Alex Otti is a former Group Managing Director of Diamond Bank and a former governorship candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance in Abia State. He tells TOFARATI IGE about his business career, sojourn in politics and other issues
What would you say are the three most important things that need to be done for Nigerians to have better lives?
I believe that one of the most important things is to reduce the cost of governance and release funds to improve infrastructure and other capital expenditure.
The second is to get more people engaged in economic activities by creating jobs and businesses to reduce the very high rate of unemployment and poverty. From an economic point of view, any hand that is left idle is a loss to productivity and therefore, the Gross Domestic Product. Job creation has the added advantage of reducing insecurity in the country.
The third one is to pursue a policy that would reduce dependence on foreign goods and improve local production. This would reduce the pressure on the Naira and strengthen the local currency. In the final analysis, inflation would be reduced to the barest minimum and people can plan their lives better.
You have constantly said that the cost of governance in Nigeria is too high. In what practical ways can it be reduced?
Yes, I will keep saying it until something happens. This is probably the only country I know that allocates 70 per cent of its budget to paying salaries for less than 0.5 per cent of the populace, leaving a miserly 30 per cent for capital expenditure for the rest of us. I have argued that the government, at both the executive and legislative levels, is too big and needs to be pruned down. I need to be convinced that we need 109 Senators while the United States of America from where we copied our democracy and whose population is almost twice ours has 100 senators. The same goes for the House of Representatives. If you go into their comparative compensation, it is like comparing darkness and daylight. I had also argued that we could decide to legislate away one of the arms of the legislature and the only thing that would change will be the cost of governance. After all, Senegal in 2012, decided to scrap her Senate which had an annual budget of $16m, and that had an immediate impact on the country’s balance sheet. You need to find out how much it costs to service the Presidency and State governors. We can take a principled decision to reduce these and channel the funds to where they are needed most. Just by rearranging the ratio, a lot of things can change for the better. Some people are campaigning for more states to be created. I hold the view that we can manage this country more efficiently, under a lean six regional structure and eliminate 30 governors and the cost of maintaining them. We can also decide that the regions should be at liberty to create their local councils and manage them. There is a lot we can do to release funds to where they are most needed.
The country is neck deep in external debts. What do you think that portends for the future?
Ordinarily, there is nothing wrong with borrowing. The important point is what we are borrowing for, at what cost and our capacity to repay. We have not been at our best in managing our resources efficiently for the greater good of the people. How are we sure that our borrowing is going into the right sectors that would create jobs and make life better for our people? Experts have predicted that this year, with our debt profile of almost $96bn (circa N40 trillion) we would spend up to 92 per cent of our revenue on debt servicing. That is very worrisome. The implication is that we would need more loans to run our day-to-day lives, including paying salaries. There is no way we can continue like that. I feel we need to have a serious conversation on this issue.
What manner of restructuring do you think Nigeria needs to adopt for more effective governance?
I have spoken about the restructuring of our expenditure profile. We must discuss how to flip our expenditure such that a greater proportion will be channeled to capital expenditure. We must also understand restructuring from the point of view of institutionalising fiscal federalism. A situation where component parts of government or sub national governments gather in Abuja to share money called ‘federal allocation’ is not sustainable. Regions should generate their own resources and make contributions to run the centre, not the other way round. Governments must be made slim and trim. Large governments like the ones we have must be scrapped. That is my own take on restructuring.
In what ways can state governments increase their internally generated revenue?
Internally generated revenue, just like taxes, has been defined as government’s share of the prosperity it has created among its citizens. This definition presupposes that before a government can legitimately demand taxes, it must have created some prosperity. Any government that has not created wealth for its populace cannot demand a share of what it didn’t create. Having said that, it follows that the most important avenue to increase IGR is through good governance that focuses on creating wealth, improving infrastructure and ease of doing business. It is certainly not by introducing all sorts of taxes and levies some of them duplicated and sending touts after citizens. It is not by owing salaries of those that are supposed to give service to the populace. It is not by mismanaging the meagre resources available to the state.
