By Tabia Princewill
THE Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria, AMCON’s frequent pronouncements about debtors rarely seem to strike a chord with the public; many people do not seem to understand the effect of unpaid loans on the economy, its stability or even the consequences for their own jobs if and when companies destroyed and mismanaged by the same repeat offenders, shut down.
These people, members of the business elite who are hailed as geniuses and never fail to give keynote speeches at conferences, or pretend to have achieved success through their brilliance, rather than their sophisticated ability to cheat the system and get away with it, continuously take out loans they don’t reply because, as the AMCON head of corporate affairs, Jude Nwauzor said, “it is not that they don’t have the wherewithal to pay, but they just don’t want to pay because, for them, it is national cake”.
Social class, status and connections
Some people truly believe they are more entitled than the rest of us to Nigeria’s resources, simply by virtue of their social class, status and connections. Nigerians don’t always realise that when these serial debtors default on their loans it is people’s taxes government uses to plug the holes.
These elite individuals who take advantage of the loopholes and impunity in our system must be challenged once and for all.
Moreover, banks must be forced to implement stricter controls; after all, how is it that the same 20 or so names keep resurfacing on debtors lists? The anti-corruption fight, the idea of what constitutes corruption, has focused mostly on government officials’ illegal access to public resources, or on bribery and other such issues and there are few if any real public discussions on financial policy matters.
However, “corruption” covers a wide spectrum of issues and the so-called businessmen and women looting our economy, making sure they make an only profit, pay next to nothing in taxes and leave the rest of us to pay for their recklessness, must not be ignored. Consumer watchdog agencies are weak in Nigeria, their presence barely felt in a country where the needs of small businesses and workers consistently come a distant second, where economic growth benefits only a few at the expense of the many.
Looting in the financial sector is quasi-accepted: when companies go bankrupt, what benefits do workers receive? Chronic debtors are free to repeat the same crimes, moving from one company or firm to another.
The N5 trillion debt AMCON seeks to recover is about two times more than the loans the Federal Government will take out to help fund the 2019 budget. Yet, the serial debtors, the same group of people, take out loans from several banks at a time and despite their known non-performing loans with one institution, are allowed to take out more loans from yet more banks.
Where is the legislation to stop this? How is it that these people, hailed as captains of industry, are able to get away with what can only be described as pillaging our economy? When the media rails against Nigeria being the “poverty capital of the world” it must tie these statistics with the failures of the private sector; that is, the very intentional crimes and injustices at the heart of our economic system.
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The funds meant for development are trapped, stuck in the hands of a few unproductive elements who cheat Nigerians. Nigeria borrows money to fund its budgets: how much are the health and education budgets combined compared to the N5 trillion AMCON is owed?
We fail to realise what N5 trillion could do for our infrastructure; we need to think of the morality behind borrowing money to fund a budget, indebting ourselves, while a few people are allowed access to what they see as “free money” at our expense.
To quote Mr Jude Nwauzor, the head of Corporate Affairs, AMCON: “We can only imagine what N5 trillion can do to a country where the government is borrowing to fund the budget…There are individuals in this country who hold on to this money but this is taxpayers’ money. Some workers have died because of these people. Some institutions have been crippled because of them. The economy is also suffering because of them.”
Mr. Nwauzor said AMCON has been in court with some debtors since 2010. To right these wrongs, the judiciary and the legislature should work in tandem with the executive to bring those culpable of economic sabotage to book. One of the central problems in Nigeria, from which virtually every conflict in our society stems, is the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities based on class lines.
Ethnicity is only a front for the real issue in our country: a small number of people take more than their fair share, destabilise this country and hold us to ransom. They hide behind religion and ethnicity, attempting to divide Nigerians who must begin to see that beyond our differences the shoe pinches in the North the same way it does in the South. Poverty is not restricted to a particular tribe or religion.
Public policy, the rule of law, must be allowed to work for the average Nigerian rather than the special interests they continuously protect and absolve. President Buhari must defend the “national cake” from those who believe it is theirs to be shared.
THE President said the Federal Government can’t be blamed for the preponderance of the Almajiri system of education as “the responsibility is that of state governments”.
He said: “People are deliberately criticising the government – when I say the government, of course, I mean the Federal Government, for the Almajiris. But that is the responsibility of the state governments, which means the state governments are not doing their job.” He is correct in more ways than one.
State governments are supposed to take the lead on healthcare and education; the Federal Government matches the funds the states make available for primary healthcare, for example. Nigeria is a federation; state governments have budgets and they must be held accountable. Unfortunately, many citizens do not possess the tools or knowledge relating to the mechanisms necessary to interrogate government spending.
An agency like National Orientation, for example, should educate citizens on government responsibilities and empower them to check on their local government’s activities.
THE Vice-President recently announced a new task force to address the debts AMCON is owed. The task forces comprises heads of AMCON, EFCC, NFIU, ICPC and the Ministry of Justice, who will work together to create and implement new strategies that will deliver results, thus enabling rapid debt recovery.
Professor Osinbajo said: “The key is collaboration. We need a small team comprising these agencies to look at the next steps that we need to take, especially the criminal aspect, forfeiture, and all of that”.
It should be a relief to Nigerians that the “criminal aspect” is finally government’s focus. After all, there must be a strong deterrent given that many debtors are, in fact, repeat offenders who are known to government and the banks and shareholders they keep defrauding through their actions. The irony of the debtors lists which have been in circulation since 2010 is that many of the men and women listed are known for conspicuous consumption, they are hardly low-profile individuals.
It would seem the money they borrow is primarily used to fund their lifestyle rather than invest in any business. Muiz Banire, the AMCON chairman, said “about 67 per cent of the outstanding debts are owed by 20 individuals and entities”. What a country! How can 20 people or corporate entities be allowed to hold 190 million people to ransom?
Government must prioritise prosecution, not just recovery of assets to ensure we don’t find ourselves in this same situation again, in another few years, as has always been the case in Nigeria. There is a banking crisis every decade or so and the perpetrators walk free. When does it end?
Tabia Princewill is a strategic communications consultant and public policy analyst. She is also the co-host and executive producer of a talk show, WALK THE TALK which airs on Channels TV.