*Says Opobo founder aided industrial revolution with the West
*‘Like Jaja, I am reviving Nigeria’s trade with the world’
Chairman of BFI Group of Companies, Dr. Rueben Mietamuno Saturday Jaja, is the Chief and Head of Chief Prince Saturday Jaja War Canoe House, Opobo Kingdom, Opobo Nkoro Local Government Area of Rivers State.
He is the great-grandson of the late King Jaja of Opobo. In this interview, the former Director of the US Federal Reserve Bank speaks on the richness and uniqueness of Opobo royalty, African traditional institutions, and his acquisition of the Aluminum Smelter Company of Nigeria, ALSCON, Ikot Abasi, Akwa Ibom State among other issues.
By Charles Kumolu, Deputy Editor
You were recently installed as the Alabo, Chief and Head of Chief Prince Saturday Jaja War Canoe House. Tell us what it means…
This War Canoe House was established in 1872 by King Jaja of Opobo for his first son, Crown Prince Saturday Jaja who died in 1894. Since then no one has ascended the stool until my installation as Alabo Soi Dee II which happened between 2018 and 5 February 2020 in Opobo town.
I am also an entrepreneur. I am the Chairman, BFI Group of Companies. I acquired the Aluminum Smelter Company of Nigeria, ALSCON, Ikot Abasi, Akwa Ibom State. I lived mostly in the United States, after my college education in Nigeria. And I came back to contribute to national development.
My people found me worthy, to bring my knowledge of the corporate world into the management of our kingdom. I am now the Alabo, the Chief Prince of the Jaja War Canoe House which is an autonomous War Canoe House established by King Jaja of Opobo, my great grandfather. He established it for his first son. It is a very big House. And I am privileged to lead at the moment.
So much has been said about King Jaja of Opobo. As his descendant, give us an insider’s account of who King Jaja was, what he achieved and represented and how the living descendants are sustaining his legacy?
King Jaja of Opobo was a man of a very unique life. He was a man determined to succeed and blessed by God. History maintained he was captured at the age of 12 and sold into slavery. He liberated himself and rose to become the chief of his group of houses in Bonny.
It is well known that the majority of the people from Opobo today were all part and parcel of the Bonny Kingdom. It was in 1869 that the Jaja Group of Houses, called the Opubo then, decamped, seceded from Bonny to open a new kingdom. When King Jaja founded Opubo town in 1870, he received British approval and recognition as king.
But most people tend to know him more of being a young man, sold to slavery after which he became a king. That is not all King Jaja was. One, he significantly committed himself to the protection of the sovereignty of the African man and his territory. Two, because of the trade in palm oil, he contributed immensely to the industrial revolution of the West.
When the West, particularly England, became the world’s workshop with the introduction of machines and automation, they were looking for oil to lubricate their machines when they moved from the agrarian stage to technology. That lubrication became oil and was found in Africa, West Africa in particular. Jaja dominated the trade, becoming number one in terms of the sales of palm oil.
That helped Britain in those days to drive the industrial revolution that was sweeping through Great Britain and later to other parts of the Western world. When I talk to people about it, I want them to remember these two major contributions -the sovereignty of the African people and the support he gave to accelerate the industrial revolution of the world.
Your new title is said to be second in rank, only to the throne of the king of Opobo. Is it hereditary?
It is. This stool I am now occupying, the Chief of is Chief Prince Saturday Jaja War Canoe House, as I mentioned earlier, the Saturday in the name was SoiDee. The white man couldn’t pronounce it, so he called it Saturday. He was the first son of King Jaja of Opobo. He was a crown prince.
When the Europeans removed King Jaja of Opobo, 1887, they didn’t allow his son, the crown prince to succeed him. They were afraid he would revolt against them. There was much commotion. Eventually, he was short changed and did not become King of Opobo. There were lots of conspiracies to undermine him. Then he left and died.
Since he died, nobody has succeeded until now that I have come. It has been over 130 years. It is hereditary. It is from the same lineage of the group that owns the house that they can pick an occupant or successor. Our custom, like other African cultures, allows the first son to become the crown prince.
In Opobo, we may have situations where the first son may not be sound and would not meet the aspiration of the kingdom. The Jajas have the right to pick somebody sound. Our current Amayanabo was selected by the Jaja Group of Families. And he is sound and has met the objectives of our people.
Traditional rulers were so powerful ruling over their domains in the pre-colonial era. Today, they are mere ceremonial heads without statutory roles. What do you make of their plight in the light of the overbearing control by government at all tiers?
There is no doubt there are some elements of confusion there when you draw the line in terms of the political sphere and the traditional rulers. Some traditional rulers are making a legitimate point on the situation, but some have compromised their position by getting involved in politics.
When you leave the sacred zone of being a traditional ruler, a father to all and begin to make direct or indirect insinuations that bring you into politics, you then find yourself in the situation you have cited. I strongly believe our governors and leaders want to allow traditional rulers to rule, but some traditional rulers have not understood properly how to maintain that balance which is a very delicate one.
On the whole, it is true that the politicians have now stepped in too far and too deep into the sphere exclusively reserved for traditional rulers. Like security, only the traditional rulers significantly know the security of their areas. They are better positioned to know who is who, know who the bad boys are in the area, maintain peace and security, far better than political officeholders.
When the politicians are using these same people to accomplish their aims, they leave the responsibility for the cleanup of the mess created for the traditional rulers to manage. Politicians recruit young men, use them to fight opponents. Thereafter who collects the guns from them? They keep those ammunitions, day and night, and continue to use them either to terrorize the weak or rob people or whatever they seem fit.
The traditional rulers are extremely essential, much as the politicians are.
How do you measure the value system in today’s Nigeria as it affects politics, economy and culture?
