Sam Ohuabunwa, former Chairman/CEO of Neimeth, former President, Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG) and leading Management Consultant is not happy with the present political and economic situation of Nigeria. He said the adult kid country long left behind by her contemporaries such as Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea is still grappling with the fundamentals of nationhood at 57.
Ohuabunwa spoke with OBIDIKE JERRY of Saturday Sun in his Maryland, Lagos Office recently where he fielded questions on various national issues.
In your book-“Nigeria: Need for the Evolution of a New Nation” ,you tried to distill Nigeria’s problems into ten chapters-aborted dream, leadership failure, jobless economy, insecurity, docile followership, ineffective checks and balances, etc. You talked about how we started well with a very promising future ahead but somehow we derailed. Is it that our past leaders didn’t have the knowledge of these problems or that they lacked the political will to do the right thing?
I think if the choice is either this or that, my choice would be that they lack the political will because the people who had been leading us are people who were born before 1960. All our leaders, none was born after 1967 so as to say they didn’t know what the country looked like. I am 67 years and except maybe former president Jonathan, others like Obasanjo is much older than myself, Yar Adua was much older than myself, Buhari is a grandfather as far as I am concerned. So, all these people saw the country when it was working. So, I think it is a mixture-first it is lack of political will. Second is an inability to do what needs to be done, even if it is to their (own) personal and group interest. Political will and then this ability to separate yourself from what is best for the nation. I think that is part of the challenge.
What is the role of having the necessary knowledge or what role would having the required relevant/requisite knowledge play in getting us out of this problem because you mentioned leadership as part of the problem?
Education is only one. I have 22 core competences in the book. One is sound education, but I went on to say sound education, ability to envision. Somebody who can see the future, ability to communicate, an inclination to selflessness, somebody who understands the nature of sacrifice and so forth and so on. So, education is one, but if you have education without applying it, it is a wasted effort. So, the issue is what we had fully lacked, I mean we have had shades of them. I mean Yar Adua would have done extraordinarily well but unfortunately he didn’t have enough time. Obasanjo had a drive, had a thorough understanding of what the issues are but somehow he was able to elevate himself sufficiently above the problem so he ended up being part of the problem. Otherwise, he would have done better. Mr. Jonathan, wonderful guy, but he came ahead of his time. He should have come when Nigeria’s political democracy had developed. He came thinking he was running a country where everybody was trying to do his own and he did his own. A democrat, he didn’t want to force issues, personalize issues but they took advantage of that kind of nature and then ran a cycle of ring and then the pressure he was getting from the North and opponents kept him busy trying to please them and in the process didn’t focus adequately on the vision. So, we’ve had all these incapabilities and inabilities to focus on the vision. The greatest challenge Nigeria has had really is lack of vision.
Yes, lack of a vision that is generally accepted, vision that we, as a nation, subscribe to.
What about Vision 2010 that was later modified to 2020 and the rest of them?
Listen, vision 2010 was done by Abacha but wasn’t alive to implement it. When he died, Obasanjo came and he didn’t look at it. Listen, the only vision Obasanjo pursued was what they called NEEDS. NEEDS 1and 2 and if you go through the history of economic performance of our nation, you would have seen that we performed fairly well; those four or five years we were focusing on that vision. It’s a medium term vision. After that, he left and Yar’Adua came. Jonathan came and continued the vision 2020 and when Jonathan finished, how many people knew what vision 2020 meant? He knew it, a few people in government knew but the whole of the country had no idea what vision 2020 meant. Nobody was focused. The day this country agrees on a vision and says this nation wants to be this and then everybody in the country is told, Journalists, this is your role and how you can hook on it, and then other professionals, artisans, industrialists, NGOs and women; everybody has something he is looking at coming from your own direction and we are looking at that vision. That’s when we shall begin to make progress. Okay this people have come now, Buhari’s people, which vision do they have? They are starting what they called-Nigeria Economic Recovery and Growth Plan-is that a vision? They are just reacting and responding to the challenges that we have. That may bring us out of recession but we don’t know where it is taking us to. That is a major challenge. Then second, we don’t have or as at now, we don’t have a visionary leadership. Because vision is related to a leader who says I am going somewhere or this is where we are going and everybody buys into the vision?