The 2023 elections are around the corner. What are your plans?
What do you think? Anyway, my plans have not changed. I had said elsewhere that we took a principled decision in 2014 to leave what we were doing to come and help provide good governance to my people who have long sought for it. Our people responded positively and voted massively for us. The votes were stolen at the behest of the then government in power and the rest is history. Having made the move, there are two options open to us— to continue until we realise our goal or to go back to where we were coming from. In the last eight years, we have continued on the journey. We did not make any attempt to go back. Stopping midway is not an option. We will continue to our destination. I will run for the governorship of Abia State in 2023.
Many technocrats that did well in different fields have failed in governance. Why do you think that happens and how do you intend to sidestep that ‘banana peel’?
It is important to state that the fact that someone is a technocrat does not automatically confer success on him. Evidence abounds to show that among technocrats, there are success stories and failures alike. I believe that what is important is one’s track record. If one is a successful technocrat, chances that one would be a successful leader are very high. The converse is also correct. At the risk of sounding immodest, I believe that as a successful leader, going back to my student days to my days in the financial industry, I will also be a very successful leader in governance.
What is your take on the zoning of the presidential candidate of major political parties ahead of 2023?
I have always held the view that in governance, what should matter most is the capacity to lead. We cannot push that to the back burner. However, our circumstance in Nigeria is different from what obtains in climes that have built their nations. What we have in Nigeria is a country of many nations. At this stage, we can’t pretend to ignore the suspicions and mistrust between parts of the country. For the sake of equity and fairness, our leaders have always worked out an arrangement where power is rotated between component parts of the country. I believe it was Dr Alex Ekwueme that came up with the doctrine of the six geopolitical zones in the country. This has now been accepted as representing the different nations of the country. Half of these zones are in the north and the other half are in the south. Most major political parties have adopted an arrangement of rotating power from the north to the south. By 2023, power would have been in the north for eight years and should naturally return to the south. In the south, the only zone where it has not rotated to is the southeast, and (that zone) should rightfully produce the President in 2023. Having said that, I will quickly add that rotation alone cannot solve our problems if we do not pay attention to correcting some of the structural constitutional issues highlighted above and elsewhere.
How would you describe your experience as a member of the All Progressives Congress so far?
The APC is a large party. When you have a large organisation, it comes with its own challenges. So, I will not say I am surprised at some of the experiences I have had in the party. The good news, however, is that at the end of it all, the challenges are resolvable, and they are being resolved. One major challenge is the leadership change from an ad-hoc caretaker committee to a substantive one. The convention that held a few days ago produced national officers of the party. The emergence of Senator Abdullahi Adamu, who became a consensus candidate as the chairman, speaks volume of the internal dispute resolution mechanism that exists in the party. I have no doubt that with his experience as a former governor and Senator, he will immediately get to work in resolving issues existing in some state chapters of the party, including Abia.
It is said that the APC is unpopular in the South-East. Are you sure you can be elected as a governor on such platform?
I have also heard the claim. However, those same people have also claimed that the Peoples’ Democratic Party has shortchanged the southeast with little to show in terms of development. Others, like in my state, have also opined that the PDP has hardly won any free and fair elections except through malpractices such as the one that was done against me in 2015. I believe that our people are very discerning and they do not have herd mentality. They are more interested in the quality of the candidate than the party. Any party that makes the mistake of fielding the wrong candidates, basking in the euphoria of political party popularity would lose. Again, I do not think the APC had marketed itself well in the South East. With more people (in the southeast) joining the APC in the last few years, I doubt if anyone can still say the party is unpopular. The party currently has 40 per cent of the governors in the region, some senators, as well as House of Representatives and House of Assembly members.
What are your thoughts on the #EndSARS protests vis-a-vis the involvement of youths in governance and leadership?
