By Sam Eyoboka and Olayinka Latona
APOSTLE (Dr.) Hayford Ikponmwonsa Alile, pioneer Director General/Chief Executive Officer, Nigeria Stock Exchange, NSE, served on the Board of the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, for six years after his 24-year-stint at the NSE. In this interview, the spiritual leader of St. Joseph’s Chosen Church of God, SJCCG, throws his weight behind the sale of the nation’s assets to reverse economic recession. Excerpts…
As Nigeria celebrates another independence anniversary, what’s your assessment of the last 56 years of this country?
Nigeria is a very blessed country. But, unfortunately, we are very stubborn as a people and we have lost quite a lot of things that God earmarked for us. We have lost great opportunities. For 56 years now, our political leaders ought to have been on the right track but this has not been so. Meanwhile, quite a lot of our spiritual leaders in the country are working very hard to ensure that our political leaders walk on the right track.
What were the aspirations of the nation’s founding fathers?
Quite naturally, when you send a child to school, you are expecting his report card to give you some joy. I’ll say very few of our political leaders have been able to do things that make us happy. The expectations of Nigerians are simple and include good food. It’s only recently that our leaders are beginning to realise that we need to eat. Nigerians are generally very generous people. When they see other people who are not eating and drinking well, they will share with them, but, unfortunately, we are not eating and drinking well. I won’t say our leaders don’t care, but they simply didn’t know that we are not eating and drinking well. They have money, so they can always buy food for themselves and their families which is rather unfortunate.
We had great opportunities like you just mentioned. At what point did we miss it? Was it at the foundation level or somewhere along the line?
We don’t have to put the blame on timing, it’s all the way. It’s rather unfortunate. That’s where I also feel sad but I don’t want to lay the blame on anybody. It’s on all of us. Children today will be wondering why grown-ups like us cannot do the right thing but, unfortunately, all of us to a great extent are guilty. I believe we still have the opportunity to correct the situation.
Today, Nigeria is in recession with inflation hitting an all-time high of 17.6% and over 550,000 people jobless, while government is unable to pay salaries. How did we get to this mess?
In 1960, Nigeria was doing well but we got it all wrong because of the emergence of petroleum and the rent we collected from it made us to forget the developmental curve we were supposed to go through. Instead of developing the agricultural sector, we ignored it.
In the late 1970s, we betrayed ourselves to think we are an industrial economy and forgot agriculture. In early 1980s, we started to import all manner of foods ranging from cassava to rice, fish and so on and so forth. We even started to import palm oil from Malaysia. After going through this valley, we now began to recognize that 70 per cent of our population is still in the rural areas and, unfortunately, the predominance of the 70 per cent are our grandfathers and grandmothers who cannot cultivate the land any longer.
The youths have abandoned the rural areas for the urban centres, looking for jobs in the industrial sector. I think we have done badly by jumping the developing curve to declaring ourselves an industrial economy. I just hope that the interventions being carried out in the agricultural sector will be properly managed to take us out of the woods.
I believe we have the promise of God. He has every reason to support us out of it, but we certainly will have to learn some lessons and, in learning the lessons, God will leave us to bite our tongues and endure the pains a little bit so that we will learn. God has so much love for this country. He is prepared to bail us out but I believe He will let us suffer a little.
As young boys in the universities, we knew that some of our fathers and mothers were very much interested in eating and drinking well and they never thought that we would go through this experience. We had very strong leaders in Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Ahmadu Bello. I think their mistake was focusing on their own people instead of focusing on Nigerians which created a lot of pains and bitterness amongst our leaders in those days. Many youths of my age were not happy with what was going on in Nigeria. We were in our teens and twenties and we thought we were learning, but we never learnt. It’s very unfortunate.
Very many of the things we achieved were actually derived from agriculture—groundnut, cocoa, rubber, palm oil….
Unfortunately, our leaders did not lead us well. A lot of our young people were anxious to follow but our leaders did not lead them well. It’s unfortunate a lot of our leaders did not think it was nice to go to the farm. I’m in my late 70s now and I must tell the truth to my environment; and the truth is that we were not prepared by our leaders to do the right thing in this country.
Was that borne out of selfishness or what?
To a certain extent, yes selfishness. I could remember when I was Secretary General of the National Union of Nigerian Students, our President, R. Solaja, took to the side of the cane. Not that he was beating his colleagues but he spared no effort to tell them that this is our country and nobody was going to fix it for us. We were making noise, telling our political leaders that things were not right. They were prepared to lock us up and we were prepared to be locked up. I look back to those days and I shed tears. It’s unfortunate but that’s the truth.
