Date Published: 10/29/09
Nigerians And Gamblers’ Mentality By Okechukwu Peter Nwobu
The Nigerian economy has rapidly become a gamblers haven. The airways, newspapers and magazines are so full of corporate sales promotions with mouth watering sums and prizes to win. So far this year, Etisalat’s one million dollars offer is the biggest. All you have to do is buy their Sim card and buy recharge credit of N1, 000 per month to qualify to take part. For Indomie, every carton of its instant noodles product promises to make a millionaire at the rate of one person per day for the 60 days. Pepsi’s offer is a millionaire every day for seventy days. Nigerian Breweries has just joined the fray with a promise of three millionaires emerging every week between now and end of the year. This might make nonsense of its caution to drink responsibly when we know that for many, drinking responsibly means not to drink at all. Newspapers have joined the bandwagon and many more companies will before this year runs out of time. The only notable exception so far is GLO. They have been quiet this year, which might mean they are counting the costs of their vigorous outings last year or restrategising for their next campaign.
Banking was supposed to be a staid business, peopled by conservatives until they threw that toga away. So when they followed this trend and started telling people to save a certain amount for a determined length of time and win millions, it became obvious that desperation is now the name of the game.
There is nothing evil about this type of sales promotion. They are simply exploiting the hard times and growing sea of poverty that is flooding the land and the undying hope of Nigerians to score big through such winnings and break out of choking poverty. This is why reality television shows have exploded to include the good, the bad, the ugly and the insane.
During the great depression in the United States, the Mafia recognised the existence of a vast pool of impoverished people eager to score big and escape poverty. They met their needs and created gambling outlets even in states where they were illegal at that time. With so many companies casting their nets in Nigeria’s vast ocean of poverty, this trend will grow as this ocean of misery sucks in more economically disabled compatriots. Even yours truly with an eye on winning the N10 million MTN sponsored Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, bought N2, 000 credit and exhausted it within sixty minutes. Even though I got all the answers correct, the computer did not pick me to get my foot in the door to the hot seat.
Even the pulpit is caught by this bug as prosperity preaching appears to be the only thing to preach about. Church adverts package prosperity preaching like a product to pack churches. Very few Pastors talk about salvation. It is so bad that one author said that churches now act as if Satan and demons are on break because they rarely talk about that very real and ever present danger.
Casinos exploit the greed factor because they know that whenever we consult our greed, which is often, it will lead us astray. And it did so big time in the Nigerian stock market with severe consequences for investors, stockbrokers and banks that fed the frenzy. We heard stories of people who invested N4.5 million as their own ten percent equity added to N40.5 million share purchase loan to buy 2.5 million shares of Dangote Sugar, which was sold three months later at N56 per share to net a profit of more than N90 million. We saw people buy stocks at N6 per share to sell off at N14 two months later. Buying and selling shares became the only business in town with everyone, drivers, domestic servants, security men, market women, teachers, simple men and women converted with sugar coated talk to get in on the game. And Nigerians did in our millions, encouraged by banks to borrow money with the shares as collateral. I can bet that the highest selling product in Nigeria at that time was the calculator!
When the market started its downward spiral, Nigerians were all told not to panic because as all kinds of economists and experts told us ‘the fundamentals of the market were still strong.’ There was nothing to fear they said, even when those who rigged the system and knew better than most what was going on were bailing out. The gambler in us chose to believe the arm chair experts who could not have spoken against the interest of those who they depend on for business. So many investors now wish they never got involved and those who got involved wish they listened to Kenny Rogers’ warning in his song – The Gambler that we should know ‘when to hold on, know when to walk away, know when to run. You never count your money while you are still at the table. There will be time enough to count it when the deal is done.’ Well, very few listened and are still counting the costs. Many dropped out of middle class into poverty. Unknown but significant numbers have died of shock as their nest eggs disappeared. Equally unknown numbers are now hypertensive, further worsening their financial situation as medical costs escalate and mount up.
Some banks were on the brink of collapse because of margin loans until the CBN stepped in to bail them out. Who is bailing out millions of Nigerian gamblers, some of who will spend the rest of their lives paying off share loans whose value are now worth less than 20% of their value when they were bought. It is convenient to blame the global economic meltdown for the tanking of the stock market. Or even the investors most of whom made plans on yet unearned income or even spent it before they earned them. They say people should have made sure there was water in the swimming pool before diving in. Those experts who said that no insurance company share price will be less than N10 by end of 2008 practically told everyone to dive in. Those who manipulated the system, pushing up prices to dizzying heights for their own benefit and led many including people who are normally careful to a fault, to financial ruin and slaughter are culpable. When wonder banks paid 10% a month and were attracting growing volumes of customers, banks ganged up against them and they were rapidly shut down to protect their banking businesses. But no one came out on the side of the people even when share prices were manipulated through insider trading and other abuses to the full knowledge of regulators, because the real beneficiaries were the big boys. Nigerians know who they are. Perhaps the time has come to take out a class action suit against them. The next time you hear economists mouth off that the fundamentals of anything is strong, you know what to do!
