The Foundation Interview Series #13: Dr Kalu Idika Kalu
THE CHINUA ACHEBE FOUNDATION INTERVIEW SERIES.
Dr Kalu Idika Kalu in Conversation with Pini Jason
Dr Kalu Idika Kalu has served twice as Nigeria's Minister of Finance. He has also served his nation as Minister of National Planning as well as Transport.
He attended Kings College,
Dr.Kalu Idika Kalu, popularly known as K.I.K, was a Research Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, (1966, 70-72), and a Research Fellow/Lecturer, Economic Development Institute, EDI, University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus, (1988-70). He joined the World Bank (1972-80) as an Economist, and was Country Economist in
He was interviewed by Mr. Pini Jason, a columnist for Nigeria's Vanguard newspaper, Associate Editor of New African, London (1987-2004), author of A Familiar Road, and publisher/Editor-in-Chief of The Examiner newspaper. Mr. Jason has several years of experience in major Nigerian newspapers as well as international publications.
Q. A veteran Nigerian politician, Mrs. Oyibo Odinamadu, recently wrote a newspaper article titled: Something is Wrong with
A. Well, it is a very intriguing question. Of course, our great Chinua (Achebe) said it simply, and I can imagine the measure of exasperation, that the problem with
In this way, one can begin to identify what Chinua Achebe might mean when he says that our problem is that of leadership. Our leadership must be people who are clearly well educated enough to understand the significance of training, standards, merit, even-handed justice, and then the more technical issues about relationships between effort and reward as an inviolate principle in any society that wants to move towards a modern age.
There has to be a critical minimum education. That education must have the right content, not merely the superficial act of attending primary and secondary school, and then university or military school. There has to be that worldliness, a view of the world that informs us: this is where we are; this is where we ought to be in a discrete timeframe; these are the options to get to that point. So leadership is a key issue.
Q. Some say that this country has never had a leader with a university education. Are we being pedantic here? Or are you saying that education goes beyond the classroom, is more about exposure, sophistication; a certain worldliness?
A. Yes, I think. Because drawing from my own experience, refinement, sophistication has to go beyond simply possessing a formal education. One's social background has to be part of the package. As I said, the socialization process includes both formal and informal education, and the whole camaraderie issue; for example, who are those involved in this collegial leadership? They don't all have to be graduates per se; however there has to be that identification with a commitment to what is proper, what is orderly, what is legal. And this is where the rule of law is important, but which we have abandoned as a very important ingredient of leadership. You can very clearly see this from the way we have gone about elections, rigging and muddling through with illegalities in this country.
Q. How much of our problem is located in the political structure of the country?
A. If you asked ten people to define that term, you will probably receive about ten different definitions. I think what you point out is very critical, but we now have to identify the components of such a structure. We all know that a constitution for a people, which is closely modeled after their culture and tradition, is more likely to work. But if the constitution and the selection process embedded in it are alien to the way leadership emerges in that social setting, there are bound to be problems.
The rudiments of the rule of law, as embodied in the constitution, should also reflect the sense of justice in the social system for it to be easily applicable and sustainable. So what I am saying is that we may all agree that, perhaps, we do not yet have the structure we need, but if we can circumscribe very closely, the social etiquette, habits and so on of the people, then it is likely that other things will easily follow. We talk of federalism, self-determination by component units, devolution of powers, and what you might call a just fiscal system. But certainly, the issue of equality before the law, the issue of an even selection process for elective positions and appointive positions, for movements on the merit scale through the civil service are equally important. With a structure that clearly defines these, a legal framework that allows effective function by apportioning corrections, penalties -- what have you; then one can say that there is a good structure.
