The former governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, fielded questions at the African Economic Congress in Abuja last week on the theme: “Building the Africa we want.”
The former running mate to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate in the February 2019 presidential elections spoke on a number of important issues, ranging from his personal philosophy, economy, corruption, micro, small and medium enterprises and what to do to make the African free trade agreement work for Nigeria and Africa. Business & Economy Editor, BASSEY UDO, was there. Excerpts:
QUES: As a young man, you made it big as a state governor and chairman of a bank. What inspired you the most?
OBI: The fundamental thing about philosophy is this: An unexamined life is not worth living. Whenever people tell me anything, I ask myself the question: Why do I have to do this? It does not matter whether everybody is doing it or not. There are things that happen to my life personally that when I tell people, they say: Wait a minute! How come?
For instance, I have been happily married for 27 years. But, I have never held a wedding party. I don’t understand why you will call the whole world for a party just because I want to live with a woman.
If you want, take the money to people who want to build schools. But, if I call the whole world and spent the money for them to eat, drink and get drunk, then we did not impact on anybody.
Everything I do, people say I have an allergy for spending money. And I ask: What do we try to achieve?
I was a governor when I did my 50th birthday. And because I was a Chairman of a bank, three institutions offered to do a big event for me at Eko Hotel, Lagos.
One other institution wanted to build a house for me in my village. I made sure everyone brought its cost of what they wanted to do for me.
The one that wanted to build a house said it had a N100 million budget. I told them I have the Monsignor Maduka Secondary School, Ikulobia. They have no school block. I have the St Anthony Secondary School in Aguda. They have no school block. I have the Loretta Secondary School in Abakeke. They have no dormitory.
Share the N100 million into three and provide these facilities, rather than build a house for me. The one that said we should go to Eko Hotel budgeted N25 million. We were able to use the money to buy 250 computers. I shared them ten each and donated to 25 schools. It made more sense to me.
If I called people to drink, some will get drunk. At the end of the day, there was no impact. For me the impact of these expenditures is when they touch lives.
QUES: Failure is a roadmap to success in life. How do you handle failure in partnerships?
OBI: If you want to enter partnership, find out first whether you and your partner have a common goal. Is your partner as passionate about the business as you are? What does your partner expect from the business?
Often a time, you find out two different people coming together as partners. But, one will say: I want to make money, because I want to be rich. And you are passionate about doing something that will impact on society.
From Day 1, the two of you are at parallel, because the man who wants to make money does not have the same perseverance as you are. So, there is likely going to be a problem.
QUES: What failures did you encounter in business? How did you rise from it? How many businesses did you fail in before you finally succeeded?
OBI: If you see a man who says he has never failed in anything, do not do anything with him. Failure is part of life.
The other day, somebody had a very serious problem in his business and called me. I told him, it will shock you that out of the 30 richest people in the world, half of them have filed for bankruptcy.
The man who founded Apple Computers, which is the richest company in the world today, Steve Jobs, was once sacked from Apple.
He went and hired John Sculley, who was then CEO of Pepsi, to come and run the company. He also sacked him. He said the problem he had was Steve Jobs. And they sacked him. He left. But, they found out that they needed him back.
When he came back, one of their Board members was hired because he had served in the Board of so many companies that failed. So, they said he had so much knowledge about failure.
So, failure is not something to be afraid of, as long as you are doing the right thing. The success or failure of any business depends on the lifestyle of the proprietor. So, it depends on the type of failure.
As a trader, I have invested and lost money. When I was in business, I was representing a number of multi-national companies. One of them is Heinz. I was the official agent for Heinz products in Nigeria. Every December, we imported a lot of salad creams. So, in a particular moment we imported hundreds of containers of salad creams at the port.
But, the port was shut-down one time. For one reason or the other, everybody was running around till about six months. Throughout the period, the salad creams stayed in the sun. By the time they allowed us to clear the containers, everything had turned black.
Another situation was the time I borrowed money from a bank to import salt. A similar thing happened. So, if it is failure, we see it every day. Just as it is today, even politically.
