Former Group Managing Director, Diamond Bank Plc and two-time governorship candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in Abia State, Dr. Alex Otti, has asserted that handing the Igbo Nigeria’s presidency would not solve the problem of Nigeria, insisting that some fundamental structural problems must first be dealt with for an egalitarian society to be institutionalised.
The renowned economist also averred that insecurity would persist in the country until the issue of poverty among the citizens is addressed.
He said: “A situation where close to 90 million people, representing 43 per cent of our population, live below the poverty line of less than 1.90 dollar per day, makes the country a veritable candidate for insecurity of the highest order.”
He explained why Diamond Bank was acquired after he left the bank, accusing those who succeeded him of dismantling the bank’s strategies, thereby making the acquisition inevitable.
Dr Otti spoke on other issues in this interview with JULIANA TAIWO-OBALONYE in Abuja. Excepts:
You were the 2015 and 2019 gubernatorial candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) but now you are in the APC. Was this move for political survival?
I spoke extensively of the reason I was leaving my former party. In 2019, the party became a Ponzi scheme used to fleece members who wanted to contest election on its platform. The leadership of the party, which should have protected party members, turned out to be the architects, masterminds and beneficiaries of the scheme. When some of us spoke out, the leadership, instead of addressing the issue, decided on a witch-hunt.
For instance, an insurrection was planted in the Abia wing of the party. A national convention was planned and I and few others were not invited. They kept us out because they knew they couldn’t have returned themselves if we were there. Meeting of the Board of Trustees of the party were called and some of us who were members were not invited. These are just a tip of the iceberg. When people are treated that way, staying back would be ridiculing themselves. Meanwhile, this is a party that had no office when I joined in 2014. We hurriedly paid for a secretariat in the state capital and offices in all the local governments in the state. We went on to win 11 out of the 24 member state House of Assembly and a House of Representative seats. Before our time, the party had not won a local government councilorship seat not to talk of Houses of Assembly and Representatives seats. It was very clear to me that the party had fallen into the hands of buccaneers who were on a mission to send it to the oblivion. We had no option than to leave.
What are your thoughts on Igbo presidency? How can this become a reality?
If you have followed my politics, you would realise that I do not believe in primordial sentiments. I believe that tribe and religion are basically smokescreens used by politicians to drive personal interests. Having said that, I also know that arrangements about power shift have remained the fulcrum of our politics in Nigeria. That is not to say that our salvation is going to come from that. Given that arrangement that has had power move from North to South and power having been in the North for two terms, it should naturally move to the South. Since South-West and South-South had been in power, it should naturally shift to the South East. That is the extent to which I believe in Igbo Presidency.
Would that solve the problem of Nigeria? I think not. There are some fundamental structural problems that must be dealt with for an egalitarian society to be institutionalised.
Any regrets leaving banking for politics? And given another opportunity in life, would you have done anything differently?
This is an interesting question which a lot of people would like to ask but somehow, no one has. The answer is NO. I have no regrets leaving banking at the time I did. I spent a quarter of a century in the financial services industry and it was a time well spent. It is true that my tenor as CEO had just been renewed for another three years a few months before I left, but it was also the best time to leave, when the ovation was loudest. I had set a target for myself and my team of where we wanted the bank to be in six years. We met the targets in four years and it was time to go. The only regret I had was that the bank was acquired five years after I left.
Even though I am yet to speak about that, I make bold to say that the team that succeeded me failed to keep to the strategy that we all collectively set up. As if I was being clairvoyant, before departure, I had said the following words to the new management: “If you maintain the strategy we all agreed on, you will continue to do well, if you improve on it, you will do better.”
To my chagrin, as soon as I left, the new management decided to dismantle the strategy, and in fact, replaced it with none. That was the beginning of the end. But like I said, it is a story for another day. Coming into politics has exposed me to things that I would never have known. To those who say they don’t do politics, I refer them to a famous quote by the German Poet, Bertolt Brecht thus:
“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participate in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”
What are you plans for 2023?
