YOU were in the class of federal legislators elected in 1999 and you went on to serve two terms. You then disappeared from the scene, only to reappear last year. What have you been doing ever since?
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, firefighting 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 Guaranty Pension Ltd of which I was the Vice-Chairman of the company. So, a lot more time was devoted to it and time was also devoted to my holding company called Grand Towers Plc. Grand Towers Plc is more of a venture capitalist, if you like, or a private equity investor that invests in identifiable opportunities in different sectors. One thing we identified was 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 we 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 unusual for people to just leave the political arena. What informed your taking a break from politics?
For me, it was not a deliberate choice; 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 it were people of like minds. We had the Nduka Irabors, the Tony Anyanwus, Acho Obioma and co, Farouk Lawan, Suleiman Isyaku and our confidence and conviction was 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 position Nigeria differently and then run best practices as you’d find anywhere in the world. 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. That principle guided us even when there was a deliberate effort by the then government to ensure that over 95percent 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. I, for one, came back through the law court. 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 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 my commitment to my business and, of course, my family.
You’re a private sector person 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?
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. One of the things that gave me joy was being offered the opportunity to serve as Chairman of the House Committee on Privatisation and Commercialisation. Earlier, I was invited to chair the House Committee on Appropriation and I felt that my talent and my 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 lesser committee; people just could not understand what it meant.
I was also fortunate to work with a reform-minded head of the BPE that was responsible for midwifing the privatisation and commercialisation agenda of the government, which was Malam Nasir El-Rufai under the chairmanship of then Vice President Atiku Abubakar. Working together, we midwifed a number of reform-minded policy thrusts 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 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 250,000 naira, sometimes N350,000 to acquire the line. There were long waiting lists for you to acquire that. 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, even how we relate with each other. It will also transform our economy. It will enable a lot of businesses as we know today that that has also done. 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 until 2004, when we started that process again and then 2005, it was now passed and assented into law as an Act of Parliament by the President. Unfortunately, the politics of that time did not allow the full liberalisation and investment that is required in seeing through the implementation of that power sector reform. If it was done then, when the whole world was looking at Nigeria, when the investors were looking to invest money in Nigeria, I wager that power would have been long addressed unlike what it is today.
The other thing we talked about, but unfortunately couldn’t get passed, was the competition anti-trust law. It was very difficult to lead members to understand that unless we innovate rules and regulations that inhibit antitrust behaviour in the country, Nigeria will suffer as a consequence. Unfortunately, it was one bill I was interested in and couldn’t get passed before we left Parliament. But I’m happy that in 2019 that was passed, of course, with some measure of confusion. There was confusion whether it is an antitrust 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 than on the antitrust behaviour.
On Pension Reform
You mentioned the Pension Reform Act. Nowhere in the world have countries made progress without long-term funding. It is the pension access that provides long-term funding that crystallises investment, that crystallises development and in more ways than not, that 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 dollars in pension assets. And many countries in the world have asset sizes of close to 3, 4, 5 trillion dollars. 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 it.
So, one of the strategic decisions that we took when I got involved in the pension industry was to look at it and tell you: what is it that we can do to address 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 secure; it’s guaranteed and that when you retire, your pension will be able to take care of your lifestyle for the rest of your life. That is one benefit of it.
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 contribution in our pension scheme will be in the region of 30 to 40 trillion naira. And then if you’re talking of 2020, we should be discussing about 50 to 60 trillion naira in our pension assets. So, imagine what that would have been if those assets are targeted at road infrastructure, building railway lines, building airports?
Twenty years down the line, we’re still talking about the same issues. One thing that people have been saying might be a way forward is restructuring the country. What are your views on this?
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, 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 in what happened in 1999/2000 when we left governance and began to play our 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 councillors 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 voter register was not ready and having agreed with the then Alliance for Democracy (AD) governors and some of the governors on the platform of APP that now became ANPP and then innovated a system that enabled governors to appoint councillors 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 willfully 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 encouraged. People at the helm of affairs at national and state level 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 mentored over the period, to offer themselves to the electorates 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 president did not. He took another route, which was Umaru Yar’Adua. Yar’Adua became the candidate of PDP and became the president of Nigeria and of course, the rest is history. 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 people at the helm of affairs should be made to realise that the weight of responsibility that they carry by being elected on behalf of 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 overarching.
Do I agree with restructuring? 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 it 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. Up till today, I don’t think there has been any deliberate effort on the part of the government to bring those to the table for discussion and then for implementation.
So what do you say to those who are opposed to it, who think it’s just a call for separation?
