“Thinking outside the box” was the thematic title of an instructive opinion piece written some time ago by Professor Bolaji Akinyemi. In management jargon (or “management-ese”), “thinking outside the box” refers to the willingness or the ability of a corporate, institutional, or political leadership to bring an uncommon, untried, imaginative, and sometimes a counterintuitive approach to solving strategic commercial (competitive), economic, or political problems.

Not surprisingly, the most successful corporate organizations and nations are those that have been capable of “thinking outside the box” while the “also-ran”, laggards and outright failures have most often been those that are merely capable of thinking “inside” the box, that is, trodding only the well-known/well-trodden paths, risking little, gaining little (or nothing).

In the case of Nigeria, it would appear that the successive national leaderships that it has pleased Our God, The Almighty, to bless (or punish) Nigeria with, have, in their approach to governance,consistently refused to “think outside the box” such that whenever they are constrained to think anywhere else, other than “inside the box”, they would rather think “under the box”, i.e., embrace unimaginative, puerile, hollow, unsustainable, self-defeating policy choices.

In his piece, Akinyemi reminded us that while the United States brought over to America, the best of the German rocket scientists who worked during World War II for Germany -America’s enemy during the war- to join the US space program efforts.  This effort paved the way for the American moon landing less than 25 years after the end of that war.

Nigeria, on the other hand, decided to throw away rather than capitalize the modest Biafran technological achievements recorded during the 1967-1970 civil war. Remember that Biafra constructed, maintained and defended an “international airport” at Uli-Ihiala during the entire length of the war,  produced and refined crude oil and distributed fuel throughout the Biafran-held territory for 30 straight months, and produced quite lethal weapons including the acclaimed ogbunigwe, retooled and refitted for action.

Now, if Nigeria were to fight an external enemy today and Nigeria’s access to purchase foreign weapons was, for some reason, blocked by the “international community”, the country would be brought to its knees! For a country that successfully fought and ended a civil war almost 50 years ago, how’s that for a testimonial of our national ability to “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory”?

Akinyemi also queried the sense in destroying “illegal refineries”. The seizure and destruction of these materials and products at a time when virtually all of our national fuel needs are met from imports and when clearly there is a demand for the products of these illegal refiners is highly questionable. Why does the government not find ways of gathering these “illegals” into the nucleus of an indigenous refining technology effort and possibly change the oil refining paradigm as far as Nigeria is concerned?

Wherever you look, you’ll almost find similar examples of self-defeating policies that our government, both at the Federal and State levels, continue to adopt and furiously pursue in the “national interest” and in the “people’s interest”!

To illustrate why I think that the government would rather think “under”, than “outside” the box, consider the following policy pronouncement that appeared in the press some time ago:

“…As from year 20XX, rice importation (into Nigeria) would be banned….”. If indeed implemented, that would be the umpteenth time that rice would be banned, unbanned, “re-banned”, …., banned….” in Nigeria!

The previous reversals were proof enough that the policy of banning had not worked. Rather, it had helped produce billionaire rice-importers in Nigeria’s neighboring countries, billionaire rice smugglers in Nigeria and indirect beneficiary uninformed public officers who look the “other way” as smuggled rice flowed in!

Hundreds of billions of funds that should have accrued to the government as fiscal revenues were thus annually diverted/surrendered to foreign governments and nationals as well as to private Nigerian pockets. Yet, the government continues to insist that, that is the way to go! Amazing!

Now, consider what could have been done (differently). But first, notice that Nigeria’s inability to grow enough rice to feed its own citizens cannot be blamed on Thailand, Pakistan, India, or Vietnam.

Remember also that the importation of Nigeria’s cocoa, palm oil, groundnut or rubber has never been banned by any of those countries on the (lame) excuse of “saving” foreign exchange. And then, understand that if a Nigerian really prefers to buy with her own money, at the going market price, Thai rice in preference to our “ofada” (local) rice, it will be a denial of her fundamental human rights to deny her that choice- when the country is not at war or in a state of emergency! After all, people are allowed to buy beer, bread with their money, whereas wheat is an imported item.  

Nigeria could decide to grow all the ofada it was capable of and find export markets for it; who knows, the Thai, Pakistanis, and Indians- might even come to prefer the taste and texture of ofada to their own rice! If, on the other hand, no export outlets could be found and Nigerians did not want to eat ofada even at give-away prices, then its production should simply be stopped and the farmers engaged in its production encouraged to grow alternative food cash crops suited to their climatic zones.

Take cassava for instance. Has anyone stopped Nigeria from doubling, quadrupling, or sextupling its current production of that versatile crop that serves alimentary as well as wide-ranging industrial input needs, a crop capable of delivering massive amounts of foreign exchange? Now, if we imported $5 billion worth of rice in a given year and export simultaneously $10 billion worth of cassava derivatives-a net inflow of $5 billion where, in the name of God, is the problem? Talk then of leaderships trapped in “scarcity mentality”, unable to empower “abundance mentality” in their people.

Alternatively, Nigeria could tackle imported rice “head-on”, not by banning it, not by erecting a high import duty wall (which would be side-tracked anyway) at the points of entry but by throwing its importation open at near-zero duty rates. It is not necessary here and there is no space to go into the operating procedure for such a policy action. What is important to take away is the need to be ready to try the imaginative, the untried…., because, there is always a better way.

Lafiaji, is an Economist, and a former Executive Secretary of the African Petroleum Producers’ Association, Brazzaville, Congo

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