At the return to democratic rule in 1999, Nze Chidi Duru was one of the few Nigerian youths who joined politics. And indeed, the lawyer turned politician cum businessman played a vital role in establishing the Pension Reform Act, 2004.
In this interview with a select group of editors in Abuja, he looked at the National Assembly between 1999 and 2007, legislations at the time, the call for restructuring, the impact of the third term agenda of former President Olusegun Obasanjo on Nigerian polity, his going back to business, among others. Chidi Nnadi was there. Except:
You’re one of those who started the new democracy that began in 1999 and you held sway for two terms and after disappeared, only to reappear last year, but it wasn’t favourable to you. So, what have you been doing since that time?
Well, from 2007 when I left the National Assembly, I focused more of my time, energy and resources on rebuilding my business. It is important to also mention here that before I went into politics full-time in 1999, I already founded a company that was in the environment, fire-fighting and asset management. So, after 2007, I went back to rebuild my business and fortunately, in the course of my stay in the National Assembly, I had the singular privilege of founding a company in the pension industry called First Guarantee Pension Ltd of which I was the vice chairman of the company. So, a lot more time was devoted to it and also devoted to my holding company called Grand Towers Ltd. Grand Towers Ltd is more of a private equity investor that invests in identifiable opportunities in sectors and one of the sectors we identified is the absence of shopping malls in Nigeria and our first investment was the Grand Towers Mall which is the first lifestyle shopping centre in Abuja and attracted Shoprite. The first Shoprite mall or shop was in my mall in Abuja and today, in Abuja, Shoprite is in about four other malls, but I was the first person that had contact with Shoprite and brought them to Abuja. So, from 2007, like I said, I got more involved in my business, in rebuilding my business and, of course, getting involved in the affairs of my community, in inspiring the younger ones, sharing my time and experience with them and, of course, in mentoring which is something I like to do and have done over the years given the history of my family and the background where I come from.
It is not quite usual that some people would leave the political arena, not someone who had a lot of laurels, you won best legislator in the National Assembly in those days. So, what actually informed your taking a break from politics to go solely into business?
For me, it was not a deliberate choice and it was forced on me and a number of us. In 1999, when we were elected for the first time into the House of Representatives in Nigeria, we set up a group called the G-14 and in that G-14 were people of like minds. We had the Nduka Irabors of this world, the Tony Anyanwus of this world, Achobioma and Co, Faruq Lawan, Suleiman Ishyaku and our confidence and conviction were that we wanted to change the paradigm. We wanted to contribute our quota in determining how the country is run and see whether we can help to position Nigeria differently and then to run best practices as you’d find it anywhere in the world. In 2003…I believe in 1999/2000, we succeeded largely because when we had the first Speaker that became the Speaker of the House, Salisu Buhari, a lot of us felt that he could not represent us or reflect the standing of most of us that were members in the House of Representatives and, therefore, a guided push was made by us to ensure that we removed him as Speaker of the House and then ushered in Ghali Umar N’Abba and that principle guided us even when there was a deliberate impact by the then government to ensure that over 95 per cent of us did not return in the 2003 election and particularly for people like me, who were the target of a deliberate government/executive effort to ensure that we did not return to the House of Representatives. Ninety-five per cent of my colleagues did not come back. It was actually the court that brought me back in 2004. So, the principle never left us. By 2007, it was very clear that having fought the battle and having continued to hold true to what we believed in which is that we believe in Nigeria and we believe that we have something much more to offer other than the normal ways of playing politics in the country, it was clear that the government had taken a deliberate effort to ensure that under no circumstances would someone like me and a particular Nze Chidi Duru come back to the National Assembly. So, after that, one took a bow and it wasn’t deliberate. It was forced on me and there was no other way other than to exit the scene and face commitment to my business and, of course, my family.
You’re more or less someone who is private sector and development-minded. You were instrumental to creating the contributory pension scheme. What challenges at the time gave impetus to that design and to what extent has the original template succeeded?
