Reinventing the Public - with Akin
My conversation with Akin Oyebode is now up. Akin has been the model public servant in most young business and progressive circles that I am aware of in the last decade or more. He’s also had a previous successful career in the financial industry and has been brilliantly recalibrating to what I think our expectations should be about the public sector. We delve into his current job, and how that shapes his outlook on public service. We also talked about several important reforms he wants to help jumpstart in Ekiti State. Akin is a practising pragmatist with the values of a progressive idealist. You can listen or download, for much more interesting insights (you can also listen on Stitcher here)
Tobi: This is Ideas Untrapped, and I am here with Akin Oyebode. Akin is an economist and currently, he is the special adviser to the Ekiti State Government on investment, trade and innovation. Welcome Akin.
Akin: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.
Tobi: You came from the private sector, what are the cultural differences between public service and the private sector? There was this analogy I got from Arnold Kling where he said: public institutions usually have a culture of 'no', where they are big enough and it's very easy to say no and changes only happen at the margins, unlike private institutions or startups where they start from 'yes' and they can really really drive change fast. What has your experience been in that regard?
Akin: I think you have to understand that (some) public service and private sector have two fairly distinct outcomes and Taleb's skin in the game theory, for me, is what holds very strongly here. In the private sector, you could argue that as an employee sometimes you're a shareholder, sometimes your reward is directly tied to the performance of the firm. So in a way you have skin in the game. You have some skin in the game. Founders of businesses which tend obviously more along the startup space, those guys have full skin in the game. Their lives are almost tied... they're like Siamese twins to the company. So if you look at the founders of, say, PayStack or Flutterwave; these guys have left the comfort of their day jobs to go and set up businesses. They're taking the biggest bets of their lives on these businesses. It's like you going to a surgeon, you're going to choose the best surgeon possible because if he makes a mistake, you're dead. Public service tends to be fairly different in the sense that, first: the reward structure is more annuity-based. So you are rewarded for not making mistakes. The fewer mistakes you make the better. So, even if you don't change anything, as long as you've not significantly damaged anything - you haven't stolen money - you're likely to have a 30-40-year career. So the incentives are not aligned towards innovation, that's the first thing. And that tends to make people a lot more cautious. Also because they're not significantly affected by the outcomes, that also creates a moral concern for me.
If you think about healthcare, if you think about education, you could argue that my children will go to fairly decent schools regardless of the quality of education overall in the country. And so because of those misalignments in incentives and outcomes, you tend to find that people will play it safe because they themselves are not significantly invested in those outcomes. If you take my current role, I've gone to Ekiti State to support...
Akin: The development work going on there, but you can argue that "look, many of the things that I will be involved in, I might not necessarily be the beneficiary or it might not impact me directly." So if you sign off on a firm building a rice mill in a certain community, you don't live in that community, you don't deal with the environmental challenges that come with that decision, so you are not as invested in the outcomes as the people who live in those communities. But I think some of the things that can change is, for example, aligning incentives properly, rewarding people for taking risk (some level of risk). There are areas where I think that risk-taking is not important - things that have to do with lives, things like aviation. I will not advocate for cutting-edge technology or improvements in aviation if we cannot be sure, 100 percent, that it improves the safety outcomes. Things like healthcare - approving drugs, for example. You want to test and test and test and be sure there are no adverse effects. The food and drugs department, for example - NAFDAC - is not the place where people will have lots of crazy ideas. But improving transport, improving tourism, improving production; I think government has to be a lot more, I'll say, open to fresh ideas. And I think it's happening across the country in pockets where you're now starting to see younger people, people with private sector experience going into government and hopefully, we're a critical mass and we're able to influence significant changes in governance.
But I agree, 100 percent, with that philosophy that improvement in government will not be radical for the foreseeable future and it tends to happen at the margins because it's also less disruptive...
Akin: It's easy for the mainstream public service to say "hey, this is how we do things." It's something that you hear in government and I've worked for two governments now so it's not an Ekiti problem. I'll ask someone: why do we do this this way? Why do we charge these 5 levies? And the person says "oh, but this is how it was always charged" and then when you go and you dig deeper, you find that it was just one man who just sat down one day and said "oh, charge this amount as a levy for trying to get a C of O. It's not because there was some science to it, it's not because it was researched or evidence-based, it was just the guy's belief at the time. And so it tells you that it's almost two things: on one side, one person can actually make a significant change; but when that person does, to unwind some of the negative outcomes of those kinds of changes take forever to happen. So you almost must be in the stubborn minority. You must be that guy who feels like "I can make things happen" and then start to build a critical mass of those people and eventually I think we'll see government become a bit more innovative. But it's not going to be NASA...
Akin: It's not going to be Google, it's still government but you'll see some changes happen.
Tobi: It's interesting you mentioned incentives. Do you think that public servants are properly rewarded, in terms of pay?
Akin: You know that's a question where I have skin in the game.
Akin: I honestly don't feel that...there are two issues here. One is that I don't think public servants are well-paid, but the second issues that I also don't think that the public service is productive enough today to ask for significant...
Akin: Raise in salaries. I'll tell you point-blank as a public servant today, my net pay will be about for hundred thousand naira a month and I'm a fairly senior, you might say, public servant. At four hundred thousand naira a month, that's effectively five million naira a year, you're not going to attract significant talent into the place unless they are people that, one: have earned income previously and have savings they can depend on or in some cases, they are people where people both partners earn, so where maybe you're lucky to have a wife who significantly outearns you and can ensure that the quality of life doesn't diminish, significantly, by joining government. Or if you think you have, maybe, bigger ambitions in public service that you're happy to take a pay cut to go and work in government. But it’s very difficult to attract people to serve government and one of the ways that national and sub-national government are now trying to, sort of, workaround that is to get development finance institutions or development partners to offset some of the salary differences. But to what extent can you do that, for how many people, how scalable is it? And then, where does the conflict of interest come in, where some people might say "why should a foreign agency pay the salaries of people working in public service?" But today, that's the only way you can do it unless the salary structure starts to change. But to even show that we need to earn more, I believe that we need to be a lot more productive, both at the national and sub-national government.
