Economic council offers new hope – Punch

President Muhammadu Buhari’s naming of an Economic Advisory Council on Monday instantly ignited hope that the administration’s dreary management template is set for a positive jolt. Already, the organised private sector, global agencies and perceptive Nigerians have voiced cautious optimism at the composition of the all-expert eight-member EAC and simultaneous disbandment of the Economic Management Team chaired by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo. For Buhari, this is an opportunity to finally salvage his dreadful superintendence by implementing sound advice and for the EAC experts, a fortuitous chance to rescue Nigeria from economic ruin.

Whether he acted in response to long running calls for expert input into his lack-lustre administration as championed by this newspaper, or in realisation of the wreckage he has made of the economy, Buhari appeared sure-footed this time. Headed by Doyin Salami, the EAC is made up entirely of experts whose experiences span the academia, private sector, public policy formation and global development agencies. Among them are Chukwuma Soludo and Ode Ojowu. Others are Shehu Yahaya, Iyabo Masha, Bismarck Rewane, Mohammed Salisu and Mohammed Sagagi.  Their brief, according to Presidential spokesman, Femi Adesina, is to “advise the President on economic policy matters, including fiscal analysis, economic growth and a range of internal and global economic issues working with the relevant cabinet members and heads of monetary and fiscal agencies.” It not only replaces the EMT but is to hold “monthly technical sessions as well as scheduled quarterly meetings with the President.”

From the starting point, if Buhari ignores their advice, our strong admonition to the EAC members is to resist the temptation to become a decorative body, or just another cost centre to adorn an inefficient government with a false aura of expertise that it does not utilise. All are reputable technocrats, not the desperate job seekers hanging perpetually around the corridors of influence to gain entree into the rent-taking elite class. They should therefore avoid being reduced to a mere legitimising body while the regime carries on with its ruinous and uninspiring economic policies.

For once, Buhari bowed to expertise in empanelling the EAC instead of his notorious predilection for sectionalism and cronyism. The challenge now is for the council to energetically produce practical recommendations to revive the economy for production and job creation and for the President to boldly implement them. The United States offers an insight into how we can institutionalise and maximise the counsel of expert advisers. Established in 1946 under the Employment Act, the Council of Economic Advisers advises the US president on economic policy, publishes an Annual Economic Report and recommends “national economic policies to foster and promote free enterprise…to maintain employment, production and purchasing power,” among others. Others have followed; in February this year, Malaysia’s returning reformist prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, established an Economic Action Council to advise and stimulate economic growth. Australia empanelled an Economic Planning Advisory Council between 1984 and 1994 to study medium and long term economic and social issues and provide answers to the government.

Buhari should disrupt the way his government has worked so far in order to deliver on the Change Agenda promises that remain largely unfulfilled. This should be the beginning of decision-making guided by sound economic reasoning in Nigeria, backed by empirical studies and driven by single-minded goals of creating jobs, diversifying exports and revenue sources and lifting as many Nigerians as possible quickly out of poverty. Disastrously, policies have for long been driven by politics, sectionalism and a “cake sharing” mindset. This explains why the Apapa link roads, the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and other federal links to the former federal capital are not repaired despite contributing 55 per cent to all VAT takings, 65 per cent of industrial and commercial activities and more than a third of national Gross Domestic Product.

Without delay, the EAC should be courageous to advise the President that our current template cannot deliver: the economy should be private sector-led; we must achieve self-sufficiency in record time in refined petroleum products and end the irrational waste on imports and subsidy. Government needs to tidy up its finances, reduce costs and the public service; expand and deepen the tax net as well as compel compliance. The rush for loans (especially Chinese) should give way to improving the operating environment and an aggressive policy of privatisation and liberalisation of railways, ports, aviation, steel and mining to attract foreign direct investment.

The EAC should help Buhari with practical advice to break the inertia in the power sector where the 11 power distribution companies are said to be technically insolvent and actual power supplied to Africa’s biggest economy is hardly above 3,000 megawatts. Other challenges include infrastructure deficit, reducing government’s profligacy and improving macroeconomic indices. The prevailing high lending rates inhibit lending to the productive sectors, especially to SMEs and start-ups, the magnets for job creation, export diversification and innovation.

Another caveat: the EAC should avoid wholesale standard, worn panaceas of the Bretton Woods institutions that ignore our peculiar environment. In utilising expert advice, Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, ever the pragmatist, always took local conditions into consideration in implementing recommendations; the Asian Tigers’ recovery from the 1997/98 crisis despite rejecting World Bank/IMF orthodoxy confounded the world. Nigeria also needs very creative ideas and dogged presidential will to lift the country from the mire.

Salami and his team should not cave in to political pressure or seek to be politically correct like many who gain access to the temporary wielders of power. They should opt out once their advice is not needed. James Mattis, like some members of the Trump team before him, said he resigned as defence secretary as the president no longer regarded his advice, thus preserving his integrity. Buhari needs an effective coordination machinery to ensure effective, multi-sectoral implementation.

Bereft of hope under a government that has been befuddled and adrift on the economy, Buhari and the EAC can fill the void and rekindle Nigerians’ confidence  that the spiralling economy will rebound.

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