Multiple Taxes Crippling Private Sector in Nigeria — Stella Okoli

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When she was named among the 42- member Nigerian Industrial Policy and Competitiveness Advisory Council, inaugurated recently by Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, many agreed it was a case of putting the right peg in the right hole. Firstly, Dr Stella Okoli is a pharmacist, entrepreneur and manufacturer; the founder and Chief Executive Officer, Emzor Pharmaceutical Industries Limited, Nigeria’s biggest indigenous pharmaceutical company.  Secondly, she has held and still holds leadership positions in industry-related associations including Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) and Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA) where she serves as Vice-President. She is also a past Chairman of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Group of MAN. Thirdly, she has been in the forefront of agitations for a better deal for the manufacturing sector in Nigeria for over three decades.

In an interactive session with the media in Lagos recently, Okoli who is now working together with other members of the advisory council, comprising seasoned business executives, industry leaders and technocrats, to spearhead the industrial agenda of government, bares her mind on the task ahead. She harped on the need to eschew policy somersaults and inconsistencies which have adversely affected the industrial sector, support industries to achieve economic growth, curb youth restiveness through massive employment generation, and promote social welfare for the overall well-being of Nigerians, among many others. Consumer Life was there. Excerpts:

Congratulations on your inauguration as a member of the Nigerian Industrial Policy and Competitiveness Advisory Council. How does it feel being offered such a platform of service to the nation?

I’m happy to be given the chance to continue to contribute my quota; you would recall I’ve played similar role in the past. It’s an opportunity to continue the dialogue, advocacy and ensure that government does something about the industrial sector.  It is the expectation of Nigerians that the objective of the advisory council, which is to speed up Nigeria’s industrialisation effort, will be realised during the tenure of this administration. Government is a continuum but unfortunately, politics and governance in the country has been characterised by policy somersault, inconsistencies and lack of continuity. When a new government comes into power, it reverses the policies of the previous administration. We’ve had beautiful programmes and policies in the past. If successive administrations had reviewed them and adopted the good aspects, we would have made a quantum leap in industrialisation. However, we are happy the right things are being done now to put in place mechanisms to jump-start a lot of industrial processes that would dovetail into an industrial revolution in the country.

What do you think are the key burning issues that require urgent attention in the country’s renewed drive towards industrialisation and economic growth?

We should embrace speed, whether we are in the private or public sector, because we have lost time. There are so many things that should have been done before now that were left undone, like having and implementing effective industrial policy. Now we have ease of doing business initiatives by the present regime designed to bolster the country’s business climate. For the civil servants/public officials and all those saddled with the responsibility of implementing these initiatives, can they match the speed required to produce good result? Are they determined to show more commitment to implementing government policies? These are things they have to do and with speed for us to make progress.

Apart from these, we need to quickly set up industrial parks to boost manufacturing. The Asian countries have adopted this strategy successfully a long time ago and it has helped to boost their industrial capacity. Now they dominate markets around the world with their products. We can also have Information and Communications Technology (ICT) parks in different localities to enable our young people who are skilled in ICT to leverage on that to make something positive for our country; we need to encourage the youth to innovate. A lot of efforts should go into creating employment opportunities for our youth so as to curb restiveness and other negative tendencies among them. It is sad that many of our university graduates are unemployable but they can be retrained or assisted to acquire skills to meet the requirements of employers.

We also need to address our infrastructural deficit and create a favourable climate that will attract direct foreign investment. We cannot continue to have a mono-economy and make progress; we have to diversify our economy away from oil. That is why it is important for government to support the productive sector – agriculture, industry, and the Small & Medium-scale Enterprises (SMEs), which are the engine of economic growth and employment generation.

During a previous media chat, you talked about manufacturers’ inability to access foreign exchange to import raw materials for their operations despite a directive by the Central Bank of Nigeria to banks to allocate 60 per cent of foreign exchange sales to the manufacturing sector. Has the situation improved now?

