By Morenike Taire
At the very height of globalization, Nigeria adopted the mantra: government has no business doing business. Having convinced citizens of this baseless philosophy and while we were drunk in the euphoria of new civilian rule, the Obasanjo administration proceeded to dispose of some of the state’s businesses, many of which owned some of the state’s most valuable movable and unmovable assets. Massive real estate assets in the highbrow neighbourhoods of Ikoyi and Victoria Island were divested and essentially round-tripped with the promise of enhanced efficiency in the different spheres.
Obasanjo was famous for his privatization efforts because like most things he did, it was fraught with controversy and shenanigans, but his administration was more open than others on this matter. The process has been ongoing, with virtually every administration trading one of the nation’s asset or the other in the name of efficiency. In the past 30 years or so over 140 publicly-owned companies have been privatized in actual fact.
Two decades down the line, the grounds of NIPOST headquarters in Marina for example is littered with serviceable vehicles left to rot from the virus of maladministration over years. Many states have been deprived of their only national presence over the years, further alienating them and threatening the unity of Nigeria. Most importantly, the very services that were supposed to be enhanced by privatization have become so expensive and so unsustainable that one wonders.
Perhaps globalization was a scam in the first place. With the world’s most developed economies now unveiling their nationalistic agendas, one wonders if the gospel of globalization that had so recently been sacrosanct had really not just been a ploy to get the frontier markets such as Nigeria to open up.
Once Nigeria opened up, there has been no going back, and her people have been at the receiving end of these so called modern ideas through which the commonwealth has in many cases, found its way into a relatively few privileged pockets.
Commenting publicly in recent times, former Minister of Planning and Finance and former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji criticized the privatization of 6 major government parastatals including NEPA, NITEL and Nigeria Airways, a move which he claimed he had openly opposed. Also complaining is the presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, who has referred to the Buhari administration as “irresponsible” for disposing of national assets in the name of privatization ahead of the 2019 polls.
Commentators have identified his position as a case of pot calling the kettle black given that perhaps the most disastrous privatization effort in recent times was concluded during the Jonathan administration. On September 30, 2013, following the privatization process initiated by the administration, PHCN ceased to exist. It was the shoddy conclusion of the unbundling of its precursor, NEPA, by the Abdusalami administration.
No one knows why our leaders are so obsessed with the idea of selling off national assets. Actually one of the most experienced public servants still in service today, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo who is the current Chairman of the National Council on Privatisation (NCP) is very much qualified to be in that position since he appears to understand the nuances of the implications of divestiture efforts. Yet at the recent signing off of 21% of the stakes of the Nigeria Security Printing and Minting Company to the CBN, he displayed the same vagueness and opacity that has plagued virtually every major privatization effort at that level.
Interestingly, no administration has thought to privatize the rejuvenation and running of our moribund refineries. Who knows what would have come of it. Rather, the fuel supply system was privatized, making a few multi-billionaires and creating a cesspit of confusion that was to become the subsidy regime.
If there is any aspect of governance that we ought to be extremely careful about, it is that of privatization and the formation of public private partnerships, PPPs, whether at State, Federal or Local Government levels.
One of the primary initial objectives of the bureau for public enterprises, BPE, is to close up the gap between the rich and the poor by making sure that the traditionally undeserved are protected. It bears stressing that this has not been the case. If the traditional incompetence of the public sector has been foisted on the private sector through poorly executed and ineffectual privatization systems, the traditional corruption of the private sector has equally been foisted on the public sector through public private partnerships.
At the end of the day, instruments born out of such relationships cannot be better in character than the character of those who midwife the instrumentation. Osinbajo and the rest of them are right when they say government ought to take a more regulatory role in the running of things, but very solid and well thought out legislature ought to guide the setting up and running of these regulatory bodies, ensuring full transparency and keeping them open to interrogation by any member of the Nigerian public.