A Danfo Ban Sized Vision or A China Sized Vision?

I was quietly going through my twitter timeline all bright and sparky when I stumbled on this chart comparing the GDP of Nigeria to that of China from 1981 to 2015 courtesy Dolapo Oni.

Courtesy Dolapo Oni

All these “errconomists” en, they know how to just remove the sparky with these kinds of things. Around the beginning, you will see that it seemed that China was our mate and if you trend it a couple of years back, we were even dragging who had the biggest GDP with China, like we like doing with South Africa these days. But over the course of a decade from that start point, the small gap began to widen, and from sometime around 1997, the gap became wider and by 2003, it was clear that China is not our mate so we took the fight to South Africa, with our 5,000MW compared to their 60,000MW. As usual, we don’t know our mates.

This got me thinking — what transformed China? Most of us have heard about Deng Xiaoping and how his pragmatic opening up of China and his vision turned China around and set them on the path that has made them the second largest economy in the world today and from a population where 88% were in abject poverty, brought them to today where less than 2% are in abject poverty. What culminated this turnaround in thinking though? I’ll leave you to find out about the Boat Ride on the Yangtze River where some of the best economists all over the world and Chinese economist and intellectuals were joined them to thoroughly debate what economic model China should take and how this was what drove the thinking of men like Deng and brought about statements such as the famous one about cats catching mice irrespective of their colour. You can read about that Boat Ride HERE.

That boat-ride happened because Chinese leaders travelled to places like Singapore and saw the progress there and were willing to admit that what they had been trying in China for decades under strict communist ideologies were not working. They were willing explore thinking that was different from what they knew and how they had always done things which led to that boat-ride. Contrast that to my dear Nigeria where we have been doing the same things over and over again for decades and we stubbornly hold on to it with our chest.

Deng did not object to policies because they were not similar to Chairman Mao’s ideas or because they were similar to those their rivals employed. The question he asked was — does it work there and can it be adapted to work here? And critically, they had a big vision and a sense of destiny of the Chinese people which drove them to pursue the ideas that they saw would work vigorously. Also critical was that while Deng provided vision and political will, he encouraged men like Zhou Enlai to originate policies to further the vision which once they proved to him would deliver economic growth he gave his full support to. We can summarize what Deng as providing the big vision and providing the political support to brilliant men like Zhou to originate and execute policies to actualize this vision.

There is a thought here and it is one I oft remind myself about. The job of leadership in government does not begin and end with fixing roads or handing out fertilizer and such things. For a country that is where we are as a people, the most important thing we need are leaders who don’t just have vision, but have big, humongous visions, will be open to new ideas even if the ideology they have lived all their lives on differ from it, and will back men who produce the policies that will actualize this vision. That is the essence of governance in a third world country that wants to move from third world to first world.

I’ll give one example from my own immediate constituency, Lagos State, of how my view of what we need as good governance and what we currently applaud as good governance diverges. Let’s take the transport problem in Lagos. It’s a perennial problem that has plagued Lagos from at least the 1981 period in the chart above. Below is a table showing Lagos State Government Budgets from 2010 to date in Naira and in Dollars in nominal terms.

The average annual budget for Lagos over this 8year period has been $2.7Billion. For context, this is greater than what Rwanda spends annually and about 41% of Ghana’s 2016 budget.

Now it is good for government to fix roads and all those types of things. But for where we are, we need a bigger vision to fix our transport problems. And that vision is not about banning the Danfo buses or Okadas. Such a vision will need to go and look at cities with a high population density with already developed real estate and lots of waterways to see how they fixed their transport problems. It will require listening to those “errconomists and inteleshuals” we often like to deride to craft the vision. It will encompass using our waterways optimally, rail in a big way and bridges all over the place. It will require creative funding and sound economic models, within our political realities. It will require political backing and long term tenacity.

Visions and ideas the size of “fixing some roads and banning some buses” will deliver only what we have had for decades — this redux, redacted progress. If we want that Chinese type big bang, then it’s time for leadership to dare to dream big, for Lagos and of course for Nigeria.