Sometime in 2019, I got a text message from Mallam Abba Kyari, the late chief of staff to President Muhammadu Buhari, who was on a visit to the UK. It was very short: “Simon, I’ll be in London this afternoon. If you have the time, let’s catch up over coffee.” Why not? There were plenty issues of interest to discuss. He was well-rounded: a sociologist, lawyer, former editor and former bank MD. You hardly get such a robust, resourceful and multi-disciplinary assemblage in one person. He never shied away from an argument, even if he would withhold sensitive information for obvious reasons. I often looked forward to these sessions. We always argued like gentlemen.
As a student of development, I like holding private “policy sessions” with top government officials. I like to learn about the challenges to policy development and deployment that may not be in the public domain. I gain deep insights for my commentaries. My chosen path in life is to constructively contribute, from my little corner, to Nigeria’s development. Rather than just saying there is a problem, I love to say there is a solution. While I have no interest in politics (either by election or appointment), I love making inputs into the policy process. I feel gratified whenever my ideas make sense to policy makers. I spent a year studying the role of good governance in development at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex, UK. It was not by mistake.
When I arrived at the restaurant somewhere in central London for the appointment, Kyari typically welcomed me with a book. It was ‘The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator’, authored by Timothy C. Winegard, a professor of history and political science. It is a fascinating read on the history of the mosquito: how the tiny insect has determined the fates of empires, nations and economies. The mosquito, Winegard wrote, has played a greater role in shaping the human story than any other living thing on this planet. Fun fact: the mosquito has killed an estimated 52 billon people out of the 108 billion that have lived since human existence. That’s nearly 50 percent!
After our usual review of issues around the world — from politics to economy to religion — I tabled the first item on my agenda. I told him I was happy Buhari was paying sustained attention to agriculture. We are all agreed that this was the way to go. At least, we would become self-sufficient in rice sooner or later. “But there are important sectors where I am not feeling the Buhari government,” I said. He looked at me keenly, without attempting to interrupt. I continued: “We are increasingly wearing African print but the fabrics are imported. Buhari is not doing much about the textile industry. Reviving the industry will solve a million problems.” I rested my case.
Let me paraphrase his response: “Well said, Simon. You are thinking textile. I am thinking cotton. We have to revive the comatose cotton industry first. If not, the problem will only be half-solved. If the textile factories are still importing the input, we will be losing out in the value chain. We will still be exporting jobs and also depleting our reserves. We have to be strategic about it. The ministry of trade and investment and the central bank are working on cotton intervention. You can confirm from the minister or the CBN governor.” Later in the year, the CBN announced a loan of N19.18 billion (at a single-digit interest) to cotton producing firms to retool their processing plants.
“You are thinking textile. I am thinking cotton.” I have continued to replay this Kyari line in my head as COVID-19 turns the world upside down. The central message was not lost on me: let us be in control of the value chain as much as possible. Of what use is outsourcing the supply of the raw material when your land can grow cotton, employ Nigerians, conserve your forex and enable a massive cottage industry? We can import the machines and the spare parts since we can’t manufacture them, but why import the cotton? Why not enable cotton farming as part of the entire chain and create a solid, sustainable foundation for the textile industry to fully take off again?
Now that COVID-19 is distorting the world economic order, Kyari’s words have come to mean much more than growing cotton to me. While it makes sense to control the chain of production as much as possible, it is now becoming an imperative for self-preservation. When the chips are down, you are actually on your own. It is “everyman” for himself. With the whole world in trouble, the instinct in every country is to first kill their own coronavirus before helping others to kill theirs. No wonder they tell you in pre-flight announcements that in the “unlikely event” of loss of cabin pressure, fix your own mask first before fixing your child’s. I can see clearly now.
As the pandemic has taught us, relying on imported raw materials or finished products has left many countries vulnerable. As soon as India got hit by the virus, the government announced that it was restricting the export of pharmaceutical products. India is reputed as the largest provider of generic drugs globally. Its pharmaceutical sector supplies over 50 percent of various vaccines used globally, 40 percent of generic medicine in the US and 25 percent of all medicine in the UK, according to Indian Pharmaceuticals Industry Report (April 2019). Over 80 percent of the antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS globally are made in India. Basically, the whole world is at the mercy of India.
Even at that, Indian pharmaceutical companies also rely on raw materials from China, the country where the novel coronavirus was born. China halted export to protect its own people. India had to adjust. Yes, globalisation allows you to have your living room in Ghana and the kitchen in Vietnam, but when trouble starts — as we have seen with the pandemic — you are on your own. American companies with factories in China and other Asian countries are having a rethink. The almighty US having to desperately rely on medical supplies from other countries is something they probably never imagined. We are all seeing the world differently now. We are learning the hard way.
