Nigeria’s privatisation delusion

June 2, 2011
4 mins read

IT is the height of insanity to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result; right? That’s true only if you’re not in Nigeria. VANGUARD newspaper of Friday, May 27th, 2011, carried a report that the FGN through, the Attorney General, has asked the IG Police, to arrest the Anosike brothers, Fidelis and Noel, “over their alleged roles in the illegal purchase of The Daily Times of Nigeria assets, estimated at N3billion”.

Furthermore, the brothers, according to the charge against them in the Lagos High Court, made “false representation to the Bureau of Public Enterprises, BPE, that they had means to acquire majority shares of Daily Times of Nigeria, but instead of raising the said money, they were said to have mortgaged the assets of the newspaper conglomerate and also sold some of the property to realise the acquisition of the said shares”.

So devoid of legalese, the assets of the company were stripped and in the madness of the “religion” of privatising the public space in Nigeria, a national institution like Daily Times was destroyed and lost forever.

The privatisation delusion
It is very interesting that the story of the Anosikes and their mal-treatment of Daily Times broke almost at the same time as the confession by Vice President, Namadi Sambo that 80 percent of government companies privatised have failed. I have never supported the privatisation of national assets, because the delusion that the private sector works better than the public space is just that, a delusion; at least  in Nigeria.

Privatisation has fostered the worst manifestation of crony capitalism, when choice national assets were sold to cronies of the ruling elite, as we have seen from the mid-1980s, but most especially under the regime of the old despot, Olusegun Obasanjo. Privatisation has been a ‘religion’ of sorts, here since the mid-1980s and its failure ought to have given the Nigerian state the pause. But adherence to the diktats of the Washington Consensus became the ruling orthodoxy in Nigerian bourgeois circles, since Babangida introduced SAP in the mid-80s; followed by the deepened adherence to the policies under Obasanjo.

Between 2002 and 2005, I worked as Editor of DAILY TRUST newspaper. We followed with interest two of the programmes of privatisation of the Obasanjo regime: those of the Ajaokuta Steel Company and NITEL. Ajaokuta, as planned, was to be bedrock of Nigeria’s industrial take off. Billions of dollars went into its construction, including a programme of training of Nigerian engineers and technicians around the world, but especially in the former Soviet Union and India.

The imperialist institutions of the IMF and World Bank were opposed to a Nigerian steel industry, arguing that it would not be economical. But the underlining effort was to defend the steel exports of Western countries. While Nigeria did not run the complex as best as it should and one should criticise that; it was nevertheless a gigantic undertaking that we were beginning to master. The steel complex was envisaged to become the largest employer of labour in Nigeria; while its location in Northern Nigeria made it particularly dear to our people.

Well, Obasanjo was determined to sell off Nigeria, no matter what! He chose to sell Ajaokuta using a certain SOLGAS company, headed by a 36 year old Seun Oyefeso. They did not possess the requisite expertise and were locked in perpetual battles with the iron and steel workers union. Not surprisingly, the group began to strip assets of Ajaokuta steel company. It became such a scandal that then SGF, Ekaette issued a query to the group.

It became clear that Nigeria’s industrial vision was deliberately being blinded forever. An unrepentant Obasanjo sacked the SOLGAS guys and then moved to an Indian group. The nut and bolt of our story is that Ajaokuta’s original patriotic effort as a state-led project for national industrialisation was aborted, while adherence to Washington Consensus-inspired privatisation has stripped assets; led to de-industrialisation and has not given Nigeria the capitalist development they have always touted.

The NITEL scam
The second is the painful scamming of NITEL! Just before Obasanjo’s assumption of power in 1999, a ‘terribly corrupt’ NITEL at least, paid dividend in billions of naira to the Nigerian government. But Obasanjo was beholden to the ‘demons’ of Washington and the simplistic mantra that everything must be privatised. The first group that came calling was IIL (London) Ltd.; they could not purchase the company. Then Nasir El-Rufai brought in PENTASCOPE from the Netherlands.

The controversial body was said to have its HQ in an abandoned church. Amazingly, PENTASCOPE was given a carte blanche to spend the monies of NITEL, and they cleared its offshore foreign currency savings. A company that was actually a national strategic institution has not recovered from PENTASCOPE; or from TRANSCORP and other efforts to sell BY FORCE! In the meantime, Nigeria became a country where telephone landlines disappeared from homes and offices, just as the assets of NITEL that have not been stolen, have continued to rot, as our empty-headed ruling elite cling to the litanies of the church of privatisation, as their route to the heaven of capitalist development!

Writing about the near-religious fervor for neoliberal capitalism, Tariq Ali, the Pakistani/British writer, said in the book Pirates of the Carribean:Axis  of Hope (2008), “The new faith is, as we know, an old one. Capitalism has existed for five hundred years….WC (Washington Consensus) supporters became semi-religious in their devotions. What they supported became immutable and infallible; all problems would cease once the entire world had been properly converted. All heresies needed to be expelled from it so that it became self-consistent.

Any challenge to this view was to be ruled out of court. And yet if one looks deeply into the minds of the new converts all that can be seen is an empty space with borrowed furniture”. This is an apt description of the Nigerian variety of this near-religious madness. During Obasanjo’s years, reactionary elements running the nation’s economic life, from Charles Soludo, Oby Ezekwesili through to Nasir El-Rufai huffed and puffed as disciples of the Washington orthodoxy; but Nigeria has been the worst for it.

More of the same
The crisis of the past few years exploded the myth of Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”. Neoliberal capitalism was exposed as a monumental fraud, especially in Latin America. But in a classical neo-colony like Nigeria, run by the worst specimens of unthinking political elite, they regularly promise us MORE OF THE SAME, even when it does not work.

Official statistics speak of 44million unemployed young people and these are under the age of 30. The state will not create jobs hoping the parasitic bourgeoisie will; this survives on an economics of import waivers and buccaneering. It is delusion sans frontieres! The Nigerian privatisation process is the worst form of pseudo-religious delusion afflicting the elite. The much-touted economic turnaround has not worked and is not likely to. Does anyone recognise insanity when he/she sees it?

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