<img src="https://cdn.gdn.ng/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Business.jpg" alt="" width="1280" height="720" class="alignleft size-full wp-image-196010" srcset="https://cdn.gdn.ng/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Business.jpg 1280w,https://cdn.gdn.ng/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Business-640×360.jpg 640w,https://cdn.gdn.ng/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Business-1062×598.jpg 1062w,https://cdn.gdn.ng/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Business-320×180.jpg 320w,https://cdn.gdn.ng/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Business-281×158.jpg 281w,https://cdn.gdn.ng/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Business-562×316.jpg 562w,https://cdn.gdn.ng/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Business-531×299.jpg 531w,https://cdn.gdn.ng/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Business-487×274.jpg 487w,https://cdn.gdn.ng/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Business-974×548.jpg 974w,https://cdn.gdn.ng/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Business-600×338.jpg 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1280px) 100vw, 1280px"https://cdn.gdn.ng/, it can be very challenging. So challenging that in the last round of doing business rankings conducted by the World Bank, we came in at 169th out of 189 countries. Notably ranked worse than war-torn Iraq and economic basket-case Zimbabwe.
The Buhari-led administration has been taking the problem very seriously. There is an enabling business secretariat chaired by the acting president who has been working on this for a while. The admin also launched a 60-day taskforce to try to make real progress in tackling some of the issues. I attended a “come and see what we are doing” event organized by them recently and they are doing good stuff. They are working with consultants from the consultancy firm which shall not be named, and are streamlining processes on a variety of things such as moving stuff through the ports, getting visas, and registering businesses. They also have a lot of support and so are able to pressure the heads of ministries and government agencies. They are doing good stuff by any definition.
However, a question relating to their work has been stuck in my head for a while now. The question: How many big-four consultants does it take to delete a government agency? This government is not the first to hire big-four consultants to streamline processes and do a bunch of other things. If my memory is correct, the Jonathan government worked with the consultants under Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Olusegun Aganga to streamline a bunch of processes such as paying taxes, registering businesses, and visas and so on. In fact, you would struggle to find a four-year stretch since 1999 when there was no effort by the government, working with the consultants, to streamline some processes, admittedly under different names. Yet here we are, still tumbling down the doing business rankings and still a very difficult place to do business.
The thing is, unfortunately, while the technocrats in government are working very hard, with their big-four consultants, the politicians are working very hard as well. For every procedure that is streamlined by the technocrats, the politicians create a new agency to make life more difficult. For example, while roaming around the internet one day I found out there actually is an Institute of Chartered Economists of Nigeria.
Yes, you read that right. What do “Chartered Economists” do? I don’t know, but the institute may have a legal mandate to “regulate the activities of all the different aspects of economics”. A couple of years down the line, they will create a licensing procedure that extracts time and resources from businesses and harass businesses who don’t license their economists. Then the government will hire consultants to streamline the processes for licensing economists to improve the ease of economists doing business. All the while forgetting to ask why we have an Institute of Chartered Economists in the first place.
I know that scenario of events sounds far-fetched but once upon a time the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP) sounded like a simple and straight forward idea yet it has become a cog in the wheel of many IT firms trying to do business by the books. Once upon a time, the Financial Reporting Council of Nigeria sounded like a simple and straightforward idea and we can all see how that has ended up. The list could go on.
To cut the story short, while I applaud the efforts made to improve the ease of doing business, there is the question of sustainability. For as long as the politicians keep creating agencies, who will eventually throw their spanner in the wheels of businesses, then the current efforts seem like a losing battle. The technocrats in government need to make it clear to their bosses that any improvements without tackling the politics behind the creation of new agencies, and shutting down some old ones, will eventually fade away.
How do we deal with the politics behind the creation of new agencies? I don’t know, but it starts with defining the rights of businesses and defining under what conditions those rights should be taken away. Should businesses have the right to opt out of licensing procedures which are not life or death? Should businesses have the right to import and export via a port in a neighbouring country? The US bill of rights came about in response to calls for the protection of individual freedoms from pervasive government power. A problem that, at the core, is similar to our ease of doing business challenges. Perhaps we need our own version of a bill of business rights.
• Nonso Obikili is an economist currently roaming somewhere between Nigeria and South Africa and tweets @nonso2. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views of his employers.