations that are both necessary and important if we must attain the desired growth and development not only in our country but in Africa as a whole.
Now, let’s look at the author. A chartered accountant who has had a distinguished career in the financial services sector spanning four decades, and a stint in the Nigerian public service at the highest level, Aganga is a former Managing Director at Goldman Sachs and Senior Director at Ernst & Young in London. Appointed to the Federal Executive Council by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2010, Aganga first served as Minister of Finance and Chairman of the Economic Management Team before he was moved to the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investments. At that period, Aganga had the rare distinction of chairing the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) at the same time. It is the totality of these varied experiences and exposure that Aganga brings to bear in writing this book that offers the perceptive reader insights into the endless possibilities in our country and continent while offering practical guides on how to fix the problems that have for decades held us back from peace and prosperity.
Quite naturally, the book opens with the issue of leadership and political governance structure, before the author examines the place of critical institutions in the development of any society. He highlights three that he believes need to be nurtured to promote sustainable growth and reduce poverty in Nigeria and Africa. They are political, economic and social institutions. When these three properly align, they ultimately help to provide stability in the system and engender shared prosperity, according to Aganga, who draws relevant examples from countries that have leveraged on these institutions for the advancement of their people.
For Nigeria to grow, Aganga argues that political offices need to be made less attractive for private material gain. It is a position shared by many of us. But that would require a reorientation not only by those who seek public offices (whether in elective or appointive capacity) but also by the citizenry. For the economic institutions, Aganga advocates that the goal should be to promote property rights, equal opportunities, competitive open market and a dependable legal system anchored on the rule of law. For social institutions, the emphasis should be on value-driven education although the role of the NGOs is also critical according to Aganga. While the focus of chapter three is on the civil service, the author also shared the experience of his first days as minister, as well as the culture shock of moving from the private sector in the United Kingdom to the public sector in Nigeria. In this chapter, the author highlights the efforts he and his team made while taking readers through the lessons that can be learnt from countries like Japan and Malaysia on the role of the civil service.
In Chapter four, the author deals with the structure of the Nigerian economy that produces growth which is neither fast enough for the population we breed nor inclusive. The impediments he highlights include low tax to GDP, ineffective diversification policies, dependency on oil rent, interest rate sterility, recurrent expenditure blights, exchange rate (mis)management, ever-growing public debt, and the political environment that does not encourage long-term planning. But more concerning for Aganga is that, despite the foregoing, elections are never won or lost in Nigeria on economic issues as it is the case in most countries.
The title of Chapter Six says it all: ‘Managing our resources better: eliminating leakages and waste’. It speaks to the chaos and lack of accountability that define the Nigerian public space and the enormous waste of scarce resources at practically all levels and in all spheres. Using data from the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the author speaks to the ruinous effects of subsidy payments in the downstream sector of the petroleum industry. I am sure he will be delighted that the current administration has decided to bite the bullet on this vexatious issue.
In chapter seven, Aganga reechoes what most people, including former American President Bill Clinton, have said about Nigeria: Our people remain the biggest and most important assets. In Aganga’s thesis, statistics from the United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS) were cited along with others from South Africa, United States to home in the fact that there is hardly any field of human endeavour where Nigerians have not excelled. For instance, no fewer than 10494 Nigerian medical professionals had been enlisted as of March 2021 in the NHS alone, according to Aganga—an indication of the enormous human resources available to our country. The challenge of course is how to harness this potential for the advancement of our people so that the whole of our country can become bigger than the sum of its parts.
However, Aganga’s argument on why our people are important goes beyond the quality of our citizens to the numbers. “We have a quantity advantage, and our demographic is the envy of the rest of the world”, Aganga wrote to buttress his point on the advantage of our young population. “The average age in Nigeria is about 18.6 years. This compares to about 42.5 years in Europe and 38.4 in China.” But Aganga is concerned that every year “Nigeria adds 5.5 million people to its population, which is about the population of Congo, Namibia, Liberia, Mauritania and the Gambia, among others.” He contrasted our population with that of the United Kingdom. In 1960, Nigeria was 46 million. UK was 52 million. Which means our population was far less than that of the UK. Today, our population is almost four times that of the UK.