Will the stock market recover? The story of the tortoise is relevant here. He was invited to lunch by the lion. When he got there, he noticed from foot and claw prints that many animals had arrived before him. Some foot and claw prints were fading out, others recent. On closer examination, the tortoise noticed that all the foot and claw prints were pointing inwards, none pointing outwards. Those who honoured the invitation never left. It was then he realised he had been invited to a lunch with him as the menu!
The Mafia bosses who created the forerunners to casino gambling, men like Lucky Luciano, Vito Genovese, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, Bugsy Siegel and so on must be proud of their moral descendants who viciously manipulated the stock market in Nigeria but are still walking free.
Before now, Umana, Umana ‘Bank’ in Port Harcourt exploited the gambler instinct of Nigerians who they offered 60% interest rate, paid up front. Till date no one can tell us categorically what happened to the stacks of money recovered in warehouses, much less what happened to Umana and his staff. During that time, banks and finance houses aped Umana and offered staggering interest rates, also paid up front. It was not surprising that many of them disappeared with depositors funds. Again the owners of those failed banks and finance houses are walking free, many of them recycled into positions of power in politics and the economy.
When Lamido Sanusi said that major share holders and executives of horribly managed banks should be shot dead, I realised it mirrored the depth of his seemingly unfathomable anger. Agreed, the sacked managing directors ran their banks like private estates, living like emperors. We have heard that most of them were like the trouser with several pockets, with money moving out of some pockets into other pockets of the same trouser, a truly revolving door. Their many sins included decisions to take only share certificates as collateral for almost all loans. With the shares worth less than 20% of their March 2008 prices, it is now evident that it was a gamble that failed terribly.
But the truth is, calling for them to be shot dead is taking ‘sanusitisation’ too far. Sanusi Lamido has spent a lot of time and effort trying to calm the frayed nerves of the international business community. This comment whether or not it was an unforced error or verbal diarrhoea will help his effort and could possibly postpone the return of confidence. It is a gamble our economy that has been bled white of credit cannot afford. We need him to be sober and devoid of the kind of anger that crowds out reason, otherwise he will leave the banking industry worst than he met it and that will be truly disappointing and disastrous.
The other word for politics in Nigeria should be gambling, because that is what politicians, foreign and local have done with our collective destiny. The British set the stage when they cobbled Nigeria together to birth a nation that Lord Malcolm Hailey said is ‘the most artificial of the many administrative units created during the course of European occupation of Africa.’ He went on to say that ‘the only thing that has kept the different tribes of Nigeria together is force.’ The Nigerian civil war is more than sufficient proof of this. How long will this gamble last before we pull ourselves together or implode? The intention of the British was to maximise economic benefits while reducing administrative costs. The level of political gambling has grown with time starting with the cartel of ultimate gamblers - coup plotters who handed over to their cronies to continue the economic plundering.
Every government since the British have gambled but none came close to General Ibrahim Babangida. He gambled with an endless transition programme that finally ensnared him, but not before he left us with Sani Abacha who played Russian roulette with Nigeria. Power brokers gambled with Olusegun Obasanjo. Given the quality of his ministers during his second term, I believe Obasanjo had his eyes on posterity and meant to leave a good legacy. Until he bought into the third term gamble. All those who fought against him knew that if it had succeeded, there would have been a fourth term, a fifth term, sixth term, a virtual life presidency like Robert Mugabe. The failure of that gamble remarkably diminished Obasanjo’s standing at home and abroad. His real enemies are those who talked him into that ill advised venture not those who rescued him from himself and Nigeria from him. But his anger at rejection unleashed the animal called man in him. Chris Ngige who ought to be celebrated for standing up to a rapacious cabal was denounced by him. Every effort was made including kidnapping, using the courts, withdrawal of his security details and bombing of his official residence. It was as if there was a bet by some on how long it would take to kick Ngige out.
There are lessons to be learnt from the Ngige saga. He was a gamble Chris Uba lost but not without a vicious fight. The late Assistant Inspector General of Police Raphael Ige led 200 police men to abduct a serving governor of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in a bid to win the gamble. Whatever Raphael Ige was promised that led him into this gamble was not realised because he conveniently ‘died’ and like the dead leaders of Boko Haram, he did not live to say how high up his support for the kidnap mission reached. One thing is clear, Mr Ige lost everything he achieved in his carrier to a reckless gamble and secured his place in the annals of treachery.
