Since Arunma Oteh assumed office as director-general of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) last year, she has made no secret of her determination to embark on a crusade to sanitise the capital market, which has been bedevilled by greed and unbridled corruption. Her simmering zeal which received commendation has been kept alive by her attack on erring operators. For example, she has sanctioned a few market operators since assumption of office and has listed scores of others which have been slated for investigation and possible sanction over share manipulation allegations.
However, all her previous activities will be insignificant compared to the magnitude of challenges posed by the unfolding events at the nation’s capital market, which incidentally present her with a golden opportunity to accomplish her avowed aspiration to cleanse the capital market. If she can rise to the occasion, she will carve an enviable place for herself in the annals of the nation’s anti-corruption crusade and economic emancipation. History is indeed beckoning on the personable SEC boss
Without doubt, the raging battle at the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) between Nigeria’s richest businessman, Alhaji Aliko Dangote and sacked NSE director-general, Prof Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke mirrors the medley of rot and desperately dirty politics extant in Nigeria’s corporate world. All the ills that Arunma Oteh will ever need to overcome are present in the scenario which has been exposed at the very top.
By way of reminder, one of the reasons Dangote and Okereke-Onyiuke fell apart was because the erstwhile NSE strongwoman declined to continue supporting Dangote in his legal struggles against African Petroleum Plc’s shareholders who had sworn to get Dangote sacked because of his alleged manipulation of their company’s share price. From whatever angle you look at it, Dangote’s share manipulation saga is a sore point that needs to be resolved in a transparent manner that will be satisfactory to all. This then is an opportunity to demonstrate her much vaunted zero tolerance for market infractions. To deal decisively with this situation is to take the bull by the horns and tackle the scourge where it matters most. Her major challenge is to investigate all those concerned in a transparent manner and wield the big stick where necessary. There can be no mistake about it, if she fails in this respect, she will lose much of the goodwill and respect she currently enjoys.
It needs be remembered that allegations of share price manipulation against Dangote last year threw up similar accusations against Femi Otedola, chairman of AP who was alleged to have manipulated the share price of Chevron in order to take advantage of it. Graphic details of that allegation were generously published in national dailies. Together with the ones earlier published about Dangote, they exposed the rotten underbelly of Nigeria’s capital market. That matter is yet unresolved. The manner with which she approaches these issues will determine the level of success she will attain.
However, Arunma Oteh has demonstrated much courage in the removal of Dangote and Okereke-Onyiuke from their headship of the Nigerian Stock Exchange. But the story has just begun and she must be ready for a fight if she intends to carry out a comprehensive probe into the disgraceful affair which is the only reasonable thing to do.
Another reason for the crisis at the Exchange, it was widely reported, was the desire of both leaders to influence the succession plan of the Exchange so that they could plant their preferred candidates, who would be stooges most likely. The idea is to have control over the stock market. For sure, the Exchange is awash with money, especially when the economy is good and there is liquidity in the system. Both the former DG and president have tasted the abundance of the stock market from different angles and would not want to let it go. Wherever there is much money to be made, such desperation is usually not in short supply. But in Nigeria, the phenomenon is commonplace and intense in both business and political circles.
While Oteh is at it, let her recall that Dangote is highly politically connected and there is a limit to what she can do except she is ready to pay the sacrifice needed to effect an enduring change in the capital market space. It was an attempt by Malam Musa Al Faki, the immediate past SEC DG to be assertive and sanction Dangote, albeit, indirectly, that ended his tenure. His battle with Otedola is still very fresh and ongoing. He has just dealt Okereke-Onyiuke a lethal blow.
True, Oteh enjoys the backing of Finance Minister, Olusegun Aganga and perhaps, President Goodluck Jonathan. That should explain why she has been able to confront the powers at the Exchange but when matters get to a head, political expediency may tilt the scales in favour of Dangote or any other person who is relevant and strategic in the country’s political calculations. This line of thought appears reasonable as President Jonathan is making frantic efforts to win over power brokers to support his undeclared ambition. It will be too costly for him to turn down an opportunity to get Dangote’s backing.
What all this means is that Oteh will not find it very easy to investigate and sanction Dangote and any other persons found culpable. In the weeks ahead, her resolve will be tested. The golden opportunity is before her to make history. Will she embark on a thorough investigation? Will she continue to apply the sanctions no matter whose ox is gored? Or will she balk? Only Oteh can answer those questions and Nigerians await her next line of action.