Where anything goes, in the name of capitalism, the people end up in the belly of the tigers.
Nigeria, at the best of times, is a country where almost anything goes. The economy is on auto-drive. The drivers of the economy are high on their own ludicrous ideas, which are so fundamentally flawed, that it is impossible for them to see reason and consider alternative options freely canvassed by many experts. The political leadership has no vision – no big idea around which its world-view is formed. It has no destination in view, it lacks any discernible direction. As a result, the public sector is largely a mortuary for ideas. There is no cue to follow. Ideas are seen only through the eye of what benefits the individuals and other vested interests. Policies are largely driven, with the interests of the oligopolistic few in mind or for scoring personal pips, grabbing more power or simply for the purpose of personal aggrandizement. There is little thought for the big picture.
Increasingly, this attitude has become most evident in the conduct and body language of a section of the public sector charged with the responsibility of regulation over the different sectors of the economy. Ordinarily, these agencies of government ought to be watchdogs – CBN over banks, NERC over the power sector , DPR in the oil industry, SEC should regulate the capital market, NCC to oversee telecommunications, NBC saddled with responsibility over broadcasting, NCAA is in charge of aviation, and the Consumer Protection council ought to protect consumers. These are just a few among the many others tasked with ensuring that players in the various sectors they regulate play by the rules, and that consumers are not only protected but that the government itself receives what is due to it from these players.
But with the watchdogs lost in the sea of inefficiency, some cavorting with those who they should keep eyes on, and others permanently in bed with the players in their sector, Nigerians have been left unprotected, handcuffed by the powerful and repeatedly violated by rabid capitalists. How can it be that with the virtual absence of regulation (in the interest of the consumers, as opposed to that of their pockets), that some people argue that the private sector is the driver of development in the economy? If such fallacy can stand the rigour of proof in any clime, it will definitely not be Nigeria. Who will argue for this parasitic private sector with its claws out to only suck the people dry? How does the private sector successfully drive development outside of an enabling environment and regulatory framework fashioned by the public sector? What we have is a government that has shirked its responsibility at providing the enabling infrastructure, but levies licensing and sundry fees on players, who are then left to trample on Nigerians and free to play the waters as they so desire, as long as the regulators are not adversely affected.
Across board, the so-called organised private sector is on its own – left to roam and prey on Nigerians. They are free to steal from their shareholders, swindle investors, short-change staff, over-invoice, under-pay tax, cook books and generally rig the system, while the watch-dogs snore. It is difficult to tell definitively if the regulators have simply become lackeys of those they are meant to regulate, plainly incompetent, or just fagged out and overwhelmed by the enormity of the task they are faced with.
The rot in the banks is well-documented. We have had banks which were ‘set-up’ simply to be robbed blind by pseudo-owners masquerading as majority shareholders. There are also many so-claimed publicly-owned companies, known to all as such, but are mere appendages to private fiefdoms of some of our ‘big’ men, who claim to be majority shareholders. These companies are run from the bedrooms and pent-houses of these men, with no checks and balances in place, or only observed in its breach. A lot of these are companies are listed on the stock exchange in name only. They run their own course, mostly unmitigated. Annual General Meetings are deliberately slated for locations inaccessible to the shareholders, notice of meetings are deliberately sent out late, when they do, simply to disenfranchise shareholders.
Weeks back, I received a notice of a meeting on a “Scheme of Merger” from BAGCO. For a meeting scheduled to have been held on February 19th, the invitation was only received from the sender and stamped by the Post Office on 22nd February. Needless to say, the company was not keen on the presence of some shareholders at that meeting. Those who know will attest to such as the norm in the sector. Some publicly listed companies have not even bothered to hold Annual General Meetings, while a lot of those who make the effort, do not bother to extend invitations to shareholders. Registers are in tatters, with registrars caught up in the maze. Dividends, where paid, do not reach shareholders. There is a huge fund of unclaimed dividends waiting to be applied to any meaningful purpose, except making banks fat.
