‘Nigerians have lost taste of what it takes to have a good leader’
Though he had his early education in Onitsha, Anambra State, where he combined trading at the Main Market and managing a horde of apprentices with schooling, High Chief, Obiora Okonkwo left Nigeria for Russia where he earned a first class degree in Economics from the Russian Peoples Friendship University in Moscow, and later Master of Science Degree in Economics from the same university. Today, he holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Political Science from the Russian Academy of Science, Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Moscow. Dikeora, as he’s fondly called, holds a Professional Fellowship Doctorate from the Institute of Chartered Economists of Nigeria and Fellowship of the Institute of Chartered Arbitrators and Mediators of Nigeria. In this interview with LEO SOBECHI, the President of the Nigeria-Russia Chamber of Commerce and Industry explains why a research into entrepreneurial behaviour and apprenticeship system in Onitsha is intended to provide an intellectual support to business acumen of young people. He also spoke on the issues of fallen standard of education, declining value system among youth and Nigeria’s leadership challenges.
What informed the recent research into entrepreneurship abilities and apprenticeship scheme in Onitsha by the UniZik Business School? How did you conceive that idea?
Well, I have been wondering for quite some time where we got things wrong. Growing up, I remember great names in entrepreneurship around this part of the world, Onitsha particularly. I remember the GUOs, I remember the Nwankwus, I remember the Alliance, the Ferdinands, and Chief Vincent Standard and the Ekenedilichukwus of this world in different areas. I also remember such great names as, Ave Maria; we grew up with them. We do hear Pokobros’ advertisement on radio as we wake up every day, announcing household food products. I don’t hear about them anymore.
But before us, there were and still Guinness of this world, Mercedes, Tata, Ford and others. All these are brand names that were just like the names of all these other businesses. Started by individual families and then became world brands; they became sustainable and expanded. But these other names I had mentioned earlier from this part of our world, it became obvious that when the founders are gone, we don’t see a second generational succession. And not only that that doesn’t happen, the things just die off.
You can imagine the amount of resources those men controlled in their days. Imagine if those resources were properly managed and then grown. Those industries, if they continued to grow, expand and were modernised, you can imagine the amount of money in this our economy, in this state (Anambra). You can also imagine the employment opportunities they would have been generating. Then, you can imagine how much of taxes; both income and salary taxes that could be going into a state like Anambra. You can now do the calculation and know at what level the IGR (Internally Generated Revenue) of this state would be and what a reasonable government would have been using it in return to do for the state.
So, these things were bothering my mind until that particular time the Business School of UniZik found me worthy to be one of their award recipients, Entrepreneurship Award of the Year. And being in there in their midst and seeing the good initiative of being a business school and seeing the graduates, with a good number of them also coming from the commercial city of Onitsha, I was inspired to engage them in a possible redirection.
What exactly is the idea the initiative?
The whole idea was not necessarily waiting for Onitsha to come to UniZik, but that UniZik can as well go to Onitsha, being a practical field of business experiences. I wanted them to match theory with practice; Onitsha is a good platform for that. I appreciated the fact that there could be a support system from the intellectual background to their business acumen, and that a combination of these can actually create a new world of entrepreneurship.
So, for that to be done, a study has to be carried out: What are those things that made it thick? What affected it to slow down the potentials? And then, what are the likely threats tomorrow, that could even make it worse? What could be the solution to avert that, so that at the end of the day, we would have a study that mirrors the past, captures the present, and forecasts the future, to make us a strong entrepreneurial people? Who knows, we might move as fast as necessary to recover our lost glory to the glory of God and for the benefit of mankind.
That is basically, in summary, what it is all about. Also, knowing that I have also seen that part of the world, having grown up in Onitsha and having experienced that at a tender age of primary school. Of course, having known that experience helped shaped my life and thought; that it’s what you describe as a lost treasure. Today’s youth, who could have seen themselves in the same age as we were then, don’t even know that such good existed talk more of experiencing it to help them in their lives. So, I am sure that if there’s anything of this nature, they can even read it, feel it, and imagine it. It should not be something we should allow to waste as if it never existed.
What is the nature of the initiative and its funding?
I endowed a fund in the name of my foundation, Pro-value Humanity Foundation (PHF). So, all the funds that will be required for the research work would be provided. The university family will provide the manpower and then engage some ancillary manpower that might be needed for the project. The outline is there, the synopsis is clear; we have agreed on that and the work is ongoing already.
Given that most younger generation of Igbo are not inclined to learn, but rather are driven by make-it-quick schemes, won’t that make the study unnecessary?