This is 2021 which is still a brand new year. I can have plans up to end of 2021 which represents long term in Nigeria. You know that quite unlike elsewhere, just a few months is a long term here as things change quite rapidly. As for 2023, I have no plans yet. Maybe when we speak again in 2022, we can discuss plans for 2023. One thing that has remained constant with me is that I will continue to condemn and fight bad governance while campaigning for good governance at every level, whether I am contesting elections or not.
With the number of prominent Igbo people hit by the COVID-19, are you satisfied with the response of governors in the South-East in tackling the pandemic?
I am not sure COVID-19 cares about ethic profiling, as there is no evidence that its only prominent Igbo that are hit. This is a virus and once you come in contact with it, you are infected. If you are lucky, you recover. But of course, it is not just luck. If you have underlying conditions, you stand a bigger risk than those who don’t have. The problem is that a lot of people do not recognise that the virus is dangerous. So, you see, people are not observing the protocol as directed by NCDC and others operating as if nothing has changed. There is a lot that can be done to contain this virus and it is everyone’s job and not that of any government official alone.
The issue of insecurity- insurgency, armed robbery, kidnapping have taken a frightening turn. Are you satisfied with steps taken by government so far? What would you advise government to do differently?
A lot of us have spoken about rejigging the security architecture of the country. I’m happy that the government has started by changing the service chiefs. I expect that the new security chiefs understand that the country is in an emergency. I expect them to completely rethink the security system. Having said that, I also believe that we need to get to the root cause of the very high level of insurgency in the country. While I admit that criminality cannot be completely eliminated, I am of the view that the level of poverty is responsible for the upsurge in insecurity. A situation where close to 90 million people representing 43% of our population are living below poverty line of less than $1.90 per day, makes the country a veritable candidate for insecurity of the highest order. Of course we know that poor education has a direct relationship with poverty, and this also ensures that insurgency is sustained. So, we must do all we can to address poverty, unemployment, poor education, deprivation, poor governance and corruption as a lasting solution to insecurity.
A group in the north recently threatened to mobilise Nigerians from other parts of the country against the APC in the 2023 general elections if the issue of insecurity continues. Is that not a vote of no confidence in your party?
The beauty of democracy is that people are free to express their opinion. I am sure the group you are referring to was expressing its option and it is entitled to it. Another group may also come out and take the opposite position which will be well within its right. Like I said earlier, 2023 is still a whopping two years from now and no one knows what would happen then.
What are your thoughts on the call by Ebonyi State governor for your party to check social media critics?
I am unaware that he said that. However, I know that there have been divided opinions on the regulation of the social media. I personally think that you cannot legislate on what people should publish, but I believe that people should be responsible for the information they publish in the media, be they social or traditional. You will be surprised that there are enough laws in our jurisprudence to deal with false publication. The problem is that many of us either do not know our rights or do not care to protect our rights. If someone publishes false information about you, the law allows you to prosecute that person and bring him to book.
What’s your take on APC’s nationwide membership drive?
Yes, the revalidation and registration of members is on right now. So far, it has been a huge success in different parts of the country. We are encouraging our supporters, particularly those that moved with me, to come out and register. I’m happy to report that they are responding. We are also engaging with other people who were either not members of any political party before now or members of other political parties to join our party.
Is Abia ready for opposition party politics?
It depends on what you mean by opposition party politics. In the first place, the party in power in Abia is opposition and we are actually going to be installing the ruling party by 2023, God willing. I believe that this question arose from the attitude in the state in the past that had no place for opposition. That had since been dismantled since 2015, when we dislodged the herd mentality, where everyone queued behind government irrespective of its performance track record. From 2015, we had demonstrated that it is possible to disagree with government and be alive. We were very few elites then, but as time went on and with bad governance taking root in the state, more and more people are joining us and demanding good governance. They have called us names and victimized us with paid agents in the media and elsewhere, but we remain resilient and resolute because we know we are standing on the side of truth. The good news is that Abia people have regained their voices, courtesy of our struggle.
Need I say more?
How do you balance business schedule, politics, family demands and your religious obligations?
