Okokon, who attended the just concluded Nigerian Economic Summit shares his thoughts…
By Okokon Odiogenyi
I did my subtle best not to go.
I figured why accept Gen. Azazi’s urge to carry on my business “without fear” and not take friendly American advice of “credible and specific” threats. My oga, who is nothing if not persuasive, quickly overruled: the Hilton must be at its safest, since Pres Jonathan was coming, she argued. I grudgingly went. Thankfully, potential suiciders agreed to die another day.
Last year, as Boko Haram folks paid rapt attention in a Somali bomb-making school, I was more at ease. Then, I was quietly self-assured in the midst of our country’s elite; people you only ever read about, or saw on CNBC. You’d go past one celeb CEO after another, milling around the lounge and catching up with politicos. Lunch time and the head of one of Nigeria’s biggest manufacturers recognized me from an earlier meeting with my boss; he invited me to “sit with us to eat”. Heartwarming stuff! 😉 I was too hungry for chitchat, so I lingered in the washroom…
For the 17th Summit’s opening, however, I was (understandably) irritable. The scene ahead of the President’s arrival seemed rowdy. Why wouldn’t this overweight MD just sit down?! Why must the other one laugh out so loud, abeg? The MC had to repeatedly say “the President is on his way” to get people sober. (For an extreme picture of this, please read Mr. Eniola Bello’s unflattering account of “Corporate Area Boys” ). Some of Nigeria’s powerful governors sat in. Not all look any more intelligent in person than on TV, I quickly concluded.
Shamsudeen Usman, our straight-talking Planning Minister did his best to improve my mood. I like his accent, and he tells a good tale. However, he may have unwittingly admitted that Nigeria’s will NOT be amongst the 20 largest economies by 2020. We will need to double current growth to achieve this dense ambition and with the fragilities in Europe and the USA, our largest trading partners, it’s unlikely. Not a problem, Mr. Usman insisted: “better G30 than G50”. Nice guy.
The morning’s highlight was to be President Jonathan’s dialogue with “global” CEOs, amongst them, Africa’s richest. The President was incredibly bullish about our country’s future. If you don’t invest in Nigeria now, you will regret it, he roared…to plenty applause. Thereafter, the CEOs fell in line. If Alhaji Dangote had USD20 billion right now, he’d “invest it all in Nigeria”. Truly nice to hear. One Shell VP, Mr. Maarten Wetselaar, performed his [Nigerian] parliamentarian duties, with excuses for the 2-year delay in approving the Petroleum Industry Bill: these things “take time”. First-time visitor to Abuja, Mr. Paul Hinks, who is boss of Symbion Power, an American firm seeking opportunities in our opaque electricity market, was so fussy in his praise for Nigerians that it was impossible not to switch off. We were promised a “frank” discussion, and we got our most familiar staple: praise singing. “Did I shave my legs for this???”
Overall, I think our elite should strive for a bit more humility. They are now fulltime devotees of their own press. What about better priorities? For President Jonathan, Nigerians asked him for fair elections and improved electricity, so he’s halfway there. How dare Chinua Achebe think otherwise! His default response to the rise in insecurity is that every nation faces its own terrorist threats. Well, Mr. President, that makes us a lot safer, thank you. Meanwhile, the corporate elite walks around with a massive chip on its shoulders and speaks of a market of 160m people, Africa’s largest. Easily ignored is that 70% of us may subsist on USD2 a day, and are in no position to buy neither iPads nor washing machines. I chose not to attend the Summit’s opening dinner, where Mr. Tony Elumelu gave a speech: “Only in Nigeria is our story even possible”. He cited good examples of corporate successes, but only in Nigeria? Does he really believe that? Maybe it’s this kind of hubris that compels Nigerian companies (and pastors) to maintain private jets.
In any case, I’m already thinking up excuses to skip the 18th Nigerian Economic Summit…