There is no doubt about the role indigenes and the Diaspora (those outside Igboland) can play in the regional economic development and transformation of Nigeria through home-driven, development-spurred sustainable investments. Plans to address the problem of zero-investments in the regional economic transformation of Nigeria have become the driving force behind Akuluouno, translated to mean ‘Think Home’, an Igbo Economic Union, which has captured these inconsistencies by convincing Ndigbo across the globe to make Igboland the centrepiece of their investment efforts in a bid to fast-track development in the South East. In this interview, Okwudili Ijezie, a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN), founder and chairman of the private sector-led investment initiative, speaks to Business A.M.’s CHARLES ABUEDE, on the journey so far, after one year of birthing the organization; while also speaking to other developments in the general economy of Nigeria. Excerpts:
The current realities in Nigeria point to the fact that the plans for regional investment in Nigeria, especially in the South East and South-South as a whole, may have been threatened by the rate of insecurity in the country and other forms of insecurity which the government has yet to develop a proper framework to address. How does this bother you and the Akuluouno movement?
Ijezie, chairman, Akuluouno: The current realities in Nigeria point to the fact that her economy is suffering while investors are gradually exiting the economy. It is an understatement to state that the current insecurity in the southeast region, and in Nigeria generally, has adversely affected our Akuluouno initiative. Nigeria is currently facing a sharp economic depression and a severe loss of business confidence. Private sector investment, the mainstay of sustainable economic growth in any economy, is at its all-time low. Also, the current COVID-19 pandemic has not helped the initiative at all. Insurgency, kidnapping, banditry, herders attacks, coupled with the killings nationwide, but more especially in the Southeast, with Owerri in Imo State as the epicentre, have devastated our Akuluouno Movement.
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Most of the Diaspora Ndigbos that started this Akuluouno Movement with us have exited the Movement. They seem no longer interested in investing in their homelands because the safety of such investments can no longer be guaranteed. Even local investors, I mean those Ndi Igbos living outside the Southeast enclave, those staying in Lagos, Abuja, and the other parts of Southwest, Northeast, Northwest and North Central (Middle Belt), are now developing cold feet and becoming risk-averse towards funding businesses in the Southeast region. The hysteria over the UGM (Unknown Gun Men) is making these people not comfortable travelling to the homelands for business, farming, family engagements, etc. They now stay put in their places of residence outside the Southeast for fear of being caught up in the fireworks currently happening in Owerri “war front”. However, we are strategizing to carry on with our Akuluouno Movement in the region as soon as this insecurity is curtailed.
Your movement has been building up plans to facilitate investment in the Southeast region of Nigeria by those at home and in the Diaspora. How far have the special committees in place been involved in making this plan a reality?
The restructuring process of the committees for the second phase of our movement has just been concluded. When we founded the Akuluouno-Think Home Forum on Saturday, 13th June 2020, our first task was to constitute 18 committees, charged with the dissection of the problems of Igboland and proffering recommendations and solutions to resolving the identified problems. These 18 committees speedily performed the tasks for which they were constituted and submitted their reports to the chairman of the forum, who immediately constituted another committee, the Implementation Advisory Committee, to advise on the modality for the implementation. This Implementation Advisory Committee made up of the chairmen, deputy chairmen and secretaries of the 18 committees, finished its assignment on Friday, October 30, 2020. But we were caught up with the second wave of COVID-19 and the #EndSARS protest.
Earlier this year, the insecurity pervading Southeast Nigeria and, indeed nationwide, caught up with us again, and seriously hampered our take-off of the implementation of these committees’ report. At last, we have rationalized the number of committees and are now ready to commence with the second phase of our movement, on Sunday, June 13, 2021. The six committees we are taking off with are:
(i) Banking & Finance Committee, which became merged with the Investments committee and is headed by Charles Udogu, with Anthony Chinwe and Okechukwu Odimgbe as deputy chairman and secretary, respectively. Charles Udogu, based in Enugu, retired late last year from Polaris Bank Limited, as a director. He is a round hole in a round peg.
(ii). The Youth & Governance Committee, recently merged with the Ethics & Value Orientation Committee with 76 members, and is headed by Kim Eseka Emmanuel, with Gloria Okwuosa and Eucharia Nwenyi as deputy chairperson and secretary, respectively.
(iii). The Information & Communications Technology Committee, which is headed by Joseph Nwakwue, with Okechukwu Odimgbe, as the acting secretary was also merged with the Education Committee and the Library & Information Committee.
(iv). The Legal Committee is yet to be fully set up. But due to the passion of its chairman, we have decided to support and encourage him to fully set it up. Kudos to Prince Chima Williams. We believe that within a couple of days, it will be fully operational.
