Adewale-Smatt Oyerinde, director-general of the Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA), speaks on the challenges that have plagued the nation’s economy for decades and what the expectations of the organised private sector are from a new government starting May 29 in this interview with Joshua Bassey.
How did the February 25 presidential election and the outcome of that poll meet you?
Well, for everyone who followed the electioneering campaigns closely, it was obvious that one of the top four contenders would ultimately emerge. But we’re businesspeople; we’re not politicians.
The politicians would play in the field where they know how to play. Our role as business people is to continue to analyse their policies as they affect the economy, businesses, and the environment in which we operate.
NECA, as a key player in the economy, will watch to see what policies the politicians are bringing to the table. We will interrogate those policies, and where necessary, we won’t shy away from pushing our own agenda and showcasing alternative policy options for the good of this economy and businesses.
Of course, we will offer our hands of fellowship, share our ideas, and say, look, the organised private sector is a veritable partner that can help shape and drive the economic programmes of the government.
What are your expectations from the new government expected to take office on May 29?
The expectations are high, both from organised businesses and Nigerians generally. One of our biggest expectations is redirecting the economy to a trajectory of growth.
We have had so many challenges over the years: fiscal and monetary policy issues, insecurity, forex, revenue shortages, unsustainable petroleum subsidies, an increasing debt profile, a very high and dangerous unemployment rate, etc. There are so many issues that must be urgently fixed.
So, we expect that the incoming government, between now and when they get sworn in, will have carried out some review and taken stock of what’s happening in the economy. I expect them to also take a critical look again at their manifesto and what they promised Nigerians while they were campaigning.
There’s a saying that you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose. In other words, when the reality of governance sets in, you might just realise that your beautiful song during the campaign might not be the reality on the ground.
So, balancing those campaign promises with reality is what I expect the new administration, when inaugurated, to pay attention to, and I think they have to do it quickly.
Three months before the inauguration, we believe they must have set up all the structures that will enable them to achieve their goal. And after May 29, we expect that they will hit the ground running.
High unemployment is a major socio-economic concern, especially for the youth. What specific measures would you want a new government to take towards addressing this?
Before you deal with the issue of unemployment, there are certain fundamentals that you have to address. We need to ask: What are the main causes of unemployment? How can we generate employment? First, jobs don’t grow on trees. So, where will jobs come from? Jobs will come from existing businesses or new investments; those are the two critical areas where jobs come from.
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We should also ask, “Why are we having an increase in the unemployment rate? For me, either existing businesses are retrenching or there are no new investments. Don’t forget that schools are churning out thousands of graduates yearly that must be absorbed in the labour market.
So, either the existing businesses are not employing or are retrenching, or there are no new investments to create new jobs.
If this is happening, what are the causes? It could be that the business and regulatory environments are not favourable to businesses. It is also possible that monetary and fiscal policies are not supporting the growth of businesses. It could also be that certain inherent issues in our environment are scaring away foreign direct investments.
Once these parameters are trending in the negative, we will continue to see a high rate of unemployment. So, what should we do? One, a deliberate attempt to make sure that fiscal and monetary policies speak to growth. You cannot squeeze the economy while trying to expand it at the same time.
Let’s have a pro-growth policy that makes paying taxes and sustaining businesses easy.
Yes, there’s a government policy on ease of doing business, but how are the regulatory agencies helping out in that direction? It is one thing to register a business; it is another to have a conducive environment to grow that business. So, you have in the same system one policy enabling the start of a business and several other hurdles working against the sustainability of that business.
So, what kind of regulatory environment are you expecting to see?
As a business community, we interact with agencies from all strata of the economy because some play the role of regulation within the context of an employer-employee relationship; others regulate within the context of what you bring in, that is, the capacity of what you import, while others carry out regulatory roles within the capacity of the quantity and quantum of certain chemicals that you use in certain productions — like the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), etc. So, we relate to many of them at different levels.
And for agencies whose main functions and roles are to regulate, the moment they cross the border of regulation to begin to focus on revenue generation, for whatsoever reason, then there’s a problem.
The measure of their success as regulatory agencies shouldn’t be based on how much money they bring in, but on how many businesses they have helped succeed and grow within the framework of their regulatory functions.
When the dynamics of their operation change from pecuniary interest to helping businesses survive and promote responsible enterprise, they have missed the point.
Unfortunately, we have noticed over time, that some regulatory agencies tend to be more interested in sanctioning businesses in order to be seen to be working with the government. But as an organised private sector body, we feel that their appraisal should be done based on how many businesses they have boosted.
Organisations also face the same challenge when it comes to the business environment and the legislative powers of the National Assembly. In the 9th National Assembly, there have been lots of incursions hiding under Sections 18 and 19 of the constitution, which they claim give them the power to carry out oversight functions.
But those sections give them the power to carry out oversight functions on agencies, parastatals, and organisations that the government appropriates funds for.
The government does not appropriate funds for organised businesses; therefore, we don’t think they have the right to carry out direct oversight of private businesses. That’s the battle we’ve fought for four or five years now.
We believe such actions are distractive to businesses; they don’t promote enterprise sustainability, but rather, they send the wrong signals to foreign direct investors.
For investors that want to come to Nigeria, once they see the disruption that these activities are causing to business operations in this country, it becomes difficult for them to bring their funds to invest.
Issues like the unwholesome activities of the Nigerian Customs are stifling rather than promoting businesses. We currently have a case in court against Nigerian Customs because of infractions that tend to create bottlenecks for businesses instead of encouraging enterprise competitiveness.
You quoted Sections 18 and 19 of the constitution. Would you advocate an amendment to those sections to provide clarity?
Advocacy has been ongoing, and we even plan to do more of it now that a new government is coming in. We have a pending case in the Supreme Court on this.
As I said, the constitution empowers the National Assembly to oversee agencies, parastatals, and organisations that the government appropriates funds for. The oversight of organised businesses is vested in the executive arm of the government—ministries, departments, or agencies.
For example, if a company has a challenge filing its tax returns or defaults on tax payments, the agency that is responsible for that is the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS). They’re the agency to audit and sanction, not the National Assembly saying they want to check the books of that company.
If the National Assembly has any misgivings about any business organisation, they should go through the executive, or the FIRS to address those misgivings and not visit the premises of that organisation or compel the management to appear before them.