Japheth J. Omojuwa: The “Buy Nigeria” Brigade and Other Matters

Here in Nigeria, we are obsessed with slogans and cosmetic agendas. Do we really think that sloganeering has ever changed the fortunes of a nation or a society? Slogans cannot replace values and ethics. Slogans don’t change the ease of starting and doing business in Nigeria, but intentional and strategic action do.

If you need to become a Senator to start buying assembled in Nigeria cars, you are not the change that Nigerians need. And who says buying cars from a particular car brand is what we need to save the naira? We need to stop pretending about our reality. We cannot afford to fall prey – again – to those simply obsessed with slogans such as Heart of Africa Project, Rebrand Nigeria and now Buy Nigeria.

How can we repeat the same dry joke and expect that we will make the audience laugh? There are simpler ways to turn our economy around, which do not need public officers swallowing Ofada rice for the sake of ‘likes’ on Twitter when, in truth and understandably, they’d rather eat the food they are comfortable with. There is no patriotism in one’s taste. You can make one person buy a badly made shoe in the name of patriotism, but you cannot build a sustainable economy on prodding people to abandon their taste for excellence in the name of ‘proudly Nigerian’. So then, what can we do?

If the global economy literally opened up to the point where citizens of every country can decide where they intend to start their businesses without consideration for the country of origin, virtually every Nigerian would start his or her business anywhere else but Nigeria. The reason is simple enough: it is easier to do business in 169 other countries than it is to do business in this country. In a world where borders continue to restrict people within the realities of countries, such as Nigeria, it simply means that an entrepreneur looking to do business in Nigeria is disadvantaged against entrepreneurs in 169 other countries, according to the last World Bank Ease of Doing Business Report. That is the tragedy we must fix.

It is easier to start a business in Nigeria than to run it. The odds are stacked against entrepreneurs in the country. These odds are often bureaucratic hurdles put in place by government. It is easier to start a business in 128 other countries in the world than to start in Nigeria. You get an intuitive understanding of this when you realize how long it takes to register your company with the Corporate Affairs Commission, the difficulty in finding a property to rent, the disproportionate cost of rent against the facilities provided by property owners, the need to acquire electricity generators to set up against the predictable reality of incessant power outages and the cost of raising capital. The hurdles are endless. Despite these hurdles, starting is one thing and staying in business is even a lot harder.

As an entrepreneur, I don’t need the government to help me prod Nigerians to buy my products and services; I just need the government not to make capital expensive by borrowing away the available capital. I need the government to make my taxes count by ensuring that I need not pay for security because the police work. I need the government to ensure that power works while I commit to paying the private enterprises burdened with the responsibility to transmit power. Essentially I need the government out of my way so that I can sort myself out.

The government cannot stand in the way of innovation and entrepreneurship via these unwholesome bureaucratic bottlenecks, while it is bent on begging Nigerians to buy the products that are produced out of that difficulty. Something has to give, if the cost of production continues to be focused on what other businesses elsewhere take for granted: security, power supply, efficient transportation and communication network etc.

The alternative often forgone are the quality of goods and services and where that does not suffer, the capacity to produce more quality certainly suffers. Either way, your goods are more expensive than the imported ones or they are of lower quality.

The choice for the consumer is a no brainer except where income has limited the choice to the cheapest product available. And even when this is the case, the Nigerian product may not even fall into that bracket.

Ours is one of the hardest countries in the world to register a property. Now, while this may not sound like a big deal to many, property ownership is an essential part of production. And the harder it is to legally take ownership of a property, the harder it is to start or do business here.

Let us fix all the anomalies and unnecessary hurdles on the path of entrepreneurs and let’s see if our people won’t compete with global brands. Our entrepreneurs have, in spite of the difficult business environment, continued to thrive and survive at harder times. They can do even better when the government gets out of the way of innovation, enterprise and entrepreneurship. We cannot ban our way into prosperity. Tariffs on imports will not make our products and services better; they will only make smugglers thrive. Many years of banning this and banning that have only enriched the privileged and the powerful. The genuine businessman and woman are further disadvantaged by the cronies of government officials. The rice importation scam under the Goodluck Jonathan administration is a good example.

Those who are in the business of slogans and cosmetic “patriotic” campaigns can continue. We will be here in 2020 with different slogans and faces. Except we remove the barriers set against businesses and entrepreneurs in Nigeria. It is not rocket science and this is why those countries better ranked than us on the Ease of Doing Business Report. It also explains why countries like Singapore, Norway, Denmark, etc, have a far higher per capita income than Nigeria. May we know how to do better than we are doing at present.

A fortnight ago, this column focused on the shame that was the 2016 budget. That piece was quite a hit online and had me discussing its content and other areas of concern in the budget with representatives of the government. It is great to see the government set the ball rolling by finally admitting what a lot of well-meaning Nigerians have already pointed out. The Director-General, Budget Office, Mr. Yahaya Gusau, did not see reason to resign over the shoddy job. So President Muhammadu Buhari sacked him instead. This is nothing personal, really. A marker had to be laid on the cost of such shoddy jobs. It is obvious the DG alone couldn’t have been responsible for the fiasco, but someone had to pay and he did. The new DG, Mr. Tijjani Mohammed Abdullahi, will not need anyone to preach to him about the need for focused and intentional excellence. He is a result of that story.

As long as Nigeria lays markers, such as this: sack those who don’t do their job properly and won’t take responsibility by honourably resigning, it won’t be so long for us to fill more holes with the pegs that fit. We have never been in doubt about what is right or what is wrong, we know what is good and what can be made better. Whether we do better is the issue.