Not a Time to Play Akotileta


One of the most powerful stories in the Bible is that of two siblings: Esau and Jacob. While there are as many lessons in the account as there are pastors preaching on the subject, the common thread is that although instant gratification, especially in a moment of desperation, has its immediate reward, making such a choice often leads to lifetime regrets, as exemplified by Esau, the older sibling.

In his message titled “Consequences of a Quick Fix: The Esau Syndrome”, Milan Jed argued that Esau traded the lasting benefits of his birthright for the immediate pleasure of food. “He acted on impulse, satisfying his immediate desires without pausing to consider the long-range consequences. Esau exaggerated his hunger. ‘I’m dying of starvation,’ he said. This thought made his choice much easier, because if he was starving, what good was an inheritance anyway? His immediate hunger distorted his perspective and made his decision seem urgent…” wrote Jed.

Okay, it is important that I apologise to my non-Christian readers who may not be familiar with the story of Jacob and Esau found in the Biblical book of Genesis. It is just that the current controversy in the national space parodies that account. Challenged by a difficult economic situation that requires strategic thinking for short, medium and long term solutions, some managers of our economy and their friends in the private sector would rather look for an easy way out by proposing the sale of some of our prime national assets.

It is even more disturbing when one listens to government officials as there doesn’t appear to be any rigour on how to get Nigeria out of the current economic malaise beyond some pedestrian argument of looking for money that will most likely go for recurrent, rather than on capital, expenditure. “It makes sense for me to unlock those things that will bring money to the economy at these difficult times, so that we can move forward”, said the Finance Minister, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun.

Ordinarily, such a proposition may not be a bad idea, especially considering that the landscape is littered with assets that add little or no value our lives, including those that are actually rotting away. For instance, selling the National Theatre in Iganmu and National Stadium in Surulere, both in Lagos, are good ideas being proposed by some groups which I endorse wholeheartedly. However, the government officials who seem so eager to sell and those who want to buy are not looking in that direction.

Again, let us assume that the idea to sell some assets was based on altruism, and it could really well be, the question then is: Why should we sell those that are doing very well? Their response: To fund the 2016 federal government budget. Like Esau, we want to sell because we are “hungry”. So, after satiating the “2016 hunger”, what happens in 2017? Even at that, the ease with which the proponents of sale were quick to identify the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) and the presumption that there are buyers already out there waiting with their cheque book raises serious questions about whether this whole campaign was not premeditated. But that is not even where I am going.

Let us look at the NLNG. Incorporated in 1989, the shareholders of the company are: NNPC (representing the Federal Government of Nigeria) with 49 percent equity; Shell Gas BV with 25.6 percent equity; Total LNG Nigeria Limited with 15 percent equity and ENI International with 10.4 percent equity. The total revenue accruable to the company from 1999 to 2015 was US$90.3billion while the figure for the last five years alone was US$ 48.54billion. The capital investment from 1999 to 2015 was also US$15.6billion while the figure for the last five years was US$ 1.3billion.

In terms of return on investment, the dividend paid to NNPC (FGN) between 2004 and 2015 was US$15.3 billion while the figure for the last five years was US$8.74billion. The dividend accruable to other shareholders from 2004 to 2015 was US$16billion while the figure for the last five years was US$9.43billion. The company also paid the sum of US$3.8billion as income tax and education tax between 2011 and 2015; PAYE in the sum of US$ 334million (from 1999 to 2015); VAT of US$ 647million (from 2005 to 2015); State & LGA taxes of US$8.1million (from 2007 to 2015); regulatory fees and levies of US$ 299million (from 1999 to 2015) and withholding tax of US$946million (from 1999 to 2015).

From the foregoing, we can see the profitability of the NLNG which then raises questions as to why some people would imagine it is in the national interest to sell such a company out of desperation. Here, let me make it very clear that I am not opposed to the federal government divesting of equity in some of the assets that are not performing. I will for instance like to see the refineries being sold rather than to continue wasting scarce resources on their maintenance.

However, even if we have to sell assets, it must be a strategic decision founded on the need to maximize the potential of the companies for the overall benefits of our people and not because we are looking for some quick cash to sustain the false lifestyles of our political office holders. Let’s face it, whatever money will make from the sale will be of little benefits to the ordinary man on the street. At least, there are reports that many of the governors, including those that cannot pay the salaries of workers in their states, are still buying expensive bulletproof vehicles for themselves and spouses.

For sure, there are fundamental issues we have to deal with not only about our economy but the entire architecture of our country and there is perhaps no better time than now to begin such a conversation. Unfortunately, those who should lead that engagement are looking for short-cut solutions that would take us nowhere. And it is within that context that we should situate the idea to sell our national assets to meet immediate needs. The implication is that the only solution to our current hunger is to pawn the family treasures to “eat”.

What I find particularly disturbing is that there is a lot of self-deceit going on in Abuja. On a day the president of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), Dr. Frank Jacobs concluded that “the person saying we would come out of recession by December is only deceiving himself”, Mrs Adeosun said “we are already getting out of recession because of the action the federal government is taking”. I honestly don’t know think government officials should continue to deceive the people on this recession. Nigerians should be told to brace up for the challenges of the moment rather than being fed lies.

This then brings me to the concept of ‘Akotileta’ that is in the title of this piece. It is a Yoruba word often used to describe anybody who, lacking in the capacity to generate own wealth or sustain an inheritance, would rather sell off the family treasures for money that would be frittered away. One Alata put it rather succinctly, in a post I read online, that the phenomenon also applies to “unsavory transactions, policies and actions by which the people in power and influence across Africa sell our inheritance with no major benefit for the general public.”

This conversation shall continue. Meanwhile, I will be speaking in Lagos on Saturday at ‘Platform Nigeria’ on the topic, “Between Luggage Economy and Knowledge Economy: Which Way Nigeria?” Please keep a date.

The Politics of Biafra
Today in Abuja, my friend, Chudi Offodile, a legal practitioner and former member of the House of Representatives (1999 – 2007) will be presenting “The Politics of Biafra”, a rather interesting book which examines the dilemma of the Igbo people within the context of a mismanaged Nigeria. What makes the book rather interesting is that Chudi chooses the difference—in ideology and temperament—between Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Dim Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu (both of blessed memory) as the central thesis for his interventions on all the issues, from the civil war to the formation of MASSOB and IPOB. And with the postscript titled “Restructuring Nigeria for Prosperity” written by former Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor, Prof. Chukwuma Soludo, “The Politics of Biafra” not only speaks to times like this, it is bound to generate heated debates on the future of our country.