But, the most important thing is, don’t stay where they drop you. Move on. If you stay there, you will fail. That’s the road so many people have travelled and arrived where they are going.
QUES: How do you plan to impact young Nigerians and groom them to become successful in business?
OBI: If I think about the success of young Nigerians, I am not doing them a favour. I am trying to save my life. It is either we get them to do the right thing, or they will consume us.
If we think we can live in Ikoyi and sleep, and people in Ajegunle don’t have food, or place to sleep, we are wasting our time. One day, they will wake us up. And nobody will sleep.
The greatest asset we have today in Nigeria is not oil. It is the young ones. All this energy we are spending on oil is like a man spending energy on an asset that is dead. Oil is a diminishing asset. That will not save Nigeria.
Venezuela has over 300 billion barrels of oil reserves. Nigeria has only 37 billion barrels. So, if it cannot save Venezuela, which is right now in crisis, then it will not save Nigeria.
In 2018, we earned about $18.1 billion. That is what over 200 million people are killing themselves over the place causing confusion. That is absolutely nothing. It is not up to 30 per cent of the Facebook revenue in the same year, which was over $58 billion. We need to invest more in the youth of Nigeria, who are the oil.
Recently, I had a dislocation in my shoulder. I thought of going to a hospital in Onitsha. But, somebody introduced me to a famous Nigerian doctor in UK. I called him. He said I should come over to the UK. I told him no, I will go to Onitsha. There must be a hospital here that can handle this problem.
But, throughout the operation, he was phoning them from the UK and telling them what to do. He guided them to do an x-ray and everything. They sent it to him while I was still in the hospital. I was there for about five hours.
His report came back: “Very good x-ray performed by an outdated machine”. He said they stopped using the machine used in performing the x-ray over 15 years ago.
I asked him to plan to get the modern version of the machine so that we can help them. I returned to Lagos to meet another young doctor. He took the same x-ray and said he will recommend that I should go abroad.
He said if I go there, they will give me what they call “guided injection”. It is not done in Nigeria. What is done is, if someone is sick, he will just be given injection in the buttocks and the drugs will find its way to where the sickness is.
But, in the UK, the practice is to identify the exact spot the problem is using a scan, and give the injection on the spot, and the patient will be fine.
But, the sad thing is that the young doctor told me he is leaving Nigeria to pick a job in Canada.
What am I saying? We need the youth to change the world. Africa cannot change until we invest in the youth.
QUES: What will you do to halt the challenge of brain drain you are highlighting?
OBI: I don’t believe in brain drain. Your asset is your knowledge. And if somebody somewhere needs it, would you not make it available to him? Definitely, you will go to where you are needed. It is a simple thing.
If they don’t want you in Nigeria, why are you wasting away here? What we call brain drain is a cumulative effect of leadership failure over the years. Our leaders have failed. That’s why the youths are leaving in droves.
Two things drive the economy. No nation has enough resources. But, one thing we must not allow to happen is for people to develop a sense of hopelessness. Where there is no hope, why are you there? Imagine, if you are a Christian and on Sunday as you arrive the church to worship and the pastor says he just found out there no heaven anymore?
The world is driven by hope. If there is no hope in Nigeria, why would I stay here and commit suicide? Those yielding to brain drain are not doing so because of the pay they will get. It is that they do not have hope in Nigeria. Some of the doctors who came back have committed suicide.
I have a son I tell every day to come back. He keeps telling me he does not know what is happening in Nigeria. He said if he comes, people want to give him job because he is the son of this or that, rather than the qualification and experience he has. He says he will rather remain there where nobody knows him.
And if he attends an interview, and is qualified, he will get the job and will be happy to do. But, in Nigeria, he said after school, he will need his father to write a note to people before he is employed.
The way to go is for the leaders to start giving the youth a sense of hope for them to stay back. We should invest more in ICT and science-related courses since it is going to be the future of the world.
