Sam Aluko; the man who always called a spade by its name By Mohammed Haruna

Economists, speaking generally, are notorious for their equivocation. This
notoriety is said to have prompted Harry Truman’s now famous exasperation with two-handed economists. “Give me a one-handed economist”, the 33rd American president said, in apparent frustration. “All my economists say ‘ one hand . . . the other!’”

Not only are economists notorious for their equivocation. They are arguably even more notorious for often complicating simple and straightforward issues. This vice is said to have made the more recent American president, Ronald Reagan, describe economists as “people who see something work in practice and wonder if it will work in theory”.

Professor Samuel Adepoju Aluko, who passed away at 83 7, was definitely no Truman’s equivocator or Reagan’s obscurantist; few people, whatever their profession, speak as bluntly and as simply the way he did.

In what was obviously an understatement about his blunt mannerism, he said in a press interview, “I generally put my case in a graphic manner so that people can understand”. This was in one of his numerous press interviews, perhaps his most definitive, in The News weekly newsmagazine (October 9, 2000) in which he reviewed 40 years of economic management in Nigeria.  As an economist, and even about his politics, the man never left anyone in any doubt as to where he stood any issue.

Aluko, you may recall, became famous as Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s economic adviser during the First Republic. He probably became even more famous, some would say notorious, as an economic adviser of sorts to Sani Abacha as the chairman of the National Economic Intelligence Committee (NEIC). In , he served in the same role for Chief Adekunle Ajasin, the first elected governor of his native Ekiti State.

At a time when the politics of this country was being dangerously tribalized, it was most interesting, if not refreshing, to watch Aluko buck the trend among Nigerian public figures of retreating into their ethnic cocoons as they grew older. He did this by denouncing not Afenifere as such, but its politics. Speaking in the defunct Country weekly newspaper (May 20, 2000) about the supreme Yoruba cultural association, he said he did not believe in ethnic organizations.

“I don’t believe in these ethnic organizations”, he said. “It is like
going backward. How can I, a professor be talking about Yoruba nation? What of my students who are not Yoruba? . . . If you narrow down yourself with a caucus, you are finished. You cannot see clearly”.

To illustrate the danger of the ethnicization of our politics, he spoke of how a
leading bishop in Yorubaland once used ethnic sentiments to whip up hatred
against Chief M. K. O. Abiola, the late presumed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election that was annulled by military president, Ibrahim Babangida.

Once, he said, the Bishop of Akure “led us into a procession in Akure that it was Abiola who went and sank a ship that was bringing bibles and Christian hymnbooks to Nigeria. We demonstrated in Akure against Abiola in those days. Yet, the same bishop became one of the greatest advocates of Abiola after June 12 because he was Yoruba. So you should see what ethnicity does”.

When The News asked him if he would support the Sovereign National Conference as the much-touted cure-all for the country’s ills, he was dismissive of it as he was of Afenifere’s politics.

“When we have a parliament?” he retorted, obviously rhetorically. “We elected these people. If we don’t like them, next time we elect different people. You can’t have two sovereign authorities.”

If the man was blunt in his opinion about the country’s politics, he was even more so about the management of the country’s economy.

Take, for example, his views about why the country’s huge budgets in the first three years of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s presidency hardly made a dent on poverty in the country. There were economists and other analysts like those at the Central Bank of Nigeria who said the problem was that governments had injected too much money into the system causing inflation which, in turn, destroyed economic value.

Rubbish, said Aluko. “Money,” he told the rested Comet, (July 8, 2000), “does not cause inflation. It is the lack of that causes inflation. Not because there is too much money, but because (too) much money is spent on useless non-productive things . . . If you produce more goods and services, you can even be spending more money and prices would be falling”.

The problem of our economy, said Aluko, was that the ratio of our recurrent
expenditure to capital expenditure was simply too high. “In the First Republic,”
he told The Comet several days before his interview with The News, “it used to be about 30 percent to 70 percent for capital. Today it has reversed. So we are now spending the money for jamboree, going around the world and so on and so forth”.

Not only was the ratio of recurrent to capital expenditures heavily skewed
against the latter, he said, we did not even manage either of the two well. One
consequence of this mismanagement, he said, was that our debt burden had gotten only heavier and heavier, in spite of Obasanjo’s then famous, some will say infamous, globetrotting in search of debt relief and foreign investments.

As we all know, the former president eventually secured the debt relief which triggered a lot of celebration, especially in government circles. Yet it was unlikely that Aluko was ever impressed, not least because he never believed the debts were genuine, to begin with.

“My committee (the NEIC),” he said in The News interview, “produced evidence for Abacha, that out of the money borrowed by Nigeria, at least 7 billion dollars did not reach Nigeria. All we borrowed from 1979 to 1999 was about $27 billion. We have paid $38 billion, we are still owing $29 billion. What type of Arithmetic is that?”

Not only did the man doubt the genuineness of our debts, he never believed we should’ve gone borrowing, in the first place.

“I keep on saying that the foreign exchange we earn in a year”, Aluko told The
Country (May 20, 2000) “is more than what India and Pakistan put together earn in a year. India is almost a billion people. Pakistan is 127 million in population and so the two put together are about 10 times our population. Yet they don’t earn the foreign exchange we earn. If we can manage our well, we can pay $5 billion every year on our debt and it would not affect our internal economic progress at all”.

Meantime, said Aluko, government must, however, simply stop borrowing, particularly from abroad, if only because a substantial proportion of what was borrowed was often stolen.

It must have pained the man that his wise words simply fell on deaf (government) ears; no sooner had we secured the much celebrated debt relief than we started borrowing big time from abroad. This, however, was not surprising, the reckless manner in which the Federal Government ran down the excess revenue account meant for rainy days and the no less reckless way it ran down our foreign reserve.

Today, as far as foreign loans are concerned, it seems we are fast heading back to where we came from before our Paris Club debt relief.

In one of his more recent interviews in Daily Trust (April 11, 2010), the late economist, whose creed was and remained state capitalism till he died, denounced the country’s apparent submission to the so-called Washington consensus of deregulation, liberalization and rationalization of labour, etc.

“In the 1950s, 60s, 70s and early 80s,” he said, “we had development plans. That was the five-year development plans. We gave it up. We started depending on market. And market forces brought about private greed. We have no reason to be there.”

He said he was, however, happy that governments at all levels, it seemed, were beginning to return to the good old development plans. He hoped they would, he said, continue along that path. That his was, however, a forlorn hope was soon made obvious by the unannounced New Year gift of petrol subsidy withdrawal the Federal Government shocked Nigerians with last month.

The veteran economist has not only left behind a legacy of straight and simple talk. He has sired and nurtured at least two offsprings anyone would be proud of as a father – Gbenga, a former leading senator in the current dispensation, and Bolaji, a prolific and brilliant all round blogger, and now the Vice-Chancellor of the new Federal University, Otueke, home of President Goodluck Jonathan in Bayelsa State.

Professor Sam Adepoju Aluko may be gone forever, but he has left a worthy legacy behind in some of his children and in his ideas, personal integrity, humility and forthrightness that will keep his memory alive among Nigerians for a long, long time, if not for ever.

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