One person can actually make a significant change; but when that person does, to unwind some of the negative outcomes of those kinds of changes take forever to happen. -AO
Tobi: Yeah, I think you're talking about talent, so the two issues sort of tie together in a way. That is, talent and the knowledge problem, and incentives in the public sector. Now if you talk about safety industries, maybe NAFDAC, aviation and all that - if I understand you correctly, you advocated for some kind of precautionary principle.
Tobi: But, what about the knowledge problem? Okay, let's take NAFDAC. We know that the knowledge about drug discovery relies with the private sector.
Tobi: Now, if you don't have enough talent, at say, NAFDAC, how then can they make the right decisions even about regulating drugs. So how should the government try to solve that talent challenge?
Akin: I think Singapore and China are two good examples, where you have to take a 20-30-year view of building a pipeline and you have to send people to the best institutions possible, you have to give them a chance to cut their teeth in the private sector, understand how private enterprise works, what drives innovation (etc) and then bring those people back into public service. It has to be very deliberate. I used to work in banking and I used to joke with friends that every time I sat with a CBN examiner, I said to myself that I understand the financial products a lot better than you do and so how are you even going to regulate me properly? And those are the issues that you face in regulatory agencies today where the knowledge is limited not because of any malicious intent, but it's really just because the people don't know better. So I think that first, Nigeria must be very deliberate about how do we send people to acquire knowledge? How do we help them gain experience and how do we ensure that they come back and feed all of those things into public service? We used to do it in the past, we had a lot of talent development programs and I remember...in fact I remember I was reading a tweet by...I think it was Tolu Ogunlesi who was tweeting something about our first engineering PhD.
The guy who went to MIT, I forget his name now, who came back to Nigeria and the government just didn't know what to do with him and the guy ended up going to work for Shell, I think, or something. That guy in China will be sitting at a senior level, a senior decision-making level within 20 years of graduating from that PhD program. You know the thing about what the Chinese did - not only did they encourage people to go to the west to learn, when they came back they also put them in critical functions. Whether it was a research function, whether it was the PBOC (The People's Bank of China), those guys were now the guys today...some of those guys are the guys taking decisions for the country.
Singapore, for example, will say to you: you're a great talent, go and study elsewhere, go and do this, but when you come back we're going to pay you top dollar because you're the best of the best. I think that's where we have to get to - a situation where we are taking our top talent, we're exposing them to private-sector institutions both locally and internationally. But there's a clear plan about how to feed them back into the public service. I think that's the part we've missed out, where, now, the public service is seen as a place to fit our cousins who don't have jobs. Honestly, I can openly tell you this that in my state, for example, we're doing a recruitment exercise for teachers and the government has been very clear that if you don't make a certain mark you can't qualify. But people in my community have come to me to say "oh, but you should be able to help this guy now, he scored 30. Let's say the pass mark is 40, you know... it's not too far off." And I'm like, but these are the guys want to... you want these guys...
Tobi: To educate your kids.
Akin: To educate your kids. Don't you understand that if I hire a substandard teacher, your kids are going to get substandard education and you are caught in a poverty trap? So you who should have more skin in the game (you) are actually the one coming to me to say come and break the rules for us. It's not in your interest and I think we have to understand that public service is for the best people. Our best guys must go into public service. It's like the universities; back in the day, if you made a first [class] or you made a very good 2:1, you were locked in to go back into the academia. Today, we're almost saying that "oh, if you can't get into Shell, then come and teach engineering" whereas thirty years ago, Shell and the engineering faculty were competing for talent. So I think that we have to be deliberate about that. Our best people must be shown a path into public service.
Tobi: Okay. So now let's talk about you on the job. Someone like me writing about public policy can say "oh, you have to do XYZ" but I mean someone like you on the job has to deal with practical issues. So (now) which would a public servant prioritise between, say, fixing fundamental issues and binding constraints? I'll give you an example - you used to write a blog back in the day "t'oluwa ni ile", I don't know why you stopped...
Akin: That was Feyi. That was Feyi's blog I think I only guest-posted for him.
Tobi: Oh, interesting... So now, someone like me can say that "oh, for us to have some kind of change in that area you have to repeal the land use act". Whereas in Ekiti State, it could be a binding constraint that can be removed by simply suspending aspects of it to achieve what you want to do without really touching the law. So how does it work, really?
Our best people must be shown a path into public service. - AO
Akin: I think land administration, for me, is a great way to discuss this problem. I think sometimes... in fact let's not use [the] Land Use Act. Let's use taxes.
Akin: We always say States can't compete because corporate taxes are the exclusive preserve of the Federal Government but I think that States can compete even on payroll taxes. So if I say today that we want to be a knowledge destination as Ekiti - as Ekiti State we should be able to say that if you come to work in the knowledge economy whether as lecturer, as a researcher, as an innovator, whatever it is; that you should only pay 2.5 percent payroll taxes, as against, maybe, 28 percent which is where your salary band sits. It automatically means that if you leave Lagos today and you move to Ekiti, you're 20 percent up and that's an incentive to drive people there. And I think that's something that States can do, and say "look, you know what? We want to own the automobile sector, if you come and set up shop here, you're going to pay 5 percent taxes regardless of your income band." And so people then say: hey guys, you know what? If we move this factory to Ekiti, you might not have ShopRite there today, you might not have iMax but you're earning 15 percent more. Yes or no?