Well, the drive to get it quick is a world phenomenon, because, sometimes, it really depends on what motivates or inspires you. Who is your role model, who is your mentor? I recall that growing up, your role model could just be your elder brother, who used to hang out in the village with you, when in primary and all of a sudden, he gains admission into the secondary school and then he becomes a boarding student. Coming back after the first term, wearing clean clothes, eating with fork and knife; just shying away from all those regular things you guys do. Having his clothes all ironed and packaged, that was enough inspiration. Going back to school, he has one big tin of beverage, dozen of milk all to himself to take back to school.
Meanwhile, at home, they open a tin of milk and share among you and siblings. Then you see this your brother or sister with a dozen of milk, with a big tin of Ovaltine, with a packet of sugar, that’s enough for you to say, “I am going to do all it takes to pass my exam into this secondary school.”
Such little things were foundations for our own ambition then. But today, it’s a fast world. Most of the people you read about or you know are those who have made it fast. If somebody wakes up from somewhere, gets into a reality show on television, comes out and then he becomes a multimillionaire. Just for doing all sorts of things that make the eyes blink.
So, it is all about people making money.
I was mentoring some youth in a Rotary programme sometime ago, graduates in their 30s were asking questions that, ‘oh you probably became what you are today, because when you were growing up, your parents were really pushing you hard to be successful.’ It was hard for them to believe that really, while growing up, at least in my own environment, in my own family, the issue of being successful from monetary terms was never a subject of discussion. The only thing that mattered to our parents then was that we turn out as responsible members of the society. ‘Don’t live a life that will bring disgrace or shame to your family,’ was the usual admonition. We could not make much difference between somebody who was a mechanic or a driver.
It was a time when teachers were still respected; when multi millionaires will take their own children with a gift to beg a simple teacher that lives in a remote village to teach them good manners to be responsible. So, there was mutual respect for people for whom they were, for the name they possess and their integrity. That was the environment we grew up. So, it wasn’t about money, money, money.
At what point did this loss of value set in or was there something we started doing the wrong way?
Well, honestly speaking, I don’t think I am in the position to say it started changing this or that time. But, what I can actually try to guess is that at that point, all was good. The economy was not buoyant or big, but it was strong. There was little or no poverty. The naira, no matter how little you have, you could afford a lot of things.
Parents, who were just peasant farmers in the village or petty traders, were able to sponsor their children’s education in America without the children having to engage in menial jobs or being expected to send money back at all. The economy was good. Then came inflation, which I guess was ushered in with coup d’états of early 1983 and the cycle of coups after. Then began the devaluation of naira; people started losing control. A great number of people could not adjust to the new trend of the devaluation.
At that point, there was great need for more money, because the little you have couldn’t buy so much. Everybody was then exposed to making more money and things began to change. Money became so important for so many things to happen. Value system started changing. Then, the virtues that we all appreciated and valued started being jettisoned. Then there came new norms that were not necessarily great things that the society appreciated, but just to get things done. And it became the case of ‘if you can’t beat them, you join them’. That threw up a different opportunity.
Apart from the military leaders who took over from the coup and their huge life style, we had the issue of ‘419.’ Then, it was just like the means do not justify the end anymore, but the end justifying the means. And parents, because of lack, lost control and faith in themselves; they couldn’t afford so many things for the upkeep of their family.
The trend was like, ‘If you can’t beat them, you join them.’ Parents even started urging their children, ‘don’t you see what others are doing.’ So, the value system broke down. Our culture, which was the fibre that held our decent society together, became almost non-existent. As Chinua Achebe wrote, ‘when the centre cannot hold, then things started falling apart.’ I think these were the things. Then it became a free fall and it is still falling. So, that’s why in our foundation, our objective is paying attention to those values; recreating humanity, and re-orientation.
Today, I am proud to tell the youth that I grew up in my village and was groomed along the values that existed alongside our tradition, our customary beliefs and the religious philosophy; they made me what I am today. Don’t you think you have been exposed to something better, the world of computers, Internet, social media and this is what you are, then you better do a reassessment!
If our parents, our forefathers, who never traveled to London, who never saw electricity, who never owned a phone could exist strictly along the lines of customs and values around their own environment and gave birth to your parents, trained them to be responsible children. They grew up to be responsible members of the society, gave birth and catered for you and society was decent. Things that were wrong were known to be wrong; things that were criminally minded were known to be that. If they did all that without all these exposures you have today, then we need to re-evaluate the benefits of all those things. As good as they may be, how have we used them to better our lives? And life in this case may not be only how to make material wealth, but to have a fulfilled, all-inclusive better life, with value, with belief and that spirit of being neighbours’ keepers.
Most of the pioneers didn’t go beyond secondary school, yet they were able to build growing businesses. What does that say about the quality of education that we have now?