But that is really very far from what we have now with the current system. As I said elsewhere, if you want examples of how not to run a country, you will get all those examples here in
Q. There are people who blame
A. Well, the important question, perhaps, is: at what point did we deviate so much from what we thought we had learnt? Let us, if you will, examine Francophone and Anglophone countries on the continent. There is no denying the fact that until recent events in
Q. Was this scenario what culminated in the military coup? Because people blame this dislocation on the military; that
A. Again it is a very difficult question. And we must continue to fight this tendency to say, voila -- we have the answerâ¦when we are addressing essentially socio-political dynamics. Invariably, there might be several contributory elements, and the weight of such elements at any given phase will change over time. By 1966, our population was increasing at a high rate; although we were approaching the threshold of the oil and gas revenue, it took us time to do so. We were better then at managing the resources we had to expand opportunities in education, health, etc. Ten years later, however, it became a different kettle of fish. There was a fair sense of unity and therefore a common sense of outrage at some of the things that were happening at the political arena. This explains why the 1966 coup was hailed. I wasn't here, but through the media we had the impression that Nigerian people seemed to be very happy with it, because it was like calling the society and the leadership to order. But again, there was a leadership failure. Even so, we shouldn't be too one-dimensional. Let us just say that the leadership could have emerged to put things in perspective and prevent a reinterpretation of that event. But what happened to reinterpret that event so successfully that within a year it was now seen, not as a force for correcting leadership for the whole of society, but, to some extent, as ethnic politics in a leadership setting? Why was that possible? It was possible because, at the time already, the expansion of opportunities was not moving in tandem with expectations. The availability of positions and prospects did seem -- to the ordinary Nigerian -- that unless one was fighting under a certain rubric - ethnicity, religion and region of origin - things would not be coming one's way.
Q. You made a transition from your career as an economist into partisan politics, and aspired to run for the Presidency. Can you tell us what your motivating factor was?
A. Well, I call it a certain naivety. But it was really trying to address the question of the problem of
I don't know whether the problem was in not being able to reach our people at the grassroots to explain these things; where our culture meets the modern world; how rural development may be organized, how various skills are re-emphasized: first-rate weaving, carpentry, artisanship to steeling demand and supply so that goods that typically go to waste can be preserved and distributed locally and abroad. I continue to feel that it would have been a great opportunity to give this kind of leadership to the country.
But it was not so much politics I was talking about! I suppose that, in some other clime, it would be said -- oh yes, the country was lucky; there was such and such a guy who seems to have had the training, the international and domestic exposure in the private sector. I was in consulting, in the government sector; I taught at the university, I worked at the state level, then at the federal level in Finance (twice!) in Planning and Transport. I returned to the private sector working at the restructuring of banks -- you name it. So to answer your question what was my motivation? As I said, this was not politics. Others will play the politics game, but I truly felt great concern about mobilizing all our resources to the benefit of our people. All the pamphlets I gave out were socially based on my own agenda for the country. That is the way I saw it.
Q. Typically, however, the ideas people generally advance as qualifications for leadership appear to run far from what you advocate! Nigerians tend to think in terms of a turn-by-turn leadership process or leadership influenced by one's geographical place of origin and religion; which boil down to the saying that a country gets the leadership it deserves. Does
A. Well, it is a chicken and egg situation; but let me back up somewhat. I was, I must confess, always irritated when the issue of "Igbo Presidency" was first brought up. But I recognized the relevance, and always said: yesâ¦but that should not preclude the Igbo from selecting someone who adequately meets the requirements for leadership. I even said I thought it was an insult to think that selecting an "Igbo President" would define, in some way, who would then become Nigerian president. Given the demand for geographical and ethnic "turn-by-turn," given the historical picture, yes of course; but that should not affect the fact that we still need to vote in someone, truly committed and farsighted, who can then make it possible that in a few years from now there will be no need for the "turn by turn" process. We would hopefully focus squarely on programmes and their effective function.
Then going back to your question more specifically, as I said it is a chicken and egg thing. Is the society that is looking for this parochial selection process or is it that the leadership has not educated its following to understand that what is really important is not religion or ethnicity or region or whatever? I think they are like the two sides of the same coin.
Q. Politicians have found that they have to appeal to these sentiments to become voted into office. So they have no interest in educating the ordinary people.
A. Yeah. But as I said earlier, I believe strongly that if you had an effective leadership, it would make a definite difference. Let's be honest to ourselves. Chief Awolowo was vilified for all sorts of things, but there was a fairly national feeling that he was a good economic manager. Dr Michael Okpara possessed the same image of people marching across the country to vigorously appeal for rigorous enterprise, orderly development, and camaraderie across ethnic, state and regional lines, and above all, people who were capable of setting up and running efficient systems. Those two, just to mention, were already getting there, and it was merely a matter of time. If we had continued along those lines, believe me, we would have become successful had they been allowed to do so. However, this is where we may now say the military truncated things. It can never be overstated how far the military putsches set us back, however, it is more our reaction to such interventions that really caused the damage than the original intent of the military putsches. It depends on how you look at it. I think any committed leader can help in getting us away from all these primitive expectations of a leader just pandering to a constituency.
