By Ebele Orakpo
Mrs Phil Biobele Okoroafor is the CEO of Marvel Matrix, an event planning outfit based in Abuja. She started event planning in 1996. She said the advantage of being an event planner is that you get to work with a diverse group of people, especially if you are into corporate events. In this chat with Vanguard, the graduate of Industrial Chemistry from the University of Port Harcourt says that one of the worst things to happen to Nigeria is the monthly allocation that governors come to Abuja to collect.
What was it like growing up in Nigeria?
While growing up, we had a very strong family structure, we had security; there was no much difference between public and private schools; there were standards that were fairly balanced across board. We had state and federal schools, we had the Universal Primary Education, UPE, and not many people were in private schools. Education was balanced and much more affordable and everyone was doing what he was supposed to do. I went to a government university in the late 80s/early 90s, though there were some things we didn’t get to see like people say they were given food and chicken in those days. They didn’t give us those things but I paid about N110.00 per annum: N90.00 for accommodation and N20 for toiletries. Tuition was free. Now we pay millions for children’s education.
Where did we get it wrong?
I think it has to do with vision; when you have a vision, there is staying power, you have something you are working towards. If I want to build a duplex, when money comes, I won’t squander it because I have a vision and focus. I think we lost it from lack of focus and oil money. We came upon oil money and stopped working. Work is an integral part of life, even if you have money, if you don’t work, you atrophy and that is what has basically happened with Nigeria. We came upon oil money and everybody became brain dead. The oil money seemed to serve everybody and then people in government who were supposed to manage the resources didn’t have sufficient vision to work towards building that future.
Lack of vision
When you are saving to build a house, you tell your children that you want to build so now, some of their requests may not be granted; you lead them into making sacrifices, so I think our leaders didn’t have a clear vision because when you have a clear vision, you would work out a strategy towards acualising it. There was no strategy towards spending our resources to better our lot.
I remember watching a program on CNN and the reporter said he was standing in Forcados in Warri, an oil-rich town. Then he said if this were to be in the UAE or Texas or somewhere else in the world, the skyline behind him would be dotted with skyscrapers but in this place, all he saw was squalor, then he had pictures to show. That is the truth. If we had vision, we would have put our resources into better use. Our governors do not exactly have vision. One of the worst things to happen to Nigeria is the monthly allocation that governors come to Abuja to collect, it stifles creativity. I always say that the reason Lagos State is where it is now is because of the cold war between the then President Obasanjo and then Lagos State Governor, Tinubu. Obasanjo seized their money, Lagos damned the centre and looked inwards. That made internally-generated revenue, IGR, popular in Nigeria. Governors should begin to look inwards instead of continually looking to Abuja for monthly stipends. What I see as a challenge is the fact that vision and creativity are lacking in our leaders to put in place, structures required for growth and development. It is interesting that even the existing structures are not being maintained. Just imagine the situation where a project instituted by Obasanjo was completed 23 years after when he became president again! That, for me, is lack of vision. Tha’s why we are where we are.
How do you find the business climate in Nigeria?
I don’t know if what I found out is across board. I won’t talk about leadership without talking about followership. People get the kind of leaders they deserve; most of us are not sincere to ourselves. We don’t take responsibility. A simple thing as keeping to time is difficult. Most people seem to be marking time in their work places. Schools are not churning out graduates that can fill the need of the workplace so you find entrepreneurs struggling to put people through and at the end of the day, before you begin to enjoy the benefits, they leave. In fact, I have taken it as a ministry; I just train them and let them go. Most times, they go and set up their own so I get a sense of pride from that.
Loyalty is lacking and the business climate is like that. You find your staff trying to undercut you. You find a business doing the best it can to ensure salaries get paid and the office is kept running, then you have the challenge of disloyal staff which you have to deal with; you are buffeted from all sides. Then you are your own government as you supply your water, electricity and construct your road. So government does not create the enabling environment for businesses to thrive.
Our industries are dead and people now take Nigerian designs to China. Recently, I saw ankara printed on silk and other kinds of fabric; no longer cotton that is typical of ankara. That happens because it’s cheaper to do business in China.
When they say Nigerians don’t pay tax, I wonder why we must pay tax because I fix my car often because of bad roads. In my estate, every house is to pay N40,000 so we can build the road that the government is supposed to build and I ask them why I should contribute, is it not bad enough that I am my own water and electricity supplier? I feel that if Nigerians can hold their leaders accountable, the government will wake up to its responsibilities but when we are buffeted like that, most of us, just find an alternative. They see holding our leaders accountable as waste of time, they are not ready to fight for their rights.
Does it mean we are docile?
Honestly, I don’t know what it is that we are. I bought a house in an estate that was perimeter fenced. Before moving in, a heavy rain fell and the fence fell. I informed the estate security because it is not safe for the estate, (it’s the perimeter fence, not my direct fence). The guy said I should write to the estate authority. I did and they didn’t respond. The chief security officer, CSO, came with other people one of the days and I overheard him saying: Why this madam dey do like say she no be Nigerian? She no know wetin dey?’ That really got me. It was their responsibility as securitymen to go and report and follow up until the facility managers came to repair it. The CSO and his team did not think it was their responsibility and they did nothing about it. One day, he called me and said: “Madam, if you can afford it, just go and fix the fence.” I fixed it eventually but this goes to show you the kind of society we live in. People are not taking responsibility and when you even want to do something that is seemingly geared towards making them take responsibility, they look at you like a stranger; as if in Nigeria, things are designed to go bad. They know that in Nigeria, people don’t take responsibility, and they expect me to tow that line. So doing business in Nigeria is not easy.
But you don’t really blame people going to China where labour is cheap. By the time you finish everything, and import it, it is still cheaper but there is a cost to that – loss of jobs and it deepens our unemployment so I expect the government to try as much as possible to make it easy for people to do business in Nigeria so that the cost of production can come down and local manufacturing industry can thrive. Everybody goes to China now and it’s bad for our economy.
So many things that have caused some countries to boil happen here and nothing happens, why?
The interesting thing about Nigeria is that there are loyalty issues and we have not found a way of maximising our diversity. Our diversity is deepening our issues with disloyalty and then the powers-that-be play on that. The Igbo man will not want to stick out his neck when something unjust is happening to a Yoruba man and the same for the Yoruba man. The Hausa man will never stand against his brother for anybody. At the end of the day, if something is really going bad and you want to resist it, and you realise it involves a Hausa man, the Hausa people will say: ‘We know he is bad but leave him there for us,’ so you are not just contending with something that is bad at that point, you can only protest and make noise and at the end of the day, they will probably put you in jail and release you after. But without diversity, you will see people stand. That’s what I think. Our diversity is playing against us so we are not objective in our reasoning. If your kindred is doing something wrong and somebody else is protesting, you will protect your kindred. The only person that I see that didn’t really act that way is ex-President Jonathan, he cut across every group and his people were very angry with him. When I think about it, I feel that is the real change; he didn’t do things like a typical Nigerian, he was not nepotic; he did not surround himself with Ijaw people. He got competent hands and allowed them to work. So I think to a large extent, our diversity is one of the things preventing us from taking ownership of what belongs to us as a people. That diversity is robbing us of a lot of things. It is possible to melt that diversity through proper public enlightenment. That’s where the National Orientation Agency and the NTA should come in. If NTA is doing what it is supposed to be doing, Nigeria would be less fragmented because it has incredible power to unify this country if they use it.