As the opinions of Nigerians continue to remain divided over the news that Nigeria has exited recession, Forbes rated billionaire businessman, pro-nationalist and two term ex-Governor of Abia State, Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu, in this special interview monitored recently in Abuja speaks on challenges of doing business in Nigeria, his business travails under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the current unemployment situation of the country, his position on Nigeria exiting recession and other economic issues.
You are a major player in the economy, with chains of businesses. What are actually your businesses?
We are into shipping, banking, insurance. We are also in trading, which is my major traditional profession as an Igbere man, while all of our other businesses that were thriving during the tenure of former President Olusegun Obasanjo have been moved out of Nigeria. This happened when the licenses of Hallmark Bank and Slok Airline were cancelled. We had to move to the region to remove First International Bank, which had been there since 1997, first opened in Gambia and spread to other Aest African countries and the international insurance company, we have investment of all over some insurance companies in Nigeria, some banks and the rest of them, So the major ones that were in control were these two institutions. We are into shipping. We are the largest shipping company in sub Saharan Africa and we are also transporting and supporting oil drilling. It has been ups and downs. Agriculturally, we export cocoa, we export cashew nuts and all major cash crops. We are also into manufacturing with 9,000 workers on the payroll, which is a fairly large group.
You told us you have some of your business outside the shores of Nigeria. As a member of the ruling party, All Progressives Congress, and a very good friend of President Muhammadu Buhari and you have your businesses outside the shores of Nigeria. Would it not count for you and your party and yourself if you bring those businesses back here in Nigeria having 9,000 on your payroll?
(Cuts in ) The 9,000 workers I mentioned are all here in Nigeria and we could have been a larger group if Hallmark Bank was not closed and if the licence was not withdrawn. A bank with 5,000 workers and 33 branches and someone cancelled the licence in one day for political reasons and that takes us to where we are now in Africa. Somebody cancelled an airline with 14 aircrafts of Boeing 737, 400, 500 in a day parked at Murtala Muhammed International Airport and nobody asks questions. So how do you convince people to come and invest in your country when a President can wake up and order the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Ministry of Aviation to cancel licences without due process. I am in court with the Federal Government so I won’t dwell more on the issue because the whole process was totally flawed. There was no offence committed. Just because we disagreed on third term and this is the price I am paying. It was uncalled for to take such action without consideration of the many families that would be affected, that are being fed. Those families are Nigerians. So these are the major issues that discourage investors from building long term businesses in the country. When politicians quarrel in America, they quarrel as politicians. They don’t go about attacking each other’s businesses. They talk about politics face to face. They agree and disagree. They quarrel strictly on politics and they agree and disagree on issues. These are what our political leaders are engaged in, which is not fair at all. They should not channel their grievances to businesses which people make a living from.
What is the secret to your success in business?
To be honest mind you, I have been in business for over 30 years. You should also note that I started very early and I have attained positions which anybody can think of. I was the chairman of your regional bank, which was the largest bank in the late 80s, which is the Cooperative and Commerce Bank. I was the youngest chairman there. When essential commodities were being produced in Imo State, when Abia was yet to be created, I was Chairman of the board, which was also owned by the government in which we were doing business with, that is Nigerian National Supply Company. So I am well experienced as an entrepreneur who used to import rice, sugar and all kinds of commodities. People are no longer interested in working hard. They just want to make money hastily. People just want a miracle. Most people believe that you must make money by stealing when you are in government. Such is not true and it’s not sustainable. You can see people who have worked in government before. If you are not a businessman, you are not a businessman. If you are an entrepreneur, you are an entrepreneur. There are no two ways about it on how you can go about your daily living. So for me, Nigerians have not put in the right attitude that money should be pursued. One of the greatest challenges I have is having a lot of request from people that they need help. This is one of the reasons some people no longer answer their phone calls. Nigerians are forgetting about hard work. Some of them now believe in begging, while