(v). The Agriculture Committee is very much up and running. It is headed by Godwin Umeaka, and supported by Umunna Opara and Emmanuel Ozigbo as deputy chairman and secretary, respectively. Godwin Umeaka is the managing director/chief executive officer, Coscharis Farms Limited, Anambra State. He will add value to this agriculture committee.
(vi). Healthcare/Healthcare Insurance Committee is headed by Jude Mgbemena, medical director of St. Jude’s Hospital, Ozubulu, Anambra State. He is the immediate past chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Nnewi branch. He is ably supported by Ukamaka Okafor, director general, Pharmacists Council of Nigeria.
In view of the current insecurity in the Southeast, I understand and appreciate that some of the chairmen and members of the disbanded committees may be having issues with coping with the affairs of this Akuluouno-Think Home Forum (Akuluouno). They have, therefore, recused themselves from the challenges of revving these committees. Quite understandable. We need to just go ahead into our second year, commencing on Sunday, June 13, 2021 [interview conducted before this date], with just the six committees.
The Akuluouno movement you founded this time last year is celebrating one year anniversary now. What can you say are the achievements so far and what measures did you put in place to achieve them?
We have solid achievements on the ground already. Fourteen committees submitted their reports last year. With the Agriculture Committee being “The Report”. Although, credit must equally be extended to the committees that have submitted their reports to Akuluouno for implementation. As the founder and chairman of this unique, noble and novel forum, my role has been to lead from the front with the sensitization of the aims and objectives of the forum. And by the special grace of the good Lord, I have been discharging this role creditably well.
According to Emerson, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honourable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well”. I remember with nostalgia when I founded the Akuluouno; it is a most unique, noble and novel forum, that has the Southeast Nigeria and the Igbo nation as its major focus, in terms of development, in areas of economic emancipation and industrial self-reliance of the region, and Igbo nation at large. This forum is not in any way politically propelled. We planned to explore all past and current institutions and organisations that have our purpose, dream and vision as their agenda. We planned to work with and collaborate with them and purposefully engage the governments within the Southeast of Nigeria and beyond for our benefit, at appropriate points, for the achievements of our goals. Our preliminary focus is all facet sensitization, as enlightenment and education are key.
Thereafter, we went for the formalization of our existence by registering the forum with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), Abuja on Thursday, September 3, 2020. A journey of one thousand miles takes off, with one step, and here we are now celebrating the first anniversary of Akuluouno-Think Home Forum. Behold, Akuluouno-Think Home Forum, was formally flagged off for unlimited articulation, for the benefit of Southeast Nigeria and the Igbo nation, on the 18th of June, 2020. We set out to engage, brainstorm and articulate, to bring out the best in our members.
We are not a parallel state government in Igbo land. We don’t aspire to be one. We have limitations, even if some members desire that we become one. Unlike state governments that receive allocations from the federation account on a monthly basis, and have powers to levy taxes and generate revenue internally, Akuluouno Forum is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) with no such powers.
The aims and objectives of Akuluouno are: To build the required consciousness among Igbos that it is time to invoke our community spirit (Onye Aghana Nwa Nne Ya) to drive the process of developing Igbo land. To mobilize all Igbo professionals, academia, businessmen and women at home and in the Diaspora to begin to think home in their investment decisions as part of Igbo development agenda; while maintaining their diversified investments, that they should necessarily include investment in Southeastern Nigeria. To organise free annual lecture series and other lectures and sensitization to brainstorm on the Akuluouno philosophy as a way of keeping the campaign alive, strategically focused and sustainable from generation to generation.
Therefore, we are leaving a worthwhile legacy for the younger generation and generations unborn. We are using this first anniversary to celebrate ourselves for the awesome achievements we have recorded in a short time.
You have a vision of making Igboland the Japan of Africa by 2025. What is the roadmap to making this vision come to reality?
Thank you for this vital question, why it is necessary for me to clarify what I mean that we, at Akuluouno, have a vision of making Igboland the Japan of Africa by 2025. As you are aware, Japan is ranked as the most honest country in the world. Japanese people are trustworthy and it never crosses the Japanese minds that someone might be untrustworthy, even a total stranger. This is a value that equally flows from my bloodstream. When I founded my maiden company, I & I Investments Limited in 1993, its core values were Integrity & Innovation. Since then, I have been wearing these values as clothes. They have been my personal values since May 1993.
