Sunday, 2 October 2016

Buhari and our assets: Let us not eat up our children’s future

Let us not eat up our children’s future

President Muhammadu Buhari has no one to blame but himself if he is now finding it tough to get some of the things that he feels his government needs to overcome the country’s economic challenges. This is one point that would keep recurring whenever the Buhari administration is in focus and it will remain so until the government gets that magic wand to turn its fortune around in the eyes of the average Nigerian. After losing the momentum of an early start, the government now needs to do something or something fortuitously happens to return the government to the high popularity rating it enjoyed about this time last year. Don’t ask me that thing because I don’t know; but that thing must just happen for things to turn around for the government again.

Certainly the president would not have been in this kind of quagmire if, for instance, he had taken a decision on his presidential jets some months back. We had known long before he was sworn in that this country cannot afford the luxury of 10 presidential jets, whether now or at the time those jets were acquired and, given the low profile nature of the president, we also had thought those were some of the things he would do away with on assumption of office. That it has taken him this long to be mooting an idea that he should have implemented a long time ago, is part of the reasons he would need all the angels in heaven standing surety for him that we would not regret concurring to his idea of selling some of the country’s assets.

The president made his intention to secure emergency powers from the National Assembly known a few weeks back. Whether he would get that or not is still in the womb of time. Now, he has his eyes on some of our national assets that his government intends to sell to get some foreign currency to shore up the country’s finances. From the angry reactions across the country, that would appear dead on arrival. Not a few see the move as being in the best interest of a few rich Nigerians, especially as Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, has added his voice to those calling for the sale of the assets. It would be double whammy for the country if some of those still keeping some of our stolen patrimony are able to buy these assets.

The fact is, President Buhari has a major weakness, and it is not clear whether any of his aides has the temerity to tell him this. Many Nigerians think he is parochial and that his major decisions are products of this parochialism. Former President Goodluck Jonathan had the same problem and this could be understood because he had all his education in his region. It would appear that the former president had the opportunity of leaving that axis only when he went to Iresi (formerly in Oyo State but now Osun State) for his National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) Scheme. As a matter of fact, it is being whispered in pepper soup joints and even informed circles that some of these people close to President Buhari would be his undoing if he did not separate from them before it is too late.

I was on the same page with him on the need to set aside some extant laws, like the Procurement Act, which makes government transactions or contracts to take at least six months to scale through. We do not need such laws now. Some things had to be fixed as early as yesterday; the extant Procurement Act cannot achieve such purpose. But on sale of national assets, especially the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Company, I beg to disagree, at least for two reasons. One, the government has not given Nigerians the benefit of the doubt that it is on top of the economic issues and that selling the assets is the only way out. Second, what happens should something go wrong and we are unable to get the anticipated benefits after the assets have been sold?

Some of the people who support selling the assets, apart from those who might be eyeing them, in one-on-one discussions cannot tell you that this and this are what they have seen of the Buhari government in the last 16 months to give us the guarantee that the idea will succeed. Whilst they acknowledge that failure after the assets had been sold would be catastrophic, they only keep supporting their position with theories or the argument that some countries did it in the past. We would be treading a suicidal path if that is all we need to give the government the go-ahead to sell these cash cows.

One other question I have always asked since the idea was mooted is: what could have happened had a rapacious government like that of Dr Jonathan’s thought in this direction and had sold the assets and the proceeds shared among the gluttons in his government and their cronies? Would President Buhari simply surrender helplessly instead of looking elsewhere for solution to the problems? The point is that national assets, especially the ones still yielding good dividends for the country, like the NLNG should not be thrown up for sale just because of momentary challenges. “Tough times”, as they say, “don’t last”; only tough people do. President Buhari might mean well; but, government and governance is not about a good man. Even with a very good man, things might not go as planned. This is the main reason I will continue to oppose the sale of the core assets.

Some will oversimplify the matter by comparing it with that of a father who could not pay his child’s school fees but has some assets. They say it is not a bad idea for the man to sell such assets in order to pay the school fees. There could be some sense in this; but it is also going to be based on the assumption that the child would face his or her studies squarely and pass at the end of the day. Moreover, even for the brightest students, some examinations might not be a true test of their ability. At any rate, even if the child fails in the long run, the result would be that he and his immediate family members would bear the consequence. With regard to selling of national assets, we are talking about the fate of no fewer than 170 million Nigerians, excluding those unborn, that are inextricably tied to these assets. That is too huge to gamble with.

The Buhari government must reflect deeply on this issue. Forget this talk of making provision for buyback; the person who bought a good asset is not likely to want to surrender it just like that. Perhaps it would have been a different thing if we are in a country where leaders are punished for corruption or failed policies. President Jonathan is still moving about freely despite the whole lot of atrocities perpetrated during his administration. If tomorrow, there is a meeting of the National Council of State, he would join his colleagues, some of whom also played ignoble roles that led us to where we are.

It is sad, so sad that we are contemplating selling some of our national assets just to raise $15-20 billion. All those responsible for this mess should bury their heads in shame. This amount is too small for a big country like Nigeria that has raked in billions of dollars over the past three decades from crude oil to lose sleep over or dissipate energy on. But what did we do with the proceeds? Honestly I think we should be getting to the point where we call people to account for their stewardship. It is not just to answer to corruption charges because the people who left us this bare should not go scot free. We can only imagine the extent of damage they have done if we are able to calculate the social cost of their ineptitude or corruption. Nigeria is not the only crude producer affected by the slump in oil prices; but it appears we are the most irresponsible and the worst hit of the lot because we never saved for the rainy day during the era of boom. We had visionless and cruel rulers who cared only about themselves and behaved as if they never knew we could come to grief should there be crude price slump again, despite the fact that we have had some shocks in the past occasioned by the same reason.

As this paper said in its editorial on the issue, President Buhari should make haste slowly. He should not crash into a trailer while running away from an ordinary bicycle because that is what we would get if things do not turn out as expected after the government would have sold the assets. We have taken the future of unborn Nigerians for granted too far and for too long. Those who want to rest in peace in their graves should not toy with it any further.

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