The question is: Which of these should Nigeria be spending time and resources looking for – foreign investors or tourists? The foreign investor has been getting so much airtime in Nigeria for as long as I can remember. Each time they are mentioned – and that is too many times than necessary in my view – they conjure the image of either Europeans or Americans flying into Nigeria with briefcases full of dollars. In my head, they conjure the image of benevolent Chinese men who are looking for how to ‘help’ Nigeria. Nigerian governments – at the national and subnational levels – have spent so much resources looking for these foreign investors. In time, we tried to emphasise ‘direct’ investments i.e. those types which go into the construction of factories and whatnot. But in the absence of that, owing to their snail speed in coming, of late Nigerians have been begging for ‘portfolio’ investors to come too. We need the dollars any which way, I’ve been told.
My friend who is a Private Equity person tells me there is so much of these dollars in different parts of the world, seeking refuge in countries such as ours. I believe him, though I don’t play in that field. What I think though, is also that these guys are supersmart and I don’t believe that a country like Nigeria could really gain from them except on rare occasions. Because as much as these funds are heavy, and free, they seek the highest returns anywhere they can find them. And due to decades – if not centuries – of experience, these funds are wired to do several things; never to lose any bit of the principal, to be nimble enough to take flight at the first sign of projected trouble, to max out where they can. I don’t mean to paint them bad but these are businesses – many of them established over decades. Ok, if you want to paint them bad, people like the Rothschilds ran Private Equities and Venture Capitals with which slave traders and colonialists bought guns to capture other peoples. Many of these funds were amassed though these means and today they are merely going through the motions of further laundering and legitimisation. The only difference is, they are now too wise to gift out money to anyone. They are profit oriented and have no apologies for their past. Those who run the global economy have also learnt to ignore that past and so their legitimacy is total. That is the way of the world.
In short, I personally will not set store on foreign investors taking a country like ours out of the socioeconomic woods we find ourselves. For the Portfolio investors who love to play in our capital markets, we have seen how they played that market twice in eight years and always cashed out leaving us locals with the short end of the stick. The only real direct investment that comes into Nigeria comes into the petroleum sector. The people who bought asset in the power sector ended up accumulating loans in our local banks and at some point had to be bailed out by the Nigerian government to the tune of N223 billion.
In spite of all the travels, all the MOUs, all the photo opportunities, all the rhetoric, by our Federal and State governments, pray which industries will we say are feeling the impact of foreign investors in Nigeria today? Even in the Telecoms sector, we are aware of the many issues with MTN, which has been accused severally of milking Nigerians and remitting huge sums abroad, sometimes illegally. Is it Shoprite? Most of what they sell comes from abroad. Some have accused them of merely being a place where they sell leftovers from South Africa.
Which brings me to why I’m writing this article. A short while back I read someone somewhere complaining about the Buhari government’s bad economic policy. But it wasn’t a strong article because the person kept listing how airlines have left Nigeria. He also mentioned some shipping lines and hotel brands. If I was working for the government, it will be easy to swathe away those complaints. Why? Many of those industries he mentioned are a conduit pipes for Nigerian dollars. Yes, Nigerians need to travel, many times for purely legal reasons. But when we consider the other side of the Forex balance sheet, it doesn’t seem that we are getting any inflows on that line, comparable to what is flowing out. So if airlines stop coming, all President Buhari has to say, is ‘good riddance’. Are airlines really foreign investors? Yes they bring their aircrafts and dedicate a couple of them to Nigeria. In the books, it could be said that x billions of dollars have been ‘invested’ in Nigeria, being the value of the expensive aircrafts deployed to ferrying Nigerians to spend their dollars in different parts of the world.
What about the flip side? What are we doing in that regard? I wrote a long time ago, after visiting Uganda and Kenya, that what Nigeria is really missing is non-debt financial inflows. In these East Africa countries, and indeed in our neighbouring West African countries, one will see an embarrassing density of Europeans, most of them tourists. Uganda for one has developed its tourism sector greatly. To get a visa to Uganda you are encouraged (almost forced) to call one of the thousands of tourist guide companies run by Ugandans (available online), and pre-pay for a tour. Even if you travel to Uganda and seek a visa on arrival, you are asked which tourist firm have you contacted. This is good business sense. Nigeria keeps talking about job and business creation and this is one area we haven’t explored. If we will though, we have to be careful of our guys who will want to swindle people, and of course we have to be ready with the tourist sites.
There are two things to say regarding tourist sites. The first is that they don’t have to be all about animals and slaves. We can be ingenious about it. In Uganda, a one-day Kampala tour takes you to places like the Parliament, Makerere University and a Catholic Church. If you have more time, you can go to the wildlife resort at Entebbe. Meaning that in a place like Abuja, a visit to the National Assembly (people don’t have to go inside), Abuja University, the Space Centre, the Stadium, etc is enough for a one-day tour. The minimum is like $150! That is why I’ve been agonising that we like to build infrastructure but for some reason, we don’t know what to do with infrastructure.
