Archive for December 2008

Year of a peculiar mess

December 29, 2008

 By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 28 Dec 2008

MY cousin, Sunday, returned from Germany last week. It was not until Friday that he was able to travel to the village. The delay was because he could not easily get some papers required for him to use his new car, which has a tinted glass. He has also completed his new building in Lagos. To him, 2008 is a year of abundant blessings; a year to show that Obi is no longer a boy.

The end of every year is usually a time for stock taking. It is the period when my people down the River Niger troop home en masse to showcase their achievements for the year. It is also a period when those who have failed to achieve their targets construct new guiding slogans such as ”2009 is my year of abundant blessings; poverty is not my portion this year; this is my year of breakthrough and prosperity” and so on. There will be plenty of prayer sessions to cast out the miserable outgoing year and usher in the New Year.

For us a nation, it is also a time to look back and assess how far we have fared in some of the indices of development. The best way to do this is to give practical examples.

First, the economy. Dunlop Nigeria Plc, for instance, made a N2bn operating loss in the outgoing year. The company is even lucky that it is still standing. Other tyre manufacturers had since closed shop.

We have heard of some macro economic gains the country has made, the fat external reserves and all that. We also know that the nation reaped bountifully from oil prices that skyrocketed mid year. Today, oil prices have plummeted. The only oil whose prices may not fall as such is olive oil. The demand is high because Nigerians use it to cast out demons presumably clogging their wheel of progress. Even the capital market that had a capitalisation of about N12tn earlier in the year has lost almost half of that figure.

With companies making losses than profits, unemployment has remained high. It was reported last week that the Nigerian Customs Service had just started a recruitment exercise for new officers. It is to fill about 5,000 positions. But 700,000 persons applied for those positions! Recall that earlier in the year, the Nigerian Immigration Service did its recruitment. Scores of youths died while struggling to be part of the chosen ones. Even the Nigerian Police Force recruited. But applicants paid N2,000 each for a scratch card in order to apply online. The Police reportedly raked in N2bn from the exercise.

I have not seen how this money improved the lot of the police. Neither have I noticed any remarkable improvement in the area of security in the country. Daily, armed robbers terrorise innocent and hapless citizens, financial institutions and other business concerns. The situation is such that the police hierarchy, earlier in the year, reportedly endorsed the activities of a hunter called Ali Kwara to flush out robbers in such northern states as Bauchi, Katsina, and Kebbi.

How I wish a revolutionary in the mould of Ali Kwara will emerge to tackle the infrastructural decay in the country. Some Nigerians joined the former Minister of Transport, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, to weep for the state of our roads, especially the Sagamu-Ore-Benin Road. We thought our collective tears would change the poor condition of the roads as Alison-Madueke promised. Alas, nothing much has changed. Accidents and robbery incidents continue to take the precious lives of Nigerians on the bad portions of such roads.

It is not as if there was no budget for capital expenditure in 2008. In fact, the FG, according to media reports, still has at least N700bn as the unspent portion of the proposed N796.7bn for capital expenditure in the Appropriation Act. Perhaps, some civil servants somewhere are waiting for the year to end to corner the money as Christmas bonus.

That will not be a surprise because that was the major achievement of the Ministry of Health this year. Remember that the former Minister of Health, Prof. Adenike Grange, and the Minister of State for Health, Gabriel Aduku, resigned earlier in the year on account of allegations bordering on the sharing of N300m unspent budget of the ministry. To compound the teething problems of our health care system, My Pikin teething syrup sent many babies to their untimely deaths. President Umaru Yar‘Adua, who is in a position to change the situation, was himself incapacitated as he spent some weeks in a Saudi Arabian hospital to treat an undisclosed ailment.

Some other ailments almost crippled our education sector. The best way to bring the picture home is in the mass failure of students in this year‘s West African Secondary School Certificate Examination. Only 13 per cent passed the exam.

For our higher institutions, the statement credited to Yar‘Adua at the 36th convocation ceremony of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, last weekend, says it all. A permanent secretary, Dr. Goke Adegoroye, who read the speech on behalf of the President, alleged that some lecturers were in the habit of collecting money (between N250,000 and N500,000) from students to give them unmerited grades and even engage in illicit affairs with some female students. Though the Presidency has disowned Adegoroye, the allegations are not new.

