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Ringing the bell on Wall Street

It had been much cause for concern, during the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo administration, that the president had spent a  good deal of his first term in office junketing round the world.

There was the disdain for the vast sums of money, real and imagined, expended on such trips. There was the worry that home affairs were suffering from lack of the president’s attention, and then there was the suspicion that not much was being achieved by the trips being made in any case.

Perception, they say, is everything, and the President Goodluck Jonathan propaganda machine has succeeded, in an abysmal level of public relations practice, at making the presidency and  the President look far worse than  they might otherwise have looked, had he merely just been going about his normal day to day business.

The perception of Mr.  President by Nigerians is of a simple gentleman who had no idea he was ever going to smell power.

 

President Goodluck Jonathan at famous Wall Street on Monday, September 23, 2013, closing the bell of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE)
President Goodluck Jonathan at famous Wall Street on Monday, September 23, 2013, closing the bell of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE)

Though this perception is logically off the mark, it would seem  the President and his image makers have all but reinforced it since he was wangled into the PDP presidential primaries  in the first instance. Nigerians, it appears, are united in this perception, regardless of whether they are from the South-South or not. Still, one wonders whose idea it was to embark on the particular folly of the recent Wall Street runs.

The whole New York trip was not supposed to be as irredeemably offensive as the China trip before it. The China trip had been different, perceived to be the circus reaction to the exclusion of Nigeria from the  visit of Barack Obama to the African continent  earlier in the year, which the Nigerian government had taken as an insult.

The United Nations General Assembly  is the Foreign Policy Mecca of the free world.  The rumour of the 600-man delegate could have been overlooked.

But making a jamboree of ringing the closing bell on Wall Street and pretending it’s a historical event is just plain tacky. An event can only be said to be  historical if it has historical significance and this just didn’t.

Redemption was to  come from the least expected quarters. It was inadvertently, that the issue of  the Sovereign Wealth Fund came up on the Wall Street walk, providing a significance, a backdrop,  and hopefully the public debate-  that a subject of such permanence and controversy ought to have had since Obasanjo’s   Excess Crude Account  had been rested  in 2011.

Wall Street was to become symbolic of everything that was negative about  new world capitalism. Predictions had been made of a meltdown,  but little attention had been paid until the worst had happened. Walking down iconic Wall Street ought to have been a rude awakening to a government and a people who perpetually fail to see the writing on the wall of their economy.

In economic terms, Nigeria has been in the unique position of being neither a rich nor a poor country. Our definite richness in both human and physical resources has had us permanently suspended in the ashen purgatory of being a country of great “potential”.

The general response to this is the pervasive resort to the nostalgia of the groundnut pyramids and the cocoa board. Reference is often made to Malaysia, who was said to have got their first palm seedling from Nigeria in the ’60s. Further than that, it has become the norm to compare and contrast  rather than seeking to draw parallels with modern economic realities of other nations around us.

Issues arising out of the creation and running of a Sovereign Wealth Fund are not issues of politics, though indeed some non-PDP governors have resisted the effort for pure political reasons. Neither are they issues of philosophy, as the idea of such a fund is generally acclaimed to be reasonable. Norway, which boasts the best  sovereign wealth fund in the world, has her so called Government Pension Fund Norway, GPFN, which holds about one percent of global equities and remains the largest stockowner in Europe, with about 1.78 percent of its markets.

Signed into law in May 2011 by President Jonathan, the trouble with the Nigerian fund is the same trouble that has bedevilled everything we, as well as virtually every country in sub-Saharan Africa, do. Angola, one of the oldest new kids on the oil block, also runs a sovereign wealth fund.

Sitting on the three-man board of the Angolan Sovereign Fund, FSA, is the son of the president, Jose Filomeno dos Santos. And though a statement released by the fund board said its first investments will be in projects to develop agriculture, water, power generation and transport, with an early focus on the hotel industry in sub-Saharan Africa, there is a lot of suspicion regarding the transparency of the processes.

Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola, speaking against the replacement of the Excess Crude Account by the Federal Government, said last year at an investment conference that the move had a trust and constitutional challenge, his concerns mainly about how efficiently the Federal Government has traditionally managed the funds that the federation has put in its trust.

Federalism issues also arose, as Fashola further questions the Federal Government’s ability to be better savers or better investors than the states.

Issues of trust and issues of the economy go hand in hand and were, in fact, behind the global stock market crash of 2008.

And despite the law, there are questions about whether the saving will be done within an expectable framework of our knotty Constitution. By the way, it is time to ring the bell on the Communications machinery of Aso Rock.  This debate should continue well beyond Wall Street.


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