Okotie-Eboh And Yesterday's Vision

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Okotie-Eboh And Yesterday's Vision

By 

Lindsay Barrett

 

One of the most important issues which may study of the consequences of the military incursion into Nigerian politics in January 1966 must address is the economic direction in which military rule eventually pushed Nigeria. In January 1966 the Federal Finance Minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh bestrode the national economic scene like a colossus. He was basically a grass-roots politician but he was also an imaginative economic manager and fiscal disciplinarian. Frivolous and partisan opposition assessments of his record as Minister of Finance have tended to pay much more attention to his personal flamboyance and wealth and to pay much too little attention to his major contributions towards developing an economic vision for an independent Nigeria. This vision was rooted in prudent management of natural resources and a far-reaching programme of infrastructural development, and independent fiscal policies aimed at encouraging accelerated foreign investment in manufacturing, and provision of services. Chief Okotie-Eboh approached national budgetary strategies like the successful businessman that he was. He wanted profit to be the engine of public corporate investment and accountability in structural investment to be the watchword of both private sector and public sector operations in the country.

Chief Okotie-Eboh did not set out on his journey into politics as a poor man and also did not intend to end the journey as a pauper. It has become very clear over the decades since his death that it was virtually impossible to fault the strategies he used to establish those institutions of government policy which he set up. He did not unduly abuse his privileges at least to the extent that his military-led successors have now been revealed as having done, and wherever he seemed to take advantage of financial strategies which he put in place to enhance his own fortunes, it is clear that he insisted on being guided by the law. It is for this reason that in spite of years of litigation by his heirs no one has been able to question his legitimate ownership of the properties he left behind. Now that a new democratic order which is seriously devoted to introducing an economic dimension to popular government has come into being, it may be appropriate to revive and review the economic vision and policies of Chief Okotie-Eboh which were so brutally truncated by his murder in January 1966.

The ten-year economic development plan which the Federal Government released in 1964 had largely been crafted by the late Chief and his team of specially chosen advisers. In that plan among the most notable objectives were a decision to swiftly expand the route network of the Nigerian Railway Corporation in the Southern states and especially along the Niger Delta axis to enhance its goods carrying capacity and make it a viable adjunct to the seaport network. Chief Okotie-Eboh proposed to develop a network of rail and road routes from Lokoja to Benin City, Koko, Warri, and on to Onitsha. If such a network was actually in place today, evacuation of petroleum products and other essentials produced by or imported into, this vital maritime axis would be much more accessible to the rest of the nation. In addition, Chief Okotie-Eboh had embarked in 1965 on a global campaign to invite foreign investment into Nigeria's agricultural sector and when he died plans were already far gone for investment in oil palm and rubber production from Asia, sugar, rice and, grain production from Europe and the USA, and plans were afoot to find ways to expand Nigeria's dairy and meat production industries to develop an export capacity in these areas. Sadly these plans were aborted brutally when he was killed because his personal touch had played a great part in giving off-shore investors the much-needed confidence to put their money into a newly independent African nation.

Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh was nothing if not a charmer. He was an extrovert who had a sly streak of humourous cunning in his make-up. He deployed these traits in local politics as well as on the international scene to good advantage. Whenever he travelled abroad his costuming was actually designed to draw all attention to him to the detriment of any rival delegation, and he succeeded so well that some of his detractors have managed to give the impression that all he ever did was clown around. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the tribute which poured in for him after his murder, from the highest levels of the world monetary circles, including such close personal friends of his as Steven Amory, British Chancellor of The Exchequer, Lord Perth, and the then World Bank Chairman were all unanimous in lamenting that his shrewd and wise intellect would not be available to Nigeria again. In spite of the belief which has been widely touted by his detractors that he was a profligate spender, our investigations have proven that under his tutelage Nigeria enjoyed its most credit-worthy reputation among foreign bankers whenever he put in a fiscal request. We have seen letters from Chief Obafemi Awolowo, one of his most vehement political opponents in which the illustrious chief praised his adversary for the good sense and effective planning contained in one of his budget speeches.

What all of this suggests is that may of the visionary ideas which Chief Okotie-Eboh had just begun to implement when he was cut down in his prime may very well still be applicable to Nigeria's economic well-being. Certainly the enhancement of the rail system is still badly needed, and the de-centralisation of services such as energy supply, and telecommunications which he had proposed then are now clearly factors that must be considered in the thrust for economic liberalisation and reform. While no one is praying for Nigeria's currency to be devaluated to such an extent that we end up needing huge denomination notes, it is quite obvious that at least a Five Hundred Naira, and a One thousand Naira note may very well be on the cards before the end of the first four years of the new democracy. It would not be inappropriate for Chief Okotie-Eboh's image to appear on one of these notes eventually, because in the truest sense of the word he became the founding father of independent Nigeria's finance industry.

Those development banking institutions which he founded such as the NIDB have been badly mutilated or even destroyed during the years of economic debility which the military ushered in. Nonetheless when he established them they were truly viable and feasible instruments of a vision that could have brought about the same economic revolution which several of the present government's economic advisers are struggling to midwife. In the most effective sense of being an unsung pioneer, or even a prophet dishonoured in his home, Chief Okotie-Eboh can be seen today to have been a true martyr to the economic independence of his country. Ironically it was not the outsiders whose resources he sought to utilise to enhance Nigerian potential who cut him down, but his own countrymen who failed to consider the real value and worth of his service to his fatherland. 

There is no greater tribute anyone could give to his memory than to acknowledge the fact that much of what needs to be done to bring Nigeria back to economic life can be found in the legacies of economic policy which he left behind.

The writer is an astute commentator on national affairs

 

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