The CEO Interview
‘Restructuring is a fundamental issue that Nigeria has refused to face’
Professor Anya Oko Anya just attained the enviable age of 80 years. He was a professor of Zoology and the former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG). Having functioned meritoriously in the academia with the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) and the University of Port Harcourt, Professor Anya has served on the board many Nigerian Companies, among which is the Diamond Bank group. He is currently immersed in a number of community leadership roles. in a recent chat with Innocent Unah, Senior Analyst at BusinessDay Media, he expressed his opinion on a number of topical issues in Nigeria, including restructuring, the economy, and the national leadership question. Excerpts:
Congratulations on your 80th birthday sir. Anyone looking at you would probably put our age at 65.
Well, it’s God’s grace.
Sir, at 80, you are still very active in community service, economy and even leadership. What is the secret?
I have already said it’s his grace. If you are close enough to your God and it pleases him, because he is sovereign you can do the same. I don’t have a particular formula, but there is one thing to say: apart from being close to God, there is also the other thing – keeping busy also helps.
Because the way you are looking any young man would like to say, “I want to be like prof. when I get to his age.”
At least part of it is keeping busy, it helps. In a country like Nigeria, if you become too idle reflection turns to complaining, dissatisfaction, and all. But if you are busy, at the end of the day you need rest. You go and have rest and think less of all the problems.
Indeed, I have seen people who retired and as soon after they retired they went down because they were no longer in business as they used to be. I look at it differently. Going by what you said, at 80 I still look like a 65 year old person. The only way I can thank God for this is to keep on acting as if I were 65. In other words, keep on doing what a 65 year old would do. May be in the process the extra energy you need at 80, God will make up the difference between 65 and 80.
Looking at your life, something struck me, just like it will strike every other person. You are a professor of zoology, well versed in natural sciences. You made a transition, an amazing one, to the board room and again to community leadership . . .
First of all if you cast your mind back and you ask yourself when you were in the university by the time leave, how much of what you are taught in your discipline is still within you five years later? How much of it do you use ten years later? The answer is, virtually nothing! However, if you are well educated, one thing that education does to you is that you have a trained mind.
A trained mind is the most important resource you get out of education. And if you are taught the techniques of how to apply that mind, you will then learn that it doesn’t matter whatever discipline you are dealing with, there are basics and if you can break a matter down to its basics, you can put it together to ask the right questions and get the right answers.
Especially striking is the fact that you moved from being a natural scientist to being an economic expert. Any person listening to you would bet that you are a professor of economics . . .
Maybe you are not in touch with the Jargons of the technical terms of a new discipline, but you will understand it.
When I say this I am careful not to offend my friends who are economists because I am not an economist. Some economists conducted a study in Britain, it was sometime either later 60’s or early 70’s; they took the house wife and tried to watch what the housewife does in the course of the day. They found that in just one day a typical housewife functions in a number of management capacities.
All the questions the housewife asks in the house in other to manage the resources of the house is the same that the economist asks in relation to the resources of the nation. If you ask the right the questions, you will get the right answers. You may need the help of the professional to put it in the right technical language. In any case, you have an advantage over them because you are reducing things to common sense – you can communicate better and more intelligently, in such a way that an ordinary person can understand.
Because they (economists) cannot help but construct their thinking in the acceptable technical jargon, and that is what pisses people off. So, if you simplify an idea for people, you have a bigger audience. And like the man who taught me said, until you can explain you disciple in the language that an ordinary person can understand it, you haven’t mastered your discipline. That is one thing I can say for that.
What can you say about your experience in the board room? What have you learnt and what advice can you proffer the younger generation in that regard? How were you able to make that multiple transition and still be effective at each point?
Well, one of the things we learn in biology . . . an important part of biology which is also what helps in understanding economics, is human behaviour. If you understand the principle of human behaviour, you use it in dealing with situations. In economics the thing you people deal with, in fact the central fact of economics, is human behaviour. When people behave in a particular pattern, it generates a trend and that it is that trend you people capture in some statistics. When it is like that, it becomes easy to deal with because if you can explain things simply and manage things simply, you can manage relationships. So, why won’t you be effective if your own job is to make sense out of everything?
The other thing I shall say: why did I develop so much interest in the issues of economics and development? In Cambridge I had a Kenyan friend, Thomas. Both of us did our PhD the same year in 1965. We were research students, we interacted very much discussing the problems of Africa and asking ourselves why a continent that has more resources than any other continent should be the poorest. Well, I think we came to agree that it was mainly the issue of science and technology and how we use it. But science and technology doesn’t just jump out and you use it. You have to use science and technology in a context and the economic environment yields the best context which gives the best answers. Both of us were Zoologists and scientists.
