Archive for March 2009

Unwholesome practices in some financial institutions

March 30, 2009

By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 29 Mar 2009

 THESE are not the best of times for some of our aristocrats. Neither are things getting better for some of our banks and other financial institutions. As the global economic crisis continues to shoot without missing, individuals and corporate bodies are learning to fly without perching. They are adopting different survival strategies. But the problem now is that while the kite perches, it does not allow the eagle to perch as well. Bear with me if I tend to be speaking in parables. It’s because of the enormity of the problems we will share together here today.

Last week, African Petroleum Plc came up with a disturbing allegation. In a two-page advertorial in some national dailies, the management of AP accused Nova Finance and Securities Ltd. and Alhaji Aliko Dangote of unethical manipulation of AP shares. This, the company claimed, had led to a decline in value of its shares. Whatever be the outcome of investigations into the matter by the Nigerian Stock Exchange and the Securities and Exchange Commission, it is imperative to note that this type of negative stories is partly why many Nigerians have lost confidence in the stock market.

In the same token, many are also losing confidence in the banking sector. There are variegated rumours regarding the good health or otherwise of our banks. Part of these rumours is that some banks are a few kilometres away from distress. Before the 2004 consolidation exercise in the industry, such a practice was rife. In 2006, the rumour resurfaced. To stem this tide, the Central Bank of Nigeria, in a circular, warned against this trend. Towards the end of 2008, some disgruntled elements in the industry sent text messages indicating that the five banks selected as market makers to arrest the downturn in the stock market, had liquidity problems.

Now, the problem is back. Industry sources attribute this unwholesome practice mainly to the cut-throat competition among top players in the sector. Each of the top five banks is struggling to be the number one. Those in the league of 10 are fighting to be among the first five. And like jilted lovers, they run each other down in what is known as de-marketing.

 There is also the Soludo angle to the whole issue. The first term of the CBN Governor expires in May this year. Hence, there are some interest groups angling to take over his position. And the best way to do this, perhaps, is to rubbish his major legacy – the banking consolidation. There are other reasons hinging mainly on the desperation of the banks to stay ahead of competition.

Both the CBN and the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria had intervened in the past to stop the trend. The CBN Governor, Chukwuma Soludo, has had cause to reassure citizens that our banks are still very strong. He had warned that de-marketing or whatever name they call it would do nothing but undermine the banking system.

Beyond de-marketing, there are some other financial malpractices the CBN needs to look into. One of them is the allegation that most banks indulge in foreign exchange fraud (see our cover story today). Reports at my disposal indicate that these banks use fake international passports to obtain Basic Travelling Allowance, which is usually in dollars. They sell these dollars in the black market in order to make undue profits. This, perhaps, explains why dollar is expensive now. And this is partly why the prices of imported items have risen to the rooftop.

Our major problem is greed; or dishonesty if you like. Elsewhere, billionaires pool resources together to better the lots of humanity. In June 2006, for instance, American billionaire investor, Warren Buffett, announced a donation of almost all his assets to charity. The greatest beneficiary happens to be the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Incidentally, the chairman of the Foundation, Bill Gates, is richer than Buffett who made the donation. Here, our own billionaires fight to discredit one another.

 In the United Kingdom, Chancellor Alistair Darling, has spoken of the need to restore public confidence in the banking system. In a recent speech at the Financial Services Authority, Darling said, “It is clear – beyond doubt – that just as society needs the banks, banks need society too…Banks need to demonstrate to the public that they’ve learned lessons from recent events.” He said there was need to reform banks’ culture so as to rebuild public trust.

Nigerian bankers should draw some lessons from this statement. Otherwise, what happened recently in the UK and US where distraught citizens vented their anger on banks may happen here. In the UK, for instance, vandals reportedly attacked the home of the former Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive, Sir Fred Goodwin, in Edinburgh last week. The attack, perhaps, was sequel to the pension payout to Goodwin worth about £700,000 a year. The bank had made a loss of £24.1bn in 2008.

