WAIVERS: TRUTH BEHIND ANTI-OKONJO-IWEALA CAMPAIGN

By Favour B. Afolabi
The Punch editorial published on Tuesday January 28, 2014 titled “Okonjo-Iweala’s TEDxEuston blunder on waivers” illustrates what happens when a publication throws professionalism out of the window and becomes personal and narrow-minded in its analyses of a major government policy in pursuit of an unholy agenda.

The article, against all evidence including the testimonies of respected groups like the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria [MAN], resorts to personal attacks against the Coordinating Minister for the Economy [CME] rather than analyze soberly and professionally the new waivers regime. It accuses her of “arrogance to make her believe her own myth” and “hectoring as if she is the only one that understands the strategic economic use of waivers and concessions” among other “crimes”.

The Punch is not the only publication working hard to turn the revised waivers policy into a scandal. Several others like Daily Trust, The Nation, Sahara Reporters, Premium Times, and others have written articles along the same lines as The Punch – and these articles have one thing in common: a determination to see nothing good in the policy, an obsession with rubbishing the policy and a passion for ignoring anything that suggests that it has any merit. Obviously working from the same sponsored script, these media, have no interest in objectivity or balance.

But they have failed to answer a few simple questions such as:

1. What is the new waiver policy all about?

2. Is it an improvement on the much criticized former regime of individual waivers?

3. Is the country getting any real benefits from the new policy? Is it working?

4. What is the opinion of the private sector and other players in the targeted sectors?

Knowing that the answers to these questions will demonstrate measurably that the story of waivers in Nigeria is changing for the better, The Punch and co seem to have decided to categorically ignore fact in preference for deodorized fiction. Desperate to define the policy by negatives, real or invented, it dredges up what it calls evidence of corruption in the implementation of waivers without saying anything about the gains – this I consider to be nothing but journalism in the service of falsehood and political agenda, an assault on basic human decency and truth.

In other words, these media ignore history, extant facts and even the proven benefits which the country is getting from the revised waivers policy. They have opted instead to assassinate the character of the honourable minister just because of its well-known disdain for the progress being made by the Goodluck Jonathan administration. How can a newspaper condemn a government policy which is having a salutary effect on key sectors like power, agriculture, manufacturing including cement without acknowledging, even in passing that any good has been achieved?

But let’s now turn to specifics to show why these media are wrong in attacking a policy and the minister and ignoring solid evidence that the new waivers policy is a far sighted and positive initiative which it should be commending rather than assailing because it is demonstrably delivering for the country.

First, what is the revised waivers policy all about? The first thing to note that is the government of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan is not the first to grant waivers. Such incentives were not invented by the administration. They have been a long standing policy of government through several administrations. But the Jonathan administration and his Economic Team refined and updated  aspects of the policy that were unfair and which encouraged bad behavior including corruption and an uneven playing field.

The key change is that, unlike in the past, key sectors of the economy, not individuals, are the main beneficiaries of the policy. So rather than grant waivers to individuals, the new policy is that only qualified players in key sectors who are working on certified projects can get the waivers, this means that waivers are now a stronger tool for boosting manufacturing, power, agriculture and so on. Also, if one player in a sector qualifies for a waiver, other qualified players in the sector also get it. That is how transparent, rigorous and beneficial the revised waivers policy is.

The next logical question is: are the waivers working? Available feedback shows conclusively that it is. An important stakeholder group, the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria [MAN] recently answered this question categorically and positively. Here are excerpts from the group’s statement in which it analyzed the impact of the waivers. Stressing that the revised waivers policy has brought transparency in the policy and created a level playing field for all players”, MAN declared that there is there is a clear evidence of the positive impact of the sector based incentives. It proceeded to give some examples of the clear benefits that the country is getting from the revised waivers policy:

  • Incentives and concessions given to the Cement industry have contributed to the phenomenal increase in national cement production from less than 2 MN tons in 2002 to over 20 MN tons in 2013. As a result, from being a net importer, Nigeria has become a net exporter of cement. This was achieved in less than a decade thanks to the enabling environment fostered by government policies.”
  • “Special intervention funds of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) disbursed through the Bank of Industry (BOI) have also helped revive a good number of ailing industries and SMEs.“
  • Incentives are also helping to boost trade and investment in the non-oil sector and generating employment in agro-allied industries.
  • “Duty and VAT exemption on equipment used in gas production have contributed to reduction in gas flaring and growth in gas-to-power initiatives aimed at boosting power supply.”

MAN also gave a few reasons why Nigeria has borrowed a leaf from countries like South Korea and Malaysia in deploying waivers and other incentives as a strategic tool for boosting key sectors:

Incentives are needed to generate investment in the productive sector – manufacturing and agriculture. Waivers of customs duty and VAT on import of plant and machinery are required to make Nigerian industries competitive. Because cost of doing business in Nigeria remains high because due to infrastructural disadvantages, companies have to generate captive power and build surrounding facilities. Therefore, incentives and waivers are required not only to attract investment but to also compensate for the public infrastructure-deficit.”

So if the Jonathan administration has reviewed and strengthened the regime of waivers and other incentives and MAN, a key private sector group who should have been the ones complaining of these policies if it wasn’t working has indeed confirmed that it is working, what then is driving this campaign by these media houses to convince Nigerians that the only thing the revised policy has produced is corruption? The answer is clear: These media are not interested in the truth because the truth is in direct conflict with their agenda of cheap populism and a seeming desperation to deploy every means possible to bring down each and every individual they perceive as pillars holding up the Goodluck Jonathan administration. That, in a nutshell, is the reason. The series of articles and editorials written against the Coordinating Minister, all full of contrived rage and falsehood, can be appreciated against this background. Behind the elaborate façade of professionalism and the empty posturing about being concerned about corruption in the implementation of the waiver regime, the motive is clear.

This explains why they are desperate to twist, distort and lie in their mission to destroy the minister. It explains why they are brandishing “exclusives” based on information that allegedly obtained from the Nigerian Customs Service even though the Service has come out to deny the information.

This background is important to understand the unusual passion of these media on waivers. They are involved in a cynical, partisan game. The fact remains that the revised waivers policy is working to a significant and measurable degree. The difference between the recent past and today in terms of transparency and results, as confirmed by the private sector is clear.

It’s clear that this campaign against corruption in the implementation of the revised waivers policy is selective and political. If it weren’t, these media, in line with professional standards would have balanced any critical comments with criticism with an acknowledgement of the measurable progress achieved considering the volume of information already provided to them by the CME. The improved waivers policy is a work in progress which is already making a tremendous difference, as MAN and others have testified. If there are gaps in implementation, they are certainly not representative and certainly cannot be evidence of wholesale corruption. But the claim by PUNCH and others that nothing has come out of waivers in the last two years except corruption demonstrates that its agenda is suspect and its position is fatally flawed because it is contaminated by political partisanship and an unholy agenda.

Afolabi, a business and economy analyst, wrote in from Lagos

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