After my second year at University of Ibadan, I became the Secretary-General of NUNS. It was a wonderful year for me, because in that position you couldn’t go to class any more as social and political issues of the land were top priority for us. For example, during the 1963 national census, I was asked to manage the rebellion of students against the conduct of the census, because it was fraught with irregularities. Also, the issue of Anglo-Nigerian Defense Pact was not palatable to students and I had to do something about it.
We lost a year or two when we came back. Not that they sent us to jail but they made sure that we made no progress academically. I was ready to go back to school, but some of our leaders were not prepared to understand what we were talking about. Some of them understood what we were talking about and joined us but the others didn’t. I would say till today, a lot of our student leaders are taking money from government and they don’t make up their mind to say they should give some sense of leadership to their country.
Even the first coup, which resulted from similar agitations with the young military boys attempting to right the wrongs of our politicians, did the attempt succeed in correcting the wrongs?
Unfortunately it did not fully right the wrongs. There were some of the military boys who were prepared to do the right things, but there were also many of them who were not; and were only anxious to take power from politicians without knowing what to do with the power. I’m quite sure our colonial masters were laughing at us and they are still laughing at us.
What was student unionism like in your time compared to what we have today?
Student unionism in those days was carried out with a high sense of patriotism. Most of the student leaders in those days did not trust our political leaders. They could see them pocketing money and were not happy with that. Our concern was about our country and Africa.
You saw the continental leadership role of Nigeria and you desired to promote that but the then political leaders were not ready. How did activism affect your studies?
It adversely affected my studies but I was very good in physics and mathematics and i could have done better. It got to a stage when our (students) leaders decided that some of us should go abroad as NUNS ambassadors. I had to attend the American Students Union yearly assembly. The American students’ leadership knew too that their leaders were not doing well and they supported us to a great extent.
Solaja, our President, and Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi, our Vice President for International Affairs, among others, thought that I should stay overseas and act as our ambassador to America, Canada and South America. From there, I was sending reports to our people that things were not good for the future leaders like us. It was a tough and painful experience.
None of you was arrested at that point?
Some of the student leaders were arrested. But we knew what we were doing.
Today, people are suggesting ways out of the economic recession. What do you think?
Every country sells assets if it’s necessary and beneficial. You sell some, not the key ones. When they take the key ones, they will only sell them to their friends here and abroad. There are some assets we can sell. I think we have people who can identify those assets. If our President is allowed a free hand, he will do well in identifying those people.
Some people say we should sell Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas and some joint venture companies. Do you support of that?
Yes, as long as we open our eyes to do the right thing. How much are we owing? It’s not too much. We can take a portion of our hydrocarbon and sell to get adequate liquidity. We can borrow money from outside. Everybody is borrowing money. You don’t know how much America is owing? You borrow the money and use it well. I’m quite sure there are a lot of Nigerians who love this country, who are prepared to borrow us this money and we apply it properly.
There are two things now; borrowing and selling assets. Some people’s argument is that we should sell assets so that we don’t go borrowing…
Certainly, you will borrow. Certainly you will sell some assets but have a balance. Every country borrows. But don’t borrow to a level where your neck is tied by some people who don’t want us to see freedom.
But there are some other Nigerians who believe that if we sell assets today because we want to get out of recession, if there’s another recession in another 15 or 20 years, what are we going to sell?
By that time, we would have generated surplus. You don’t just go selling, it’s a circle. You modulate that circle in such a way that you are never going to fall into a pit. Move it gradually out of the deep and sell some, use some for your people. We have to manage our resources, and Nigerians are very good managers. It’s possible that there could be some of our identified managers that could not perform. It is for them to evaluate themselves. In fact, if I was in the cabinet and my name is mentioned by road sweepers, I would be the first to resign.
There are lots of ways we can contribute to Nigeria’s future. When I left Stock Exchange, nobody told me I had stayed there for too long. I told them I wanted to go into other things and my friend, Chief Sanusi, then Governor of Central Bank, immediately asked me to join their Board. It was a three – year appointment. Before we finished the third year, it was renewed. In Stock Exchange, the salary was neither here nor there. We had to build ourselves. We were determined not to go to government or anybody to take money. Work for it, let your name be there that you set up Stock Exchange and delivered the country from shortage of money.