The #EndSARS protests have now come and gone. For me, I saw it as a genuine expression of the frustrations of the youth against a system that had not dealt them a fair hand. The whole protest was well organised initially, with youths bringing their own food and avoiding molestation and violence and in fact, cleaning up after the protests. Like all such things, the protest was subsequently hijacked and violence erupted, leading to the unfortunate destruction of lives and property. I believe we should take the lessons of the protest. On the involvement of the youth in leadership, I have always held the view that with the massive youth population, they should take their chance at leadership. Like it is said, power is taken, not given. They should organise themselves and take power from the ballot box. Unfortunately, it is some of them that are used as thugs and errand boys for the politicians. When one goes on social media, one will notice that it is the youth that are engaging in wars on behalf of the octogenarians who do not want to retire from politics. So, when you are sending a mixed message, it is easy for people not to take you seriously.
A school of thought believes that youths are best suited for the position of leading the country because of their fresh ideas and strength. However, some persons believe that elder people are better because of the experience they would bring to bear on the job. What’s your take on this?
It depends on how you define youth. It is generally believed that once one is above 30, one does not qualify to be called a youth. (Meanwhile), some people insist that people who are below 40 are youths. Anyhow you look at it, there is something to say about the thinking, energy and courage of the youth and any society that ignores this kind of group does so at its own peril.
However, I must add that there is something to also say for relevant experience and maturity. My position is that leadership is not the exclusive preserve of the youth to the exclusion of the advanced (in age). Neither is it for the elderly to the exclusion of the youth. Anyone who has the required qualities should participate.
Since you began your foray into politics, what are the most important lessons you have learnt?
My response to this question can be summarised in two volumes of a book. And that is if I want to be concise. I have learnt a lot from joining politics and the truth is that one should have joined earlier. Unfortunately, many successful technocrats keep away from politics because they believe they are safer in their comfort zones. However, it was Plato who wrote that, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that one ends up being governed by one’s inferiors”. Charles de Gaulle also said that politics is too important to be left in the hands of politicians. One of the lessons I have learnt is that some people who call themselves politicians want to go against the position of De Gaulle. They want the place to be an exclusive club of politicians and they do everything to discourage technocrats and other people from coming in. Some of them make the place so toxic while others use a combination of blackmail and intimidation to scare people away. I have also said in the past that politics is the only vocation where someone dresses up in the morning, and goes out to tell lies. Both of you (hearer and speaker) know he is lying but by the time he is about to leave, you still give him money to reward him for the lies. But, there are good lessons and a few good people in politics. I have been lucky to work with some of the good people.
Considering the high level of unemployment in the country, in what ways can massive job opportunities be created?
The first thing is for us to recognise that unemployment is hurting our economy. Once we do that, we will be able to do something about it. In a situation where unemployment is going in the same direction with inflation (what economists refer to as stagflation), what you will have is misery. There is a measure for misery called the misery index. The last time I checked, Nigeria was at 50.5 per cent, as against a more comfortable 15 per cent we were a few years ago. The best countries such as Japan and Switzerland are at about 3 per cent, and the worst being countries like Libya and Sudan with numbers over 100 per cent. All these mean that we are actually in trouble. All the issue around insecurity can be traced to a large extent to the burgeoning unemployment level. The government has a lot to do in taming this monster. Government’s role should be indirect by providing the enabling environment for jobs to be created. You cannot talk of enabling environment without reference to the ease of doing business. Also, at the centre of an enabling environment is infrastructure. At the moment, people generally find it more cost effective to import goods and services than to produce locally. In as much as that imbalance remains, the issue of job creation will remain a platitude with little or no action. As a businessman, if your cost of production occasioned by astronomical cost of energy, transportation, security and other logistics are higher than the cost elsewhere in the world, your choices would be to bring in the goods from where the costs are lower or set up production outlets in those countries. It would interest you to know that some Nigerians own factories in China. Actions like this reinforce outsourcing of jobs and unemployment in the local economy. Even if governments have to subsidise production and give tax waivers and concessions to encourage local manufacturing, the net effect would be beneficial to the economy in terms of job creation and poverty reduction. The government must take deliberate actions to support local production and create jobs.
