Monday, January 11, 2016

Ben Murray-Bruce: Wailing on the Economy

I love to read books and that habit means I frequent bookshops a lot. However, since I resumed duties as a Senator, I have not had as much spare time as I used to have so rather than buy in stores, I buy majority of the books I read online. So you could imagine my shock when I tried to purchase some leadership and management books from a foreign bookshop online only to find that my account, which is well funded, would not work! Then I got an email from my bank explaining to me that due to the realities of our economy, my ATM card is being restricted. I was shocked!

At first I thought the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had incorrectly fingered me as a recipient of the fabled Dasuki money (I did not receive a dime and I did not solicit for such funds). But then a number of my friends reported similar experiences to me. Even at that, I could not believe that Nigerians could be precluded from spending their money as they deemed fit, until the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news headline confirming my worst fears-Nigerian credit/debit cards are being restricted by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN)!

To say I was shocked would be an understatement! Forget about my books, what about people in more desperate circumstances than I was? This policy disproportionately punishes honest, hardworking and patriotic Nigerians who have domiciled their accounts, businesses and properties in Nigeria as a vote of confidence on their country. Many Nigerian politicians notoriously have foreign accounts and may not feel the pinch as much as ordinary Nigerians. And the thing is that it is precisely our politicians who have put us in this state and not the long-suffering Nigerian masses.

After I got over my initial shock, I made enquiries as to how people are copping with this economic blockade and I was moved to tears by the results of my findings. If you think that the Naira is losing value solely because of the falling crude oil prices, you will be wrong. Part of the reason for the downward trend is a unique and new type of capital flight that has arisen in response to the realities of our forex restriction regime. You see, Nigerians, faced with the inability to use their ATMs abroad are heading to the Black Market, to buy foreign currency in unprecedented numbers and are then flocking to neighbouring countries like Benin Republic and the Republic of Ghana to open accounts there, because ATMs from Beninese and Ghanaian banks work overseas while those from Nigerian banks don’t. Imagine that!

Even if we must ban the use of Nigerian ATM card abroad, is it not better to take into account some realities before we implement such drastic measures? With the hugely successful Bank Verification Number (BVN) registration process, the CBN has the verified account details of all elected and appointed politicians in Nigeria. If at all we must ban, why not ban it for politically exposed people like me instead of ordinary Nigerians that depend on it? Do not punish regular everyday Nigerians for the wrongs of the political class! A lot of the small and medium scale enterprises that employ the majority of Nigerians, depend on their ATM cards to do business abroad.

What do Nigerians who are in foreign hospitals for life threatening illness do if they can’t access funds via ATM? What do Nigerian students schooling abroad and who depend on their parents to fund them via naira ATM do? How do bloggers pay for hosting if ATMs will not work on foreign sites? Is this the anti Social Media Bill via the backdoor? What do thousands of young Nigerians who promote their businesses to the world via Facebook/Twitter Ads do? #PunishpoliticiansnotNigerians!

These people are not just statistics. They are young men and women who trooped out in their millions to vote in the All Progressive Congress (APC) to power. And now how are they being rewarded? There is no fuel and when you complain you are told that former President Goodluck Jonathan is the cause of the fuel scarcity! Really? When electricity improved in June it was not Jonathan’s fault but when there is fuel scarcity in December, six months after he handed over, it is his fault. As our young people will say, issorai!

The sad thing is that while Nigerians are going through these hardships and trying to take it in their stride, their governors, who they look to for help, are threatening to reduce the minimum wage! At the time the new Minimum Wage Bill was signed into law by President Jonathan, the N18,000 wage was equivalent to $130. Today the minimum wage is worth only $75 and rather than thinking about how to raise it, our governors are conspiring on how to reduce it. It is like spanking a child and when the child is crying you begin taunting the child. How sad!

With this policy on ATM use abroad, those in power are making Nigeria into a country where the poor pay for the sins of the rich and powerful. Nigeria is going through tough times and what we need is a government that includes not one that excludes! Blaming all our woes on Jonathan is just escapism and a revision of history. If we need to conserve our reserves, there are practical and commonsensical actions we could take rather than this action, which seems rather knee jerk.

In a news story on Bloomberg, the magazine quoted Shoprite’s South African CEO, Whitey Basson, as saying the retailer’s seven stores in Nigeria sold more Moet & Chandon champagne than all the liquor shops in South Africa last year. May be you did not get me. Mr. Basson is not just saying that Shoprite sold more Champagne in Nigeria. No. He said that Shoprite sold more Champagne in Nigeria than all the stores in South Africa (including their competitors) combined! To put it in perspective, Shoprite has less than 20 stores in Nigeria and over 400 in South Africa! Now these are the foxes that spoil our economic vine!

The problem is not that we are drinking so much champagne, the problem is that we are importing the product and paying for it with our foreign reserve. I could understand if we were importing life saving medicines, but Moet & Chandon champagne is a luxury. In 2014, official records show that 768,131 bottles of champagne were imported into Nigeria at a cost of over $100,000,000. When you factor in the fact that one company, International Wine and Spirits, claims that it sold 1.1m bottles of champagne in Nigeria, it means that more of the product is being smuggled in through our porous borders than those coming in through official channels.

And who are the champagne drinkers in Nigeria? Certainly not regular Nigerians who are eking out a living using their ATM cards as a cashless form of skin business over the border.

No. It is the political elite again who are to be blamed. In the past 50 years, Nigeria has paid for maybe a million people to go on pilgrimage. Imagine if we had paid for a million people to start businesses instead! If we had done that, we would not be so dependent on oil rent. We would, like other nations, be dependent on taxes paid by a productive population who makes the things that they consume. We would have saved billions of dollars the state paid as air tickets, Basic Travel Allowance and other incidentals.

Not that I am against pilgrimages. If ones religion requires pilgrimages as a sacrifice then by all means go. But if government has to pay for your pilgrimage, then how is it a sacrifice? It is no longer a sacrifice. It becomes a holiday! I advise the present administration to swallow its pride and instead of vilifying Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, should consider consulting her for advise on how she was able to coordinate the economy in such a way that Nigeria enjoyed seven years of economic stability in which our currency maintained its value and workers were paid on time and regularly too. Propaganda can only sustain you for so long. Blaming others can only fool weak minded people for just that long. But over time, it will keep becoming clearer and clearer that the emperor is naked. May we never get to that stage.

My name is Ben Murray-Bruce and I just want to make #Commonsense!

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Opinion pieces do not represent the position of Austin Naija but are solely the view of the writers.

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