I believe that again, by my training as a lawyer, I believe and I say it with every sense of conviction, that Nigeria is not a land of laws. What we need in Nigeria basically is more of enforcement of laws. And I also believe that we also need to begin to address the policy trust and the institutional reforms that are required to move Nigeria from where we are today to where we would like to see Nigeria. And I mean: see Nigeria competing with the rest of the world. One of the things that gave me joy is being offered the opportunity to serve as the Chairman of the House Committee on Privatisation and Commercialisation. Earlier before then, I was invited to chair the House Committee on Appropriation and I felt that my talent and abilities would be better utilised in a committee such as privatisation and commercialisation and people didn’t understand how you were given a Grade A committee and you’re turning it down for what was thought to be a committee that people just could not understand what it meant. I was also fortunate to work with a reform-minded head of the DPU that was responsible for midwifing the privatisation and commercialisation impetus of the government, which was Mallam El-Rufai under the main chairmanship of the Vice President, Atiku Abubakar. Working together, we midwifed a number of reform-minded policy trusts in Nigeria and impacted what we now enjoy in the telecommunication space which is the telecom reform bill. We midwifed the mobile network operation in Nigeria and today, we have close to about four mobile networks operating in Nigeria – MTN, Glo, Airtel and 9mobile. But, at that time, it was basically three mobile network operators which are: MTN, Econet and Mtel which is the Nitel operator that later died. Our vision was very clear. We needed to enable Nigerians to communicate from Point A to Point B. If you remember at that time, it was claimed that telephone was not for the poor. Having lines were meant for the rich, for the very few privileged ones that were privileged to have the 090, it cost probably about N250,000, sometimes N350,000 to acquire the line. We were very convinced that if we were able to put lines in the hands of Nigerians, it will greatly transform not only our social life, it will transform even how we relate with one another. It will also transform our economy . It will enable a lot of businesses. Working with El-Rufai too, we were also able to again look into the horizon and came to appreciate the fact that we also needed to reform the power sector which we are lucky that we passed that bill. First, we attempted in 2002, but we couldn’t get it passed and assented to until 2004, when we started that process again and then in 2005, it was now passed and assented into law as an Act of Parliament by the President, but unfortunately, the politics of that time did not allow the full liberalisation and investment that is required in seeing through the implementation of the reform that that power sector reform engendered in Nigeria. The other thing we talked about but unfortunately, couldn’t get it passed was the anti-trust law. Lack of understanding of the impact of the dominant companies in the economy. It was very difficult to lead members to understand that unless we innovate rules and regulations that inhibit anti-trust behaviour in a country, that Nigeria will suffer as a consequence of that. So, unfortunately, it was one bill I was interested in and couldn’t get it passed before we left the parliament. But I’m happy that in 2019, that had been passed, of course, with some measure of confusion. There’s a confusion whether it is an anti-trust bill or a consumer bill. What I find now is that more emphasis is placed on the consumer aspect of the implementation of the Act on the anti-trust behaviour. And, of course, you mentioned the Pension Reform Act. Nowhere in the world have those countries made progress without long-term funding. And it is the pension access that provides long-term funding that crystallises investment, that crystallises development and in more ways than not, puts hands in the hands of the PEs, the venture capitalists to be able to take long-term positions in assets that they would like to acquire. For example, South Africa has close to over $500 or $700 billion in pension assets. And many countries in the world have asset sizes of close to $3, $4, $5 trillion. And you’d find that in Nigeria, with the pension gap, even without looking at the benefits of a reformed and restructured pension class in Nigeria, many of us are witness to the fact that it used to be the case that our fathers, who worked in the civil service, our friends and our brothers who worked in the civil service, would actually exit or die without accessing their pension because those pensions were largely unfunded and they couldn’t access them. So, one of the strategic decisions that we took when I got involved in the pension industry was to look at it: what is it that we can do to address the issue of the challenges that faced the civil service and the civil servants while they were working and while they retired from service. And one of those things was the unfunded pension scheme and we looked at Chile and many other countries in the world that have been successful in innovating a largely successful pension scheme in their country and we adopted the Chile model, which is to transform from an unfunded pension scheme to a refunded pension scheme to the extent that you are certain that your contribution to your scheme whilst you’re working is not only safe, it’s secured, it’s guaranteed and that when you retire, in the withdrawal, that your pension will be able to take care of your lifestyle for the rest of your life. The second benefit of that is to also have a pool of funds that will be targeted to long-term investment and development. Today, we have close to about N11 trillion in our pension asset and that, in a way, is good news even though in 2004, when we passed that bill, we had expected that by 2015, the asset class, the contribution in our pension scheme will be in the region of N30 to N40 trillion. And then if you’re talking of 2020, we should be discussing about N50 to N60 trillion in our pension assets. So, imagine what that would have been if those asset class are targeted at road infrastructure, building railway lines, building airports and a number of those asset class that can return inflation between assets returned to the pensioners.
