BY DELE MOMODU (PENDULUM)
Fellow Nigerians, every now and then, aggrieved persons run to the media seeking refuge from State persecution or hoping for opportunities to attack competitors. Examples of the former abound more than the latter. In a country where unemployment is of chronic and pandemic proportions, it is sad that the State finds it hard to resolve issues amicably and soonest, thus limiting its ability to reduce, if not eliminate potential liabilities, and instead make significant savings of scarce and overburdened resources. However, the State seems to prefer taking the option to destroy an “offending” company and its owner, in particular. And when the State succeeds in cutting its nose to spite its face, it is usually the vulnerable mass of the citizenry that gets thrown into the unemployment market for starters, it is they that also and feel the edge and brunt of the ensuing imbroglio. The impact on the populace through the attendant indirect taxation, hiking of various consumer prices and inflation can only be best imagined.
in this regard, I want to specifically appeal to the office of the Vice President for two reasons. The number two office is occupied by a legal luminary, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria for that matter. Also, the occupier is supposed to coordinate the economy which is at its lowest ebb today. It is within his purview to ensure and guarantee the ease of doing business in Nigeria and he is to be commended for the giant strides already taken in this respect. Frankly though, Nigeria has not been too kind to most of its local investors who make the effort and take the pain to start something at home. There is some kind of envious green giant which seems to sit like a massive chip on the shoulders of our government functionaries that makes them prepared to be pliant tools for those who seek to drag their rivals down.
The Government’s attitude bringing down the sledgehammer on people perceived to be breaching laws and regulations without as much as a fair hearing is scary to say the least. No attempt is made to find alternatives ways of resolving disputes yet Government trumpets ADR as one of the most potent tools of economic revival and growth. By refusing to subject itself to proper judicial and arbitral processes and by ignoring court judgments, the State imperils investor confidence as there is no certainty that agreements will be kept. This can only frighten foreign investors who have huge choices in more stable economic climes in Africa and beyond. Successive governments, including the present one are all guilty of this alarming and petrifying phenomenon.
A few examples of government obduracy in not seeking rapproachement and conciliation when stakeholders and the entire country would benefit will suffice before I go into the main meat of my epistle today.
Once upon a time, the Chicago-based Nigerian businessman, Chief Harry Akande, brought the Hilton Hotel franchise to Lagos. I find it astounding that prior to that time Lagos did not boast any hotel in the Hilton chain, not even the lowliest, despite the well-known status of Lagos as one of the great economic cosmopolitan cities of the world. Anyway, I digress. The impressive foundation laying ceremony of the first showpiece hotel of the Hilton brand, which Chief Akande was fronting, took place at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport. That was the first and the last we heard of this hotel and the Hilton brand in Lagos until the advent of two swashbuckling, effervescent and never say die entrepreneurs who are great leaders in their respective industries, the international business magnate, billionaire and monumental philanthropist, Tony Elumelu and the aviation guru, Sam Iwuajoku. Both have launched themselves into the Lagos hospitality scene in a big way with the Hilton brand.
Elumelu with limited success with the Hilton Hotel Ikoyi which is still in infancy having been bogged down by the kind of impasse I have been describing, and Iwuajoku, with great aplomb, by the establishment of Legend Hotel Curio Collection by Hilton at the Muritala Mohammed International Airport perimeter in Ikeja. In order not to be robbed of the fruits of his hard work and not wanting to have his expectant hopes dashed, Akande proceeded to the Courts for refuge and relief. Litigation upon litigation ensued, thereafter. In total frustration and exasperation, Chief Akande resorted to self-help when some powerful people in government wanted to take over the portion of land allocated to him aeons ago. The stalemate still persists till today.
Another unfortunate example is the matter of Mr Wale Babalakin. Walahi, that man has suffered in Nigeria. If our country had given this man wings to fly, as he sought, our airports would have been far better than what we have today. His flagship Terminal Two, Murtala Mohammed International Airport, which presently operates as one of the two domestic terminals of the Lagos airport is testament to what could have been. The hotel he was building across remains a wasted monument on the road to International airport. Babalakin was pursued remorselessly and relentlessly and suffered media trial and great prejudice. Again, Wale’s company bought the old Federal Secretariat in Lagos. But one thing led to the other as Babalakin became an inadvertent cannon fodder in the grand old battle between the Federal and Lagos State Governments. As they say when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. It did not matter that in this case, Babalakin himself could be described as an elephant. In this battle royale he was practically a baby.