What qualities do you think are most important for politicians to have?
I believe that the essence of politics is leadership. So, the qualities of effective leadership should apply to the ideal politicians. Like someone said, every society gets the leadership it deserves. This saying is apt because at the end of the day, it is the society that chooses its leadership. The more discerning the society is, the better the decision they make in leadership choices. One of the most important attributes of a leader is character. Character is everything. If one does not have character, there is nothing to offer. Another one is integrity. Someone with integrity would not steal public funds. Again, knowledge is key. It is said that one cannot give what one does not have. At the heart of the failure in leadership at various levels is poor knowledge. I would expect that anyone who calls himself a politician should have a second address. Sincerely, most ‘career politicians’ are jobless. That is why they must be at the corridors of power every time and at all costs.
What advice do you have for young people considering a career in politics?
First, I will not recommend a career in politics. I will rather you build a career elsewhere before coming into politics, such that when you finish with serving your people, you can have somewhere to go back to. Because many politicians don’t have anywhere else to go, any attempt to remove them from power is met with ‘war’. Young people must see politics as a call to serve rather than a place to earn a living.
What do you consider to be your biggest breakthrough in life?
My biggest breakthrough is still on the way. It is still early days.
Do you miss your banking days?
Yes and No. Yes, because that is a place where I spent close to three decades of my life. It was an exciting period of my life, and my career in the bank was a very successful one. No, because I got to the pinnacle of my career and took a deliberate decision to resign to serve my people. With what I have seen in the political space, I encourage more people who have something to offer to join politics. They simply cannot sit on the fence. The country needs help at every leadership level. To the extent that I consider this service a higher calling, there is nothing to regret.
What other activities are you involved in these days?
I do a whole lot. I run a group of businesses spanning hospitality, real estate, insurance, financial services, and oil and gas. I also run a foundation as my own way of giving back. We have scholarship schemes that have been adjudged the best organised in the southeast (part of the country). It can compete with what you have anywhere in the world in terms of process for selection of beneficiaries for the interview. The Alex Otti Foundation awards scholarships to over 30 students in tertiary institutions every year and subject to maintaining minimum academic benchmarks, beneficiaries enjoy the scholarships until graduation. The recruitment process is strict but very transparent.
How would you describe yourself as a father?
This question is better directed at my children as they are in the best position to assess. However, in my own view, I think I am an excellent father. I have heard some people describe me as strict, but I believe that it is one of the best models to bring up children. I also know that I have always led a busy life and therefore may not have enough time to devote to my children. However, I hold the view that what is important is not the amount of time allotted to an activity but the quality of the time. I do have quality time for and with my family.
Is any of the children following in your footsteps?
It depends on what part of my footsteps you mean but in terms of career, I am not sure there is anyone following in my footsteps. It is definitely not my first daughter, who will graduate from medical school in a year’s time, nor my last who is also a science student. Perhaps, my son, who is a mathematician and also in the IT space. Maybe in due course, he would develop interest in financial services. I encourage my children and others in my sphere of influence to study what they enjoy.
How do you unwind?
I do a lot of writing and reading too. I have begun to see it as unwinding, particularly when it is done at my pace. I find time to do some sports which I enjoy. I used to play squash on a daily basis, but I have reduced the frequency now to make room for other sports. I also like to listen to music.
What are your favourite travel destinations?
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am not sure many people talk about travel destinations any longer. I have not done much travels in close to two years, except when absolutely necessary. But even before now, I never had any favourite destinations.
What kind of music do you listen to and do you dance?
I listen to different types of music. However, I have always enjoyed soft music, not necessarily jazz. As for dancing, I believe I can move my body, but I won’t describe myself as a great dancer.
What’s that one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?
I’m like an open book. Everything is on the table. I don’t know that there is anything hidden about me. So, that one thing does not exist.
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