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The State, Constitutionalism And The Good Economy


There is a fundamental obligation on the part of any government elected in accordance with the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution to ensure the maintenance of a healthy national economy, irrespective of the ideological preferences that it might have adopted before assuming power. In other words, there is a prior binding fundamental constitutional command that is geared towards the maintenance of a healthy economy for the benefit of the commonwealth.
The economic model which the Constitution opted for, around which several structures of the State are interlinked, requires certain degree of rigorous compliance by the government for the desired material wellbeing promised therein to manifest. Cutting corners or ignoring them altogether can only lead to economic perdition on the simple logic that as we make our bed, so we shall lie on it. So, the hackneyed idea that “government has no business in business” is a contradiction in terms because modern governance is itself business. Under our constitution, the State has certain critical roles to play in the maintenance of a viable and balanced economy either as an active participant, policy formulator or as a regulator.
That is why even the most ardent advocates of the “free market”, have also consistently conceded to the State the responsibility to exercise its inherent sovereign powers as the regulator and primary facilitator of nationally impactful economic activities. In other words, even the most capitalist-oriented economies of the world still have considerable levels of regulations, incentives and interventions just to ensure that developments in the economic spheres are not inimical to the material wellbeing of the citizens as well as endangering the stability of society.
The issues have sometimes been couched as between “Big Government” and “Lean Government”, an ideological point of departure between the liberals and the conservatives, with both camps striving for the betterment of the economy. Whereas President Trump, for example, has been trumpeting “deregulation,” he has at the same time been screaming about “growing the economy” as if such a result is possible without some deliberate policy initiatives by the government. Government cannot “grow” the economy without consciously intervening in it, be it through some stimuli or policy initiatives designed to provide the requisite enabling environment just as you cannot make omelette without cracking eggs.
For Nigeria where the constitutional preference is textually for a “mixed economy”, where both public and private sector participation in the economy is permitted and, indeed, encouraged, there is the additional responsibility for the State to strive to serve as a regulator/participant in the “major sectors” of the economy which the Constitution itself defines as “such economic activities as may, from time to time, be declared by a resolution of each House of the National Assembly to be managed and operated exclusively by the Government of the Federation….” As at today, apart from petroleum, solid minerals, railways, seaports and a few other areas of the economy, there are not many enterprises in which we can say that the Nigerian State has a meaningful productive presence. Instead, it has all been about privatisation, “concessioning” and other convenient alibi for lack of creative interventions.
The experience of Nigeria, over the years, has been that the State has only been interested in monopolising the patronage and sharing processes of the little that has been put on the table without paying adequate attention to the more critical challenge of wealth generation and sustenance through improved productivity. This “Chief Chef” mentality, worsened by unbridled corruption, totally disorientated the government as billions of free petrol-dollars flooded into the coffers thus creating the uncanny headache of “how to spend” the overflowing treasury. Everybody gave up on hard work while official extravagances like the infamous “Udoji Award” became the New Deal. But just as they say, “a fool and his money are easily parted”.
The British colonialists understood how useful our resources were to their home economy. They assiduously embarked on the promotion of export-oriented agricultural policies like the massive production of cocoa, groundnuts, palm oil, timber, etc., etc., and they wisely built railways to facilitate the evacuation of these materials to the seaports and they were successful at it. Sadly, all post-independent governments, civilian and military, settled into the indolent and corrupt policy of sharing and stealing oil money; they abandoned agriculture, neglected the railways and totally forgot about exporting anything else besides crude oil. As they gluttonously plunder the wasting assets (oil) they forgot to invest some of it in building future sustainable economy, like Dubai and other similar nations did, thereby paving the way for today’s poverty.
The Constitution enjoins that “the State shall (a) harness the resources of the nation and promote national prosperity and an efficient, a dynamic and self-reliant economy; (b) control the national economy in such manner as to secure the maximum welfare, freedom and happiness of every citizen on the basis of social justice and equality of status and opportunity.” (Section 16). Harnessing the resources of the nation to “promote national prosperity” only means one thing: Wealth creation through economically productive policies for the benefit of the people. It’s simply about economic plans diligently executed.
But for the inexplicable unwillingness to do things constitutionally, such policies thrusts ought to have been manifesting themselves in the form of State-designated massive acreages for the production of certain volumes of crops of certain agricultural genre that would in turn generate massive employment opportunities, income for the farmers and funds for the government through taxes. The small nation of Brunei, for example, has been in the news lately because palmoil farmers are burning acres and acres of forest in order to make way for more palm oil farms because they have discovered the strategic role palm oil can play in growing their economy.
Nigeria has ten times more resources required to produce palm oil than Brunei but there is no sustainable policy commitment which the private sector can key into. The same could be said of groundnuts, cocoa, cassava, yams, plantains, etc. etc. Factories are being starved of raw materials and the skilled human resources needed to produce more efficiently. The calibre of labour in any production environment is a major factor in the quality and quantity of the outputs. To the extent that there has been no well-articulated national policy on education that is tied to the specific production needs of the country, we are, to that extent, not ready for any meaningful economic take off anchored on expanded productivity. It sounds ludicrous that we want to grow the economy through stifling and needlessly controversial processes like multiple taxation and border closures instead of building factories and businesses and training and equipping people to man them.
The most logical thing to do in our circumstances is to first of all enhance on the productive capacity, expand industrial outputs before thinking of tax. A farmer with a bumper harvest and therefore a more disposable income will afford more taxes than a subsistence farmer. If the productive capacity of the nation is improved upon all rounds, it will become a lot easier to tax the people. It is unproductive, if not lazy, to be focusing on taxation and borrowing as preferred options for generating funds. Nations do not get rich by taxation alone. Instead, they get rich by expanding their production outputs which they could then tax appropriately.
The Constitution is therefore right to direct that government should “harness the resources” (natural and humans) of the nation for more productive ends. It is a fundamental government obligation that can only be defaulted upon at great cost to the economic wellbeing and the overall stability of the nation.

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