By Emma Njoku
Dr. Okechukwu Henry Obi is an oil and gas businessman based in the United Kingdom with investments in England, Wales, Nigeria and Ghana, among other countries.
In this interview, Obi declared that Nigeria would rank among the leading global economic powers, if only the government provides a safe and secure environment for investors to do business.
He also stated that regular dredging of the waterways would boost the country’s economy. Excerpts:
What’s your assessment of investments in Nigeria and other countries?
Nigeria is a virgin forest, with a population of over 200 million young and energetic youths. Making good fortune in Nigeria is kind of guaranteed though there are so many challenges, and as you solve some of the challenges, you make more and more money. The market is very huge in Nigeria. We make good turnovers monthly and we are not even close to the market leaders. We do business in the United Kingdom and Ghana, but you cannot compare those places with the kind of transactions that occur in Nigeria in our industry.
What could be done to attract more investments, create jobs and boost the country’s economy?
The only incentive I want the government to give us is to make Nigeria safe and secure for everyone. Government should provide an enabling environment for investors and entrepreneurs like us to keep faith in the country. When I started out in 2006, I drove from Saminaka to Jos, from Jos to Bauchi, Kaduna, Zaira, Kano, back to Abuja, without fear of killer herdsmen, bandits and kidnappers. But, today, whenever I’m in the country, I dare not travel by road to any part of the country. It is that bad. So, we are not asking the government to give us money; we know how to make our money. All we need is security, peace and peaceful co-existence between the North and the South. My best friends are from the North. In fact, the first business support I got was N5 million in 2009, from a Muslim guy called Bashir Inuwa Ali. I had just met him like a week earlier. I was looking for a business loan from a bank and the bank delayed. And he simply asked me what I needed and I said N5 million. He gave it to me without collateral, neither did I sign any form of agreement with him. Today, we are family friends. A.A. Rano also has given me credit facilities, which banks couldn’t give me. No collaterals, no sales purchase agreements signed. He simply told me, ‘Just go and sell and bring back the capital’. So, why would I not want to remain in the same country with these guys? Let the government make the country safe, then we will all prosper.
What’s your take on the foreign exchange rate?
The growth of commerce and industry in the present dispensation has been in reverse majorly because of insecurity. Foreign direct investment has plummeted, USD (United States dollar) inflows have dried up. You don’t expect any reasonable foreign company to invest in a country where the security of life and property is not assured. My advice for improvement is to get the security of the country right, then every other thing will fall into place.
How would you rate Nigeria’s maritime sector?
Nigeria is endowed with extensive inland waterways, but the maritime environment is faced with a lot of challenges, ranging from sea piracy, which we have encountered a couple of times, to inadequate berthing space for mother vessels, poor dredging challenges, dock problems, reduced channel width due to silting and unwholesome obstacles, inadequate functioning plants and equipment, inadequate financing and funding of port operations, proliferation of government agencies in port activities and waterways and charging multiple taxation and levies. In the same waterways, you see Nigerian Inland Waterways (NIWA), you see the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, marine police, navy, army, Department of Petroleum Resources, the Nigerian Ports Authority and others like touts and community boys.
There are also government policy inconsistencies. All these and more are some of the challenges we do encounter in the marine industry in Nigeria. So, I think the government should harmonise the operations of these agencies because whatever monies we spend on them trickles down to the final consumers, which then impacts negatively on the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
What’s your take on the newly launched deep blue project?
“Presently the government is doing well with the launch of the deep blue project which, in my honest opinion, is the beginning of good things to come. Right now, there has been reduced incidence of sea piracy attacks up to the gulf of Guinea. Government should be eager in the development of the blue economy. Nigeria, being a country blessed with a great amount of littoral component states and waterways of great lengths, should strive very hard and concentrate its oil resources and revenues in developing a blue economy. Blue economy alone can out-perform any other form of economic activities you can think of. The ocean is the largest and most critical ecosystem on earth. The blue economy is the use of the sea and its resources for sustainable economic development. It consists of sectors like fisheries and aquaculture, marine biotechnology, renewable energy and shipping, hospitality (like beach side hotels and bars). Majorly, it centres on trade and actions around large bodies of water. If well harnessed, it will solve Nigerians socio-economic problems because it will help achieve economic diversification, create high value jobs and ensure food security. All the ports in Nigeria should be developed, in order to reduce tension and traffic congestion to Apapa Port.
Exactly what measures should be taken to decongest the Apapa sea port?
River Niger is the biggest and longest river in Nigeria, but, unfortunately, the failure of successive governments to dredge the river has put too much pressure on the Apapa sea port. That is why the Apapa port is congested.
Dredging of waterways and channels are very big capital intensive projects. Though it can be divided into two, capital dredging and maintenance dredging which is less capital intensive, but requires regular venture. We have dredgers abandoned across the country, probably procured with bank funds and subsidies. The dredgers should be put to use for regular dredging of the waterways, while small scale ports should be developed around the river banks. So, maintenance dredging should be done regularly, in order to make the River Niger channel navigable to barges and low draft vessels. With these, I can get low draft vessels and self propelled barges to lift refined products from say Waltersmith Refinery in Oguta to Onitsha port to deliver to coaches, from there to the North and sub-Saharan region. We will create multiple jobs along the waterways. Food supply will be made from the North to the South via the same partway. Nigeria is very rich, but let’s fix our security.