Corruption is not only found in the universities, it permeates all the facets of the society. But the tragedy in our nation is not about corruption, but about our unwillingness to fight it. The bribery allegations against Siemens, for instance, were reported in the United States, Germany, Nigeria and many other countries. While the US and German governments fined the company, Nigeria was reported to have awarded more contracts to it. Even when the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission instituted a probe into the scandal, the report of the investigation appears to be in limbo.

To complete the beatification of corruption in our land, the man generally seen as the anti-corruption czar, Nuhu Ribadu, was, on December 23, sacked from the Police. He had earlier been demoted from an Assistant Inspector-General to a Deputy Commissioner of Police.

In sports, in agriculture and in many other aspects of our national life, we have failed woefully. The more I reflect on the year 2008, the more I get angry. Hopefully, Yar‘Adua has promised some goodies in the coming year. Whether these promised goodies will come to fruition is another topic for another day.

My prayer is that my cousin Sunday will come back in December 2009 to meet many of his relations driving cars with tinted glasses. Until then, happy New Year!

Banks must save our money from termites

December 23, 2008

Casmir Igbokwe

 

Akubuzo is a character in an Igbo novel I read in my primary school days. The name means wealth comes first. And the man is very rich. But in spite of his resources, he is stingy not just to other people, but also to himself. In other words, he starves himself of many good things of life. His account officer is himself; and his bank, an underground safe. One day, he opens his vault to savour the enormity of his wealth. To his greatest chagrin, he discovers that termites have eaten up his money.

 

Today, putting money in an underground safe belongs to the Stone Age. Nigerians have come to appreciate the importance of banks in a nation’s economy. The Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Prof. Chukwuma Soludo, amplified this view last week when he said that we could not have an economy without the banking sector. Nigerian banks, he noted, were our ambassadors in today’s global economy. If anything happens to them, the entire economy suffers.

 

This is why one gets worried whenever there is any negative signal emanating from our banks. In the last two weeks or so, there seems to be a resurgence of the unhealthy rivalry plaguing the industry. When I first saw a text message indicating that some banks would soon be distressed, I dismissed it with a wave of the hand. But the text messengers are not relenting. And there are different versions of the messages as there are different banks in the country.

 

In a front page report on Saturday, December 6, 2008, The Guardian adds, “Two versions of the messages made the rounds in the industry, with one of them listing as many as 12 banks, including three top players, as among those allegedly hit by liquidity crisis. The message also indicated that six more banks were joining the fold to swell the rank of distressed institutions in the industry, bringing the total to 18 out of 24 in the system.”

 

This is not the first time banks would loan out rumours to their customers. Prior to the consolidation of 2004, this ugly trend was prevalent. Hapless customers did not know what to believe until some of the weak banks actually collapsed. A retiree, who was a victim of the distress, called me recently to find out why the CBN had not paid back their deposits trapped in African International Bank. The old man apparently believed that as a journalist, I should be able to provide him the information. Hence, I assumed the role of the CBN Governor and appealed to him to exercise patience. Perhaps, I told him, he would receive his money as soon as a strong bank completed the process of acquiring the AIB.

 

Between September and October this year, similar rumours of distress among banks were rife. Some unknown individuals circulated text messages indicating that five banks selected as market makers to stop the bearish run in the stock market, have liquidity problems. Some reports blamed the situation then on desperate banks that were jealous of the successes of their bigger competitors. The CBN and the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria quickly stepped in to stop the ugly trend.

 

The question is: why will such a revered industry as banking engage in such an unhealthy competition? I believe it is because of the inordinate quest of many of them to be among the top 10. On many occasions, we have heard different banks claiming to be the number one bank in Nigeria. Some say they are bank of the year. Some claim to be the most capitalised. Others say they are the most profitable. And they parade all manner of funny awards to authenticate their claim. While the top five are playing against themselves, the rest of the banks are playing against them.

