By Zainab Suleiman Okino
The Nigerian leadership has once again embarked on a national past time of walking in the dark in ignominy. The minister of finance, Zainab Ahmed recently announced that the government of the day has concluded arrangement to sell some national assets to fund a one-year budget—that of 2021. You would be right to think that disposing of these collectively owned property could fund the nation for at least 10 years and lift us from poverty to prosperity within this period. No, in their reckoning, the generations to come should not have the privilege of inheritance from their forbears, because once upon a time, a recession came and the government had no answer but to resort to selling off what belonged to all, just for a year budget.
As illogical as disposing of your property because you are broke is, a whole bunch of government officials could not think outside the box in times of crisis, except to take an easy route that would further pauperise the nation.
In truth, no one expected the 2021 budget would be an easy ride; definitely not with COVID-19 pandemic and attendant havoc like recession and economic downturn, but for an economy already battered by bad government policies , mismanagement of resources and corruption, it is not a surprise that it would be a struggle to implement the 2021 budget. Thus typical of our government’s inability to fund their profligacy embedded in the budget, they want to do the unthinkable. Our budgets have always suffered thrust deficit because every year, budgets are never executed, other than personnel and emoluments, even as it is always over-inflated in the name of padding or extraneous items smuggled in.
In addition to selling national assets, the FG also toyed with the idea of borrowing to fund the same budget. I’m not an economist, but I think it is wrong to borrow and spend monies you don’t have especially with consumerism and unproductiveness of our populace. According to the minister, the N5.6 trillion gap in the 13,58 trillion budget will be borrowed from the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank and countries like Brazil, a developing country like Nigeria. Yet, Nigerians are still kicking over incessant borrowings without concomitant development of key infrastructure to at least justify the debt overhang being bequeathed to generations unborn.
Meanwhile the same 2021 is said to be N505 billion higher than that of 2020. Again, from a lay person’s point of view, it does not make sense to increase a budget in pandemic and recession year only for that same country to want to borrow or sell national assets to finance it. Isn’t it safer to work within your limited finance than project high and plunge the nation into more debt traps?
In a document from the minister, government will sell integrated power plants in Geregu, Omotosho and Calabar at N434 billion, concession the National Arts Theatre, Tafawa Balewa Square and all the river basins authorities at N836 billion. Also the National Stadium in Lagos, Moshood Abiola Statium, Abuja and two others were to be concessioned for N100 million and all the sales would be through BPE, an organ of government that had unenviable past in this respect, and somehow operates clandestinely according to the Senate.
Unfortunately, the country has been through this kind of mess before; the only difference is that no lesson was learnt.
Between 2003 and 2007, the Olusegun Obasanjo government, with the current governor of Kaduna state, Nasir El-Rufai at the helms, hurriedly auctioned off some national assets running into billions of Naira. Although it is true that government property were run down, for which alibi they were offered for sale, a serious government would have fixed the associated problems of corruption, mismanagement and absence of maintenance culture than further reduce them to liabilities, and diminish their worth for onward sale to friends and cronies.
Besides, up till this moment no one can tell how the proceeds of such sales were utilised to help the economy. Nigeria still has housing deficit issue and virtually none of the public sector property sold did better after their acquisition. Instead, their assets were stripped and the companies were rendered comatose, such that today they are shadows of their past. A bad example of how not to sell government property was the acquisition of NICON insurance by a business man, Jimoh Ibrahim. Today, the company is worse off even as the bad shape is reflected in the physical dilapidation of the gigantic head office in Abuja. The sale of Daily Times newspaper, which in its hey days had property strewn all over the country has remained a subject of litigation almost 20 years after, even as its assets have been stripped too. Not to talk of sale of legislative quarters, an action that caused so much uproar but which the subsequent government of Umaru Yar’adua did not have the courage to upturn.
There is another nagging issue of borrowing from unclaimed dividends and dormant bank deposits, as if the owners of these accounts, even if dead, do not have relations or traceable addresses. All that is required is for SEC and NSE to do due diligence and the depositors’ families can be contacted. It is not free money lying waste as the government would have us believe. Instead of utilising it for an unproductive venture, the money could be invested in social services that can bring succour to the needy. Government does not have a good reputation in this respect.
The minister also said the assets earmarked for sale are moribund and their sales would boost the nation’s economy without explaining how. “There are some government assets that are dead, that can be sold to the private sector to be reactivated and put to use for the benefit of Nigerians. We are looking at different categories of government assets that government has not been able to manage, and in some cases even completely run down, to cede them off to the private sector” even as she had earlier said the “intention is not just funding the budget, it is to reactivate these assets and hand them over or have them bring contributions to the growth in the economy”, she added.
The story of assets sales in Nigeria is replete with elite’s collective theft of national patrimony and assets stripping. Selling is a one off thing without the capacity to regenerate wealth and as such not a solution to a country’s financial problem. With these sales, government wants to “cut its nose to spite its face, an expression to describe a needlessly self-destructive over-reaction to a problem”. So, what will happen to the budgets of the coming years, when there will be no property to sell? Such is the reality check government should subject the 2021 budget to, instead of going on a borrowing binge and disposing of what belongs to all to a few acolytes.