There’s no doubt that the country is in a very bad shape and in need of urgent rescue. You’ve spoken like someone who has the passion to get things done. Would you possibly consider returning to the political arena to actualise some of the visions that you have espoused?
Well, like I said before, I didn’t leave politics. Politics left me (laughter). I was forced out and I give kudos to people like Malam El-Rufai, who in spite of the odds, have remained faithful and consistent in his belief to continue to contribute his quota to Nigeria and as governor of Kaduna State and people like Fayemi Kayode, the governor of Ekiti State and the likes, for their contributions.
They’re all members of G-14?
No. They belong to a larger group that we belonged to. The Pat Utomis of this world. Of course, you did mention that in 2019, I tried my hand again in politics. As appealing as the ticket was, unfortunately, I came from a state that did not find a reason they could contend and countenance my association with APC. And regardless of the appropriateness of my ticket and the fact that they believe I would give equitable and effective representation to them, when it came to speaking with their votes, they decided otherwise. So, in answer to your question, I believe that having taken that decision in 2019, again, it means that one is believing that if given the opportunity, that one would make oneself available and then continue to contribute one’s quota. But outside of politics, I have done a lot more even in improving the lifestyle of my community and people around me. But we could do a lot more if given the space within the political arena to continue to change our country and reposition our country in a way that we can compete with the rest of the world. If you do the very simple things, you’d build the biggest mountains. So, there are basic laws or principles on how it is to build great countries. Once we begin to put that in place, I believe Nigeria will be a better place than it is currently.
Twenty years down the line, we’re still talking about the same issues. And one thing that people are saying might be a way forward is restructuring the country. What are your views concerning restructuring?
I believe that institutional reforms are very important, but also more important is that the players in the political space come to an understanding and appreciation of the higher responsibility or the burden they bear by being elected to elective positions and help, through that, to transform Nigeria. The downtime we’ve had as a country goes back to 1999, when given an act of grace of God, a former Head of State of Nigeria, a military man, was again elected as a civilian president. And the wish of most of us, I believe, Nigerians and the international community was that he would have invested his time, energy and resources in helping to map a new Nigeria, but I think that what has happened to us as a country took root to what happened in 1999/2000 when we left governance and began to play politics. And that seed was sown in 2000 and 2001 when the president and his minders constructively undermined the constitution of Nigeria with respect to the election of the councilors and local government chairmen. The constitution was very clear that after two years, an election will be conducted and the councillors and local government chairmen in the 774 local governments of Nigeria will then be elected. But because of politics, he convened a National Council of State meeting where on the pretext that the voters register was not ready and having agreed with the then AD governors and some of the governors on the platform of APP that now became NPP, innovated a system that enabled the governors to now appoint councilors and local government chairmen. Nothing could have been more fundamental and disruptive as that singular act because the constitution of a country is the spirit that guides a country. So, if you can undermine the constitution, you can undermine any other law in Nigeria. So, it was very clear to people that the operators of the constitution and the people at the helm of affairs in Nigeria could willingly undermine the very basic laws or the basis on which they came to power. And the rest of the infractions that we saw from that time to 2007 up till date took root from what happened in 2001. The attempt to change the laws of Nigeria to enable a sitting president to run for third term was again a needless distraction that we need not have and the fact that it was encouraged. People at the helm of affairs, at the national and state levels were encouraged not to hand over to their deputy governors, at least, to give them a trying chance to be elected because the basis of having a deputy governor or a vice president of a country is when you’re exiting and have done your two terms, is to offer the ticket more often than not to the vice president or deputy governors who you have been mentored over the period, who have learned under your tutelage the opportunity to offer themselves to the electorate to see whether the electorate will accept them. It happened in the 36 states of Nigeria. It was only one state that handed over to the deputy governor. The vice president did not. He took another route, which was Yar’Adua. Yar’Adua became the candidate of PDP and became the president of Nigeria and ,of course, the rest is history. And, of course, in the rest of the country, the same thing played out. So, institutional reform, restructuring by any word so called is so important, but more importantly is that people at the helm of affairs should be made to realise that the weight of the burden or the responsibility that they carry by being elected on behalf of the people of a given constituency to run their affairs, to represent them and to discharge their responsibility to the benefit of their constituents, is for me, more involving, in addition to the institutional reforms that we speak about. Do I agree with restructuring? By all means, I do. I do agree with it and I see the need for it. And I am one of the advocates that believe that Nigeria will get better if we can look at these things and address them politically. I don’t know if you’re aware that the El-Rufai committee that was set up by APC recommended restructuring as one of the signposts that the party in government should champion. But, of course, up till today, I don’t think there has been any deliberate effort on the part of the government to bring these to the table for discussion and then for implementation.
