Oshiomhole’s foot in mouth
The National Chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) Oshiomhole, recently beckoned on President Muhammadu Buhari to take steps to immediately nationalise telecommunications giant, MTN and other South Africans investments in the country.
Adams Oshiomhole, while ceremoniously flanked by party executives, accused the South African government of backing the wave of xenophobic attacks on Nigerians and other African nationals in that country.
As a response, he called for stringent measures against Multichoice, Standard Chartered Bank, Stanbic Bank and other South African business interests in Nigeria; and declared that Africa can no longer be the centrepiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy. He also asked Nigerians to boycott all South African goods and businesses.
The next morning, I sat in front of a television set and watched Channels TV parade a slew of people who all, with the exception of Tunde Arogunmati, a development economist, backed the former Labour leader’s comments. Arogunmati rightly, pointed out that Nigeria’s response should be led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and that any talk of nationalisation should be at the tail end of a national conversation. Personally I do not think it should feature at all, but we will get to that.
I found the reaction scary because it tells me that our people have a very limited sense of history. At the end of the 1970s, Nigeria nationalised British Petroleum, ostensibly because Margaret Thatcher’s Britain started getting cosy with then South African Prime Minister, PW Botha. But we need to take a step back and ask ourselves, what has become of African Petroleum? Has it become a world-beater like what is left of BP currently is? As far as I can tell, the last time we heard of AP, it had undergone a name change to Forte Oil and its majority shareholder has sold his interests in the company.
This “nationalisation” talk would ordinarily be dismissed as cynical rhetoric deployed to tap into the anger of Nigerians, which at its core is what it truly is – a tool to deflect from the woeful initial response of the government to the xenophobia crisis, and to divert the attention of the people from the daily, poverty-laden drudgery that is the life of the average Nigerian.
But, coming from a one-time President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and senior politician with influence at the highest levels of power, this terrible idea bears some commentary. My initial reaction was that this was simply members of Nigeria’s hedonistic and self-serving ruling class doing what they do best, and making a play for a cash-rich asset that they had no hand in building up, only to expropriate it, and then run it aground. Make no mistakes about this, if somehow his idea sails through, that would be the fate of MTN Nigeria.
Secondly, I think that his statement is a terrible idea bordering on at least an economic version of the very xenophobia that the South Africans are guilty of. MTN Nigeria is a publicly quoted company listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange with Nigerians as shareholders. Many of the other companies quoted in the former Labour leader’s statement have Nigerian shareholders. We should also emphasise at this point that Standard Chartered is a British, not South African institution. In what was perhaps the most head-scratching aspect of his statement, he said that “indigenous network(s) such as Glo, Airtel and I believe 9mobile (are) still standing by.” No one has apparently told him that despite its Nigerian shareholders, Airtel’s parent company and majority shareholder is Indian.
In other words, the nationalisation he is advocating would affect far more Nigerians than South Africans, in addition to sending the wrong sort of signals to the international investor community whose investor dollars we so desperately need.
Oshiomhole has had a bit of a pickle with innovation in the telecoms industry. As a Labour leader, he opposed the liberalising reforms of the Olusegun Obasanjo administration as disruptive and a detriment to indigenous jobs at the heavily unionised Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL). When the ball was set in motion and MTN, along with Econet went live in 2001, he misleadingly described the tariffs they announced as the “highest in the world” and exploitative. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who longs after the nostalgic days of long queues at public phone booths and year-long waiting lists.
More to the point, these days Nigeria is, on paper at least, a democracy, so the arbitrary behaviour that was fashionable during the days of military dictatorship where the government could expropriate property by fiat, should not occur to anyone, more so at the highest levels of political power. If we permit such thinking to become policymaking orthodoxy, we could easily set the country down the path to becoming a Venezuela or Zimbabwe.
What is perhaps more worrying about this rhetoric is that there already exists a legal tool for the Nigerian government to raise grievances with the South Africans over the destruction of Nigerian-owned businesses in that country. In 2000, both governments signed an Investment Agreement governing (amongst other things) in which actions to be taken in the event that investments or businesses owned by nationals of one country were damaged or destroyed by the nationals of the other in times of war or even riots were spelt out. As such, the Federal Government of Nigeria needs to do nothing more than a request for the legally mandated compensation due to its citizens as a result of the xenophobic attacks under those protocols.
It is perhaps testament to Oshiomhole’s mindset that utilising already existing legal means to address the legitimate grievances of Nigerians in a constructive, non-disruptive way did not occur to him.
Nwanze is a lead partner at SBM Intelligence and head of its research desk.