Industrialization, The Nigerian Way

Successive administrations in Nigeria, whether civilian or military, have felt the need to outdo the previous regime with extravagant plans to industrialize the nation. Once the hopes of the citizenry are raised to astronomical levels of absurdity, however, the plans repeatedly go unimplemented, and the administration quickly returns to business-as-usual of rent collecting.

Many situations in Nigeria defy conventional models and ignore globally accepted norms to such a degree that they have become a travesty. In fact, numerous well-intentioned policies often end up implemented in such a way that they defy their original purpose. For example, law enforcement equipped with taxpayers' funds often malfunctions and becomes a threat to the very citizenry it was empowered to protect. The country's industrialization policies have similarly become distorted.

In the history of industrialization throughout the world, there has been a discernable progression through levels of advancement. No matter the leap or spike in the industrial developmental indices, telltale markers have still been decipherable in their path toward industrialization, especially for emerging economies such as China or the Four Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan.) These markers have served as invaluable keys to fine-tuning the industrial development strategies of these economies - a kind of Global Positioning System (GPS) for industrial development policy formulators.

Like the rest of Africa, pre-independence Nigeria was structured to maximize the profits flowing north to Europe from exploitative commerce by the colonialists. Little thought was given to industrialization of the processes that yielded the primary products, as the companies were completely foreign-owned with little chance of technology transfer. Instead, huge department stores with finished products were introduced in a one-way street barter that saw Africans consuming finished products for which they had little or no understanding of their production processes.

In an effort to reverse this consumerism trend in post-independent Nigeria, the nation christened its first discernable industrialization policy called the Import Substitution industrialization Strategy in 1961. Obviously, the euphoria of independence may have influenced the administration's capacity to notice the flaws in the strategy, which sought to substitute foreign imports with local production while continuing to rely on foreign raw materials and technology. Clearly, relying on foreign technology and raw materials to produce comparatively disadvantaged products was a policy that was doomed to fail, and, of course, it did. Going forward, policy formulators designed another industrialization strategy which must have been the result of substantial input from pan-nationalists since the resulting indigenization policy was more ideological than economic. The thrust of the Indigenization policy was the empowerment of indigenous entrepreneurs as decision-makers in key industries, thus reducing the overbearing influence of foreign interest in the industrial sector.

To be sure, government always has a central role to play in the industrialization process, but it has become devastatingly obvious that the Nigerian government has been involved far beyond the call of duty. The incestuous tripartite relationship between government, business moguls, and ethnic considerations in formulating the indigenization policy has been very troubling. The result of this intercourse of economically adverse players has been bureaucratic corruption that has eventually matured into a systemic monster that refuses to be tamed. This explains why the Ajaokuta steel complex has been gestating for more than 30 years despite the billions of Naira invested, while similar projects have been completed in three to five years.

The Nigerian administration has a tendency to delay serious proactive actions in policy formulation until its hand is forced. In fact, rather than a conscientious blueprint for progress, most industrial development plans are no more than countermeasures to correct perceived deficiencies in the economic sphere. Invariably, such knee-jerk policies are severely limited in scope and cannot sustain a framework for serious long-term industrial development.

The Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) implemented in 1986 was meant to accelerate the country past a dependency on foreign imports and technology into localized self-sufficiency in materials, technology, and industrial development. While the jury is still out on the success or failure of this policy, many experts agree that its primary purpose of arresting the freefall of the Nigerian economy at the time was relatively effective. But there is little doubt that the limits of such ad hoc economic reactions may have ultimately pushed the government in the 1990s to draft a formal industrial and trade policy from the ground up. The thrust of the new policy emphasized deepening the self-reliance of the manufacturing process of private concerns while cutting back on government interest, boosting local technology expertise and promoting small scale industries. The core elements of the 1990 industrial trade draft policy are still retained in newer policies but retooled to meet the needs of the changing global economic environment.

In the last decade, however, the productive sector has oscillated in the abysmal low single digits in contributions to the nation's gross domestic product, aided by a derelict infrastructure and perverse econo-political variables. This persistent failure of Nigeria's industrial roadmap may be indicative of an inherent defect in the policy framework or, at the very least, in the manner of implementation. Keen observers of Nigeria's industrial journey agree that poor implementation of government-declared policies remain an inexcusable factor in the failure of intended industrial development objectives. The fact is that nations without a proactive industrial policy framework flexible enough to recognize and seize emerging technologies can never become relevant players in the industrial development march since they lose crucial comparative advantage by utilizing outdated technologies in production.

While the Nigerian government is engrossed in strategies to revive the country's steel industries, which have been in a stagnated state of production, most industrialized nations are already fine-tuning advanced technologies for the production of newer materials such as composites to replace steel and aluminum. Composites are highly advanced materials; some constructs are stronger than steel pound for pound and, yet, are lightweight. They also have high corrosion resistance, low conductivity, and many other attributes that make them indispensible in most industrial applications.

Lighter and stronger materials can directly translate into more efficient systems and engineering constructs such as faster but more eco-friendly airplanes, ships, trains, and cars. Its extensive use in civil construction, energy, military, and other vital sectors of national strategic importance directly impact the economic fortunes and technological competitiveness of countries on the global stage, signalling the advent of a new revolutionary era. As Isaac Asimov has said, "Our world is now future-oriented, you see, in the sense that the rate of change has become so rapid that we can no longer wait until a problem is upon us to work out the solution. If we do, then there is no real solution, for by the time one has been worked out and applied, change has progressed still further and our solution no longer makes sense at all. The change must be anticipated before it happens." [Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering By James L. Christian P460]

The Nigerian administration must institute a divorce in the perverted marriage between government, business moguls, and ethnic considerations. Unambiguous policy formulation must be devoid of these unhealthy developmental distortions. A translucent and workable industrial policy may still remain inadequate, however, due to deficient human capital, funding, and base industrial complexes. While the importance of an enabling environment can never be stressed enough, no tangible developmental gain can be sustained if other government policies are adverse to industrial growth. As noted earlier, it's imperative that any techno-industrial policy formulated by the government is robust enough to identify new and emerging technologies at their nascent stages to allow integral engagement in the development process.

The Nigerian government must transcend the grandiose design of industrial blueprints that remain academic in nature and, therefore, impractical and unsustainable. It is of urgent national importance that Nigeria recognizes the emerging paradigm shift in technology in order to capture the benefits of these advancements. Fortunately, the composites industry is a good start and a clear pointer to this administration to jump-start the process for reconstruction of the morbid clutter that is representative of the nation's manufacturing sector.

Emma Adoghe, a member of the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering, Covina, CA, is the CEO of CP Fiberglass Ltd.