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Fear grips Nigerian businesses

President Buhari

President Buhari

…as Buhari intensifies discipline agenda


By Anthony Opara


Fear and anxiety is presently gripping Nigeria’s business community following the apparent resolve of the Muhammadu Buhari-led government to drive its ‘discipline’ agenda even in the business arena.
Since the emergence of the administration, several businesses that had been long used to having their way in a largely crooked arena have come to see that the new leadership is indeed one that may be stridently insisting on being a ‘no-deals’ team.
Days into his emergence for example, President Buhari went to Germany to honour an invitation by the influential group of 8 most developed nations, the G-8. Weeks after that outreach, he moved on to hold an unprecedented parley with American President, Barrack Obama, the first by an American president to come so closely after the inauguration of a new Nigerian leader and even before Buhari had put in place what could be called a decent governing team. Conspicuously absent in those engagements was the bevy of business leaders that have since made a song of hobnobbing with Nigerian presidents in the course of their foreign trips.
Indeed, Nigerian businessmen and women will not say that they didn’t know about the military background of the President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) nor can they feign ignorance of his acclaimed sense of discipline.  For some however, the times have changed and the president’s military discipline has been eroded by years of politicking.  There were yet others who perhaps knew that the man was as disciplined as when he was in the military so when he became President this group decided to adjust knowing that it would not be business as usual.
Six months down the line it would not be out of place to review the business landscape vis a vis the new sheriff in town. The Difference sought the opinion of a cross section of the business community with an eye of what has happened. 

The first sign that things would not be the same perhaps was when the President appointed a retired soldier to head the Nigerian Customs Service.  Every one had expected the Customs boss to come from among the ranks of customs officials when the Comptroller General indicated his intention to retire from Service.  The President disappointed all the big guns when he not only picked a successor from outside the Customs but a solider to boot and one with a known history of being a no nonsense iron man of discipline.  The new Customs boss had been a former Governor but until his appointment was a farmer who drove a Peugeot 504.  His Spartan lifestyle was a clear signal of a man that would not brook any nonsense.  On arrival he told men and women of the Customs that he was appointed by the President to increase revenue from duties and excise and refocus the service into a more disciplined service.
Events in the Service developed to a point where a whole generation of senior Customs Officers threw in the towel after they were asked to proceed on terminal leave.  It was also reported in the media that the officers retired in protest of what they regarded as the high handedness of the new Head of their Service.  After the FIRS, the next agency of government that rakes in money for the government is the Customs.  Nigerians however agree that the Customs is a cesspit of corruption with almost everybody believing that what comes into government coffers from the Customs is a fraction of what ought to come in due mainly to the corruption in the service so it was a sigh of relief in many quarters when a soldier was brought in to clean the Augean stable as it were.
Every sector of the Nigerian economy appears to be feeling the atmosphere. The Difference learnnt that even in the banking sector there is a seeming sigh of relief that change is in the air.  When the Single Treasury Account, TSA scheme was mooted and later implemented some bankers thought it would not work but the recent huge fines imposed on UBA, First Bank and Skye Bank for being negligent in transmitting monies from the Single Account is a sign that things have changed.  It’s obvious to Tom Dick and Harry that policies would no longer be treated with levity. Mr Jude Igbozurike, another banker said that with time Nigerians would begin to feel the effects of real banking not the current style that can be called cash and carry banking where round tripping and other scams were the other of the day.  With the coming of Bank Verification of Numbers (BVN) real owners of accounts will stand up to be recognized rather than the situation where several accounts are created with the sole purpose of perpetrating scams.
In the former dispensation, regulatory bodies like the Nigerian Communication Commission appeared to be toothless bulldogs.  Their rules appeared to be all fury and no bite but all that has changed with the recent fine of $5.2 Billion Naira imposed on MTN, easily the biggest telecommunication company in the country with nearly 60 million subscribers.  So many Nigerians said the fine which is almost 20% of the national budget was hefty but there are so many Nigerians who feel the fine is in order as the telcos were warned of the consequences of non-registration of subscribers while allowing these subscribers to be on their platforms.  They were informed of the security implication of their action but a big telco like MTN appeared to have ignored the warning hence the hammer of the NCC fell on them. 

Some industry watchers said that in the former dispensation the NCC would have as usual barked but would not bite.  Everechukwu Udadike, a legal practitioner said the fine which consumed the Group CEO of MTN, Sifiso Dabengwa who was forced by shareholders of the company to resign was in order since the regulator did not exist at the pleasure of the telcos but to protect the business environment and the Nigerian citizens. The question on the lips of some other Nigerians is  what about the others like GLO, Airtel and Etisalat, does it mean they complied a hundred per cent, how come they were not fined?  What is it with MTN. while answers to these questions would emerge in the weeks ahead one thing is clear it is no longer as usual in the telecommunications business in Nigeria and even the latest entrant, NTEL will not play with directives of the NCC even as MTN has exhumed their retired former Chairman Phutuma Nhleko who is reputed to have worldwide contacts.  He is expected to deploy his contacts to resolve the MTN Nigerian issue and the recruit another group CEO for the company.  Feelers indicate that all is not well at Golden Plaza Faomo headquarters of the company where heads are being expected to roll.  Many believe that the Mike Ikpoki led Executive Management cannot but share in the blame and like Sifiso throw in the towel in the interest of the company.
Going from there, there has been a flurry of other disconcerting developments, the most conspicuous of which would be the President’s absence at the annual Nigerian Economic Summit Group, NESG session last month, the introduction of the Single Treasury Account, TSA policy and the consequent fine imposed on defaulting banks.
Others are the move to sanction the leadership and board of Stanbic IBTC Bank and the continuing face-off between the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC and the telecoms behemoth, MTN over the latter’s refusal to de-register 2.1m improperly registered SIM cards from its network.
Overall then,  fear has gripped Nigerian businessmen as Buhari pushes his discipline agenda.  For the ethical men and women in business there is nothing to worry about if their businesses are truly built on ethical standards but for the scammers they have plenty to worry as both the regulators and the law will come after them. In the view of Mrs Olayinka Obe, a Lagos based business woman, discipline and obedience to the rules of the game should be the watch word of any business player and those who cannot cope should find something else to do.

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