Making sense of our chattering class

Far too many contributors to the national debate are simply enamoured of their voices.

Why, given the immense problems that the country faces, and the urgency of finding solutions to them, is the national predilection for ponderous conversations?… Upton Sinclair proffers one explanation. And, indeed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” I cannot pretend to trace a linear relationship between our talking heads’ earnings and the content of their advocacy.

Writing an opinion piece out of Nigeria has always been a thankless chore. Do not get me wrong. In thinking about the country, there has never been a want of concerns begging for attention: from the high-minded (improving the allocative efficiency of the economy, fixing the criminal justice system, reducing the incidence of poverty, etc.); to the sublunary (making our streets pedestrian-friendly, running efficient public transport systems, etc.). However, thinking about Nigeria is unique in one important respect: the overall experience of the country as a policy-making riddle takes place in a temporal loop. On the economy, at least, conversations around whether to remove subsidies, and how much of the “commanding heights” of the economy the state should continue to control (to take two central examples) have been re-experienced every year for the past four decades. An arresting feature of this process is how a belief in state intervention across the economy in aid of the poor and vulnerable continues to result in sub-optimal outcomes, without precipitating an overthrow of the model.

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Now and again, the prospect of breaking out of this cycle of repetitions improves considerably — and appears to stir up support across large swathes of society. This was the case when the Ibrahim Babangida administration secured organised labour’s acquiescence to the sale of government-owned enterprises, as part of the economy’s tortuous transition from a public sector-led to a private sector-driven model. Or when the slew of reforms to the organisation of the state, enacted by the Obasanjo government (in the general’s civilian incarnation, that is), including the due process mechanism and the granting to the central bank of process and administrative autonomy, held out the possibility of a better managed macroeconomic space.

Eight years of the Buhari administration, however, and the economy somnambulated into a series of snafus. Egregious levels of incompetence (rivalled only by the Goodluck Jonathan administration before it, and the Shehu Aliyu Shagari administration long before that) in both the fiscal and monetary policy spaces, appeared to reset just about every conversation we have ever had on the direction and pace of the economy. One step forward and two steps back — all the while in a time loop? Expectedly, the debates that have accompanied the efforts of the Tinubu administration to fix the problems before the economy have triggered an overwhelming sense of one having experienced all this before. The unpleasantness of the illusion of re-experiencing time’s passage more than once, rather than its familiarity, is the problem with déjà vu. Ennui, on the hand, is the dominant sentiment from engaging with the Nigerian experience — complete weariness, in other words.

Far too many contributors to the national debate are simply enamoured of their voices. It is not that they open their mouths before they engage the gears in their heads. More often it is the case that denied lubricants for far too long, the gears in their heads have fused in a process that would have been described as “knocking” were these internal combustion engines.

Or how else do you respond to a commentator’s insistence that the Federal Government can continue to fix the naira’s exchange rate in the teeth of overwhelming evidence that government is “church-rat broke” (at its most basic, the cost of servicing the nation’s huge debt burden every month far exceeds the country’s monthly earnings)? Or given the yawning holes that the Godwin Emefiele-led Central Bank of Nigeria dug in the nation’s external reserves how anyone can contemplate a return to the fixed exchange rates of yore? Good intentions? The road to perdition might well be paved with this. But so is the path to and from jejune conversations in this country. All of which lead to an ineluctable query: Why, given the immense problems that the country faces, and the urgency of finding solutions to them, is the national predilection for ponderous conversations?

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Upton Sinclair proffers one explanation. And, indeed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” I cannot pretend to trace a linear relationship between our talking heads’ earnings and the content of their advocacy. But in conversations on the economy, at least, there is a discernible relationship (if not immediately causal) between superficial reflection and plangent advocacy. Far too many contributors to the national debate are simply enamoured of their voices. It is not that they open their mouths before they engage the gears in their heads. More often it is the case that denied lubricants for far too long, the gears in their heads have fused in a process that would have been described as “knocking” were these internal combustion engines.

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