The debate in Nigeria today is whether the Muhammadu Buhari government should sell the country’s assets acquired over the years by past governments. The question is: Should the Federal Government sell the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Limited (NLNGL), the four refineries in Port Harcourt, Warri and Kaduna as well as other assets, to raise money at this time of recession? While some people have said that these assets should be sold, others are vehement in their position that nothing of such should be contemplated, let alone executed. And those for and against have their reasons.
I am enjoying the debate. Yes, I am enjoying the debate because it exposes the way some Nigerians see the country and the mentality of some of those we hold in high regards. Indeed, the debate has exposed the shenanigans and idiosyncrasies of Nigerians. And from this, it is easy to decipher those who really love the country and others pretending to. And this pretension and love come for the two sides: Those for and those against the sale of public assets.
For those who do not know who stands for what, in this debate, a quick reminder is necessary. Former Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor and Emir of Kanu, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, wants the Federal Government to sell the country’s assets. President of Dangote Group of Companies, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, also wants the assets sold. Senate President Bukola Saraki wants the Federal Government to dispose of the assets. Also, governors want the assets sold. On the other hand, Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, opposes the sale of the assets. Likewise, former Minister of Petroleum, Prof Tam David-West, would not hear of any plan or suggestion to sell NLNGL and other assets. Such orgainsations, as Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) have said no to sale of public assets for whatever reason. To sell or not to sell! On which side of the divide do you fall?
My question is: Why should Nigeria sell its assets? I have heard some people say that when the assets are sold, money would be raised therefrom, with which the Federal Government would reflate the economy, as one of the measures to solving the economic crisis. I have also heard people say that when the assets are sold, it would stop government from injecting money into them and, therefore, serve as savings mechanism. Others have also said that selling the assets would make it possible for the companies involved to be managed better by the new buyers/investors, which would be better for the economy. I find these assumptions funny and simplistic. Yes, money would be realised from the sale of the assets, but this is just one-off thing. Such money, when used, would be forgotten and can never be retrieved. On the other hand, if the assets keep running and profitable too, income would be regular.
Government should not be thinking of selling its assets to raise money or for whatever reason. If the current government sells all the assets it has inherited, what legacy would it be leaving? Yes, if the government sells all the assets, without establishing new ones, what asset would future governments “sell,” if it experiences recession? If there were no assets for the Buhari government to sell, does it mean that it would not find solution to the economic crisis plaguing the country? To say the least, it would be a shame if the Federal Government takes the easy option out of the economic quagmire, which the sale of public assets represents. Instead of selling existing assets, government should rather take measures to consolidate on them. The NLNGL, for example, is a money-spinner. Selling it amounts to transferring wealth from the government to other people. It would be madness to sell a company that has been contributing billions of dollars to the treasury yearly, just because some people want government to raise money to solve its immediate economic challenges.
I have heard people say that government has no business owning companies. What kind of crap is this? Those who say this are looking at the Nigeria system and ignoring what happens elsewhere. Government could actually own companies and run it as profitable ventures. This would be done when such government companies are run like private ventures, devoid of government interference and bureaucracy. This is what happens in other countries, even in Africa. In South Africa, for instance, South African Airlines is up and running. It is one of the biggest airlines in the world, owned by the South African government. Ethiopia Airlines is another example of a government company. Owned by the Ethiopian government, the airline is operating well and expanding. Until 1995, Kenyan government owned Kenyan Airlines until it was privatised. In these African countries and many others, there are other companies owned by government, which are successful. If this happens in South Africa, Ethiopia and Kenya, why won’t it happen in Nigeria? What is required is a system, whereby the companies operate as private entities, picking their bills and taking care of their assets and liabilities. From its profit, certain percentage would be paid into the treasury, as contribution to national revenue.
Selling Nigeria’s assets now will be a disservice to the country. What could be accepted is lease. Indeed, many public assets previously sold to individuals and private companies have not yielded much benefit to the country, in the long run. The government of Olusegun Obasanjo privatised public companies. How many of them are being managed well or are profitable? Some of the sold government companies have been run aground or operating at low capacity because those who bought them did not have any plan to make them work, but only interested in the assets. The government sold the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN). Now, are the distribution and generating companies therefrom doing better? Certainly not! It was Obasanjo who sold government buildings, as part of his monetisation policy. Government got money at that time, quite all right. However, government lost in the end, as the assests are gone and there is nothing tangible we could point to that the realised money was used for. Now, without official quarters, government spends hugely to accommodate its officials, before they are paid housing and other allowances. To be sure, many government appointees live in hotels at government expense. If Obasanjo did not sell the quarters, such buildings would be renovated for the use of new officials. Thank God, no evil wind made Obasanjo to also sell the Presidential Villa, Abuja, in his monetisation prorgamme.
Indeed, the way we talk about selling public assets, acquired out of the vision and enterprise of previous leaders, is nauseating. The fact that governors support it is most shocking. I do not think these governors really wish the country well. Just like they pushed for the President Jonathan government to share all the money Nigeria earned, against the proposal for savings, under the Sovereign Wealth Funds, they are today supporting sale of assets, perhaps, so that government will share the proceeds with the states. This is most uncharitable. This mentality of sell-the-damn-assets is an evil wind that blows the country no good. If this trend continues, some people may end up offering Nigeria, as a nation, for sale some day, for a penny.