Igbinedion’s Confession At 60: There Is No Greener Pasture Than Nigeria
How it feels to be sixty.
Well it is very exciting; I feel much fulfilled, very happy and very energetic, I give God all the glory for good health, happiness, fulfilment, good family, good wife and good children, father and mother; brothers and sisters. All round, I really feel the grace of God has been upon me and my family.
On May 13, if you are to stand before your father and mother to tell them that that boy of 1957 has become a man, what specific things will you thank them for?
I will thank them first foremost for education. I will thank them for their prayers, for their blessing, encouragement and for their sleepless nights to ensure that the lord goes before me in all my endeavours and for giving me genuine advice, because without all these, one cannot be where one is today. One advice that I always give to my children is the advice that my dad gave me, which actually was a guiding principle all my life. One day, he took me in his car, I was very young then and still in the primary school. He said, son, we are going to drive around to show me some of his properties. He said, but all these do not belong to you, so you should not even think about it. What I owe you is your education, any school in the world no matter how expensive it is, I will pay for it and that is the same thing for your siblings. That stuck in my mind and that is what I teach my children and other children from well to do homes. Your parents can decide to will away their properties. Look at Bill Gates, for instance; he has given 85 percent of his money to charity. So you must walk your own path and for you to carve your own path education is the bedrock of your future. I will thank them for that mostly.
As a little boy growing up, were there dreams that you had which are today not fulfilled?
That is a tricky one. Of course we always have dreams we never stop dreaming. It is always said that if you can dream it, you can achieve it. Truly I must give thanks to God that a lot of my dreams are achieved and a lot is still in the pipelines that are achievable. So just like the advice I give to the young ones, just be focused and keep on trotting, just be like the clock, keep on ticking and keep on marching forward. We have dreams, but all in all I am truly grateful to God, grateful to my immediate family, my wife, who has been a strong pillar of support, full of understanding. I think she is one woman that has been very supportive. Of course my children, who have been very obedient, I have never had cause to lose sleep over them or have tension. My mother is always prayerful wherever I go, her prayers get there before I get there. My dad, a fantastic guy; always very supportive and encouraging and accommodating, he is a man with a large heart. He has his wife that makes him happy I wish to extend my felicitations to her because if my dad were not happy at home, he would not have had the settled mind to extend his love to all his children, grand children and great grand children.
Usually, growing up in such a wonderful family, as the Esama’s, carries a lot of burden, how did you grapple with having such a large surname?
There is no doubt a lot of responsibility comes along with a big name and a lot of self discipline is required, a lot of leadership role is required because, not just being the eldest son, but also being a leader of men, of course men, include women in a generic term. So, I have to be a model, not just to my siblings, but also to my children, grand children and also make my parents proud and continue to be proud. It carries a lot of responsibilities, which I am happy to shoulder, which am glad I have been able to shoulder and I believe the foundation that has been laid by my father, the good example that has been laid through his hard work and discipline, has impacted well on my life positively.
At a point even when you saw that your father had made remarkable impact in business and industry, you decided to chart your own course, why did you make such a radical decision?
I did not want to be a spoilt brat. I did not want to grow up thinking that my father has it all, then I should be lazy, just depending on him or be praying for the day he should pass the baton unto me. It was therefore only appropriate that I should chart my own course. In as much as I assist him and he assists me, it is always good to cast your net wider. And there are things and areas I specialized in and I am glad I have been successful in my pursuit, both politically and business wise. I keep on telling people that I enjoy the private sector more, because I feel I am impacting on the lives of people better, even more directly by creating jobs. When I visit some of my organisations, I see the number of people I am empowering, the number of people I am employing, the number of families I am helping to put food on the table, and the number of people I make to get up in the morning and go to work, knowing that they are going to make positive contributions to the welfare of their families, it gives me so much satisfaction. So, there are two broad areas-public sector and the private sector-and I have served and still serving in both of them. Like I always tell people, even the private sector is politics. But I have chosen to focus on the path of the private sector, because I believe that is what we really need in this country to encourage the private sector because government cannot do everything alone. So government should just make policies and create enabling environment whereby people can feel happy to bring their investment or retain their investments and capital here. Circulate that capital here and establish more industries. I am happy about where I am in my life, I am very satisfied, and I give God the glory.
What happened at that point when you decided to chart your own path, how much support or discouragement did you receive from your father?
I can say my father also encouraged me. I got back from the US in December 1983, I believe that year there was a coup, of course I went for my mandatory NYSC, 1984/85, then I worked in Okada Air. It was while working in Okada Air that one day he called and said, some people are suggesting that you should come and become council chairman. My first reaction was, No I don’t want to get into politics, so I ran away to Lagos, because Okada Air was flying and I was managing the airline then. I think on the very morning of the day of close of nominations, he now called me and said, my son, what is your final decision, what do you want to do, because they are closing nomination today for the local council election. So I said, well, what do you want me to do? He said, as your father I will advise you to give it a shot. I said okay. It was then that I entered the plane back to Benin that morning. That was the day I filled my form and my political journey started. So that is why I said he kind of encouraged me to deviate from his own path to cast a wider net for the family and I am glad I have been able to create that additional value.
But looking back now, would you say that your sudden departure led to the grounding of Okada Air?