In my many engagements, it’s always a learning exercise, a teaching and coaching for us to understand what we actually mean by restructuring and how that affects us as a people and as a country. It does not by any means, mean separation or secession or parting of ways. What it means is giving people more responsibility to be able to deliver more.
Take the example of state police as one of the items that have been discussed and put on the table as a component of the restructuring or true federalism that we speak about. The concern or fear of most people is that if you leave state police in the hands of governors or local governors, it will lead to abuse. The counterpoint to it is: have we not abused the police whether you leave it in the hands of the centre or if you leave it in the hands of the state government?
A clear understanding of it will give everyone comfort to understand that you are better policed and protected by one who comes from the environment, understands the terrain and culture of the people. They can be empowered in a way that enables them to be the best they can possibly be in the areas that they find themselves and they are also answerable to the people. In doing that, it is to also ensure that the law, as we have it, is not just for decoration, it is meant to be enforced and implemented to the extent that I cannot be seen to be breaching the law without sanction. There will be the necessary checks and balances that will guarantee that you can’t even misuse your powers or go against the laws of the land and if you do that, the sanctions are there and you would be held accountable.
It’s for people to talk about it and discuss it. On the matter of giving each state and its region the control of the resources that are in that environment; again there’s an argument for it because if you take ownership of what you produce and then you can see the profits or the benefits that come from it, it will cause you to even do more because if you do more and you create more, you will make more money. And if you make more money, you’re more than likely to protect it. And if you protect it, the centre will only take a certain percentage of what comes from your sweat.
It’s not that you produce resources that you don’t have shared benefit of. So, it becomes any man’s property and any man’s property is no man’s property. Before oil, we had the groundnut of the North, we had the palm kernel of the East and then the cocoa of the West and these were the resources that were used to develop the respective regions.
We know that in each state of Nigeria, there are inherent mineral resources that when well exploited, harnessed and managed, could potentially contribute to the economic resource of the country without the fear of any component part that they will have nothing to grow their economy.
So, it is an engagement that we need to have. Given the avalanche of discussion and write-ups that have happened over the period, people are becoming more aware and conscious that we need to reform, we need to restructure, we need to come together and bring those things that will enable us as Nigerians to walk the path of progress and development.
Still talking about reforms, what is your position on a part-time legislature? There’s discussion that Nigeria can’t afford a bi-cameral legislature and that legislators take an extraordinarily large share of the resources.
I believe by its nature as it is currently, it is already part-time because in Parliament, they sit only on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Mondays, Fridays and weekends are used for constituency visits or oversight. I’m one of those that believe that what we need may not necessarily be a part-time legislature or a unicameral legislature but to revert to a parliamentary system of government that enables people to spend a bit of more time in representing their constituency in the Parliament. If you’re a government in power, from the midst of the parliamentarians, people can become the ministers, secretaries as we may call them. So, you’re doing a dual role. You have executive as well as a parliamentary responsibility.
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 various walks of life and are going to parliament to contribute their quota for the progress of Nigeria. That’s unlike what now obtains 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 being in parliament to move those legislations that will help governance. 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.
Let’s go back to your businesses. What informed your focus on real estate, hospitality and the technology sectors? How did Covid-19 affect you as a practitioner in the hospitality industry?
Our first guiding principle is to identify disruptive businesses that impact on lifestyle and change how we live, how we commute and then more importantly also, earn us profit.
When we got involved in the shopping mall, this was the underlying 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 people logging bags and bags of things they’ve 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 ticket, from our luggage.
And why is that so? Because they have shopping centres; they have big time retailers that carry a number of the things that are not easily available in Nigeria. 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, but then we felt that we needed to bring Shoprite.
Shoprite was the dominant grocery store in Nigeria that was making waves trading at The Palms. 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. Of course, our investment in the pension asset which is First Guarantee Pension was also life changing.
I made a point that those who worked in the Civil Service and retired could not access their pension. 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 fintech, 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, which is also very disruptive as we have.
So underlying our interest is always: identify a disruptive industry that would enhance value and enable Nigerians live the same lifestyle as their counterparts overseas. We believe that once we are able to achieve that, the bottom line would always look good.
On the hospitality industry, before COVID we were always confident that people would travel. And if you travel, you would like to find a place to sleep. We felt that we needed to get involved in that space. So, the Bon Hotel Grand Towers and our 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 had the Ikogosi Warm Springs which is more of a resort of its own and well-managed, could also help what we call destination in-country tourism.
There is also Afe Babalola University which is one of the best private universities in Nigeria and West-Africa and has built one of the best medical facilities in Africa, supported by firms from Dubai and the United States.
So, they also helped to contribute to our footfall. And, of course, Owerri is a land of tourism and hospitality. 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, it would be in our portfolio.