Q. What was your experience in the field as a politician? What did you discover was particularly wrong with our system of recruitment of leadership? And do you think the system, as it is, can produce the type of leadership that you are talking about?
A. No it cannot; I think the issues are very stark. I talked the other day about aspiring to a civil institution which has a mandate that can be sprung to action by any violation of our laws. Such is in place in many societies. Let us take the case of the
So for us to be able to throw up a leadership, after we set the rules for running for office -- whether as an independent or through a party platform -- we ought to have such a legal framework as a part and parcel of every step of the process, within the political party, the local government, the state, the judiciary, the police, the army and the Navy.
Q. Soon after 1999, a Democracy Assessment was undertaken in
A. I agree entirely with that. But what needs to be explored, at length, is this; we have clearly captured the fact of a dearth of institution building, but what have we not captured, what are we still not contemplating? We can also capture a need for a restructuring process for strengthening institutions. But I think we have to go behind that. I have mentioned the importance of legality, the importance of the judicial process, the importance of civil awareness-rights, obligations and responsibilities. We are not yet focused on how to build that up. But even more importantly, we need to revisit the issue of the growth of expectations, the growth of the means to satisfy expectations. Therefore the very slow growth confidence-building in the individual has prevented him from perceiving his god-given, civil right, to exercise his freedom; in other words, he needs to be spared the overbearing sense of hanging onto someone else, or public institutions, or onto public entities for appointments and this and that. What I am driving at is that the failure of the economic system has also reduced the ability of people to feel confident to exercise their civic rights and responsibilities.
So you could be building these institutions on one hand, but where are the basics? Unimpeded public access to water, safety/protection, jobs, to self-actualize â the power to do your own thing on your own farm, buy your own bicycle or motorbike, buy the car you want without having to be a councilor -- you can freely express your view about how your village is being run, about how your society is being run, about who is to represent you at the state or federal capital.
Q. Did you find any converts ?
A. You see, after I spoke at the debate, people came up to me, and said that I raised the debate to a level they had never heard before. Of course there was a lot of enthusiasm there. But you ask me; how much, really, did they spot the simple connection? However, I think that from the way people reacted to me in so many circles, there is, certainly, recognition of the fact that we are very far from where we ought to be. But again, the dependency syndrome that has been fostered by lack-lustre and sustained underperformance, has coloured a full appreciation of the importance of saying -- this is the way it should be.
Q. Will you run again?
A. I think it will be foolish of me to even think about it without a significant change in some of these indicators I have mentioned. I said to somebody jokingly that, well if somebody gave me N500 million, maybe I would think about it. Presumably I will buy so much media time. The fact is that without going through these things in a very conscious manner, the nation is never going to emerge! You see; there is nothing in the development text that says every country has to develop. There is nothing! When I was an undergraduate, you will be surprised at some of the countries that were in the footnotes as countries that will never make it. Just over night they were able to discover minerals, oil, gasâ¦just the way we did. And some of them are among those that are trying to join the nuclear club these days. And there are other countries that, without oil and gas, were written into textbooks as peasant farmers, yet; voila! They have modern ideas! They responded to market forces, which we thought we re-invented in the eighties! All they needed was the leadership to now take them along in terms of economies of scale to pull these revenues and create ways of valorizing these produce, enhancing their prices, enhancing their incomes so that they can provide improved education and skills for their children, so that their children may be doing the same farming, but with a different level of technology and a different skill in terms of production output and income.
What can Nigerians expect from the Sovereign National conference?
A. Well, I worked with a group called The Ethnic Nationalities Forum on this. The ethnic constituencies should freely select who their leaders are, through their organizations or whatever way they want to. Let them freely decide what the issues are, drawing from their recent experience. Let them have the opportunity with the active support (now I know this is idealistic) of the government in terms of providing logistics, because this is a national task, and it will be a great legacy for the leadership that supervises this sort of thing, not by imposing on this conference, who should be there, or by imposing on what should be discussed. People should by now be competent to know what the issues creating all this bloodletting, this incessant squabbling are. So we have called for a Sovereign National Conference involving Ethnic Nationalities.
