Dr. Okey Napoleon Iwunwa, a United States-based economist, believes that Nigeria is blessed with the requisite human and material resources to become the true giant of Africa. In this interview with Olisemeka Obeche, Dr Iwunwa proffers solution to Nigeria’s economic malaise and speaks about his recently launched non-profit project- ‘Push-55’. Excerpts:
To many, the 2015 election that produced Muhammadu Buhari as president denotes a breadth of fresh air and opportunity to address impunity in the land. How would you describe this leadership change?
The election has come and gone. President Muhammadu Buhari is now faced with the challenge of delivering on his promises. Experience has shown that while successful elections are necessary, they are not by themselves sufficient for a country to achieve long-term economic and social progress. After campaigning as the anti-corruption, pro-security candidate, Buhari now has a big job to do. To succeed, he will need the support of the international community and Nigerians to steer the country on the path of progress. Just like many other Nigerians, I welcome and honour him and pray that he will be able to fulfil his promises.
What do you consider as the major challenges before the president?
As we have seen, his first order of business has been the country’s rampant corruption, a poison in any democracy. During his campaign, he promised to address alleged multi-billion dollar corruption scandals, which stem largely from mismanagement of the country’s oil reserves. These kinds of scandals weaken Nigeria’s legitimacy both domestically and abroad. Corruption must be addressed at the institutional level by strengthening institutions such as the electoral commission, the National Assembly, political parties and the civil society. All these institutions have important roles to play in tackling corruption.
Another priority will be improving the transparency of government bodies, such as the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), and other revenue generating agencies including the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Nigerian Customs Service among others. So, the issue now is how to fulfil his promises and, more importantly, if he is open to fresh ideas.
What do you consider as key elements the government needs to bring into its policies and programmes to be able to spur sustainable development in Nigeria?
Policies of the future must be different from the ones we live in today. Our policies will need to be different because, as we move through years, we face a new set of socio economic, technological and global forces, unlike those that brought us to where we are today. The renaissance fueled by these forces will dwarf anything we have experienced until now. It will alter dramatically the way we live in our country, their form and function and, most critically, the way we plan and develop them.
At stake is the quality of life, not only for ourselves but also for our children and grandchildren. The federal, state and local governments will need to understand these forces and move one step ahead, using this knowledge to maximize the planning and development process as well as improve the places in which we live. So, this is not just an assignment for Mr. President but for everyone in office today. Only by applying this knowledge can we sustain our communities and derive benefit from an increasingly complex future.
The challenges we face as a nation: economic viability, deteriorating infrastructure, natural disasters, environmental pollution, social disintegration, brain drain, crime and violence, as well as unmanaged growth; can be viewed either as our shared doom or as our common call to action, a universal opportunity to change, improve, and optimize. Sustainable policies are nothing less than the key to optimizing our future.
Most people in the world today have an immediate and intuitive sense of the urgent need to build a sustainable future. Nigerians smell the problem in the air; they taste it in their water; they see it in more congested living spaces and blemished landscapes; they read about it in the newspapers and hear about it on radio and television. Opinion polls and conversations suggest that people now sense that something has gone wrong. The president must find a way to connect himself to the people and let them know what is really going on.
President Buhari’s anti-corruption war has drawn mixed reactions across Nigeria with the opposition crying foul. What is your take on the way this war is being waged?
Of course, anti-corruption war will receive mixed reactions in Nigeria because of the way it is being fought. Corruption did not start a few years ago in Nigeria. Why should you limit the probe to former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration? He should investigate all the past governments since 1999 and also look into the reports of both the Okigbo and Kolade panels. Those who looted should not go free, but everything must be done within the ambit of the rule of law. President Buhari should not continue to create a wrong impression of the good job he intends to do. The rot in the country will take time to be cleansed. If he wants to do that, it will be fair to also look at some of the top members in his party who wielded power in the past administration.
Corruption started during the military government. Former President Obasanjo disclosed how much he recovered from the late General Sani Abacha’s family. Obasanjo himself was involved in the Halliburton scandal. Buhari was part of the Abacha government; he was the executive chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF). There is corruption everywhere but those who succeeded in taming the ugly behaviour in other countries devoted time and built institutions. Why punish the most recent partakers and leave the others who gave birth to them?
But some argue that it is better to start from the most recent cases before expanding it further. Don’t you think so?
Yes, but the fair thing would also be to start from the beginning. Nigerians want to know what actually happened from those years. You cannot say you are fighting corruption when there are people running our oil wells and we do not know how they got them. Who gave them Nigeria’s wealth to hold for the poor masses?
Of course, you can do a great job the bad way. While we appreciate his decision to fight corruption, the fight should reach the doors of men and women on both isles.