You mentioned Economic Recovery and Growth Plan along the line. But recently your chairman, that is, NESG (Kyari) tried to appropriate that plan by claiming your group suggested most of the things in that plan?
What I believe they were saying was that some of the suggestions they had made were included in the plan. The fact that I suggested something doesn’t mean you also didn’t have it in mind. And lucky thing is that some of the commanders in government now like the Minister of Budget and Planning (Senator Udo Udoma) was with us in NESG and Enelama, Industries, Trade and Investment, also).
Now that you mentioned exiting recession, officially we have exited recession by 0.55 percent. Are you comfortable with that?
Absolutely not, because our population growth is almost 3 percent or 2.8 percent and then you have a growth of 0.55 percent, actually it is no growth. Any growth that is not above population growth is no growth because what it means is if you have, for instance, 10 oranges and then we were 10 people to eat the orange. What does each person get, that’s one. Okay. Now I grow to eleven oranges and we are now 13 people to eat the orange. How many oranges will each person get? Each person will get less than one orange. Is it a growth? That’s why you are not seeing development. We are not growing above the population growth, so per capita is falling down, poverty is increasing, many people are being driven below poverty because what we share is smaller in relation to people who want to share it.
But can we actually get out of our problems without increasing our revenue base or borrowing. Just recently, the IMF/World Bank advised countries that rely on commodities (one major commodity such as oil) as only source of foreign revenue earner to be careful how they borrow. How then do we get out of the problem knowing that if we borrow too much and oil price falls, we might run into economic/debt crisis but we need to spend to get out of our problems or to actualize some of the things you mentioned in your book?
If you ask me the shortest way out of Nigeria’s problem, it is through private sector investment. It is the easiest way to come out of it. Do you know that the private sector in the world can build our roads, our rail lines, our airports, and so on and so forth? There is nowhere money can be made that private money cannot go especially in the country that has a potential to sell oil, that has a source of revenue. So, rather than borrowing as we are borrowing or so much, why don’t we get investors to come and do what we are going to borrow the money for? It is like preferring or I have a company and I own 100 percent and therefore I need money and I go out and borrow, okay hoping that I will do well, then the debt becomes an overhang. But I can say okay, I own this company, okay I am not going to borrow and say my friend or this company, bring 50 percent of the money as equity, so we have 50-50 and the job is done. I didn’t borrow, I have nobody to pay. You and I are now risk takers; if it doesn’t work, you suffer 50 percent loss and I suffer the same. But when I borrow money, If I Iose, I would pay unless you are doing Islamic banking where they are willing to share your loss. So, this is the way it is done. Our major escape route and I am surprised why don’t we go the route of external investment in bringing private sector investment? That is the faster route. Government, how much money are we getting from oil and how much can it do for us? Can we maintain security, can we do environment? Can we support healthcare and education? Then we can give every other thing to the private sector. Every other thing we are spending money and energy on can be done by the private sector. That is the way but to be able to do so, you have to create an enabling environment. An environment that has three components-Physical safety. If there is no physical safety, nobody is ready to invest. They would kidnap you or shoot you on the street. When a government says I have signed up to something, then you can hold onto that. If you abuse me, cheat me I can get a redress. If you commit a crime, they will catch you if you steal and it doesn’t matter who is your father-law and so on. Third is policy consistency-where your work is your word. If you say you are giving a contract like this Discos who have bought distribution outlet and you want to go and review what you have done. What type of nonsense is that? If you’ve sold your company, you have sold your company. If you want to start another one, start another one. If you want to buy into existing one, try and buy. But you cannot come and start dictating to private companies what to do. So, there are laws. You have Intel, then just all of a sudden you start breaking contracts. You will be sending signals to external people that these people are not good to do business with and instead, they would leave on the road and change their mind. That is the problem. If we can prove we have policies, we think through our policies and when we make our commitment, that commitment stays. There would be a lot of foreign investments and local investments into this country and it would reduce our need to borrow.
As somebody from the private sector, why is government finding it difficult to embark on this journey you have talked about?
