THE CENTRE OF OUR COUNTRY'S ECONOMIC POLICY SHOULD BE JOB CREATION â€“ SAM OHUABUNWA, PRESIDENT/CEO, NEIMETH
Mazi Sam Iheanyichukwu Ohuabunwa, who turned 60 yesterday, is a consummate entrepreneur and businessman with major interests in telecommunications, courier, financial services and healthcare. He currently serves as the President/CEO of Neimeth International Pharmaceuticals Plc., a resultant company from the management buyout of Pfizer Inc. shares in Pfizer Products Plc., which he led in 1997.
Prior to that, Sam was the Chairman/Managing Director/Regional Manager for Pfizer West Africa, the group he joined in 1978 as a Pharmaceutical Sales Representative, and rose to become the CEO in 1993.
Ohuabunwa, who is the current chairman of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) serves on the Board of several corporations and organizations. In his interview with a select group of journalists in Lagos last week, he bares his mind on his future plans, the state of the economy, his regrets and challeges.
Sixty years down the lane, how has the journey been?
Truly, it's been a blessed journey that has produced substantial results. It is also a journey that has afforded one the opportunity to see life in all its ramifications. The journey has been exciting because I have been active all my life. I have been involved in very many things. There are people who say this part of my life I missed it, but that is not to be with me.
Again, I will want to say that I have been active as a boy, youth, young man and as a middle-aged man.
I have enjoyed extraordinary favour from God because there are people who have done things that I have done but they are not alive today to tell the story. There are also those that have laboured more than I have but they don't have the privilege to be so recognized. So, I have gone through a journey of 60 years, which I believe have been quite challenging, exciting and more importantly, fulfilling, especially in the course of my 60 years, I have come to discover the purpose of my life and I have begun to work in line with that purpose; that has even heightened my feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.
In summary, it has been 60 years of activities, participation and involvement in the affairs of the nation, community, family and my profession. I do not see any part of my circumference that God has not allowed me to adequately benefit from and also make my contribution. It is a life one has to thank God for. It has not been easy all the time. But I don't think it was made to be easy. However, the joy is that at each time there were confrontations and challenges that one had been able to overcome and move forward. So, it has been progressive and keeps getting better everyday.
I come from a family that was exposed early to the different sides of life. My dad, the late Mazi Eze Ohuabunwa, and my mother, Madam Matilda Ohuabunwa, who is still alive, gave birth to me in the cosmopolitan environment of Port Harcourt, Rivers State. At this point, Nigeria was at the stage of pre-Independence. It was also at a time when Nigeria was beginning to gradually open to British colonial impact. And because of that I went to church at birth in 1950, where I was baptized and that was why I was named Samuel.
Even at this time, my mother still went to the farm. And as I grew I equally went to the farm. My parents were also into business beyond farming, which they didn't do as a profession but as something that every family member needed to do to augment the family intake. So, this trend accounts for the reason why I became involved in business issues early in life.
At age 10, I was already helping my mother in her business, while at age 15, I had the opportunity to personally try my hand in my own small business. Again, because I grew up in a cosmopolitan area, we lived amongst people from different ethnic backgrounds, which included Urhobos, Hausas, Efiks, Itsekiris, Kalabaris, and Igbos and, as a result of this, we had to find a common language in either English or Pidgin English. And maybe this accounts for why I cannot speak my Arochukwu dialect fluently. So, I had this cosmopolitan outlook because my parents allowed me to relate very well amongst my peers, who all came from different ethnic backgrounds.
At every level I belonged to every society my peers belonged to. In the church, I was in all the societies that every young people belonged to. I was in Boys Scout, Boys Brigade, Choir and Anglican Youth Fellowship.
In my primary and secondary school days, I was also active in the school. In fact, at one stage when I was in form three in the secondary school, I was the president of about five junior societies at the same time, just as I was involved in all kind of sports as well.
