Protecting Nigerians, By Tolu Ogunlesi
This week, the World Economic Forum on Africa will hold in Abuja. It is the first time the Forum will be coming to West Africa, in its 25-year history. The big themes for this edition are job creation and inclusive economic growth. The Federal Government sees it as “an unprecedented opportunity for Nigeria to showcase its vast economic opportunities to the world and deepen the dialogue on economic reforms between the international community and Nigerian private sector on the one hand, and the Nigerian Government and international and domestic investors on the other.”
Against the backdrop of the opening up of Nigeria for local and foreign investment, one question that will continue to stand out is this – who will protect Nigerians from the excesses of all the emerging local and foreign investors?
We are all aware that in spite of, or perhaps because of, all our problems, and because of our population, Nigeria is a very attractive market, especially in sectors like retail, telecoms, hospitality, transport and e-commerce. There is plenty of room for profitable innovative problem solving in this country.
But as the opportunities get taken up by bold and determined investors, we need to work hard to make sure that consumers are not left at the mercy of capitalist excess and exploitation.
Take the cement business in Nigeria, about which the blogger, Feyi Fawehinmi, has written extensively (see aguntasolo.com). The figures that get thrown around suggest that Nigeria has gone, in the last decade, from being the world’s second biggest importer of cement, to becoming a net exporter. If those figures are to be believed, we’re actually producing in quantities in excess of current local demand.
Yet, cement prices in Nigeria are still some of the highest in the world. The question that arises is this: How can we be producing excess cement and still have prices that high? And how can we be producing excess cement that is that expensive in a country with an estimated deficit of 16 million homes for its citizens? Something is not right somewhere.
At a recent economic conference in Lagos, I got a chance to put my confusion to a Lafarge senior executive (Nigeria is one of Lafarge’s five biggest markets in the world, by the way). I wasn’t surprised I didn’t get any enlightening answer, beyond the usual resort to the argument of the cost of doing business in Nigeria.
While I totally agree that it is very costly to generate your own water and power (self-generation takes between 10 and 40 per cent of companies’ operating costs in Nigeria), pay for the inadequacies of our transport system, endure multiple taxes (70 kobo of every one naira invested in Nigeria by telecoms operators is swallowed by taxes, says the Minister of Communications Technology) and take care of security, it has started to become quite clear that even those challenges cannot justify the kind of prices and profits common in Nigeria.
For example, the Economist magazine recently pointed out that Dangote Cement makes a profit of $6 on every 50kg bag of cement that retails for about $9. No one anywhere else in the world makes that kind of profit.
So, considering this example – and we can replicate it across many other sectors – who will protect ordinary Nigerians from the unchecked profit motives of businesses? We understand, from the layman’s point of view, that capitalism is largely about maximising efficiency and profit, but we also know that without regulation, things will quickly degenerate into exploitation.
Who exists to protect Internet and phone subscribers from the “kalo-kalo| machinations of service providers? Who ensures that when a provider promises 5Gb, or 50k per second, that’s what customers get? And that billing is calibrated in such a way that accurately reflects usage.
Last year, I wrote about my experiences at the hands of Arik Air. As far as I know, no sanctions have ever been meted out. The airline has since moved on to break new grounds in customer maltreatment, like trying to suffocate a planeload of passengers in a locked but unventilated cabin (there’s a YouTube video of this by the way).
Beyond our now-usual recourse to social media to shame misbehaving businesses into sensibleness, who’s there to stand up for Nigerians? Where are the regulators? Are they awake? Are they empowered? Are they even willing to regulate? Or, are they locked up in the pockets of Big Business?
We’ve largely been reduced to settling for the least of abusive relationships. The idea of competition leading to better customer experience becomes untenable as soon as a cartel crystallises. If the businesses which are supposed to be competing for your custom suddenly start banding together to exploit you, you’re quickly compelled to make a decision as to which is the most benevolent of the abusers, and to stick with that.
And while I’d never seek to equate consumer protection issues with the fates of the victims of the insurgency in North-Eastern Nigeria, we need to understand that it is the same impulse that drives the Nigerian military to claim it has rescued all but a handful of abducted girls that drives an airline or telecoms company to treat its customers with what seems to be naked disdain; and that drives a Distribution Company to impose insane estimated bills on customers (as Eko Disco did to me – and got away with – all of last year).
They – whether it’s the military, or the Disco, or Telco – know that they are likely to get away with any claims, no matter how absurd. They know that nobody exists to check or properly “regulate” them. They know that in the face of institutional nonchalance, Nigerians are very quick to throw up their arms in despair. Or, at the extreme, “leave it to God”.
We need to see the extent to which all our many issues as a country are connected. As people have pointed out – why are we surprised we don’t know the number of the girls abducted in Chibok? Do we know how many we are in Nigeria? Have we ever been able to count ourselves?
Why are we surprised when we hear of corruption within the Nigerian military – the hints that chunks of the funds dedicated to fighting terrorism are ending up in private pockets? Did we think the military would somehow escape the rot that we have come to associate with every other public institution in Nigeria?
We need to realise that somehow all those things are connected; that we are looking at different sides of the same elephant – of impunity.
When there’s a culture of treating people with disdain, it permeates everywhere: From a President seemingly wondering what the fuss is all about regarding #BringBackOurGirls, to military authorities putting out false reports just because they can, to a company executive sitting in his office ignoring the complaints of the customers whose hard-earned money keep the company going.
Think of those abducted girls and their families as “customers” of the Nigerian state/government, who expect and deserve to be treated with respect, and to receive efficient service, and you might start seeing things differently.
So, what can we do as ordinary citizens? How can we work together to institute accountability and responsiveness in Nigeria – from the private and public sectors?
Follow me on Twitter @toluogunlesi
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