Cheta Nwanze, Lead Partner, SBM Intelligence

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Subjects of Interest

  • Fiscal Policy
  • Geopolitical Analysis
  • Governance
  • Politics

Is Kemi Badenoch wrong? 19 Aug 2022

The indignant reactions by many Nigerians to some comments by the British-Nigerian UK MP Kemi Badenoch are a reminder of how often we hold on to pride rather than dignity. The truth is that every day of the week, Nigerians say things about the country that can be construed as negative. For the most part, those things are true. Things are really bad in the country at the moment. But interestingly, the moment these same things are mentioned in the presence of foreigners, we get unduly defensive and offended like these things are family secrets that could be used to hurt us. The funny thing remains, those things are blindingly obvious, even to said foreigners. Our commitment to worshipping our egos to the detriment of the wiser parts of our minds has made it difficult for us to react to criticism productively.

For the record, Kemi Badenoch said, "I have seen what happens when politicians are running for themselves when they use public money as their private piggy banks when they promise the earth and pollute not just the air, but the whole political atmosphere with their failure to serve others." The reaction from Nigeria was visceral.

Political commentator and activist Shola Mos-Shogbamimu accused Badenoch of “strategically using her black identity” in an effort to drive her political ambition. And that she also did not do anything positive as Minister for Equalities.

Many Twitter users accused the MP, who was in contention to replace Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister, of using Nigerian misrule over the years as her reason for vying for the position and called her a coon. The Chairman of Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), Abike Dabiri-Erewa, responded in a tweet, citing that she was angry and will keep her comments for a later date. Crucially, she did not debunk the allegation, which begs the question, was Badenoch’s statement untrue?

Do politicians in Nigeria use public coffers as their personal piggy banks? Witness the recent faux pas when former Ekiti State governor, Ayo Fayose, talked about “the use of Wike’s money” when referring to the failure of Atiku Abubakar to pick Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, as his running mate. Wike has been governor of his state for seven years and has lavished funds on his party. But he does not come from wealth, so whose money has he lavished on the PDP ostensibly for personal political mileage? Is that not a case of using state money as a personal piggy bank?

Given this example, and there are so many others in our country, then why the uproar over Badenoch’s statement?

Pride is a feeling that could be based on worthy or unworthy ideas. Dignity comes from a set of ideas and actions that align with ethics and proper behaviour. Dignity is based on principle and it provides people with the capacity to interact productively with unfavourable feedback and respond in a way that enables improvement. Pride, on the other hand, is about personality and ego. A sense of dignity is unaffected by praise or criticism because it is rooted in a commitment to the principles that are considered as honourable.

Pride and arrogance have failed us. When will Nigerians try dignity instead?

Kemi Badenoch also said "I saw what socialism means. For millions, it is poverty and broken dreams. I came to Britain determined to make my way in a country where hard work and honest endeavour are rewarded," and some Nigerians got angry.

That is weird for people who have petrol scarcity because there are no private refineries and a government that spends trillions of naira annually on petrol importation subsidies. Up until the 1990s, the government was the key player in power generation, broadcasting, telecommunications, tertiary education, and aviation, and had a significant interest even in banking. Badenoch left Nigeria in 1996, at a period when private enterprises were heavily stifled in favour of the government’s involvement in everything. While that is not the textbook definition of socialism, in the everyday-speak of the Western conservative movement that is “socialism”. Having this in context, then Badenoch is right.

Nigeria’s “socialism”, with its subsidised petrol, cheap power, cheap tertiary education, etc., has broken down. We don’t have guaranteed petrol supplies, the less said about power the better, and crucially, as of the time of writing this, our public universities have been on strike for months. Our populist President Muhammadu Buhari has (apparently in vain) ordered the lecturers to resume work. If all these are true, and they are, how is Badenoch wrong?

In practice, there are no pure examples of capitalist or socialist economies but the key element of a socialist economic system is the government being the major decider on investment and resource allocation.

In centrally guided economic systems, which is what Nigeria tends towards, the market and investment decisions are not allowed to guide the allocation of resources. Relationships and misguided political considerations are much more influential and that is why we have a refinery in Kaduna, which in 2020 earned zero revenue but incurred N26 billion in employee costs. We have also budgeted billions of dollars for railway networks to Niger Republic, a country with limited economic value to us, while there is no train service linking the commercial powerhouses that are Anambra and Lagos to each other.

If it looks, walks, and quacks like a duck, nobody should be cowed into saying it is a lamb.

It is surprising that people who have never had running water in their homes or who have never gone a week with uninterrupted power supply would feel the need to defend Nigerian politicians from criticism, which indicates how the average Nigerian enables the policy directions these politicians choose. The looting of public funds is a key challenge, but I'd argue that populist policies have inhibited the economy more in evolving properly over the last 50 years.

Nigerians have refused to pay the market rates for power, petroleum, tertiary education, and other such “goodies” for decades and that has stopped the industries involved from maturing in ways that bring about stability of supply, economies of scale, regional development, employment, and economic growth. We can look at the impact of the sectors like telecommunications and broadcasting that were allowed to operate based on market principles. Prior to the liberalisation of both sectors, we had the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), various state broadcasting outlets, and more poignantly, Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL). These never worked at any level that could be compared to being efficient. The liberalisation of these sectors was a game changer that started a chain reaction which created many ancillary industries, and of course, many new jobs in the process.

Refusing to let market principles influence resource allocation and keeping 36 states tied to each other without the motivation to become self-sustaining entities has made Nigeria the world's poverty capital. It has stopped us from negotiating proper wage and productivity balances in the public sector and created a mercenary civil service that meets its economic goals by sabotaging the government’s effectiveness and creating black markets so it can trade in everything from passports to university admissions. That is Soviet-style socialism, the one which the Western right-wing conflates with socialism everywhere. In that respect, again, is Badenoch wrong?

The truth is that her only offence is that she spoke to people we consider foreigners, and the Nigerian mindset is to keep up appearances at all times.

In concluding, I am going to point out a couple of things that Nigerians should have paid more attention to about Kemi Badenoch. She is a 42-year-old woman of Yoruba origin who has been Minister of State in two different UK Government Ministries and has also served as Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury.

The Young Conservatives (YC) is the youth wing of her party and its membership is restricted to people aged 25 and under. The National Youth Leader of the APC is just six years younger than Kemi Badenoch and his elevation to that position is even an improvement in a system where youth leaders are usually above 50 years old in Nigeria.

Badenoch was very correct in the meat of her statement: the UK gave her, the daughter of Nigerian settlers, an opportunity to rise and challenge for the Premiership of her adopted country. In the same leadership contest was Nadhim Zahawi, a man who was born in Iraq and moved to the UK when he was 11. Let’s be very honest, could such things ever happen in Nigeria?

Cheta Nwanze is Lead Partner at SBM Intelligence.