Similarly, as the founder and chairman of this forum, I want the core values of Ndigbo to become integrity and innovation, in tandem with the Japanese values. To practice it, among the two committees that we set up in June 2020 were Ethics & Value Orientation Committee and Youth & Governance Committee. Both Committees tendered their reports in August 2020, and the reports have been reviewed by the Implementation Advisory Committee and they are now ready for implementation. For synergy, the two committees have been merged and it’s now called Youths, Ethics & Governance Committee. It is now headed by Kim Eseka Emmanuel, an accountant from Agbor in Delta Igbo. He is ably supported by Gloria Okwuosa, a former human resources manager at Allstates Trust Bank plc, an indigene of Abia State, who is the deputy chairman of the committee; and Eucharia Nwenyi, an indigene of Ozubulu in Anambra State, but based in Lagos, where she is a director in the Lagos State Ministry of Education. She is the secretary of the Youths, Ethics & Governance Committee.
Succinctly, the mindsets of Ndigbo must be transformed towards integrity and innovation. Just like the Japanese. Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. Integrity means following your moral, or ethical convictions and doing the right thing in all circumstances, even if no one is watching you. Having integrity means you are true to yourself and would do nothing that demeans or dishonours you. Put differently, integrity is essentially about character, good character, good behaviour, or attitudinal disposition. In essence, integrity, goodness and objectivity of character and purpose. Our mantra as Ndigbo is to have these values by 2025 and be known as the Japan of Africa.
As an NGO with a goal to improve the investment landscape in Nigeria, what’s your first point of call in developing the Southeast region through investment?
Agriculture is the first point of call in developing the Southeast region through investment. I am so pleased that many members have embraced joining the committees. The forum was designed to be committee-driven. That was the strategy we used to achieve what we have already achieved. I believe that the forum has been so organised and structured that members now understand our expectations. Succinctly, it is to “Think Home” and bring part of your new investments to the Southeast (including Delta Igbos). Such that our youths would be actively and positively engaged.
Our flagship is agriculture. And our strategy is not to directly engage in it as a body. Our strategy is to disseminate information on agricultural businesses, such that members can individually and/or collectively be aware of such businesses and set them up in ALAIGBO (Igboland). Thereafter, chains of manufacturing businesses linked to agriculture would be set up and the beat goes on. Agriculture is our LHF (Low Hanging Fruit). We need to feed ourselves from our agricultural pursuits lest we may go hungry if the threats of banning the supply of onions, tomatoes, cows and others to the south are carried out.
We are sensitizing our members to deploy and adopt the use of biotechnology to restore the agricultural prowess of the Southeast, which has been consistently weakened by the poor planting materials, low fertilizer applications, age-long practices and other factors like over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture, smallholder land holding and weak agricultural extension system. So, at Akuluouno, we believe agriculture is the future.
As a financial expert, what is your view on some recent actions taken by the Nigerian government, such as the ban on cryptocurrency, Twitter, and some trading platforms domiciled in Nigeria from offering trades in stocks to Nigerians? What do you think will be the effect of these actions on the Nigerian investment space?
Akuluouno Think Home Forum is affected by this Twitter ban, as we have a Twitter handle. Luckily for us, we are majorly on WhatsApp. According to Deepak Chopra, “All great changes are preceded by chaos”. Could it be what this Twitter ban will lead to? Certainly, this is “chaos” loading.
Many countries, among them the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, the Republic of Ireland, and the European Union, have expressed disappointment over the indefinite suspension of Twitter’s operations in Nigeria. Certainly, this ban will hinder access to information and hamper businesses. It sends a poor message to investors, businesses and the citizens. However, the Twitter ban is a step towards further social media regulations, according to a statement released by the Ministry of Information. The implication is that the long-sought social media regulation [clampdown] resolve of the federal government, which has been heavily criticized in the past, is already underway.
Do you have any doubt that the rates at which Nigeria’s local currency exchanges with other currencies such as the dollar, pounds, euro, hamper the inflow of FDI and the economy at large?
I have no doubt at all that at the rate the Nigerian currency, the Naira, is slumping, it will hamper the inflow of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and the economy at large. I recall vividly that upon my graduation from the university (University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus) in 1982, that the rate of exchange between the Naira and the United States Dollar was about N1: $1. With nostalgia, I equally remember that my first brand new car, a Volkswagen Santana, that I bought in 1985, was bought at N15,000 (fifteen thousand naira only). Today, a similar car, say Toyota Camry, is costing about N7.5 million (seven and half million naira). I am going down memory lane to enable us to situate the issue at stake, that is, how low our Naira has depreciated in about 40 years.
I equally recall that I have resisted sourcing for dollar-denominated bank loans for my business because of this steep devaluation of the Naira. Currently, I understand that Naira exchanges for N500 to the United States Dollar. And, it may still slump further in future. Therefore, investors, especially those sending FDIs will be skeptical in investing their financial resources in an economy where the exchange rate is not stable.