• Friday, July 12, 2024
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Multiple taxation is killing Nigerian businesses, says Jideani, DG ACCI

Multiple taxation is killing Nigerian businesses, says Jideani, DG ACCI

Agabaidu Chukwuemeka Jideani is a development expert, a human rights lawyer, and a governance, risk, and compliance professional. He is also a member of the governing council of the National Human Rights Commission. Jideani was trained at the Faculty of Laws Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka (1997), where he emerged as the Best Graduating Student; Nigerian Law School Abuja (1998/9); and the Ethics Institute of South Africa (2007). He also attended the Zurich International Compliance Academy in Switzerland (2008). He holds an LLM (legislative drafting) from the University of Benin/NILDS, Nigeria, and is presently pursuing a joint PhD in legislative drafting at the Obafemi Awolowo University of Ife and the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS). Before his appointment as the Director General of the Abuja Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), Jideani worked as the Deputy Company Secretary and Head of the Special Assets Team at Midas Bank Plc, Lagos, between 2002 and 2004. He is the practice lead at Bez Fredricks LLP, a multi-disciplinary law firm based in Abuja. In his interview with BusinessDay’s managing editor, John Osadolor, and correspondent, Favour Okpale, Jideani spoke on how federal government policies are affecting the business environment and some initiatives undertaken by the chamber to tackle prevailing challenges.

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Can you walk us through the activities of the Abuja Chamber of Commerce and Industry?

The Abuja Chamber of Commerce and Industry is a member-focused institution. Our own immediate mandate is to promote and support businesses in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT and in Nigeria as well. We are the voice of the private sector, and we also try to advocate for both legislative and executive issues to ensure that government activities do not unwholesomely impact businesses. We do this through a couple of instruments and tools that are available to us, just as we also try to facilitate trade and market access for our own businesses abroad and foreign businesses operating in Nigeria. We further organise trade missions to friendly countries and open up our space for foreign investors to come and do business with us. And because business and commerce, being a human endeavour, come with disputes from time to time, we have established a Dispute Resolution Centre here in the chamber of commerce. We have also found out that businesses need mentoring from time to time; therefore, we do gap analysis, where we find those gaps and find ways to fix them. We have what we call the BEST CENTRE (Business Entrepreneurship Skills and Technology), which develops and provides training for not just our members but for businesses generally and the community where we are.

We also play an advisory role, advising the government when we see things that are not good for business, the environment, or human rights. We review government policies and advocate for alternative means of doing things better. Again, we do this through our centre called the National Policy and Advocacy Centre, which provides policy alternatives to what the government may have imposed. We think through ideas that the government may not have even thought of, work through them, refine them, and then bring them out for government consideration.

“We provide the intelligence needed for businesses not to fall into errors that people have overcome in other places.”

Our flagship event or programme is the trade fair, which we do through our Abuja Trade centre. This centre organises trade fairs, those day-to-day meetings that I spoke about, trade missions abroad, workshops, and handholds for businesses. The major thing we have introduced to the government lately is pre and post retirement training. We did an analysis and found out that when people retire from the government and wish to go into business, they hardly succeed. A couple of years down the line, they lose their money and pack up. And this is because they are not properly prepared. So what we do is, after two years of retirement, we bring people and ask them what kind of business they would like to go into, and then we place them like interns with our members who do similar businesses.

Twice monthly, they will go in, sit, and learn hands-on, not theory, so that by the time they finally retire, they are able to be properly boarded into doing business. That is what we are doing. We have tried to get a couple of institutions to help us get civil servants to be part of it. We also work to get economic intelligence so that we can provide advisory services to businesses. This is what we have learned from our engagement with China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries. We provide the intelligence needed for businesses not to fall into errors that people have overcome in other places. This is what we do, in a nutshell.

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How would you describe Nigeria’s business environment, especially in Abuja?

