The Day Before Tomorrow By Simon Kolawole

There are many things that make you sad, even angry, about Nigeria. Recently, the Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC) asked SMEs to pay N120,000 each for “compulsory fumigation” before they would be allowed to re-open after the COVID-19 lockdown. Look at it again: these businesses had not operated for months, had probably sacked thousands of workers, and are in dire need of money to restart! The best way to get them back on their feet is to charge them N120,000 each for “fumigation”. Somebody had seen yet another avenue to pile more misery on these businesses which they already extort all year round. That is how we want to re-start the economy!

Now compare and contrast. The government of the United Kingdom is paying 80 percent of workers’ salaries in this same category of businesses in order to keep them afloat during the pandemic. Not only that. The government set up the Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS) to enable smaller businesses access finance more quickly during the pandemic. A business can get up to £50,000 (about N24 million) in loan under 24 hours. There is a moratorium of one year, after which the loan will be repaid over five years. Anyone with even half a brain can see who is actually working to put the economy back on its feet and the one that is trying to damage the economy further.

I was glad when AMAC cancelled the extremely thoughtless (tougher adjectives elude me at this point) policy after public outcry, but that they even considered it at all and issued notices to the SMEs is an indication that a lot of people in authority in Nigeria need their heads examined under CT scan. If you need revenue badly (and God only knows what they spend it on), must you push the SMEs from coma to death? As a Yoruba proverb says: “If you can’t make my life better, please leave me as you met me.” Why suffocate businesses that are already gasping? All over the world, SMEs are recognised and treated as the engine of the economy. They are treated as pests in my country.

Speaking at the 2nd UBA Africa Day Conversations on Monday, President George Weah of Liberia outlined what his government was doing to help small businesses. He said: “In Liberia, we have taken some measures to ease the burden of vulnerable small businesses in the informal sector as well as big businesses. We are in the process of providing small loan assistance to petty traders. In addition, we are working with commercial banks to mediate repayment of loans because we know that the pandemic has shattered almost everything, people have lost their jobs, businesses have shut down… the only way we can grow is for us to help them grow.”

I recently argued that we need to help businesses grow if we really want the Nigerian economy to grow. We often focus on the oil industry and declare that Nigeria needs to diversify the economy. In the real sense, it is the source of government revenue that is not diversified. The economy itself is diversified — very diversified, in fact — but we are not getting optimal value perhaps because the policy makers do not understand what they are dealing with. Help various sectors grow and see the economy explode. It is not optional — it is imperative. It is not about coming up with a plan for the future; it is about a concrete plan for today, to be activated today, to be nurtured from today.

What’s Nigeria’s plan for SMEs, for instance, in this COVID season? I have listened to our governors and federal government officials and I can’t point to anything significant we are doing to breathe life back into these vital cells of the economy. Any post-pandemic plan that does not give priority attention to these businesses will be incomplete. Support can come in form of reliefs, such as tax cuts/reduction in levies, provision of concessionary loans, business support infrastructure, and such like. We must bear in mind that as more people lose their jobs, they will need to be absorbed elsewhere. They may set up or join small businesses. This is something to ponder upon.

Speaking at the first session with global leaders which he moderated, Mr Tony Elumelu, chairman of United Bank for Africa (UBA), raised another issue: the need for global cooperation. I think we are lucky that the multilateral and bilateral agencies have either cancelled or rescheduled the debts of some low-income countries, including Nigeria, but it was glaring that we were not going to be able to pay in the first instance. It is not as if any country is socio-economically immune to the effects of the pandemic, but Africa is particularly vulnerable. If Africa had the strength of the US or EU, it should be injecting stimulus in trillions of dollars into its economy. We are highly limited.

Elumelu argued that “this is not the time for finger pointing, but for collaborative efforts by governments and organisations to fight the pandemic globally. We need global co-operation to stem global depression. Africa requires a large stimulus package and we need long-term solutions to prevent a cycle of debt”. He emphasised the need for “speed” in efforts being mobilised. Most of the leaders kept hammering on one argument: the need for meaningful collaboration between governments and the private sector if the continent is to make a “quick” recovery from the pandemic. Neither of them can do it alone. And I am not talking about donations to COVID fund.