Nigerians are patient people. The loss of their deposits in distressed banks prior to consolidation did not lead to any major attack on any bank executive. They mourned their losses silently. Some, including widows, lost their life earnings in different wonder banks that dot our landscape. Some of these people still write to me lamenting their plight and pleading that something be done to recover their money. There is no need to further try their patience. If bankers have any issue among themselves, let them settle it without involving the rest of us. To create unnecessary panic in the system will not only undermine their operations, it will also have a debilitating effect on the entire economy.

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Penkelemesi and the rebranding of Nigeria

March 22, 2009

By Casmir Igbokwe
Published: Sunday, 22 Mar 2009
ON the eve of the unveiling ceremony of the logo and slogan of Nigeria’s rebranding campaign, Prof. Dora Akunyili lost her phone to thieves. Guess where? Sheraton Hotels, Abuja!

One of her senior aides had kept two phones (including Akunyili’s) on the dining table. About two or three other people were sitting around the same table. At a point, the man went to pick something within the vicinity. A few minutes after, he was back. But to his greatest surprise, both the phones and those dining with him had disappeared.

On the day of the launching proper, it was a member of the rebranding committee, Prof. Isawa Elaigwu, that came fuming. At the entrance of the venue of the ceremony, the man lost his phone to pickpockets. Having been “debranded” on a rebranding day, he felt sad. But he still summoned courage to make a speech. He urged Nigerians to change their attitude.

Another aide to Akunyili lost his phone the same period to thieves. He told me the minister was working with an anti-mobile phone company to block all stolen phones to make them unusable to thieves.

I pity this hard-working woman. When I told her the other day that she had emaciated, she concurred, saying her current job as Minister of Information seemed more challenging than what she did at the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control.

It ought to be, naturally. Or can it ever be easy for someone who has taken it upon herself to market a bad product?

One thing I admire her for is the passion she puts into whatever she does. Her zeal and dedication to duty brought limelight to NAFDAC and sent jitters down the spines of fake drug barons. It is that same passion that she is bringing to bear on her new pet project.

Nigeria: Good people. Great nation! That’s our brand new slogan. It sounds good. No doubt, there are many good people in Nigeria. There have been instances where taxi drivers who are Nigerians returned huge sums of money to people who forgot them in their cars. Many Nigerians go out of their way to help people who are in need, especially foreigners.

No doubt, Nigeria is a great country. A country that has produced such personalities as Professors Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and many good scientists and computer wizards like Philip Emeagwali, cannot but be great. Our population and interventions in African and world conflict zones stand us out as a great nation too.

But then, we need to address the peculiar messes surrounding our existence first. And this is where Honourable Adegoke Adelabu of blessed memory comes in. He was reputed to have made the statement “peculiar mess” in his political days. It was his illiterate admirers that reportedly turned the phrase to penkelemesi.

I must thank his grandson, Yinka Adelabu, who reminded me that March 25 would be the 51st year memorial of his grandfather. He flattered me by saying he knew my mighty mind could present the worth and weight of the facts of his life.

In my search for this “worth and weight,” I glanced through the man’s work: Africa in Ebullition. In this book, I found the essence of our rebranding campaign.

Here is a sample: “Truth can only come from within. We must allow the light of the soul to shine on the uncharted universe around us if we are not to get lost in the sea of differing standards and variable values. Moreover a man must be utterly convinced of his own goodness (though none else need believe him) before he can go on pouring out the silent musings and secret wishes of his heart.”

Essentially, Adelabu exhorted us in the quotation above to examine our conscience, clean our interior first so that our beauty will not just be on the outside. In other words, if 7-UP, for instance, is telling us “the difference is clear,” but inside its drink is a big cockroach, no amount of slogan will clear the bad image the phenomenon will give the company. In the same token, if Zain mobile communications decides to change its name to Econet without giving quality service to customers, the rebranding will not work. It will be like somebody who has body odour but decides to spray himself with perfume to attract attention.

For this rebranding exercise to make meaningful impact, Nigerians generally must resolve to change their attitude, their value system. The President of the country must attend to state functions with dispatch. He must rule with sincerity and love for all. The governors must provide essential infrastructure and other things that make life worth living for their people. The local government chairmen, the legislators, judges and whoever is in government must do their work efficiently and effectively.