I could remember that in primary school, I was a goalkeeper. Secondary school I became a footballer and was even given the nickname Jimmy Pele. Because of that, I had to score some goals. You know Pele was the reigning king of football at that time. Though, by my own estimation, I didn't consider myself a great footballer. But you know there are some people who could come into a game and due to combination of some factors, they could change the tempo of the game by scoring one quick goal and they become the hero of the game. That's the kind of thing I find myself doing. I played hockey as well.
But early in life, something came through to me; and that was that; God has given opportunity of what one might be. And I associated it with leadership. I always find myself in the middle of things. I was always the one to organize street football, speak for my group, and organize my mates each time we came together.
I find myself trying to take decisions and organize things and that lived with me and has lived with me till date. I have always wanted things to be done well and right as I was growing up.
In all, I believe that God gave me the opportunity to realize the talents that I had and to use those talents effectively. I went through school mostly on scholarships. Part of my primary school I had scholarship, secondary school, scholarship and my university; I had three scholarships to deal with. And that has happened also because somehow God also favoured me despite the fact that I don't really consider myself a book worm. I was not also completely a rascal but you will always find me in the middle.
You find me with the book worms once in a while and with the rascals as well. So, it was really difficult to place where I belong. But somehow, maybe because I took the benefits of both sides, I became socially acceptable and was always called upon to do things other people may not be asked to do. Again, people now found out that despite those social activities, my academic work was not really affected in anyway. And in most cases, I still led my class.
Nigeria at 50, how have we fared?
Our country, Nigeria, at 50, is a story of mixed success. If you look at the dream of our founding fathers when they were fighting for the independence of the country, they saw a nation that was going to emerge as the leader of Black Africa and a major player in the world. They saw a country that will stand out and lead the liberation of Africa from the colonial and neo-colonial tendencies. They also saw a country with so much liberty and freedom and progress. And these were reflected in the early development plans that we had. But somewhere along the line, we kind of missed our way. And the dreams that our leaders had were aborted.
Though, there was some level of attainment of the dream. But it was not fully attained. And up till today, we are still grappling to see if we could go to those dreams of becoming the leader of Africa by being a globally recognized country that made Africans and black people proud but because of the issues in the middle of our journey, we cannot sufficiently say that we got our bearings right.
If you look at the Nigerian state in terms of assessment, majority of our country people would say our yesterday was better. You hear people talk about the good old days. Very many people say so. I even hear my children talk about what the country used to be, even as young as they are; they talk about what it used to be. It means things have not gotten progressively better in some areas, yes. But sum total, it has been progressively worse.
I also believe that when we are looked at by our neighbours and the external world, they take us as a country of missed opportunities.
The world had bought into the vision of our founding fathers and had so much hope for us. They saw so much promise and they got more excited when they began to see the endowment that God has given to us. They also began to see the kind of human reasons leaders and professionals that this country could produce, especially when they appeared in their own environment and compare it with what was happening locally. So, from an internal and external outlook, the verdict is that; we have not fulfilled our destiny and reached our goals.Infact, we have fallen short of most of them.
But the good thing about the country is that we have not become despondent despite all our challenges. Nigerians still remain optimistic that someday, somehow we shall get there. And for me, that is the driving momentum that makes me love this nation. We never say die.
NESG and recommendations to government
Somehow, we can say, so far, the level of implementation of some of our past recommendations to government is average, though, it is not up to our expectations, but we cannot also say it is a story of complete abandonment or waste of time and efforts. At the last summit, one of the things I did in my presentation was to do a score card, measuring our presentations, suggestions and recommendations against the ones that were accepted and the ones that were not. And we found out that 50 to 60 per cent of what we have said has somehow been accepted.
