18 January 2013

Nigeria: Antics of a Proposalist


A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle: and that-ha! ha!! ha!!!-is supposed to mean that matters have reached the limits of their irrelevance to the situation at hand. And if not for the seriousness of their implication, some things are better laughed off or laughed out at--and out of court. And there are many of such matters nowadays: which immediately reminds you of the cellular phone-to-farmers programme.

It was about a fortnight ago that, in what may sound like a welcome, but downrightly uncreative, departure from dreary officialise, Nigerians were treated to a dour run of official tragicomedy. It was tragic, no doubt; and there was nothing comical about it. On Tuesday January 8, Mrs Ibukun Odusote, the permanent secretary in the ministry of agriculture on Tuesday, January 8, announced that 60 billion Naira had been set aside by the government for the purchase and free distribution of ten million telephone handsets to Nigerian farmers in rural areas in order to--of all things!--boost agricultural production in the country. And you drew your hand over your eyes to wake yourself up, in case you were asleep; but it was no joke and it was not a dream.

Sometimes, you are not surprised that our politician-policymakers no longer know how to formulate policy and perhaps they did; and you are not surprised that our civil servants no longer implement it, that which is no longer there anyway; you are more surprised that they no longer know even just how to fly the policy kite any more. They have lost the ability to deceive--not because of some moral rearmament, but because of incompetence.

And the fact that this new policy, if it could be called that, was announced by a permanent secretary and not by the minister is to give the political leader--the minister--enough room and maximum leeway for deniability. And it gave that to him, and he took it. Dr Akinwumni Adesina, the minister of agriculture came out to deny what his permanent secretary said.

The only problem was that his denial was the confirmation, if one was needed, that what the secretary said was in fact the truth. There was no better confirmation for the truth of a retracted official statement than its official denial; and the more vigorous the denial, the more veracious the initial statement. But in this case, the honourable minister was to even agree with her in so many words: that there were plans to procure ten million phone sets for distribution to farmers, that this was official policy; but that the permanent secretary had told less than the truth about the price. He himself, however, didn't say what the right price was, leaving you with the impression that they took all the trouble to develop the proposal without thinking of, or asking for, or caring about the price.

But instead of leaving it, bad as it is, at that, the minister tried to be clever by half, in a bid often resorted to by officials who think they can escape responsibility for bad policy decision if they explain it away as a public-private partnership; as if projects under its aegis are not public trusts, or they are not to be executed with efficiency and honesty, or that preventable loss to the private sector should be none of official business or be of concern to us.

Of course, even if the money to buy the phones is coming directly from government coffers, as it will indirectly, sooner or later, there is nothing new, because profligacy in the [mis]use of public resources has become second nature to government here; and if, as the minister seemed to have implied while disagreeing with his permanent secretary, the money is from a loan that is being, or has already been, arranged, the nation can ill afford another loan, especially one that will be spent on non-productive projects; but even if the money is accruing to government as a grant from some benevolent foreign donor, it can be put to better and more sensible use.

What agriculture needs is not the distribution of cell phones to farmers, but the formulation of good policy with the farmer as its focus, the distribution of improved seeds and better crop management, supply of agricultural inputs to farmers, better post-harvest produce management and good roads on which to evacuate produce to market. That's all. All this is so much work, and there is no Chinese manufacturer to give a cut upfront.

And just because the Bill and Melinda Foundation is trying to use cell phones to help farmers in Uganda doesn't necessarily mean it is a good strategy; and even if it is a good one for Uganda , there is no guarantee that it will be as good for Nigeria. But if the goal is communicating information to farmers, there were methods here that had been tried and tested before.

And this nation must rise to honour of the men of the National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Service of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, who imparted knowledge of improved agricultural best practices to our farmers for several decades. The service they rendered could not be estimated; it was certainly more valuable than a hundred million cell phones and it was given at less than half per cent of the cost of the cellular phones.

With the expertise the likes of Professor MB Ajakaiye, HRH Professor Ango Abdullahi and Professor C. Onaze in the background, the indefatigable Alhaji Muhammadu Barau Zaria [MB Zaria] turned all that into sound bites of local idiom and the irrepressible Alhaji Garba ABCD Funtua took it and delivered it to farmers wherever they were all over the North. MB Zaria earned 12 pounds a month; Garba ABCD earned 5 for all the inestimable service that made Radio television Kaduna a household name.

Today people are surprised and fascinated by the faithfulness of the people's radio listenership, little realising that a large part of the credit must go to the exploits of the extension people and the usefulness of their broadcast. And if they distributed their planned 60 billion Naira cell phones, they wouldn't be nearly half as effective. And what is happening today is like the height of ingratitude--this radio is being punished for being so effective.

If they are really looking for a medium through which to connect to farmers, only 9.3 billion Naira is required to establish a community FM radio in all the local governments of the Federation devoted to news and agricultural programming to pass on information on access to market, credit and the dynamics of climate change to the farmers, as the minister said that was what the telephones were expected to achieve.

And if establishing 774 radio stations looks like a cumbersome policy, they should at least learn to plan. Planning is not the main thing in governance; it is the only thing--that leads to all the other things. For us, however, it is all history. Gone were the days but time was when planning really mattered. During the First Republic, they couldn't establish an industry in Gombe, for instance, without determining its effect on similar or related industries in Akure or Abakaliki; nor set up a factory in Argungu without assessing its impact on the local economy of Ikot-Ekpene. All this was done through the nation's Joint Planning Committee, which, theoretically, still exists.

But so much has changed. The national development planning process of the First Republic, which continued through the regimes of General Yakubu Gowon, General Murtala Mohammed, Alhaji Shehu Shagari and General Muhammadu Buhari, became the Rolling Plan process of the General Ibrahim Babangida administration; and has since graduated to become the proposalism of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo's government and its two offshoots. And today the typical public officer is just a proposalist.

Unfortunately, a proposalist is a word that does not exist in the English language, and what a pity that it doesn't; I have had to invent it--thanks to the hilarious naughtiness of Hamid Bobboyi--to mean someone who writes a proposal, but does not stop at that; he goes on to make it government policy, because he has friends in government. And proposalism is the new system of government in which official business is conducted not on the basis of any long-term national development plan but on the basis of proposals written and submitted by friends of the executive.

Proposalism is not and cannot be an alternative to sound economic planning or effective policy formulation: it is in fact their antithesis. Proposals are to proposalism what elections are to democracy--yet only more so; they having, in the former, replaced the entirety of the policy making and budgetary processes. There are recognised steps in the processes of proposalism.

A proposalist waits till he or his friend is in an executive position in government. Step one, he cracks his brain to come up with an idea--a money-spinning yarn--in IT, in solar energy, in water supply, in security hardware or in cell phone hardware or technology, as in the phone-to-farmer proposal that they are trying to push in the ministry of agriculture right now. Step two, he costs it. Step three, he submits it. Step four, they pay it. Step five, he collects it. Step six, he returns it. What is happening right now in that ministry is proposalism, and it has got nothing to do with Nigerian farmers.

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