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Even the big boys need the local league

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Mambilla power plant project abandoned for over 33 years

One of the high points of the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo Presidency was the debt forgiveness. After years of negotiation and complex diplomacy, Obasanjo and his economic team were able to get for Nigeria a historic debt forgiveness of 36 billion dollars. With that singular act, the fortune of the Republic changed and Federal allocations from Abuja to states became huge. Many Nigerians may have forgotten now that in 1999, the official cars of most of our governors and ministers were the prime Peugeot cars. With the debt forgiveness, we developed bigger appetite. Welcomed the era of the SUVs.

One of the reasons for the debt pyramid in the first place was our penchant for abandoned projects. If you drive from Ibadan to Ife, you will pass through the town of Ikire. On your right, overcome with weeds and humble shrubs, are the sorry remains of the General Hospital commissioned by General Ibrahim Babangida in 1993. It was completed, roofed, with all the doors and windows done and the military president came with fanfare to officially declare it open. But the hospital was not equipped and staffed. Soon, the electrical fittings were missing, then the windows, and then the doors, then the roof, until someone remembered to put fire to the balance. It is still there in the bush, a living monument to our Republic of Waste.

The father of them all is the Ajaokuta Steel Complex, one of the biggest and most ambitious industrial projects in the world on which Nigeria has spent 80 billion dollars. It was conceived during the First Republic by the government of Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa, started by the regime of General Yakubu Gowon, almost completed by the government of General Olusegun Obasanjo, examined by the government of President Shehu Shagari and suspended by the regime of General Muhammadu Buhari. It was expected to provide employment for at least 500,000 technical employees and create an additional five million jobs. Today, it is lying silent in Kogi State like a city of ghosts.

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Ajaokuta was conceived in an era when Nigeria took its role as the giant of Africa seriously. Thousands of young men and women were sent to the Soviet Union on Federal Government scholarship to train specifically to work in Ajaokuta. A new city was built to accommodate its workers. There is an air strip, a light rail line that would bring its products to the sea ports and feed sister steel complexes in Osogbo, Katsina and Aladja in Delta State. We believed Ajaokuta would kick-start our industrial revolution. We already had automobile assembly plants across the country; Peugeot in Kaduna, Volkswagen in Lagos, Land Rover in Ibadan, Mercedes Benz in Enugu and several others. We were proud of our achievements. Then Ajaokuta became an old story. In Ijebu forest of Ogun State today, there is a town called Iwopin. It was in that forest that the Federal Government established a giant paper mill that was to use wood from the forest as the basic raw materials for the production of paper. To complement Iwopin was even a bigger paper mill at Oku-Iboku, Akwa Ibom State, which was meant to produce newsprint for newspapers and allied industries. Both companies are dead. Today, we import paper for every use in Nigeria, including our toilet rolls.

There is no doubt that Nigeria would not, today, be classified as a poor country if those projects were completed and they were running, and if cars were still built in Lagos and trucks in Enugu. The truth is that nobody gets punished for these failures. Instead they are explained away. During the Obasanjo era while they were negotiating for the debt relief, it was discovered that one of the projects for which one of the South-Eastern states had been paying for more than 20 years never existed.

The politicians claim to know how to run our country, but it is actually the private sector that is sustaining Nigeria. What would have been the fate of our country if companies like the Dangote Group, the UBA and conglomerates like the UAC were run like the government? Have you ever heard of an abandoned project belonging to the UAC, Nestle or the Dangote Group?

In the last 40 years, Nigerians have witnessed the steady and almost unstoppable decline in our industrial capacity in several sectors. The railway, which was the largest single employer of labour outside the Federal Government, is now comatose. There was a time it had more than 500,000 workers on its payroll. There was a time the textile industry in Nigeria was the biggest in Africa. It had more than one million people employed. Today, most Nigerians wear rags imported from other countries. The collapse of the textile industry has left millions of tailors unemployed because most Nigerians, out of necessity, must patronize the bend-down boutique.

One of the few success stories is our telecommunication sector. We are grateful that the Obasanjo government had the courage to allow the private sector to participate. If not, NITEL, the original monopoly company in charge, would have been performing wonders with the lives of Nigerians by now. We would have continued to hear lyrics that telephone is actually not meant for the poor. But now the poor are making the three behemoths, MTN, Airtell and Globacom, astronomically rich. It is this stupendous wealth that may be causing problem for the leader of the pack, MTN.

On August 29, the Central Bank of Nigeria, wrote to MTN that it must refund 8.1 billion dollars to the Federal Government for allegedly repatriating profits for its non-Nigerian shareholders between 2007 and 2015. The MTN has since denied the allegation, claiming that it is “a law-abiding citizen of Nigeria.” The MTN stated that its stakeholders invested a total of 402.6 million dollars in the company, part of which were loans which were later converted to equity with the authorization of regulatory bodies in Nigeria. However, the certificate of capital importation, CCI, in respect of the loan conversion to equity participation, was alleged not to be properly issued according to the CBN allegation. The Senate Committee investigated the company and gave it a clean bill of health.

But that was only one part of its troubles. The Attorney-General of the Federation has also taken on the communication giant, claiming it owes the Federal Government another two billion dollars in withholding tax, import duties and all other necessary payments in the last 10 years. The MTN claimed it has paid 700 million dollars for those items in the past 10 years and insisted that its books are correct. We should expect more fireworks in the weeks to come.

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It is curious that the AGF is remembering that, indeed, MTN committed an offence 10 years ago. Since that time, many communications companies have died on the fertile soil of the Nigerian market. Since then, MTN has not only survived, it has thrived in the same market that consumed the likes of NITEL and M-TEL. Like the railway of old, it is creating employments for hundreds of thousands of Nigerians. But there is a persistent feeling in some quarters that despite its contributions to the Nigerian economy, MTN is ripping off the country on behalf of its principals in South-Africa. To worsen the matter, Nigerians in South Africa are not enjoying the best of times due to ocassional flare of xenophobic attacks.

I don’t know whether MTN is lucky that this time around the missiles are not coming from the Nigerian Communication Commission or any of the revenue collecting agencies like the Customs and the Federal Inland Revenue Service. Rather they are coming from the AGF and the CBN. The MTN management must be getting ready for more missiles to come.

One is curious why MTN has become accident-prone in recent years. It may have something to do with its tremendous success. I think it is time the MTN re-examines its operations in Nigeria and its involvements in the Nigerian scene. Its travails may not be unconnected with the reckless aloofness of those fat cats on its board and top management. This is an election year and those rich boys should learn how we play in the local league.


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