 

There are yet some others who will not want to be at the bottom. Hence, they engage in all sorts of fair or foul tactics to remain afloat. This is why most of them convert almost all their members of staff to marketers. They woo big clients and are ready (especially ladies) to do anything within their feminine powers to get the customers’ money.    

 

I’m sure our bankers realise that rumours of distress can be very damaging to their business. The often-cited example now is United Kingdom’s Northern Rock. The bank was as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar until sometime last year when stakeholders heard that the bank was having problems. Confidence waned and depositors rushed to withdraw their money. The bank has not recovered from that.

 

No doubt, confidence is very essential in the banking industry. As Soludo put it, “We create confidence with our mouth. We also destroy confidence with our mouth.” Our bankers should understand that competition is a fact of life. It is a fact of business. For instance, UAC hitherto dominated the sausage roll market. Today, Leventis and some others have come in to engage the company in a positive bullfight.

 

It is unfortunate that while the apex bank in the country continues to reassure the citizens that the global financial crisis will not significantly affect our banks, major operators engage in practices that may pull the industry down. Being expert rumourmongers and text message composers suggest that some of them don’t know what to do with their time. Since they pretend not to know that beating competition requires carving out a niche in the market, I wish to suggest some of the things they can do to win more customers.

 

One, all banks should consider reducing their lending rates. The Central Bank of Nigeria had, in August, reviewed downwards the Monetary Policy Rate from 10.25 per cent to 9.75 per cent. Despite this, bank customers still complain of high rate of lending. I understand the rate hovers between 19 and 21 per cent.

 

Two, it will be wonderful if our banks could reduce or even abolish a number of high charges on some transactions. Those who have current accounts will tell you that such charges range from COT, VAT on COT, and some other charges some customers have termed hidden.

 

In all, the CBN and the CIBN should call rumourmongers, SMS experts and other termites in the banks to order. Otherwise, we may wake up one day to discover, like Akubuzo, that our precious deposits are gone.        

 

We must not allow that to happen!

 

 

  

Now that Supreme Court has empowered Yar’Adua

December 15, 2008

By Casmir Igbokwe
Published: Sunday, 14 Dec 2008
Senator Ben Obi‘s grey-moustached face contrasted sharply with the smooth and chubby face of Adetokunbo Kayode (SAN). Mike Aondoakaa‘s, though also smooth, radiated sternness as if to say, ”I‘m ready for anything today.” The Vice-Presidential candidate of the Action Congress, the Tourism Minister and the Attorney-General of the Federation respectively listened with rapt attention last Friday as the Supreme Court justices read their judgement on the 2007 presidential election. There are lessons to draw from these three faces, as we shall see later here.

Of course you are already aware that President Umaru Yar‘Adua won the court case. Justice Niki Tobi, who read the lead judgement, said the victory did not mean that all was well with the presidential election. According to him, there was no evidence before the court to dislodge section 146(1) of the Electoral Act.

He adds, ”The way politics is played in this country frightens me every dawning day. It is a fight to finish affair. Nobody accepts defeat at the polls. The judges must be the final bus stop.”

Here lies the crux of the matter. In Nigeria, no politician easily accepts defeat. They employ all sorts of coercive machinery to win. When they fail, they resort to the law courts. And they will not probably rest until the final arbitration of the case by the highest court of the land.

Since this problem has become part of our political culture, it is disturbing that we have allowed it to persist. Section 148 of the Electoral Act of 2006 stipulates that electoral petitions must be given accelerated hearing. Since there is no specific timeframe, the courts are wont to interpret the clause as it suits them. This is unlike what obtains in countries like Namibia and Lesotho, where the courts are expected to dispense with election cases within 60 and 30 days respectively.

This loophole in our Electoral Act gives room for unnecessary delays in determining election petitions. This is why it took the Nigerian judiciary about 19 months to decide the real winner of the 2007 presidential election. If Yar‘Adua had lost, he would have spent those months as the illegitimate president of Nigeria. As I noted on this page a few weeks ago, Prof. Oserheimen Osunbor had stayed 18 months as Edo State governor before the courts restored the mandate to the rightful owner, Adams Oshiomhole.