I have a different perspective. I try to segment the business because the vast majority of inhabitants of this city (Abuja) are involved in informal business, and you see them being chased around by government authorities. That is criminalising small business; these people are just trying to make a living, and they are the majority. There are also traders, farmers, and manufacturers who also operate on a very small scale and equally find things difficult. Then we have the big businesses, which are very well educated and have access to finance, advisory services, government institutions, and platforms. So, when we look at business in the FCT, the major players are doing well; they have the market, the reach, government patronage, and support, but the majority, who are not the big players, are struggling to exist.

What we are trying to do is bring in a little equilibrium, especially for the ‘’not so big’’, who, like I said, occupy the majority of the space at the base of the pyramid. We are trying to help them move a step or two from the base of the pyramid to, maybe not in the middle of the pyramid, but to have the ability to jump up a bit and scale up their business activities. For those ones, we are trying very, very hard to ensure that their activities become sustainable. And we do that through training, mentorship, assistance in seeking funds, and also accessing grants and support. We also have the majority of our members who know what they want to do, and we help them with referrals, confirmations in embassies, and business partners abroad. We try to match-make so that they get what they require and are able to do business on their own.

That is how business at FCT works. The biggest business person in the FCT is the government, and they are also part of the people we look out for and try to help to ensure that their business does not kill the business of the people. In terms of figures, it will be difficult for me to give the accurate number of businesses and their categories, but what I can assure is that as a chamber of commerce, we have tried to position ourselves to intervene on issues with quick solutions for businesses in the federal capital. We have also tried to put ourselves in places of influence to gain government attention. FCT is primarily a government-dominated place and is representative of foreign governments all over the place.

In terms of growth, we are growing; our membership is growing, but the businesses have not grown. People tend to look for shelter when there is a storm. And because businesses are not doing very well, people are now coming in to see how they can benefit from the shelter that we provide. The truth is that in the past eight years there has not been honest growth; businesses were dying, there have been some layoffs even in the financial sector, and people are now being forced to be independent and are doing their own businesses. So our membership has grown, but we will not deceive ourselves into thinking that growth in membership equates to growth in business.

What’s your view about the continued rate hike by the central bank as well as the increased electricity tariffs? How are these two developments affecting businesses, and what would be your advice to the government?

The CBN plays a vital role in market stability; if they increase rates, they may want to deal with inflationary challenges. I may not be able to speak much to that because they have a mandate to ensure there is stability and confidence in the system. So we allow them to do their work and watch how businesses will be better advised to adapt because these things will come from time to time. With the electricity tariff, it’s a difficult one, especially because of the recent customer categorization. If you have 1 kilowatt of electricity, it should have a price, whether you are in band A, band B, or band C. I do not understand why if you are in band A, you will have to pay more. Is it that the electricity production cost is higher because you are in a particular band?

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My reasoning is that if a Kw/hr is 60 kobo, it should be 60 kobo for everybody, and what you will pay will now depend on what you consume. That makes better sense. In fact, if you are buying 24 hours of electricity in band A, it should have a discount. There is no way you should pay more when you buy more; that is not business and doesn’t make economic sense. If you are buying more, you should pay less; if you are buying less, you should pay more in the ordinary economic space. So, I do not understand why that issue of band will warrant paying differently and even come into play. I am of the opinion that there is a need for electricity to be democratised—produce electricity, distribute it to everybody. If we have steady electricity in those places that do not require much electricity, the people who live in these band-A places can afford to support themselves.

Those people who live in other places they don’t want to give electricity to cannot afford to support themselves, so it should have been the other way around. Supply people who are more vulnerable than people who can help themselves, but generally provide electricity for everybody so that things will go well. That said, another thing is that the value of our naira has gone down; everybody can see it, and it’s affecting just everything. Prices have jumped up, purchasing power has been impaired, and we can no longer buy things with the same amount of money that we used to buy them before. That is a major problem that requires well-thought-out solutions.