Well, you see, the drop in the societal standard is a reflection of quality of our education because, if you go to institutions, whether they are secondary, primary or university, you might find out that the same types of books or even better ones available those days we assume we had quality education, are still available there. The teachers back then were even less exposed and less educated.
Come to think of it, the time I was in secondary was when you just finish class five and you become a teacher without even going to the university. Currently, graduates are lecturing in schools with fallen standards. If that is the case, I still wonder where this fall in our education is coming from. I can only say, it is the society that has lost its taste of things that matter. And that translates to the quality of individuals that attend the university and a reflection of what they learn there. If it is about lecturing, these same professors travelled to overseas, became professors in the same universities because they were qualified. They teach the subject of their discipline to students of that environment, and the students do well.
This might be a hard narrative to believe. It is about the society, because knowledge is just about 30 per cent of what you learn within the four walls of the university; the rest is your behaviour and character. If you are talking about the university education, people like us who travelled overseas at a very young age, came back and still have certain values intact with knowledge and understanding of our culture and tradition.
Having studied overseas, where they even speak different languages, did they teach me those values? Did they teach me the sense of appreciation? Those were imparted to me at tender age; things I learnt from the environment and society that I grew up in. They were things I embraced from the strong family system when I was brought up. So, where do we learn these things? If you talk about the quality of education, then you should also talk about the community, the quality of our value system today. You should be talking about the roles of families in our own upbringing.
Then, if you say quality of education is the issue; note that today education is online, virtual learning. A number of people don’t even go to the university. If they put themselves into it, they will still read and write examination and pass and use it to offer quality services.
In those days, we thought education was all about school. We still have people who read at home and took standard six exams or Cambridge GCE, or whatever. Because they were thoroughly brought up within the society, they could even train themselves. I am not saying that schools have not much to offer, but it depends on what you throw in there, it is garbage in, garbage out.
Is there a nexus between what you are saying, especially the issue of rising population and dwindling value system and education?
Well, as far as I am concerned, huge population for any country is an advantage if you plan well. We have seen other countries growing in population in almost the same ratio as ours; it has not affected their quality of education. China and India for instance, even America and Russia. So, population growth in itself is not a form of disadvantage. But, it is the planning to accommodate, to maximize it that makes the difference. And that again boils down to what do our leaders know about it. How do they see our lives, not just as it is today, but the plan for ten years’ time?
Some people will project that within 10 to 20 years, we might have growth tendency in a specific area and then start planning towards that before it arrives. Our leadership style is that, the thing will come and pass us by and we will not even juggle enough. Where you have such population growth adequate preparations should be made to accommodate and turn them to advantage, they will always be a burden on other sectors.
On the score of leadership, do you think leadership selection process as in Nigeria makes it difficult to get visionary leaders?
Honestly, I don’t cherish the life of constant complaints. But I can’t tell you I get happy blaming leaders, because some of them forced themselves in there through Coup d’état, some manipulate the process through election rigging. I think 70 – 80 per cent of the time the led should share much of the blame.
Don’t blame some people in leadership positions, the followers have lost the taste of what it takes to have a good leader; they have misplaced their priorities. To them, a leader is the person, who is my buddy, who will give them easy access to personal advantages, that person who make me have my own a share of the national cake or state. It’s no more that leader who knows what to do, to come and do what is required to do for the benefit or for common good.
Even if you think that this person can do it, then you choose him in a legitimate way. And when you see that that person is not doing as much as he should do within a reasonable time, what do you do? There are options. But more often than none, we don’t do anything because, he has our back, we benefit individually and it’s not the matter of who is better, but that he is my friend, so let him be since my gain is guaranteed.
So, with that in mind, you now can say that, even if bad leader gets there, and the followers make their demands, set their own standards, have certain level of irreducible minimum and insist on that, they can also make a bad leader become better; we can hold them accountable. The combination of the leader and the led are the reasons we don’t have the best benefit of leadership. I tell people that if for any reason you have gone to a polling booth to collect N1000 to vote for a candidate you don’t know what he or she stands for, you are part of the problem.
If that person, merely because he or she paid you to vote for him/her had won with your vote, and somebody dies because the person elected failed to provide the right medical services, the blood is on your hand. Also, if a person died in a road accident because that same person did not do the needful thing because he bought your votes, the blood is on your head.
Are you satisfied with the level of infrastructure development in Onitsha, especially given that it is becoming difficult for people to even do business there?
Obviously, at some point in Onitsha, the infrastructures were as good as the infrastructures in major cities in Nigeria, if not better. But those infrastructures were good enough to accommodate the population. The place has witnessed an upsurge of people, coupled with lack of planning by the government. They did not foresee, and even if they did, they didn’t think it mattered and even if they thought, they did nothing about it. Then Onitsha was overwhelmed and the little that was available was overused.
