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Robber barons: Nigeria’s economic and political scourge

By Tabia Princewill
The term “robber barons”  was first used in the United States to describe 19th and early 20th century moguls who bought out their competition, created monopolies, rigged markets and aided government corruption in pursuit of money and power.

These “spoilers”, as they were called, stopped the growth of legitimate businesses and stifled opportunity for others, much like in Nigeria today. There are very few new entrants in cement production in Nigeria who can survive without the input of certain conglomerates who have established a virtual monopoly in our market.

In the telecommunications industry, it is rumoured certain corporations were established with funds belonging to former heads of state and vice-presidents. In oil and gas, one could count on the fingers of one hand the number of companies that could exist without the connivance of high-ranking government officials who allow and empower companies to brazenly defy our laws, thus negatively shaping our business culture and society.

In Nigeria we call such people “captains of industry”, even though in the US, for example, they would be facing legal action or sanctions from financial regulators. In the Halliburton case, it was interesting to see that the US and France were ready to punish their nationals who were involved in the scandal, whereas successive Nigerian governments swept the whole affair under the carpet, until now.

Financial crimes

Historically, those guilty of financial crimes in breach of antitrust laws and who regularly put investors’ money at risk, would be termed “robber barons” after the European medieval nobility who had no desire to allow other social classes rise, much like today’s barons who refuse competition. In Nigeria, we are yet to have any real conversations on opportunity, competition and level playing fields, equality or the role of private enterprise and government regulation in our society.

Nigerian public life mirrors what obtained in the West in the 18th century where belief in a divinely ordained social order meant that even in America, which was experimenting with the concept of liberty, citizenship was still determined by an individual’s ability to own property.

The old “culture of deference” in the US still exists in Nigeria today whereby it is believed that only “leading families” should be allowed to direct the economy and individuals are selected to form partnerships with government not based on merit but on their connections.

Where Nigeria differs is in our definition of pedigree or who qualifies as a “leading family”. In the past, patrician families in the West were defined by history and significant contributions to their country as some families could trace their ascendants’ contribution to founding events in their nation.

In Nigeria, only money (no matter how it is acquired) qualifies one as elite, rather than “breeding” or good manners, values and a shared culture based on refined skills or abilities. Nigeria catalogs brash and uncouth money sharing arrangements with no place for the arts and culture which defined “leading families” in the US: it’s an all comers game in our society, which wouldn’t be a problem if entrants could manifest any sort of ability beyond lining their pockets with other people’s money.

Government involvement in the Nigerian economy has only served to grant privileges to certain interests unlike in the US where regulators quickly rose to the challenge of preventing the birth of an artificial aristocracy born from government contacts.

Their “captains of industry” are also radically different from ours. Because there is little to no real competition in most of our industries, many businesses connive and align their prices to the Nigerian consumer’s detriment. Our businessmen control their costs to the point of providing us with substandard services yet we still end up paying more for vastly inefficient amenities.

Inefficient amenities

Real captains of industries make steel, oil, manufacturing (from cars to food and other products) inexpensive and easily available by striving to provide the best possible prices, therefore building up the economy and the middle class it should rely upon. Our regulators, foremost of which is the central bank, have failed in their task of enabling the average Nigerian afford even basic goods which in other countries are not seen as luxuries.

So, when the World Bank rewards Arunma Oteh or Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and others, with promotions and opportunities, one wonders if they are aware of not only the scandals, questions and raised eyebrows which typically surround Nigerian financial authorities, but also the pervasive lack of real development for the average Nigerian, or the lack of safety for their investments, under these ladies’ watch. In Ms. Oteh’s case, one remembers how accusations of personal abuses (misspent funds, etc.) between herself and the House Committee chairman on capital markets, Herman Hembe, overshadowed the market abuses they were meant to uncover and resolve. In truth, global institutions such as the World Bank must have a very low opinion of countries such as Nigeria and their ego-driven would-be professionals, who have done nothing but enshrine the “robber baron” system.

International opinion of us, these institutions’ desire to see us succeed is doubly low as they comfort the same people responsible for the imbalance in our public life, in the belief that what they do is right. I was never a believer in conspiracy theories, but a developed, prosperous Africa which is in the hands of well-meaning, competent Africans and not controlled by the IMF (and other such institutions) and its corruption-tainted proxies, is not in our politicians’ or their appointees interest, nor is it in the interest of the institutions previously mentioned.

There was a rumour circulating that certain “captains of industry” (or shall we say “robber barons”?) were not welcome among President Muhammadu Buhari’s entourage. If true, it is a step in the right direction.

Why should we continue to celebrate “spoilers”, people who amass wealth they haven’t honestly worked for, the same vampiric associates of government officials who, in private, Nigerians blame for many of their misfortunes in business? “Baba-go-slow”, please do take your time so that you can leave no stone unturned. Nigerians deserve much more than what the system has offered them since independence.

Fighting corruption without sentiment

The rumour mill is awash with claims of a strange illness, which keeps the former petroleum minister abroad, seeking treatment. When one thinks of the many lives government officials have failed, resulting in their deaths in poorly equipped hospitals, bad roads, etc. or their inability to rise out of poverty, despite our country’s oil wealth, one can understand people’s anger and perceived insensitivity to her ailment.

Illness does not stop anyone from indefinitely answering for his or her crimes. Corruption is the Western equivalent of a war crime and should be treated just as severely. Corruption kills Nigerians: those defending the guilty based on ethnic sentiments must realise their own personal problems and poverty (which invariably they always have as the officials they loudly defend do little or nothing for them) are as a result of public wealth serving only a few. Hitler too had a fan base: evil thrives when the rest of us do nothing. Finally, we’re about to see something different in Nigeria.

Toyin Saraki

I once watched MrsS araki, wife of the Senate president give a talk where she extolled the difficulties of being from a notable family and the high expectations that come from being rich in Nigeria.

I remember thinking “only the rich in Nigeria could make being rich seem like a burden”. Nigerians always get the short end of the stick in a system favourable to robber barons: our dreams, rights and aspirations don’t matter. Her equivalent in other climes has never seen the inside of an interrogation room, let alone be investigated in the first place. What I found most disturbing, from someone of Mrs. Saraki’s calibre was the entourage of legislators that accompanied her to the EFCC offices.

Those meant to defend Nigerians from corruption, leave their lofty duties to act as private security for the powerful, forgetting they can no longer act as private citizens supporting a friend, accused of corruption in the first place! Only in Nigeria.


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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.