I visited Owerri and my home village last month for the funeral of my sister. As it is usual with me, I walked through the villages in the town (I continue to use the word ‘village’, but not pejoratively). What struct me was that the local economy is “missing”, to borrow the word of Amartya Sen regarding billions of women missing in the workplace. One can say that hundreds of local communities are missing in wealth creation and human development in Nigeria.
Of course, I beheld beautiful houses of sons and daughters who have made good in the major cities in Nigeria and across the world. These edifices add a sense of well-being to communities that are not thriving in any economic sense. In my community, there are many entertainment centres that convey a false impression of a real city life. Young men and women manage to live the good life, despite economic rustiness. Drinks and cruise everywhere. Life seems good; except you look underneath.
As a development scholar and professional, I don’t get fooled by the illusion of well-being. I always like to ask critical questions. First, how does the average Joe in the community make a living? Is it through sustainable economic activities that can be scaled up, or through remittance? Is the economy in the rural community a bubble? Always, the answer is that there is no real economy in these communities. People eat and drink, but they don’t derive much of their livelihood in the communities. They either earn elsewhere and return to the village to enjoy or they are recipients of the numerous remittances from national or international diaspora.
The rural economy in Nigerian communities lacks an economic livewire. It is not founded on any production or economic activity that is rooted in the community itself. The ramshackle that has become local government does not provide employment or other commercial activities for the people. In many of Nigeria’s local government councils, there are no extension workers, no public health workers in significant population, and not many teachers and social workers. The rural-urban migration has become worse. But for the growing acute poverty in urban centres, rural communities would have been deserted.
The public sector in the local communities, as we used to know it in the 1970s-80s, no longer exist. The rural people are either spending what their family members in cities send home as remittances or some percolations from political rents in the city capital. These are supplemented with proceeds of local crimes. Of course, there are rudimentary commercial or artisanal activities that do not amount to a real economy.
There can be no real economic development of the magnitude in Asia, especially China and South Korea, except we re-conceive rural or local communities to be economically alive and empower local people to become creators and producers of valuable goods and services. This requires structural political change. We have to start from reigniting high energy politics in the local communities. The collapse of democratic governance in Nigeria leaves much brunt in local communities. It is doubtful if there is a local government area in Nigeria where the chairman and councilors are elected according to the constitution.
Section 7 of the Constitution prescribes that the third level of government, the level closest to the people, should be governed by elected leaders. The idea is to get democracy closer to the people so that the people will learn democratic norms and practices through closer involvement in democratic politics. The section also mandates the creation of an economic planning board for the local government council. This presumes that the constitution intended the local area to be a site of real economic activities arising from rigorous economic planning. I am not sure any state has established such economic planning board for its local government areas.
*As presidential candidates commence national campaign for the 2023 elections, it is surprising that no one is talking of transforming the local government areas. They talk about economic growth without recognizing that the local community is the site for economic growth and implementation of effective anti-poverty strategies.*
Nigerian communities have abundant natural resources that should be the takeoff point for sustained industrialization through agro-based cottage industries. Eastern Nigeria’s glorious economic past was built on economic transformation of the local communities in the region. M. I. Okpara built industrial clusters and cottage industries in the local communities. This is a tested model both in Europe and Asia. Without economically vitalizing rural communities, Nigeria’s economic development will be a mirage.
We can learn from China. Without the Town and Village Enterprises (TVEs), China may not have become the successful economy it is today. Without reforming rural agriculture and empowering rural farmers through radical agrarian reform, South Korea would not become an industrial power today. The economist, Robert Bates has written tomes on the predation of rural community and the destruction of rural economic power by urban elites. This sustained attack against democracy and development in rural community is one of the deleterious legacies of ‘late colonialism’, and it has continued till date.
It is the work of leadership to restructure community life and rewire the incentive structures that sustain well-being in the rural or local communities. The state government is the most important driver of such transformation in a federal state, even as development-oriented central leadership will do the political heavy-lifting required to push society onto such a productive path.
/Sam Amadi, PhD, a former Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, is the Director of Abuja School of Social and Political Thoughts.