Nigeria is popularly known as the giant of Africa and the growth rate of its economy, which is rated among the best in the world, above the United States, US, and United Kingdom, UK, confirms that lofty position. Aside from the state of the economy, most of the successful physicians, businessmen, and academics in the US have Nigerian lineage. Also, most of its citizens, who went in pursuit of better education, also transformed from being academics to captains of industries, consultants, advisers to politicians and corporate chief executive officers in the US. But most of these illustrious citizens are not willing to return home and impart their knowledge or invest in the country for reasons such as unfriendly business environment, decaying educational system and bad governance among others.
Benjamin Ola Akande, dean, George Herbert Walker School of Business and Technology, Webster University’s largest academic unit, St Louis, Missouri, US, is one of these achievers that are bitter about the snail pace of economic growth and poor governance culture in the country. Akande believes that potential and opportunities available in Nigeria are not enough to grow the economy or secure the future of generations yet unborn. He says government needs to build the door that enables opportunities to knock and embrace the potential. According to the St. Louis Business Journal’s Most Influential Leader (2007-2012), the Nigerian government has failed to protect and provide for its people but rather takes away and steals from them. He argues that since the public sector has been functioning at 10 per cent, the private sector has assumed the responsibilities of the government, and that, Akande says, is responsible for the decay of infrastructure in the country.
To find a solution to the nation’s bad governance, Akande advises President Goodluck Jonathan to be more emphatic in his policies and come up with significant opportunities to create jobs for the youths that are employable but unemployed. “What we have been seeing are half hazard and untimely interventions. Politics in Nigeria is dirty and I think they have missed the opportunity. Our governments don’t need to make promises, they should just get the job done and that is my perspective.”
Akande bares his mind to a TELL team comprising Wola Adeyemo, executive director, publications; Dejo Oyawale, chief operating officer; Dipo Onabanjo, editorial director; Salif Atojoko, deputy general editor; Sunday Adedeji, senior photo editor and Abiola Odutola, staff writer. Excerpts:
We have had different stories about Nigerians in the Diaspora, how is it in the state of St Louis?
I spent the last three decades in the United States of America and since the time I have been there I have seen Nigerians coming just like I did as students and transiting themselves from being students to managers or leaders in different aspects of their profession. In a recent edition of the New York Times, there was an article, a study of Harvard University professors on ambition, what drives it, what it leads to and they found some interesting revelations that the numbers of immigrants that come to the US are ambitious. They are hungry for knowledge, influence and ready to make a difference. As I read the article, I saw the identification of Indians, Asians and Americans and for the first time in the long time, it was so refreshing to see that the name Nigeria was used to describe some of the successful immigrants in the US. Over 20 per cent of the students in the Harvard Business schools have Nigerian lineage. It was great to hear that because I believe it reflects the role Nigerians play in the US. We have been able to transit from being students to contributors to US economy. When you look at that landscape, you will find that most of the successful physicians, businessmen, and academics in the US are Nigerians. In academics, most of them have transformed from being academics to captains of industry, consultants, advisers to politicians, corporate CEOs. We labour hard in this vineyard knowing full well that we are victims of circumstances. We have come to US not to seek fortunes but we are here to seek education. From the process of seeking education, we also discover that this is a land of opportunities, that is a land that can afford us with more than what we can get in our country. Not in terms of financial rewards but possibilities. Indeed, we are not measured by the connections we have or by what your last name is but measured by your contributions and intellectual ability to make America better. That has been the most single motivating force for me in America and it is something that has taken me to different corridors in the US that on many occasions, I find it difficult to believe I was there.
How would you rate the Nigerian economy?
What I see in Nigeria is an economy that has refused to embrace its potential. It is an economy that has not harnessed the opportunity given to it. I find a country that has been a complete failure in terms of the role of the government. Government is to protect, enable us and make things better for all of us. But what I found in the case of Nigeria is that the government has been able to take away from us and steal from us. The public sector in Nigeria has been functioning at about 10 per cent because if it was functioning at about 50 per cent, this country would be transformed. Nigeria has developed and grown in spite of the deficiency of our government and what has kept it running is not the government because the government has been sitting on the sideline watching the game. What I see in Nigeria is a private sector that has replaced the public sector. The private sector is playing the role of the government and that is why the government is what it is today. It is amazing seeing government officials making promises that have never been kept. I am frustrated by the fact that this country runs on generators and that we are the sixth biggest producer of oil in the world and yet we don’t have constant electricity. We keep hearing promises and we keep hearing that things will get better.