So we knew the scientific side. It is not a matter of race that Africa is the way they are, so why can’t we make the transition to develop naturally? So one started taking interest in what authorities from the economic background and social background are saying are the important issues as to why Europe did what they did, why not Africa? You can then translate it to why are we not doing the same thing. So that’s mainly how my interest in development came.
To answer the question Africa is underdeveloped, why are we incapable or have proved incapable of applying science and technology to have the effect it has had elsewhere? That is what made me to pursue those questions and once you pursue questions even when you are not on expert (on a particular field), you reduce it to the least common factors that it will make sense to you and to the people you are talking to. That is how I made this transition.
You have touched on the issue of leadership. When you look at Singapore and Rwanda, even South Africa under Mandela, you will see there is purposeful leadership and this is something we have not seen in Nigeria. Sir, why is it seemingly difficult for us to get the issue of leadership right in Nigeria?
Well first of all, a leader, to be effective, must understand the key factors in the environment he is operating in; leadership must be given within that environmental context. I don’t think Nigeria’s leaders have done enough to understand the socio-economic and socio-political environment of Nigeria, within which you can now apply the context of leadership. What do I mean by that? Nigeria is a plural society. You must first of all start off by understanding the dynamics of a plural society.
If you want to judge them (i.e. Nigerians) on the basis of what they are in their compartments, you get it wrong and would never get them to cooperate. But if you recognize that I have this problem and ask: what is the problem of the other man? If you understand it, you can now see the main point between your interest and the other person’s interest. If I found out that you are taking interest in me, even if I am from a different background, my good attitude towards you will increase. On the other hand, if you are coming in to take what I regard as our common patrimony, I won’t cooperate with you. I will make things difficult for you. In other words, Nigerian leaders have not transcended their ethnic and regional backgrounds.
You see given the colonial background the first concern of our leaders was to replace the white man. They forget that if the white man hadn’t been here and changed the dynamics of the affairs . . . It is not enough to chase him out and take over – you have to understand what you are taking over. What they are taking over was a society that hasn’t quite left the traditional route and the various nationalities: some have the background of empire; some have the background of the monarchy system; some had the background of a republican spirit. It is their duty to bring all these together and it’s not an easy challenge. In boundary-spanning leadership you have to understand the things that differentiate. It is when you understand what differentiates that it will be easier to go from there to what is uniform. It becomes a step-by-step approach, but we have never had the patience to ask those fundamental questions and therefore, the orientation was first to chase out the white man and take over.
Another thing is that when they came in they were overwhelmed by the amount of resources that can be easily accessible that’s why we are battling with corruption, because people have forgotten that the main challenge of leadership in a society is to protect the individual citizens, and to protect the property of individual citizens, then to upgrade the welfare of the citizens. But those issues, even though they are captured in our constitution, nobody reads that section and no government has ever asked themselves what are the obligations put in this section. But despite that, I think slowly, a new direction of leadership will emerge particularly among the younger ones. And I have a lot of hope that the change in Nigeria is likely to be dramatic.
In the last economic summit, we saw young Nigerians who can do what their colleagues anywhere in the world can do. Some of them have asked difficult questions and some have provided answers to those questions. The relationship between the young leaders and the elders has not been taken seriously. The thing is that the elders have overstayed their welcome and the young ones have ignored to learn because experience cannot be ruled out.
It is necessary that a society should have a leadership structure that defines the way in which leadership is selected, the way leadership is trained, and then each cohort will now move on and infuse what they know with the experience they have gained from the elders. You don’t have to re-discover everything in your lifetime as you must depend on what is already known. And the elders are the repositories of what is already known in the system.
In every society, there must be a system of agreement because those systems of value tell you the limits of what you can do and what you cannot do, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. This is why economics is important. You must have an incentive, a set of rewards for acceptable behaviour and on top of that, you must also have sanctions for unacceptable behaviours. This system of values, it is the elders who conserve them and teach them. And that is why you must have that relationship between the younger leadership and the elder retiring leadership. Although what has compounded the situation is a very simple fact: we elders seem to over stay our welcome. At 80 am I going to be doing what I used to do ten years ago? But this does not mean that I am quitting. I am still available to guide the younger ones. This is what every elder should be doing. My job is now mentoring and also to draw the boundaries of what is not done.
You’ve said so much about as legacies and why leadership is the way it is in Nigeria. Based on your long history and experience within the country (Nigeria), do you think we are headed on the right track as a country, more than 50 years after Independence?
Well, what I would say is that we had a false start and there is no time pretending because we have lost a lot of time. And we wandered in the wilderness for a long time, much of it because of the military experience. If the military had not intervened, the kind of society we have would not have been like this. It is a competition in which there are no rules; it is the survival of the fittest. And if it is necessary, you use violence to achieve your purpose.