In practical terms, we are not short of ideas and opportunities. Prof Benedict Okey Oramah, president and chairman of the board of directors of the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank), advocated that the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement should be “swift”. Afreximbank, he said, has kept aside $200 million for the supply of fertilisers and grains around Africa. Definitely, if we focus too much on the coronavirus and do nothing on food, hunger will spring up and devastate the continent even more. “If Africa allows hunger to take over the people, it will see an increase in insecurity, which will take a long time to overcome,” he warned.

Oramah pointed out the “bitter” truth: that the pandemic has shown that a time comes when Africans must fend for themselves. That, he said, is the “positive message” from the outbreak. He said: “What COVID-19 has taught us is that there comes a time that people fend for themselves, there comes a time when you must be independent… I hope that the message this COVID-19 is teaching us about independence should help us to integrate our countries better so that we can trade better and invest among ourselves better and promote our growth and development as a people without always looking out for others to bail us out.” Word. And “speed” is of essence.
Talking about agriculture (which we can never over-emphasise, especially with growing unemployment), Mrs Ndidi Nwuneli, founder of LEAP Africa, reminded us that we are dealing with a trillion dollar industry which we still tie to “poor people” in our minds. We instinctively think agriculture is for the poor and lowly. “This is a $1 trillion industry and we are neglecting it; therefore, my charge is that we invest in the agricultural sector, prioritise it, leverage it, transform our educational system to prepare our young people for this sector, change the mindset, and trade with each other,” Nwuneli said during the second session, moderated by Mrs Eugenia Abu.

Of course, it still boils down to a deliberate policy of enabling agriculture entrepreneurs — those who think of the agric business the same way they will of banking, ICT or construction. It is a business that can employ engineers, accountants, marketers, doctors, and virtually every professional. It is not about hoe and cutlass alone. It is not hand-to-mouth. It offers the biggest potential to absorb millions of our youth who are jobless. We cannot change our understanding of these simple issues if we do not change our mindsets. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, policies that should push agriculture to the highest level of value-generation are mostly on paper.
While I was stimulated by the discussions at the virtual UBA Africa Day Conversations — which also featured US Senator Chris Coons; Peter Maurer, president of International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); and Amir Ben Yahmed, founder, Africa CEO Forum, among others — I went away thinking things can take a better turn if we begin to see tomorrow as today, rather than think that we have all the time in the world. Addressing our realities of today requires “speed”. It requires taking advantage of the existing global cooperation. It requires learning from others how we can enable our economic potential — starting from today. Yes, today — the day before tomorrow.

AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

DEMOCRACY DELAYED

On Friday, we marked the 21st anniversary of our return to democracy on a low key, especially as COVID-19 has continued to cage us. More so, May 29 is now Inauguration Day while June 12 is the new Democracy Day — in commemoration of the annulled historic presidential election of 1993 won by Chief MKO Abiola. Actually we should be celebrating 27 years of democracy by now but for the annulment. We probably would have made far more progress today but for the turbulent years that followed the annulment, during which the country was virtually grounded by political and economic turmoil. Is there a cause to cheer? I would say half a loaf is better than no bread. Optimism.

POST-HUMOUS HUBRIS

I was not surprised when presidency denied reports that President Buhari had cancelled 150 appointments “made by” his late chief of staff, Mallam Abba Kyari. Anybody who knows how bureaucracy works knows that the CoS doesn’t make appointments. He only communicates presidential approvals to the relevant quarters. Apparently, those who were recruited to demonise Kyari while he was alive needed the fake news to satisfy their conscience that they were right after all and that Buhari was not in charge. So they keep servicing their savage machinery. They should continue to enjoy their lives as sepulchre-bashers and scramblers of truth. Obsession.

ABIKE VS PANTAMI

While Nigerians were busy getting entertained by the Twitter show of shame between the minister of communications and digital economy, Dr Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, and the chairman of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NiDCOM), Hon. Abike Dabiri, my attention was elsewhere: the role of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). From my findings, all the statements issued by the NCC denying the role of Pantami in the ejection of NiDCOM from the NCC building were first sent to the minister for clearance. Wonderful.

ADESINA AND AMERICANS

Dr Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), has been under intense scrutiny and pressure since it emerged that he would be re-elected unopposed for another term of five years. There has been a bunch of allegations against him by whistleblowers but the bank’s ethics committee has examined and dismissed them. Now I do not know if Adesina is guilty or not, but I think the Americans should slow down since there is no provision for external investigation into the allegations against him. We cannot be jettisoning the rules because they do not favour our predetermined agenda. Processes are processes and rules and rules. Simple.

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