We would like to know your position about reforms, part-time legislature? There’s a discussion that Nigeria cannot afford a bi-cameral legislature. What is your position on that? And people also say that legislators take extraordinarily large share of resources. For instance, they say maybe a senator carts away millions every month. What’s your position on that?
I believe by its nature as it is currently, it is already a pattern because in parliament, they sit only on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Mondays and Fridays and the weekends are used for constituency clinics, visits or oversight. I’m one of those that believe that what we possibly need in Nigeria may not necessarily be a part-time legislature or a unicameral legislature, but potentially, maybe to revert back to a parliamentary system of government that enables people to spend a bit of more time in representing their constituency in the parliament. And also, if you’re a government in power, from the midst of the parliamentarians they become the ministers, secretaries as we may call them. So, you’re doing a dual role. You’re having executive, as well as a parliamentary responsibilities. But barring that, Nigeria is ripe for a unicameral legislature, and not a bicameral legislature. And then to ensure that those who get into parliament are people that have achieved and distinguished themselves in their various walks of life ; in their private life, in their public life, and then who obviously and potentially are going to parliament to basically contribute their quota for the progress of Nigeria, unlike what obtains now where those that are elected may not have distinguished themselves or have any reference to what they have done in their private life that will warrant them to be in parliament to move those legislations and those oversights that will help for the governance of Nigeria. Yes, I agree with you. It’s bloated. Unicameral legislature may be it if we insist on a presidential system of government, if not a parliamentary system of government and more importantly, that legislations that we need to have would be legislations that guarantee people don’t go to the parliament as a means of livelihood, but as a means of contributing their quota for the betterment of Nigeria.
Looking at your business interest, you’re into real estate, into hospitality and the technology industry, what informed your choice of businesses? How did COVID-19 affect you as a practitioner in the hospitality industry and what is Airvend all about?
As a person and leading the companies that I lead, our first guiding principle is to identify disruptive businesses that impact on lifestyle and change how we live, how we commune and then more importantly also, earn us profit. When we got involved in the shopping mall, that was the underlining principle. A number of us travel beyond the shores of this country and when you travel, if you want to come back to Nigeria, you’d see Nigerians log in bags and bags of things they have bought for themselves, their family and loved ones. To the extent that most airlines make more money in addition to what we pay as our air tickets, also for our luggage. That in anywhere in the world you enter the airport and you look at the line, you can easily identify Nigerians by the number of luggage that they carry. And why is that so? Because they have shopping centres. They have big time retailers in those shopping centres that carry a number of the things that are not easily available in Nigeria. And the only shopping mall we had at that time in Nigeria was The Palms in Lagos. Shortly after that, was the Polo Park, which was undergoing development and that attracted our attention. And then, we looked at Abuja. We had the Cedi Plaza, which was basically…but then, we felt that we needed to bring Shoprite. Shoprite was the dominant grocery store in Nigeria that was making waves, that had come to Nigeria and was trading at The Palms. And it took years of engagement with them to the point that if we were not resilient, if we were not passionate about what we believed in and why we wanted to do it, we would have all given up. And then finally, in 2012/2013, we started and then we completed the Grand Towers shopping mall in Apo and then, Shoprite birthed and Abuja changed since then. Ever since then, we have had about four shopping centres that have come on the back of that. And, of course, our investment in the pension asset which is First Guarantee Pension. Again, it was also life changing. I made a point that those who worked in the civil service and retired could not access their pension. And, of course, the fact that we needed to have a very disruptive, long-term investment to enable people access that money and then get involved in those kinds of projects that we spoke about. And, of course, in the new world of fin-tech, enabling payments as we know it, being able to transact, make payments on the phone, buy your airtime, buy your electricity, pay your bills just by the touch of the finger and then transfer money from one phone to another and then bill collections as we have, which is also very disruptive. So, that also encouraged our investment in the fin-tech space. So, underlining our interest is always: identify a disruptive industry that would enhance value and lifestyle and, of course, enable Nigerians to live the same lifestyle as their counterparts overseas and we believe that once we are able to achieve that, the bottomline would always look good as our businesses have always shown that these bottomlines look good. On the hospitality industry, before COVID, we were always confident that people would always travel. And if you travel, you would like to find a place to sleep. And then, we felt that we needed to also get involved in that space. So, the Bon Hotel Grand Towers is a first flagship interest in the industry and we partnered with a global brand that was formerly called Protea and changed from Protea to Bon and they currently manage all our assets in the hospitality industry. Then, we are going to find an opportunity in Ado-Ekiti, given that Ado-Ekiti has the Ikogosi Warm Springs which is more of a resort of its own and well-managed, could also help to, what we call, a destination in-country tourism. And of course, Owerri. As you know it is a land of tourism and hospitality and were it not for COVID, Owerri would have been ready for opening before the end of the year. But we would be happy to say that before the end of next year, Owerri would be in our portfolio.