The second issue is that our country is too broken and something needs to be done very urgently. The other day, a lion escaped from the Jos zoo. It had to be put down by the Civil Defense people. But the embarrassing thing is how that lion had been starved. Nigerians are so desperate they steal money from the dead and dying, how much more appropriating monies meant for meat for lions. The DG of whatever agency will use that money to acquire more wives, send his children abroad to school and build a few mansions and plazas. Whatever is left, the game-keeper sends to his wife to make food for the children. We have no controls here over anything. Our hunters kill anything they see in the forests. That is why, in the whole of Nigeria, we have nothing like the Entebbe games reserve where the animals are well kept and robust, in their natural environments. The professionalism of the tour guides is second to none, and must be partly as a result of frequent interaction with foreigners who have very high standards. For those who have more time, there is the Gorilla Trail, where you go with these tour guides into the jungle and see live gorillas, like they do with the safari in Kenya and tours of the Serengeti or Kruger National Park in South Africa. In Nigeria, despite what we have in the Cross-River area and many parts, we are just not organised to do anything like that… and if we did, I’m afraid we are too accident-prone. Stray hunters will shoot the tourists!
All this is to tell us we seem to be looking in the wrong direction for salvation. I still repeat the experience I had in Ethiopia a couple of weeks back. This country – full of rocks and bad for planting in the most parts – is waking up in a big way, and its focus is its aviation sector. Ethiopia is controlling most of Africa with that sector today, and Nigerians can only queue up as its shameless ‘big brother’ where they have resources and population but know not what to do with them. Ethiopian Airlines has even colonised the West African aviation business with its takeover of A-Sky Airlines. When you visit their Bole Airport, which is being expanded, you will cry for Nigeria. Nobody comes into Nigeria. Everybody courses through Ethiopia, and Ethiopia has a product with which it collects money from the pockets of most African citizens.
What makes a country successful is the ability to create products that reach into people’s pockets, not necessarily government-to-government or G2G as development people like to call it. G2G is too controlled and crazy people are in charge. A country like Nigeria can never get anything substantial and sustainable through G2G. Instead we should thing I2I. Individual to Individual. What is a Nigerian selling (like those tour guides of Uganda, or the hotels of Ethiopia who host overnight travellers aplenty), that other citizens of this world would want to buy? The answer for now, is little, or nothing.
And that is why people did not see the irony in sharing a recent article in Bloomberg, written by a professor, Tyler Cowen, titled “I’m a Tourist in Lagos, You Have a Problem With That?” The title alone shows what an anathema it is to come to Lagos as a tourist, or indeed to any other part of Nigeria. The title tells of the kind of question a person may be asked abroad if he says he is off to Nigeria for tourism. It will be something like; ‘are you crazy? Are you on a suicide mission?’ It is the equivalent of a Nigerian claiming he is off to Iraq or Afghanistan, or Aleppo, Syria for our regular shopping sprees. Someone please consult his pastor or jujuman.
It tells of just how bad our image is and the number of barriers we have to overcome. And until we overcome these barriers, the country is not going anywhere. We have to overcome our negative image. We have to overcome innate inefficiencies. We have to overcome corruption. We have to overcome the likelihood of people coming down with diseases when they come here, and so that speaks to public health and the environment. We have to overcome insecurity in the land. We have to overcome our broken infrastructure. We have to overcome disunity, by which the country is dragged in different directions and we are not pulling in the same direction; and the citizens of the country are the same ones undermining it. In short, we have to urgently set out to create a ‘new’ country. Those running it now don’t seem to know the enormity of the task, or they probably know and cannot do anything about it. If we continue like this, this country is heading to Hell.
And so the other day, I was searching online for comments about Abuja Sheraton Hotel, which I know is in bad shape. But the google search took me elsewhere. I came up with a result: “The Most Expensive Hotel in the World?”, which I interrogated. It couldn’t be Sheraton Abuja, I thought. But it ended up being the Hilton Abuja. I interrogated further and saw a number of customer complaints, especially about how much they were charged per night at that hotel. The complainants were mostly Europeans who never have such free money to spend unlike Nigerians. The Management of the Hilton Abuja sweated on that ‘Trip Advisor’ site to explain their charges and their staff’s alleged tardiness away. The thread I read happened in 2011. But that is not the gist, even though a major disincentive to tourism in Nigeria is the high rates charged by the few brand hotels we have. I once stayed at Hilton Metropole for as low as $150 per night but here, they would probably charge about $400 at the minimum. For what?
The gist is that flashing somewhere on top of the screen was a ‘travel alert’. I clicked on it and it was the US Government warning their citizens – and basically the rest of the world – not to go anywhere near Nigeria in short. They listed the states. The listed the whole of Northern Nigeria. They listed the South too. Oh my. There is no need trying to cherrypick. Which normal tourist will be gingerly sidestepping one state from another in Nigeria? When there are other places to go for tourism? The damage that this type of advert does to Nigeria is irreparable. Maybe the alert was issued in 2011 at the peak of the Boko Haram Bombings. But till date, it hasn’t been taken down. No matter how we advertise the rolling hills of Lokoja, or Obudu and co, no one will come there. The foreigners we see here are hardened foreign service people, many of who are basically on service punishment by being posted here. Some of them will tell you they like Nigeria, and indeed Nigeria is likeable. But it is only because they were forced to live with us.
Which takes me to Obudu. Again, my neighbour who is from there had been on my case for several years that we should go. But recently when we met at a party, I asked how about a trip up there – since the new era has locked us down in Nigeria. He shook his head in pity… Obudu is now mismanaged; a ghost of itself. Nothing works anymore. Something about the foreign partners not being paid until they left in anger. Hmmm. Without foreigners we can’t even run tourist centres. A friend also went to Ikogosi recently and subtly complained. I was there earlier in the year for a friend’s 50th. Can’t say I was impressed. They said it’s Fayose that neglected the place. I say it’s deeper than that. We are just a people who don’t realise what their real strengths are. Next case please!