Even up till now, some states are yet to know who their legitimate governors are as the appeals against gubernatorial elections in those states are still pending before the appellate courts. In this dilemma are such states as Delta, Kwara, Ogun, Osun and Ondo. These are outside the national and state assembly elections petitions pending before the various election petitions tribunals.

In saner democracies, election petitions are dispensed with before the inauguration of elected officials. US presidential election was held November 4, but the inauguration of the new president comes up in January. Most commentators have also eulogised Ghana for its recent free and transparent elections. How then do we make our electoral system as smooth as that of Ghana or the US?

This is where the electoral reform panel comes in. Last Thursday, the 22-man committee submitted its report to President Yar‘Adua. Inaugurated in August 2007, the committee, headed by retired Justice Muhammadu Uwais, examined the entire electoral process in Nigeria. Among other things, it submitted draft bills for the amendment of the 1999 Constitution, the 2006 Electoral Act and the establishment of the Electoral Offences Commission.

I cannot say more than these 22 wise men have said in their report. All that is required now is for Mr. President to ensure that their recommendations are given prompt attention in order to move our democracy forward. He has no reason to delay or fail us now that the Supreme Court has legitimised his stay in Aso Rock.

Happily, he described the judgement as a landmark event that would catapult him to provide greater service to the country. He called on the losers not to see his victory as a process of winners and losers, but a process where all of them were winners. He urged them to join him in the service of Nigeria.

Indeed, the task ahead is enormous. Beyond reforming the electoral system, the President should fix our decaying infrastructure with renewed vigour. It is in my enlightened self-interest that the Benin-Ore Road, for instance, becomes as smooth as Kayode‘s face before December 2009.

After the verdict of the Supreme Court, Aondoakaa‘s face brightened up. He was full of broad smiles as he pumped hands with Yar‘Adua at Aso Rock. Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan; Senate President David Mark; the national chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, Vincent Ogbulafor and many other PDP bigwigs were beside themselves with joy. If only they could transfer half of this happiness to the ordinary Nigerian, this country would be a paradise.

As for the government officials who hugged and backslapped one another over the President‘s victory, one may ask, could you have done it for the love of Yar‘Adua? I can swear that most of them were apprehensive that should Yar‘Adua be asked to leave, their means of livelihood would be affected. It is in their own enlightened self-interest that Yar‘Adua remains so that some of them will continue their pilfering game.

This is the time for the President to make real his anti-corruption stance. It is time he told the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission that its ”see something and say something” slogan should not just be mouthed; it should be enforced. As Oshiomhole rightly observed recently, many Nigerians had seen something and said something, yet nothing happened. We need more of action now than sloganeering and empty talks.

Every Nigerian will be very happy if the ruling party starts the reformation process by giving its thugs and riggers the stern look of Aondoakaa. The opposition parties, in turn, seem to be going grey. They should wake up and wear the grey/wisdom hairs of Obi like a hat while performing their watchdog role in the country. When things move according to plans, every Nigerian should be able to beam and radiate the chubby and lively disposition of Kayode.

We need Nigerian visa lottery

December 8, 2008

Casmir Igbokwe

 

Sex toys, I understand, are in hot demand in Nigeria today. The majority of the users are said to be women whose husbands are overseas. There are no official statistics yet to prove this. But one could get some semblance of truth in the fact that some Nigerian ladies are getting wary of marrying men who live outside this country.

 

For instance, a friend who lives in Angola has been searching for a wife for sometime now. He said each time a prospective wife got to hear that he was abroad, the next thing would be, “Let me think about it.” The person will never come back.

 

Don’t blame the women. They are the ones who largely bear the brunt of the absence of their men at home. Last week, the husband of a relation of mine came back from the United Kingdom. For over two years that he was there, the wife was an emotional wreck. Apparently to entice the man and prevent him from thinking of ever jetting out again, the young lady has been spoiling him with sumptuous meals and some other things.

 

As we chatted over dinner the day the man came back, a particular visitor whose husband is abroad narrated her own predicament and said if not for her children, she would have done everything possible to join her husband in the UK. The story was also told of a particular lady whose husband came back after many years overseas. The woman quietly collected the man’s passport, tore it into pieces and told him he was not going anywhere again. There are some, though, who are lucky to get family visa. For this set, there is no need for sex toys as the couple live happily together in their host countries.

