Jumoke OduwoleSpecial Advisor to the President on Ease of Doing Business and pioneer Executive Secretary of the Presidential Council for the Enabling Business Environment (PEBEC), chaired by the Vice President, where policies are provided to support small and medium-sized businesses, in this interview with the team of BusinessDay led by bashir hassandiscusses the reforms the Council is implementing to make states business-friendly and improve Nigeria’s rating in the global Ease of Doing Business rankings.

What is your take on where this country was in 2015 and where we are today in terms of the ease of doing business?

In 2015, when we started the intervention, there were two things that may tell you the answer to where Nigeria was; the international ranking of the World Bank on Ease of doing Business, we were in position 170, that is an empirical ranking. Second, the private sector confidence deficit, the feedback on how the private sector spoke about business and about government. There was no coordination as I mentioned.

There was not enough inter-ministerial, interdepartmental coordination; so that we could not move in concert. They were each trying to do their own thing and not talking enough to the private sector who are the beneficiaries of the reforms. That was the scenario we found ourselves on the ground.

We started to analyze. This is a very empirical work. You have to break it down, use a lot of data, Nigerian data that you have to gather yourself and engage with stakeholders. It also uses international data on what other countries are doing in terms of starting a business. We decided to take the World Bank model and add a few other things.

The World Bank model goes from companies starting a business to insolvency, although it has now stopped. There are about 10 areas; from legal ones such as insolvency, protection of minorities, to land registration and payment of taxes. The ease of doing business is a soft infrastructure; so you’re looking at the processes and how the government engages with the private sector when it comes to these things.

Building a nation is not just a government burden. Each of us has a role to play. Each person has a responsibility

One of the first things we did in 2017 was to have an executive order, the first of this administration, trying to address transparency and efficiency in public service delivery as antidotes to bureaucracy and corruption. We focus on the following: Customs, Immigration, Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) and Standards Organization of Nigeria (SON), who interact daily with the public . We had reforms based on public feedback. We do surveys, lots of focus group sessions, interviews, research and then look at global best practices.

So we saw that we cannot stay alone at the federal level because every company is domiciled in a state, so we (PEBEC) entered into collaboration with the National Economic Council (NEC).

What are the respective roles of the federal and state governments in improving the ease of doing business?

When you map out the empirical aspects of this, with reference to our constitution, you’ll see that there are some roles that are at the federal level and there are some roles that are for the states; and there are some roles that are concurrent.

Take for example land use, you know that’s for the states. If you take corporate taxes, that’s federal. But when we take something like starting a business, there are some state functions. States sometimes grant business permits.

In each given year, we have the national action plans that are accelerators that we will work on for 60 days; but we have an annual cycle every year. So by October/November, we would have discussed with the MDAs the reforms we want to work on for the year; costs, time and speed. And then we’re working on people, processes and infrastructure to a lesser extent.

So you have to map it. For example, if you want to work to start a business, you will work with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC); You can also work with FIRS because you may want businesses to get your TIN. You may want to partner with the Central Bank so that there is a link between the collateral registry and the company registration portal. We use a lot of technology for automation and digitization, because that’s another shortcut to transparency.

What accomplishments are you proud of, since your job in this office?

We have climbed 39 places in the World Bank’s Doing Business ranking. We were recognized among the top ten reformers in world reform twice in a three-year period. In those three years, we passed an unprecedented amount of legislation through the National Assembly, including the 2017 Collateral Registration Bill and the Credit Bureau Bill, which facilitate access to credit for MSMEs. Both bills have now become law following presidential approval.

The PEBEC Secretariat team worked with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), the lead agency, on the enactment of the Business and Allied Affairs Act (CAMA), which was signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari in August 2020.

The Decree was passed in 1990 and was cutting edge at the time, yet Nigeria’s leading corporate legislation was repealed and re-enacted for the first time in 30 years despite attempts by different stakeholders for nearly a decade before it we would get involved

We have also been working on the Business Facilitation Bill which was recently passed by the National Assembly and has been forwarded to the President for approval since 2018. The PEBEC Secretariat team collaborated with various stakeholders from the private sector , including 40 law firms, consulting firms etc., public sector stakeholders including SEC, Nigerian Exchange Group etc. in this bill.

We have worked closely with the judiciary in establishing the first small claims court in Lagos in 2018, which, by the end of 2022, has handled over 4,000 cases since its inception. Similar courts have been established in Kano and five other states, the latest being Nasarawa, Jigawa, Ekiti, Ogun and Edo states.

We published our first Indigenous report on the ease of doing business in 2021, which saw Gombe in the top position, closely followed by Jigawa. Captured the enabling environment as perceived by the private sector. We will publish the second iteration immediately after the election.

PEBEC models have been replicated in most states. Most states have active Doing Business Facility Councils chaired by the Governor (Nasarawa) or Lieutenant Governor (Kaduna) or the Secretary of Government, the Finance Commissioner or a high-ranking government official. In each state, a reform advocate works with a PEBEC template and templates.

We have been working with the states since 2017 and last year went very well. We are collaborating with the World Bank on a three-year $750 million credit line that has been approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC) to start this January. So each state will meet some ease of doing business requirements and get a soft loan, after they have done the work based on results.

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Why Gombe when you have Kano, Lagos and other more visible states?

To be honest, the explanation is twofold: The counterintuitive part, which is systemic, is that countries, cities, states with less complexity tend to have a chance to do better if they seize the opportunity. So globally, you’ll see Singapore and New Zealand topping the charts. You have never seen the US topping the charts for ease of doing business. In Africa, you will see countries like Mauritius and Rwanda topping the list.

So, coming to Nigeria, we were not surprised to be asked why Gombe by everyone. It’s not just doing business that they’re doing well. If you ask anyone about public health, Gombe’s name will come up again; so he is all about leadership and hard work.

You can stay small economically and you are doing very badly. The state at the bottom is Zamfara. So it’s not just about the size of the economy. But if you are small and take advantage of opportunities to create an enabling environment for your private sector, you will do well. AC of O can be had in Gombe in less than a week.

What do you tell Nigerians to be proud of when they travel or have the opportunity to speak with someone who wants to invest in Nigeria? What do you tell potential investors that tell them that you are unique and competitive?

We don’t say this enough, but Nigeria as a country has a lot going for it. The population of 200 million should not be seen as a negative, but as a great blessing. Our geographical location is good. We have a coastline and we are geographically located as a trading nation.

We have an abundance of natural resources in the soil. We have a large amount of arable land. We have a huge size of more than 900,000 square kilometers. We have dynamic young people in our tech, creative, and agriculture/agribusiness sectors. Indeed, we have very enterprising people.

Building a nation is not just a government burden. Each of us has a role to play. We have to see the glass half full and work in a coordinated way, knowing that there is no point in pointing someone else to deliver the Nigeria of our dreams. Each person has a responsibility. Who are the people who built Japan? Who built the United States? Who built Europe? They are the Japanese, the Americans and the Europeans!