some of these requests are purely out of greed. Even families that can feed well still want to beg and beg. People should be learn to make a living within what they earn and that is how a disciplined society can function. I am not saying that there aren’t exceptional or extreme cases when one can help, but in case whereby able bodied men and women sending texts and asking for financial assistance, it’s not a culture for people that want to move forward. Go to Togo, Benin, Conakry, DRC, Botswana and other small African countries that I visit, you will see people are disciplined. You find them pursuing agriculture and other aspects. But here in a situation which everybody wants to come and live in Abuja or Lagos, this is absolutely not ideal. The government is also the cause of the problem. They have not been committed in making provision for small incentives for people who want to start small businesses like small poultry or small farming. People have to get incentives They tell you Bank of Agriculture or Bank of Industry is doing this and that, but some of them are just for the show. Some of their interventions are not practically done. The government has to change their attitude on how to finance these youths and how to provide seed funding because it is important. This is a huge economy that should have no business with hunger and poverty if properly handled. Most of our leaders do not understand the difference between a Micro and Macro economy. So you cannot do it because they don’t understand it. If you don’t understand it, how are you also going to make decision? Instead of fighting for fiscal policy, they are using fiscal policy to fight for things that are not necessary like prices of fuel, food, etc. Leaders should not have any business fighting for what prices of commodities should be. That should be left for the macro forces. Leaders are supposed to checkmate the regulators and compel them to do what is right. Government should introduce the best regulation, which will make people work hard and earn money. There are still a lot of people in our economy who are on the lowest class. We want to see an economy where every year we can raise around 250,000 people from the very poor to the middle class because that is the only way we can sustain this economy. We can’t sustain it by going to talk shows. We can’t sustain the economy by the government planning things that are unrealistic and un-implementable. We must sustain it through the collaboration and cohesion of the private sector. We can sustain it when the government and youths build a common ground. The youths also should be honestly willing to make themselves readily available to take up these jobs. Some of them are not sincere. They take this as a game by going to the Bank of Industry to lend money only to end up squandering it. We were financed in our initial business capital by a bank called NBCI, that is the Nigerian Bank of Commerce and Industry. Let’s ask ourselves: will such bank be willing to give that kind of financing to young people of today? They might misuse the funds. So we need a total overhaul in our system. We need political and business over haul. We also need a social overhaul. The system is collapsing. In my opinion, if we can bring back what President Buhari did before, I’m just saying, because that was under the military regime, is to bring back War Against Indiscipline. There is a lot of indiscipline in the society today. People have refused to obey the courts. People have refused to obey common laws. Even the traffic lights they have refused to obey. For you to excel in business, you must be disciplined. Working in Government for a Governor or Minister that has security vote is different from Orji Kalu the governor and Orji Kalu the entrepreneur. They are not the same. As an entrepreneur, you work and earn money. As a Governor you can have access to security vote to give to the people. In fact, I am preaching that security votes should be removed from governance. Let it just be few contingency funds to solve certain issues. So that people can focus on leadership and stop focusing on sharing money. Ever since people started getting free money, they left entrepreneurship. One of the problems I had when I was governor was that there were so many elites and I was never aware that the military usually gives them money from the government purse and when I came to power I had to put a stop to it that the money belongs to the people. I am one of the very few former governors that can give a complete account of my office and I am not afraid of saying that anywhere I never touched any penny as a governor. I spent the security votes when it was necessary because it was used for the Police, it was used for the army, likewise the SSS. It was also used for some insurance companies to insure the police in the case of any loss or harm. You find out that these things go hand in hand with everyday business. If you are a governor and all the money are spent in the state, it goes to show entrepreneurship. The money trickles down from the one source.
Can we confidently say that we are out of recession?
No we are not out of recession! We are not going to be fully out of recession until possibly the end of 2019.
Is that not discouraging?