Most of them, the reason is that the leaders of the government/public sector are people who have gone through appropriation, their lives are appropriation life. They do not understand profit and loss or balance sheet. They do not understand time-value of money. That is the problem. So they are afraid of doing what the private sector does to succeed. The bureaucracy is made by people who want to protect their status, protect their stay. They do not want to take a risk. Ideally, the government should make some provisions for people but when government cannot provide, then government should decide this is what we can do. I mean I have told people that if I am the governor of a state, you won’t see me doing what people do like building roads, half road, half hospital and so on, and half way we abandon all of them. I am going to each senatorial zone to say gentlemen, all we have is N100 million to spend and I want to spend this one in your zone. Please tell me what is more important to you? Is it road? Is it hospital? Is it school? Or what? Choose one. This year we are going to do roads, for instance. We put all the money down and build roads. Next year, we move on to school and after that we move on to hospital. But what do you see? They start school, start hospital, start roads and halfway they abandon all of them. They are not properly done because there is not enough money. Do you know that most of the roads you see abandoned, people blame contractors, they blame all kinds of people, they even blame corruption. Yes, there’s corruption but the major thing is that you want a road that is N200 billion and you want it finished in four years. What does that mean? How much are you supposed to budget every year if you want it finished in four years? That is N50 billion every year. The person/Federal Government, who is doing the budgeting will propose let me say at the best N20 billion. If it is N20 billion, how long will it take to finish it? That is 10 years. But when you awarded the contract you said four years but by your provision, it is 10 years. But if it is even that N10 billion, it will be okay. But you now take that N10 billion to the National assembly, the senator would take the N10 billion and say you want to do only one road? What will I tell my own constituency? They will break it into 109 roads and vote smaller amount of money for each road. The same thing happens at the House of Representatives and maybe, the road gets at best just N1 billion. So if it is N200billion road, how long will it take? This is what I discovered when I served in SURE-P. I was in charge of roads and they took me to East-West Road. It is the problem. We do not budget sufficiently and even when you budget, you know they never release the money completely. So, these are the issues that we have. Look at today, do you know the rail line-this standard gauge that we did between Abuja and Kaduna was counterpart funding-70 percent counterpart funding from China EXIM Bank and 30 percent from Nigeria. So, why can’t we do more of such, okay? This one luckily is bilateral lending but we can go to private sector. Look at what Dangote is trying to do in Apapa-Oworonsoki? How are they going to pay him? The tax is going to pay in the next 10-20 years; he will take it from the project. That’s what private sector is ready to do. I would build the road for you (N200 billion) but for the next 10 years when my tax is due, you will deduct it. So, the problem is wrong contracting and wrong funding and trying to do everything. We should prioritize.
Yes, we have exited recession by 0.55 percent but most Nigerians and even IMF said it was due to increasing oil price at the international market and also increase in quantity produced based on the relative peace in Niger Delta and not as a result of diversification of our economy? Why are we finding difficult to do the needful when it comes to diversification-creating multiple streams of income to get out of our situation?
Our problem is lack of understanding of how an economy runs from the leadership. We do not have entrepreneurial leadership. I am not suggesting it but today, if we have somebody like Aliko Dangote as president-look at how he is managing the money he is borrowing. If he were to run a country like Nigeria where he is not going to borrow as such because the money is coming from oil and agriculture and from tax, wouldn’t you think that Dangote would know how to create multiple streams of income? People who we give power must have experience to show for it. If people say they are going to build skyscraper, let them show you three or four storey structure they have built. Somebody who hasn’t built a storey building doesn’t know what it takes to build a skyscraper. Otherwise when he gets the opportunity, he would begin to realize that it is easier said than done. And he would begin to reverse himself and say it is not what I said. It is either you misquoted him or you misunderstood him. You know the kind of things this government told us after all the promises they made-Naira would be equal to the dollar and so on. And one after the other, they started to deny all.
In the new Nigeria you talked about in your book, what role will restructuring the polity or economy play to bring it about? This is because everybody now is talking about restructuring?
