Economic Diversification and Nigeria’s Feeble Attempts

By Jerome-Mario Utomi

It is no longer news that across the globe, there exists persistent call on nations, regions and continents to shift toward a more varied structure of domestic production and trade as it is not only a strategy to encourage positive economic growth and development but with a view to increasing productivity, creating jobs and providing the base for sustained poverty-reducing growth.

What has however caused concern is the paltry number of nations and leaders particularly in Africa as a continent that has keyed into such relentless calls.

Adding fillip to the above worry/claim is the well quoted World Bank Group report which among other observations noted that economic diversification remains a challenge for most developing countries and is arguably greatest for countries with the lowest incomes as well as for those whose economies are small, landlocked and/or dominated by primary commodity dependence.

It submitted that for such countries, economic diversification is inextricably linked with the structural transformation of their economies and the achievement of higher levels of productivity resulting from the movement of economic resources within and between economic sectors.

Take Africa as an example, aside its inability to diversify which has made it aid receiving continent, continually look up to continents such as; Asia, Europe and America for aid after almost 60 years of independence, the failure, in my view, explains why Africa as a continent despite being the second most-populated continent in the world (1.2 billion people), represents only 1.4% of the world Manufacturing Value added in the first quarter of 2020.

Also, the effect of the continent failure to diversify is signposted in the painful reality that out of about 54 countries that made up the continent, only South Africa qualified as a member of BRICS, an acronym coined for an association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

While the piece laments this challenge, it is relevant to the present discourse to underline that this tragedy is well-rooted in, and has spread its wings in Nigeria as a country.

To illustrate this claim, as part of the transformation agenda, reports have it that former President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan through his Coordinating Minister, Dr Ngozi Okonjo Iwuala, now Director-General, World Trade Organization (WTO) emphasized the need for the diversification of the economy to promote inclusive growth and job creation.

The administration aimed at achieving the objective through investment in agriculture, housing and construction, manufacturing, aviation, power, roads, rail solid minerals and the information and communication technology (ICT) sectors by both government and the private sector. These sectors the report added would gradually transform the economy and create jobs in the process as well as move the economy in the right direction.

Sadly but expected, the ideas and pontifications, like those of his predecessors, ended not just in the frames but as a mere declaration of intent.

Nevertheless, before getting into the nitty-gritty of economic decays in the present government particularly its long history of inabilities to come up with, and implement a well-foresighted plan or execute a shift toward a more varied structure of domestic production and trade, let’s cast a glance at January 2020 policy comment by one of the well-respected newspaper in Nigeria.

Specifically, while lamenting (then) that Nigeria is a country that services its debt with 50% of its annual revenue, the report noted that the country would be facing another round of fiscal headwinds this year (2920) with the mix of $83 billion debt; rising recurrent expenditure; increased cost of debt servicing; sustained fall in revenue; and about $22 billion debt plan waiting for legislative approval.

It added that it may be worse if the anticipated shocks from the global economy, like Brexit, the United States-China trade war and the interest rate policy of the Federal Reserve Bank go awry. The nation’s debt stock, currently at $83billion, comes with a huge debt service provision in excess of N2.1 trillion in 2019 but is set to rise in 2020.

This challenge stems from the country’s revenue crisis, which has remained unabating in the last five years, while the borrowings have persisted, an indication that the economy has been primed for recurring tough outcomes, the report concluded.

Unfortunately, because no one acted on those warnings, the next paragraph lays bare the consequence of such failure and failure by the Federal Government.

Recently, a report noted that the Federal Government made a total of N3.25tn in 2020, and out of which spent a total of N2.34tn on debt servicing within the year. This means that 72 per cent of the government’s revenue was spent on debt servicing.

It also puts the government’s debt servicing to revenue ratio at 72 per cent. According to the report, a review of the budget performance of the 2020 Appropriation Act In 2019 shows that the Federal Government made total revenue of N3.86tn. Within the year, debt servicing gulped N2.11tn.

This puts the Federal Government’s debt servicing to revenue ratio in 2019 at 54.66 per cent. This means that between 2019 and 2020, the Federal Government’s debt servicing to revenue ratio jumped from 54.66 per cent to 72 per cent. The report concluded

Indeed, the question may be asked why the country’s revenue crisis remained unabated in the last six years.

Within the context, the answer lies in the fundamental recognition that there is a country reputed for crude oil dependence and laced with a leadership system devoid of accountability, transparency and accuracy.

The truth is that considering the slow-growing economy but scary unemployment levels in the country, the current administration in my opinion will continue to find itself faced with difficulty accelerating the economic life cycle of the nation until they contemplate industrialization, or productive collaboration with private organizations that have surplus capital to create employment.

Another alternative recourse will probably be to move part of the job creation functions and infrastructural provision/development to the state and local government authorities via restructuring/structural interventions. While the first option (industrialization) may offer a considerable solution, the second and third options (restructuring/productive collaboration with private organizations) have more potential reward in political and socio-economic terms as well as come with reduced risk.

To achieve such a feat, power (electricity) and other infrastructure roads need to be addressed. Notably, not doing any of this, or continuing on the low growth of the economy will amplify the painful consequence of strategic mistakes made by previous administrations that failed to invest during the period of rapid economic growth.

The very key, both the state and Federal must invest in agriculture and increase its capacity in ways that will bring about an essential element of productivity policy and require a double focus on improving the quality of governance, strengthening government capacity to resolve coordination failures and facilitate information collection, as well as improving the design of interventions along the line of robustness to weak information, implementation capacity, and political-economic issues.

We must not fail to remember that ‘in the 1960s and immediately before the oil boom of the 1970s, agriculture contributed 60% to Nigeria‘s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), 70% to export, and 95% to food needs’.

Above all, our leaders must internalize the fact that revenue diversification from what development experts are saying will provide options for the nation to reduce financial risks and increase national economic stability: As a decline in particular revenue source might be offset by an increase in other revenue sources.

Jerome-Mario Utomi is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Public Policy), Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), Lagos. He could be reached via [email protected]/08032725374.

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