Fewer and fewer statements concerning inclusion of poor people into the economy are heard nowadays in Nigeria. Instead of such statements, the society is served a menu of very obvious assertions, signifying a culture of political office holders trembling before their own powers. Atiku Bagudu, the Kebbi State governor‘s case for broadening of the concept of entrepreneurs last week was, therefore, something different and refreshing. It must have caught off guard those who watch out for statements with transformative imports by political leaders in Nigeria. Broadners or those insisting on re-working the meaning of most concepts beyond the rather restricted meaning they had in the environment of the Cold War have been a powerful force in the post Cold War. The governor’s advocacy fits neatly into that global mood in the politics of meaning. Above all, it responds to a major challenge in the most agrarian region of the country which is the challenge of how to make entrepreneurs out of a large concentration of peasants but without rupturing the status quo dramatically.
The Kebbi State governor wants the concept of entrepreneurs to include peasant producers such as those who bean cake sellers, welders, motorcyclists, tailors, load movers, bricklayers, hide tanners, weavers, wood carvers, shoe shiners, blacksmiths, fishermen, fruit sellers and so on. This is the Talakawa tribe. Irrespective of place, age or gender, they constitute one tribe throughout Nigeria.
They are the Other of technical experts, imported technology and capital intensiveness that dominant discourse of entrepreneur refers to. Understood as such, there is a sense in which the governor’s intervention contains something revolutionary because it decenters a minority of beneficiaries in favour of the majority in the very many different ways the benefits come. In itself, the governor’s say so would not bring this reality about. But it does two things, especially if the media, the civil society and other key players in the management of meaning pick it up along with the governor. The first is putting the case for broadening on the agenda of discourse. The second is the way it reminds everyone of the story of the struggle to broaden the meaning of the concept. For ease of management, the story will be restricted to the regional dimension.
Historians of industrialisation in the northern part of the country would date this from the opening of textile mills across the region in the post independence era. With that, it was possible to attract into the industrial canvass a vast majority of unskilled workers, peasants at heart but having to operationalise factory social template. In the course of time, factory regime produced workers who spoke the language of labour power, negotiation, production schedules and timing, vastly re-oriented from what they were when they came in from all provinces in the region and beyond, if we cite Adams Oshiomhole, for instance. He is a good example of the personal, ideological and political progression of beneficiaries of this world of work. Today, Oshiomhole and thousands of people like him who rose within that industrial line can set up and manage any businesses in the most modern terms. They have transformed into entrepreneurs through orientation obliged by the world of work in an import substitution industrialisation exercise.
The tragedy is how this process could not be advanced to a higher level. By the mid 1980s, the textile industries collapsed across the northern region. Crisis of raw materials and foreign exchange to sustain them led to that even as the market existed. After so many committees and special reports amid strike actions and protests by the workers, the (military) governors of the northern states opted to sell them, one after the other. When the Chinese were subsequently ready to move into the world, the northern textile market was one of those they spotted and took without much resistance. What an irony that Sardauna’s political children could neither advance nor even maintain what he put on the ground for them before he left this world.
In the 1980s, the struggle for expansion of the meaning of entrepreneurship was best captured by the disagreement between the government of Kaduna State, formed by the defunct People’s Redemption Party, (PRP) and the World Bank which was granting it a N100m loan for its Integrated Rural Development Project, involving the Federal Government. Application of chemical fertilizer on a scale considered to be massive and ideological as well as the conditions of service of the expatriate staff of the World Bank constituted key issues in disagreement. The disagreement represents a contestation over who is and what constitutes entrepreneurship between the two powerful actors involved.
In the year 2008, the Jigawa State Government posed a completely different critique of the concept of entrepreneurship by staging the Jigawa Talakawa Summit on October 18th. That had two elements unique to it. One was for those who suffer poverty and lack of opportunities to capture that reality in their own words rather than any political office holders and satiated elite doing that on their behalf. The second was to have this done in the full glare of religious, traditional, political and the civil society leaders. As it turned out, everyone bought into the Jigawa Talakawa Summit. There were five leading global civil society organisations: Global Call for Action Against Poverty, (GCAP); Centre for Democracy and Development, (CDD); ActionAid International Nigeria, (AAIN); Centre for Information Technology and Development, (CITAD) and the United Nations Millennium Development Goal, (UNM). The Sultan of Sokoto personally led the prayer against poverty composed by the UN. Somehow, the Jigawa Talakawa Summit could not be institutionalised in spite of the willingness and enthusiasm of the larger civil society to provide the frameworks. The thing called government can be very deep. But to the eternal credit of that government, it produced the book encompassing the most forthright self-writing of the Talakawa anywhere in Nigeria today and, perhaps, the whole of Africa. Contrary to the fear that the masses would not be vocal in the presence of the Sultan and several other traditional and political leaders, they spoke nobly. It was a successful and admirable conversation.
It is against the background provided by this sketchy, journalistic level survey that Kebbi governor’s intervention has its import for the larger society. That is in the sense that he has, in an uncomplicated way, drawn attention to a major site of exclusion. For a country with Nigeria’s population structure, that’s a life time intervention to his credit. His argument is critical, focused and programmatic. It points the way for anyone keen on democratic governance. This is in the sense that anyone whose discourse of entrepreneurship successfully operationalises that concept at the level of the category Governor Bagudu is insisting on their inclusion would, automatically, lift millions out of poverty without so much sloganeering and wind bagging.
Of course, the dynamics would be different for every part of the country. What applies in Benue State in this case might not fit Lagos State or Kebbi or Borno but broadening the concept of entrepreneurship in Nigeria is a very strategic and yet more straightforward manner of inclusiveness of the other half in prosperity. It is an advanced concept as well as a strategy.