The Shoprite you just mentioned, I think sometime last month or thereabout there was this news that the South African partners were trying to pull out. So, what are you people thinking in this view?
It is very unfortunate. Unfortunate in the sense that it took hard work, it took labour and it took a lot of traversing between Nigeria and South Africa to encourage Shoprite to look to Nigeria and then take the investment decision that they took. We approached many other grocery stores in South Africa; Pick and Pay and others, but it was Shoprite that took that decision and invested in Nigeria first in The Palms, the Polo Park and Grand Towers mall and many other malls in Nigeria. What one would have wished is through that investment, rather than one pulling out, we would have wanted to see more of those big departmental stores coming to Nigeria. But instead, what has happened is because of the economic situation that we have found ourselves in, it is no longer profitable for most of them to operate in our environment. I can mention to you a number of the stores that have come to Nigeria and have shut down and gone back home because of the difficult terrain that this economy represents for them. Take a typical case in the last two months. Naira has depreciated in the last two months from N360, to N370 to N380 and I don’t think you can get for N460 per dollar. Sometimes, it gets to N470, goes to N480, comes down to N462. So, if your goods are import dependent, what you’d be doing, you’re no longer managing your business. You’re managing currency for CBN. Every day, you’re on your laptop just determining what the currency value is and then, the next second, people are changing their price.
Were you penciled down to run the presidency with Atiku in 2003; what was the story?
Well, I don’t know. I know that I worked closely with Atiku from 1999 to 2007 and in particular, 1999 to 2003, when he was the chairman of the National Council of Privatisation and I oversighted his office, you can say chaired…and through that, we became very close. And, of course, working with him, I believe that we also found meaning in the interjections that we got to bear with the way and manner privatisation and commercialisation was being governed in Nigeria to the extent that the number of successes that we recorded was on account of the leadership in the VP, and his governance, and, of course, our intervention from the National Assembly . And we went beyond that to understand that unless we champion sectoral reforms around ease of doing business and creating an enabling environment in Nigeria, that the progress and development that we envision will be far-fetched. And that led us to the anti-trust reform bill. I talked about the power sector reform bill, the telecommunication reform and, of course, the pension reform that the committees worked hard at. I’m certainly not aware that I was offered the vice presidential ticket and I know that, in 2003, Atiku did not run for president unless there’s a template. But eventually, he did not run for president in 2003.
When you first came out, you went to the House of Reps and rested a while. You came back, tried the same House of Reps. If you had the opportunity to come back again into politics, where would you start from; Anambra election is around the corner?
I would say that I remain in APC. I left PDP, following a number of things that were happening in PDP that obviously could no longer accommodate me. And then, our group took an informed decision in 2014 to join hands with like-minds that birthed APC and ever since then, I’ve remained in APC and I hope to remain in APC for a longer while. And in Anambra State, as I did say in 2019, when I offered to go back to parliament under the umbrella of APC, the party wasn’t popular there. People didn’t find a need or a reason they would elect someone from my constituency and indeed, Anambra State, to go to parliament in 2019. Of course, they did not vote for me. In 2021, the gubernatorial election in Anambra State will happen and I know that a number of my friends are interested in running for office to be governors, gubernatorial candidates in APC, PDP, and APGA. As we speak, I’m not running, neither am I in the reckoning to be the gubernatorial candidate of any of the political parties and in particular, my party, APC. Left for me, my work and I believe, I have the temperament, I have the training and I have the skill to work more in parliament than an executive responsibility as a governor of Anambra State.
That is to say, you’re going to wait for 2023
If I still feel the way I feel (laughter).