To Sell or not to Sell that is the Question

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In my opinion, our great country, Nigeria, remains one of the most interesting countries that exists on this planet. Ever so often (these days it seems more like practically every week), a new saga unfolds. In the past few weeks, it was ‘Budget Padding’(which I might add, is still on), and now, it is the sale of national assets.

Various arguments have developed from the ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps.

The genesis of all the brouhaha, was the proposal of the National Economic Council, headed by the Vice-President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, on September 22nd, 2016, that some of Nigeria’s assets be sold, to raise $10 – $15 billion, to rejuvenate our ailing economy or should I say, comatose economy. Apparently, monthly foreign exchange earnings have purportedly dropped, to just about $300 million.

Before we delve into the arguments of the pros and cons of the sale, let us address what seems to be a major disconnect, within the executive arm of the Federal Government. The Minister of Budget and Planning, Senator Udo Udoma, said that the sale of national assets was being contemplated. This contemplation, was also echoed by the Finance Minister, Mrs Kemi Adeosun, who added that, because the country did not have foreign exchange, our reserves needed to be boosted.

However, the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, on national television, announced that, the issue of the sale of national assets, was a mere suggestion and speculation! His announcement came on the heels of that of his colleagues. So which is it? Speculation or Contemplation. As we know, they mean two different things. Or is it that, the Federal Government, having gauged the reaction of the people on this issue, has decided to backtrack and Lai Mohammed is simply trying to do some damage control? Because, it is very obvious that, this was certainly more than speculation. When names of which national assets and what percentages of them should be disposed of and retained, like Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas, were being bandied around.

In as much as there seems to be no constitutional provision that prohibits the sale of national assets, Sections 14(1),(2)(a),(b) and (c) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), must be taken into consideration. In essence, those sections of the constitution, say that sovereignty belongs to all Nigerians (not just the government), and that the people shall participate in their government. That the welfare of Nigerians is the primary assignment of the government.

It is time that Nigerians realise that the constitution, does not empower government to wake up in the morning, and do what it likes, and depending on what side of the bed that government awakes, if bad, (after a sleepless night or one ridden with nightmares), make decisions that are inimical to the interests of the Nigerian people.

Just like Britain had their referendum on the issue of Brexit and Bremain, so also, do Nigerians have a say in what happens to our country. I am not necessarily calling for a referendum, because it would just be a super-expensive expense, that the country cannot afford presently, but it is time that government starts to feel the pulse of the people, when serious decisions affecting the nation, are to be made.

Let’s start with some of the ‘for’ proponents of the sale. The Governors, not surprisingly, were reported to have announced that, they would support the Federal Government, in the sale of national assets. One wonders whether their support is not simply borne out of self-interest. In an era of ‘bail outs’, heavy dependence on federal allocation of funds, lack of internally generated revenue, who would not be estatic about a ‘sharp-sharp’ way of raising funds? Invariably, the more money the Federal Government has in its coffers, the more money will be available for bail outs and allocations.

Let me interject and say that, if the Governors could announce their support, then common sense tells me that, the issue of the sale of national assets, is more than just speculation. In the past, the Kaduna State Governor, Alhaji Nasiru El Rufai, in an interview, was supposed to have said that even NNPC should be sold (or is it privatized). But he seems to have changed his tune slightly, now saying that only non-productive assets should be disposed of. Number 1 on that list, should be the Presidential Fleet of aircrafts, which apparently gulps ridiculous amounts of money running into billions, just for maintenance. If the Pope can travel on Alitalia and the Queen of England, on British Airways, why must the Nigerian Presidency have a fleet of aircrafts. What is wrong with Arik?

It seems that former President Obasanjo, who was is in the ‘for’ camp (but with qualifications and conditions), today, has now defected. Is it wise, to take the opinions of those that change their minds on crucial issues, so regularly, so seriously in the scheme of things? (What Hilary Clinton has accused Donald Trump of on many occasions).

Members of the ‘for’ camp say that those that are opposing the sale, are simply being sentimental and unrealistic.

The ‘against’ camp members seemingly outnumber the ‘for’. For now, their camp seems to be more decisive in their opinion and have given cogent reasons why the Federal Government should not embark on the sale of national assets. Firstly, they ask what benefits were derived from the past sales/privatisation of national assets. They argue that a lot of the concerns, were sold by less than transparent methods, at cheap give away prices, to friends, associates and cronies of those in government. That at the end of the day, Nigerians did not derive any benefits from the sales.

The Trade Unions, are dead set against the sale. They have threatened to go on a nationwide strike, if government proceeds in this quest, and also to seek legal redress. The President of the NLC, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, cited the example of the privatisation of the Power Sector about 3 years ago. He stated that no value has been added, while Nigerians have been exploited. In his opinion, all previous privatisation programs have failed…”these are clear avenues where such instances have been used to undermine our common wealth and also few people have actually taken over those very strategic assets.’

Former Governor of Central Bank, Professor Charles Soludo, said that selling our national assets to get out of recession or to have money in our reserves, would be a historic mistake. That the need for money in our reserves, is not a good enough reason, to sell our national assets.

Some of the Senators, like Mohammed Ali Ndume (Borno South) and Ovie Omo-Agege (Delta Central), have spoken on the floor of their chamber, kicking against the sale. Omo-Agege said that, if all the viable assets in Nigeria are sold now, because there is a recession, what happens in 15 years, if there is another recession?

I have always believed that, when Nigeria is faced with a serious dilemma, government has always been quick to take the ‘easy way’ out, and most times, that easy way has never been the best way. It has usually left Nigerians, as the losers and unleashed further hardship on us. If the Federal Government wants to get it right this time, it needs to make a well thought out decision, and not this ‘quick-fix’ thing, that it may be trying to do.

Government must consider the sensible suggestions, and look for more means, to raise funds to revive the economy. For example, it has been said that government is losing billions of valuable dollars, due to the non-passing of the Petroleum Industry Bill. This may be a good time for government, to push the National Assembly to finalise and pass the Bill into law, as soon as possible, in order to raise funds. Senate’s suggestion that government take advantage of various intervention funds available, can also be considered. Professor Soludo’s suggestion that, Nigeria should follow the Norwegian model, investing 100% of the proceeds from oil and the sales of the other national assets, into a Sovereign Wealth Fund, from which each Nigerian generation could only spend the returns from the Fund, as revenue, can be looked at. Borrowing, is also an option. Just as the sale of percentages of some national assets, can also be considered. A combination, so to speak, of the different options, could be the answer. However, the opinion of the Nigerian people must not just be discountenanced.

One thing Soludo and Obasanjo agree on, is that, Nigeria, consumes and spends much more than it earns, and as a nation, we should learn to be more prudent and save. I concur. Let’s hope that the Federal Government, makes the right decision, that being a decision that will benefit all Nigerians, and our future generations.