Lai Omotola, group managing director, CFL Group, in this interview with ZEBULON AGOMUO, spoke on the state of the nation, touching on the power situation, the economy, rising insecurity, the desperation of politicians, among others. Excerpts:
The power situation in Nigeria has continued to grow worse by the day. It has defied many governments’ efforts; what do you think is the major problem and what should you suggest as the lasting solution?
The amount of power supply that Nigeria needs to function well is not a rocket science to achieve. If you go to Japan or China, the total amount of electricity Nigeria says she needs is just one tenth of what a factory, an industry is using over there. The people they have given our power equipment to, do not have two things- the technical and financial muscle to solve the power problem. It is like a blind leading the blind; they will continue to stumble. If Nigeria is going to be serious; all they just need to do is just get one company- a global company that has the money. Then Nigeria will concession the power supply, say for 30 years, within which the company recovers its investment. After, say, 30 years, the company returns it back to us. If for instance, the company invests about 500 billion dollars; it will then get back its investment in 10 years, and 20 years for its profit. By this arrangement, the company is the only one that will be in the market. So, the price is standard. And what is it going to do? It is going to bring everything needed to turn things around. You see, I have said it so many times that the system we are operating today will continue to fail. You know what? The man that is extracting gas is a different company; the man that has laid the pipe is a different company; the man that is buying the gas is a different company; the man that will generate the energy is a different company, and the man that will distribute the energy to the end users is a different company. So, this man gives electricity to the end user; when it is time to pay, the person who gave him electricity, he begins to tells story; the owner of the gas will say, ‘pay me my money now,’ and that one begins to tell story also, and the other person that is extracting the gas tells story. So, if anybody does not function as he should function, there is confusion all over. Nigeria has had total system failure for more than hundred times because of all these inconsistencies. Now, come to telecoms. When they were coming, they brought their generators; laid their cables; their base stations and everything was within one company. They did not depend on anybody. Today, they no longer do infrastructure work; they concentrate only on their revenue. They called infrastructure companies and released their base stations to such firms and they entered into an agreement to be paying and that the base station must not blink for a second. Today, what MTN, Airtel have is just their revenue base. The rest of the infrastructure, including the building, has been outsourced. Now, look at the situation we have with our power today; you say you have new investors; when the transformer goes bad, the investor cannot buy you another transformer; the people in that community will have to contribute money to buy another transformer, and when you buy the transformer, the day you install it, the company will come and say they are the owner of the transformer, and they will go and put it in their account book that the transformer is part of their assets. But a telecom company, on a daily basis, their generator may develop serious fault; do they call you? Their transformer may go bad; they do not call you, because your business with them is just to receive a seamless service, not about what happens to their generator or transformer. These Discos cannot even change their cars; they have been using the same old cars they inherited from NEPA and their personnel not well-kitted. But when you bring people who understand the business, they are coming with over five hundred thousand transformers; very solid ones, because they are looking at over 30 years. They have the financial muscle to do all these things. If we do not do such a thing, we would just be wasting our time because a man does not give what he does not have. The Discos, the Gencos are all owing money that they cannot finish paying in their generation. We may at a point start afresh. The truth of the matter is that everybody needs light on daily basis and light is more profitable than telecoms if we can get it right. Unless we get electricity right, we cannot start productivity. This is because, using alternative source of power is troublesome and cumbersome. No matter how rich you are, if you are sleeping with generator, it is half sleep. As you are sleeping, you are listening to the sound of the generator too, and you are bothering about whether the generator would not develop fault, whether it would not blow. The sleep would not be sound. But when the source of the power supply is far away, then you can sleep well. The issue of electricity in Nigeria is something that can be resolved; but we need people with bold mind; and those who are ready to think big.
The security situation in the country is getting seriously out of hand. In some places, farmers are being prevented from going to their farms; which is threatening food production. There are cases of kidnapping here and there. Where do you think the country is heading to with all these?
It is obvious that the insecurity has overwhelmed the government. There is no government that will not take security seriously and there is no government that will intentionally want to put the lives of the people at risk or that will be fostering insecurity, but the truth of the matter is that it has overwhelmed the government both at the local level, state level and federal level. And the reason is not far-fetched. The poverty level in the country is high and on the increase. The hopelessness, the homelessness are worsening. The security situation in Nigeria is going to get worse because there is nothing the government can do now. But you see; there is always a solution. The solution is that Nigeria is divided into territories, and those territories start from wards. From the wards to local governments, to senatorial districts, to states, to geo-political zones. What has happened is that the people who are supposed to function well right from the community base have become dysfunctional. In those days, when a new person enters a community, everybody knows that this one is a stranger; and questions would be asked. But the local government that is supposed to take up that function has totally disappeared from the surface of governance in Nigeria. But people do not realise that the most potent government that holds a country is the local government. The one that everybody is supposed to concentrate on; they are leaving that alone and everybody is looking at one man at the top. It does not happen that way in developed countries. The local government has been neglected. Just all manner of persons are being given the local government to run, and they know nothing about the essence of local government administration to the people. Local government chairmen are supposed to be one of the brightest people we have but, that is not happening. The major problem is that our laws are allowing state governors do local government elections. It is a disaster. INEC should be the only institution to conduct election from ward level to presidential level; just like the CBN is the only organisation that regulates all the banks including the microfinance banks. The same thing with the National Judicial Council (NJC); anything from lower to supreme court. Why then does INEC allow the governors to create state electoral commissions? What we see now is a situation where a ruling party in a state wins all the local government areas during council polls. If INEC begins to organise council elections, what it means is that, up to a larger extent, that election would be free and fair; not the one that the governor would just go and write the results in his office. So, as long as the governors continue to hold down the local governments, the Nigeria police cannot solve the problem of insecurity and as long as the challenge of insecurity is there, the economy will continue to be grossly affected. So, what you are going to have are just dominant people- those who can open a business, and decide to put an armoured tank in front of their factory that nobody can come there. When he produces his goods, he can put two or three policemen inside a truck to accompany the goods to delivery point. So, any other person who does not have the resources to do so will fizzle away.
