A dangerous way to privatise

By Tunde Obadina

A liberal English colleague told me recently she was perturbed by the Nigerian government's decision to hand over the management control of some of Nigeria's biggest state corporations to foreign operators. "Is this not tantamount to vindicating the racist claim that Africans are inferior and incapable of running their own affairs and therefore need whites to lead them?" she asked.

It was an interesting question and observation that most Nigerians considering their government's privatisation programme have probably not given much thought to. By deciding to hand over the management control of NITEL, NEPA, fertiliser firms and the oil refineries to international technical and financial partners, our rulers are admitting that Nigerians cannot manage their own affairs. By targeting western corporations to take over these concerns, the message is clearly that Africans cannot handle modern economic institutions.

Already Nigeria's most important industry, the oil sector, is managed and controlled by western multinationals. This sector accounts for some 20 to 25 per cent of the country's Gross Domestic Product. When telecommunications, power, fertiliser and oil refining sectors are placed in foreign hands the proportion of the country's GDP, i.e., wealth, accounted for by non-Nigerians will increase substantially. Why stop at these economic sectors? Why not hand over the management of other major state enterprises and parastatals to competent foreign investors. The same arguments made for privatising NITEL and NEPA can be made with respect to the port authority, the railway corporation and other state-run element in the country's crumbling infrastructure. Undoubtedly, top league foreign corporations would run these concerns more efficiently than have the Nigerian state. It would not take much effort or imagination to improve on the very low level of output and service that state enterprises have rendered over the past three decades.

If optimising efficiency and raising production levels in the short-term are the primary objectives of the government, then relinquishing control of under-performing state enterprises to foreign expert managers is an effective solution.

But, there are other considerations. Political freedom and independence involve more than liberation from physical subjugation. It entails assuming responsibility for ones existence - taking charge of and managing ones affairs. There are many people here in the West who believe that Africans are in crisis today because they were and still are not ready for independence. Some Europeans writers have urged their governments and transnational corporations to return to the under-achieving continent, not as nasty imperial powers but as benign bankers, managers and developers. One free market guru recently proposed that multinationals should be invited to run African nations under leases of up to 21 years. They would undertake to provide specific services and bring about efficiency and discipline in return for pre-set tax revenue.

Such ideas from latter day imperialists sound outrageously paternalistic and racist. However, there is no fundamental difference between these proposals and the idea of handing over to so-called foreign technical partners the control of key national institutions. If having been defeated by the task of running our utilities we give up and call on western companies to come and manage them for us, we might as well do the same for education, health, revenue collection, and so on.

The logic behind the transfer of management control of key state enterprises to foreign experts is the same as that behind the call for a programme of enlightened re-imperialism. If the government presses ahead with its privatisation programme, it would be taking Nigeria and Africa along the slippery road to self-negation. This will not be a return to colonialism per se. Western ruling classes do not anger after land as did Europe's landed autocratic ruling classes did in the nineteenth century. Modern imperialists are not interested in owning foreign lands but in controlling their markets and resources. This is what African rulers are now giving away on a silver platter.

Perhaps the most disturbing implication of the Nigerian government's privatisation policy is that we are setting ourselves up for allegations of African inferiority. Since the state is the embodiment of the nation, we are admitting that as a people we are incapable of running our own affairs. Worse than this, we have given up trying to develop ourselves, materially and intellectually. Development is not merely the annual rise of gross domestic production figures. It involves the building of a people's capacity to improve and re-produce their material conditions of existence. In this respect, no foreign multinational or agency can develop Nigeria for us.

Supporters of the privatisation programme will contend that by handing over key state enterprises to foreign experts, Nigerians will not only gain efficient services, they will benefit from the transfer of technology and skills.

This is a myth. After more than two decade of having its oil production managed by foreign multinationals, Nigeria is not much more able to produce oil by itself than it was in the early 1970s. If for instance, NEPA is placed under foreign management and in a decade time returned to Nigerian management, the likelihood is that the future will hold similar inefficiencies and power outages that characterise the service of the corporation today. By transferring control to foreign experts, Nigeria is only postponing the confrontation with the factors that render the state and nation ineffectual.

Nigeria's problem is partly that its elites are not focus on the economic challenges facing their people in this period of national underdevelopment and global economic crisis. They are instead mesmerised by discussions on how to share power between competing ethnic factions. Perhaps this is not surprising. The elites would be happy to have foreigners manage the economy and pay the state a share of revenue, which the elite can then appropriate. The current discussion is not essentially about sharing power but about who has access to the state coffers.

Members of the political elite appear to be only interested in consumption. Everyone talks about how to apportion the cake and no one is considering how to produce and enlarge the cake. The indications are from the type of men and women who have formed themselves into political parties for the third transition to the Third Republic that the debate about power-sharing is largely irrelevant to the fundamental problems facing the nation. Quiet frankly, the Third Republic promises to present us with an array of rulers and administrators who have already failed the nation in previous administrations and so-called new breeds who are as avaricious as the discredited old guards.

Perhaps faced with the choice between having economically crucial state enterprises run by efficient foreign experts or incompetent and greedy local pirates, it is understandable that many will pick the former. For the sake of Africa and the self-esteem of black people, we must hope that there is a third option.

September 24, 1998

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