*Says he foresaw capital market crash
By Dapo Akinrefon, Charles Kumolu & Gbenga Oke
Economist, newspaper columnist and public affairs commentator, Dr. Dele Sobowale, was 70 years old last Thursday. Sometimes pugnacious, Sobowale is, however, almost always persuasive in his writings on politics, the economy and current affairs. Ahead of his 70th birthday, he sat down to talk on the lessons of life in a session with Sunday Vanguard.
What has life taught you at 70?
Life has taught me several things. As you are aware, I compiled the Vanguard Book of Quotations. Before compiling the book, I had to read about 6,000 books. I read documentaries, manuscripts among others. It took me almost 14 years before the book came out. The first thing is that no matter how long you live in this world, you can’t know everything. And you don’t know much of everything. In fact your knowledge is limited. Having that feeling that knowledge is limited should make everyone to always read more and learn more. No matter how much you try, you can never know enough. One should have basic principles that he should be known for, so that, at any point in time, people who know you can vouch for you in your absence or presence. Though establishing that pattern of life takes a lot of time. Either way, one must be consistent in his principles and he must live them. The matter of not taking people at face value is also among the things life has taught me, especially politicians. It does not only apply to Nigerian politicians. It applies to politicians everywhere. Most politicians are not in politics for public service. They are there because of their interests. They are the same all over the world. It is advisable to take everything that a politician tells you with a pinch of salt. Sometimes what they tell you they are going to do is not what they will eventually do. All my life I have always taken public servants and politicians with a pinch of salt, no matter who they are.
The re-basing of Nigeria’s economy put it that Nigeria has the biggest economy in Africa. Is it reflective of the situation in the country?
Re-basing of the economy is something that should have been done a long time ago. Re-basing is something that should be done every five years. The one before the recent one was done in 1975. If it had been done every five years, we would have established that our economy had overtaken that of South Africa long before now. It is the sudden jump that made people to disbelieve it. What it did not do for the Nigerian economy is that it did not make individuals richer. It did not make Nigeria richer than it was intrinsically. The reason is that, in the past, we did not bring in most of our economic activities into our GDP calculations. We do a lot of things in Nigeria which are not done elsewhere. We have a very large invisible trade, which includes prostitution, street trading, drug trafficking. These people make a lot of money. The public officers, who collect bribe, actually collect money that is not declared. We have things like large subsistence farmers, whose consumables were not previously counted as part of our GDP. What it has done for us is that it showed that oil is not necessarily the largest part of our economy. It showed that if only we concentrate in developing other aspects of our economy, we will even be much richer than half a trillion. We failed to do that because we are all worshipping oil. We could be better than we are but we are not getting there. I can’t see anything that is being done at the moment to actually move us in the direction that we should be moving.
You write authoritatively on economics and politics. We will like to know how a marketer like you became a celebrated public commentator?
I invited myself into Vanguard. In 1985 and !986, I was receiving all the papers as a marketing manager. I discovered in the business pages that much was not being done. So, I wrote to the editor of Vanguard then and told him that enough was not being done on the business pages. I later got a letter from him telling me to write three articles. I wrote the articles and forgot about them. After a while, I was called by a friend who told me he read my articles in Vanguard. That same day, Vanguard correspondent in Kano came to tell me that his editor said I should write more articles. I had to write more that I sent to Lagos. I was doing that without knowing where Vanguard was. I did not also know that people were being paid for writing articles. One day I came to Lagos and decided to come to Vanguard office. I met the editor and the publisher differently. Uncle Sam (the publisher) asked why I had been writing for three years without bothering to collect my money. He said cheques were being raised and cancelled. That was how I became part of the Vanguard family after which I later took up appointment in the company.
At 70, when you look back, do you think there were things you would have done differently?
If I knew then when I was growing up what I know now, I would have read history.
