National Erasure and Border Closure

Writing about the dreary and inexact subject of Economics is a truly confounding exercise. Yet there are times when one cannot shy away from the patriotic obligation. No discipline can be more exacting than modern Economics. 

Consensus is rare and intellectual unanimity even more elusive.
Yet in the hallowed field of medical sciences, physicians are aware when the object of their skillful attention is about to expire. It is only a certain species of economists who pretend otherwise even as the object of their learned attention goes into rigor Mortis.

About twelve weeks ago, the Nigerian federal authorities, fearing that the nation might simply collapse economically as a result of its having become a vast dumping site for imported goods smuggled through our neighbouring countries, closed the borders of the country.

As usual with everything Nigerian, the move has elicited mixed reaction with the country split along the traditional fault lines of ethnicity, regionalism, and religion.

To be sure, it was a drastic and extreme move which in a normal democracy ought to have been driven by elite consensus and conciliation. But we live in extraordinary times and an unusual democratic arrangement. After some initial objections, the protests petered out. It is obvious that despite having fallen prey to the hocus-pocus of neo-liberal economic orthodoxy in recent times, President Mohammadu Buhari still retains an awkward sense of the economic nationalism of his youth.

As a doctrine of economic growth and inclusive development, with its Keynesian echoes, is often dismissed by the chic sophisticates of the Breton Wood consensus against the developing regions as sheer economic illiteracy. It has not occurred to our modern economists that regurgitating western economic theories with Pavlovian punctuality without adapting them to the specific local conditions is a higher and more dangerous form of illiteracy.

It is on record that it is when economic nationalists are in control of the engine room of Nigeria’s economy, from Chief Obafemi Awolowo during the civil war to Professor Sam Aluko and Anthony Ani during the Abacha regime, that Nigeria recorded its greatest economic growth and relative currency stability.

For example, it is well known that Awolowo managed the Nigerian economy in a war situation without borrowing a penny and with plenty to spare. And despite the political depredation of the era and his own untrammeled personal burglary of Exchequer, the naira was stable throughout General Abacha’s reign of terror and the nation’s economy experienced relative growth.

The neo-liberal canard about the big-spending which turns the state into a huge economic almshouse for unproductive mendicants cannot apply to developing countries, particularly if the spending is wise and invested in infrastructural developments. You cannot roll back a state which is yet to find or fulfill its organic destiny.

African nations yet to domesticate and consolidate the nation-state paradigm are being frog-marched to frontiers beyond the nation. This is the bane of our local economists trained and hooked on theories meant for other societies and who mouth such economic shibboleths to the applause of their western backers and entrenched interests.

Whatever the political failures of the Buhari Administration and the reservations of pan-Africanists who are still sold on the nostalgia one big African community, it will be intellectually dishonest not to applaud the decision of the federal authorities to close off our borders for now. To many of our neighbours, Nigeria is not a country at all but a huge dumping site for smuggled goods and other nefarious cross-border activities.

The shameless, state-driven xenophobia emanating from South Africa notwithstanding, Nigeria remains the only African country that has found the pluck and temerity to drive the nation-state paradigm imposed on hapless African communities to its ultimate conclusion in a manner that suggest a countervailing move to developments on the global chessboard.

If the Nigerian authorities are conscious of the geo-political implications of what they are about, t is well and good. But if it is a case of intuitively sleepwalking to the right answer, then it is fraught with mortal perils as we will advance shortly for both nation and its rulers. By enacting closure at the sacred shrine of modern nationhood, Nigeria is following developments from the west itself.

Having pioneered and benefitted twice from the momentum of globalization, first with the internationalization of political slavery and now with the internationalization of economic slavery, western nations are recoiling in the horror and terror of as the ultimate logic of their own creation begins its homeward journey.

Hence the frantic retreat to the primal and even primitive nationhood by the same leading western nations that pioneered the two historic waves of globalization. As usual and without any sense of irony, Donald Trump is on record as having showered praises on the apostles of ultra-nationalism who are thwarting the advances of globalization by defending their nation with any means and method possible.

In the civilized bastions of liberal tolerance in Europe such as France, Holland, Hungary, Italy, and Poland, we have witnessed the eruption of racial hatred and the ascendancy of extreme right-wing groups. In Britain, the country of good manners, the rise of xenophobia, the whole Brexit rumpus and the rise of one -nation nationalists led by Boris Johnson who is himself of Turkish extraction represents a forlorn attempt to stall the march of history.

Former voluble internationalists have now strangely transformed into ardent nationalists. In the end, perhaps nothing can beat Robertson’s classic description of globalization as “the universalization of the particular and the particularization of the universal’. In this instance, the universal is western capitalism which ought to have many unique variants all over the world and the particularized is the attempt to impose western capitalism on the rest of the world.

That move has met a catastrophic end, and the west is in full retreat. Leading the resistance from the weakened ideological rampart of the old left are vibrant ultra-nationalists countries such as China, Russia, North Korea and the remaining enclaves of socialism. From the right Singapore, Malaysia, Iran, India and one or two Arab monarchies in the Gulf States are baying at the notion of one-race capitalism.