Other citizens, on their part, must endeavour to carry out their civic responsibilities. If you are a bricklayer, there is no point stealing some bags of cement you are meant to work with. If you are an auto mechanic, make sure you use the original engine oil your customer has bought for you to service his car. If you are a chief executive, make sure you pay your workers a living wage. If you are a pickpocket, the law will not be merciful to you when caught.

As we continue to chant good people, great nation, I wish to leave you with the words of Adelabu on Nigeria: “Nigeria is dearer to my heart. She is my mother, the author of my beginning. It is only in her timely freedom that the unbroken line from Adam, of which I am just a link, can be kept unbroken. If I sit idly by, whilst her ship of state is sunk by the enemy, I, and all other passengers, will go down to the bottom of the sea with her. If my child dies and I live long enough I may bear another. If my mother dies I shall go through life a wandering orphan.”

Dear Dora, I wish you luck!

Between electoral and power reforms

March 19, 2009

Casmir Igbokwe

Published Sunday, March 15, 09

 

I read Queen Okoye’s story with pity and amusement. A national newspaper reported yesterday that the lady went to Maryland roundabout in Lagos last week to protest against three policemen who, she claimed, raped her recently. Armed with such items as a dead white pigeon, dead pussy cat, black duck, broken eggs, palm oil and so on, she stripped herself and rained curses on the rapists. Okoye, who reportedly claimed to be a mermaid worshipper, swore that her police enemies would die by accident or incurable diseases and that their families would inherit the curses.

 

Okoye said she was of sound mind. But looking at her picture in the paper, I could not really determine whether her actions depicted insanity, or extreme anger, or both. Whatever, judging from what is going on with our electoral reforms, power reforms and other past and future reforms, Nigerians need to draw one or two lessons from the nude protester.

 

Let’s start with the electoral reforms. Every Nigerian knows that we have a dysfunctional electoral system. It has always been characterised by rigging, violence, long appeal process, electoral umpire’s partiality and so on. The party in power usually ensures that it wins at all costs – what we have termed do-or-die.

 

This is why many well-meaning Nigerians hailed President Umaru Yar’Adua when he came up with the idea of reforming our electoral system. He set up a 22-man committee and gave it enough time to submit its report. The committee, made up of such eminent Nigerians as the former national chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, Olisa Agbakoba; former external affairs minister, Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi; and the former chief justice of Nigeria, Muhammadu Uwais (the chairman), toured the six geo-political zones in the country. They listened to the concerns of the people, sieved through different memoranda and came up with a report, which they submitted in December last year.

 

The President handed over the report to a White Paper committee to take a second look at. The committee, headed by the Minister of Defence, Dr. Shetima Mustapha, again adopted most of the recommendations of the ERC. But those who are not happy with the radical reforms, perhaps, cajoled the President into setting up yet another committee to examine the White Paper. This three-man committee had Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Michael Aondoakaa, as the chairman.

 

Like a wicked hunter, the Aondoakaa committee shot down the key recommendations of the ERC. For instance, it reversed the recommendation that placed the power to appoint the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission on the National Judicial Council. It wants the President to continue to carry out that function. The Federal Executive Council adopted this report.

 

Besides, the FEC is not comfortable with a six-month time frame recommended for the conclusion of election disputes before swearing-in of elected officials. The ERC had made this recommendation in order to stop an impostor who may not have won any election from assuming power. The incumbent government wants the status quo to remain.

 

This means that an Adams Oshiomhole could fight to reclaim his stolen gubernatorial mandate for even two years for all that FEC cares. It means that a Chris Ngige could rig election and assume power as the governor of Anambra State for even four years if the judicial process dragged that long. If this was what the Federal Government had in mind, why did it bother to set up this electoral reform committee in the first place? Why did it waste the time of the committee members and the resources of the country?

 

We have become experts at organising circus shows in the name of panels, committees, commission or whatever name it goes by. It is either that the committee undertakes a jamboree and comes out with nothing or it comes out with something that ends up in the trash can.