At the recent World Economic Forum, there was a common view that Nigeria is one of the emerging economies and that massive investments will flow into the country this year. Despite our shortcomings foreigners seem to believe in Nigeria more than Nigerians, why is that so?
It is because they see the potential in the country. Look at the population; what per cent of the population are the youth? Over 50 per cent of the population of this country can be categorised as the youth. What that tells you is that you are basically living on significant potential for products, services, development and that the only way Nigeria can go is up. But the reality is that we have been hearing about potential and opportunities for a long time over the last 10 years. We have heard about potential and opportunities but we have not built the door that enables the opportunities to knock and that for me is the real challenge that Nigeria is facing. In my consulting work with the World Bank in the ‘90s, we talked about privatisation of the power system and wrote an article on how we are going to do it and how the regions will power the country in a way that is similar to what we have in the US. It is something that is state regulated. The power system in US is not regulated by the federal system but state. I am tired of potential. I was talking to a friend of mine who is a Fortune 500 CEO of a company based in St Louis on potential and he said that Nigeria has a lot of potential but he doesn’t do potential but reality. Nigeria is not in his plans in the immediate future because the country has failed to deal with corruption.
But there have been some interventions, don’t you think those interventions would transform Nigeria?
What we have been seeing are haphazard interventions. There have been interventions that are not timely, interventions that we have not been able to see their immediate results. For instance, the privatisation of the power sector actually started with the Obasanjo administration. What we see now is that power is less than what we had in 2004. When you look at the glamour of Victoria Island in Lagos, there are so many places in VI that run exclusively on generators. So what happens to people living in Ajegunle, Mushin, Ikeja and Ikorodu, how will they get power? What I have seen here is that Nigerians have learnt to be content with the minimal aspect of governance. But government has to provide at a significant level and do it just in time, in real time. But that is not the government that we have. I still believe that we have to hold government to task. Politics in Nigeria is a dirty thing to me and I think they have missed the opportunity. Our government does not need to make promises it should just get the job done.
Would you say these frustrations have affected the desire of Nigerians in the Diaspora to come home and make some interventions?
I happen to believe that the best minds that can transform this country are in Nigeria. I take a different perspective from some people who believe they can bring intellectual capacity that we don’t have here to develop this country. The brightest people in Nigeria that stay here are ready and willing with intellectual capacity to transform this country. I think what we don’t have in Nigeria is the enabling environment for those ideas of Nigerians here to germinate into real policy and real action. It is not that they don’t know how or want to, it is just that the system does not allow them. They still have that belief that they will rise above that situation. I see my role as a Nigerian that has spent significant time in the Diaspora who can come here and be a voice, find collaborators that we can work with. I don’t come into this place thinking that I have all the solutions.
With your experience in the financial sector, particularly with the Walker School of Business, how are you collaborating with local investors, are there things you hope to do with them in Nigeria in specific terms?
I have served as advisors for individuals who are trying to get into the education market in Nigeria and I have introduced Nigerians to companies in US that are looking for representation in the country because you have to validate people for the companies because they want to know they are honest and trustworthy. What I have done over the last 14 years as a dean of the Walker school and citizen of St Louis is to forge a significant relationship between my university and the business community and that relationship for me is a blueprint for what is possible here in Nigeria. In Argent Capital where I was a board member, that is a company that manages the wealth of some of richest Americans and also manages endowments of some of the foundations in the US. Being a chairman of such company has exposed me to how people grow money through legitimate means and make other people to benefit from that process. It has enabled me to see how the richest Americans have been able to give back to America by investing the profits they make in foundations that have no other obligation but raising people up. That has given me the kind of exposure that I think can be replicated in Nigeria. For me, that has been a very positive experience.
For six months last year public universities in Nigeria were shut down, what is your assessment of our education system?