Everything is about planning. Once you have the discipline to plan and keep to your plans, things begin to look like clockwork. I try to put some thoughts to planning and it has always worked for me. I also believe that bigger and larger is not necessarily better. So for me, it is about the quality of time I devote to activities which produce results than the amount of time. I can tell you that this has always worked for me even in the bank.
How do you relax? What’s your favourite sport and favourite food and where’s your favourite holiday destination?
I am a bit of a different person. I do a few things as relaxation. For instance, I can be relaxing with a book in my hands. As a matter of fact, I always have a book I am reading and I recommend it to those who can do it. You can’t go wrong with reading. I used to play squash until a few years ago when my wife insisted that it was too high impact and pulled me out of it. But I exercise in the gym most mornings and it is a regimen I have kept to for years. I really don’t have a favourite food. I eat whatever I see and I am happy with that. Again, I do not have a favourite holiday destination, even though, I have been to most parts of the world. With this pandemic, I have not gone anywhere and I do not miss anything either. Call it the advantage of not having a favourite holiday destination.
What’s your reaction to CBN’s order to banks and other financial institutions to close customer accounts used in trading cryptocurrency, bitcoin and other related transactions?
If you understand that the major job of CBN is managing the economy from a monetary policy perspective, supervising and regulating financial institutions and maintaining financial stability, you will understand why the CBN issued that directive. Of course this is not the first time the CBN is raising concern about cryptocurrency. It did so in 2017 and followed up in 2018. My understanding is that the CBN is concerned that the digital currency regime is not under its control as all currencies should be and it is unable to regulate its use. Besides, there are reports that investors in cryptocurrency are putting pressure on the foreign currency markets in the country and therefore pushing rates up. CBN is also concerned at the speculative nature of the cryptocurrency market and the probability of losses to Nigerian investors, which it has no model to predict. I believe this directive is not where it ends. CBN would go to the next step of understanding and coming out with policies that would bring this currency trading under its supervision and regulation since it is clear that it has come to stay. You may have read that Tesla is now collecting bitcoin for car sales. Some other big companies will follow suite in due course. I have heard commentaries of cryptocurrencies being susceptible to fraud, terrorist financing, money laundering and other illicit trade. While this may not be untrue, it is also true that fiat currencies have the same challenges. Would we ban the naira and the dollar because some people use them for illicit transactions? Of course we won’t.
Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has resumed as the new head of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). How can Nigeria, Africa benefit from her tenure?
I had done an article in my column where I had predicted what happened with the WTO position. I am glad that she was announced as we were waiting for it. I’m sure that she will encourage Nigeria and Africa to begin to play significantly in global trade. At the moment, we are very inconsequential in world trade. This is not unrelated to our level of productivity in the continent. To participate actively in a trade organisation, you must have what to sell. And it is what you make that you sell. Yes, we are largely responsible for natural resources and primary products, but these are not significant in world trade. This is why the US and China are major players in the WTO. Africa will need to put more on the table to be taken seriously in such an international organisation.
Are you impressed or convinced with government’s management of the recession in Nigeria?
A country is said to be in recession when it witnesses two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. In a previous intervention in April, I had predicted that with the pandemic, we would go into a recession by the end of the third quarter of last year and that is exactly what happened. We have a big problem with the options available to us as a nation to exit recession. Conventional economic wisdom recommends that the best way to exit a recession is to spend one’s way out of it. However, our challenges are complicated by unsustainable debt profile and dwindling revenue base.
So the question becomes, where would you find the money to spend? When you borrow further, you sink deeper into a debt trap, When you print money, you face the backlash of inflationary pressures. So, this is a catch 22 situation. While the 2021 budget makes provision for deficit financing of about N5 trillion, we are at the moment struggling with a debt profile of about N36 trillion. Should we find someone to lend to us, how do we pay back? Our debt service to revenue ratio is approaching 60%. The summary of everything I have said is that while government continues with its programme of taming the recession, it should look at ways to improve productivity, improve revenue and cut cost of running government.