The military experience legitimized the application of violence in our society. And not only that, it also emphasized, that those who have power can use it as it pleases them: the checks and balances in our society have become tenuous. And then of course, they were mostly young people. The conscience of that was that there was then a situation where the experience of elders of which is embodied in wisdom can no longer be fused into the management of the society. The young man at 30 and 40 thinks he knows everything. And if you don’t agree with him, he can impose on you because he has a gun.
The truth of the matter is that, each of our leaders knew that he had to agree with the other man. None of them had the army with which they could impose their will. It meant that Zik, for instance, had to sit down with Bello and Awolowo and say, okay, tell me the differences you tell me the things we should now do differently and cooperate. The energy of youth has to be harnessed to do things that have to be done in our society. But headless rush of the youth cannot build. More often than not, it destroys.
Thank you very much sir. What then do you think should be the ideal economic model for a country like Nigeria, given your past experiences?
Actually, a lot has happened in the last 20 years to look for what you may call the right economic model. Some decisions have been taken. First, Nigeria is more or less a competitive democratic society in which productivity of the individual is enhanced and in which there is fairness and equity in distribution of what is available. So the model is already there. There was a time people were talking about socialism, but we don’t have the talk any longer because at the global level that problem was solved when finally Russia collapsed and had to embrace their kind of capitalism, when China had to modify its economic model to now allow for capitalism. That points to the direction and Nigeria has already embraced that attitude.
There are two things that have been lacking in the search for the right economic model. First is the situation where we start a policy, we have not tested it and we change it – the quick turnover of policies and institutions. You cannot build a stable organization on that basis. Second is that there is something that has developed in Nigeria.
There is an ill-defined anti-intellectualism. We don’t respect ideas. We don’t search for ideas. We don’t live for ideas. So, even when a simple solution has already been found through application of intellectualism in Nigeria, we dismiss it. When you look at our politics, there were the likes of Bode Thomas, Rotimi Williams, Flora Nwapa, and Professor Eni Njoku. These were exceptionally intelligent people. They were in the political process and the politics of that time respected them and used their ideas. Then the military came and no longer respected ideas.
And you must respect the individual because it is the individual productivity that you explore to build a society. And Dangote has proved that it is possible in Nigeria. So the problem is how do you multiply what have been shown to work? This will not be possible so long as it looks as if politics is the easiest way to make money. In the US, people make money and get to a point where they are grateful that the society gave them the opportunity to create wealth. So they now want to give back to the society. They now want to serve and they go into politics. Here, we go in other to grab it and the society tolerates it.
There is this issue of restructuring Nigeria. Some people talk about restructuring without really defining what they mean by restructuring. What is restructuring in your own view and how should we go about it.
You are raising a very important issue. Until we face the contradiction in Nigeria, in its structure, in its politics and its sociology, we are not likely to develop a manageable model that will either create wealth or create justice or make everybody comfortable. We started by saying that this is a plural society. In a plural society, one of the most fundamental principles that people don’t joke with is purposeful self-determination. I must be able to define what is important in my life.
We must decide on the things I can do for myself and the things I cannot do for myself. And those areas where we have to cooperate, we decide how we can fund it. That is federalism. In other words Nigeria cannot be a viable society except it is under the federal system. And when you accept federalism, federalism is bottom – up. It is not from top to bottom. What do I mean? It is the people at the lower level that decide the things they must do for themselves and the things they can cooperate with the other people to do and how to fund it.
Of the 36 states of the federation, there are not more than 4 that can function as government without looking to the centre. There would be another 3, at most 5, which will be struggling but they can’t make it but with a little help, they might. That is 9. So 27 states in Nigeria are not states in the sense that left alone, they can no longer support themselves.
If you go through the constitutional history of Nigeria, the 1979 constitution was to a large extent done by people who took part in the government. But despite it, they are Nigerians, patriotic Nigerians and to that extent, what came out would have been a workable consensus. But the military now intervened. This document that everybody agreed to, they decided you must put the land use act in it. That is when you started hearing of ‘no-go areas’. Then the 1999 constitution: you take the framework of the 1979 constitution and you tweak it here and there. Until we sit down to agree on what we can do and what we cannot do together, we will not have an organic constitution that addresses the structure and economy of the society.
Then Jonathan put together his national conference. I will not hesitate to say that it is the nearest to the people-driven conference in Nigeria. You may say I have vested interest because I was in the committee that answered the question should we have a national dialogue and we then decided yes. You then ask the other question, “how do we get the representation?” If you say the government should send you representatives you will be having representatives from these skewed and unnatural political system we have developed. There the politicians will only draw their usual boys to go. And you are not going to touch the fundamental problems. So we broke the country down to various cultural formations, various economic formations, various state formations and said give us representatives. And that is how the membership was drawn.
