By MIKE AWOYINFA
Hey, I love jazz. The title of today’s column sounds jazzy, sounds like a track from my favorite jazz artistes. Artistes like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. A side of Peterside may sound jazzy but I am not talking jazz. I am playing a different music all together. A music like that of the revolutionary, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the angry, sax-wielding afrobeat king in his early years wailing in a mixture of Yoruba and pidgin: “You can’t gag me. You can’t padlock my mouth. My agadagodo (padlock) is not in your hands.”
Like Fela, let’s hear it from Atedo Peterside, the man who inspired today’s column. Let’s hear it from the economist and the investment banker extraordinaire who at 33 redefined investment banking in 1989—the very year I tried to so something revolutionary in my own field of journalism with the Weekend Concord—a newspaper that took a different path from the crowd. Let’s hear it from Atedo Peterside, the philosopher-businessman who says instead of keeping mute, minding his business and enjoying his wealth, he would rather play, sing and shout out loud the troubles with Nigeria, the problems of Nigeria, so that Nigeria would change radically for good—economically and politically.
“Why am I shouting out?” he asks in one television interview. “In life we all make choices. The easiest thing for me or any businessman is to just do your business and shy away from making any comment, in getting involved in reforms, in getting involved in arguments on how to improve your country. It’s a choice I made a long time ago. I started commenting on public affairs, on politics, on national issues more than 25 years ago. And I have never stopped. It is not unique to me. It is not as if I am doing anything wonderful or unique. There are businessmen around the world who do the same thing. And there are businessmen around the world who are scared to discuss politics. It is the choice you make.
“You can only take part and argue about controversial policies for the future of your country if you have the confidence that you have done nothing wrong with yourself. There is nobody giving me an inflated government contract. There is nobody giving me kerosene import or whatever oil subsidy scam as they call it. So nobody can call me and say: ‘If you say anything again, I will withdraw this contract.’
“If there is anything that you gave me and you are not happy that I am commenting on my country, take it away from me. Whatever you think you gave me, take it away from me and I am happy. I will sooner give up everything and have the freedom to express myself in my own country. Why would I give away my freedom of expression in the name of taking a contract from government or anybody?
“For me, I never contemplated just spending the rest of my life as a businessman doing business and counting the money in my bank balance and the bigger the money in my bank balance, the happier I get. And if I think something is going on in my country, I will keep quiet because my balance is growing? That was a choice I abandoned many years ago.
“And also, there is a common thread running through the bulk of the comments I make and the bulk of the debates I join. Beneath most of them is economic reform. I am not tied to any government. My only relevance to any government is to pull them in the direction of meaningful economic reform.
“It is clear that I am not taking elective office. Let me tell you the reason as well. If you want to speak boldly about the economic reform, if you want to take on any vested interest in terms of economic policy and debunk their argument, if you want to challenge political parties and run down their manifestos and all that stuff, then I don’t think you can be seeking elective office. Because they would be waiting for you. The only time you can speak your mind and argue all the policies that you think are best for Nigerians, not caring whether it contradicts a party’s manifesto or not, not caring which minister is upset, not caring which governor is upset, is because you are not holding elective office.
“But I can tell you it is difficult to separate politics from economics. Economists who try and say ‘I am not involved in politics at all’ invariably shy away from the big decisions. Because politics and economics are intertwined. So if I am an economist by training and I want to pursue for my country economic reform, half of the things I am saying will also be challenging the establishment in terms of politics. Because if you have wrong politics, it affects the economy and vice versa. You cannot be an economist trying to help your country to achieve rapid economic reforms and then you are completely scared to make any statement that sounds remotely political.”
Let me sum up a few things going on in Nigeria that Peterside is against. He is against a situation in Nigeria where the cost of governance is so high that 70 percent of the nation’s resources goes for maintaining and sustaining government.
“Why should some people who happen to be in government consume 70 percent of the nation’s resources and leave the other 160 million Nigerians out there hungry? How long can this continue? Because when you talk of this cost of governance, it translates into a handful of people using governance as an excuse for them to appropriate to themselves the bulk of our resources and leave the rest of us with the leftovers. It is a matter of time if those who are elected into office don’t correct it, the elites would come together again and force them to make the corrections. It would happen. And you know what? Foreign oil prices would make it to happen.”
Number Two. Peterside wants NNPC scrapped completely. Hear him waxing lyrical on this track: “We cannot have an arrangement where NNPC as a corporation would receive our oil revenues, decide how much of it they keep for themselves and send the balance to the nation. That is the root cause of the problem. Why do you need NNPC at all to receive our oil revenue and decide how much of it to pass on to the nation?
“I am advocating radical solutions to the point of saying that we should phase out NNPC. When I say scrap NNPC, you can’t do it one day. I am saying that have a policy of saying that this corporation should cease to exist. And you progressively begin to take items from it one by one. And you either advertise them, sell them off, close them down. You can start with the refineries. Take the refineries away from them. They have never managed them anyway. They have never managed them well in three decades. What will change in next decade? What I am saying is: Take items from them one by one and find solutions to each of those items. And eventually you wind down and you have nothing left in NNPC.”
As every reader of this column knows, I am writing a book on “Boardroom Leadership and Corporate Governance in Nigeria.” So far, I have interviewed iconic boardroom gurus and chairmen like Christopher Kolade, Chris Ogbechie (Chairman of Diamond Bank), Biodun Sobanjo (Chairman of Troyka Holdings), Sam Ohuabunwa (Chairman of Neimeth formerly Pfizer) and Sir Steve Omojafor (former Chairman of Zenith Bank). The stories I am getting are so inspiring. It’s like I am going to the real Business School all over again, hearing it straight from the mouth of Nigeria’s business masters. At the end of each interview, I ask: “Is there any business guru you will like to be included in this book?” And each time, I hear the name Atedo Peterside reecho. I put a call to Atedo Peterside on his birthday this week and he was in faraway Vienna. He thanked me and promised to grant me an interview when he returns. Watch out folks! For another “side of Peterside!”