Akin: That takes you... that starts to give people a reason to move outside of Lagos or Port-Harcourt or wherever. So I think that there are things that the sub-nationals can do to compete a lot better. But to your point around what do you deal with? You deal with the fundamentals. I always say that as a government or as a public servant, you must ensure that you are there to support generational change. And, again, I always go back to places like China. If you think of a guy like Zhao who was Premier, he's been airbrushed out of Chinese history today but a lot of the reforms that he started are the reforms that China still depend on thirty years later for growth. Even though he died... you could say he died unheralded etc, the point is that if you look at China critically, anything that you say Deng Xiaoping did, they did it together, for the most part. But you must be strong in your conviction that you're doing what is right and you're doing what is right for the long term. So, but, it comes at a cost. And I'll give you a good example.
In my principal's first term in office, he instituted an assessment of teachers that was deemed unpopular and politically naive and ask I people: was it the right thing to do to ensure that you had the best quality teachers in place? It's never a bad policy. You can't say "oh, well, you guys did something unpopular, teachers won't vote for you." You've got to ask yourself: you will not be in government forever, how do you ensure that you build things that can outlive you, that can outlast you? It's very important and it's always a...it's a problem, it's a dilemma because you also can say "if you don't hold political power, then how do you influence people?" And I think for me, it's in playing on the margins and saying "look, how far can I push the envelope?" And "is this thing an extensional issue?" I consider education an existential issue. And so, I would say that "look, today, States should not be devoting less than, at least, 15 percent of the budget, minimum, to education." You know 26 percent might be impractical today because you also have issues with infrastructure, security etc. But I will say, "look, no matter what, at least 15 percent of your budget should go towards education regardless of what happens" and you must say "look, what are the fundamental problems I'm solving?" Quality of the curriculum, quality of teachers, learning environment, what can I do to improve pedagogy? (etc) Those are existential problems. Land use, for example, is that an existential problem? In my opinion, no.
I can still work around that today. There are still things that within the Governor's powers he can do to improve land rights in the state. I can digitise my land registry. I can make it easier to get a certificate of occupancy. I can make it easier to transfer title. Those are things that as a state government you can do. For us, for example, with things like our Doing Business reforms, some [one] of the things that we are going to recommend is: can there be multiple authorities to sign some of these certificates, these documents or must it be solely vested in the governor? Those are conversations that you can have at [the] sub-national level. So I won't say that - look, repealing the land use act today, is it the easiest thing to do? No. But there are other things that you can do, to your point, to work around some of the challenges that you face there. So, yes, there are some fundamental problems that you have to deal with, to answer you, and those must be existential ones because you have limited gunpowder in government. You can't waste that gunpowder on something that is not supercritical. So you've got to find, what are the one or two existential issues? On these issues, I'm ready to put my political legacy on the line. On the rest of the issues, we'll work around them (as) on a case-by-case basis.
Tobi: Okay, so let's talk about investments. Which obviously you need to make some of these things happen. And we know that even the country as a whole faces some serious balance of payment crisis. So, now, what (again) in your own experience and relying on best practices, what are the cheapest source of driving Investments really really fast? Some people talk about the diaspora, for example - I think currently the World Bank says remittances is about $22billion even though the government disputes that...
I always say that as a government or as a public servant, you must ensure that you are there to support generational change. - AO
Tobi: But you'll also see that a lot of those remittances go to welfare for families, for individual households. So how much of an investment source can they really be? What is the template, what is the practice really, of really really driving investment?
Akin: Honestly my personal view, is that diaspora flows for our economy help to stimulate consumption. I think to your point, it's a social welfare program. People are trying to supplement low-income relatives, primarily.
Anecdotal information suggests that maybe 10-15 percent of those flows actually go into investments, most of that also into real estate...primarily, real estate investments. I think that where we sometimes need to look at better are domestic investment opportunities. And I think that subnational sometimes focus a lot more on foreign investments, sometimes to the detriment of existing capital locked in the country. There's a lot of capital locked here that I think we can unlock. I mean, one of the things that people talk about, for example, is "how do we divert pension funds into infrastructure projects?" I always say that it's a very tricky conversation to have because a lot of those pension funds are already invested in things like treasury bills...
Akin: Which is even going to the government, but, for me, it's not even how do you divert Pension Funds into government-driven investments? It's how do you use government to guarantee some private investments? So, a good example for me is, instead of saying I want to raise a bond as Ekiti State Government to build a power plant, why can't I have a private power plant, go and raise that capital from the capital market knowing that Ekiti State provides a backstop guarantee of some sort that, at the very least, you're going to earn a minimum revenue...so having a minimum revenue guarantee of some sort that allows that deal to become bankable.
So let's say Tobi & Co. goes to build a road and knows that I can toll that road because the regulatory environment allows me to do that in Ekiti. And the state government then says "well, if you don't make your two million naira a day on the road, I'm happy to supplement that to ensure that that minimum revenue is achieved. Those are the ways for us to make projects more bankable. You're not really lending to the government, you're lending to private enterprises who have a backstop guarantee of some sort from the government. Sovereign risk is a big deal, so I'm keen to say let's deal with people who are already doing business in Nigeria. People who are already doing business here are important... are more important than, I'll say, getting fresh investors from outside the country. Because these are guys who already banked... they back Nigeria. They're like, okay, we're happy to do business here, we understand the country risk, we understand the business environment. It's a lot easier to get those guys through the line. It's a lot easier to say to a Promasidor, for example, come and take over our diary farm in Ikun than to say to someone who has never done business in Nigeria: come and do business in Ekiti. It's a lot easier to talk to a Dangote, a Stallion to say, come and set up rice mills in Ekiti than someone who has never done business in Nigeria. So I think you have to get a fair mix of both and also to ensure that when you bring in investors, you have the aftercare service that ensures that the guys get exactly what they want out of the state [be]cause there is herd mentality around investment. Capital flows to where returns are optimised.