These ones were sent by the people they represented. And they sat down and first thing they said was, what are the rules of engagement? When is a decision taken by this assembly a decision? In most cases they say two-third but in this case, we raised it to three quarters which meant 75 per. But after other discussions, we finally settled with 70 per cent. And we had over 600 decisions taken. And every decision enjoyed the support of over 70 per cent (of the members). Those who insisted on the high ratio were hoping that no decision would be reached, because they were people who did not want that conference and they were there. Their own mandate was to stop it. But people ignored them because for the first time, the real problems that touched the people were been discussed. So everybody was there from the beginning to the end, and this people decided to list out the over 600 decision of the conference and ticked off those decisions that are likely to have constitutional implications and arranged them serially.
They then got the provisions of the 1999 constitution on these issues that the national conference has decided on. They listed them all side by side: this is the decision of the conference and this is what the 1999 constitution is saying. Then they called the legal draftsmen of the federal ministry of justice, who normally, if you finish and you want to new constitution when you have taken all the decisions, they are the ones you pass it to, to render it in a legal language. These were astute legal draftsmen. When they finished, they pulled out the construction of the various elements of the constitution in the new language arising from the constitution. In other words there exists right now in Nigeria a document put together by a legitimate government of Nigeria, put together by legitimate representatives of Nigeria, who went through election but not like the political party election, because they were chosen by representatives of Nigeria.
This is the document that, for the first time, can claim that, “we the people have said this”.
Those who are thinking Nigeria will break up, I laugh. I saw these during the conference. For all the states we visited, it’s only in Bauchi that one lady said breakup. Others are saying that we are better off being together. Some mentioned the youth of South East agitating for Biafra. If you create a Nigeria where equity and justice are delivered to them, they would eventually be the energetic promoters of the new Nigeria. So the thing really is to go back to the fundamental issues. How do we run the country so that everybody has a sense of belonging, has a sense of been looked after, has a sense of being able to do the things he wants to do, and ultimately have the confidence that he is in a framework that is not partial to anybody?
So when people say restructuring, restructuring is fundamental. There is a fundamental issue that Nigeria has refused to face which is how we discuss a matter to reach resolution, how we discuss a matter to reach decision. And that is one of the fundamental problems in Nigeria right now.
You are the president general of Ndi-Igbo Lagos Foundation. What is the objective of that group?
The objective is to look after the affairs of Ndi-Igbo in Lagos in relation to their problems. The objective is also to teach them to know that they have to live in peace and harmony with other Nigerians. In Lagos, you have to learn to live with the Yorubas, learn to live in love with all the other Nigerians. We are not going to send other Nigerians out of Nigeria just as they are not going to send us out. So we must learn how to live with others. Let me say this, why did one get involved in this? In 2011 if you remember, after the 2011 elections, there were spates of violence in the North, a lot of damage and so on.
Then the president set up a presidential committee to check why there was violence. In the North-West for example, from Jigawa down to Kebbi, only Kebbi didn’t have a problem, we went there and saw the damages. We talked to the leaders both as a group and on individual basis. Past governors, present Governors, past political leaders, senators. It was clear that we were seeing a society in failure. It was clear that the leaders in the North both traditional and political have lost a lot of their legitimacies in the eyes of the ordinary citizens. Therefore, it was necessary to start strengthening the quality of leadership, so that what happened in the 60’s that lead to war will not occur.
I like to use the east as an example, in the 60’s, Eastern Nigeria was the fastest growing and industrializing economy in the world. That was the data that an America research found. Between 1964 -1966, the eastern Nigeria had no problem with the North and had no problems with west. So I ask my people how come three years later, you who had no problem with any part of the country now became the centre of Nigeria’s debacle to the point where your people were killed in the north in a problem which led to war?. All these would have been avoided if experienced leaders were in charge. So because I saw what was possible, I came to start with what I can understand, with my own people, try and interact with them. This is so that irresponsible utterances and irresponsible actions can be reduced to the minimum. This is so that we can now engage with the leadership of the other constituencies that make up Nigeria in a reasonable and educated fashion. That is how I came in and very soon, I will stand down and give to someone else.
When you have leadership that is respected by various ethnic groups, you can now talk with the equivalence of Yoruba, for instance, and you can now talk about the Nigeria problem. That is the thinking of Ndi-Igbo Lagos.
How can we after so many years still be talking about the possibility of this group going out of Nigeria? It is because the job of National Integration has been ignored. We should start now to build a national consciousness in which everybody has a sense of justice, a sense of equity. That is what is lacking presently.
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