Critical people at some point deserted Onitsha. Some problems of Onitsha were calculated and contrived to reduce the economic strength of the commercial city. Of course, you know that one man’s meat is another’s poison. With the dwindling of Onitsha, the economies of other areas like Lagos were witnessing growth. It was when Onitsha started coming down that you saw businesses moving to other areas like Iddo, Eko market, Idumota. Before then, Idumota was the ‘ejesie ogwu’ (last port of call) of Lagos markets. But it was when Onitsha started winding down that we started seeing other big markets springing up in Lagos, including Alaba international market, Aspamda, Trade Fair and others.
If there was proper planning and proper anticipation, those were businesses that would have been growing in Onitsha further into other parts of Anambra State. And obviously, when bad leadership did not provide security for both residents and lives and properties of those coming to do business in Onitsha, people will rather stop in Lagos. And when they were stopping in Lagos, even those with businesses had to move to where buyers are.
So, we know what the problems are and the solutions are also not rocket science. But it would take proper planning and very stringent implementation and consistency within a set out time to achieve the rebuilding of Onitsha. We can recover the old glory of Onitsha and Anambra State and make it into a great entrepreneurship hub, factoring in all the modern dynamics.
There has been this talk about making Nnewi a major industrial hub and Japan of Africa, but it seems that dream is still far?
Well, Nnewi had what it takes to have grown, maybe not equal to Japan, but certain industrial sustainable height. The greater difference comes from quality of people, the human capital. Nnewi started on a good note, but has suffered the same fate like Onitsha, in the area of commerce.
I know not long ago, there were about 56 manufacturing companies in Nnewi that were manufacturing products sold in so many parts of Africa. But when the negative impact of bad leadership started manifesting on the environment unfortunately, we don’t have up to five to six functioning factories in Nnewi today. That is sad.
The small town of Nnewi with 56 industries some 15 to 20 years ago, we should have expected a rapidly expanding economy and by now, we should have been talking about 200 or 300. But it has shrunk to 6. So, Nnewi is not left out of the negative effects of the problems earlier enumerated in the course of this interview.
But whatever, the potentials are still there, it can still be reignited; it can still be unlocked to bring about the industrialisation on the bedrock of what already exists. Some people started with nothing; Dubai was built on top of nothing, it was just a concept. 95 per cent of the people who built the Emirate came from outside of Dubai; even government businesses are managed by foreigners. But it is still boils down to talent. We can build our own first world made by ourselves, but only sound leadership can make the difference.
Some people claim that the aviation industry is capital intensive, what then is your attraction to that sector?
Yes, it’s highly capital intensive, highly regulated. If you do it the way it should be done, it’s a good investment; you must follow the rules no matter how inconvenient. My simple attraction is that not only that where other people fail, some others have also succeeded. Besides that, most of the businesses that I partnered are in the service industry. As such, it is a venture that requires trust and strict compliance; it’s a system thing. Building business systems have rules and regulations and methodology, it’s one hell of a business that is always difficult. I try to see myself around them most of the time and make the best out of it.
As a player in the tourism industry, do you think corona virus pandemic will maximally shrink opportunities opened to tourism?
The effect of COVID-19 pandemic on tourism industry is not limited to Nigeria or Africa; it is worldwide. Take for instance the month of August, which has come to an end, I have never heard anybody talking about going for summer holidays, compared to last year and years before. In fact, in one of my outings recently, one very important personality said he has never even travelled for summer in the last 19 years with his family. He said he has realised there is no better place for him to rest than his village. That is part of the COVID effect.
So, it will surely affect the sector, especially international tourism. However, those who are better positioned might stem the problem better or more than the domestic tourism. And for those who go out for medical tourism overseas, if you take advantage of the lessons of COVID, it is a good time also to start developing good and internal tourism.
No doubt, it will affect the tourism industry worldwide, including Africa and Nigeria. But just like the initial impact on the industry at the wake of international terrorism, I have no doubt that it will come to pass.
There are so many positive signs and hope of coming vaccine and fear of people dying in thousands is no more the case in so many countries. Things are gradually opening up. People need a great deal of support to cushion the effect for them to remain in business. That is why I think government has made some promises.
They should as much as possible live up to those promises to support people in that industry, because on the long run, if they survive, their businesses will remain and continue to create employment. They will also continue to pay taxes and other returns made to the government will be enough to pay back for any other support given them to survive. But if they are left with ‘to your tent O Israel’, they will crash, people will lose jobs, it will affect government revenue, because government benefits from existing and successful business not dead business. People without businesses don’t pay tax.