If people do not know what happened in the past, they stumble around in the present and are likely to miss their way in the future. Even on my Sunday Vanguard pages, I dwell on things that are economic. For instance, last November, I predicted on the pages of Sunday Vanguard that the capital market was going to experience a crash, it started happening soon thereafter. This will be the third time that I have predicted that the capital market will suffer a loss. Again, why? It is because there are historical precedents to what happens.
When certain things happen, government takes measures that almost invariably will lead to the crash of the capital market. So, when those government policies start changing, I start to look at the trend. Where would this lead us? Invariably, where it will lead us is that the stock market will crash. Some investors will simply take their money out of the market, companies will start to perform badly and once the results come out and the performance is not so good, then the share prices will start falling.
History, allied with economics, enables you to be able to predict certain things that will happen in the future. So, if I had my way, I would have read history; secondly, if the media could be so exciting and powerful, I would have joined early. I think I started too late.
Does it form part of your regrets at 70?
Yes, because I should have started early and retired early (laughs). But that is the main thing. The other thing I think I would regret most is that I was in Sokoto State until 1990 where I had a rice mill and I was the General Manger of one of the largest rice milling companies. I went into it because the Babangida administration said it was going to ban rice importation. When I was still grappling with that one, the head of our family died. I had to abandon my rice investment in Sokoto State and came to Lagos as the head of the Sobowale family.
In 1990, I was the only Sobowale of my generation left; infact, I was the head of the family at the age of 46. Nobody was older than myself; I inherited children from six families. At the age of 46, I had 37 children to bring up, but that was not my fault. Today, I have, at least, 27 graduates out of all those kids.
Which day would you describe as your most memorable day?
I documented it in a book I wrote during Abacha regime, entitled, ‘Let me have the bones’. I went to a party in Ikoyi, and there was this man who came with his dog to the party. We were eating and drinking, the man would feed his dog with chunks of chicken. There was this little boy in rags who was begging and people were driving him away. At the end of the day, the boy could not stand it again and he said, ‘Baba, I am not even asking for chicken, just give me the bones’. I wrote it in Vanguard.
If there is one article I remember most, it is, ‘just give me the bones’. Of course, I had to arrange for the boy to be given food to eat, but it showed how easy it is for people who are comfortable not to know that there is poverty in the land and how easy it is for us to ignore poor people even while staring them at the face.
So, I went home that day and I made up my mind, long before Obasanjo’s regime, that in my neighbourhood, nobody will ever come to my house and ask for food or money and be turned away. It is a pathetic issue and it was really striking.
You have written so much on good governance in Nigeria, but the country is still in the doldrums. What does the state of the nation mean to you?
The state of the nation is pathetic. Everybody can repeat what has been done and what we are not doing now. I always say to people that I am not fighting for myself because I have had a good life. All these things are not for myself. We must continue to fight because poverty can be reduced. Poverty can be reduced substantially if only we can take certain steps. For whatever that is worth, we have 774 local governments across Nigeria, you can as well argue whether Lagos has 20 or more, when we look at these figures, we can now formulate how poverty alleviation can play a role in our society.
By the time you start empowering Nigerians through wards over a period of time, you will realize how many people have lived above poverty line. It is a huge project because if the Federal government is taking 10 persons per ward and the state government is taking two, we would have lifted several people above poverty line. But the way it is done now when government buys Keke Napep and gives to people and calls it empowerment, it is not properly documented and no follow up; once they give the tricycle, that is the end.
The same government that gave them the tricycle will tomorrow ban then from moving round and they are being arrested by mobile policemen. The state must be interested in developing people and not just giving them tricycle and then abandoning them to their fate. There are several senators or governors, wives that have given bikes as empowerment programme to people and, a year after, government bans bikes. So where do those people go to?
Does being a columnist bring any pressure on you?
Not really. Pressure comes if you don’t have principles. Before I write any article, the first thing I do is conduct a research first on that topic. Also, I ask myself where the public interest lies, which position is more in tandem with the people.
Let me give you an example on the issue of Boko Haram: I have been one of the critics of President Goodluck Jonathan but, on Boko Haram, I am 100% his ally.