I have lived in the US for more than 37 years. I worked at the State of California Banking formation as Director of Regulatory Investigations. I have also worked with the US Federal Reserve Bank, in what they call the Inter-Agency Shared National Credit Programme.
My view is very global because I have interacted with serious organisations in the world. When I finished school I taught at National University as well as a distinct scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles where I received my Post-Doctoral Degree. And I have been honoured by various groups, particularly in the business community.
I am the founder of the Africa USA Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I and then Mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Brown, worked to create a forum to bring African leaders to speak about trade and commerce between Africa and the US. Also, I served as Chairman of our indigenous groups in the diaspora, such as Rivers State Foundation, a forum of Rivers indigenes around the world, including the Ijaw Foundation. I used the platforms to create scholarships for all eligible students of Ijaw nation qualified to enter the Federal University Otuoke, when it was established.
These backgrounds have helped me to understand how to interact with our people on the socioeconomic lines. In my capacity, I know where to attract resources to deal with social problems at home. I believe strongly that the money of Nigeria, outside Nigeria, is more than the money that is in Nigeria. Put another way round, that the resources we can get outside are far more than the ones we have inside.
In specifics, bringing all the experiences over the years to bear, to justify the confidence your people reposed in you, what are the key areas you are looking at in fast-tracking development in Opobo?
As an ancient kingdom, Opobo has lots of goodwill and resources. On the manufacturing side of it, I look at ALSCON, designed to manufacture a wide range of aluminum outputs, up to 200, 000 metric tonnes in neighboring Ikot Abasi. If I take that over, I see an economic corridor to be created that touches all the Eastern seaboards.
I also see a connection to the North East because of the presence of bauxite in the North East Zone. The rail approved by government, if constructed, can build an economic balance between the two regions. When bauxite is brought here, we smelt it and ship it out to create employment on both sides.
In Opobo, we have huge resources in the sea. Fishing can be done at the commercial level in Opobo. We also have opportunities in dry dock and marine services because Opobo was a natural corridor of shipping in ancient times. That was Jaja’s ancient trade route. Most Abriba and Ohafia traders of ancient times got through that route.
Now, there is a road coming into Opobo, made possible by government. We have discovered huge lands people were afraid to go into in the past. This provides opportunities for real estate development. That is why the ALSCON is a catalyst. There is power, about 1040 megawatts there.
If the power is harnessed properly, it can greatly enhance development and broaden the power base even in the rural areas in the region and create an industrial park where companies can be resident.
You’ve been in this struggle for ALSCON for some time. Have the issues between the federal government and other interested parties been resolved?
It is still ongoing and we hope it is resolved soon because the aluminum smelting company is a very important asset to the Niger Delta development. Indeed, that project was built to accelerate the economic development of the region and also to solve the problem of pollution arising from oil and gas exploration, particularly for the gas being flared around the region.
The project was also developed to create jobs and opportunities for the region, particularly for the teeming youths who graduated from many universities and have nothing to give. When the plant started, there were about 800 employees in the region. As it stands today, the project has failed the region and the nation because the aluminum needs of the nation are not being provided domestically as expected.
How much progress has been made specifically in resolving this tussle for ALSCON?
Not much progress has been made, I would say. We are still putting pressure on them. We are still at the point of execution of the shares staking agreement along with all the annexes. We have several investors who have money to put into the business. There are about three, four of them. Some are from Germany. Some are from the US and some from Spain as well as from England. We have continued to appease them to standby and be ready whenever government is ready to resolve the issues.
What is your view about the African culture against its gradual erosion by Western culture?
The African culture is very deep and based on the way of life of the people. We are a people that see things in their natural forms and believe in the nature of things. But for the Europeans, for instance, they are more of confronting nature whereas we are more at adapting to nature. This wide view gives rise to the perception of how we see life and times and this shapes the world view of both sides.
Any political ambition?
I don’t have any. My people have called on me to do business and that is what I would do. My great grandfather was a successful businessman. He embarked on capitalist policy in the region and empowered men. My goal is to stay in the business area, create jobs, boost our reserve requirements, and place the Nigerian flag on our products so other parts of the world can buy them as made from Nigeria. Nigeria can sell to others, instead of us depending on others so much more.
If you have a minute or two with the President, what would you tell him about the widespread perception of failed leadership?
People could give different answers and some of them are right. I think our President means well. I know him. I had interacted with him in 2007. The problem is those working with him. What we need to do is to have a unified purpose as to what our economic aspirations are. What is the national aspiration plan? What is Nigeria actually aspiring to be? Then bring people who can unbundle that big question.
If you look at most of the other parts of the world, and you want to decouple what makes them great, remarkably you find out two things you can place your hands on that make their economy strong. They are their effective management of technology and capital. In Nigeria, we have huge land. That is not our problem. Labour is not a problem. The only thing we need to manage is technology and capital. Until you bring people who understand how to calibrate these two elements along with the two others that we have abundance in perfect alignment, that is when we will realise optimal economic growth and development.
As we continue to have non-alignment of these factors, except we decouple capital and technology, we would have challenges. When our President goes to visit the rich, developed nations, you just don’t go and talk to the President of that country. Take the US for instance. Most of them go, have briefs with the President on economic plans and they leave. That is not where you should put your emphasis.
You need to meet the fund managers on Wall Street. They are the ones responsible for the global allocation of capital in the world. Monday morning, young men assemble and spread the map of the world. To one they say handle Europe portfolio, another, North America, others Central America, Asia. Young chaps just out of Harvard with clean pieces of suits.
One of them can give an account of over five trillion dollars he has invested in Europe. They give similar accounts on Asia, Canada, Mexico, North and South America. And when they finish and are done for the day, you hear nothing about Africa. They allocate to all other regions. So we have the entire Africa starved, in shortage of capital.