When I went to study what was happening to schools in Uganda, I went to Kenya first. Because Kenya Airways was very expensive, I was looking for where I could get a cheaper flight. I found Rwanda Air. My wife was very apprehensive. I told her not to worry, because once the plane is in the air, if it will fall, it will. It does not matter.
At Rwanda Air, to my shock, they had a brand new aircraft. While Kenya Airways was asked for over N800,000 for a return ticket, theirs was about N400,000. But, my greater shock was that when the captain of the aircraft came to introduce himself to me, he was a Nigerian. He said two of them in the cockpit are Nigerians.
They said they could not have a job in Nigeria. But, in Rwanda, they value them. Would you, in such situation, expect me to ask them to come back to Nigeria to die? No! They should stay where they are. There is no brain drain.
QUES: Do we have what it takes to compete, open our borders under the coming African Continental Free Trade Agreement era?
OBI: There is a lot of debate on Nigeria’s position on the issue of free trade agreement signed early this year by 54 African countries.
Nigeria participates in football competitions. Yet, it does not have the best stadium. Nigeria cannot pick and choose whether they want to be part of African free trade or not. That we don’t have electricity, the other countries did not cause it.
All the infrastructure the country does not have are deliberately our problem. And they can be provided if we want to. It is not rocket science providing power.
For instance, Egypt was able to increase their electricity supply capacity within two years. Pakistan also did. It borrowed over $9 billion strictly to provide electricity.
Nigeria is the only country I know where privatisation of public assets begins with the profitable companies, while socialising losses. Those companies that were supposed to be privatised first, like power assets, were done. So, power is our own problem.
Do we need free trade in Africa? The answer is yes. Africa is the only continent where trade between countries are less than 10 per cent.
So, we need free trade. African countries cannot grow if they do not have a strong domestic demand for goods and services produced in Africa.
Our exports are already raw materials. We do not have domestic demand. Africa must have a strong manufactured export capacity.
Nigeria needs to put its house in order to take leadership of the new free trade era. It cannot say it cannot compete because it does not have the infrastructure. Nobody is going to wait for Nigeria.
My view is that the ACFTA is good for Nigeria and Africa if we get it right. We need to go back and do properly peer review mechanism. If we get it right, one of the things that can do to pull Nigeria out of its problems is manufacturing.
QUES: Is corruption real, drawing from your personal experience as governor and as a businessman?
OBI: The issue of corruption is that it is real. But, I’ll give you the public and private sides of the problem. In government, if the person in charge as governor or local government chairman is not corrupt, corruption will be reduced by 70 per cent.
As the governor of Anambra State, I had so many layers of approval of funds. Deputy Director, Assistant Director, Director, Permanent Secretary, Commissioner and the governor layers.
I told the Head of Service I will be the only person to approve disbursement of funds. This was because of personal experiences I had when I started.
A ‘headed paper’ was to be printed for me. As a private person, I was doing headed papers and I know how much it costs to do it.
As the governor, they said to print a headed paper was about N18,000. I said this is what I used to do in my office with N700. I asked them: “How many realms?” They said it was for one realm.
I said no. I asked for the sample of the headed paper. I called the printer who used to print my headed papers. I asked him how much it will cost. He said: “Oga, you know the price now.” I said, then go and print it for me. I asked him to do six realms. He did.
Meanwhile, the other people were insisting their printer had magnanimously reduced the price to N15,000.
Since my printer decided to charge N750 per realm, when he brought the headed paper, I asked them to give him N1,500 per realm for the six realms. The man was jumping up everywhere.
That was the pattern in all other experiences we had. In Government House, they will cook food that would feed 40 to 50 people. When I demanded to know what was going on, they would say that was how they do it there, in case the governor would come back with guests.
I will say Government House is not a hotel where you keep food in case somebody comes. I told them if somebody was to come, I would say so.
If I travel as governor from Awka to Enugu, they make out-of-station claims. And about 50 people, who have no reason to go to Enugu, will follow me. It goes on and on.