Akin: And the best way to demonstrate optimisation of returns is the capital that has already come in here - what has it gotten? Which is why I always say to people that regardless of whatever issues you say MTN has in Nigeria, MTN is a good example of optimising capital and it brought... if you see the people who came on the coattails of MTN, you know, Mr Price, ShopRite, all these guys, they came to Nigeria...even if it's the fear of missing out that brings you in, the people will come. It's like a restaurant, it doesn't serve the best food but if I hire 50 people to stand outside pretending they are on a queue, you're more likely to stop there to eat because you must think there's something good about this food that is driving these long queues. So restaurants have been known to artificially increase the size of the queues just to get people like you and I to come and join, and when you get in there, you find out that the food is not great you're already... you're sucked in anyway. So I think for me, first is, optimise domestic capital flows. There's a lot of capital that sits in this country today or even sits outside the country owned by Nigerians that we have to bring back. It's only when domestic flows invest in the productive sector in the country that you start to find that foreign capital will come in. We have to use the domestic capital to demonstrate the viability of investing in Nigeria. So I always say that we'll mix both. We'll go offshore looking for capital but we will also call local capital in. And part of what we have been doing in Ekiti is even meeting with people who currently do business in Nigeria to say to them "this is a great place for you to do business and this is why?"
We must ensure price stability" which then ensures that people can save a lot more of their income… - AO
Tobi: Okay. Okay. So my bit of pushback against that is that - okay, now, say you're trying to industrialize, and you favour domestic investment, what about technology and knowledge transfer?
Akin: That's a great question, honestly. You know, the truth is: it's not going to be one or the other. And I think that it's finding the balance. Because knowledge transfer is not geography-based, right? There is nothing that says that the knowledge does not exist in businesses today in the country. I mean, when I talk to some of the BPO players (the guys who run Business Processing Outsourcing businesses in Nigeria), some of the guys are doing transformative work that I won't have believed existed in this country. These are things that I think happen in Vietnam, in Bangladesh, in Mauritius, but it actually exists in Nigeria. The biggest constraints they have: quality broadband; talent. Now, those are constraints that we can take away. If as a state we say to Main One, pay a hundred and thirty-five naira per metre to lay fibre to Ekiti, it becomes a lot cheaper to get the infrastructure to a place like Ekiti. If we say we are happy to offset the cost of training people as long as you, as the BPO company, agrees that you take on these people when they complete the program satisfactorily, that's a cost that we take away for you. Everybody is happy, The State is happy, the people are unemployed; Nigeria is attracting a lot more investment in that space. I think that there are pockets of excellence where you can say (look) knowledge transfer is even easier to achieve with local capital. So there's nothing that says that (no) because the capital is local you can't import the knowledge, there's nothing that says you cannot import the technology but I'm just saying that you have to recognise that if you do not have local skin in the game...Dangote refinery is a good example, will you tell me that that project doesn't come with knowledge or technology transfer? It does. But whose capital is it?
Tobi: It's his.
Akin: It's local capital.
Akin: And that's the thing for me that if your local capital is not taking risk in your country, it's very difficult to attract foreign capital. That holds true for most places. If you take a country like - again, I'm sorry I always go back to China. But if you take a place like China, you find that a lot of the capital that was unlocked was domestic capital. Look at South Africa - one of the reasons why the South African government or [the] South African economy can sustain systemic shocks is that there is already significant domestic capital mobilized. That any systemic shocks you find can be buffered by local capital and that's where, for me, if you ask me and I know we've not gotten into a macro conversation.
Akin: But if you ask me, the Central Bank's single objective today, has to be price stability. Because, what you find is that people are not able to save, household savings is non-existent.
Tobi: Wiped off.
Akin: Is wiped off. Because people are spending 65-70 percent of their incomes on food. So when you spend 95 percent of your income on existential issues: food, shelter, clothing; there's nothing to save. If you cannot mobilize domestic savings, then where is the shocks [buffer] against systemic issues with foreign investment? Because whether you like it or not your ability to attract foreign investment is not dependent on you, there are external shocks that affect that, right?
Akin: If The Fed raises rates by a hundred basis points it affects how much capital comes into Nigeria.
Akin: So we must be saying, "look, we must ensure price stability" which then ensures that people can save a lot more of their income and then that, at least, it helps to stimulate a domestic investment environment.
Tobi: From what you're saying, it seems there is a lot of...and I've been seeing that a lot with a lot of development work...there's a lot of planning. If your economy is not developed, there's a lot of planning to actually jump-starting an economy. Now, what does that do to your free market sentiments?
Akin: You know, I'm a Deng apostle to a large extent...
Akin: I always say that the people I follow, the sentiments I espouse, I treat them like a Christmas hamper. I take the things I want out of it...
Akin: The ones I don't need I keep aside. So when sometimes I tell people that: look, I love Deng; they tell me: but this guy sanctioned the death of students...
Akin: And I say look, Deng human rights, er...