 

This coming Wednesday, the House of Representatives will start deliberations on the report of the Ndudi Elumelu panel that probed the rot in the power sector. Like the ERC, the power probe panel toured the country, collected oral and written memoranda and produced a report, which has been mired in controversy. At a point, there were bribery allegations against some members of the panel. There were conflicting figures as to how much was actually released to the National Independent Power Project.

 

Even as we grapple with power related problems, a country like South Africa reportedly produces 50, 000 megawatts of electricity and it’s still not enough for the country. Ours hovers between 2, 000 and 3, 000 megawatts. So far, Yar’Adua’s promise of a sweeping reform in the sector has only seen the suspension of the chairman and commissioners of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission and the sack of the interim management board of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria. The National Union of Electricity Employees feel the new interim board of the PHCN is not qualified for the position. Hence, they reportedly blocked the entrance to the PHCN headquarters in Abuja penultimate week.

 

All this notwithstanding, the Vice-President, Goodluck Jonathan, keeps assuring us that the ongoing power projects being funded by the federal and state governments would not fail like previous ones. Being the chairman of the NIPP steering committee, Jonathan assured that there would be a judicious use of the $5.3bn meant for the six power projects in the country.

 

The report and actions of the presidential steering committee tend to be at variance with the report of the Elumelu committee. This calls for eternal vigilance by Nigerians. As Reps begin debate on the power probe report on Wednesday, there should be no room for sentiment. They should examine the issues dispassionately and make recommendations that will stand the test of time.

 

Left for me, government should stop wasting taxpayers’ money on probes that usually yield no concrete result. What Nigerians should do is to follow the footsteps of Queen Okoye whenever any tier of government takes them for a ride. The protest must not be at the national level. It must not be at the level of invoking the mermaid; or going naked. A push at the community level may go a long way.       

 

 

               

A nation with visionary blind men

March 9, 2009

 By Casmir Igbokwe

 Published: Sunday, 8 Mar 2009

MY chat with Dr. Douglas Anele the other day was not specifically on Nigeria‘s problems. But somehow, we found ourselves discussing them. We bemoaned the fate of many Nigerians who now contend with Lassa fever, meningitis, and other physical and national ailments. “The heat these days is such that my generator runs till daybreak,” I lamented. Anele hissed and complained of a few other things. My consolation, I told him, was in Vision 20:2020, which would catapult us from a poor nation to one of the 20 industrialised nations in the world. “Can a blind man have vision?” was how Anele summarised the discussion.

I’m tempted to ask the same question, especially now that we are talking of deregulation in the oil industry. Government functionaries and their supporters have argued that the removal of fuel subsidy does not necessarily mean an increase in the prices of petroleum products. Indeed, they say, the price could even come down depending on international market forces.

Over the years, we have continued to hear this type of argument. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo tried spiritedly to enforce full deregulation, but there were strong forces against the move. He embarked on a piecemeal removal, coming up with different excuses each time he increased fuel prices. For instance, in 2002, he increased the price of petrol from N22 a litre to N26 to, according to him, stop illegal bunkering and smuggling of the product. By 2004, the price had climbed to N45 a litre “to ensure constant supply of the product.” In May 2007, Obasanjo increased it again to N75 a litre. But President Umaru Yar‘Adua was forced to bring it down to N70 soon after he assumed office.

When the government reduced the price to N65 a litre last January, organised labour and civil society groups smelt a rat. They felt it was a ploy to engage the full deregulation gear. Now, the whole agenda is becoming clearer.

I’m not totally against deregulation. Subsidy removal, they say, will clip the wings of an oil cartel taking advantage of our poor citizens. Ultimately, we hear, ordinary Nigerians will benefit more and the money realised from the removal of the subsidy would be channelled into developmental projects that would be of benefit to the common man.

This is wonderful. But I ask: When has it become the tradition of our rulers to embark on projects that will benefit the generality of the people? When crude oil was selling above $140 in the international market, what did they do with the proceeds? What have they done with the so-called huge external reserves that appear to be going down now? What have they done to cushion the effects of the global financial crisis on both ordinary and non-ordinary Nigerians?