 

For many Nigerians, there is only one major prayer point: that God should bless their efforts to get the visa of the country of their dream. At the Annual Lecture of the Ajayi Crowther University in Oyo on December 1, Nigeria’s former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Dr. Christopher Kolade, decried the increasing rate of migration of Nigerian elite to foreign countries.

 

He said, “In the last six or seven years, I have been able to interact face-to-face with Nigerian medical specialists, engineers, lawyers, accountants, IT specialists and other professionals who now live and work in the UK. I confess that the numbers were much higher than I had ever imagined.”

 

Cry not Kolade. We are the architects of our misfortunes. As the former High Commissioner rightly observed, we don’t value our human resources. Former Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was frustrated out of the cabinet of President Olusegun Obasanjo. Today, she is the Managing Director of the World Bank. Mallam Nuhu Ribadu did his best to uproot corruption from our land. His reward lies in his demotion from Assistant Inspector-General of Police to Deputy Commissioner of Police. The power game meant to silence, dismiss or perhaps, frustrate him out of Nigeria is still on.  

 

Weep not Nigerians. Granted that there is massive unemployment and poverty in the land, but how does one justify the killing of over 100 kids in Akwa Ibom State by a self-styled bishop on the guise that they were witches? How do we explain the production and sale of poisonous My Pikin teeth syrup, which has sent some innocent children to their untimely deaths? What do we call those who kidnap many innocent children in the Niger Delta? Who do we blame for the fate of some market women who reportedly lost over N100m to fraudsters in Onitsha recently? And what do we say about the penultimate week’s senseless killings in Jos?

 

The slogan of one of the political parties in the Second Republic was one nation, one destiny. But are we truly one nation? Do we have a common destiny? What have local government elections got to do with burning of houses, cars, shops and places of worship as witnessed in Jos? Can we ever outgrow ethnicity and religious bigotry that continue to define our existence as a nation?

 

This is why I tend to agree with those who call for the abrogation of the National Youth Service Corps scheme. The programme is meant to bring different nationalities of Nigeria together. But what impression will a young man or woman serving in Jos have of that city after the carnage? Three youth corps members – Messrs Akande Olalekan, Akinjogbin Oluwatosin, and Odusote Oluwole – went to Jos to serve their fatherland. Hoodlums killed them and over 300 others in the crisis. What can ever heal the wound inflicted in the hearts of the parents and relatives of these victims?

 

What will happen now is that many non-indigenes may want to relocate to other parts of the country. Some others may want to leave Nigeria for other saner environments. Ever wondered why people will prefer to die on the high seas in attempts to cross over to Europe to remaining in Nigeria?

 

I’m afraid for Nigeria. I’m afraid for my children. I’m not being unnecessarily pessimistic. My fear is anchored on incontrovertible traits of a failing state staring us in the face. Every year, millions of Nigerians rush to buy American visa lottery. Some of those who have the privilege of having that country’s visa plan their movements in such a way that they will have their children there so that the kids will become American citizens.

 

We go for American visa lottery because US citizens made their country attractive. They love their country and most of them are incurably patriotic. Just look at the smooth presidential election they had early November that produced Barack Obama as the next President of that country.

 

We need to cry for Nigeria. We need to do everything possible to salvage it. We need to lure our young men and women who are abroad back to the country. We need to let those who are planning to check out know that there is no place like home. We need to save our young women from the trauma of loneliness occasioned by the absence of their overseas husbands. We need to make Nigeria attractive so that other nationals will start rushing for Nigerian visa lottery.

 

It is doable. But it takes a charismatic leader who lives above board and disciplined followers who are willing to respect the laws of the land to achieve that.   

 

 

Offering time..!

December 1, 2008

Casmir Igbokwe

Published Sunday, Nov. 23, 2008

 

Perhaps, the Presbyterian Church, Ijeshatedo, Lagos, may still be wondering why it chose to honour Foreign Affairs Minister, Chief Ojo Maduekwe, recently. Usually, at such ceremonies as this, the organisers expect their special guests to make some financial contributions. That is part of the Nigerian culture. But what did the church get from Maduekwe?