What other government policies are impacting businesses, and how is the chamber pushing for a more conducive environment?

Multiple taxation! We are being taxed out of business. We are haemorrhaging and bleeding badly from every part, and we would like to have a harmonised tax system. This is so that businesses can afford to pay such taxes and be certain that if we pay A and B, we can go and sleep and work. We are being taxed directly, indirectly, and forcefully in so many places. So we are calling on the government to harmonise the different taxes so that we will have a clear, cut-out idea of what the taxes are. They should also know that businesses are not doing well. When the population is impoverished, the marketplace does not grow, and businesses will not make enough profit. That is the current reality. You tax on consumption, production, and even existence; we find it very difficult to grow with all this multiple taxation. That is the major problem we have at the moment.

What are your main areas of focus for the Abuja Chamber of Commerce and Industry to realise its overall goals of driving business growth in Nigeria and FCT in particular?

My major focus is staff. People do not want to hear this, but you cannot grow if you do not have a good workforce. The workforce are the hands, legs, eyes, and brains of ACCI. ACCI has no head or hands and cannot think; it is the workforce that sees, thinks, and plans. So my focus is to develop the workforce by providing a conducive environment for the staff to deliver the services that FCT wants. Our mandate can only be carried out by the workforce. I am also focusing on the workforce so that they can derive value for the members and society. So from the workforce to the members and our community, that is my focus.

Secondly, we are trying to ensure that business, national security, and defence come together; we are working in silos, or rather, different compartments. One of the first things we did was visit the DSS, and our discussion focused on too many fake products. There is a need to take them out so that genuine businessmen will succeed and survive. So the security and law enforcement agents are working with us on this. We all know that insecurity is a deterrent to investment. We went to the Chief of Defence Staff, a wonderful gentleman, and we discussed working together. We believe that with one voice, we can make investments. The unity must be brought out so that both foreign and local investors can see and have confidence in the system. That said, security is not just for the government; rather, it is for everybody. We have encouraged our people to support government efforts to provide security. If each of us does a little, then we will all do a lot. Insecurity is a big problem, which is why our second focus is on security, defence, and business.

My third focus is on human rights. Business activities should not impact negatively on the communities in which business is being done; they should not impact negatively on the staff that are doing the business; and they should also not impact negatively on the consumers of the products and services. So my third focus is business and human rights. We have developed a guideline along with the national human rights commission so that business operators will know that they are not only about making profit and that they cannot harm society by making profit. We go around and see where someone is producing something, and then he puts a pipe, and the water that is coming out of the factory is creating a gully outside of his compound; this cannot be. Yes, you are providing us with service and employment by producing goods, but you cannot harm your neighbours. We have to find a solution so that business can be done without harming others. Those are our three key areas of focus.

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What is the prospect for Nigerian businesses considering all the challenges that they face today?

The prospect is good in the sense that we have a very talented and resilient population. We are passing through a very rough time at the moment, but Nigerians have the talent, the energy, and the persistence to overcome it. We need good examples from our leaders. We need the leadership to make sacrifices that people can see and want to partner with to overcome the present difficulties. We need to rein in banditry, kidnapping, and general insecurity so that people will have the confidence to come out and work. The prognosis is good because we know what we need to do. The other thing is that we have a good climate, we can farm, and we can produce, but we also need patience for the right things to be put in place. The decisions that the government has taken in the Ahmed Tinubu government are courageous, and some of them are in the right direction. Education is also key; we are producing young graduates, and sometimes I hear people say that our universities’ quality of education is poor. I disagree to some extent. Our young people have so much talent that they have transformed things that we never knew were possible. They only need support, incubation centres, and government patronage. Every day on social media, I see and read stories of fantastic new inventions by young Nigerians, and they will post such things, and you will imagine whether they are possible, whether they are real, but they are. So it is just for the government to really focus on supporting these young people, and with that, I can assure you, Nigeria will be great again.