Now what are the issues? The issues are -- given our social structure, our habits, if you like, our Africanness, our Nigerianness; given our abilities to receive at different degrees, all these influences coming from the external world -- what form of government will enable us to build on our own, modernize to increase productivity, enlarge and create opportunities for science and technology in every field of Endeavour so that we are in tandem with rest of the world? What kind of system do we need? Do you want a provincial set up? Do you want a zonal set up? Do want a parliamentary, presidential, or a concoction of various elements? What kind of federalism do you want? The emphasis should be on a measure of even development.
Q. There are two fears about a conference based on ethnic representation. One is that in some places, like Borno state, for example, if you walked a kilometer, you would come up with 300 ethnic groups. The second fear is that if representation is on ethnic basis it becomes some ethnic slugfest that will probably have no end. Obviously most of the issues you raised can be discussed without ethnic representation.
A. But putting it in another way -- by not making any effort to address the source of the friction one is afraid of, one is really making it more likely that whatever is finally decided upon will not attend to those fears. Two, we have seen the agenda brought out by the government and the one brought out by other groups advocating an ethnic nationalities conference; it is amazing how much of the same thing they really are talking about. None of the issues I have addressed has any particular ethnic flavour to it; but it is better to give the ethnic groups the opportunity to air their views.
Q. There are some kites being flown; that the presidential system is expensive; that multiple tiers of government add to the cost of presidential system; that may be collapsing the number of states is the answer. How do you react to this?
A. I think it is all a gross simplification, and an attempt to abstract from the core of the problem. Surely, with the right discernment we could take a presidential structure and tailor it to our present and prospective resources. The fact that we have not been able to do so is not the fault of the presidential system. It is not the presidential system that says we should be buying Toyota Land Cruisers for ministers instead of the Peugeot. It is not the Presidential system that says we should have sixty ministers and 120 advisers and assistants, or that we have to build 8-bedroom houses for directors. We are blaming on the system, our own inability to manage, and our lack of imagination in some of the larger actions that we take. The blame should really be on the leadership, and our inability to cut our coat according to our cloth. You can abuse any system unless you are quite clear about your priorities. It is a lack of priorities that has given rise to our commitment of so much to recurrent expenditure, loud capital expenditure, proliferation of institutions and conspicuous consumption. We blame it on the presidential system. In fact all of these can quite easily happen in a parliamentary system.
Q. Which was why we transitioned from a presidential from parliamentary system, in the first placeâ¦?
A. Precisely! We didn't change our basic perception of a sense of well being, and life more abundant (which we coined when we thought we would be more prudent). It is the life-more-abundant syndrome that we took to the presidential system, and what aggravated our profligacy.
Q. Ethnocentricity and religious bigotry have played a role in destabilizing the country. Recently, the National Population Commission came up with a fantastic solution, which is to eliminate ethnic origin and religion from the data forms for the 2005 population census. Does that make sense to you?
A. It does not make sense to me. What is tragic is that what should just be a necessary statistic, necessary in terms of completing a descriptive picture, should be highlighted to a point, it becomes a political issue!!! I don't know how it even arrived at that level. I think that this is just what the problem is. If you say ethnic origin and religion is important, then you have to explain why you think it is important. If you say not, then there must be a reason why you think it is not important.
Q. You have been Minister of Finance twice, Minister of Transport, as well as Planning, mostly under military rule. Was there anything arising from the "commandist" nature of the military that made it impossible for the economy to work under you?
A. Well, surprise, surprise! Let me just say that my candid opinion is that one of the lucky things we have in this country -- and a lot of people may disagree with me, particularly when you look at the stories that have emerged from the Abacha regime and the Buhari period -- is the relevance of our culture even in a military setting. You can see it. We need the approval of the traditional ruler; we have to consult the traditional rulers!!! What I am saying is this; our military experience has not really been the typical militaristic, repressive, grinding experience. Therefore, we cannot, to a very large extent, blame the military for shortcomings in economic policies and implementation of programmes. By the time you do the analysis, you will find a very curious mixture where, with the right ideas, the determination or the will to move on them, that the military might have performed better than in the rancorous political era. There was therefore a lot of leeway for the civilian expertise component to do their thing, rather it suffered from a lack of confidence to do so successfully. It was the limitations of civilian professional experience and understanding that was more responsible for the deficiencies of economic performances rather than the "commandist" element in military regimes.