Do you advise President Buhari to reshuffle his cabinet so that there can be some semblance of seriousness to tackle the economy?
To be very frank with you, I have not given it serious thought. One thing that every political leader should know is that a cabinet can be changed any time. You as a leader may not know what is going on because you did not do all the feasibility studies before accepting the leadership role. After some months, you begin to ask questions. You should be able to accept what is good for every one of us in this country. Let’s do it.
Will you say the Buhari’s administration has fared well?
When he was Head of State, he was a man who could make physical and personal sacrifices. He was a man who could say ‘this is not working well’. And now he took up a very big challenge of the situation that is worse than the time he was Head of State and he could see it. To hire, he has to take a decision, and when he does that, he will live longer and all of us will clap for him. The way it is now when I read some of the papers and I see how people are commenting on President Buhari, we are not happy and I’m quite sure he will do something.
Some Nigerians believe the President has not learnt much lesson. They say some of the decisions he has taken thus far in this administration are similar to some of the decisions he took as a military Head of State. Is this a correct assessment?
This is not a correct assessment in the sense that a lot of issues that are popping up today, few of them reared their heads when he ran the place before. A lot of the things that will make this country turn around quickly are not accessible to him. I’d say we have to double the cabinet by bringing first class people who are prepared to make sacrifices.
Are you saying to the President to look around the country irrespective of tribe, religion and seek experts that can turn things around?
Yes. And those people don’t necessarily have to belong to any political party; they have to belong to Nigeria. There are lots of people who love this country. If he discovers five to seven new hands in different areas, he should take some of them. At the end of the day, he has been elected by you and I to take care of this country and he swore to it and I know a little bit about Buhari, he will be prepared to die to make sure that this thing is solved in his regime.
Because of recession, we are now talking about diversification of the economy. What will you say is the problem of this country?
Thank God we have seen the result of depending solely on oil. Our prayer now is that God should help us to learn and apply lessons from what we have seen so far. I’m quite sure when powerful people are dragging the rope tied to the waist of oil and they are finding that if they are not careful, their hands will slip off the rope. It’s a great pity for us as a nation.
Many people argue that President Buhari’s war against corruption is one of the reasons we are in this economic mess today. Do you share that perspective?
It’s a part of it. The people who are helping Mr. President—who swore heaven and earth to protect this country—when you look deep, you will discover that they are not too far from this corruption. The God that you and I serve will expose them. It may take some time. We are not prepared to suffer any more but we must take it that we will suffer a little. Those who are behind corruption are the ones who make sure that you are blindfolded from knowing who they are. To a great extent, many of them have offered to help us out of the doldrums, but immediately they see any opportunity, they dive in. It may take a long time to get out of the woods, but God will not give them excuse to extend this beyond our pains.
You are from the Niger Delta. How has renewed militancy in the region affected the current economic situation?
It’s unfortunate that a lot of our people are not looking at this issue wisely. Some of us are making our problems much more difficult. If I see anything that will poison my throat, I won’t take out of it and poison my people. Certainly, we will make noise and tell those people who are running into our economy and society that what they are saying is not right and they should make a way for us. That is the problem we are having in this country. If we have opportunity of running our show, we must make sure that these are people who can run our show. They are there but they get corrupt before they settle down to do their work.
Do you believe that the tomorrow of Nigeria is bright?
Yes, I am comfortable believing that tomorrow will be bright for Nigeria. Even if you don’t have the power, you have a prayerful mind which, to me, is much more powerful. Nobody ever knew that a Prof. Adesina was around until he was appointed Minister of Agriculture. My prayer is that God should bring out more and more such committed Nigerians to deliver us from those who are eating us dry.
There’s little hope. I can tell you the current recession will end if we have the right people to turn on the engines. The problem we are having is that a lot of us want to meet our personal first needs before thinking of the others. There are many issues. Many people can turn on the engine, but they are not prepared to do it now until they have taken care of themselves. But God is prepared to do it for us.
Has the Nigerian Church been of help?
Some of the churches are working very hard but some are doing worse things than politicians. Those of us who believe there are bad eggs should be able to shout that what they are doing is bad. I can tell you some of our church leaders are doing that.
You think the new CAN leadership has the ability to do that?
The first time I spoke with him (CAN President), he appeared to me like somebody who is bold and prepared to work. We will all continue to pray for him. The situation of the country is not easy.
As a former student activist, do you foresee a violent revolution in this country because of current agitations?
I believe and I trust that God will help us overcome.