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At the end of the day, President Muhammadu Buhari appears to be loosening up. He came to power with a set of ideas, with the best of intentions, undeniably convinced that those ideas would help produce the Nigeria of his dreams. But as ideas go, they are not etched on the marble. As the beat changes, you have to adjust your dancing steps. You cannot be dancing reggae when the DJ is playing blues. The best of leaders are those who are rigid on principles and flexible on methods. This has been my consistent message to the president in the last one year. In recent times, though, he has demonstrated that he is no longer the rigid personality we thought him to be.
I will give four examples: the impending opening of a new forex window, the “deregulation” of fuel pricing, the decision to constructively engage with the Niger Delta militants and the final settlement of the MTN N1.04 trillion fine. I do not think that Buhari is very happy with some of these concessions, but when you have a bull in the china shop, pragmatism is an option you do not want to ignore. Fair enough, he has demonstrated that though he is very tough, he is also flexible. He has been battered locally and internationally for his “archaic” policies, and while some of these issues are highly ideological, he just needed to shift ground.
Any moment from now, Mr. Godwin Emefiele, governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), will announce a new window for the trading of forex. It will most likely be called the autonomous foreign exchange market (AFEX), and the rate will be determined by the forces of demand and supply that operate in that market. Essentially, exporters and investors who detest the unsustainable official band of N197-N199/$1 will be able to bring in their funds through AFEX at a liberal rate. If all goes well, there will now be more inflow of forex, and the pressure on the black market will reduce, meaning the naira will regain some muscle.
It is not the ultimate solution to the forex crisis, but that the government gave it a thought at all suggests Buhari is finally accepting that the current system is not working. There are two other big issues to deal with concerning the CBN rate: one, the three tiers of government will continue to be short-changed as they share oil revenue at the much lower exchange rate; two, who will be entitled to buy at the CBN rate? Emefiele must define “critical sectors” unambiguously to all and sundry. Of course, there is still the little matter of pent-up forex demand that CBN has to deal with, especially funds belonging to foreign airlines and investors.
When Buhari allowed the price of petrol to be adjusted from N86:50 to N145, he also shifted ground. He had always maintained that there was no subsidy and he, like me, believed Nigerians are entitled to cheaper petrol — after all, it is nature’s gift to us. But the reality is that the economy was going to grind to a halt and socio-political unrest was a real possibility if the fuel queues had continued. By agreeing that the price should be adjusted to allow marketers source forex from other sources to import petrol, Buhari was only being realistic. All that is left now is to summon the courage to properly deregulate the sector so that we can move on with our lives.
Meanwhile, by choosing dialogue with the Niger Delta militants, Buhari could avoid opening up another battlefront. Pardon my language: the militants are like a fly on the balls. The military man in him would ordinarily not invite these chaps to the negotiating table — he would rather pummel them to surrender, especially as the whole “renewed struggle” looks very suspicious. But, as I would always say, the military option could be costly and unpredictable. Our economy is in dire straits and we need to chase away the fox before we rebuke the hen. It could be humiliating, I admit, but we need all the peace we can buy for now. It is not weakness; it is wisdom.
Finally, the news of the week is that MTN and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) have kissed and made up. After eight months of intense and tensed negotiations, the N1.04 trillion fine imposed on the telecoms giant for failing to disconnect unregistered SIM cards has come down to N330 billion. As “penance”, MTN will also list on the Nigerian stock exchange so that ordinary Nigerians can have a sip of the chilled juice. What’s more, MTN has promised to be of good behaviour, to abide by the code of corporate governance for the telecommunications industry. NCC has, in return, said: Go and sin no more, lest a worse thing cometh unto thee.
Can we now move on? This has been a teachable moment. What have I learnt? One, the regulator can do more than bark in Nigeria — if there is enough political backing. The NCC uncharacteristically slammed the hammer on the biggest operator in Nigeria, apparently because there are new sheriffs in town. Until now, operators merely got a slap on the wrist. Two, there is no harm in negotiating your way out of trouble. MTN initially took legal action, obviously afraid of the December 31, 2015 payment deadline, but soon withdrew its case and engaged the services of a mediator/negotiator. A seemingly hopeless situation was resolved.