You asked me a question right? Or did you ask me to give you an answer that will be sweet to the ears? Well, this is my opinion and it is an entitlement, which God has given to everybody. It might not be that of President Buhari or that of his economic advisers opinion. In my opinion, we are not going to exit recession until towards the end of 2019. Because it’s not going to be easy to cover the loopholes. Although the government is trying its best at bridging the gap, but it cannot be totally bridged. Phasing out recession means that growth will start up again, industrial capacity will be equal to full capacity, the banking industry will start growing at full rate and every business will be thriving and I do not see that coming until towards the middle of 2019. So economists either from the government or private sector telling you we have exited recession is not true. We are gradually exiting recession. As a matter of fact, all Nigerians must commend the government for its effort because they are doing all they can through their various interventions in the economy. Else we shall not be able to exit recession. We keep thinking what is the way out for businessmen because there is hardly any businessman that does not need good roads, talking about the farmers and everybody. Presently, there are no good roads all over Nigeria. This is why when I see some of my brothers complaining, I laugh. Until when they go all over Nigeria. I have taken it upon myself most times. I take a long drive all over Nigeria to see and what I have seen is a decade of abandonment. But it was not started by this government. You know that I am not speaking because I am a member of the APC. I am a man who tells myself the truth. You are from the South South and you know the situation of the East West-Road. So it wasn’t caused by this government. You also know the situation of Enugu-Awka Expressway. It wasn’t caused by this government. You know the situation of Enugu-Okigwe-Umuahia-Aba-Port Harcourt Expressway. It wasn’t this government. This government has just started a reconstruction. So it’s not to say it is politics because I know some of you journalists for every little issue you will put the blame on President Buhari based on the claim that two years have passed. But it is in this same two years the Minister of Power, Works and Housing has started working very hard to see that these roads are fixed. There is a portion of the expressway between Aba and Port Harcourt last two years that place was impassable. People going to Port-Harcourt had to pass through Owerri from Owerri to Elele then to Port Harcourt. But today they can drive straight into Port Harcourt. So it’s a plus. I’m not saying it’s anybody’s fault. It is a result of collapse of national interest, culture and social behaviour. We need total re-orientation of our minds. We can do over a million types of restructuring, if we don’t restructure our minds and attitude nothing meaningful will be achieved. We need to start loving each other and stop the hatred. I will also encourage the President to work with those who worked with him during the election. You can’t win an election and bring in most people who weren’t part of those who worked for your victory. It’s not possible. It’s not going to work. For example, there are some leaders who deserve to be asked to provide a minister. Such a minister would become Buhari’s minister not Orji Kalu’s minister. That is the essence of constitutional/business democracy.
You are also into air transportation. Do you support concession of the airports?
It’s the right thing to do. Government should not have business in doing what some persons are already doing. The Federal Government should not even have anything to do with the airports. They should hand it over back to the states where the airports are. Even the local government authority are supposed to own these airports.
Not the Federal Government?
Yes of course! If we are practicing true democracy. In America who do you think owns the John Kennedy Airport? It’s owned by the New York city. It’s not owned by New York State. We should be ready to practice democracy the way it should be practiced. The Federal Government has a lot of tasks on its hands and they can’t be going into business. Such business will not move forward.
We still import essential food items. As reported by the CBN and the National Bureau of Statistics and even the Agricultural Research Commission of Nigeria, we still import essential food items into Nigeria. Is this the best for the country?
It’s because people are lazy. A situation where our elderly men and women would rather come to Abuja and beg. There is a man from my village. This I’m about to tell you happened four days ago. I was in my hometown Igbere. He came from Aba. This is the honest truth I’m telling you. His whole stock of goods consisted of three dozens of women’s underwears. I asked him to sit down let’s both do some calculation and after the calculation, I told him this is not even enough to be paying the house rent of where you live. Why do you still live there? Why don’t you return to the hometown? I brought another young man to show him this young man is into cultivation and processing of vegetables, cucumber and he lives in my village. We started this project with him like three to four years ago. Currently this young man is purchasing new buses for transportation, employing new people and even training people that are in school. I told him this is the same thing we asked you to come and do, but you refused. You prefer to have the status of living in Aba than to say you live in Igbere my village. But this is the same person, the same funds. Four years ago I gave him N200,000 and I gave the other man N200,000. The one into farming is worth almost N10 million today. It’s as a result of people not knowing what to do. They don’t want to also listen to people who want to direct them. Attention has to paid for people to engage in cultivation of food. If we want to move forward with the rapid growth of our population, we must go the Chinese example in food sufficiency. The Chinese Government realized 30 years ago that going into technology wasn’t going to sustain them. They found out that what would save them would be going back to produce a lot of food, process a lot of food and give to the people and when the people are sufficient with food, then they can go into high tech. A hen cannot stretch both wings at the same time. It must first stretch one before the other. So my advice is for both the young and old, everybody to go back to farming. You see also the propaganda in the media, the social media, the lies you see a commissioner, a minister, a governor, a President lying for what they did not do and the Nigerian people will be giving them accolades. These are things that make us food insufficient. People must be able to save for food.