BUSINESS DAY (SA) - The Nigerian president’s attack on international financial institution HSBC at the weekend has put his country’s investment risk scenario in the spotlight yet again — and raised questions about what his government hopes to gain from its assault on the private sector in recent weeks.
HSBC is paying the price for questioning President Muhammadu Buhari’s fitness for a second term, in a recent article. The response was swift and brutal. The presidency accused the company of being a conduit for more than $100m allegedly stolen by former military ruler Sani Abacha in the 1990s. Buhari set his Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to work on the matter and that agency vowed not to rest until HSBC returns the Abacha money to Nigeria.
The financial crimes unit also paid a visit to the offices of Standard Chartered Bank at the weekend, on unspecified business. This follows an accusation by Nigeria’s central bank that Standard Chartered was one of four financial institutions that helped cellular network provider MTN allegedly move $8bn out of Nigeria illegally over a 10-year period from 2007.
The hand of politics has reached deep into Nigeria’s private sector in recent weeks via the actions of various arms of government and state agencies. MTN has made the headlines in this regard because of the huge amount of money being demanded of it, the fact that the latest accusation follows the company’s massive $5.2bn fine in 2015 for failing to register SIM card holders timeously and the fact that the alleged infractions go back more than a decade.
MTN has become an easy target for revenue raising and point-scoring by authorities who calculate that many Nigerians will support vilification of the company. Many in Nigeria, even those who willingly use MTN’s services, resent its success, holding on to a view that they are being exploited by foreigners and that their money is being repatriated to SA, a country deemed to be generally unfriendly to Nigerians. This does not reflect the real picture though. MTN has re-invested billions of dollars into its Nigerian operation and points out that it took a chance on Nigeria at a time when most investors considered the country too high an investment risk.
Even as Buhari appears to seek private investment in Nigeria, such attacks on business have been a feature of his rule. Multinationals are a favoured target of overzealous tax collectors. With a huge number of entities unregistered for tax or unwilling to pay it, the Nigerian authorities tend to focus on the compliant to extract more money from them than they are already paying. There appears to be little attempt to steadily and sustainably build the tax base.
It is not just foreign investors that bear the brunt of the government’s depredation. Local companies see themselves as long-term victims of a hostile regulatory and tax environment. More than 700,000 firms were targeted by a new tax unit in a crackdown during the 2015-16 recession. Tax inspectors went door to door, aggressively demanding information in an attempt to raise more revenue for the depleted national fiscus.
In 2017 more than 10 Nigerian banks, such as UBA, Fidelity Bank and Access Bank, were among financial sector institutions that were fined. A similar number of banks had been fined the year before for various regulatory infractions, most of them disputed by the banks to no avail.
Tax administration and collection is obviously a knotty problem in Nigeria, a country where the tax-to-GDP ratio is just 6% compared with the global average of 15% and SA’s high 27%. But its state agencies are being used in an ad hoc manner to overcome short-term shortages or bolster political agendas rather than to build fiscal stability in the macroeconomic environment.
Analysts in Nigeria are still puzzled about what is driving the current bruising battles with the private sector. The issues are complex. Some say it is about the president reminding the electorate of the anticorruption drive that won him many votes in 2015 but has drifted of late, netting no high-profile public officials or big fish in the private sector. Indeed, some believe corruption has worsened under Buhari, not because of his own actions but because of a hands-off style of governance that has allowed people to exploit the system without reproach.
For many observers, targeting multinational companies plays to a view that the government is protecting consumers from "rapacious" investors who are only interested in taking Nigerians’ money without offering much in return. No matter the justifications used by state agencies in acting against companies, it is clear that political manoeuvring is behind it all. The economy is a useful tool when politicians are vying for the hearts and minds of voters.
But bashing business is likely to be counterproductive in the long run. The high profile status of some targets has alarmed the investment community. Nigeria might have inched out of the damaging recession of recent times but it is not out of the woods. Even the 2% growth expected in 2018 is a long way off nearly 7% in 2014 before the oil price crash. In the wake of the MTN crisis portfolio outflows have increased.
An election under these circumstances is unlikely to solve many of Nigeria’s problems, as neither of the main political parties is contesting it on firm policy or ideological issues. Cynics say the only motivating factor for either of them is access to the treasury.
This view is highlighted by recent floor crossings. More than 50 members of the APC party recently defected to the PDP in what some have dubbed the "political transfer window" — a reference to the annual pre-season trade in soccer players. Some of these people are serial defectors who move between parties at election time, depending on what political tickets are on offer.
There’s more than a grain of truth in the view that moral posturing and development promises by floor-crossers simply cover up personal ambition. Nigeria’s politics have never been a major consideration for investors, with political risk tending to be built into the model.
A huge population, significant market gaps, a hard-working populace and handsome returns on equity if you get it right have generally kept money taps open.
But growing aggression towards business has raised a red flag. Reputational risk, the disproportionate size of fines and the fact that the authorities seem loath to entertain any defence from targeted companies are real causes for concern. Business is not asking for favours from the government but for fairness and consistency when it comes to issues affecting it.
Credible companies are more than willing to support measures to improve the macroeconomic environment and need to be brought on-side in the effort to improve regulation and compliance. The government and its agencies would be better off focusing on that than on periodic blitzes against companies.
As one Nigerian commentator pointed out, "Our ability to resolve these issues with decency will count a lot in attracting more investments. It’s not warfare."
• Games is CEO of business advisory Africa @ Work and executive director of the SA-Nigeria Chamber of Commerce. She writes in her personal capacity