It is a real pleasure to join you today to celebrate five (5) years of PEBEC, an initiative which the President established in 2016, to solve a malignant problem – the problem of a business and trading environment that many agreed was hostile and difficult both for local and foreign investors alike.
So, the long and short of the mandate of PEBEC was simply to find ways of changing the growing reputation of Nigeria as a challenging business environment. How were we to do that? It seems quite simple, to remove the bottlenecks, and obstacles, and to seek to change the orientation of regulatory authorities and public servants who interface with businesses seeking government licenses, approvals and other regulatory requirements.
It was always going to be a difficult task; the public service and government agencies are notoriously settled in their ways, and generally, there has never been any sense of urgency in processing licenses and approvals.
This attitude of course ties well into the systemic corruption and abuses that must follow when public officials have discretion in terms of the time it takes to issue approvals and who gets approvals and where the accountability framework is weak. So, interfaces with the public almost always are opportunities for rent-seeking or bribes such that it had become the case that business owners had to engage consultants, who help in navigating the deliberate roadblocks for a fee.
Similarly, simple processes such as arrival and departures at our airports, passing through land borders, import and export processes, also were difficult experiences for users of those services.
The main implication of this situation was the effect on the economy. A difficult business environment simply means fewer investors, whether local or foreign and fewer jobs and opportunities.
So this was the task that the President gave us at PEBEC. We were fortunate to have a smart and visionary team led by Dr. Jumoke Oduwole, who with her team of public and private sector members, designed the series of reform initiatives and internationally recognized homegrown National Action Plans (NAPs) – 60-day accelerators designed to coordinate the effective delivery of priority reforms in select MDAs every year.
At the federal level, the PEBEC Secretariat also actively supports 15 priority public-facing agencies and tracks 55 MDAs on the implementation of Executive Order 001 on Transparency and Efficiency of Public Service Delivery and the Council’s feedback mechanism – ReportGov.NG.
Importantly also, we had the collaboration of several reform-minded heads of MDAs who were instrumental in the development and implementation of the plans. But most notable is the sustained collaboration across all arms and levels of government – the National Assembly, the Judiciary, and all subnational governments through a partnership we tried to foster at the National Economic Council.
In 2020, the work of PEBEC has been further cascaded to the EBES to include Local Governments, with the Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC) serving as a pilot.
I think the results have been remarkable. PEBEC, since its inception, has achieved the delivery of over 150 reforms and completed six National Action Plan (60-day reform accelerators). As a result, Nigeria has moved an aggregate of 39 places on the World Bank Doing Business index since 2016, and was twice named as one of the top 10 most improved economies in the world in the last three cycles. And Nigeria was also named one of only two African countries to make this highly prestigious list in 2019.
Similarly, the 2018 Subnational Doing Business report on Nigeria recorded unprecedented improvement, with 100% participation of States in the Right-of-Reply Exercise. The World Economic Forum (WEF), in its 2018 Global Competitive Report, also recognized Nigeria’s business environment as one of the most entrepreneurial in the world and highlighted Nigeria’s improved competitiveness in the enabling business environment space.
But we are still quite far from achieving our objectives. There are several stubborn and malignant problems. There are still serious complaints about import and export delays, just recently agro-export businesses came for a meeting with me and made strong representations on the difficulties they are experiencing in being able to export their products and long waiting periods for product approvals.
Most of the problems come from systemic constraints or agencies and officials who fail or resist change. But I believe that most of these problems can be solved. These systems work elsewhere and can work in Nigeria. The problem sometimes is systemic. The heads of MDAs commit to change but down the line, the system either resists or is simply not well designed to function properly.
We must in the coming months work with the agencies to implement a more aggressive accountability audit. Where we identify the specific bottlenecks in systems possibly down to the particular desks where these problems arise. We may then come for agencies and officials who have failed or resisted such changes.
More importantly, are the systemic changes that need to take place because by and large, most officials in public agencies would want to do their work well and want to deliver on their assignments but sometimes the system is so convoluted that no matter what you do, you end up getting the same delays.
I think the last few years have proved what is possible if we are hands-on and intentional in making it easy to do business in Nigeria.
Unemployment in our country is over 30%, a minimum of 3 million new young people join the job market every year. Our priority as a government is to create jobs, the biggest job creator is the private sector, especially small and medium enterprises. We must ensure that they are not hindered from doing business easily so that they can produce the opportunities our nation needs.
Let me convey the appreciation of President Muhammadu Buhari to members of the Council, the PEBEC team, all MDAs, and State Governments for the excellent collaboration that has produced great successes in the last five years.
So let us take a moment to relish our accomplishments and leave here tonight renewed and reenergized for the work that lies ahead.