Akin: Record, I don't need. But his liberal views on opening the Chinese economy, I want to take that. I try to say that I'm ideologically fluid. There are parts of a capitalist market that I like, there are parts of a social welfarist market that I like. I feel that, yes, the poorest people need to be supported, [the] poor and vulnerable people need to be supported. I feel that workers need to be protected, but I also feel that capital needs to get significant returns to continue to invest. I don't hold any firm views. I think that the plans for a country will always be dependent on the time and the situation that the country finds itself. For example, I'm a card-carrying member of the All Progressives Congress (APC), people say there are no ideologies in Nigeria, I disagree. APC is a left of centre party...
Akin: Yes. It's a social welfarist party and that's why if you think about things like the social investment program, this is the only time you have seen in Nigeria where there's been a very ambitious, you might say, overambitious social investment program targeted at various groups of people including people who are vulnerable and that's a sign of an ideology. It's the one part of the APC manifesto I can say, 100 percent, has been implemented. But you know why it's important to do that today is that there's an existential problem in the country. If people cannot eat, you can't educate them. So when we say there is a homegrown school feeding program, it's not a waste of money. Nutrition is a big part of education; because if the kids do not eat properly, there's nothing...they can't learn nothing. Even getting kids to school...even if you say they're sending their children to school to only go and eat, at least the kids are going to school. So having something like a homegrown school feeding program, for example, is, for me, something that I will... forget the economic impact of supporting farmers and cooks and etcetera, that's even like a spin-off. The real impact is getting kids to school. And so for me, the next level of this conversation is how do we now measure the impact? How do we measure enrollments rate? In my state, for example, I think we can show you some numbers of how enrollment has gone up in schools since that program started, of how many children are benefitting from those kinds of meals. Now, that, for me, is a social welfare program that is very important.
But on the second part of it - I will also say - you have to free up things like capital controls. You have to allow people bring in and export their capital as they wish... even with this capital restrictions, people will still bring money into Nigeria. So, for me, you have to take what works from different ideologies. Sometimes you're going to take some socialist principles, sometimes you're going to take some capitalist principles, and we have seen markets straddle the contradictions quite well. They will say oh, it's market socialism. People have started to mix... the closer you are to the centre now the more populist you tend to be. So I don't think that the world, especially the developing markets, will benefit from very rigid ideologies. I think that we've gone beyond that. The iron curtain is fallen now since when? Glasnost and Perestroika are long gone. So even the people who were ideologically pure have moved towards the centre...bar maybe a place like Cuba, I don't think that you will see people hold very rigid views on ideology anymore. Even the United States has some socialist protectionist ideologies. Donald Trump is a... you could argue is a republican president, right?
Akin: But he is probably the biggest critic of globalisation today. So you find that the UK is going through a painful Brexit process. That's an anti-globalisation...
Akin: Move, right? Again, pushed by whom? By a conservative party. I have friends who are die-hard conservatives. They don't speak about Brexit. They stay silent on it. But I remind them from time to time that: your party which is a conservative party is the one that took the Union to a referendum. Let's not forget that. That's not something... it's almost ...you should expect the reverse.
Tobi: Not Corbyn. Not Labour.
Akin: You should expect Labour to actually be the ones pushing this kind of agenda, so it tells you that there are no rigid views, there are no hard-coded views anymore in the world.
Tobi: Let me ask you a bit of a comical question on that note.
Akin: Uh uh.
Tobi: Where does the border closure fit in the APC ideology?
Akin: You know the thing about this podcast is that they ask career-limiting questions...
Akin: But I'm happy to answer that. Honestly, there are some things that are existential and on the border closure people have asked me on social media for my views and I've said: "look, we have to be a bit more nuanced about this conversation." I don't think that we've optimised the decision process properly. I think the biggest thing that we could have done differently is to allow the people best suited to lead the conversation lead the conversation. Personal opinion: I don't think that customs should be leading a conversation about trade. There's a reason why we have a trade office, there's a reason why we have a Ministry of Trade and Investment. That ministry should be front and centre of the conversation and should draw in the different parties on a need-to-know or a need-to-be-there basis. So I think in terms of coordination, we have led the conversation from a customs perspective which is not where we should lead the conversation from, and that for me is the biggest issue. But should our neighbours play by the rules? Yes, they should. Is trans-shipment a major issue? Yes, it is. Is the Beninois economy designed to exploit Nigeria? Yes, it is. That is the reality.
Tobi: How is that? Please explain.
Akin: If you sit down and you create an economy and I'll send you some work that shows that for the last 30, 40 years, these guys have built an industry basically to rebag and repackage products against the ECOWAS protocols into Nigeria. It's a small economy, we laugh about it and say it's Nigeria's 37th state but if you think about [it]...this is not the first time we're closing borders [and] the thing is that we've repeated this thing so many times and I'm worried that we're still not learning that these are symptomatic issues and we are not dealing with the root cause. For me, it is how do we introduce technology into surveillance, into border surveillance. These have security implications. Forget rice. Drugs come in through these borders, guns come in through these borders. There are far more serious existential issues that we need to solve for. How do we do the surveillance? How do we ensure that the cultural trade flows are not shut? Remember there are families on both sides of the divide - there are Yorubas across both sides of the border - how do we ensure that these traditional trade corridors are not shut but (we) also ensured that the territorial integrity of the country is protected? So I don't think that it's a one-size-fits-all discussion. I think that it's a more nuanced conversation. Is the border closure the right thing to do? I don't know. I think history will judge but I definitely think that the Beninois government needed this kick up the backside. Now, should it start from customs? No. I think we should sit down and say what is our broader trade position and what position do we want these guys to take on board? I think we should be able to say, "look, how do we collaborate with you?" Can we, for example, because of the efficiency issues with our ports, can we have a situation where goods come in through the Beninois ports, they are processed through there and they earn a fee for that? And then those goods come into Nigeria. That is a way to think about it. Even from a Nigeria perspective, sometimes we slap levies on products that are against some of these our protocols. We have a common external tariff, we sometimes go against that and we say, oh, 70 percent duty. Meanwhile, the rest of the sub-region is charging 20 percent. But can we say to these guys "guys, you know what, out of this 20 percent you guys take 10, we take 10." Ten is better than zero.