The warning from Aganga is the same as that in a 2009 report on Nigeria that the authorities never paid attention to. Sponsored by the British Council and coordinated by David Bloom, Harvard Professor of Economics and Demography, the report predicted that by 2030 Nigeria would be one of the few countries in the world with an abundance of young people at a period most others would be left with aging populations. With the right policies, the report concludes, Nigeria could easily become one of the world’s leading economies; and with wrong choices, our young citizens would “become an increasingly disruptive force”.
The signs that we are not prepared to reap this demographic dividend are staring us in the face. On an annual basis, our public universities are closed for several months. We make no serious investment in education or health. The population of jobless graduates keeps growing. Out-of-school children in Nigeria are almost twice the entire population of some of the countries within the subregion. The totality of the foregoing is that we must curb irresponsible procreation. In advocating population control for the country, Aganga states that the high number is of little value when productivity is low and the economy relatively small as is the case with our country.
What makes Aganga’s book so compelling is that it contains facts and figures of the economic trajectory of both our country and the continent from 19th century to the initial post-independent era that held much promise before the story began to change in the latter part of the 20th century. Had we built strong institutions like many countries in Southeast Asia, that would have been the foundation for sustainable growth, according to Aganga. But he believes this is not too late an idea to imbibe. And every chapter of his book ends with far-reaching recommendations.
To change the narrative of our country and continent, Aganga counsels that we must build a value-driven society. Using the time-tested concept of Omoluabi by the Yoruba, he advocates reorientation programmes and campaigns. Aganga also advocates that we must instill law and order and refocus education, citing the Scandinavian countries as prime examples. Other ideas he canvasses include building a citizenship that places less emphasis on state of origin and managing our diversity better.
In this book which I strongly recommend, Aganga provides insights into the Nigerian Industrial Revolution Plan (NIRP) and Nigeria Enterprise Development Programme (NEDEP). Both were his initiatives when he served as Minister. The Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) is another idea from Aganga. As of today, the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA) has US$ 2.3 billion in assets under management. Having bemoaned the lack of continuity in which every administration abandons the policies and projects of previous oness, Aganga should be delighted with how the SWF has been nurtured to become an institution.
Meanwhile, I am not surprised that Aganga opened the last chapter of his book which he titled, ‘The road to reclamation: Africa, yesterday, today and tomorrow’ with the embedded message in ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ which is regarded as one of the best works of literature regarding ethics and society. A major theme in this story, popular in leadership classes, is morality and how different people within a given society react to situations around them. Omelas, as Aganga stated, is a good metaphor for our country today. That so many of our professionals are leaving Nigeria for societies where things work and where they believe their families can be assured of a secure means of livelihood is a normal human aspiration. But the option taken by the residents of Omelas offers no solution to what ails us as a country. We must confront our own demons, he advocates. For us to develop as a society, Aganga believes that we need to come to that special place where both the government and the people meet in an honest admission of shared responsibility for lost opportunities and the challenge of national retrieval.
Overall, ‘Reclaiming the Jewel of Africa’ is not just a guide to public officials, but also a call to citizens on contributing their quota towards the development of Nigeria and Africa. In endorsing the book, both former South African President Thabo Mbeki, and renowned scholar, Professor Wale Adebanwi, attest to the fact that Aganga’s thesis goes beyond the usual lamentations to providing workable solutions to many of the challenges that plague our country and the continent. “The prose is accessible, and the data deployed is as current as possible in the third decade of the 21st century,” wrote Dr Christopher Kolade in the foreword. “Such facts and figures, with narratives of an involved person, show that Nigeria indeed is the ‘jewel’ of Africa.”
