By Wale Akinola
Rt. Hon. Emmanuel Jime, a lawyer and former Speaker of Benue State House of Assembly, is the outgoing Managing Director of the Nigeria Export Processing Zones Authority, NEPZA. In this interview, the governorship candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) for Benue State speaks on the highpoints of his tenure.
If you were to describe your two-year tenure in a sentence, what would that be?
I have not done two years here at NEPZA yet. My appointment was announced on the 12th of April, 2017, but it was until the 19th of April, 2017 that I assumed duties. So, if you do the calculation accurately, I have just done 20 months here as the 7th Managing Director of NEPZA. As to your question, it is difficult to describe my tenure in two years in one sentence, but you can have this: I am leaving NEPZA better-positioned and the staff happier than I met them.
You are rather a very simple and quiet person. For a politician, is that not odd?
What is odd about being simple and quiet? Well…yes, I am a simple person, but I would not describe myself as a quiet person. I would prefer to say I am a private person. But even that may not be entirely objective because if you are a politician and you are in politics, you are a public person. But to answer your question directly, let me say this. I may be a politician, but my position here has put me in the position of a manager, an administrator and, if you can call me a technocrat. So, I have deliberately played down my political side so that my work here will speak for me. And if one is working, those who are witnesses to the good work should be the first communicators of such good or salutary deeds. Therefore, if you don’t see me on TV or in newspapers every day, this is the reason. But this is not to say one would or should jettison conventional publicity or media relations. And this is why we are doing this interview now.
So, what did you meet on ground and where are you?
When I took over, I did two things: I received briefings from my management staff and followed up with a tour of the Free Trade Zones; and that afforded me the opportunity of interfacing with investors, zone administrators plus critical stakeholders. By so doing, I enriched my knowledge-base and information-bank before launching out. So, between the last week of April and the first week of May 2017, I visited all the Free Trade Zones in the country – both public and private: Calabar, Kano, LADOL, Ogun-Guandong, Snake Island, Nigeria’s International Commerce City better known as Eko-Atlantic City. Of course, add the Abuja Centenary City.
So, what significant thing did you find out from the tours?
The tours afforded me a broader interaction with investors, critical stakeholders, industry experts, security operatives and staff. And some things came out. These included low morale/staff welfare; delayed promotions, poor investor-confidence, inter-agency rivalry and poor visibility etc. Some challenges were internal and others were external.
What measures did you take to tackle these?
I am a welfarist, and when the opportunity presents itself, I put it into action. As I readily tell people, my understanding of labour relations or staff welfare matters is that if you do not motivate a worker properly, you only waste your time in expecting that he is going to perform optimally. This is why I told staff members during my maiden meeting with them that ‘if there is welfare in the house, there would be no warfare; and if there is laughter in the house, there would be no solidarity songs’. And I did not speak as a politician – I spoke from my heart. What I did was to look within the parameters of what was available, what was permissible and what was possible in the office of the managing director; and establishing that, I and my management team moved quickly. And today, I can say with all modesty that NEPZA staff members are happier than when I came on board.
You mentioned other challenges like inter-agency rivalry, delayed promotions and poor investor confidence. How did you tackle these?
If a staff member stagnates on one level for years, he begins to harbour a sense of frustration or even redundancy; and that is not good for productivity or organizational visioning. So, promotion as and when due is a critical factor in welfare. As at April 2017 when I took over this assignment, some people were sadly stagnated for years. But that is a thing of the past. We are not owing any staff member arrears – be it promotion, conversion, accumulated allowances, some going back to six years! The other challenge was poor investor-confidence in the Zones. It was imperative, if not urgent, to get investors to have confidence in NEPZA’s Free Zones by way of a basket of incentives or a regime of tax holidays. That is part of what informed my familiarization/fact-finding tours of the Free Trade Zones within a week of my coming on board. Part of what I discovered was that NEPZA had 34 FTZs as at then, but less than half of that figure was actively operating. And the culprit here was the dearth of infrastructure in the Zones.