In this emerging polarization of the world driven by the ideology of nationalism rather than the old bifurcation along class lines, no one is sure where African countries stand within the divide. Most African nations are too riven by internal schisms of ethnicity, religion, culture and countervailing worldviews for its political elites to make a strong pitch for any form of nationalism, except when they are confusing ethnic interest with national interests.

Last week, the Nigerian authorities began to climb down from their high-horse of ultra-nationalism and autarky by giving conditions for the reopening of borders and stipulating a timeline. Just as one ad suspected, the whole thing has been a combination of bluff and bluster rather than arising from a holistic strategy which is a function of a strenuous and stringent intellectual evaluation of national needs. In short, it is one of those strange whimsical impulses so characteristic of the current administration.

Autarky, or extreme self-isolation based on economic self-possession and self-reliance is normally based on sterner stuff. It can only come from a nationalist political elite forged in an overriding ideological war or steeled in elite consensus based on negotiated national destiny pr a combination of both.

In the case of former socialists’ countries such as Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea, it is the former. In the case of old and emerging democracies such as America, India, Britain, South Korea, and post-Franco Spain, it is the latter or the combination. It can also help if a nation has an indigenous tradition of home-evolved capitalism such as the chaebol oligopoly in South Korea or the Juche doctrine of Spartan self-reliance from North Korea.    

It is to be noted that several traditional societies in what has become Nigeria practiced a rudimentary and pre-industrial version of capitalism. Although this can no longer pass muster in the face of the onslaught of western modernity, the elite unanimity that drove them ought to be noted and applauded.

When Pandit Nehru famously declared that if Indians could not feed themselves let them go hungry of if they could not build their own indigenous car let them trek, he was confident of his own shinning personal example and of nationalist political elite that would not sabotage this immaculate vision of national self-pride and sense of worth no matter the personal rivalries and differences. India boasts of an ancient, well-heeled and a well-ordered civilization which had already established its own pre-modern versions of university by the eighth and ninth centuries.

The Cambridge-trained, intellectually self-assured founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, boasted with supreme self-confidence that he and his close associates and collaborators routinely took apart imported doctrines and ideas from the west before isolating what was useful to his country and thereafter dumping in the rubbish heap what was useless and inapplicable. So does the equally accomplished recently returned nonagenarian ruler of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Bin Mohamad.

Yet it is not as if Nigeria has not thrown up its own local avatars. In the fifties, a man known as Mazi Mbonu Ojike was already preaching the doctrine of boycott all boycottable. Even more famously by 1945, Obafemi Awolowo, a private Law student in London, was already contesting the affliction of unitary federalism foisted on the nation by our imperialist masters.

Here is the crux of the problem. A nation that will borrow any money from anywhere in the world to finance its deficit budget, a nation whose political leadership is so steeped in primitive hedonism that they hanker after any western luxury goods and gadgets, including the latest automobiles, aero planes, shoes and expensive watches and most tellingly a nation whose president is currently on medical tourism in the hallowed epicenter of metropolitan mayhem, cannot afford to preach not to talk of practice economic autonomy without inviting mortal peril on its own head.

This whole drama about border closure reminds one of an infamous argument once canvassed by one of our forgettable military regimes. We were told that in Nigeria, a bottle of coke was more expensive than a liter of petrol and therefore in order to discourage the rampant smuggling of the prime good across our border, it was mandatory to drastically increase the price of petrol products.

Thirty years and several price quadrupling later, the phantom subsidy not only remains but petrol continues to be smuggled across our borders. Meanwhile like the condemned of Altona, the number of people living in absolute poverty has quadrupled even as the old Nigerian middle class has been obliterated.  Before our very eyes, Nigeria has become one hell of a place to live in and a vast penal colony boasting of its own internal horror chambers where citizens are chained and tortured without any recourse to law and order.

The current drive against corruption and recovery of stolen money must be commended despite its awkward partisanship and polarization one-sidedness. But unless the leadership finds true moral courage and vision to rein in the recurring fiscal prodigality as seen in the reckless unbudgeted spending by the executive and the legislative infamy which still defends the humongous pay packets of our lawmakers, the run on the naira will continue leading to devaluation and further ruination of the Nigerian people.

Unless we urgently find a nationalist ruling class and a leadership with the will and altruistic courage to do the needful, it is obvious that a world-historic implosion is loading in Nigeria. The most dangerous thing about false and hypocritical pretenses to autarky is that it can actually be used by clerical fascists and extreme reactionary groups to quash genuine efforts aimed at local and sub-national self-sufficiency on the altar of a bogus national interest. We surely live in perilous times in Nigeria.

NOTE: This piece was written by Tatalo Alamu and first appeared in his column ‘Snooping Around with Tatalo Alamu’ in The Nation Newspaper of Sunday 10, 2019.   

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