Chris Uba, who used Mr Raphael Ige is still a dangerous gambler. Reports that he supported almost half of the candidates in the Anambra state gubernatorial quest illustrates his mind set. Going to court through proxies and by himself as has been reported in the press is his first step. Since he kidnapped a serving state governor and nothing happened, who will he kidnap this time, the party chairman or Mr President forced to sign a document to vacate their choice of Charles Soludo? There might just be another Raphael Ige out there willing to gamble again with and or for Chris Uba! It was because of the likes of Raphael Ige that successive military governments diligently refused to properly arm the police because they recognised their potential as coup makers, which was what Mr Ige and Chris Uba tried to do in Anambra state under Obasanjo’s watch.
Chris Uba has made enormous political investments with money of indeterminate sources to buy influence and power. The egg heads in PDP obviously knew what they wanted to do and allowed him to spend money positioning his people – candidates, delegates and control of party structure to ‘capture’ government house in Awka. They allowed him to spend money as a way of depleting his finances and hitting him in the pocket because without money in Nigerian politics you have no power. Without power you lose your followers. This is probably a replay of Obasanjo’s game plan against Ibrahim Babangida’s presidential race in 2006 when he cut off his sources of funding. As a result of the fight against terrorism, it was and still is extremely difficult to move significant amounts of money from hidden accounts abroad to any part of the world including Nigeria. It is easy to follow the paper or electronic trails such movements always leave. So that option was closed to Babangida, leaving him with local sources as last option. With his various companies’ accounts under watch, the orchestrated harassment of Mike Adenuga Jr in 2006 by the Obasanjo government finally chased him into exile and cut off a significant local source of funds to Babangida as well. Without money to mobilise, Babangida quit the race. The gamble to rule Nigeria again collapsed just as Chris Uba’s gambles in Anambra state in 2003 and 2009 have come to an inglorious end as they bleed him white of his finances and power.
Chris Uba should be kicked out of the party’s Board of Trustees, tried for crimes against the citizens of Anambra state and jailed to join tBode George in prison. Otherwise, the gambler in him will never give up.
What endeared a man like Chris Uba to Obasanjo? His serving on the PDP’s board of Trustees says a lot about the ruling party and the nation they rule. During his anti Soludo rally a few days ago, in defiance of PDP’s directive not to hold, his supporters called for due process and rule of law in nominating the party’s candidate. Where was rule of law and due process when Uba kidnapped a serving governor? The only rule Uba knows is the rule of might shamelessly and brutally deplored to advance his personal goals. Obasanjo’s genie is out of the bottle and it is haunting the PDP. If it is not pushed or forced back into the bottle, the PDP will not know peace in Anambra state. Talk of poetic justice.
I believe that with his venomous vindictive streak, if he had not succeeded at anything, Obasanjo would have ended up as a native doctor (voodoo doctor) casting spells on his many real and imagined enemies. I cannot yet tell if Umaru Yar’Adua was an Obasanjo gamble or the vindictive nature inflicting on us a subprime leader for rejecting his third term gambit.
Every government gambled that Niger Deltans will continue to ignore the looting of the resources on their land that actually left them worst off. When non violent protest failed repeatedly and militancy snowballed into a low intensity war, amnesty was born. It is yet the newest and biggest post civil war gamble of Nigeria. What has been achieved is creative stalemate that will temporarily atomise militancy in the Niger Delta. If as government claims the amnesty is successful, which post amnesty programme will be implemented? Or are the militants and government going to draw up new plans? After so many studies and proposals on the way forward, is there still space on the drawing board? Is this the proverbial calm before the storm? Only time which is in short supply will tell. The fear of the consequences of failure is apparently giving the half hazard effort of government extra boost. If it is true that government has finally agreed to negotiate with MEND’s Aaron Team that was earlier dismissed out of hand, then perhaps the amnesty may amount to something. However, sidetracking E K Clark and very few other men who repeatedly stood in the gap will be a costly mistake.
While government focuses on the Niger Delta as if it has a one track mind, the gamble is that somehow the growing army of unemployed youths will disappear. While government does nothing, this leaderless army will become the nation’s biggest security risk, supplying different militant groups with ready recruits who have nothing to live for. Gamblers live in a dream world and it is not the stuff of which leaders are made. Helen Keller’s words when she said ‘worst than physical blindness, is to have sight without vision,’ captures Nigeria’s very delicate and tragic dilemma.
No nation, people or company succeeded in the medium to the long term through gambling because it is akin to playing Russian roulette. We know there is a bullet in the gun but no one knows which chamber contains the bullet. Everyone takes his turn pulling the trigger with the gun to the head. It is only a matter of time before someone’s head is blown off. The consequences are final. If this happens to a nation, the consequences are not only final, they are tragic. Richard Akinjide ruminated that Nigeria is practically in a hole. What he did not say is that he was one of those who dug the hole. The tragedy is that their political descendants are still digging and are not ready or willing to stop!
I had finished writing this piece when the news broke that Charles Soludo’s father had been kidnapped. Was it politically motivated? You bet. Who did it? You guess is as good as mine!
Okechukwu Peter Nwobu