Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo often talks about the need to reorganise Nigeria’s public sector. He’s obviously aware of the multiplier effects of institutions that effectively carry out their statutory functions. On Tuesday, December 12, 2017, Osinbajo spoke at an event where he once again emphasised the need for government officials to improve on service delivery. Against the backdrop of the need to improve ease of doing business in Nigeria, the Vice President says many public officials don’t know they’re primarily on seat in order to make things easy for Nigerians who come to their desks; instead, they constitute themselves into storekeepers.
Why is it important to refer to Osinbajo’s observation? At least, one Nigerian, Chuma Anierobi <https://disqus.com/by/chumaanierobi/>, had listened to Osinbajo earlier in November, another occasion when the VP spoke about the need to improve ease of doing business, and he completely disparaged what the VP said. In fact, Anierobi understood Osinbajo’s comment from the angle of political party affiliation and I was baffled. He wrote online: “The VP (Osinbajo) may think Nigeria does not have news archives. The country already had a very good business environment which was acknowledged by the World Bank before the election. Buhari`s five months holidays and demarketing of the country took us 25 steps back. The country can really get some funny things from the preacher cum lawyer (Osinbajo).” Anierobi implied that ease of doing business was perfect in Nigeria pre-2015 general election. Was it?
The condemnation by Anierobi can’t be acceptable to any Nigerian who has experienced what some officials dish out at their desks. I recall an encounter I had with an official at the Federal Secretariat, Abuja, a few years ago. There was an official response to my letter in his office. For several days, no one could find the letter and the concerned official alleged that I must have collected it. He was still saying all of that when he opened his bag in my presence and there the letter was. Obviously, he had been going home with it. Rather than apologise, he was combative. He said things that a public servant who should provide service to a Nigerian shouldn’t say. I told him so. Surprisingly, another member of staff said I should be apologetic because I was the one who wanted something in that office. That summarises the mentality of many public officers.
This makes me return to Osinbajo’s regular observation about the need to improve ease of doing business, as well as his call on Nigerians, late 2017, to adopt domestic use of solar power in order to ease pressure on the national electricity grid. There’s a connection between the two; there is to the extent of making public officials facilitators instead of obstacles to Nigerians who come to their desks. “We restate our commitment to ensuring that we deliver on the ease of doing business reforms,” Osinbajo had said last September at an expanded meeting of the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council. He added that a new National Action Plan intended to drive the ease of doing business reforms in the country had been approved. It (NAP 2.0) has over 60 priority initiatives, including Starting a business, Getting electricity, Entry and exit of people, Trading within Nigeria etc. I adopt starting a business and getting electricity as platforms by which I express my view regarding the NAP initiative, more so as one Nigerian, Anierobi, has sniggered at the ongoing effort by the current government to ease the process of starting a business.
Not long ago, I had a bank cheque from a third party to cash. The bank which owned the cheque (and readily available where I was) gave reasons why I had to open a current account with them in order to cash it. This bank’s officials, oozing undisguised sour mood laden with unwillingness, rejected the idea of electronic transfer to the bank that I patronised. In a country where there’s National ID Card, travelling Passport, and BVN has been distributed, the bank said I needed three guarantors who owned current accounts with them (not any other bank) to sign my application form. The complication was that I was in transit, in a state and town where I had no one who could sign my application form based on trust. I spent days searching for people who knew persons that had current accounts with this particular bank. When I got them, the bank said, after a few days, that two of the guarantors had not submitted a document for the registration of their already active current accounts, so their signatures were unacceptable.
More days passed during which I searched for other persons. I was also informed that I needed the paper evidence of payment of my last electricity bill. Of course, I didn’t have it with me while on transit. Days passed during which I sorted that one out too. In the end, the bank collected my cheque. There were more days before I was informed that the bank’s headquarters in Lagos had opened my account and accepted my cheque. Then, I saw my money on ATM screen, but for several days, I was blocked from accessing it because of one other issue that the bank raised but which I cannot correctly recall now. I noticed though that the bank had deducted their charges, but I couldn’t touch it. It was exactly one month after I began the process of cashing a bank cheque that I had access to the money.
This show is put up by a bank which advertises that it’s an efficient and technology-driven bank. Meanwhile, what I went through while trying to open an account was paper work, not a technology-driven process, complete with a bulky application form that had what I considered WAEC essay questions. The form had about 12 pages covered with ‘big grammar’ that could confuse a less-educated person. Three guarantors that have only current accounts with the same bank are needed, that in a situation in which any customer with a BVN should do. Imagine a foreigner who comes in to open a medium scale business in Nigeria. He stays in hotels but he’s asked to bring electricity bill as well as three Nigerians who must have current accounts with a specific bank.
We know that many of the reasons for much paperwork and other security requirements while dealing with banks have been overtaken by technological innovations. But both banks and their regulators in Nigeria don’t review these requirements. For instance, the myriad of e-security/ID information that a foreign investor leaves behind from the time he applies for a visa to the time he needs to open a bank account for his business is there to be accessed, instead of creating another trail at the bank. We’re still using the approach of the pre-ICT years to conduct many business transactions here, one of the things I’m sure the current government would like to change.
There’s also that oddity of banks insisting on being presented with electricity bill paper receipts. What happens if a Nigerian has taken up Osinbajo’s advice to patronise solar energy? He has to think twice since banks have turned themselves into checkers of electricity bills. In light of the stated obstructions and many more, I wonder if what Anierobi describes as “a very good business environment” pre-May 2015 needs no improvement. In any case, I’m wary of ever using whatever some of these international institutions say to validate ourselves. We know what they say sometimes isn’t exactly what we experience on the ground. Moreover, the World Bank that Anierobi refers to talks in relative terms. We were down the ranking ladder of the World Bank but we moved up pre-May 2015, not that we were number one. I’m sure if Osinbajo didn’t feel there was something to improve upon he wouldn’t invest time and energy in NAP 2.0. As I’ve always stated, Nigeria so much lacks public officials who wish to make a difference that we should celebrate the few who do. A glowing praise for an improved business environment pre-2015 from the World Bank is fine. But to imply, as Anierobi does, that efforts being made now to further improve are irrelevant isn’t something I subscribe to. To me, getting officials both in the public and private sectors to be facilitators rather than obstructionists to Nigerians, as Osinbajo regularly canvasses, is an objective worth pursuing.