 

An admonition to stop asking government officials for money. He reportedly advised, “The time has come to reform the church and take back the house of God from the god of materialism.” A statement signed by his Chief Press Secretary, Mrs Boade Akinola, further quoted him as saying that an invitation by church leaders to government officials to give money was an invitation to steal. He expressed his appreciation for the honour and reportedly commended the church for doing so without expecting any monetary returns.

 

Many Nigerian Christians will likely dismiss the minister as a stingy man who has denied God His entitlement. Though they believe so much in tithe, in sowing of seed, many of them do not sow that seed from the bottom of their heart. They do so with great expectations of a double reward from God.

 

The popularity of tithe now is such that even the orthodox churches, which hitherto downplayed it, don’t joke with it anymore. Recently, for instance, I was in one Catholic Church in Lagos. The parish had scheduled the following Sunday as tithe Sunday. And so, the officiating priest devoted his sermon to payment of tithe and sowing of seed. He came down hard on the parishioners for not giving enough to God. According to him, he has taken time to study what usually comes into offertory box every Sunday. His study shows that N1000 note is a rarity in the box. You can see two or three N500 notes. N200 and N100 notes may be between five and 10 pieces while N50 and N20 notes may be up to 20 or a little more than that. But the majority of the money comes in N10 and N5 denominations.

 

The priest charged, “How can you be giving God N5? Each time I visit any of you in your houses, you offer me nothing less than a bottle of malt. Some of you will buy juice or wine and even beg me to take it. If you can do that for me, why can’t you give God something better?”

 

He also did not spare those who come for special thanksgiving with a roll of tissue paper and in some cases, two or three cartons of bottled water. I have also wondered why such people join in chorusing “Na wetin you give us papa, naim wey we dey give you so.” Could it be that tissue paper is what God gave to them?

 

Nigerians will always be at their cunning best to beat societal expectations, especially in this season of harvest and bazaar; wedding and burial ceremonies; end-of-year reunions and so on. This week alone, I have close to 10 events to attend. Christmas is also around the corner. The other day, a relation of mine who is a secondary school student visited. He bought clothes for my two daughters. When he was leaving, I settled him in appreciation. Last Friday, he came again and bought clothes for my son. I had no option but to reward him handsomely again. Talk of ingenuity of Nigerians!

 

Not that helping people or donating handsomely to good causes is wrong. But the source of income of people making such huge donations should be clear and verifiable. In advanced countries, wealthy individuals make donations for worthy causes. And people can attest to their credibility. Society has a way of rejecting any donor who is not clean.  

 

In our own society, those who are morally bankrupt take to crime because they want to meet many demands. They want to be the highest donor at their party’s fund-raiser even though they may not be remitting as much tax to the government as they should. They want to buy the latest jeep even when they cannot afford such a luxury. They want to give their family season’s treat.

 

We can preach against corruption till eternity, but with this type of culture, it may never be eradicated. Have you ever wondered why Nuhu Ribadu, the hunter of corruption, has become the hunted? When he was the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, he made himself a nightmare to corrupt politicians and swindlers. For this effrontery, they plotted against him. They tried, surreptitiously, to whittle down his powers. Nigerians cried foul. They sent him to the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru in Jos just to sideline him.

 

They attempted many other tricks including demoting him from Assistant Inspector-General of Police to a Deputy Commissioner of Police. Finally, they removed him as the EFCC Chairman and appointed Mrs Farida Waziri in his stead. Yesterday, at the graduation ceremony of Senior Executive Course 30 of the institute at Kuru, the powers that be crowned their perfidious efforts by preventing him from graduating with others. Does this depict a nation serious about fighting corruption?

 

Maduekwe’s action may be unpopular in Nigeria. People may scoff at him for not giving something back to the church that honoured him. But if every Nigerian will learn to cut his coat according to his cloth; if every citizen will stop pressuring government officials to commit financial crimes; if every government official will learn to be prudent, salvaging Nigeria may still be possible.            

 

We need to change our value system desperately.