It has been noticed that there is a high level of voter apathy in the country. Some people say it is a sign of loss of confidence in the electoral process in the country and all that. What is your take here and what do you see as we prepare for a new round of elections in 2023.
As we go into 2023, I can tell you that as we get there, more people will come out than ever for that election. The unfortunate thing is that our politicians are yet to learn their lesson. After the #ENDSARS protest, the by-elections in Lagos and other places came; and a lot of people looked at it that of what impact does a senatorial ticket have on their lives that they are yet to benefit from the governorship election that they participated in? So, ordinarily, you would not expect to see many people come out to vote, especially when the candidate is even new. He’s not a candidate that they were used to. But when it comes to presidential and governorship, it is not like that. The people will mobilise their base because the reward is high. Now, there are two dominant parties; there is a school of thought that says they are they are the same-APC and PDP- that there is need for a Third Force. But you see, third force to uproot the PDP and APC is a tall order. They can only try but they cannot achieve much. So, the dominant forces remain the APC and PDP. Now, as to the gladiators, it is too early in the day to determine that, to say in particular how things will go. A lot of revelations are going to happen towards the end of Buhari’s tenure; a lot of people that have been tolerating him; towards the end of his tenure will no longer tolerate him because they know that time is near and the power that he will have is no longer like before and it is now time for them to take their own. There is a cry and urgent need for fresh people. It is not about calling our people in the Diaspora to return home to take up power. No. Nigeria’s leadership can only grow organically, not inorganically. You know the reason? A lot of us outside government talk about government that we do not know. After criticising that government that we do not know, when we get there, we are overwhelmed. When we grow organically, the people already in the system, those that have good intention and understand the dynamics and how politics works. The major challenge of the country is our mindset. For instance, why would someone has one billion dollars stocked somewhere that is not reproducing itself and they say he is a businessman? All the money that Nigeria needs is with people within the country; they just stash it there. Why would someone put like six Rose Royce cars in his yard; it is not generating any income, but he prides himself as a businessman, and he is sleeping well? But the people who are running this economy- who are they? They are South Africans, the Indians, Chinese, and the Lebanese. You can’t see them driving big cars. They can even decide to take Uber.
Look at the relationship between South Africa and Nigeria. They come to Nigeria with nothing but their skill; use Nigerian money from the bank to establish business. And when they establish that business, every naira they make, they convert it to dollar and move it away. Nigerians steal dollar from Nigeria; take it to South Africa, not for business, but what do they do with it? They built houses. They have no time to stay there; they are here; they say, ‘I have two houses in South Africa’. So, why would there not be pressure on dollar? South Africans are changing naira to dollar to move to South Africa. Nigerians are changing naira to dollar to go to South Africa. What is it telling you? They don’t understand the game. There are multi-nationals here that do not have a single asset here; they do not build a single house here; they rent houses and offices. What they are here for is the dollar. But an average Nigerian businessman has no sense or let me put it this way- an average Nigerian billionaire is without a sense, because 95 percent of them make their money from government patronage; whereas in developed nations, the billionaires have nothing to do with government. Business gurus in Nigeria, running multi-billion-naira business in this country cannot afford to criticise the government because if government moves in, it can shut down their business in a second. They get patronage through tax evasion, waivers that remain unpaid running into billions of naira. All of them have become billionaires via government patronage. They are doing something and government is looking the other way. That’s why someone complained that there are two exchange rates in Nigeria. There is an exchange rate for the elite and another for the other people. So, for someone that has collected dollar at the rate of 380 instead of 480; is that person government aided or not? You can only find it in Nigeria; you can’t find it somewhere else. And these are the things that have been happening that the average Nigerian billionaire does not understand this is not the way to do business. That’s why when most of them die, the business disappears; So, what is the essence of starting a business that will soon fade away?
Can you do a review of the political landscape in the country in the last one year?
It has become worse, honestly; even dangerous. Our politicians have become extremely desperate. The same politicians for the first time wanted to totally extinguish the Supreme Court; the highest court in the land, when on the different occasions, Supreme Court judgments that had been passed, politicians took their lawyers, approached the Supreme Court, that it should vacate the judgments, to the extent that the Supreme Court became very angry and for the first time, had to fine that lawyers. That would have been the end of the judiciary. This shows how desperate they are to hold on to power. So, they have become more desperate; and someone said there is no other thriving business in the country now but politics. The politics of win-by-all-means is on the increase. Again, if you look at the two parties, PDP has not understood what it means to be an opposition party because all their life they have been ruling; so in their opposition, they have not been critical and has not been well-informed. On the other side, the APC, look at what has happened to Adams Oshiomhole. Looks at how he has been decimated. A national chairman of a party; all of a sudden, could not get access to the President until he was totally removed from the seat, and instead of him to learn from that, he now took himself to Edo State and further decimation happened where those people said they no longer want a godfather. One would have expected that Oshiomhole being a former labour leader could have learnt one or two things about power; but he did not; now the power has disappeared. I think that the ruling party needs to redefine itself as a party of the people. They need to understand that we are in a very critical days of our history in this country.