During the run-up to the 2012 Republican primaries in the United States, Rick Perry described a group of businessmen as ‘vulture capitalists’. His choice of words is quite apt. How else can you describe companies whose philosophy is purely about the bottom-line? How best can you describe companies that see people as mere tools to use and achieve higher profits? In what possible way can you describe companies that do not invest in long term projects but focus on cheap and short term gains? What can we call companies that have no sense of national interest, but are engulfed in pure self-interest?
Perry may call them vulture capitalists but here in Nigeria we know them as a cabal. The concept of a cabal is not necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is how it manifests itself and whether or not it has a wider impact than providing shareholders with returns. Cabals can build businesses that drive economic growth. In South Korea, the Chaebols were like a cabal but driven by a spirit of enterprise, industrialisation and value creation. Silicon Valley is also a sort of cabal powered by innovation, invention and making the world a better place. Here in Nigeria, cabals are, unfortunately, not that creative. In collusion with certain government parastatals, corruption has become the order of the day. “Away with agriculture, away with manufacturing, oil all the way”, is the song that they have chanted for the last 20 years. The worst part of this was the very fact that the oil and gas industry itself is not focused on production and independence. Our refineries have become largely dysfunctional and we continue to export crude and import refined petroleum products. We exported all our jobs to neighbouring countries and enriched other countries because the members of the cabal couldn’t think beyond themselves. This disingenuous business concept is what is prevalent in Nigeria today, and not just in the oil sector. With such a structure, there is only so far the business can grow and very little value it can add.
The cabal in Nigeria not only profited from the regulated petroleum market, but also invaded the stock market setting the value of stock for more than its real value. They borrowed syndicated loans from banks and embezzled the money on their glamorous but inglorious lifestyles, preventing small and medium scale enterprises from accessing those loans. They did not only refuse to expand business interests, but prevented small businesses that would have willingly done so. They didn’t bother to invest and expand into manufacturing, agriculture, health, technology or media. Their favourite past time was to lounge in houses bought in Dubai, London and other places. They would rather build a refinery in another country than in Nigeria. The problem with our version of the cabal business concept is that it has fundamentally failed to translate into job creation and real economic development and growth. It is not focused on adding value, but extracting profit. One of the things that the January 2013 subsidy removal protests showed us was that the people are fully aware of this, a situation that can breed further instability if it is not properly addressed.
The government has to find a way to solve the problem of greed. I perceive the sincerity of the intent of the government in pushing for a deregulated market, but I am also fully aware of its shortcomings. It is delusional to assume that a deregulated market will resolve the pernicious minds of the marketers; as long as only few have licenses to import, they stand to also benefit from a market with unrestrained competition. Measures must be in place to also protect the deregulated market from the avarice of the cabal, or we will not make progress.
It is a disservice to one’s nation and to the world to do business purely because one wants to make profit. There has to be more. There ought to be a reason for your existence beyond profit. It is not the income you make but the impact you leave behind that people will remember you for.