Several hurdles are on the path of investors barring them from proceeds of their legitimate earnings. Effecting corrections in misspelled names is labourious, warranting expensive journeys and time a lot of the investors cannot afford. Transfer of ownership of shares from deceased owners to their trustees involves some tiresome and untidy processes. Stockbrokers have capitalised on the systemic disorder to defraud investors. Some frustrate efforts to transfer holdings away from them. Shares have been sold without authorisation while a number of stock broking firms have simply closed shop and gone underground. Investors are left high and dry.
Few years back, a number of these companies -Starcomms, DAAR Communications, Resort Savings and Loans, among others raised money from the public via private placements and public offers. Who knows what is happening with these companies today? Why so much secrecy about when AGMs are to be held? Who knows what is happening with those fund managers who made away with the funds invested by Nigerians? What is the fate of ordinary Nigerians conned into investing in the capital market? We only hear of a forbearance package for stock-brokers who were largely instrumental to the fraud that led to the collapse of the market, what of the ordinary Nigerians who lost savings and retirement benefits to the Capital market scam? Who speaks for the people? Where is the regulator in this mess? Where is SEC and NSE? Where is the Finance Ministry? Where is the AMCON to buy the debt of the masses and not just that of the BIG men?
The capital market is only a microcosm of the all-round rot in the private sector, appropriately so too, since the players there cut across all the sectors.
Efforts have been made to tackle the deliberate and systemic fraud that permeates banking. But a lot of the dirt is actually hidden under the carpet. From rogue share-holders, fraudulent managers to debtors who all collaborate to play the system, the Nigerian banking industry is an ephemeral castle erected on the quicksand of anything goes. At the moment, a lot of the so-called majority shareholders, owners and their proxies, professional debtors (who borrow with a mind-set of never paying back), round-tripping experts and managers are robbing shareholders and customers, declaring obscene profits,even when the nation’s productive economy is on its knees. Those who should know are in the know – it is all a lie. Those who know will tell you it just does not add up.
The system is lax. Anything goes. The oil industry is in the hands of international oil companies who declare to us what they want. Everyone who matters is on their payroll, the Americans tell us. They pass crumbs to the nation and scavengers who hover around, from time to time. When it comes to the downstream sector, the private sector, pretending to be active, colludes with the regulator to rig the system. Making fraudulent subsidy claims, over-invoicing, round-tripping forex, and deliberately owing banks are some of the ingredients they have mixed up to conjure profits for themselves. No one cares to put them in check. Where are the ‘subsidy-thieves’ of yesterday? Soon, they will remind us how the removal of the so-claimed subsidy is the ‘SURE-P’ to all the problems.
The evidence of a rabid, primitive form of crass capitalism is all upon us. It is unregulated. It is wicked. It does not give a damn. On account of this, the Nigerian consumer is short-changed every corner he turns. From the fuel-dispensing station, where he gets less than he is made to pay for; the telecommunications companies who charge him for services not rendered; power holding company that has arbitrarily fixed tariffs, refused to make available pre-paid meters to him, forcing him to pay outrageous bills every month; the Federal Road Safety Corps which has forced new number plates and driver’s licence on him; the Lagos Motor Vehicle Administration which compels him to pay N200 every year for SMS to remind him to renew his vehicle licence, it is a system calculated to rob the Nigerian of what belongs to him. The bank dips its filthy fingers into its customer’s account and takes for itself what it likes in the name of sundry charges.The Nigerian pays school fees, health bills, insurance charges, house rent, air fares difficult to justify by reason or quality of services rendered. The Nigerian is slapped at the airport, treated shabbily by airlines, and preyed upon by the embassies, who have taken a cue from the way the homeland treats her citizens.
Public governance is at an all-time low. Corporate governance is one big fat lie. Sadly, the effects of the abdication of duties by those elected to govern and administrators in the public sector are even more evident in the laxity that characterises the private sector and the impunity with which most of the players carry on. The so-called organised private sector is only another side of this poorly-mint coin. Whichever way he turns today, the Nigerian is simply on his own.
Simbo Olorunfemi is a Poet and Communications Consultant.