Elsewhere, governments are reducing taxes, cutting interest rates and empowering the citizens to withstand the shock associated with recession. In Japan, for instance, the parliament just passed legislation to give a cash hand-out to every resident. Under the $20bn plan, most people will reportedly get a minimum of ¥12,000 ($121). Children under 18 and adults over 65 will receive ¥20,000. This is to encourage the citizens to spend and revive the economy.

In the United States, President Barack Obama has also signed into law an economic stimulus plan worth about $787bn. The plan involves a number of measures aimed at boosting the US economy. Some of them are tax cuts and additional spending on infrastructure. Some money were also mapped out to help states with budget deficits so they won’t lay off their employees and to also pay some benefits to the less privileged.

For us in Nigeria, the reverse is the case. Rather than a tax cut, what citizens and companies experience here is an increase in taxation. Rather than a reduction in interest rates (which is as low as 0.5 per cent in a country like the US), what we see here is an increase of over 20 per cent.

The result is that the rate of unemployment has continued to soar, as about 40 million Nigerians slug it out in the job market. Poverty level in the country is also on the rise. In spite of the law banning begging on the streets of Lagos, the phenomenon has not abated.

Right now, Lassa fever, meningitis and other poverty-induced illnesses are ravaging our people. Official estimate puts the number of meningitis cases so far at 5,323. About 333 people have already died. Public hospitals and other health institutions are not adequately equipped to deal with the situation.

Rather than think of how to alleviate the sufferings of the people, the government is planning to increase the sufferings the more. I pity Yar‘Adua because he did not entirely cause the rot in the system. But being the incumbent President, he has to bear the social upheaval that will likely follow the unpopular decisions of the current government.

As it is now, the major social welfare, if not the only one Nigerians enjoy from their government, is the so-called fuel subsidy. The government could remove it only when it has found answers to the questions Nigerians have continued to ask about our comatose refineries. Obasanjo had alleged in 2000 that the previous governments had awarded the Turn Around Maintenance of Kaduna and Port Harcourt refineries to incompetent firms. His solution was to sell those refineries to a company called Bluestar Oil Services Ltd. for $500m. The company withdrew when Nigerians protested the sale.

Nigerians will support this deregulation when they see sincere efforts by the government to improve their lot; when they see potable water flowing from their taps; when they don‘t have to fly to London to attend to their health needs; when their children are sure of getting qualitative education; when good roads occasion a fall in the rate of road accidents; and when the majority of youths are able to get gainful employment.

Until these are done, any attempt to justify fuel subsidy removal will amount to a blind man claiming to have vision.

Housewives’ solution to Nigeria’s problems

March 4, 2009

Casmir Igbokwe

First published Sun, March 1, 2009

Housewives in Bauchi are currently said to be very happy. The source of their happiness, ironically, is the dusk-to-dawn curfew Governor Isa Yuguda imposed on the state last week. The curfew was sequel to the religious crisis that erupted in some parts of Bauchi metropolis penultimate weekend.

 The Guardian yesterday quoted one of the women to have said, “If not because of the food items in the house that will finish and we will have to buy them again, and we need money to do other things and the children are still going to school, my wish is let the curfew be increased to 24 hours; no going out completely, so that I will have my husband in full.”

Nigerians deserve to have their country in full as well. For now, the country is out of the reach of her citizens. A cursory look at some recent events will bring my concern here into proper perspective.

Take the Bauchi violence for instance. For a little misunderstanding between groups of Moslems and Christians, residents were at daggers drawn with one another. There were conflicting figures as to the number of deaths recorded. Some fanatics also set buildings including a church and a mosque ablaze.

Jos, the capital of Plateau State, similarly witnessed a crisis of greater proportions last November. The cause of the incident had different colourations – indigenes/settlers dogfight, Christians/Moslems supremacy tussle, and local government election winners and losers battle.