Restructuring is a fundamental issue for the creation of the new Nigeria because as we stand now, the way our country is structured constricts growth, it constricts private sector, it constricts good governance. It makes us run ‘feeding bottle’ economy where people go to mother hen at the end of every month in Abuja with a bowl and collects their share and wait for the next month. So, if we restructure and begin to practise true federalism, fiscal federalism and if I cannot feed my children would I not wake up in the morning and start looking for where I can feed them? Let me give example with state governments in the South East. The other day I travelled between Enugu and Port Harcourt that took eight hours and that was a journey that should have taken three or four hours. And when you ask people, they say it is federal road. The question is who is federal? Is federal using this road? Does President Buhari use the road? If he comes to the South East, he will use helicopter. Who are the people using the road? They are the people that live in the area. So, Enugu State should tar the road linking it to Imo State (Okigwe), and Abia State up to Rivers and Rivers will finish it up. If I am driving from Enugu and Enugu tarred its portion and Imo tarred its portion and Abia, for instance, did not tar its own, is it not for people to march to Ikpeazu, governor of Abia State and ask the governor why is Abia the problem? By the time people ask questions, Ikpeazu will go and look for money to tar his portion of the road. This was the way it was being done before. Give it back to states or region or whatever you call the federating units. We are saying that when you invert a pyramid instead of lying on its base, it lies on its peak or pinnacle. Can it be stable? No, it would wobble; even if you support it, after a while it will fall. The federation is inverted. A federation is an organization of autonomous units that decide to take part of their autonomy and create a central government and give them services and things to run on behalf of all of us, contribute money to maintain that federation. That is what a federation is but what we have now is that the federal has the power and is now ceding it to the federating units. It is an inverted federation. So, it cannot promote competition. It cannot promote efficiency because there’s a saying in Igboland that says a goat collectively owned invariably dies of hunger because no one takes special responsibility of meeting its needs. So, federal in this case is no man’s land. People just go there to grab, to benefit themselves and their brothers and sisters. Everybody is nepotistic. But if you have to take care of your state or your local government, it’s not going to be the same. You now have responsibility-this is my own. You are more likely to protect it. That is what we are saying-restructure-politically and economically. Look at the money we are spending to maintain political office holders. Today, 70 percent of our budget goes to recurrent which is money we consume. Only 30 percent goes to capital and that is because of these layers of bureaucracy we have and we are saying why don’t we restructure? Instead of five states, have one region. That’s one option. Instead of 36 ministers, have 18, another option. Instead of 36 states Houses of assembly, why don’t you have six or seven. Instead of 109 senators, 360 House of representative members, why don’t we have one house of 109 members-One House instead of two. These are restructuring that will save money, they would create greater efficiency and they would deal with the issue of corruption because when you give too much power to any group, any structure with too much discretion, the Federal Government has too much money and discretion; they can begin to dabble into whatever they want to dabble into and there is money to be wasted. Why do we struggle to be the president? Why is it that every four years, Nigeria is like it is going to break up because of election? It is because there is too much money and power at the centre. Make centre unattractive as it was in the 60s. If centre was as attractive as it is now, do you think Ahmadu Bello would refuse to go and be Prime Minister? When the offer was made to him, he said no and sent Abubakar to go. So, these are the things that are destabilizing this country. Let’s restructure our political, socio-economic system with the main objective of setting Nigerians free. Let them have a feeling of belonging to a nation.
