Reporter’s Notebook: At the FT Nigeria Summit (1)

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

I did my first proper “hustling” as a reporter on the last day of May just past. It was at this year’s Financial Times Nigeria Summit. As a correspondent for London-based African Business and African Banker magazines, I am now supposed to chase after important people for interviews and comments. It was probably an ideal event for one just getting into the life: the targets were all in one room. Of course, I had to grapple with the oft encountered dilemma of plenty and yet little. There were as many reporters as there were VIPs. And you are each supposed to get unique material. In the end, I settled for less is more. In other words, I sought the story I was interested in, not the people; eventually. Hitherto, my focus was on the persons I had shortlisted for interviews ahead of the event. Yes, I did chase after those. But so were others. And since the targets are human beings, there is only so much they can do. That is, if they choose to be nice. It was also a difficult balancing act following the panel discussions and monitoring my targets. Never mind that I had to keep my eyes on the wires on a day for which there seemed to be breaking news every other minute. Okay, maybe that is an exaggeration. You be the judge. America’s president, Donald Trump, decided to literally stab his country’s allies in the back by slapping tariffs on their goods. Erstwhile Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was feeling the heat from the opposition – and was eventually ousted the next day. Italy’s populists were trying to form a government after an earlier failed attempt. Nigeria’s president finally signed a much desired law to allow younger people run for political office. Understandably, the markets were gyrating all over the place. Add to that the many important data releases that funnily seemed to have been deliberately packed into the day. And yes, those interviews, the panels: it was an interesting day certainly.

Good numbers, good story
Nigeria’s vice-president, Yemi Osinbajo, was up first. During the one-on-one interview, FT’s Africa editor, David Pilling, asked him myriad questions. I was particularly interested in one: why did Nigeria not sign the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA)? Would the government sign? Mr Osinbajo said it was not whether the country would sign but what it would sign; suggesting concerns remain. Next was a presentation on the economy by budget and planning minister Udoma Udo Udoma. To his credit, there was a general sense afterwards that he did quite well. His case of a positive medium term economic outlook was certainly helped by what are currently good numbers: inflation is slowing, foreign reserves are up, and the economy is growing; albeit much slower than is desired. The other impressive speech came from Kaduna state governor, Nasir El-Rufai. I was positively surprised by some of his revelations. For example, I did not know Kaduna has passed its annual budget before the New Year since Mr El-Rufai took office. Reforms to sanitise the state’s public service are also laudable. Biometrics and bank verification numbers (BVNs) were used to weed out ghost workers, for instance; five thousand of them in the first three months. Other fiscal reform measures by his government include a fiscal responsibility commission, procurement agency and financial management law. Thereafter, I asked him about his efforts to revive moribund industries in the state; textiles especially. Chinese investors are being sought in this regard, it seems. There is also the smuggling menace that needs to be curbed for any new investment in that sector to be worthwhile. That said, Mr El-Rufai is not without controversy. For example, he does not get along with the federal senators from his state: the trio recently blocked a foreign loan request by him. Even so, it could hardly be refuted that some good things are happening in Kaduna. It is important to mention, of course, that there have been cases of wanton killings there lately. And perhaps until they stop, the government’s gains may be overshadowed by them.

Synergies and partnerships
Are foreign investors being skittish about the 2019 elections? I asked this of Miguel Azevedo, an investment banker at Citi, the American bank. He suggested it was normal for investors to act cautiously around elections anywhere in the world; and was thus more focused on long term fundamentals, not the political cycle. It was a diplomatic answer. The other subject that caught my fancy was mobile money and the almost inevitable struggle between banks and telecom firms in the delivery of the service. Citi’s Nigeria chief, Akinsowon Dawodu, gave the answer that every bank CEO seems to give about the fintech threat these days. The mobile money play was not a zero-sum game between banks and telcos, he averred. “Synergies”and “Partnerships” seemed to be the buzzwords on the finance panel in general. One of the other discussants on it was Oscar Onyema, the Nigerian bourse chief. To him I posed the question about an increasing trend of foreign listings by Nigerian firms. I wondered if this worried him. He seemed relaxed about the developments; so I thought, at least. He had good reason to be, though. True, a number of local firms have been looking abroad for listings. But they have also created opportunities for international partnerships for the Nigerian Stock Exchange. Mr Onyema cited one such agreement with the London Stock Exchange, together with which a local oil firm got listed over there. Art, technology, oil and gas were also discussed on separate panels. Another day for those perhaps?

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