Q. But that is not the impression we have!
A. How do you mean?
Q. The Structural Adjustment Programme,
A. (Laughs). You and I have gone over this several times. And you haven't learnt a thing since we last talked about it!
Q. You know that in Nigeria, there are more "experts" in economics than those who are really the experts. In our university campuses, there are millions of "experts" who know what is wrong with our economy! And the greatest whipping horse here is the World Bank/IMF. People who have that kind of perception, especially in discussing any policy which tends to move away from what we have been doing wrong, dismiss such policies as World Bank/IMF. Is there anything inherently wrong with World Bank/IMF economic policies as they relate to Africa?
A. (Chuckles). Well, I have described this as the eighth wonder of the world! I think there is so much misunderstanding and lack of expertise in the economic analyses, not just in Nigeria, but also in many of the Sub-Saharan African countries. I remember as part of a team setting up capacity building initiative as a consultant to The Bank, I think this was in Zinbabwe; the word went round that I was the
Now, coming specifically to the Nigerian case, what really went wrong? Let me just put it very simply after all these years one has talked and written about this. We astounded even ourselves by the way we chose to adjust our rate of exchange. That was the first error; we took the wrong decision. We compounded it by not seeing that it meant that we should have funded that system. We further constrained our ability to correct the first mistake by expressly refusing the funds we needed for the system.
Q. That's the IMF loan?
A. Yes! It was a big disaster! The Bank tried to cope but they could only come up with so much, even against continuing opposition! And when the exchange rate kept dipping because of inadequate supply to demand, strangely enough, local experts could not face up to the reasons why. Then we compounded the first two problems by setting up two rates of exchange, that is, the dual exchange rate. We committed all these errors on our own to the consternation of the discerning world, which threw up its hands and said: well, that's what the country has decided it wants! If one intervenes, it will be viewed as imposing. By then, I had been moved (from the Ministry of Finance) because it was said that I was supporting the use of IMF resources! In truth, I was supporting just a discreet adjustment rather than a trading in which we were not putting enough funds. And by the time we created two different rates that continued to widen, corruption now reigned as people saw that they could buy cheaply and sell dear. We sent the wrong signals about price formation to the entire system. Now, you are a fool if you go and invest for seven days' production, not to talk of three years' production, when you can invest in the morning and reap so much profit in the afternoon. But what surprised me was the lack of understanding by my Nigerian colleagues!
Q. Even Robert Stiglitz, the Nobel Laureate in economics, who is now at Columbia, and who has consulted for World Bank, said at his Pius Okigbo lecture in Enugu that even at his level, he is confounded by some of the prescriptions that World Bank and IMF give to African countries.
A. No, no, you see, I had to talk with Stiglitz. He found it very difficult to understand what was going on, because this was like irrational behaviour on our part. He couldn't understand it at all. Faced with specific policies, it was impossible for him not to worry about things going awry. For instance, he and I were discussing Argentina's debt, and he said suggested that it was when the IMF stopped lending to Argentina that it began to grow! There are a lot of people who accuse him of not realizing that he may not fully understand the local milieu. He is a brilliant economist, quite alright, but you see, the point of IMF/World Bank prescription for austerity or anything else, the presumption is that there is a minimum critical local input that will take advice and translate it into local conditions. But where there is an inability, and where the recommendation that comes from the IMF and World Bank goes in without local variation, of course, it may not fit, because of so many other factors.
This was my regret, because I have implemented these projects in developing countries; I had the Nigerian experience because of the work I had already done before, and therefore, it was easy for me to see how even with the structure of our economy, what we needed was to convince the world that we knew that our exchange rate was too high, that we needed a minor adjustment. Then we would have opened ourselves up to an inflow of new investment from new money, and gain money for rescheduling our debt, or even receive debt relief or debt cancellation. You didn't have to expose the entire economy to open trading of the currency.
Q. Every time I listen to you, even as a layman, what you say appears clear to me. Yet you seem to be the only apostle amidst your colleagues; is there a real fear of being on the so-called unpopular side, or are other economists in the country simply playing politics?
A. Unabashedly, I will say macro economics which is really what we are talking about, although it is a continuum from micro, is not just a matter of correct theory, but also about exposure and practice. So there are two things. It is either people do not have the theory right, or they don't have enough exposure. Then there is the question of the politics. It is like the mistake of talking about imperialism. So it is, again, a lack of exposure to imagine that you can simply pass the IMF/World Bank off as part of the imperialist basket. That is old hat. But frankly, if my colleagues knew the consequences of the things they were saying, I don't think merely the politics would have made them continue. So I have to conclude that a lot of it is lack of understanding. So I don't care whether it is a PhD or whatever. Similarly, we can come out with righteous anger and say that we are not getting enough aid compared with other African countries. If they understand, they should see how ironic it is. Because we are the ones who don't really want the aid.