Three, our leaders must learn to stand up for us anywhere in the world. President Jacob Zuma of South Africa came to put in a word for his country’s biggest corporate ambassador. Do our presidents do that for our companies? When Globacom was having problems in Ghana and Benin, we left them to their fate. We never saw the prosperity of Globacom as prosperity for Nigeria. Prosperity of MTN is prosperity for South Africa, in Zuma’s eyes. We will never stop arguing over the relationship between the state and big business, but the problem of the Nigerian is that we do not define our interests in the larger world. We think the world order is by accident.
The MTN issue stressed virtually everybody — from NCC to Aso Rock to MTN in Nigeria and South Africa. Many MTN top executives lost their jobs. Government officials who advocated pragmatism in the interest of the Nigerian economy were blackmailed and accused of collecting bribe. The impasse created so much uncertainty that neither the government nor MTN could plan with the fine. Because of the uncertainty, MTN, one of the biggest spenders in the Nigerian economy, found itself unable to project its capital expenditure, unable to consider sponsorships. Government was also left wondering if the fine was indeed payable. It has ended a win-win for all.
Although some Nigerians want more blood, N330 billion looks like a reasonable compromise. When everybody has the impression that you are minting money, N330 billion will look like chickenfeed. At some point, though, we have to close the chapter and move on. We have often accused MTN Nigeria of arrogance, but throwing the baby away with the birth water could hurt the Nigerian economy more than we imagined. MTN is largely responsible for the transmission backbone for ATM transactions, to say nothing about jobs and the entire value chain. It doesn’t mean they can do whatever they like, but it also doesn’t mean we should lynch them.
Above all, I am now more optimistic about the success of Buhari than I was before his first anniversary in office. I am aware that some people are very desperate to see Buhari fail, as if there is a trophy to be won for it. Nevertheless, millions of Nigerians — even though hungry and angry — still trust Buhari as the leader. Added to his character, this trust is very vital to his ability to deliver the goods. His reasonable compromises will, in my opinion, work in our favour. All I desire now is that Buhari should improve on his human rights record — and be more inclusive. His appointments are awfully lopsided. Every part of Nigeria must have a sense of belonging. Non-negotiable.
Death visited Nigerian football twice within four days, cruelly claiming the legendary Stephen Keshi, and coldly adding Shaibu Amodu, former Super Eagles’ coach. Amodu, who had an uneventful playing career, was better known as the coach who took BCC Lions of Gboko to great heights. My first encounter with him was in 1994. I used to write his name as SHUAIBU but he told me it was SHAIBU. Twice, he was asked to rescue Nigeria in World Cup qualifiers, twice he got the job done, and twice he was dumped thereafter. Constantly at war with the football authorities — like Keshi — Amodu was easily one of the most accomplished Nigerian coaches ever. Unforgettable.
I’m very encouraged by the quick response of the Muslim and Christian communities to the murder of 74-year-old Bridget Agbahime in Kano for “blasphemy”. Governor Abdullahi Ganduje rose up to the occasion, swiftly forging an understanding between the communities to deescalate tension. The suspects have now been charged to court. The septuagenarian was allegedly falsely accused, but even if she actually insulted Prophet Mohammed, Muslim clerics have said the criminals masquerading as religious zealots are not allowed to take the law into their own hands. That, to me, is the message that must be constantly preached to our hearing. Peace.
Meanwhile, in Kaduna, a carpenter, Francis Emmanuel, should be thanking his God that he’s still alive. He was assaulted on Wednesday by overzealous youths who “caught” him eating lunch during Ramadan. But for little mercies, he would have eaten his dinner in the great beyond. He is not even a Muslim, so he is entitled to a decent lunch. Even if he were a Muslim, is it legal to brutalise anyone for not fasting? Governor Nasir el-Rufa’i has personally taken up the matter, sending a strong signal that these criminalities in the name of religion will not be pampered. Order.
Hurray! The Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL) is on its way back! According to Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, the minister of transportation, the federal government will soon establish a shipping line “to ensure maximum exploitation of the potentials in our maritime sector”. The highly successful Nigerian Airways is already on its way back as the government pursues the lucrative business of aviation with vigour. Government may as well set up a telco to compete with MTN and co. Soon government may set up a pure water company for the masses. It is a sign of progress, right? Dirigisme.