Ease of Doing Business: for Whom and By Whom?

June 8, 2016by Tope Fasua0

One cannot easily pass the message across that Nigerians should try and think for themselves. It is an arduous task. I’ve tried to interrogate why this is so. I can only conclude that many – if not most – Nigerians are intimidated by these matters in spite of the outward show of braggadocio. We are content with ‘belonging’ to elite clubs and regurgitating what we were taught in business schools – at best – just to sound intelligent on the outside. This is why we have been repeating mantra that hurts us and our country, instead of creating our own narratives and truly forging ahead as a people, in this game of development.

Take for instance the World Bank’s Doing Business Index. I cannot count how many times I’ve heard it inserted in many a speech, all aimed at reminding us how the Nigerian business space is the worst in the world. Every Nigerian – especially in the corporate sector – who intends to sound intelligent, quaintly quotes this index and leaves their audience more depressed than they initially were. A committee was recently set up at the presidency to look into how they can move Nigeria up in the Ease of Doing Business Index. Yet, a cursory look at what exactly that index measures, shows that really it is meant to serve the purpose of foreign investors at best. It is not geared at causing a local entrepreneurship revolution – which should be our aim. Why should we be working for others to benefit from our nation’s cash flows? Why should we be trying to make the lives of foreign investors better – even at the expense of our own local entrepreneurs?

In the first place, for anyone who has done – or attempted to do – business for any stretch of their lives, it is clear that the ‘bestest’ place for you to do business is in your own country. In every country I have been in the world, they have reserved the best and largest business opportunities for their own people. Actually, many of the western countries who peddle this deceptive rhetoric aren’t as ‘free’ as they make out. Most people in those countries simply key into particular jobs and slave on throughout their lives, with most hooked on credit cards. But there is an elite few who get most of the business in those countries. These are the ones with the big companies who employ the rest. The current model is one where large companies employ the majority, who remain at the mercy of these behemoths. They are easy to hire and fire, and most of them live from one paycheck to the other. That is the standard model being sold to the world today, and it is obviously full of flaws.

Nigeria – Doing Business
So, according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, countries like Nigeria are doing better in the density of entrepreneurship, than those developed countries; naturally you would say. This means that Nigerians are wont to open up enterprises of their own more than the average Brit or American. Part of the reason is that most Nigerians have since learnt to fend for themselves and never rely on government. Nobody gives anyone any free money here, just because one is a Nigerian citizen, as against the heavy reliance by millions on freebies – dole and food stamps – in the countries I mentioned above. Our economic structure is different from theirs, but any discerning eye can see that we are being clobbered to conform. This Ease of Doing Business Index is another subtle form of clobbering. It simply isn’t speaking to our needs.

That said, we should be careful of regurgitating an Index which measures the ease of doing business based on indices like ‘resolving insolvency’, ‘obtaining building permit’, ‘cross-border trade’, ‘registering property’, ‘protection of minority interests’, and so on. These measurements are obviously geared at protecting the interests of large foreign companies. Nigeria does not have provision for declaring bankruptcy and walking away with investors’ monies. The notorious Donald Trump, who seeks to become the next American president and thus the leader of the world, has declared bankruptcy four times, and is still a multibillionaire! Elsewhere he would be a candidate for a maximum security jail. Regarding some of the other indices, pray, how many businesses truly need land, building permits, and ability to trade across borders (in an age where the internet has removed cross border barriers). Is this Index speaking for the businesses that really need to be spoken for? I doubt it. Of course the index speaks about electricity, credit and the ease of opening a business but those are less than half of its concerns. There is even a curious criteria called ‘ease of paying taxes’. Now that’s laughable. Since when will paying taxes stop a business from running?

I believe in questioning everything, and never accepting anyone’s dogma. We can do better here. We should be thinking for our own Steve Jobs and Larry Page and Zuckerberg. How many properties did they register before creating companies who reach into the pockets of the whole world from America today? These are businesses started in car garages and basements. Do our young, starry-eyed boys and girls have to ‘register their business’ before they create Apps that will solve problems for us here, change our world and put money in their pockets? Did the teenage game-changers in the US start out by registering their businesses? Then, why talk about cross border trade when we are yet to satisfy the potentials and needs of our own population? And what is that talk about insolvency so early, in an atmosphere of hope?

Perhaps we should be thinking of creating an index that will show how easy it is for SMEs – small and medium enterprises – to set up and thrive. That would really be great. What Africa needs are more SMEs. If we really want to eradicate poverty through entrepreneurship, what we need is a massive rash of small businesses. Africa should be getting its youth to establish businesses around providing for the needs of our needy people. The first step, as I’ve always stated, is to incentivise the youth and put money in their pockets. The problem we have right now is that the youth cannot even buy from themselves. The government seems stuck in a rut – out of its own making – complaining daily and shifting responsibility when it should be the catalyst, the first-mover. Meanwhile, our own SME Doing Business Index may have things like ‘obtaining electricity’ or credit, but it will also have something like ‘ability to compete against big businesses’, ‘ability to obtain businesses based on merit’, ‘per capita SME businesses per country’, ‘shared infrastructure for SME businesses’, ‘number of problem-solving, indigenous initiatives’, and such like, which will encourage their growth. Think, Africa, Think!

Again, the best place on earth for any Nigerian to do business, is simply Nigeria. Nowhere else. Most Nigerians who do business abroad, are forced by circumstances (glass barriers) to stick to ‘their own’, siting their usually small businesses in the vicinities where Nigerians or black Africans live. This is why we haven’t seen many instances where blacks create conglomerates who go conquering markets in distant lands. Other people have captured and retained that privilege. That is why even our own Dangote, is having to expand gradually, very gradually, first from Nigeria, to some parts of Africa. Every ‘developed’ country is wise, they don’t just give an inch.

by Tope Fasua

Tope Kolade Fasua is a Nigerian ex-banker, entrepreneur, economist and writer with 28 years of work, business and policy analysis experience. He is the founder and CEO of Global Analytics Consulting Limited, an international consulting firm with its headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, and footprints in the United Kingdom, USA and United Arab Emirates. Fasua has authored numerous columns on newspapers and six books. He currently keeps regular columns on policy analysis issues with Premium Times and Daily Trust newspapers.

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