Q. The general fear about borrowing is that some of the money may end up in private pockets!
A. Precisely! Now, who is going to change that? I was saying just the other day that -- if Obasanjo's government, with all the posture of high expertise; the Ngozi Okonjo-Iwealas and Soludos of this worldâ¦and with Obasanjo's posture as a strong leader who has his own ideas -- cannot help us overcome this fear of "pocketing" money we receive as aid, then who is going to do it? Why does this issue come up only when we talk about borrowed funds? Our own funds, too, should be subjected to the same standard. And we should take it as a challenge, not a deterrent! Our people are suffering terribly! There are no jobs. There is not even any basic technology. Look at our transportation. The whole place is overrun by okadas (commercial motorbikes); everyone is on okadas, even pregnant women and childrenâ¦riding okadas! What happened to our public transportation system; what about our trains! Shouldn't we have trains? Oh, the fear is that some people will pocket the money needed for various projects. I remember feeling insulted whenever people said that, because coming from my tradition, I never thought along those terms.
Q. Now that you have seen the National Economic Empowerment Development Strategy, NEEDS, document, what is your view about it?
A. Well, I spoke at the launching of the NEEDS document, saying that I attended, because I was elated we had done some painstaking planning. I praised the launching of the document; it had a body to it, in terms of the structure. I think, possibly, this would be the first time I would be giving a real critique of the document. Because of the administration, politics, the governance, I can say that, may be, something is happening, although I cannot say the same for the States Economic Empowerment Development Strategies, SEEDS, and certainly nothing seems to be happening, either, with the Local Government equivalent, LEEDS. It will not be unfair of me to say that I have been a little bit disappointed that we have not struck out boldly. I am glad we are talking about private investment, but the state of our economy requires that government should still take the lead in several areas. We have no business pussy-footing about spending on power. We have the wherewithal to fund a modern power network, may be in six zones, using our resources.
Q. Perhaps the problem is having a short-term view of a long-term project -- "the project must be accomplished in the four years of my regime so that I can take credit?"
A. I think you are absolutely right. But I would be more comfortable if that were the case, but the micro-dynamics was better understood, and it would be just a fear of what the records will say for a particular person's finite period. Because, clearly, when we are talking of roads, power and transportation, all of these require a twenty to twenty-five year-term horizon. Once one has the unanimity (and this is where these conferences should be useful) one can then explain to the people why there might be some temporary inflation. The people might be able to appreciate this when they see that jobs are being created.
Q. What is your view on deregulation and privatization of the public sector, especially the deregulation of the oil sector, which targets local consumption being imported?
A. You know I am the author of virtually all of these things. I wrote a paper in 1985 dealing with all of these things. Deregulation does not just refer to the oil sector; in reality, it refers to the economy. So that is the first thing. Even if one is referring to a sub-sector of the economy, deregulation does not mean allowing some people to import finished goods. Deregulation means the ability to open up the forces behind demand and supply. If you just deregulate an element of supply, which is the import source, and you don't provide for how the domestic supplier will also respond to the price and the demand; that is not deregulation! That is creating distortion.
Q. Looking at you in totality, you are certainly a product of your early life and the kind of education you had. What was life like for you as a young man?
A. Well, I had a very lively early youth. I started school briefly at my hometown; I might have been born in Zaria, but my mother traveled home, so that I would be born in Ebem, Ohafia. I started school there then I quickly came to -- I think Oyo or Ibadan. But it was in Lagos that I really began school. My father was very encouraging; I moved through many schools, because he felt the need to constantly test me. I was always first in the week, first in the month, first in the term, you know. He sometimes found this difficult to believe, and so, I would be moved from one school to the other. I attended Ladi Lak Institute Yaba -- Gen. Ike Nwachukwu was there -- then Colony Public School, St Jude's. From St Jude's, I went on to Kings College.
