Selling Off Nigeria’s National Assets By Sonala Olumhense

t seems like a lifetime ago that business mogul Aliko Dangote set Nigeria alight by proposing the sale of national assets as a way of getting the country out of its economic mess.

Sonala-Olumhense-SBut the proposal, is actually only two weeks old.  It was on September 13, exactly two weeks ago, that he addressed the subject of “diversifying the economy quickly” as a way of overcoming the recession.

He told CNBC, “If I had challenges in my company, I would not hesitate to sell assets, to remain afloat, to get to the better times, because it doesn’t make any sense for me to keep any assets and then suffocate the whole organisation.”

Mr. Dangote’s capitalist sentiments were in the right place.  Except that private enterprise is evidently different from public enterprise.  Mr. Dangote can sell anything he owns, at any time, for any reason, for any price.

Not a government.  In any event, not an elected government. Still, his proposal attracted so much excitement within the government that within two weeks, the Senate had received the ‘Emergency Economic Stabilisation Bill 2016′, including what I call the Dangote Design.

In principle, the bill claims it will achieve objectives that were thought to be the purposes of the government in the first place.

Basically it is a proposal for emergency powers, to which I object.  The danger is further illustrated by the new basket of promises contained in the bill, such as raising the value of the naira and creating more jobs.

On the face of it, if the government implements the Dangote Design, Nigeria will be awash with funds to conquer the recession because it will be able to spend its way out of it.

That is unlikely to happen.  To begin with, even under emergency conditions, the assets involved will take a long time to sort out and take through a legal process for sale.

Who will be the buyers?  Certainly not foreigners, who are barred by the constitution from investing in the once revered “commanding heights” of the economy.  Certainly not the PDP-wealthy, who will continue to hide their money.

Perhaps then, the Dangotes of Nigeria?  In the case of Aliko, should he buy, he will damage his brand forever, as it will be said that it was his plan all along.  And why would a real businessman not make bargain-basement bid?

The point is that while trying to sell these assets may sound good at first, it is only a dangerous and desperate proposal.

The problem is that the current government arrived in 2015 on a boatload of promises but only a teaspoon of plans, its election made easy by 15 years of open greed and street avarice by the party it was seeking to displace.

That party, the PDP, had no principle.  More street carnival than political party, the PDP bandwagon was followed by Nigerians who either blindly voted for it or permitted their votes to be stolen.

By 2015, as the party’s internal fault lines, changing media patterns, as well as the Boko Haram menace made it easier to expose the PDP’s shortcomings, the need for change resonated with the Nigerian voter.

That was where we mistook the clouds for the skies.  The All Progressives Congress (APC) displaced the PDP, but its philosophy was really not different.

Nigerians hoped to see a robust and dynamic shift that would structurally, fundamentally and philosophically re-define the meaning and practice of leadership.  Such a shift would have had Nigeria thinking in terms of new possibilities and opportunities well before the recession took control.

Instead, we dispensed with the element of urgency.  President Buhari spent months looking for the world’s best Ministers, only to appoint the most obvious neighborhood hands.  And we spent the best part of one year drafting a budget that had more twists and turns than the Ife-Ore Road, only to discover the numbers in the document were just…numbers.

That is why we may give all of our national assets to street traders to market for us in our Monday morning traffic, but it will not resolve the issue, which will remain this: when do we move Nigeria away from its dependence on oil?

That answer will depend on whether the Buhari government can reinvent itself to emerge with a vision which includes regaining the trust of the people.

So far, the government has not indicated it understands that this—not the recession, not critics, not the PDP, not unreturned loot—is the problem.  In the past 16 months, it has blamed the PDP ad nauseam without substituting a productive vision and dynamism.

In the past 16 months, it has failed to show real traction in its anti-corruption initiative, with almost all of the people who looted the country blind still walking free and rich.  While we played the blame game instead of the prison prism, the recession took the driver’s seat.  And nobody is willing to tell Nigerians that this new driver will be in charge for quite a while.

The truth is that despite a multitude of symptoms, the patient suffers from one ailment, not several.  The current administration preaches its fidelity, for instance, but it cannot carry the Nigerian people along because it has mistaken will for zeal, and motion for movement.  Perhaps there is less official impunity now, but there aren’t more people in trouble for corruption under President Buhari than there were in any PDP administration.

Worse still, in an alarming demonstration of how low the ethical bar is, there are far more compromised people being left untouched by Buhari than there have been since 1999.

Speaking of low bars, while the Abuja-Kaduna rail built principally by the Goodluck Jonathan administration has been commissioned, notice how poorly it has done in just two months, with so much mismanagement and broken equipment being reported.

In any event, when will the government commission the related Abuja light rail?  It cannot schedule such an event because although $500 million has been spent on the project, it is not being built.

Why does the Buhari government suggest that it started on a completely new slate, and that Nigeria does not have projects and obligations in the area of infrastructure?  In a previous article, I examined Nigeria’s loan deals with China and others that provide us with several opportunities, including in electricity.

While I do not know how and when the recession will end, Nigeria’s quest for development and economic diversification can certainly benefit from the use of a variety of Infrastructure funds such as the Emerging Africa Infrastructure Fund, the AfDB’s Africa50 Initiative, President Barack Obama’s Power Africa Initiative, and the Electricity Africa Act of 2014.  During the World Economic Forum in Abuja two years ago, China offered a huge boost for Nigeria’s infrastructure development Nigeria that included up to a new $12 billion Nigeria facility.

In addition, a country with Nigeria’s vast population abroad could easily and quickly raise vast infrastructure funds through Diaspora bonds, an economic tool that has been used to great effect by such countries as Israel and India.

There are many things Nigeria can do, not just to get out of this recession, but to leap to its rightful place in development.

To deploy a baseball metaphor, however, you cannot steal second base while standing on first.  If Buhari plays Jonathan, he will be remembered as Jonathan, not Buhari.

Happy 56th, Nigeria!
Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense

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1 Comment on this article. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Stand4whatsright October 5, 2016 at 5:14 am -

    Good analysis but failed to add that disastrous policies of current government led to withdrawal of foreign investments thereby making any economic maladies of the country worse. This created the recession faster than it could have come.