Though some attempts were made to implement them but the major issue we found was that, there was no consistency and persistency in implementation. Some of them were started and reversed. Some were started and dropped, while some were started and left to stagnate. And what that tells me is that, we have not had a number of cases or capacity to implement them by going all the way to do that. And that could be as a result of not having visionary leadership, committed executive capacity to implement it. And some are bureaucratic problems and manpower shortages. These things have affected us greatly. But by and large, we can point to some areas of significant success where government had been quite willing to take our suggestions in certain areas of economy, especially in the areas of promoting global best standards, opening up and competing with the rest of the world.
Also, we have had it good in the areas of privatization, liberalization and globalization concepts. In those areas where government had generally adopted these principles, it was due to our pressures that privatization held sway. Even though we have witnessed some reversals here and there. Again, we have equally seen the consequences of those reversals. But I can say without fear of equivocation or contradiction that; by and large, more of the suggestions we have made, have been accepted and implemented the way we wanted them.
I believe that our economy would have been doing better and our country would have been a better state than it is.
On privatization of the economy
We still have a lot of places that has not been fully privatized or where we do not have the expected opening up. We still have a lot of businesses that are still in government jurisdiction. For example, power. Power is still in government hands to the tune of almost 98 percent. That is a major area of concern. Infrastructure is another area. Though efforts are being made now to go into Public Private Partnership (PPP). But, if we had opened our infrastructure earlier for private sector investment and participation, I can assure you that we would have gone far.
The revolution that happened in telecommunications is a clear example that when the private sector is unleashed, they cannot change the situation. Our telecommunications installed lines grew from 500,000 to the current 60,000,000 lines that we have now. This is a clear result of revolution that happened as a result of policy shift. Let us deregulate and open the environment for private sector participation. Private sector participation is otherwise simply called liberalization. In two forms, that is government winding up down their operations or interest in where they have monopoly. And the other is allowing new private sector investment, but rather, we slowed down.
In 2007, the refineries were almost sold. By now, the refineries should be working and back on stream. Some of the steel mills were also supposed to have been sold but were rather reversed and several of such things.
I also admit that some of the privatization activities would not stand true scrutiny to have complied with best standards and best test of transparency. Those were some of the pitfalls. And that also reflected the challenges of corruption in our system. But by and large, there is still a lot to do if government goes out to say; we are continuing with privatization and we are going to open up the sectors for the private sector to key in. By so doing, you will discover that, there will be faster growth because there will be inflow of foreign investment and even the local investors will be ready to participate in infrastructure development.
Economic growth without job creation
I believe that the center of our economic policy should be job creation. And this is what I have demonstrated in several ways. If I were the Minister of Labour or Commerce and Industry, what I will do, would be to come to Oba Akran in Ikeja and meet the companies there. And my question to them will be two. First, I will say; Dunlop, what was your turnover last year and he says N1million. I will tell the company, what can I do to make it N1.5millon this year.
The next question will be, how many people are you employing? And he says 500, I will ask, what can I do to make you employ additional 250 people?
Those are the two questions I will ask business people. After getting their submissions, I will go back to my office and harmonize all what they have said. I know that when I talk to 10 manufacturers or business people, they say conflicting things, some may say; reduce tariffs and other person may say increase tariffs. I will take all that and return to them saying; if I do all these for you, what you are going to produce with it should be increased turnover but more importantly, increased employment.
If it is tariff or tax reduction, I will do a cost benefit analysis of it and present it to government to see that, if we reduce corporate tax from 32 to 30 percent, how much we are going to lose as a government and now translate it to how we can recover it from more people being employed. Instead of getting it from corporate tax, we get if from personal income tax. For instance, if government is getting 100 percent corporate tax from just two companies and that's all they get, that takes us nowhere. But if I get 25 percent from them and create jobs which can help government to get tax from about 1,000 people.
By so doing, government is making more revenue, but more importantly, more people would have gotten employed, thereby addressing challenges associated with social issues which would in turn reduce the level of crime rate. Destruction of people's property is not the answer to our economic problems. If people build kiosks indiscriminately, the only thing to do is to show them how to build it in an orderly manner because people building kiosks are employing one or more people. By destroying business properties, we are not creating jobs but what we are doing is killing entrepreneurial spirit.