I think that what we have to be able to do is to decentralize port infrastructure to ensure that goods can move out of Nigeria fairly, fairly, easily. - AO
Akin: Let's start to have those conversations. That is the conversation that we need to have and I think that's the conversation we are not having. It can't be a stick all the time, it has to be [a] carrot-and-stick approach. We've got to say, oh, come, how can we optimise this process? These things are coming into Nigeria anyway. How do we move exports? How do we ensure that you can process some of our exports? And that's a conversation that we should have as a sub-region. How do we ensure that Nigeria's customs officials, if this is what your port is built for, we might as well embed our people there and ensure that we are seeing what is coming in? Those are the conversations I think we should have. How does Nigeria expand and before you know it...because we are the biggest economy in the subregion, we have to own that leadership; and for me, that's a bigger issue. That how do we sit with our partners and say, "okay, use your port as entry point into Nigeria as well but the trade-off is that our people will be part and parcel of your process to see what is coming in." I think those are the conversations that we need to have if we're not having. But did something need to be done? Absolutely. And I don't think this is an APC or PDP issue, this is an existential issue for Nigeria. So it's not a partisan ideological issue. This something that we need to resolve. Yes, I know that there are people who have very strong views: you should not shut your borders etc. You should not do this, free trade blah blah blah... but there is no real free trade anywhere. When you think about it critically...
Tobi: It's freer trade.
Akin: It's freer trade. What is free trade? There are restrictions to trade and it's a per country restriction.
Tobi: It's just degrees.
Akin: It's just degrees and it's about where you are as a country in your development [and] what is important to you. If the United States says today "well, we don't want to allow wheat into our country." They won't. Mr Trump, for example, is very keen to say "Mr Cook, you have to manufacture more of your products inputs in the United States." Is that free trade? So you've got to ask yourself, what is free trade? Free trade is a misnomer. Yes, you want freer trade, you want to liberalize as much as possible but you want to liberalize within certain conditions and ultimately the job of the government is to optimise value for Nigeria. How that optimisation of value happens is then dependent on where we are as a country at that point in time. So, yeah, there are other things that we have to do with the borders and there are conversations we need to have with our neighbours and I know that some of those conversations are happening. But is there a straight forward answer to that? I don't think it's a yes or no [answer]. It's not a binary conversation at all.
Tobi: Okay. So now, here's my argument and a bit of a counter to your position. Yes, I take your point on territorial integrity and the need to actually have a safe and secure border. Absolutely important. But don't you think we are treating the trade issue a bit too much as a zero-sum? Yes, I get why trans-shipment is a problem but if you consider the size of Nigeria's economy and what I think our ambition should be, If we actually focus a lot of our development strategy and policies in areas like building export disciplines in high-tech manufacturing goods, I don't think it would really matter if rice is coming from the Beninois border, really.
Akin: Here we go again.
Tobi: Like someone, actually a guest of mine, said that rice in this dispute has become a bit of a political crop and...
Akin: Was that Mr Fawehinmi?
Tobi: No...and tomorrow it's going to be tomatoes or fertilizers or whatever. But is that really... aren't we really obsessing over table stakes so to speak?
Akin: Great question and I think, honestly...first, it's not a zero-sum conversation. I always say you can walk and chew gum at the same time. I don't think that the border issue precludes us from focusing on export discipline and I think, in fact, export discipline is something that as a country we haven't paid any attention to. I spoke with someone who is very knowledgeable about exporting, so this is reported speech, and he said to me that for him today, as a CEO of a large company, he has to go through 14 steps to export his products out of Nigeria and that even prevents his company from using Nigeria as a hub for sub-regional production. And I think, for me, there are two issues: there's the single-window conversation which I hope our government - and when I say our government, our APC government - is able to resolve before 2023. I think it will be the single most important policy issue as regards exports discipline that we can resolve; just ensuring that (everybody) you can do everything in one place, and you don't have to go through the multiplicity of agency interaction. I think that is a critical part of the next wave of our Doing Business reforms, and I know that there are many stakeholders in that space that need to be managed, but I think that navigating that is a critical thing for the government. I think that obviously the port efficiency is a problem and as an individual, I'm very pleased to hear and welcome the development of new ports. I think the Badagry deep-sea port is super important. I think having something up in the South-South, potentially around Akwa-Ibom, is very important. Because, if you think about places like Calabar, people say why is that port not efficient? I don't know the economic decision of citing a port in Calabar. I don't know the draft [or] if the draft was taken into consideration. Many of the locations we're talking about are shallow draft locations that will take significant amount of money to dredge; and therefore, it weakens the business case for these ports. So when people then say "oh, why Lagos?" The most obvious reason for Lagos is the draft. So, I think that what we have to be able to do is to decentralize port infrastructure to ensure that goods can move out of Nigeria fairly, fairly, easily. But I hear you about export discipline and I hear you about focusing on special economic zones and that's why I was very happy to see the Special Economic Zone company setup. Even though that has run into some legislative challenges at the moment, we are hopeful that they will be resolved very early this year. In our state, for example...In Ekiti, we are keen to set up a Special Economic Zone: one, for the knowledge economy, and that is to export services. So things like Business Process Outsourcing which is effectively an export...
