Nigeria: The Marathon Path to Ease of Doing Business – Bukola Ogunyemi

Blessed with an abundance of natural resources, vast arable land, a temperate climate and a teeming population of young vibrant people, Nigeria has the potentials to be one of the biggest economies in the world. However, the potentials for greatness have failed to translate into any viable economic development due to decades of bad leadership, gross mismanagement of public funds, institutionalized corruption and infrastructural decay.

Nigeria has for a long time developed an unenviable reputation as one of the hardest places to do business in the world. The economic implications of a harsh business environment, however, have been mollified for decades by steady revenue from crude oil sales. This false dawn of economic prosperity, therefore, served as insurance against the repercussions of paying lip service to create an enabling environment for businesses to thrive by successive administrations.

A marginal improvement in the global ease of doing business index, from 170 in 2016 to 169 in 2017, flatters the medieval realities those running businesses in Nigeria confront daily. It takes longer to register a business in Nigeria than in most other countries in the world. Access to credit is a mirage, with dissuasive interest rates and collateral demands. A litany of arduous government regulations, high cost of energy, lack of adequate security for personnel and properties, multiple taxations, and the activities of corrupt and hostile government officials all combine to dissipate the energies of business owners.

Arguably, the most resounding commitment by any government in Nigeria’s history in tackling these perennial problems has been the Presidential Enabling Business Council (PEBEC) chaired by Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo. In this capacity, Osinbajo has shown that regulatory frameworks are malleable in the face of a strong political will to institute positive reforms. By expediting the removal of bureaucratic bottlenecks to make agencies of government more agile and efficient, the council has been able to enact market-friendly policies and considerably improve the overall ease of doing business in the last six months.

The implementation of a 60-day National Action Plan on Ease of Doing Business in Nigeria approved by the council in late February to “remove critical bottlenecks and bureaucratic constraints to doing business in Nigeria” and “move Nigeria 20 steps upwards in the World Bank Ease of Doing Business Index” has already yielded positive results like visa on arrival and a 48-hour visa processing time for tourists and investors seeking to visit Nigeria.

In cooperation with the National Assembly, the legal framework was established for improving access to credit through the speedy passage of two critical bills. The Credit Bureau Bill will ensure entrepreneurs are better able to access credit by reducing default risk while the National Collateral Registry Bill makes room for the provision of a register of all loan collaterals, putting an end to the practice of securing multiple loans with one collateral.

Also, as part of the 504 comprehensive action plans implemented in 60 days, the time it takes to register a business in Nigeria has been reduced from 10 days to 2 and the process made simpler through the upgrade of the online portal of the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) which now allows investors to register businesses without physically visiting the CAC office. The paperwork involved in company incorporation has also been reduced, with seven forms previously required replaced by just one.

An unscheduled visit by the Acting President to the Murtala International Airport in Lagos to assess the quality of services rendered by relevance departments and agencies of government went a long way in signaling the administration’s will in ensuring an attractive and conducive business environment is created for investors. This was further stamped in the three executive orders signed last month to ease operations at the nation’s ports and improve transparency and service delivery by all agencies.

This has informed the decision of the Nigerian Ports Authority for example to evict all touts and other unauthorised personnel who often run a parallel economy at the nation’s seaports. The number of security agencies present at the ports have also been reduced and their operations synergized. The leadership of the Nigerian Ports Authority has certainly put words to action on ports reform, including opening up opportunities for old and new businesses by dismantling age-old monopolies. The Nigerian Customs Service on its own part has reduced the number of paperwork needed for the export of products and raw materials.

While remarkable progress has been made through the Osinbajo reforms, more work still needs to be done in moving 20 places up the ranking of the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index and be in the top 100 within the next 3 years. This desire as expressed by President Muhammadu Buhari at the sixth Tokyo International Conference for African Development in Nairobi requires the concerted efforts of all stakeholders to mark a clear departure from the old ways.

Nigeria still ranks 181st out of 190 countries with respect to trading across borders, 174th out of 190 with respect to dealing with construction permits, and 182nd out of 190 countries with respect to registering property. Bags are still being checked manually at the airports in direct conflict with Osinbajo’s executive orders, a lot of MDAs have still not complied with other directives issued. There is definitely still a long way to go and more than anything else, those committed to reforming the system when it comes to improving the ease of doing business must understand that this is a marathon, an unending commitment to making Nigeria a true haven for local and foreign investors. These are some of the issues Osinbajo through this council has to find solutions to for the sustenance of the reforms so far established.

Bukola Ogunyemi is social commentator based in Lagos