People lose their money and get discouraged, while others see them and they are not ready to take any venture, while others wait for people to employ them. And we continue to grow our statistics of unemployment. So, policies that will promote employment are the main issues. Again, what does it take for the economy to grow in terms of calculating the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), to get this, you need to look at what the country is producing and who is producing what. 35 per cent of our GDP comes from Oil and Gas. How many people are in that industry? Certainly not up to half a million workers are in the oil and gas sector of the economy. It produces 80 per cent of our national income and 93 per cent of our foreign exchange earnings.
Where are the other contributors to GDP? Agriculture is one sector that also employs more people. But because of low productivity much makes it less attractive and as such, nobody is in it for commercial purposes as a result of low returns on investments. And so, it is left for people who have nothing else to do.
Take manufacturing or the real sector. Manufacturing today contributes four per cent to GDP but it has the highest capacity to contribute to job creation. We must get more people back to work and also increase the contribution of the individual Nigerian towards enhanced productivity. The moment people are engaged in value creation, then, you begin to see the economy go up and the trickle down effect will be pronounced.
The manufacturing sector is not growing because it contributes less to the GDP. But if the real sector contributes about 80 per cent to the GDP, government will strive to keep the sector alive because it is the tax from the workforce in the sector that will provide the bulk of the money in the Federation Account to be shared by the respective state governments. So, there is a need for a change in the structure of our economy and base it on revenue coming from taxation. In Norway, where they have oil, they are saving all their oil revenue. They are not dependent on the oil. Rather, they depend on taxation. And so, they keep working.
There are certain inherent skills, which have been brought to the fore. And some of these have manifested in private sector leadership. This includes, Chairman of MAN, Ikeja Branch, President; NECA, Chairman, NESG; President, West African Pharmaceuticals Manufacturers Group. In all these leadership positions, God has allowed me to use those leadership positions and call to service to better the lot of my community and nation. Everywhere I have gone, I have seen people who have testified that something good happened during the time I had that opportunity to exercise that leadership or service. That for me is the greatest achievement.
This economy ought to give us more opportunity to prove our mettle in business than we have. Most Nigerian businesses are not doing well as they ought to do. Most Nigerian entrepreneurs are not doing well as they ought to do. We sweat too much for the results we get. I have been in the industry for 32 years, having joined Pfizer in 1978. I have been CEO for 17 years. And the kind of efforts I have put in this business, if I put them elsewhere, I probably would feel I have done better than I feel now because of the kind of economy, industry and challenges that one is confronted with.
Above all, my joy is that I have been able to discover my strength and I have the opportunity to also know the calling of God in my life. And I have tried to use every opportunity He has offered me to show that calling.
As I am 60 years now, one of the things that my book is calling for is that, few more of us who have this call to service and are willing to give ourself for service and leadership. All these positions that I have held in the past and present are just signs of leadership that are non-paying; instead, you spend your money, effort and sacrifices. Now, I am saying, can a few more people of like minds come together, so that we can take this to the public sector? Every year, we make plans and nothing happens. And since the challenge is that of leadership deficit, can we ask all those people who have inclination and who know that, they have a calling in this regard to show up.
And I am one of them volunteering to spend more of my time and energy in doing more pointed public service, than looking for money in the private sector. That is one of the things I am looking at. To be much more involved in public sector activities than I had hitherto done.
I am a grand father. Five children, four grand children and I am still counting because it is still early.
I don't have too much time for relaxation. But what helps me is that, I change my subject. I go from the very serious one to the mundane. And in-between, I find expression and valves to outlet them. I change my activities because I am a largely social person. I attend activities, events and parties. I have learnt how to trust God. And when you trust God, he reduces your pressure.
That is the feeling that, one ought to have done better than one is doing. But still, we can understand the circumstances.