Saturday, September 20, 2014

Nigeria’s Sobering Competitiveness Rankings

By Olu Akanmu
The debate about whether the recent World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness  Index (GCI) rankings is fair to Nigeria, whether our 120th position out of the 144 countries rated reflect our true reality is too critical to ignore. There are real dangers that rather than reflect deeply and inwardly on the lessons of the GCI , on its ranking pillars such as institutions, infrastructure, macroeconomic environment, health and education among others, we may end up living in a denial of our true reality. We tell ourselves that the world does not really know us, that our realities are better than the ranking. We then begin to act like the proverbial ostrich that buries its head in the sand.
While we must acknowledge the  positive rankings of 42nd  on macroeconomic environment and 32nd  on market size, it is important to be sober on our 129th  ranking in institutions, 135th  in infrastructure, 146th  in health and primary education,  120th  in higher education, 108th in technological readiness  and 100th  in innovation. Why should we argue with such relative obvious rating of our economy?  Perception is reality if containers take seven hours to do a maximum five kilometer journey from our busiest sea-ports in Apapa to Mile 2. Perception is reality if the three km road from our busiest international airport in Lagos to Isolo junction remains sub-motorable, un-repaired in years with several pot holes welcoming international visitors. 
Perception is reality if the Nigeria state continues to fail its citizens by not guaranteeing them security of life and property as its core social contract with the people. Perception is even more reality when it’s military takes a tactical detour under enemy fire to another country in its counter-insurgency operations.  The state and its institutions have failed to protect the people to pursue their economic activities in peace. Impunity and corruption remains pervasive as our judicial and law enforcement institutions remain weak, unable to bring high profile economic crimes to justice. The rule of law applies only to those who are weak, who cannot work around the law. Even the state does not respect its own contracts as we saw in the near imbroglio concerning the Transmission Company of Nigeria in the power sector.  On the political front, our weak democratic and electoral institutions continue to throw –up our worst, or at best our averages for leadership. While there are semblances of democratic elections, weak internal political party democracy and its capture by narrow elite ensures that our political parties do not sufficiently reflect the wider will of the Nigerian people. We are also seeing the potential capture of our regulatory institutions by a narrow elite that may not see our regulatory institutions balance properly the interest of powerful elites with the wider interests of the people with implied potential policy flip-flops.
Given that most of us who are having this competitiveness debate send our wards to private schools locally and overseas, it is difficult to appreciate the real crisis of primary and secondary education, another pillar of the competitive index. We are what we are today because of the foundation of great public primary and secondary education that we received. Today, our dysfunctional primary and secondary education system has become a mass factory for producing young illiterates. 1.2 million of the 1.7 million students that sat for WAEC in June 2014 failed Maths and English. Yet we are quarrelling with World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness ranking. President Goodluck Jonathan should have declared a national emergency! It should have been a core agenda issue for the National Council of States.  The mass failure trend in secondary education has been there for some time. Only 38% of students passed Maths and English with Credits in 2012, it declined to 37% in 2013 and now to 30% in 2014. Higher education is even in a bigger crisis with poor infrastructure and sub-standard academic faculties in many universities and polytechnics. There is no Nigerian university among the top 1600 in the world. Yet, we argue with our competitiveness rankings! We need to be sober and reflect deeply on how low our great citadels of learning previously known globally for their scholarly work have sunk.  Formal vocational education until recent efforts to revive it has nearly become history as we keep producing graduates without relevant employability skills for the needs of industry and the larger society. Hotels in different sizes are springing up everywhere as result of our economic growth, yet there are very few employable formally trained chefs and hoteliers among our young people. Our factories and constructions sites lack technical people who can fix our machines. We have to import tonnes of Indians, Chinese and Israelis to do jobs that should have employed our people.  A poorly educated workforce can definitely not make its industries and economy competitive.  If our GGI ranking is a perception, it needs to also be a sober reality. Rebased economy or not, a key lesson of the GCI ranking is that just because an economy is big, does not guarantee its competitiveness, or competitive return on investments relative to other economies.
The other side to the crisis of our dysfunctional education system is that it will breed and reinforce greater inequality in our society as the typical social mobility that education provides to move up the social ladder disappears for the majority of people. Our social inequality is rising very fast further compounded by massive unemployment and underemployment. This can only lead one direction; greater social crises and misery that become an even more fertile ground for extremism, crime and insecurity that could spread far beyond North Eastern Nigeria.  National competitiveness can definitely not get better under the context of such leading indicators.
What needs to be done? The first thing is to accept our sober reality and not to fight it as a perception. Of all the twelve pillars of the GCI ranking, the foundation issue of our national competitiveness seems to be largely a problem of failed governance and democratic institutions. It is on top of this that all other issues of the other eleven pillars sit. We need to fix our broken and dysfunctional electoral process that throws up the worst or at best our averages for electoral offices. Political parties as critical electoral institutions need to reflect the true plurality of the will and aspiration of the people. This has not happened largely because of their weak internal party democracy and their capture by very narrow elites in both the ruling and opposition parties with largely similar self-interests. Our elections are therefore largely becoming a choice between blue-black and black-blue. Fixing this limited plurality problem in our electoral process and ensuring free and fair elections that drive true accountability and real consequences for poor performance will create genuine incentives for good governance. Civil society and the free press must push for necessary electoral reforms to achieve this. We need to revisit the Uwais Electoral Reform Commission report that addresses these issues. We must ask President Jonathan or whoever the next President is to reopen discussions on electoral reforms.
Olu Akanmu publishes a blog on Strategy and Public Policy on