When you look at the activities of Boko Haram, my feeling is that, Boko Haram is on one side, Mr President and the military are on the other side; so where does my interest lie? Never mind the fact that Mr President might not be doing enough as expected, whether our military is doing their best the way they should do, never mind whether the security operatives are doing their best or not; the question to ask is whether to comfort Boko Haram or encourage the President and the forces.
My feeling is that it is better to encourage Jonathan and the armed forces despite the shortcomings because if we don’t strengthen them, we are all going to regret it. When I write the column, I go home and sleep; if I receive text messages that I have been bought over by Mr. President, I just say ‘thank you, go and write your own so that you can be bought too. Uncle Sam gives his columnists the best opportunity and you can hardly get that anywhere.
What is the Nigeria of your dream?
Nigeria might have been re-based but I hope the rebasing will turn out to be a guide just to the future of where we should be. We claim to be bigger than the South African economy, but go and read today’s papers and see which countries invest most in Nigeria. You will realize that it is the United States, United Kingdom and South-Africa. We say we are wealthier than South-Africa, but they are the ones investing more here.
They own DSTV, Shoprite, MTN and several other companies. Even one big bank in South-Africa has more assets than all our top five banks in Nigeria. Yes we have a potentially big economy which could provide employment for more people than we have now but we are not yet there. We cannot fund most things today because the income distribution in this country is very poor, there is no state in Nigeria that cannot increase its Internally Generated Revenue, IGR, by paying more attention to collecting rents from those high rise buildings. If President Jonathan says redistribution of wealth is our problem, let him start it by going to places like Maitama, Asokoro, let him find out what people are paying and how much they should be paying and they should use it to develop the country.
Give low income housing; that is how to distribute wealth; it is not all about giving money to people; poverty is not just lack of money, it is a matter of lack of access to basic necessities of life. You need to breathe to stay alive. Poverty alleviation programme must start with the provision of food, water and shelter; health facilities. Once you reduce the hardship people face on these basic things, you are now reducing poverty. The other ones include access to education.
Do you see the National Conference addressing some of our major problems in Nigeria?
The confab is already addressing some of our problems. Various committees are already addressing some of the issues. The fear I have is that the recommendations of the conference might not see the light of the day; it might turn out to be a fruitless exercise. I think the fundamental issues of federalism have not been properly addressed, there is still too much power at the centre and the problem of derivation is hanging. The committee on derivation has proposed another formula but that formula is not binding on the Federal Government and the Federal Government might not even accept it and if the Federal Government does not accept it, where does that lead minerals and oil producing states?
My detention story
I used to publish my column on Mondays until 1994 during the Abacha regime. How did I start writing Sunday column? One day, I was at the office writing and Uncle Sam came to my office and asked don’t you write a column for us on Sunday’ and my take on it was to say, ‘I am an economist and I don’t want general commentary’. He enquired, ‘Don’t you feel anything’, and I said I will write if he promised to publish the article. Uncle Sam said it will be published if it was not defamatory or libellous.
So, I wrote the first in August 1994 and that very Sunday the first article came out, I was very happy. It was then that I launched into Sunday commentary during the Abacha administration and I have always been against military government; even that first article raised questions from friends whether I was not biting too much. During the Babangida administration, I went to detention three times. I wrote one stinker about the CBN policy and the then Governor of CBN, Ahmed, got me arrested; they queried why I had to write such things against the CBN.
During the Abacha era, I was there four times. In fact, one of the arrests took place at the Vanguard premises. Most of the other arrests happened in the house. In those days, either Al- Mustapha or General Diya will sign the arrest order. But most of the time, when you are arrested, you don’t even know who signed it. The first three times under Abacha was a warning that I will be dealt with but the last time was very serious. That time, some journalists were already bombed in Kaduna and, when I was arrested in this office, they took me away. At that time, government was even denying that they were holding me, they claimed they were not holding me. When I got to the prison, some of the inmates said only God knew when I will be dispatched with. They told me once you enter that particular prison, you are on your way to kingdom come!