 In the recent past, the nation had recorded similar violence in such places as Kafanchan, Kaduna, Zango Kataf, Kano and many other parts of the North. At some points, there were reprisal attacks in places like Aba and Onitsha in the South-East. A non-governmental organisation called International Crisis Group reportedly estimates that about 14, 000 people have been sacrificed to ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria in the last 10 years. Millions of others have suffered other deprivations and dislocations.

 The questions are: why do we tend to hate each other this much? Why don’t we respect the sanctity of life anymore? Why do some Igbo view the Yoruba with suspicion? Why do some Yoruba landlords reject Igbo tenants? Why will a northern Muslim regard his southern counterpart as an infidel? Why will an Ijaw man take up arms against an Itsekiri or vice versa? And why will an Efik man insist that an Ibibio man can never be a local government chairman in his area?

Many questions, few answers. Suffice it to say that conflict is inherent in human nature. Countries go to war against their neighbours. Ethnic groups in the same country slug it out against one another. States struggle to outdo one another. Even within the same local government, there is communal violence. Brothers and sisters quarrel. Husbands and wives shout at each other on many occasions. Even the person who professes to love you, sometimes, does so for some selfish reasons. He or she wants to possess you completely and should anybody wink at you, jealousy comes in and then quarrel. Jean Paul Sartre typified this in his existential play, No Exit.

Man is surrounded by problems that seem to have no exit, no solution. He runs away from Bauchi religious riots but gets caught up in Jos ethnic conflict. He relocates to Lagos, but watches his shop demolished by government bulldozers. He migrates to London, but risks deportation if care is not taken. Back in Nigeria, he fears being branded a failure. He sees his mother or sister or next-door neighbour as a witch derailing his progress. He sees himself as being in hell. And hell, as Garcin (a character in No Exit) posits, is other people. He becomes hostile to the society and goes into armed robbery, drug pushing, assassination squad, and cult groups just to get back at the society.

Knowing that human beings are prone to conflicts and crime, civilised societies try as much as possible to enact and enforce laws that guide their behaviour. A few decades ago, whites regarded blacks in the United States as slaves. They never entered the same bus. They had little or nothing in common. Today, that situation has changed. That is why a black man called Barack Obama sits today as the US President.

Our own society is moving more towards disintegration than reconciliation because we have not summoned the courage to divorce unnecessary sentiments from our individual and national lives. We are yet to learn how to enforce our laws. Somebody kills people, sets buildings and cars ablaze and does other atrocities. All we do is to set up probe panels. Nothing ever comes out of such panels. The perpetrators rest awhile only to continue their evil acts a few months after. This is why Nigerians have resigned themselves to fate, trusting mainly in the supernatural. The refrain now is, “only prayers will save this country.”

 Rather than continue to allow the problems of this country to weigh me down, I have decided to draw some lessons from the Bauchi housewives. And the major lesson is that I will always look for the positive aspect of any negative incident to console myself. I recommend that to you as well to avoid high blood pressure.

 Traffic louts in Lagos

 Traffic regulators are doing a great job in Lagos. But a few bad eggs, especially in some local governments, are trying to soil that reputation. One of the ways is to arrest motorists indiscriminately under the guise of one traffic offence or the other and then either extort or collect sundry fines from the victims.

I witnessed one of such incidents at Ogba area of Lagos last week. Somebody had stopped by the roadside just after Excellence Hotel to pick a friend. Commercial buses and other vehicles also park by the roadside there. And there is no sign indicating that cars should not stop at the location. But like a thunderbolt, some traffic wardens from Ojodu Local Council Development Area surfaced and blocked the motorist. One of them entered the man’s car and told him that they could have towed the vehicle and imposed a heavy fine on him; but that they would just caution him and allow him to go. They tactfully directed the man to their office at Ogba where they forced him to pay N7, 500 for “illegal parking”.

 I understand this scenario is replicated in some other local government areas of Lagos. The louts can stop you anytime, charge you for an imaginary offence and extort money from you. Maintaining discipline on Lagos roads is an excellent idea. But state and local authorities should caution their law enforcement agents to exercise utmost care in the enforcement of traffic regulations.