By Emma Agu
For much of his adult life, Emeka Ugwu-Oju, current president of the South-East, South-South professionals, has taken on the role of a catalyst in promoting the economic transformation of Nigeria. He is a firm advocate of private sector-led development, undergirded by strong indigenous entrepreneurial elite and supported by a policy environment that is founded on good governance and global best practices. To achieve this, time and again, he has engaged in robust network facilitation and restless remediation in many facets of our national life. You will, therefore, not be surprised to find him one moment attending a conference or a meeting of the World Bank in Washington DC and the next moment he is in Nigeria’s Niger Delta in covert negotiation with militants or back in Aso Rock interfacing with decision-makers.
That is why his recent baby, NESH, should not come as a surprise to anyone who knows this ex-banker, foremost entrepreneur and bridge-builder. By the way, NESH is an acronym for Nigerian Entrepreneurs Summit and Honours. It is not to be confused with NESG, the Nigerian Economic Summit Group. They are different. Yet they share similar concerns: to deepen those values that would lead Nigeria into the comity of developed nations. Ugwu-Oju outlined the objectives of NESH during its maiden press conference on October 5 thus: “NESH, as conceived, will hold annually and will provide an avenue for thought leadership and engagement, knowledge exchange, networking, benchmarking and appreciation of the contribution of entrepreneurs to national development.”
NESH, an annual event, will be driven by five key components: A plenary session, a roundtable discussion, presentation of the NESH Top-10 High Impact Projects Watch List, an annual keynote speech and the honours and recognitions. Each segment of this five-layer structure has been conceptualised to provide a learning environment for mentoring, peer reviews and project evaluation, networking, policy initiatives and road-mapping for sustainable development.
Thus, at NESH 2016, which has been slated for November 16 and 17 at the Lagos Oriental, Victoria Island, Lagos, the keynote paper will be presented by no less a person than Dr. Benedict Oramah, chairman and president of the Board of the African Import and Export Bank, at a blockbuster event where the Vice President of Nigeria, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, is expected to lead the pack of dignitaries. For effect, and as a mark of its seriousness, NESH has Prof. Osinbajo as its grand patron.
It is just as well that the Vice President will be in attendance and nothing should stop him from coming, not even an engagement in any of the three strategic rooms in his house. This is because the plenary will take a presentation on the state of the economy from January 2016 to date with emphasis on its impact on Nigerian entrepreneurs. We shall, therefore, expect that during the panel discussion to follow the Vice President would hear the unvarnished truth from those who, for better or worse, cannot be ignored, if the change agenda of government is to make any headway.
If the plenary promises to be revealing, the roundtable session is bound to be animated, given the sectors slated for discussion. Oil and gas; agriculture; transportation (air/rail/road/water); industry-power; and taxation will take the centre stage in the section that has been designed, in the words of Ugwu-Oju, “to help ascertain rules and regulations that need to be fine-tuned or discarded if they are shown to be counter-pro,ductive.” The ultimate aim is to chart a road map for improving the enabling environment for Nigerian entrepreneurs.
While these are all strategic, I am enthused by the NESH Top-10 Nigeria High Impact Projects Watch List, which entails identifying 10 key projects initiated by Nigerian entrepreneurs and public-private partnership arrangements that, in the opinion of NESH, hold the prospect of impacting positively on the Nigerian economy if completed and operational. As Ugwu-Oju stated, the objective of the watch list is to encourage timely completion of such projects and to minimise the negative impact of policy reversals on the projects.
To understand the significance of this, it should not be forgotten that, time and again, political considerations and personal prejudices have often counted more in determining the survival of projects, no matter how well-conceived or their undeniable benefits to the economy. By holding up such projects to public appreciation, scrutiny and emotional buy-in, NESH will be creating a new ombudsman/watchdog template that could check political impunity, huge corporate scams and lopsided economic development that have consigned the Nigerian state to the status of an economic midget in spite of the country’s towering resource endowment.
NESH has also taken a salutary step by including an honours section in its overall strategy for achieving accelerated and sustained entrepreneurial push. Although the 2016 list of honourees could look predictable, nothing should be taken away from these Nigerians who ventured out of their comfort zones, risked family resources and reputation to venture into the often unpredictable world of entrepreneurship. Without them, chances are that Nigeria would still be reeling under the yoke of complete foreign economic domination. Before the emergence of the likes of Aliko Dangote, Leo Stan Ekeh, Tony Elumelu, Wale Tinubu and Allen Onyema, following in the footsteps of the Dozies, the Dantatas, the Sunbomi Baloguns, etc., the Nigerian economic landscape was dominated by foreigners, in the distributive trade, finance, electronics, food and beverages and education. Today, that has changed significantly. The inclusion of Collins Onuegbu of Signal Alliance gives me especial joy because, in him, through him, I have come to learn that sustained self-development, capacity building, passion, patience, grit, integrity and compassion for others, can never fail you. It is because of people like him that, in spite of our constant floundering as a nation, in spite of the shenanigans that blight our landscape, I retain my conviction that my generation will not be the last to experience a public university system that treated students like human beings and not tools, a work environment that regarded salary as a right and not a privilege and a society that was ruled by conscience and not caprice.
We must congratulate Emeka Ugwu-Oju and NESH for this addition to the frontiers of entrepreneurial structuring and benchmarking. Nigeria may be a country of all sorts; every nation is. We could be bedeviled by all sorts of monsters; they are there in every country. But we must never lose hope in the genius of this country. It could sound trite, even stupid. But nothing explains our genius more graphically than the joke about three travellers, a German, an American and a Nigerian whose survival depended on the ability of each to throw something into the sea that the sea monster could not find. The German and American nationals each threw solid objects into the sea that were promptly retrieved by their assailant. Guess what the Nigerian was said to have done: he opened a packet of sachet (pure water), emptied the content into the sea and derided the monster to go ‘find water inside water’! That simply parodies the Nigerian genius. Did Jesus not ask his disciples to be as gentle as a dove and clever as a serpent?
Ugwu-Oju and his NESH group have challenged us to wear our thinking caps, engage our future in an honest, informed conversation and chart a route out of our present self-inflicted woes. It is only fitting to conclude by reproducing his words about the timing of NESH: “It is fortuitous that NESH will be commencing when Nigeria is in an economic recession. NESH as a platform will be in the vanguard of mobilising Nigerian entrepreneurs to lead the country out of the current recession. NESH will also be in the forefront of promoting the patronage of Nigerian-made goods and services by the government and people of Nigeria, but on the condition that the goods and services will be Made in Nigeria for the World and not for Nigerians alone…”
Welcome to NESH 2016: the future starts here.
• Emma Agu, former Managing Director Editor-In-Chief of Champion Newspapers wrote from Lagos.