Till this day, the place that was once the pride of Lagos has virtually become squalid, dilapidated and useless to man and God. How our leaders are able to sleep seeing or knowing about such gargantuan waste is beyond me. The Lagos-Ibadan Expressway is another tale of woe in the Babalakin-Government saga. The on-off-on-off denouement has also given birth to a spate of lawsuits. Contract, constitutional and administrative law students and lecturers alike will in future have a field day dissecting the myriad of consequential Judgements and precedents that this palaver has spawned.
Travel around Nigeria, and you will weep to see the deluge of abandoned projects. Nothing stops these projects from being revived. Talking would probably resolve most of the problems. However, in some cases it has come to the stage where the contractors have sadly passed on and the companies involved become moribund because Government failed to act when it should have done.
The effect of the abandonment of these projects is often that it would cost more to revive them than to scrap them and start afresh on a lower scale. That is why I just cannot understand why it is it so difficult for Government to speed up processes and enter negotiations with investors, when there are issues or problems. Seems the State, of whatever hue, simply hates dialogue. The State hands over the power of life and death to one man who would in turn brutalise anyone in sight. I am not opposed to culprits being tried and punished, but not by media trial and equally ruining the accused before justice comes. What happens if the court finds the State, rather than the individual or entity, culpable? How would the State compensate the innocent man or company unjustifiably dragged in the mud?
Nigeria has no better time to wake up from seeming slumber, other than now, in view of the radical challenges and changes as well as the disastrous effects of COVID-19. The next few months will be bloody globally. The world has practically been brought to its knees. Acclaimed leaders have suddenly become like petulant little boys. Unsung leaders have suddenly found their mojo and shown the stuff of which they are made. It has been a rude awakening for everybody. Nigeria cannot afford to continue with the lack of vision and unbelievable recklessness that has almost driven our already parlous economy to perdition because of our lack of preparedness and vision. I know everyone is anxious to get life back to normal, but I am sorry to be a Prophet of doom. Our lives cannot and will not return to normal no matter our degree of wishful thinking. Sadder still is the fact that our country is never prepared for eventualities and we are usually caught napping. And this is another almost mortal illustration of this fact.
The first thing that must change is our style of governance. Our leaders must face stark realities now or forever shut up about the country called Nigeria. The politicians who see political offices and positions as invitation to treat must wake up from their deep somnambulistic state, smell the coffee and wake up to the new fresh realities of life. I will make three recommendations today which are as follows.
President Muhammadu Buhari should constitute an emergency committee to whittle down waste and glut in federal institutions to be headed by the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo. Principal officers in the legislature and the judiciary should be included as well as all Ministers. A few Permanent Secretaries should serve on the Committee, including the Secretary to the Federal Government for administrative and logistic support. Their remit should be that they must arrive at very drastic pay cuts in salaries, allowances and other emoluments. They must surgically excise all areas of profligacy and waste. State governments should replicate this model in their respective states with their deputy governors as heads. Give them a chance to prove their mettle.
Secondly, the Government should ensure that square pegs are put in square holes and round pegs in round holes. There are those who have no business messing around with policies that is way beyond their scope of operations. When institutions dabble into what is outside their scope, things can only fall apart. It is the same reason why the head of our COVID-19 response should be the Vice President and failing which it should be headed jointly by the Minister of Health and the Minister of Finance. The twin essential pillars of health (life) and the economy need to be harmonised. The Secretary to the Government, no matter how distinguished is simply not able to effectively coordinate something of this magnitude in two areas where he has limited expertise or experience. One thing is clear, we must begin to act differently, but sensibly.
The third recommendation is that in all things, we must now think virtual. That is the new world reality. I take the example of Parliament, or the National Assembly as we know it, which we have all been used to seeing sitting physically in their respective Chambers. Now, the world over, from Australia to Canada to England and Wales recourse is being had to virtual proceedings. Even America is seeking to find a way of changing its rigid ways in this regard.
If we can do these things and cultivate these new habits and ways our lives will be different. Any other way will lead us further into the abyss. Our failures in the past in respect of some of these matters are the main reasons our country is littered with unemployed and uncontrolled youths because the few creating jobs are permanently hounded and there is too much evident waste, recklessness, profligacy and state sanctioned brigandage.
It is time for real CHANGE!