If I am coming to Abuja, about 30 people will follow me. Nobody invited them. They have no reason to be in Abuja other than to come and constitute a nuisance to the travelling public and everybody.
That is how I decided to approve every fund. I had one of the most wonderful ADCs. He never followed me to Abuja for one day. I told him his job was not in Abuja, but in Awka. I told him when I go to Abuja, he will take the time to go round the state to know what was happening before I am back.
So, corruption is real. It is in all these things. When the leader cuts it down, corruption will be checked. What we hear these days is that there is not enough revenue. But, we do not have revenue problem, but cost problem. Our cost is too high.
Government has a fuel dump where government vehicles go to take fuel. But, everybody goes there to take fuel, whether it is for government business or not. When we stopped it, within one month, the amount dropped from N15 million to N5 million.
When I asked why it was still that high, I was told it was because we had a convoy of 18 vehicles. One day, I lined out all the vehicles and wanted to know who stays in each vehicle. I found out that about 12 were empty. So, why are they always running around causing confusion? We cut it down to five vehicles, and no more buying of fuel, except I was inside the car.
We also directed that anybody who supplied goods or executes contract must be paid with 120 days. The person doing it will know he will not give anybody money to push his file. And everybody had access to me. As governor, anybody can meet me anywhere.
I was able to pay gratuities and pensions. But something happened one day. An old woman that was about 80 years old met me at St. Michael’s Church, Awka where I usually go to pray every morning.
As I was praying, she came to me, tapped me on the back, took away my Bible and said I should stop praying and go and pay her gratuity before God will listen to my prayers. She said what I was doing will not work until I paid what government was owing her.
What I am saying is that if our leaders listen, make themselves more accessible to the people, we can cut down on corruption. We are all ‘criminalised’. We celebrate corruption. That’s why corruption is continuing. When I became a governor, I did not have a house in my village.
But, these day, immediately a governor is voted into office, a few months after he assumes office, he builds a big mansion and calls a big party to celebrate. Even the Bishop will be there to pray that where ever he got the money to build the house, God will double it.
Everybody is celebrating with him when they know where he got the money from. The man just stole your money. You should call the police.
Indiscipline, irresponsibility and bad behaviour have now become the prerogative of the rich and powerful. Anybody that has money can behave anyhow above the law.
Anybody who says he can stop corruption by chasing everybody around in the streets has got it wrong. The easy way to stop corruption is to go into the procurement system and stop it.
Under education, there is what they call Universal Basic Education Commission, which sends monies to its states equivalent, which in turn sends monies to the local government equivalent for schools.
The truth is that all these stages are toll gates for corruption, because the monies can go straight to the schools.
In Anambra State when I started, our school system was at about 28 position nationally. When I removed at these stages, our school went to No.1 spot. The issue of education has nothing to do with money, but administration.
Give the money to the school principal. Let Parents-Teachers Association manage the money. I was accused of not using government money through the right process.
In one of our schools, we had erosion problem. The principal said it will cost N27 million to check the menace. The Ministry of Environment said it will cost over N77 million.
In West Africa, the Nigerian procurement system costs thrice more. The private sector is like a captured person. If you are kidnapped, you must pay ransom.
If you are in business, if you want your file to move, you have to comply. You have nobody to complain to, because the person you think you want to complain to is part of the racket. Go to our police stations and see what I am talking about.
The only way to stop corruption is for those in public office to do things differently. Nigeria’s problem is not the one naira they collect at the lower level, but the mega greed at the higher level.
The greatest engine of growth in any economy is the micro, small and medium enterprises. Unless we invest in that we are wasting our time. But, you don’t jump at it overnight.
Some people accuse me of talking about China too much. But, the best way to move forward is to compare your processes with the best. That will show your gaps.
About 90 per cent of the companies in China today are MSMEs and contribute over 60 per cent of China GDP of $12 trillion.
Out of China’s 800 million people, the MSMEs provide 60 to 80 per cent of the workforce. That’s the way to go.