Standing logic on its head, Minister of Finance Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala insists she has done nothing wrong in the administration of import waivers despite obviously contrary evidence
Tried as she may, it appears the Coordinating Minister in Charge of the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will never be able to convince any independent stakeholder about her utmost good faith in the way that she has managed the import waiver regime. It would appear however, that Okonjo-Iweala and her publicists are unwilling to confront manufacturers and officials of the Nigerian Customs Service. They would rather concentrate on the media for attacks.
Since the controversy opened with the illegal purchase of over-invoiced bullet-proof BMW cars by the Minister of Aviation, Mrs. Iweala and her media adviser, Paul Nwabuiku, have not found it important to dispute the sources of the information that the media has projected- Nigerian Customs Service. Addressing a group of young Africans recently, Iweala described media criticism of her handling the waiver regime as ‘trivialising corruption’.
“Trivialising corruption is going on mightily in some of our countries right now. You trivialise corruption when there is evidence that an act or a policy is legitimate and yet for your own purpose, either political or otherwise, you label it as corruption. When people divert attention from the real issues and focus on issues that are not relevant, that is a way of trivialising corruption. You trivialise corruption when you use it as a weapon to castigate other people; whereas the evidence is there.
“I had an example recently of this trivialisation from one of our national newspapers … they claimed that a government policy where we give incentives to industries or business people to spur them to invest in the economy was a bunch of corruption. Yes, in the past it wasn’t a good policy, we had people who came and got particular incentives to spur their businesses and it gave them an undue advantage over others. We call them waivers and exemptions. They will get an advantage and their businesses will get an advantage because they had a particular exemption to give them an incentive to do their job.
“So two years ago, we looked at this and in the economic management team in Nigeria the president totally agreed that this doesn’t work very well, and it gives an undue advantage, creates an unequal playing field. We decided that we will reform it, so that we can decide: what are the sources of growth, which sectors are likely to help the economy the most? And then we will grant these exemptions and incentives within those sectors. The key is that anybody working with this sector is entitled to get this exemption. So we reformed and it is still in the process of strengthening and reforming. It is not perfect, but it has come a long way, now this is a whole new sectoral policy”, she said.
Right now however, members of the organised private sector are also coming out openly to contend with the minister. Managing Director of Nigeria Gas and Steel Limited and a member of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) Mr. Hasib Moukarim said Nigeria is losing billions of naira and thousands of jobs every year to foreign companies which are given waivers by the Federal Government to import finished products that are equally manufactured in the country.
Moukarim observed that customs revenue will be optimised as long as government continue to grant waiver and concession to importers of finished products but that a few companies abroad will only be the beneficiaries.
He said for the Customs Service to achieve their targets, the Federal Ministry of Finance, the Budget Office and the Federal Ministry of Trade and Investment must cooperate fully.
“This type of scenario has forced many companies to retrench substantial percentage of work forces with the consequence of worsening the unemployment situation,” he said.
Moukarim suggested that for waiver or concession to be given to any applicant, thorough investigations must be carried out by the Federal ministries of Finance as well as Trade and Investment to verify the authenticity of the items being brought in at virtually no cost.
“The relevant sector of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, MAN, should be contacted for their expert opinion on the issue. Also professionals like Quantity Surveyors and Civil Engineers should be contacted for their expert opinion to determine the actual materials needed for the project in question,” Moukarim said.
Nigerian manufacturers had complained in the past that Chinese companies have been abusing waivers by importing more than what is needed for their projects and flooding the markets with the surplus, thereby killing local manufacturers. Chinese companies have been obtaining series of waivers from the Federal Government to build airports, roads and other projects, but end up importing more products than they need, the manufacturers lament.