Not much has changed; getting foreign exchange (forex) is still a major problem. Manufacturers should be given preference in the allocation of foreign exchange but the banks keep saying they don’t have forex. We expect government to go beyond this and provide us with intervention funds that was promised about four or five years ago, so that we can buy equipment, machinery and raw materials to sustain our operations. You are aware that most industries got theirs; we were not given, especially those of us that were trying to attain World Health Organisation (WHO) pre-qualification for our pharmaceutical products and production processes, which is a huge expense. The pharmaceutical industry requires about ₦30 billion intervention funds at single digit interest rate in order to boost the sector. It is important that we are assisted to be able to compete favourably.

Last May, the Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, signed three executive orders one of which is to promote transparency and efficiency in the business environment with a view to facilitating the ease of doing business in Nigeria. Would you say this particular order has created a better business environment for manufacturers, especially as it concerns imports?

No, we are yet to see an improvement in the business environment relating to exports and imports. Look at Apapa ports, for instance. The roads are in deplorable condition and there are so many other hurdles in the way of doing business. Executive orders are good but they have to be implemented by human beings. Policies and programmes of government are implemented by civil servants. Those in the ministries and government agencies need to be “born again”; they need to have a new orientation and understand that we are all working towards one goal. I’m sure that with time these executive orders will begin to yield good result. But we need more executive orders because there are so many things that need to be fixed.

What are some of these executive orders that you would have loved government to give?

I wish they could come up with an executive order to facilitate payment for goods and services procured by government. When they buy goods from you they should pay. Government indebtedness has crippled many contractors, suppliers and consultants. For instance, they are owing us for five years; it is not right. There should also be an executive order to curb medical tourism, which has been a major drain on the nation’s economy. How can we sit here as giants of Africa and our people are dying on their way to India and other countries in search of quality healthcare? Why can’t they make sure our hospitals are up to standard and new ones are built so that our people can have access to quality healthcare here in the country? People are dying of wrong diagnosis due to poor facilities and unqualified personnel. To worsen the situation, there is corruption in the system. How can you bribe a doctor to refer a patient to India or other countries? Oh yes, this is happening.

Governor Akinwumi Ambode of Lagos State has been working to set Lagos as a model of governance. What impact is this having on private sector operators like you in the Lagos environment? 
I must commend Governor Akinwunmi Ambode for the great work he is doing. Lagos is a place that other states should emulate in terms of continuity in governance. Babatunde Fashola who succeeded Bola Tinubu continued from where he stopped and the present governor is doing the same. They did not discard the policies and programmes of their predecessors but built upon them, all in a bid to make Lagos the centre of excellence. However, the business environment is not friendly because of the crippling tax regime. Multiple-taxation is a huge burden on business owners. Even when they are not making profit, they are being harassed to pay all kind of taxes. This is the area that I fault the government because we spend what we are not earning in paying taxes. The state government should look into this problem. The fact is that multiple taxation is a major problem across the country, not in Lagos alone, and this has remained a major burden on industries and other private sector operations. For us to make a headway, government must address this issue as a matter of urgency.

What is your view on the current efforts to boost patronage of locally produced goods as part of government’s diversification agenda?

It is very important to promote Made-in-Nigeria goods for obvious reasons. We have been advocating for that for a long time because it is what we have to do to get our economy on track. But there must be proper policies put in place to back up the campaign. Of course, if locally produced goods are patronised, industries will thrive, employment will be generated and the poverty level in the country will be reduced.

Some time ago you told us about the Emzor Wellocracy Initiative. How well is this doing especially in this period of recession?

A healthy nation is a wealthy nation. So in Emzor, we are committed to affordable wellness for all, irrespective of your location or social status. With Wellocracy, we can spread wellness to every part of Nigeria and Africa. It is like our mantra, our vision; it’s like an oath that we have taken to make sure that the health of Nigerians and indeed Africans does not suffer. Under this initiative, we will continue to produce quality pharmaceuticals even if we are not making money. We have refused to allow such factors as recession or high exchange and interest rates to kill our vision. It is like what we have agreed to do as a company and we owe it to Nigerians, to ourselves and to our God that come rain or shine, we have to continue. Wellocracy is for all of us and it has come to stay?

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