My own take is that this government, perhaps like the other governments, is not interested in transparency. The fight against corruption is selective. It is me against those who are against me. When their own turn comes, they will also do the same because what is happening now has happened before. And I don’t know but it is like, God forbid, as it was in the beginning, so shall it be. I hope it is not so in Nigeria. I would not expect that this will happen in this government that talks about anticorruption. Anti corruption is not just stealing money. It is the wrong procedure, wrong process. You cannot have board and the board does not know when you reach contract, when you do contractual agreement that binds the organization. Then what’s the purpose of the Board? So the NNPC GMD can claim he is following a procedure. Yes, there are always many laws you can decide to obey one and ignore the other. There’s NNPC Law or Act, there’s CAMA Law, there’s the constitution. If you decide to follow one and ignore others, you have followed because some of these things were done without regard to the others. For example, when the NNPC Act was done, there was no board. So it could have been said it is from the GMD to minister or GMD to FEC. But you have created a board, so there must be a function for the board. So the board cannot stand and you say you are following the rules and we still have corporate governance. Corporate governance that affects every institution, governmental and non-governmental and corporate governance creates boards that must sign off on these things. So we don’t need to go and make a law for Maikanti Baru to know that when you have a proposal, a contract, policy, promotion, etc, you must pass them to the board even if your law says it is from you to the minister. You must know that the board is an intervening agency even before you go to the final authority because some of these laws were written by the military. They didn’t have boards. So they just follow those rules as a place of comfort when it suits you, when you are comfortable you go to the board. It is like being wise by half. The truth of the matter is that there’s no proper corporate governance going on and when there is corporate governance, corruption and corruptive activities happen.
So you support the Senate that says it is looking into the matter?
Senate should look into the matter. And everybody should look into it but the issue is that you that are looking into it, be sure that you are doing the right thing because the issue in Nigeria is that there is so much hypocrisy. Okay. We are here pontificating and some of us who are pontificating are also guilty. Let everybody search himself, Senate, House of representatives, executive, judiciary, governmental and non-governmental organization agree and that’s what I am preaching in my book: let’s create a nation that we all will be proud of, that we all will be happy about. Let us create a nation that will stop making excuses, explaining, justifying as we are doing presently. Why should we be explaining that? It is not the kind of nation we are talking about. We should make a nation that functions, a nation that is accountable, a nation where your right and my right are protected, a nation where life counts. If one man dies in this country, government will go after whoever kills that man. But we are running a country where people die anyhow and you are asking them why are they not patriotic? That is not the way to build a nation. Law and order must be maintained. If somebody goes against the law whether he is your brother or sister, your townsman or ethnic person, deal with him according to law, so when another person does the same, you deal with him so that he doesn’t accuse you of favouritism.
How do you see government trying the IPOB leader, Kanu, in absentia knowing that military invasion of his home must have caused his disappearance and nobody seems to know his whereabouts?
For me the government is already using impunity to deal with the situation. The Operation Python Dance going into Kanu’s home and terrorizing him, his family is impunity. So, they can continue with their impunity. They can try him. It is already a foregone conclusion. So, what is the issue whether he is in court or not, I am not sure he will get justice. So, let them just do what they want to do.
There’s this argument that labeling IPOB a terrorist organization and allowing Fulani herdsmen to move freely and attack farmers and their farms looks like injustice, unfair to IPOB and to some extent the South East. How do you see it?
It is correct. It is absolutely an act of injustice and intimidation. It is not a fair deal. Yes, many of us were opposed to some of IPOB style; we were cautioning them, advising them, telling them don’t do this, don’t say this, continue your demand in non-violent manner and respect people. Don’t abuse people. But you know youths can be excessive at times, youthful exuberance. But for me, they had done nothing to qualify to be terrorist, nothing. When Kanu and his group were doing Radio Biafra, many people were not listening to them, nobody took them serious. It was a distraction. Kanu became popular when the Federal Government arrested him. And youths that were protesting on the roads started talking about Biafra because they said release this man especially when the court said release him. And when he was eventually released, he began to talk. You had two choices then. One was to call off his bail since you say he has abused his bail condition. As far as I know, they didn’t kill anybody, they didn’t shoot anybody. In fact the day the military started Operation Python Dance or pre operation python dance, they (IPOB) were not even demonstrating, they were just in their home and the military were doing a show of force around their home to intimidate them and that’s where the trouble started. And the militant Fulani herdsmen that are regularly killing with impunity-they killed in Nasarawa, killed in Plateau, killed in Benue, killed in Enugu, they killed in Ondo, just one after the other and somebody says they are just criminals. Nobody has proscribed or banned them. My Bible says that if you sow wind, you reap whirlwind. Whatever a man sows, he will reap. So we can use power, we can use authority to commit impunity but remember that power belongs to God and nobody has it forever. Whatever a man sows he will reap. So if there’s injustice that somebody is perpetrating, he will also reap it at some point.