Before I take my seat, let me come back to the first chapter on Leadership because of the considerable attention the author has devoted to the issue. And I can personally attest to that. I first met Mr Aganga in January 2006 when he partnered with the Aspen Institute in Colorado, United States to organize the first Nigeria Leadership Seminar, in Hertfordshire, United Kingdom. He was then the Managing Director and Head of Hedge Fund Consulting at Goldman Sachs Prime Brokerage in London. I was then editor of THISDAY newspapers in Lagos and one of the 28 Nigerians (14 from the Diaspora and 14 from home) he invited for the leadership session. From the Diaspora were corporate and intellectual giants like investment banker, Mr. Adebayo Ogunlesi, Professor Tayo Akinwande of MIT, Professor Jacob Olupona of Harvard, renowned psychiatry Professor, Femi Oyebode of the University of Birmingham and respected journalist, Mr Dele Olojede. Others include the CEO of The Keffi Group, Mr Jide Aeitlin, Dr. Seyi Solebo, Mrs. Lola Oni, (MBE), Mr Ayo Oke, Dr. Olu Obaro, Mr Gboyega Delano and Mr Jimi Morgan. And from home were Mr Nuhu Ribadu, Mr Nasir el-Rufai, Mrs Bola Adesola, Mr Tony Elumelu, Mr Jim Ovia, Mr Asue Ighodalo, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, Mrs Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli, Mr Hassan Oye Odukale, Mr Bunmi Oni, Major General Sarki Mukhtar (rtd), Dr. Adhiambo Odaga, Mrs. Bridget Itsueli and me.
In explaining the rationale for the Nigeria Leadership Initiative (NLI) which he founded, Aganga said the idea was premised on the need “to raise the bar for leaders by sharpening their values-based skills and providing them with a platform to play a transformative role in Nigeria.” The NLI has since worked with some 400 Nigerians leaders from various fields, many of whom hold very high offices today in the public and private spheres.
In 2006, the then Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Dr. Kolade sat with us throughout the four days and participated in all our sessions. At the end, he hosted us to dinner. I have never forgotten his last words to us: “As you go out of here with enthusiasm in your desire to help your country, I must warn you of one thing, so you would not go with any illusion: the Nigerian terrain can kill the soul. That means you must be prepared for disappointments.” I am sure that Aganga had his own share of frustrations as Minister. But that did not discourage him from giving his best to the country. That is a lesson for all of us.
What distinguishes Aganga’s book is that it is not so much about the past. It is much more about the promise that the future holds. He highlights the resilience and awakening of the Nigerian youths, their breakthrough in the entertainment industry where they have elevated our country globally and in the Fintech space, where they have built four of the six unicorns in Africa, each worth at least a billion dollar in valuation and several other feats. For Africa, Aganga believes that the African Union must unite the continent through the full implementation of the African Continental Trade Agreement, AfCTA by creating free trade zones to encourage trade between and among our peoples.
But Nigeria is at the core of Aganga’s message. According to the author, our country is the shoulder upon which Africa rests and the wings with which the continent can fly. Aganga will not be the first to make that kind of assumption and he references the late South African icon, Mr Nelson Mandela to back up his claim. To the extent that every society rises to the level of wealth that their ingenuity and work ethics allow, what Aganga is telling us in Nigeria and other countries across the continent is that we have all it takes to reposition our country and continent for growth and development. But to realise that potential, we must embrace a new culture.
Overall, ‘Reclaiming the Jewel of Africa’ is a sobering reminder of who we are as a people, where are we are coming from, some of the mistakes we have made and their consequences and the lessons we should imbibe going forward. In flowing prose, Dr Olusegun Aganga reflects on some of the challenges confronting us and, in the process, proffered his own solutions. At the end, he invites an honest confrontation with our stark reality as a nation and continent. But what the author says most clearly is that as bad as things may seem, if we embrace a more productive and cooperative form of engagement, we can rewrite the story of our country. And our continent.
*Text of Adeniyi’s review of Dr Olusegun Aganga’s book, ‘Reclaiming the Jewel’, at its public presentation in Abuja on Monday, 24th July 2023