I have come to learn from the business community that “capital is a coward.” This means capital is discriminatory – it doesn’t go where it’s not welcome or where it is despised and threatened. And you need to look beautiful to attract it. This is why right from day-one, I told my management team that we were going to exert ourselves to make our Zones world-class in terms of the quality of critical infrastructure: power, water, and roads network, security of personnel, return on investment etc, etc. And in the last one year or so, there has been a heightened and deliberate development/renewal of infrastructure in the public Zones i.e. Calabar and Kano. I speak in terms of roads network, factories upgrade, power sub-stations, water supply, investor-suites, warehouses, etc. NEPZA has never had it so good, and this entirely due to salutary decision of President Muhammadu Buhari to take both NEPZA and our FZs to the next level by giving the authority capital votes of N50billion in both the 2017 and 2018 budgets.
Against the backdrop of NEPZA’s highest allocation being a mere N2billion, this is, at once, unprecedented and revolutionary. About inter-agency rivalry and competition as opposed to cooperation and synergy, I had to move speedily. The most critical agency to NEPZA’s operations is the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS); and its Comptroller-General, Col. Hameed Ibrahim Ali (ret.), had paid a courtesy call to NEPZA on November 2, 2015. And since then, the courtesy had remained unreturned. But on August 22, 2017, I returned the courtesy by visiting the Comptroller-General at the Customs House to discuss matters of common interest, especially as pertains to engendering a cordial working relationship between the Authority and the NCS. But we did not stop at Customs – we reached out to other government agencies like the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Nigeria Immigrations Service (NIS), the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) and the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA). Today, things are very much better as we have a seamless working relationship with these government agencies.
How many FZs does Nigeria have and what impact do they have on national economy?
As we speak, NEPZA has licensed 39 Free Zones spread across the country, with the better known ones being the Nigeria International Commerce City better called Eko-Atlantic ($38bn), with targeted job-creation put at one million; Centenary City ($18bn), with envisaged job opportunities at 70, 000; Ogidigben Industrial Park in Delta State ($15bn), estimated to create 800, 000 jobs; LADOL i.e. Lagos Deep Sea Logistic Base ($3.5bn), jobs targeted, 150, 000; and Dangote FTZ, estimated at over $12billion!
Two of the 39 FTZs are Public Zones i.e. the Calabar FTZ and the Kano FTZ. Whereas 14 of the 39 FTZs are at the moment operational, the others are still under construction. And permit me to add, most modestly, that of these 39, four of them have been established under my watch i.e. Tomaro FTZ, Quits Aviation FTZ, Nasco FTZ and Dangote Industries Free Zone. And the FG has concluded plans to set up six new Special Economic Zones SEZs) in the Six Geo-political Zones in the country. These are: the Lekki Garment & Textiles Park, Lagos SEZ as well as Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Makurdi, Benue state; Ilorin, Kwara state; Benin, Edo state; Sokoto, Sokoto; Gombe, Gombe and Abakiliki, Ebonyi state.
Of the impact on the national economy, I want to tell you that it is on-going. If you look at our mandate, some of its strategic goals include promoting the Nigerian Content Policy in the oil & gas sector, attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), generating employment, increasing Foreign Exchange earnings, enhancing technology transfer and local content development as well as promoting skill acquisition/upgrading and creating backward linkages. So, these are not static, and the overall impact is on-going – whether we are talking of capital injection or skills acquisition or technology transfer or local content development. So, the impact is huge – whether it is economic, commercial, technical or social.
The Free Zone scheme is now a global concept. Are you looking at any particular model?
Yes, there are many models, but we are looking at the Chinese model. Abroad, in Europe and South America, but especially Asia, where the concept has been clearly understood and given fillip, it is changing the economic landscape in leaps and bounds. Is it Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, which is a Free Trade Zone? Is it Shenzhen, in China, which started just over 30 years ago, with a population of less than 50, 000 people, but has ballooned to over 12 million residents as we speak? The reason for this is because the moment the government decided to give Shenzhen the status of a Free Trade Zone, the incentives that were available, ensured that it took off, and it has never looked back.
Today, because of the runaway success of Shenzhen SEZ, the Chinese government is replicating the miracle in Xiongan, with plans to inject a whopping $580billion into the new SEZ over the next 20 years. This is how it is done. And that is what we are looking at. So, in NEPZA’s 26-year-history, it has recorded major achievements in the core areas of its mandate: Nigerian Local Content Development, attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to the tune of $20billion (actual), diversifying the economy, generating employment, increasing Foreign Exchange Earnings, enhancing technology transfer and local content development, promoting/improving skills acquisition as well as creating backward linkages. And the transformation-story gets better and better.