Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner, SBM Intelligence

Follow Cheta Nwanze

View Profile

Subjects of Interest

  • Fiscal Policy
  • Geopolitical Analysis
  • Governance
  • Politics

Flavour vs 9ice, Nigeria and data 10 Sep 2021

Which of Flavour N’abania’s “Ashawo Remix” and 9ice’s “Gongo Aso” has more popular acclaim, and who among the two musicians is more popular? These mundane questions further polarised Nigerians on Twitter last month.

Ashawo, a direct sampling of “Sawale” by the Ijaw highlife legend, Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson, was released in 2004, while Gongo Aso was released in 2008. According to Ashawo’s protagonists, the song has continued to be in demand in North America, the Caribbean and some parts of Western Europe, more than a decade and a half after its release. The primacy of Gongo Aso, as its advocates argued, was based on the massive airplay it got in virtually all parts of Nigeria when it was released.

These answers fall short. A more conclusive argument would be based on verifiable data. The relative popularity of the songs would be established by data on their airplay across various media as well as the number of copies of the albums sold.

A search of Google Trends worldwide, comparing search results for both songs and musicians between January 2004 and January 2021, showed that with the exception of a period in 2010 when they were at par, Flavour was by far the more popular of the artistes. Since 2011, Flavour has been the more popular of the two, worldwide. In the UK, Flavour commanded 77% of search results, 75% in the Netherlands, and 80% in Spanish-speaking Bolivia, compared to 9ice. At home here in Nigeria, Flavour is more than three times as popular as 9ice (Flavour had 76% while 9ice had 24% of the searches for the duo). 9ice’s popularity spiked a bit when he decided to run for a political office back in 2014, but it never got anywhere near Flavour’s.

Why was a debate that could have been quickly ended with data, available within close reach of the debaters, stretched for more than 24 hours? The answer to that question is that data is hardly the arbiter in Nigeria’s public discourse. Factors of polarisation, like ethnicity and religious affiliation, hold sway over objective facts.

Antipathy to data writ large in the country’s policymaking and governance. The decision of the President Muhammadu Buhari government to shut Nigeria’s land borders to trade in August 2019 was visceral, if not driven by an unofficial motive. At the centre of the President’s obsession with domestic food self-sufficiency is rice. The government believed (and still does) that Nigeria’s rice production capacity was sufficient to meet local demand but was being stifled by imports.

However, the country produces four million metric tonnes of rice annually. This is only 50% of domestic demand, which was eight million metric tonnes in 2019. Importation of the staple food product was by no means the major factor inhibiting its local output growth. A January 2021 survey report by SBM Intelligence shows that insecurity, poor storage facilities and bad roads were the top-three concerns of Nigerian growers of the produce. The farmers surveyed in the rice-producing belts did not mention importation as a cause of worry in increasing cultivation.

As it turned out, the ban on rice importation, reinforced by the border closure, was not well enforced in certain parts of the country. But it was ruthlessly enforced at the Seme and Idiroko borders on the South West corridor. This had a wider effect of crippling trade and commerce in Nigeria’s most economically active border areas.

Before the borders were reopened in late 2020, studies showed that the policy had made Nigerians poorer, driven food inflation, and local production of rice only improved marginally. Apart from the policy target of stifling rice importation, the border closure was aimed at stemming the tide of the inflow of illegal arms that are fuelling Nigeria’s security crises. This objective also clearly failed, and the President admitted as much in April.

The government could have been advised by the data by its own statistics agency, the National Bureau of Statistics, showing the inflationary pressure of the border closure. Instead, the policy lingered and drove food inflation up by nine percentage points, from 15% to 24%.

In another policy that was not related to reality, the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy announced that SIM cards that have not been linked with National Identification Numbers (NIN) would be blocked. The December 2020 announcement was intended to consolidate the achievement of the September 2019 directive on SIM card registration. The directive to block all subscribers who had not linked their NIN with their SIM card was supposed to take effect within two weeks of its announcement.

The policy was badly timed, by ignoring the proximate reality. The country was in the middle of the second wave of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country. Against the government’s COVID-19 policy, the SIM registration would turn out to be a super-spreader event for coronavirus as people huddle in the registration centres. The short window for the implementation of the directive also fell during the yuletide season.

What followed the policy were negative economic trends, even if it was not mainly responsible for them. Unemployment worsened.

Telecommunications, which has been the second largest revenue earner for the government after crude oil export, and provides thousands of jobs for young people, including thousands of them making a living from registering new SIM cards, began to decline. Registration of new SIM was paused for months in place of the NIN linkage. Last month, MTN, Nigeria’s biggest telecoms company by market share, reported a loss of circa 7.6 million subscribers in the first half of 2021, a 9.9% decline from December 2020.

The predilection for making policies without data, or in disdain of objective reality, has long been associated with the country’s governance. In this regard, census figures are deliberately falsified, since the rule of the British colonialists who also ensured its continuance post-independence. It is now one decade and a half since the last census was conducted in the country. Economic planning has, thus, been based on projections of politically motivated inaccurate census figures.

Countries that have long prioritised evidence-based policymaking were more effective in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The disparity between the financial wherewithal of rich countries, compared to the poor ones, has headlined the interventions towards the alleviation of the economic fallout of the pandemic. However, the targeting of the interventions, ensuring those who need them most are served, has also been a major distinguishing factor.

In this context, the announcement by the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Umar Farouk, of the disbursement of 2.6 billion for feeding Nigerian school children during the pandemic-induced lockdown, in April 2020 when schools were closed, was met with public disbelief.

The debate about Flavour and 9ice indicates that Nigeria’s disdain for data, fact and objective reality is societal and not limited to the circle of government. It provides the basis for identity politics devoid of ideology and policy insight, or foresight.

Data promotes transparency and accountability. Policies become more effective when insights drawn from relevant data is utilised in policymaking.

It is imperative for the government to embrace evidence-based policymaking and begin to deliberately reshape the public psyche towards objective reality. This requires investment in education and public enlightenment campaigns. The reward of such investments is improved policy outcome and a progressive society.

Cheta Nwanze is Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence.