Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Ohakim's Mall and a Voodoo Development

by Obi Nwakanma

THE newspaper reports about Governor Ikedi Ohakim’s recent business tour of South Africa quote him lamenting that Nigeria was behind countries like South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Lesotho by one hundred years.
According to the Vanguard report, Ohakim decried what he described as the “low-level” of Nigeria’s economic development. I am not sure if this South-African trip gave Ikedi Ohakim his first epiphany about the true state of affairs in Nigeria.

Many Nigerians have been heard by official Nigeria’s fiction about Nigerian being the “giant” of Africa; that is Africa’s equivalent of a super power. Nigeria is not. Ikedi Ohakim’s trip to South Africa may have given him a clearer insight. The economic systems were working in these other countries.

The mortgage and credit system, as well as the pension funds were working. Energy was constant. And so on. According to the governor’s testimony we Nigerians are non-starters.

True. Many Nigerians who have never had the opportunity to travel out of Nigeria do not really know the actual stage of our economic and social development, and the primitive state to which years of official manipulation have consigned Nigeria.

Nigeria presents a very important illustration of a nation that declined in its own social expectations. Ikedi Ohakim’s worries about Nigeria’s one hundred years of backwardness compared to even “small” countries like Botswana, that old part of what was then known as the Bechuanaland protectorate ruled from Mafikeng, and Lesotho, all countries now of the SADC is well founded.

The point is that these countries, in spite of their relative disadvantages, took themselves and their people seriously as their post-colonial political history shows. It is about respect – and I emphasize the word respect - for their people.

Any elite - intellectual, political or economic – that has very little respect for its own people creates the kind of monstrosity that Nigeria has become over the years. Government for such elite is run on the “come chop” philosophy that makes the president or governor’s security vote outstrip budgets for education and scientific research in the country.

In a society in which ideas do not provide the basis of governance, the result is often chaos and ambiguity. I’d like to point to this irony, even in the case of Ikedi Ohakim. Imo State University Owerri has a School of the Social Sciences.

But what is the state of that university in general and the state of the Department of Economics and Public Policy in particular?

Does the university employ a pool of brilliant economists and other social scientists, and does it have a Center for Economic and Social Analysis to which the Imo State government could depend to do its formal economic analysis and public policy impact analysis?

Does Ohakim have a collective of experts within the university system with whom he parleys on issues of economic, cultural, industrial or urban policy? The truth is that the very basis of development is the use to which we put our capital - human or material – and it seems to me that Ikedi Ohakim, not unlike many other of his colleagues lack in this direction. Otherwise, someone should have pointed out to him that his drive for an investment of a $2billion Mall in Owerri by the Mopoya group, which he has touted as his goal and the fruit of his South African junket makes pretty little sense. Ohakim is quoted as saying, “if we unleash a two billion dollar project in this state, everybody will be busy.”

That is true, in so far as the project is regenerative. If you unleash two billion dollar towards building a statewide Metroline, that would connect every part of the state to a fast rail hub in Owerri, and make movement quick and safe for twenty-four hours, everybody would be more than busy.

If you unleash two billion dollars as a state fund to guarantee cheap and easy access to credit for about 100, 000 young men and women who would commit to investing in co-operative farms in vegetables, small-scale ranching, grains production, farm tools leasing, food packaging, modern food storage and distribution, apparel and shoe making, chemicals, boat/ship building, in-land waterway transportation, engineering services, information technology and equipment design and fabrication especially using the old traditional Igbo iron making cultures and remodeling them to build small scale local steel making plants, and other small scale industrial and distributive ventures, many people will be more than busy, with its many spin-offs.

I am quite personally leery of all the talk about “foreign investment.” This is all voodoo talk really, because no country has ever achieved lasting economic development with foreign investments. You must mobilize your capacity to produce and sustain your consumption pattern or perish. Which brings me to this talk about malls:

Ohakim’s proposal for the mall in Owerri does not take into consideration the question of the supply end. First, the impact of the shopping mall would wipe about local small-scale businesses, a key part of local employment by over 60 per cent.

The unemployment situation would worsen. The capacity for local production will die since the mall will depend on its supply from cheap Chinese products. Besides, we have the example of Tinapa in Calabar to see that this development of Ballpark malls.

Without adequate local industrial capability for its supply, it will be a ghostly investment. It would be out of reach for the ordinary citizen, and may become the quintessential example of a true white elephant project.

I should make another point: the Onitsha main market was a shopping mall - built by the Eastern government. The difference is that it was sustained by the local policy of economic protectionism, which the late Mbonu Ojike declared as the “boycott” philosophy.

It was a philosophy borne out of a hardboiled economic theory and experience by a highly trained economist who knew that no society could develop without building its own industrial productive capacity.

The Onitsha mall also took the form of the old Igbo market in which the stalls or sections were rented out to local shopkeepers. But here Ohakim is talking about inviting a South African Mall developer to build a shopping mall that would be anchored, I suppose, primarily on the principles of the organic Mall with an organic owner, with little local participation. I think the governor should revise his goals.

The Igbo markets are malls – open air malls in any case – and it would take a little modernizing to upgrade them, in fact, to serve the same functions that the Mopoya Mall will serve in Owerri. If the governor wants a local shopping mall in any case, he could start by meeting with a group of local investors and bankers, and sell the idea to them, rather than going all the way to South Africa to invite a mall developer to come and build a shopping mall in Owerri, and threaten local markets thereby.

I also think that the call for “groups across the world” to come and build power stations in Nigeria, particularly in Imo state, is myopic. In 1981, Sam Mbakwe, without the kind of resources currently available to Ikedi Ohakim, built and commissioned the first Independent Power Projects in Nigeria at Amaraku and Izombe. He used both local engineers and engineers from Japan, supervised by the ministry of Utilities under Alex Emeziem.

If Ohakim wants to understand how that feat was undertaken, he should get together for lunch with Mr. Alex Emeziem. He should also define his energy program more concretely in a way that would incorporate a vast pool of local skills and resources.

This tendency to look outside for what is simply within is costly and unreflective; even dangerous to the economic health of the people. Imo state has the capacity – both in skill and material resources – to embark on building indigenous provincial or Divisional power stations.

Perhaps the old Eastern regional system of economic development should suffice here: let the government challenge, say, the people of the old Mbaise Division to produce 65 per cent of the capital for an Mbaise or Okigwe or Orlu Power Projects, and let the Imo state government match them with a grant.

Call city engineers together and challenge them to produce designs of power systems, and challenge local contractors to build these power systems.