That (shut down) has been happening since I left Nigeria in 1979. It is a stop and start process. Students spend a lot of time at home in the process of education and when they get back to school they will rush them to make up for all the time they wasted at home. I believe the education system in Nigeria is fantastic. We borrowed it from the British, it teaches us rigour, complexity, it challenges us to be better writers, thinkers, to be able to connect the dots, to be great analysts and I think for a long time that the education system worked and it still works. But as time changed, we remained the same; we didn’t change with time, particularly the areas of education where we want to invest our resources. In this particular case, the Nigerian education system needs to be revalidated, re-assessed particularly to fill the gap between who we are and what we need. That gap is so important for us to fill. The system teaches us to be great planners, to do good execution but the education system in Nigeria doesn’t support pioneering, it doesn’t teach entrepreneurship because when we come out of college in Nigeria, we think we are going to work for somebody and don’t think about how we are going to create something that doesn’t exist. We need industries, ideas, new products, new services, entrepreneurs; we don’t need CEOs or GMs. We don’t need people aspiring to go work for somebody. We need pioneering mentality that we will benchmark against best practices. To do that, we need to look at the curriculum that was good in the last 40 or 50 years because it is mundane to current reality. What we need is not creating something for Nigeria. I am looking for the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs in this country. I am looking for the Nigerians that will create products that are exportable because they have the capacity to be able to do it. But the reality is we have not created that enabling environment that will help that seed to germinate. We need a diversification strategy that can change our education system. Right now, what we are doing is being done by the private sector in bits and pieces. What I will like to see is a president that will say this is the direction that we will go, it is risky but that is the place where transformation lives. That is where I will like to see Nigeria live.
You talked about the iPod generation, what do you expect from that generation?
That is my acronym for the generation that is going to run this country. What I found about them is that they are empowered. They have seen us fail and they have realised that failure is a real time feedback; they don’t see it as an end. That is the competency we didn’t have, my generation saw failure as the end of the world. The iPod generation sees failure as where you don’t want to go or where you want to go differently. They are the ones that will revive this country because they are going to challenge this status quo. They recognise they can make a lot of impact and they are going to challenge their parents. We are going to see an emergence of a new population. They are empowered because their parents had told them they can do anything and they believe that.
Do you want to do business with the iPod generation?
Yes, I want to do business with them. I have the opportunities to become friends with some of the ‘iPoders’ like Jack Dorsey, the gentle man that designed Twitter. At that time (four years ago) Jack was relatively unknown. I was inquisitive about his story because I want to know what drove him to create something that never existed but more importantly what is the long term. Believe me, Jack didn’t do it because of money but out of passion for trying to create something out of immediacy and as you know he is a billionaire. When you talk to Jack about his legacy, he doesn’t talk about making more money but he is looking for how to use his fortune/ability to make life easier for people. They see a better future than we do and I believe the future belongs to those that can see it. From that perspective, my hope is on the ‘iPoders’ because they don’t see ethnicity but people; they don’t see roadblocks but opportunities.
That generation is faced with unemployment. How do we tackle that?
About 50 per cent of them are unemployed but not unemployable. They are unemployed today because we created an economy that is stagnant, an economy with no industries. It is the same old thing, government has become the industry, job generator and that is why you got 50 per cent of them unemployed. How can a country with a president with 50 per cent unemployed, go to a summit and you don’t come back with significant opportunities to create jobs for these people and you see what is going on in Ghana, Kenya where you have an infusion of US companies using the intellectual capacity of young people to create the next thing? We need to focus on unemployment and that process begins with a serious engagement with the private sector.
Few years ago, the Nigerian capital market had some issues relating to corporate governance. But recently, it rebounded with capitalisation increasing from N4 trillion in 2009 to N13 trillion in January 2014. Do you think this growth is sustainable?
The growth is not artificial I think it is sustainable. Modern day investors are also considering investing in the equity market; they are looking at areas where they will have the highest level of return. I truly believe the stock market will be a measure of the perception of the Nigerian economy. It runs on not only potential but real results because when you get into the equity market, it’s not about promises anymore but about ability of being able to measure results. I would like to see more of our viable sectors getting involved in this market because that will allow them to get more results. I see promises for that sector, I haven’t played in it because I basically kept all my investments in the US but as I begin to re-emerge in Nigeria, I have to put my money where my mouth is. If I am going to play in this market, I have to demonstrate confidence in this market. If everything goes on like this, my return on investment would be more than what I earn in the US, which is really good. Anybody that is not playing in this market now is losing money.