A former Minister of Education, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili, has called for an urgent national dialogue to discuss the problems of exclusion and poverty in the country.
Speaking at a plenary session at the Nigeria Economic Summit, which ended in Abuja on Thursday, the former World Bank Vice President for Africa said talks on political restructuring must go beyond agreements usually reached by politicians and be inclusive of all Nigerians.
Ezekwesili stated that it was important for the government and people of Nigeria to develop a fair sense of urgency, end the culture of diplomacy around failure and interrogate why the country had been failing.
She said, “We are now at the region I call unsustainability of failure. This failure cannot be sustained. The fair sense of urgency that must underpin the way we are looking at the challenges we are dealing with should factor into the speed with which we are identifying the obstacles to our growth, development and our shared prosperity.
“This country is ripe for a conversation but the conversation must be about the economics of a functional Nigeria because a Nigeria that functions economically is a Nigeria that gives everybody a stake in it.
“When people feel a sense of stake, there is no exclusion. When people feel a sense of stake, it basically mobilises everyone to the level of productivity that it can generate. For as long as we don’t do this, what we would have is occasional improvement; and we think we are fine, but look at our data.”
She added, “Our data tell us that three to four million young people enter the unemployment market every year; only 10 per cent of them will be absorbed. The economy is not expanding enough. Even in the season of high growth, it was structurally shifting enough to absorb that kind of population.
“Our data tell us that compared to a country like Singapore at more than 92 per cent of literacy (what you call the knowledge quotient), we are at a level of about 52 per cent. There is such a wide gap. Without that knowledge quotient of stock of people with knowledge, it is going to be difficult to make this country as productive as it should be.
“You look at what we have produced with all the factors that we have available to us, the growth that comes with the factors and frontiers of possibilities that we have, it gives a GDP per capita of about $2,400, compared that to perhaps Singapore, which is at almost $60,000. Then, you say to yourself; these factors that create this divide, can they not be addressed? That is where the conversation becomes absolutely necessary.”
She further stated, “The colour of the woman who is deprived an opportunity in Borno State is the same colour of poverty of the man in Bayelsa State or the young girl in Nnewi or the elderly woman in Ibadan. So, if we look at over 100 million Nigerians who could be lifted out of poverty still being in poverty, we cannot at all not have a sense of urgency.
“The fair sense of urgency will mean that we discuss even the most painful of it. We must discuss our failure. This failure is too bad. The diplomacy around failure must end. We must discuss our failure and why we must stop failing. Then we say, is it better to be building small borders or a large population that works?
“Data tell us that it is better to be a large nation that works. If it were not so, Rwanda would be an amazing economic magnate because on the economic side, they have done a lot of things right but it is still a small economy. It cannot pull it. We can but we must be a country that works.”
“So that conversation as to how to make this country work is a conversation that is not between the private sector and the government. It is a conversation amongst Nigerians – real Nigerians backed by data. Data will drive us to see some of the things that we have been blind to.
“One key thing that we have been blind about is that we actually are at a place of possible advantage in that if we got it right with making the human being – the Nigerian – to be superior to oil; if we defended the Nigerian more than we defended the oil installations and shifted our mind-set towards them, then what we will realise is that Africa can claim the 21st century by significant quantum leap in terms of human capability. We are that country that could become a provocation to the world.”
Ezekwesili, who received loud ovations, also chided economists and the Nigerian Economic Summit Group for keeping silent when the government was making wrong policy choices that led the country to recession that hurt the poor very badly.