Nigeria’s economy is currently in dire strait following the slump in the oil price and dwindling value of the local currency among other challenges. Considering the global economic challenges, do you consider Nigeria’s case so dire?
We are all aware of the dangers of recession but I do not think Nigeria will wake up one day and collapse. It will not happen. I rather think that despite oil slump and the dwindling value of the local currency, the nation still has a few ways to engineer change and experience growth.
President Buhari and his team need to stop telling people that the past administration had doomed the nation. The nation is suffering more from political drama than economic drama. You cannot fix economic problems with political solutions, and definitely not by caging only a few people while leaving the rest to walk as kings. So, if we are not careful, we will slump even deeper because the people are confused more than ever before. And what is happening to oil prices affects Nigeria because of our dependence on oil revenues. It will not crush Nigeria except we allow it.
Are there opportunities in this economic situation that Nigeria can tap from?
Yes, there are. Every problem comes with a solution. Every wise person also knows that problems are created by errors of one sort or the other, locally or internationally, and that in finding solutions, we also discover that even the problem itself can become the tool for growth. Problems help to create awareness. It wakes the people up to become more attentive, sensitive, and even creative and innovative. It opens up their minds to think outside the box.
In the case of Nigeria, we must now learn not to depend so much on oil alone but diversify the economy, change our taste and rethink how we do business. We must also believe in made-in-Nigeria products and start to industrialize our country.
What are the best options for Nigeria to wriggle out of economic malaise?
Nigeria is blessed not just with oil but also with massive land. From North to the South, Nigeria can rely on agriculture and create a new revenue source. We must curb our dependence on oil. This is dangerous. We do not control what happens in the oil market but we can control what happens in agriculture, especially domestically. We must teach, preach, inspire and empower Nigerians to get involved in agriculture. It is a very broad field. It is more than growing food and selling food. Agriculture is as wide as oil and even wider.
Colleges and universities must be supported to engage in research and development in the area of agriculture. Graduates and students must be encouraged to get involved and those that do so should be rewarded. We must use what we have on our hands to win the battle ahead of us. The solution is to turn to the earth and pay attention to the resources therein.
When I wrote to the past administration, I suggested that they setup a youth endowment fund in five key areas. Agriculture was one of them. We talked about several other ways and I even pledged to give my time and service if they would ask me, but after several conversations and correspondences, the matter ended.
Another area is small scale manufacturing. We must turn Nigeria into a factory zoo. We should be producers, fabricators, manufacturers and not just consumers. The way we are today is our own fault. We are reaping the fruits of our negligence. Let us focus on manufacturing- from plastics to metal, food and house wares. This nation must become Africa’s center for manufactured products.
To achieve this, the leaders and the people must begin to think out of the traditional box and understand that development is not when you build roads and town hall for the people, but when you set up and support life-transforming programmes.
Nigeria has one of the largest Diaspora pools in the continent that can assist in the development of this country. Do you think the new government can attract Nigerians in Diaspora to invest back home?
First is for the government to recognize that it has such people and be willing to make use of them. The fact that we have them without making use of them does not make sense. It angers those people in the Diaspora. We have people in every area that know what to do, but the political atmosphere in Nigeria is scary. No one wants to return to a people who would not make use of his or her talent but subdue the person.
Any policy on paper must also tag along with change in the mindset of the leaders we are returning home to meet. Some of us would like to do more for the nation. For example, I recently launched PUSH55 to support underprivileged children and widows in Nigeria. The project aims to raise about N7billion.
“PUSH-55 Challenge” kicked-off in Nigeria and around the world on January 10, 2016. What’s the goal of this project?
PUSH55 kicked off slowly in Nigeria on January 10, this year. Since then I have been struggling alone and with few friends to promote it around the country and on social media. But it is a programme born out of need and most importantly, out of love for my country, Nigeria.You are all aware of the Ice-bucket challenge that took place in USA in 2014. Push55 is similar to it. The difference is that PUSH means that people should do exercise push-ups, while the number 55 represents the age of Nigeria. The objective is to get Nigerians to get involved in helping themselves. Just as the world rallied up to support Ice-bucket, I want Nigerians and friends around the world to rally support for the millions of neglected, abandoned and underprivileged children. I looked at our country and saw the high rate of armed robbery, kidnapping and other crimes. I also know that these kids will soon become targets for terror recruiters.
In addition to these millions of neglected children and youths, there are other millions of disadvantaged widows that have been stripped their rights and means of livelihood. PUSH55 is for such people. We are raising money to build six vocational training skills centers around the country- a center in each of the geo-political zones. We want to give them a new life and by doing so, we save our own lives.