“You are thinking textile. I am thinking cotton.” I don’t know Kyari’s view on globalisation — for some reason, we never got to discuss this throughout our fantastic, decade-long friendship — but I could smell some reservation, perhaps because of our peculiarities. Let me quickly add that I am pro-globalisation — insofar as every country is allowed to protect itself within reasonable limits. But I do not subscribe to the underlying philosophy of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which seeks to limit developing countries to producing just raw materials while forcing them to import finished products under “free trade” rules. If we stick to this, we will be doomed forever.
No country can be an island. That is a given. We will always need one another. No country can produce everything it consumes. But countries are now seeing how vulnerable they are when they are not in considerable control of vital aspects of their economy. US and EU companies like outsourcing production to China, Vietnam, Bangladesh and other Asian countries because of cheap labour and lower taxes. They are learning new lessons. Globalisation has always been under attack: a sizeable number of people have been left behind because of job losses, and the resultant discontent has led to xenophobia and ultra-nationalism. COVID-19 has added another dimension.
“You are thinking textile. I am thinking cotton.” With this COVID-19 experience, I would suggest that Nigerian pharmaceutical companies start thinking seriously about how they can be less dependent on foreign inputs, particularly for the generic drugs. They should start investing heavily in research and development. Let it not be said that Nigerians cannot get paracetamol to buy because a factory in India or China cannot export the raw material. We cannot be in total control of the production chain but let’s reduce our exposure. I don’t know if this partly informed the thinking of Kyari (who died of COVID-19 complications last month) on the textile industry but it must now become a factor.
The big lessons Nigeria needs to learn in all these COVID-19 challenges are not just the perils of globalisation and the uncertainties associated with regional co-operations, or even the dangers of importing cotton to manufacture textile. We should not allow this crisis to waste. Other countries will learn and start doing things differently. We should not be left behind. We need to seriously and urgently rethink how we organise our economy and politics. It would be tragic if this pandemic comes and goes and the only thing Nigerians can remember is the number of dead bodies. We should be able to say we learnt this, we are adopting that, and we are implementing this and that.
For governments, COVID-19 is the ultimate doomsday scenario involving the entire world: health crisis, revenue crisis and socio-economic crisis all rolled into one. Now that we know this is possible, we need not just to prepare but also to adapt. For instance, we are waiting to get test kits from abroad while the Senegalese are producing theirs. We can do it. After all, we are trying to make our own ventilators. Also, we are saying we don’t mind importing herbal remedies from Madagascar. Can’t we produce ours? Our problem is that we think in parts and not in whole. “You are thinking textile. I am thinking cotton.” Remember: when the chips are down, we are on our own.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
When President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the lockdown would be eased from May 4, I was relieved but apprehensive. The socio-economic tension in the land would be eased. But COVID-19 has not even peaked in Nigeria yet, so we do not know what is in store. Lifting the lockdown can lead to an explosion in cases, by which time we would not be thinking about socio-economic tension again but the avalanche of funerals. As I said in my previous article, we are caught between a rock and a hard place. I would advise Nigerians that in addition to other precautionary measures, they should avoid touching the face with their phones. They should also not spit in public. Tips.
I’m really worried about Kano state following a litany of “strange deaths” without medical reports. Not so long ago, I saw a video of young men demonstrating and passionately singing “babu korona” (“there is no coronavirus”). I understand the protest was endorsed by the educated and the uneducated. Now that people are dying in large numbers without medical attention — and most importantly, without COVID-19 tests — we are left to panic over what is killing them. Could it be complications from the disease? Could it be some other epidemic? Governor Abdullahi Ganduje always scores F9 in my books. Mind you, I’m a generous marker. Disaster.
Can African herbs cure the coronavirus disease? It’s been an interesting debate since Madagascar President Andry Rajolina launched a herbal remedy weeks ago. Branded COVID-organics, the medicine contains artemisa, a plant used in treating malaria. It was developed by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research. As long as it is logically proven that it cures the disease, should there be any basis for argument? I grew up in the village and took a lot of herbs to attack common illnesses, such as malaria, and I can testify that they worked. We should support all the remedies that can tackle this deadly disease — as long as they are scientifically certified. Simple.
It was nice listening to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo at a virtual conference on Tuesday. He said the federal government is looking beyond conditional cash transfer in tackling the poverty challenge. He also said something about support for informal sector. Given that most Nigerians operate in the informal sector, this is great news. However, I still want more work done on the small and medium scale businesses. It is not so much about financial support — which is equally important. But those who want to do business are being discouraged by draconian and extortionist government agencies. I have written a lot on this. Solving this problem alone can grow the economy. Urgent.