[OPINION] Border closure did not make China great – Abimbola Adelakun

The Comptroller General of the Nigeria Customs Service, Col. Hammed Ali (retd.), in a recently circulated video, exhorted people to focus on the higher goal of the government’s decision to shut its borders. According to him, China did the same for 40 years, and today it is a great nation. Ali’s logic is, at best, simplistic.


China’s economic development trajectory was founded on a nuanced national strategy that incorporated politics and economics. Ali’s myth-peddling is another instance of the mendacity that defines Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. They push out barefaced lies — such as the claim in August that Nigeria has achieved “full food security” — and then proceed to enact policies based on fabrication.


Administrators like Ali love the untruth of citizens whose creative instincts get pressed towards innovation and productivity when their doors are closed to all external sources of help. It helps them to propagate the falsehood that Nigeria is the way it is because the people have not tried hard enough.


Of course, self-help and national autonomy are ideals that are worth a country’s aspiration, but the reality is far more complicated. If shutting down a country’s borders makes a country great as Ali insinuated, North Korea should be the greatest in the world. They are the world’s least open nation, yet, a poster child of arrested development.


Come to think of it, North Korea is, in fact, like Nigeria. The “chancers” in power live lavishly on imported goods while preaching to those at the bottom of the pyramid that their economic squeeze will birth their productivity. If Buhari and the rest of the ruling class have not restricted themselves from going abroad for medical treatment; if Buhari’s grandchild had not been born in Europe; if Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo’s son had not graduated from a British university; if the ruling class have not refrained from stealing Nigeria blind and depositing the money in foreign banks, it means they are merely hypocritical believers in the idea of restricting imported goods to empower local production.


The story of China’s path to development is well-documented, and I have yet to see a document that attributes her growth to “border closure.” Studies of the rise of China (along with other Asian economies) have given credit to an amalgam of factors: massive population and relative cheap labour supply; geographical locations that enabled charting of trading routes; judiciously managed raw materials; mass education; economic diversification; infrastructural development; Confucian ideology that oriented Chinese towards nationalism; and, the creation of a local capacity to facilitate an export-led growth. All of these factors were strung together by a visionary leadership that rapidly multiplied the opportunity the initial phases of growth birthed. When China got its basics right, foreign investment poured into the country.


It is disingenuous for Nigeria to start promoting a half-baked thesis about border closure as a means to economic growth so that they can find popular acceptance for their border closure policy. Ali’s talk about building Nigeria into a great country like China while eliding the glaring factors that mitigate against Nigeria’s growth is cheap. He is aware of all the reasons that Nigeria is not great, chief of which is that Nigeria’s political elite lack a clear-headed vision of who we are, what we want to be, and how we should achieve our goals.


First, unlike China, a human development agenda is near nil in Nigeria. Part of China’s reformation strategy was to send some of its best minds to be trained in top educational institutions in the world and return home to improve on their society. In Nigeria, education is severely underfunded. The N605.8bn allocated to education in 2018 represents only seven per cent of the N8.6tn 2018 budget. Much of the money goes into the basics, nothing designed to attain long-term goals of economic and social refurbishment.


With the perennial lack of vision of what to do with Nigerians who managed to be trained up to the tertiary level, a lot of those who can afford to leave the country do so in droves. What this means is that rather than use its educated citizenry to draw knowledge from everywhere it can be obtained in the world as China did, Nigeria trains its young and professional class for an eventual migration. Going by the reaction of government officials like Dr. Chris Ngige (the labour minister) who said the brain drain does not matter as long as those who leave send back hard currencies, Nigeria has no plan to tap into the wealth of resources this class holds.


For a country lacking an almost elemental technological expertise and a culture of innovation, we should be aggressive in compelling the foreign agents that build infrastructure like roads, railways, and airports to share their knowledge with our local engineers. That was what China did with more advanced economies when they started. How many of the projects that Nigeria outsources to China have Nigerians, both professionals and university students, working in their strategic teams to understudy their methods? Without a more comprehensive agenda for development, shutting the borders to be like China is a waste of time.


Ali also asked a question that seemed profound, but only until you attempt an answer. He wondered how Nigeria could claim independence if other countries feed our population. The truth is, no country in the world single-handedly feeds itself. Rather than cede every inch of your country’s land to farming, countries choose to import agricultural produce where they see a comparative cost advantage. For 2018 alone, it was estimated that China spent more than $58bn on the importation of foods that include dairy, meat, grains, and seafood from the EU, the US, New Zealand, Canada, Latin America, and Africa. All of these countries trade produce among themselves as well as with other countries.


Nigeria’s problem, meanwhile, is not that we import food; it is the asymmetry between import and export. Why are administrators crazy over imports when they should be boosting exporting capability? We should not allow government officials who rub their skin with imported products until it shines sell us the fable of a patriotic venture of self-subsistence. Even countries like the USA import food (they spent $129bn on food importation in 2018), and they remain an independent country.


According to statistics by agencies like Eurostat and the USA Department of Agriculture, Nigerians spend a whopping 59 per cent of their income on food, and that figure is the world’s highest! The implication is that Nigerians have almost nil disposable income. In such a dire situation, basing economic policy on the blatant lie of having attained “full food security” and restricting food imports is not wise. Rather than people getting more creative with agricultural productivity as the government chooses to project, they will descend too quickly on available food supplies. That will result in hyperinflation and mass starvation.


What will help Nigeria is not the spectacle of people dying of lack of access to nutrition because they failed to produce what they would eat. What we need is a well-thought-out and long-term policy planked on realistic data, attainable goals, and a gradual withdrawal from imported food consumption. How can Nigeria ever be like China when we have not created the conditions that made it possible for people to move from agriculture to manufacturing? And how do you become a manufacturing nation when year after year, you can barely meet your modest goal of generating 4,000 MW of electricity?


Finally, Ali also said there is no data that confirms that border closure has impoverished Nigerians, and that poverty is not a novel Nigerian phenomenon anyway. This kind of thinking makes you wonder if Nigeria does not go out of its way to hire the most vicious sadists into positions. He wants data on a policy that has barely lasted a month? His flippant dismissal of emerging reality says a lot about his professional judgment. Whether Ali intends to confront the truth or not, Nigeria has become progressively impoverished since the inception of this administration. If he cares so much about data, he will look that up.

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