No, I would not say my departure had anything to do, because Okada was a solid airline. It is the government that creates the enabling environment; it was government that created the environment that was no longer conducive. Just like what happened to Arik recently. It is government that created the environment that was no longer conducive, because once you start having multiple taxation, you make it hard for businesses to flourish. For instance, by encouraging tribalism, regionalism and other forms of parochial advantages or disadvantages businesses die. Okada Air had 747, we were given licence to start flying international route, the aircraft was parked here (in Abuja) suddenly they said no, you cannot go. Why? Just because of internal politics. We had professionals that were able to run the business, but the policies that were put in place were not just conducive to encourage indigenous airlines as we are having now. I am sorry for the airlines that are operating now, because just two years ago, they were buying dollar may be for N150, now they have to buy dollar at N350 and above, yet you cannot jack up the fare that way. You then contend with all manner of taxes. FAAN will come and collect their money, national aerospace will come, government will come and then of course, the cost of fuel and spare parts, there is none that is manufactured locally, everything is in dollar. One thing about airlines is that once you fly whether it is one or one hundred passengers, you must pay the captain and the cabin crew. If they stay overnight somewhere, you must pay them overnight allowance, you must pay their hotel bill.
When you veered into politics, you did not march with the steps of a novice; what actually led to the formation of reality 1999?
Reality came against the background that when they were doing the Abacha transition, I did not believe in the process. That was when you hear such names as DPN, GDM and others, which the late Bola Ige described as five fingers of a leprous hand. People were coming to me to come and join; I said I won’t come, because I didn’t believe in glorifying any particular person. I said if we were going to have a progressive nation, people should be allowed to vote for who they wanted to vote for, even though I am an advocate of two party system, because all these multiplicity of parties causes a lot of confusion and fractionalization, disaffection and instability. So when Abacha finally gave up, Gen Abubakar came up and said he wanted to run the programme for nine months. I was one of the first persons that came out to say yes I am ready now. So I threw my weight fully behind PDP. That is how I became part of the transition
What did you see in Abubakar’s transition that was absent in Abacha’s?
I believed in him because he said he was coming to stay for nine months. He was not like the military hierarchy that wanted to continue to play games. So once he said he was going to stay for that number of months and laid down his programmes, I said here is a fine officer and gentleman that believes in Nigeria and will not want any controversy. He just wanted to return the country back to democracy. So, I believed in his transition programme and I must give him commendation and all the accolades. The democracy we are enjoying today is because of his sincerity of purpose.
Having gone back to your first love, which is the private sector, how do you find Nigeria’s business environment presently?
It is tough, but I cannot run away from my country. All my investments are here; my family’s investments are here. I am a Nigerian and I believe in the project Nigeria. We have the resources to grow, but I still believe that the basic infrastructure must be there or given some incentives by government.
Until we start having steady constant power, we really cannot progress. Until we have good transportation system- road, rail and air transportation, we cannot develop. So, government can give encouragement even to the private sector to make sure that they succeed. For example, in the power sector, you see the DISCOS are blaming the GENCOS, GENCOS are blaming the bulk traders, and gas suppliers are waiting for their money from the GENCOS. There must be that coordination between the various providers of power, because power is the basic and most necessary infrastructure that we must have. Once we have that, a situation where you spend 30 percent of your revenue on diesel will be arrested. That revenue can be spent on yourself and even reinvest some of it for other cottage businesses. So it is tough, but not insurmountable. Government should try and ensure that good business environment is provided. Even for you to get road and railway, you need power. So power is number one priority. Government should truly focus on power generation and supply.
The sentiment out there is that people like you would have made it better and bigger outside the country, were you tempted to stay abroad?
No, because I have a very strong family tie. When I got my masters degree, the following day I left the US. So I never had that option of having to stay back in America, it would not have been a problem, but the thought never crossed my mind because my dad never gave me that latitude to even think of staying back then. I enjoy travelling, but basically I don’t have investments outside the country but I have business partners overseas. All my investments are here because I believe in the project Nigeria, my father’s investments are here, even my brothers’, all of us; they are here because Nigeria belongs to all of us. We must come back to develop it and do what we have to do. So I never thought about living outside the country.
But nowadays you hear how thousands of African youth, particularly Nigerians, risk it and do all manners of things in a bid to get out, thinking that the streets of Europe are paved in gold, what can you say to this calibre of young people?
There is no greener pasture than Nigeria. For the young ones growing up, I will say it is always better to familiarize yourself with your locality where you know people. As the saying goes, if you want to find out about where you are going, the best way to know what is happening there is to find out from people that are already coming back. If you want to know how the road ahead is, the best way to find out is from people on their way back. So I will say Nigeria is such a great country and when I hear of the suffering and indignities our people go through in Europe, US, and even Asia, I feel so sad. It is disheartening, because by the time they get there, they waste much time and are ashamed to come back as such they go through all sorts of humiliation and discomfort whereas here you still have friends and relations. We have that kind of society that we help ourselves, but there nobody is going to help you. At the end of every month, your bill is due, if you don’t pay they start putting papers under your door if you don’t pay the next thing they lock it. Then you go to court, they blacklist you so credit is ruined. My word to the younger ones is first of all be focused, get educated. Education is a lasting legacy that nobody can take away from you. Once you do that, find an area of interest, because you should be working and happy in what you do. You should be earning and happy, so once you are able to identify those things that make you happy, there is nothing that does not make money in this world, even cleaning. If you are a cleaner and you carry out research on how best to do that cleaning, offices including banks will start calling on you to come and help them with their cleaning, even private homes will also invite you.
Everybody is significant in society, whether you are a cleaner, driver, banker, messenger; everybody has a role to play. But chose to do it well, with all your heart, present yourself properly as a professional, I think that is what we are lacking. People are not doing their job with pride. If you are a chef, be proud of being a chef and be good at it. Dress accordingly and present yourself in a manner that people would want to come back. So my advice is find your area of interest and stick to it, be focused do more research on how to improve in your area of interest.