You see, at the time, there was so much exuberance; there were no limitations. You felt you could do what you wanted; so long as you were bright, you studied and passed your exams. You couldn't imagine a situation where somebody would take your exams for you; it was unheard of! You couldn't imagine a situation where you were passed over, despite the fact that you had excellent results, or your grade would be substituted for somebody else's. Everything depended on one's performance. The government was sensitive to the needs of the people, teachers were dedicated. The environment was good. The school I attended, St Jude's, was a fantastic school. The academics, the handwork, we had privilege to a great many things. So there was a sense of a well rounded training in elementary school.
When I moved on to Kings College, it was the same thing; very dedicated teachers, though mostly foreigners, and a few Nigerians. There was a good breadth of things to do. And students attended schools from all over this country. In fact you didn't bother to know where people came from. Those of us who grew up in Lagos spoke Igbo with Yoruba accent. Some spoke English with a Yoruba accent. So what I am trying to say is that the greatest pity is that, over time, the school milieu changed for the reasons we have been talking about. Even when we went to study in America, there were a lot of Nigerians, but we came in large numbers in an Afro-American programme, and we were just so sure of ourselves. No race consciousness or the sense of inadequacy. You admired those who were better than you. At that time we were very proud of our country. We said we would travel abroad, get into their best schools, beat the people in their own classes and then come back, and this was going to be a great country. That was it.
Q. You had your University education in America. Did you ever teach in a Nigerian university?
A. As if I knew, I rushed through my first, second, and doctorate degrees in four and half years. And when I came back, I was posted to Enugu. I taught economics in the Business School, Enugu campus (of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka) and I was also at the Economic Development Institute, EDI. Then the war broke out. I came back (to the Business School) at the end of the war so that the students could graduate. As soon as they knew I was still alive, I received a scholarship from the alumni institution of the University of Wisconsin. I went back there and completed my dissertation, which was based on Effective Tariff Protection and the Patterns of Industrial Development in Nigeria 1900-1970. Essentially, it was to explore the structural changes in our trade, and to relate this to the kind of policies and enterprises that were encouraged, and to also look at the production functions of these enterprises in terms of labour and capital intensity.
There was some shock that, even though I was coming back from a war situation, I had enough material to really build up on this. Even so, I nearly gave up writing it. But as fate would have it, there were MIT/Harvard graduates who came to Nigeria in the early sixties. One of them did an input/ output study on Nigeria, and I was able to employ this data. Someone from the World Bank came to recruit students at the university, and I heard he was at the campus. So I took my data printout to show him. He just looked at it and said: my God, you should be at the World Bank! I said: oh, I don't know about that. By then, my wife was back at medical School, in Ibadan, and I wanted to finish quickly as I already had a son on the way. But the man went back to the Bank, and had the organization write me. I was formally invited, and that's how I went to work in the World Bank. I was not even given the Young Professionals status, but immediately employed as an economist. And before I could settle down, I had been lined up to go to Korea.
Q. What was your experience in Korea like?
A. That, again, is what makes the difference. Apart from studying with the right type of people who came from all over the world -- from top rate institutions like Harvard, Yale, Princeton; all over, to have this opportunity to experiment with all this in a country like South Korea where you have a committed leadership - though military - was really exciting. The country had reason to be on the warpath, because of North Korea. They had no resources apart from plywood, very rough wood, wheat and cheap shoes. The task was to change the structure of industrial production, which was the type of thing one had begun talking about here. I worked on every aspect of the economy, from analyzing their debt, working on their public finances, planning steel and shipbuilding. Daewoo and Samsung were just starting in electronics. So it was a very good experience. It enabled you to put all you had studied into practice. I camped through farms of cereal culture, apple orchards, and horticulture to examine prices, how farmers are organized, how their national credit federation is organized to provide extension credits to farmers. A country that had to restrict itself to eating rice on a particular day to conserve foreign exchange was, within a decade, producing enough rice for domestic use, and for export.
Q. You were in Kings College as a young man, mixing with children from all over the country. Did that help shape some of your perspectives in life?
A. Obviously it did. I was not only at Kings College; remember, I attended elementary school in Lagos. I studied Yoruba literature as a subject. I read Ogboju Ode and Ireke Onibudo, and all that. And I speak the language fluently. In fact, because of the particular part of Lagos I grew up in, I was forced to speak English, (I didn't know how to speak pidgin), Yoruba, and, of course, my own Ohafia dialect.
