Two matters gripped me at the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) Entrepreneur Forum held at the Transcorp Hilton Hotel, Abuja, recently. Both strike at the heart of the economic struggles of Nigeria, particularly our current situation. Nigeria, bombarded by youth unemployment and extreme poverty, is clearly in dire straits. The symptoms are manifest in the rising crime wave, either the yahoo-yahoo type or the violent variants as seen in kidnappings, robberies and ritual killings. Stripped of complicated analyses and political theories, the situation is just a natural consequence of the overwhelming unemployment and poverty in the land.
The first thing that hit me was the statement by Mr Koen Doens, the deputy DG of the European Commission, that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) represent 95% of all businesses in the EU — and, overall, 85 percent of the jobs in Europe. It reminded me of our own realities: it is estimated that 90 percent of all the businesses in Nigeria are SMEs, creating more than 80 percent of employment. In a country with 70 percent of the population classified as “extremely poor” and over 20 million people described as unemployed, it is not rocket science for the government to know that SMEs are where to direct its energies if it is serious about tackling extreme poverty and crime.
President Muhammadu Buhari said, during the week, that the N-Power programme has pulled five million Nigerians out of extreme poverty in three years. Many Nigerians have attacked him over his claim. Most of the comments on social media are not flattering. The consensus appears to be that more people have been pushed into extreme poverty, not the other way. I do not have any data to counter Buhari’s claim, but I will argue that it is in our interest to expand the discourse about tackling extreme poverty beyond government programmes, such as N-Power. The SMEs offer the biggest opportunity. Unfortunately, the most traumatised businesses in Nigeria today are the SMEs.
This sharply contrasts with the situation in Europe, where governments do everything to make SMEs flourish. If you set up shop anywhere in Nigeria today, federal, state and council officials will viciously come after you as if you have committed treason and terrorism. Government seems confused about whether to support businesses to grow to a point they can begin to pay taxes or see them as a source of immediate taxes. We can not be saying we want to promote enterprises and be taxing them to death at the same time. Something will give. Sadly, agencies are now used as revenue machines as everybody is seriously talking about growing IGR at all levels.
While this is ordinarily good as we seek to reduce our dependence on oil, we are also stiffing growth and killing dreams with draconian taxes and levies. The big businesses have enough resources to sort themselves out through their staff and consultants, but the SMEs bear the brunt. Start a bakery in FCT, for example. The Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSTIF), the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and at least three units from the Abuja Municipal Council Area (AMAC) will come harassing you regularly to conduct “health checks” at various fees. This function can be performed by just one body!
In addition, AMAC will charge you N25,000 as annual licence for “operating in FCT” and another N34,000 fee for “using a car to distribute bread”. Meanwhile, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and AMAC charge N40,000 each for “fumigation” to be carried out by their appointed fumigators. There is also the AMAC “sanitary inspection” fee of N30,000. AMAC’s department of environment collects N150,000 yearly for inspection. There is the N30,000 AMAC fee for “food and water-related handling”. This is what a bakery owner faces in a country that says it wants to tackle poverty and create jobs. The dissonance is out of this world. We can be better than this.
One open secret that Buhari has to understand, accept and begin to champion is that he can pull 20 million Nigerians out of extreme poverty in the next four years through SMEs. All he needs to do is become their champion. He looks too detached from the society he governs. He should take it upon himself that whatever or whoever is hindering the operations of SMEs would be crushed under his feet. This is where most of the jobs are. This is what can help pull millions out of extreme poverty. Buhari should go to bed tonight telling himself: “I want to be remembered as the president who unleashed the economic potential of the average Nigerian by making life easier for SMEs.”
The second issue I picked at the TEF Entrepreneurship Forum has to do with what Awolowo said on “sexy agriculture”. He adopted the phrase from Dr Akinwunmi Adesina, the president of the African Development Bank (AfDB) and Nigeria’s former minister of agriculture, on how to make agriculture attractive to the youth so that it is no longer seen as a villager’s job. Awolowo highlighted the measures being taken by NEPC to give teeth to agric entrepreneurship. Those who choose to go into agriculture should be able to export their products and earn forex. He said some finished products from Nigeria are already getting certification in Europe, which is the kind of news I love to hear.
