The World Bank Group has only just released its "2016 Annual Ease of Doing Business Measurement report". Even though Nigeria moved from its 2015 ranking of 170 to 169 in 2016, the country lagged behind other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including our immediate neighbor, Benin Republic. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that Nigeria seems to have taken a permanent position at the bottom of the ladder, when it comes to global rankings on the ease of doing business. We do not need to dig deep to understand why we are where we are. The perennial poor showing by Nigeria largely revolves around the poor quality of our public institutions.
Getting anything done with our public institutions – Ministries, Departments and Agencies is not what anyone would wish himself, on a good day. Most of the time, it is a tale of tears and frustration engaging with these institutions and their officials who mask a poor understanding of their role as servants of the public with unapologetic aggression that can only be peculiarly Nigerian. The public service has mastered the art of making the simple very difficult and the ordinary, extraordinary, so that the citizen can be conned and taken advantage of.
Every corner you turn, it is the same story. The institutions of government are simply not working. Sadly, but more importantly, those who work there seem to relish in the fact of this failure. They do not care. They revel in the fact and take advantage of the failure to ensure that the institutions neither work nor serve the people for whom they were set up for. How would Nigeria not sit at the bottom when her institutions are inherently positioned not to serve, but make life difficult for the people? Services that are taken for granted by citizens of other countries are not obtainable here, without plenty of tears and fight.
You cannot obtain an international passport without going through hell. How do you even set up a business or run one with all the bottlenecks and hurdles placed on the path of the entrepreneur, here? Reports from the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) on the difficulty with conducting something as simple as ‘name search’ tells us all is not well. Why does registration of companies even have to be such a herculean task? Why does one have to be a lawyer and/or an accredited agent to conduct a search on a registered company? Why can’t an online platform be enabled through which anyone can conduct a search after a simple registration process? Banks continue to charge customers as much as N5,000 to conduct a search on companies seeking to open account. How business-friendly is there? Why can’t a search be conducted with one click of the button? Why do businesses valued at less than Ten million Naira, have to register, employ auditors and file annual returns? No wonder most of the companies on the CAC platform have no records with FIRS.
How easy is it for one to register a trademark or patent in Nigeria? A services platform was set up by the Federal Government, not too long ago. It is a month since we engaged with them to register a trademark. No response has come, beyond the initial acknowledgement of receipt of application. How does anyone do business in an environment where the rule of law is away on vacation? To get justice in the court requires a lot of prayer and fasting– a case we instituted in court against a bank since 2012 is yet to commence hearing, even with the front-loading system in Lagos.
The small man decides to leave street trading in Lagos, to start a small business with funds raised from personal savings, friends and the ‘Esusu’ support system. Even before he settles in, government shows up - with bills for trade permit, shop permit, radio-TV license, etc. He puts up a signage to announce the presence of his shop to prospective customers, LASAA shows up asking for payment, even when the law by which it operates states that first-party signs, of a specific size, are deemed to have been registered, even without payment. We take the agency and its management up, they cannot see beyond a misguided mandate to generate funds. They cannot see how they are killing businesses and stifling growth in the informal sector.
Lately, we have been engaged with the National Library of Nigeria. Whoever saddled that moribund institution with the task of ISBN administration does not wish the troubled business of publishing well. The National Library prides itself as an institution stuck in the analogue era and cannot make its way out. Only a few years back, it was still employing the typewriter to print assigned numbers. The last time, we received ISBN they were hand-written on a piece of paper. Things have simply gone from bad to worse - to get assigned numbers now is like trying to force your head through the eye of a needle. You would think by now we should be able to have an online platform to process applications, not so for the National Library.
To get assigned more than 10 ISBNs, you have to apply to the National Office in Abuja, irrespective of where you reside in the country. They expect 3 copies of each of the past publication before you can receive new numbers. What happens to e-books? They have no answer. They expect you to furnish them with manuscripts for 10 books before you get assigned numbers for them. We have to wait for 10th title to be with us before we release the first? To be assigned ISBN in Lagos it will take at least a week! If you are in doubt about the collapse of our governmental institutions, simply visit the National Library. You might not be too wrong to mistake its Lagos office for a morgue. It is that bad.
Finding an explanation for the malaise that has eaten deep into the marrow of our public institutions will require some effort. But there is one attempt which I find intriguing – it is that by Professor Agbakoba, the Philosopher. He argues that the idea of public service is, in fact, alien to our culture. It was brought to us by aliens, he says. Public service, to us, was ‘white-man’s work’ – ‘ise ijoba’ in Yoruba. Same way it was perceived and so-labeled by the other ethnic groups during the days of the colonialists- there was some form of identity but without a sense of commitment. The ‘iche-oku’ – interpreters and court clerks were neither for us nor for them. They spoke to the gulf between the government and the governed that has never been bridged. That faulty foundation gave birth, even then, not only to corruption but it has birthed a culture of detachment and aloofness from the responsibility and essence of public service by the public servants. That has transformed, with time, into full-blown lethargy, inefficiency, corruption and the anti-people posture that have made our public institutions ineffectual today.
Until a radical dismantling of the public service structure is done, which will force a value re-orientation upon our public servants, the ‘Ise-ijoba’ syndrome that has become ingrained in their DNA will continue to hold the nation back, render null all efforts being made to engineer change in the country and keep Nigeria permanently stuck at the bottom of the list, in any assessment on the ease of doing business or the quality of life of the people.
Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy