OSITA OPARAUGO, a lawyer, is the president/CEO, Footprint to Africa Limited, a leading business and financial news resource and investment bridge company. In this interview with CHUKS OLUIGBO, Assistant Editor,Oparaugo speaks on the investment climate ahead of Nigeria’s general elections next year and the key issues that should dominate the electoral campaigns. He also shares his thoughts on the presidential candidates of the two major political parties. Excerpts:
Nigeria is in an election year. The experience over time has been the shrinking of foreign investments at a time like this. As president/CEO of Footprint to Africa, an investment bridge company that handles requests for foreign investors intending to come into Africa, of which Nigeria is a part, what is the current situation?
It is worrisome. Nigeria in the last seven years or thereabouts has only benefitted from hot money. People understand the uncertainty in the country and they invest short term. Six to eight months to elections, they pull out; eight months after the elections, they come in, and the cycle goes on. Such investment never builds an economy; it has never built any economy in the world. In the last seven to eight months, the requests that we receive at Footprint to Africa have reduced drastically to less than 17 or 18 percent. Two months ago I was out of Nigeria for nearly six weeks. I worked between Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda because these are the areas investors are looking at the moment. You see, sometimes when these politicians are out to grab power, they don’t realise the effect of their body language, the effect of what they say and what they do, and what these things do to the economy. They always give the impression that it is either they win the election or they rig it, or people will die, or blood will flow. Words like these don’t go down well with investors. As one American ambassador would always say, investors go to where they are invited, and they stay where they are well treated. How will they feel well treated in a state of near war? So, it is a problem and it has affected our business negatively.
Political parties in the country have concluded their primaries and elected their candidates for different positions. From every indication, the presidential election will be between the candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Muhammadu Buhari, and that of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar. Between these two candidates, who do you think is better positioned to move Nigeria forward and who do you support?
At the moment, I am not sure any of them has convinced me how they intend to move Nigeria forward. You see, it is not about who I think will move Nigeria forward. These are two different things. It is not about saying, ‘I am a better person. I can better manage Nigeria. I have managed businesses’, or saying, ‘I am a better person. I can manage Nigeria because I am fighting corruption’. These things have been said over and over again. We want clear manifestoes. If Buhari says he wants a second term, first and foremost, Nigerians want to know his health status. At some points in the last three-and-a-half years, he was sick and he was out of the country. No one is God, but we want to hear him say, ‘Ok, I was sick at some point but I am very strong now to run the country’. Then he will tell us what exactly he wants to do to move Nigeria forward. Fighting corruption is good. I have always maintained that corruption is on steroids in Africa, especially in Nigeria. Nevertheless, that alone will not put food on anybody’s table; it won’t create jobs; it won’t take out-of-school children back to school. So, we want to know what it is that Mr. A wants to do for Nigeria, and what it is that Mr. B wants to do. When the two of them put out their plans on how to move Nigeria forward, we will be in a better position to choose. Until then, my support and my vote will not go to either Buhari or Atiku because I have not heard anything from them. All the things flying around the media, I think they are coming from aides. Until they tell us what they will do, then we will know how to assess them based on what they have done previously.
But a lot of people believe that a sitting government seeking re-election should campaign based on what it has done in the last three-and-a-half years and not what it plans to do…
Of course. It is not enough to tell us what you will do, but you will also tell us how you have done it in the past, and how you will do it. So, let us take the APC presidential candidate, for instance. Buhari will tell us what he will do, he will tell us what he has done in the last three-and-a-half years, and how he will do what he said he will do. The PDP presidential candidate, Atiku, will tell us what he will do, and he will tell us how he will do it. You see, people don’t understand that this election is not going to be about religion or about tribe; this election is going to be about the economy of the nation and about security. These are the two issues that Nigerians want to hear. Don’t tell us about who is corrupt or who is not corrupt, who looted or who didn’t loot. We are tired of all those talks. That era is gone. Tell us, how are you going to get 45 percent of our youth who are off the school system back into school? Tell us, how are you going to stabilise our economy? We thank God for the Aliko Dangotes, we thank God for the Eleganzas, we thank God for the Innosons, but we want a vibrant SME base. Nigeria needs 50 million millionaires controlling N10 million each rather than just five trillionaires. So, you will tell us what you want to do about the economy. People are suffering in this country.
But we have seen politicians make promises and renege on their promises. The current sitting government made a lot of promises that have not been fulfilled. How can the citizens hold politicians accountable for the promises they make?
Permit me to deviate a bit. I am beginning to see the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti as more than just a musician. I think Fela was prophetic when he sang about ‘suffering and smiling’. I say this because if what happens in Nigeria happens elsewhere, that country would cease to exist. I am being very honest. If you know the hardship in this land, you will understand where I am coming from. The politicians have failed the country. I hate to talk about APC or PDP. APC is PDP, PDP is APC. No difference. What they change is just colour. It’s the same people. And Nigerians will sit back and watch the same people play them over and over again? It’s unfortunate. But I think the way out is that there has to be a very strong labour union that is able to say, ‘We cannot take this’, and stand by what they say. There has to be a very strong student union. In a country of nearly 200 million people with about 40-60 percent youth population, those in the student union circle should know that these promises, whether the politicians keep them or break them, it is the youths that are affected the most because it is about their future. Let me tell you, if today Nigeria has a very vibrant labour union and a very vibrant student union and they come together and say, ‘We don’t want this’, if they put their foot down and one morning we all wake up and hear that the whole students in Nigeria are on the street, from 100 of them to 1,000, to 10,000, to 100,000, to 1,000,000, to 5,000,000, before the number gets to 10,000,000 the whole world would tell whichever government it is, ‘Step down!’ How many people are you going to kill?
So, going into the 2019 elections, what would you want to hear candidates aspiring to political offices talk about?
You see, unfortunately, these guys just make noise and don’t understand what building an economy is. I will give you an example. If between Atiku and Buhari, they understand that this election is about the economy, they would come out and tell Nigerians, ‘You know what? We have looked at this situation. We have 774 local government areas. If I become president in 2019, I will float 774 factories, one in each local government area. Not with government money, but I will put out a tender and say to business people: if you are interested in setting up an industry, a factory in any of the local government areas and you are going to employ 250 people upwards, the Federal Government will support you with a single-digit loan from the Central Bank development fund that is lying idle. We will support you to get these factories developed’. Do you know what Nigeria is going to get? We are going to get at the minimum 250 x 774, that is nearly 200,000 jobs created within one year. This is the kind of thing I want to hear from someone who wants to be president of Nigeria. Do you know that if you dam two rivers in the North to provide proper irrigation to the farmers there, over 50 percent of the almajiri there will go off the streets? At Footprint to Africa we took a study of the almajiri system and what we found was that during farming season the number of almajiri on the streets reduces because they are engaged in the farms. But once the farming season is over, they are back on the streets because the farmers have disengaged them. So, you ask yourself, how can I make these farmers constantly engage these individuals year in, year out? The answer is, by providing irrigation. Simple. Dam three rivers in the North. Most Nigerian embassies across the world, including in Africa, have prime properties, massive properties here and there – the embassies, the ambassadors’ residences and all of that. I have been to about 33 countries in Africa and I know what I am saying. Turn those properties into proper investment promotion units. The staff they have at the Nigerian Investment Promotion Council office in Abuja are not enough to do the job. They are fantastic individuals, but they are not enough. They are not more than 4,000 people or so, so how can they promote 200 million people with the image we have created outside Nigeria already? Turn the entire Nigerian embassies and missions into investment promotion centres where they begin to preach the new Nigeria. These are the things we want to hear. These are the things that you will hear from someone who wants to be Nigeria’s president, and even if you don’t understand investment, you will know that this man or that woman is on the right path.
But there are a few candidates who seem to be saying the right things, someone like Kingsley Moghalu, for instance. What about them?
I have listened to Kingsley Moghalu and I will tell you that he is a fantastic individual. I have listened to him speak. I have listened to his tapes. But unfortunately, the political system in Nigeria is badly structured in such a way that such individuals hardly get the opportunity to serve. Look at what Akinwunmi Adesina is doing at African Development Bank (AfDB). Are you not proud of him, that he is a Nigerian? Look at what is happening at African Export-Import Bank with Dr. Benedict Okey Oramah there as president and chairman of the Board of Directors and Kanayo Awani as managing director of Intra-African Trade Initiative. These are very fantastic Nigerians. Anywhere you find Nigerians outside Nigeria, go and check out their records of performance. You know why? Those people are able to identify our best. If I have the opportunity to become God for a minute, for instance, I will tell Atiku and Buhari to go and sit down. If you say to me that it is supposed to be an all-North affair, I will say: Okay, is that what you say it is? Fine then. Give me the ballot. I will go to the North and pick the former EFCC boss, Nuhu Ribadu, and put him on the ballot. I will go to the same North and say to the Emir of Kano, Sanusi, ‘Your Eminence, sir, I respect your office, but please forget this your emirship and come and rescue Nigeria’. I will put him on the ballot. I will go to Yorubaland, and I will go to AfDB and say to Adesina, ‘Please leave Africa, come and rescue your country first’. I will put him on the ballot. I will go to Igboland and say, ‘Give me Moghalu’. I will put him there. These are among our finest. But the political structure in Nigeria has a way of promoting our worst – not the first eleven, not even the fourth eleven, but the fifth to 10th eleven, that’s what we constantly put out there because it is a very dangerous terrain.
Are by any means interested in going into politics now or any time in the future?
When I hear ‘poli’, before you even complete the word, I have taken off. I tried in the past to be part of the system thinking that I would bring the change, but what I saw in that arena are men so unfair and ignoble in many ways that I told myself that this was not meant for me. And to be very honest with you, I don’t have to be in politics to make an impact or contribute to the growth of my country. What I am doing, Footprint to Africa based out of Nigeria, is already a huge sacrifice because I know what it costs us to operate out of Nigeria. If what we have established here in the last three years was based in Kenya or Rwanda or even Ghana, the records and the statistics would be different than what it is today. But, of course, I don’t have any other home than Nigeria.
In the face of all this, what would be your message to the Nigerian electorate going into 2019?
If the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) would let the votes count – because what happened in the Osun State governorship election is disgraceful, and I am speaking as a lawyer. So, if INEC would allow the votes to count, my message to the Nigerian electorate is simple. Don’t go by the social media discussions. We will all wait till INEC lifts the ban on electoral campaign, and then let’s hold these people accountable to what they tell us. From what they tell us – remember, not just what they will do but also how they will do it – we will be able to understand who can accomplish it or not. By the time they tell us what they will do and how they will do it, we will know whether they are able to do it or not. I will end with an Igbo adage which says that we wear clothes only for the sake of outsiders, otherwise everybody knows the state of his kinsman’s body.