Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The foreigner option
By Ebere Onwudiwe

DR. Reuben Abati's, "The Tom Peters Story" (The Guardian, Friday, November 11, 2005) is most disturbing. That the 'Giant of Africa' cannot maintain an airport is nothing short of a national embarrassment indeed. Forty five years of self-rule and over $400 billion in oil revenue should at least boast one world class airport, network of roads, railways and telecommunication infrastructure. When I first read that the President of Nigeria had to issue an ultimatum for the runway of an airport to be fixed, I had pity for the man. It must be a torment to run a huge country where you have to micro-manage at the level of airport runways.
All of us should be justifiably frustrated with the inability of this largest concentration of black people on earth to operate an airport, but what we need, it seems to me, is radical action.
The future of our potentially great country hangs heavily on a viable communication network encompassing highways, local roads, mass transportation and telecommunication. But since self-rule in 1960, administration after administration has woefully failed to address this strategic national need. The inadequate infrastructure that continues to hamper our development by deterring international investments and ruining many local entrepreneurs is a conspicuous failure of self-rule. The question is what to do about this perennial breakdown.
For forty five years, we have proved beyond reasonable doubt that we are unable as a people to efficiently run our own public works, to plan, construct and maintain an enduring infrastructure system that can support a viable base for economic development. And yet, year in and year out, we mulishly insist on indigenizing the creation of a vibrant economy. The truth is that we have failed, and we must admit it to ourselves and seek another path for the development of national infrastructure fit for a modern economy.
It is no use any more to dwell on the reasons for our national incapacity in developing and managing our country's infrastructure. There is a glut of these reasons: low grade political leadership and a culture of deferred maintenance all of which can be traced to political corruption and the obvious disdain for meritocracy in public infrastructural investments - for example, when politicians decide on building or maintaining federal airports and roads along ethnic lines rather than on the criterion of national development.
What we need is to pay others to do what we are apparently unable to do for our economic development. By this I mean that we should put up an international bid for the development of our infrastructure. The selected foreign company should be given maximum autonomy, and dedicated resources to plan, construct and, yes, maintain an efficient and safe transportation and communication infrastructure within a specified number of years.
Some nationalisation purist may see this suggestion as treasonable. What independent state gives up this vital sector to a foreign company? To which my answer, will be: Infrastructure is just as crucial to our national esteem as oil and a national airline all of which are firmly in the hands of foreign companies as we speak.
We need more of the firm and pragmatic decision that President Olusegun Obasanjo showed when he gave the Nigerian airline to the UK based Virgin Atlantic rather than revive the national shame called Nigerian Airways. Of course, the jury is still out on Virgin Nigeria, but this is not the point. It is the undeclared admission by Aso Rock that Nigeria cannot run an airline. This decision devoid of fruitless nationalism is patriotic ultimately.
Still those who cringe at this trend because it smacks of sovereignty diminution are no less loyal to our country. But a time comes in the life of an unwieldy state of affairs when tactical attenuation of control can be good medicine.
On communication and transportation infrastructure, consider how far behind we are from South Africa, our main competitor for foreign investment and leadership in black Africa. According to relatively recent C.I.A data, Nigeria with nearly three times the population of South Africa has only 853,100 main telephone lines, (South Africa 4.844 million,) Nigeria has only 750,000 internet users, (South Africa, 3.1 million).
In the development of transportation, the story is the same. Despite a tougher terrain marked by immense interior plateau and rocky hills, South Africa manages to almost match Nigeria in the number of paved highways 57,568 km against Nigeria's 60,068 km and in number of railways, we are not close at all. Nigeria has only 3,557 km of railways versus South Africa's 20,872 km. And, I have said nothing about cell phones or electric power at all. In all considerations of the vital issue of logistics of a foreign investor, South Africa is a better choice. We need to close the gap.
Quality domestic infrastructure is one of the most important strategies in the basket of incentives for attracting foreign direct investment. The others such as low-cost labour, natural resources, and markets, God has given us for free. We must add quality infrastructure to the basket in order to be competitive in this era of globalization. This is the real 'task that must be done' by any means necessary.
There is no doubt that in our country, many state-owned enterprises have proved to be most useful for generating fiefdoms designed for private gain of corrupt leaders rather than for national development. Think, NEPA. The response has been nationalization and privatization and the result, unhealthy for the most part. Think, Nigerian Airways.
We need a third approach. If the Abati sorrowful column showed anything, it is that our infrastructure malady is extraordinary, a killer. I say that the cure calls for a shock therapy, a doze of foreign intervention.
o Professor Onwudiwe lives in the United States