Akin: If you think about it. Because we feel like service export helps us to leapfrog some of the infrastructure challenges that you face with industry and manufacturing. Challenges around power. Challenges around transport. Challenges around port limitation. So, we think that focusing on services helps us to navigate around those constraints; and there is no reason why we can't be a BPO hub in the country. If we get broadband and dedicated power rights, I hear from the people who should know that Nigerians speak particularly toneless English, therefore we need less accent training than, say, the southeast Asian market which is the hub of that space now. So we have a very critical upside. The other thing is that at our time zones… we are very well set for, sort of, like, the Central European market etc, and labour is cheap here, you know... cheaper, I'd say, here. We have some of the building blocks in place to be a service export destination.
The other thing I'd say with the SEZ is that, we also feel that from an Agric prospective, we definitely should be thinking about exporting a lot more of our produce. And to your point, I don't see any reason why things like rice or tomato should be [a] political issue. I think for me, [it is] absolutely correct that we should be building expert discipline around agriculture and there's no reason why we should not focus on certain crops. Whether it's maize, weather it's cassava, especially with a lot of the gluten-free direction that nutrition is going towards, you know... cassava as the base of a gluten-free export market is certainly very sellable. So I hundred percent agree that expert discipline should be where we're focused, and I think that we can do both. So I don't think that this precludes that conversation from happening.
Final point, I think, is, we need to think about sort of charter cities and SEZs and the legislation around that a lot better. The process where people just go and register in a free trade zone just because of tax incentives is, for me, a waste of time. Because you now have a situation where two companies are competing, one of them is paying taxes, the other one is not because they're in a free trade zone. Actually we should be giving the people that incentive if they're exporting. There are some misnomers, there are some things that need to be adjusted. If a place is a special economic zone, it should be because it's geared towards making Nigerian products more competitive internationally and if we are not able to deliver that then should you actually get the benefits, the fiscal benefits? I don't think so. Now, this is my personal opinion and these are some of the issues that I think that we need to debate a lot more vigorously. I think, just generally speaking, across all the things we've discussed, one of the things I worry about is that I think we are not having the right intellectual discussions about policy. We're there discussing which governor believes in stomach infrastructure, which party does A, which party does B, somebody brought Facebook to Nigeria...
Akin: This other person does not believe in free press...I think that we are losing the opportunity to have a lot of intellectual debates. You know, one of the things I love about China in the 70s and 80s [is], those guys fought themselves on the pages of newspapers with intellectual arguments and when they went to battle, it was a battle of ideas. It wasn't a personal discussion. It wasn't that I dislike you. It wasn't that you are a member of [another party], they were all one party. They were all CCP but the intellectual arguments were fought vigorously, bitterly at some point...
Tobi: So, why do you think we're having problems having [intellectual debates]? Is it that our national IQ is low because China and the whole of Asia have that going for them?
Akin: I don't think... I think that these guys have also developed a nation of...over a much longer period.
We need Nigerian intellectuals to step up their game. - AO
Akin: We're talking about a civilization that goes across, you know...
Tobi: About five thousand years.
Akin: Five...thousands of years. In that period they've never had a period of where intellectual debates have been frozen. We have had periods where we've just had a freeze. We are twenty years into democracy, I don't think between 1979 and 1999 there was a space for any intellectual discussion, everything was done by decree and by fiat. So I think we're going to have to build that over time. I also think that our universities are not doing enough. I mean, I expect today professors of economics should be writing about the implication of land border controls, we should have papers coming out, we should have people discussing these matters. Why do we have professors of economics in Nigeria who cannot debate existential issues that face the country, who cannot say this is our view? How many economic positions do you read outside the Monetary Policy Committee of the Central Bank? Who else shares public views? You are dependent on MPC members personal statement as the basis, and in a lot of these conversations, there's a lot of groupthink.
Akin: Because they've already made the decision and they're just now writing [the] statement to support those decisions. But I expect on the back page of our newspapers... I mean, whether or not you agree with Henry Boyo of blessed memory...
Akin: He certainly brought a view, you might not agree with the view, but he brought a view that he actively debated. I look at our institutions and I say, where are the discussions happening? Where is the think-tank driving this conversation? If I look at the EAC [Economic Advisory Council] for example, one of the things I say to people is that I certainly am rooting for the EAC, it's chaired by my former boss, but I also feel like we've lost the benefit of having people like Doyin Salami and Charles Soludo and the rest of the members from sharing their personal views in [the] public domain. Because now, you know, they are a member of an advisory...
Akin: Council, they can't really speak publicly because it might be taken as the view of the EAC etc. But we need Nigerian intellectuals to step up their game. That, for me, is where we are missing it because... I remember there was a period where... I think it was six of us... I can't remember how many of us... did a week's...um, different pieces every day on foreign exchange liberalisation and I was amazed at the debate that it stimulated and all of us were not... I won't say that we are academics. Maybe out of five of us, Nonso Obikili was the only one that has a PhD, but it was important to have people, at least, put those ideas in the open and let's debate them. And that's one of the reasons I like that people like Feyi constantly, um...