Q. One of the characteristics of schools those days was the international nature of the teaching staff. But even at the universities, the staffing has become so parochial; a university in a particular geographical location must be headed by a son of the soil, and almost all the lecturers mustâ¦
A. (Cuts in) I agree with you. You see, that is the definition of a slide into utter mediocrity. When you are able to maintain standards, there should be Americans, British and Germans in our universities, even in our High Schools! And to some extent, there should be other African nationals, even in our elementary schools! In the elementary school I went to, we had Ghanaians and Sierra Leoneans. In Kings College, English, Irish and Americans taught there. Again when I travel locally, and I go to airports and see the dire diminution of non-Nigerians, non-Africans; the hue of the few one does see, suggest that they hail from particular areas, and there is not even a reasonable geographical spread, it mirrors the difficulty in surviving here. I used to joke that those who have stayed back here should be given prizes for having survived. In my youth, when standards were being maintained, it reflected in the diversity of the teaching staff and the work force. There were many foreigners in the civil service who wished to remain, even after Independence!
Q. When one counts the number of strikes by teachers, in our universities today, and listens to their agitations, one begins to wonder what is going on. Teachers should, of course, be well rewarded; however it appears that the culture of deferred gratification is no longer?
A. Well Chinua Achebe reminds us of Elliot's words that "things have fallen apart, and the center cannot hold! How can one talk of "deferred gratification" when even things like pensions cannot be sustained? I have heard phrases like: oh, we are more serious about pensions than any previous government. Of course, when people are not being paid, they talk about pensions! But the cumulative impact of protracted low growth is partly responsible for this situation, as well as Management, and the growth of numbers; though the growth of numbers can be anticipated. So these three elements have contributed to the feeling that you better get what you can now, because you are not guaranteed a pension. You know, when I was young, I used to hear some of my dad's friends talk about how they wanted their sons to go into the civil service so that they would receive pensions. There was a reverence with which they regarded this certainty of a life-long income! That was the faith they had in a system that they grew up and lived in. Unfortunately, that is a horizon that is clearly not within the sight of the present generation. So, it is not that people are greedier; it is merely that people see negative options as a more realistic assessment of what the possibilities are.
Q. To sum up -- how can we begin to put the bits and pieces together again to get out of this anomy?
A. We have to really make a thorough re-evaluation; come clean about the reality of our situation, and what the requirements are. We have to focus sharply on what the problems are today, and begin to discuss how to put structures in place to realize the multi-dimensional imperatives that we have to deal with. We have to realize the many dimensions we have to work on simultaneously, because there is no time for social experiments. How do we get back to repairing the social system, the village system and the rural settings? How do we begin to re-inculcate a minimum level of honesty, so that as resources are generated they can be applied largely to the problems we want to solve? How do we begin to cut down on ostentatious living, so that we may save funds to apply to more productive things and create more opportunities? Expensive cars should be an aberration if we, as a country, cannot really afford them. But there should be a truly viable public transportation system; buses, trains and even bicycles for those who want then for leisure. My father rode his bicycle to work, before he bought a car. He was just as dignified riding his bicycle as he was driving his car! He was never ashamed of his bicycle, and not even as proud to own a car.
So the way to get out of the rot is to engineer ourselves back to prudence. There has to be a better appreciation of the fact that we are basically all equal. What I mean is to make a drastic reduction of a class differential. It requires a lot of work. And this is where a conference of Ethnic Nationalities comes in. There has to be a broad conference, and it has to be continuous until we get to where we want.
Q. So Nigeria is not a hopeless case?
A. Noâ¦of course not! You see, as bad as things are, there are very many moments in this sadness when you feel a sense of pride, a sense of achievement and a sense of hope. You just have to look around you to see little, little bits of it. Take these new schools springing up everywhere. Some of these kids may be totally oblivious of what I am talking about, but are breaking new grounds within their little cubicles. Abroad, there are many good, hardworking, successful Nigerians. They are carrying on! So there is so much of that going on, and though small in relation to the whole, it is nonetheless enough to give one hope that we cannot just patter off! We just have to pull ourselves together, and demand better leadership, accountability, straight-forward governance, equal protection before the law, equal access to opportunities and transparency in any competitive environment. Let us know what the rules are, and apply the rules all the time. Leave the rest to our people, to Nigerians. They have always been able to readapt themselves to any situation.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the interview are not necessarily those of the Chinua Achebe Foundation. The Chinua Achebe Foundation, an intellectual and cultural organization, believes in the right of every Nigerian to express their opinion.