Agriculture is still one of the fastest and biggest means of engaging a large number of the youth, and this is in addition to the little matter of food production which is critical to national peace and security. I was encouraged by Awolowo’s pronouncements but I wondered how well the youth are buying into this. Do they even know the opportunities that exist? The first thing that came to my mind was how the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) can be restructured, revamped and funded to make agriculture and other forms of entrepreneurship “sexy” to university graduates. We keep churning out graduates every year without knowing what to do with them.
Attempts by the federal government to stimulate economic development through youth entrepreneurship — as Mr Tony Elumelu, the chairman of UBA Plc, is doing through TEF — will not work well if a winning model is not adopted. One winning feature of the TEF strategy is not just to give grants to young entrepreneurs but also to monitor and mentor them. This will ensure the goals are being achieved and grants can be scaled up for those who are excelling and expanding. The TEF says it has empowered over 7,500 African entrepreneurs from 54 African countries. Many of the entrepreneurs were at the forum to share their success stories. This is very encouraging. It works.
In fairness, the Nigerian government also offers different incentives through the Bank of Industry, the CBN and some MDAs. The only problem is access. Also, the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (PEBEC), chaired by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, has commendably laid down measures to make doing business easier for Nigerians but the MDAs are enemies of progress. That is why I am challenging President Buhari: become the champion of SMEs if you want to tackle unemployment, poverty and crime. Take it as a matter of personal mission. Get the states and councils on board. Meet regularly with SME owners and listen to their concerns. Break the yoke.
When Fela died 22 years ago, the world rose in honour of the inimitable Afrobeat musician. I don’t know of any other Nigerian whose death has drawn genuine grieving all over the country like Fela’s. Southerners, northerners, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, minorities, men and women trooped out to bury him. Why? Fela spoke to the problems of ordinary Nigerians. He did not define our problem along “tribe and tongue” lines. He did not propagate a divisive message. It is the politicians and their sidekicks that are pitching us against one another. Fela united us. He constantly gave grief to politicians, some of whom also loved his music, even if not openly. Legend.
Those who want to break up Nigeria are yet to answer my question on how that will settle the century-old war between Tiv and Jukun in Taraba state — which erupted again last week. It is the usual issue of settlers vs indigenes . You are no likely to find opinion leaders make an issue out of this because it does not fit into the trending conspiracy theories about Fulanisation and Islamisation. Tiv and Jukun are predominantly Christians. That also explains why when criminals kidnap or kill Muslims in Zamfara, Katsina and Sokoto, it is just “bandits” and not “Fulani jihadists”. I hope the Middle Belt leaders will take a short break and help broker peace between Tiv and Jukun. Urgent.
Prof Babagana Zulum, the governor of Borno state, made an astonishing discovery last week: there was no doctor on duty when he paid an unscheduled midnight visit to some hospitals in Maiduguri, the state capital. That is what lowly Nigerians have been living with for ages, but government officials hardly visit public hospitals, so they may not be aware. God only knows how many patients die all the time because doctors are not on duty. The irony of it all, of course, is that the doctors would still collect their call allowances despite sleeping and snoring at home. And if the payment is delayed, you can expect a strike that will lead to more patient deaths. Nigeria.
While Nigerians continue to eagerly await the take-off of the Dangote refinery, it was heart-warming to hear Mallam Mele Kyari, the group managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), assure all promoters of refineries in the country that they would enjoy the same level of support Dangote has from the corporation. There is this impression that once Dangote enters a business, he becomes a monopoly and scares away other potential investors. But we need as many refineries as possible to become self-sufficient and even begin to export petroleum products. Meanwhile, I’m liking the sound of Kyari’s voice and his stated agenda for NNPC. Assuring.