Akin: Engage in these debates, because let's have an ideas based conversation. I think Pius Adesanmi of blessed memory said this, and said that: the reason I write is not because I want to change or I think I can change the views or the behaviour of these hard-headed government officials, but it is so that two thousand years from now someone is not going to come and say these people lived like animals and they didn't think...that in the midst of all of this madness, let them even see records that some of us were Thinkers, some of us were speaking. And I found it quite... it was quite sad for me that that was his last public post or article because it was almost like a man that had a premonition that "I might not be here for much longer but I need to let my ideas outlive me" and I think that's what we should be doing. We're talking about China now, we can read the arguments of 1978, 1984 and we can see how those arguments mirror Nigeria of 2019. If those things were not there, we won't even be able to apply them to our current realities, but who is writing the stories of Nigeria today? So I think that's one thing I will say that the intellectual debate is not public and I don't even know that it's happening. I don't know that the universities are writing, and that's one thing that we should be focused on, not ASUU going on strike. The real issue is what are you contributing to town? How are town and gown meeting? How are those two sectors interacting and integrating? It goes even beyond writing... how are we preparing people for the workforce? I was very happy to see the UI Vice Chancellor engaging, saying this is what we are doing as a university and I think that's the kind of engagement that we want to see. We want people to come and... to share their opinions. You studied economic theory for thirty years, how does our current reality fit into this study? And I think that that's how you improve the quality of public discourse.
Tobi: So, now, in terms of public discourse, do you think that there is too much ideology in that space?
Akin: Too little.
Akin: I think there's too little.
Tobi: Okay, so, I was pointing this out to someone. You mentioned the EAC, right?
Tobi: I think except for Doyin Salami, really - I think every other person on that advisory council has some sort of protectionist sentiments.
Akin: I disagree.
Akin: I disagree.
Akin: Some are. Some have.
Tobi: I know Soludo does. I know Bismark does.
Akin: I don't think... I think to be honest, everybody has some protectionist ideology, everybody does. I won't say Soludo does that much.
Tobi: He was opposed to the EPA, for example.
Akin: But, for some good reasons. The thing is that this thing is not a wholesale opposition. There are parts of this agreement that, to be honest, do not strategically support Nigeria's economic development. You have to recognise that when people come to this table, they come to the table holding nationalistic views disguised as globalised views. At the end of the day, everybody wants what's best for them, and I think that, again, until recently and until Ambassador Sakoye of blessed memory, we didn't have an office that was coordinating our treaties, our agreements, people were signing all sorts of things without even knowing the implication of what they were signing. So I don't think that the opposition was wholesale. There are some people there whose views I can't say I know for sure. There's Iyabo Masha, for example - she used to be at [the] World Bank if I'm not mistaken. I don't think that if you spend so much time at the World Bank you would hold fairly strong protectionist views unless you were able to mask it sufficiently but there are some people that obviously, I mean, Ode Ojowu, for example, is very clear about where he stands on some of these things. But I think the mix is good and the debate...look, it's useful to have people from both sides of the divide.
Akin: We will improve the quality of the discuss by having the divergent views and having diversity of opinions.
Tobi: So, let's talk about the influence of ideology in Nigerian politics. Is it too much or too little? And what would work in terms of generating ideas?
Akin: Look, at the end of the day, I think we are still fairly underdeveloped in terms of our politics because voter engagement is still at...I'd say, at the kindergarten phase of voter enlightenment and voter engagement. I think that people are still too poor to engage in high-level discourse, and, so, for people, it's still a function of "I want to survive" which is why you find that people are willing to trade the long-term benefits for the immediacy of "pay me 2,000 [naira] and I'll vote for you." And I tell people that, look, this is similar to Lincoln back in the day. I don't know if you remember, Lincoln's slogan was: vote yourself a farm. (And) I joke about it and I say [in] Nigeria the [slogan] is to "vote yourself a pot of stew".
Akin: But if you think about it at that time, people were only interested in "give me land" in the US. So when you're faced with existential issues, people can't think about ideology. It's too abstract...they're looking for mundane...they're more mundane in their expectations, you know. But I think that when you start to improve the quality of life, people then can start thinking...it's almost like Maslow's hierarchy of needs...
Akin: They start to think about "oh, what's more important? Who's thinking about education? Who's improving healthcare?" I say to people that, look, you should be able to say, as a woman, my biggest issue today is maybe "gender mainstreaming", maybe "maternal mortality" and say "look, I'm going to only support a government that emphasizes these two things". If you do not agree to these three issues, then we will not vote for you. The unions are very good at it and this is why [what] I always say about the stubborn minority - the unions, the market women; whatever you say, they get whatever they want. You might disagree with what they want but they get it. The trade unions get it because they will just down tools and they force you to a table. Now, how do we as a broader population start to force people to that table? And this is why I think that the advent of social media is a good thing because more and more...
I mean, I was happy to see people engage in a discourse around foreign exchange and exchange rates. Everybody suddenly became an Economist and had a view of where the Naira should be trading. You know, it's a good conversation to have. People are now saying should we close our borders? Whether those views are knowledgeable or not? I want those views on the table. Those are views to have. They are important views so I don't... I think that we are still at a growing phase and I think it will only continue to improve but we're definitely going along that continuum. It didn't happen overnight anywhere in the world, the quality of the politics, the quality of the discussions did not improve overnight, it took time and we have to bank some of those marginal gains. Let me ask you a...okay, well, you are the one asking the questions so I won't ask you a question...
Akin: But think about '99 and 2019...
Akin: And where Nigeria is in its politics, we've advanced... in the quality of the discussions we're having. Politics in 1999, nobody even knew who those guys were. They had no antecedents. I mean, I voted AD in '99 not because of anything but just decide, oh, this is the party of our people. This is Awolowo's party. All you needed to win an election in Yorubaland in '99 was to do the peace sign and wear the Awolowo cap. Some people like Asiwaju did not even need the cap, he just needed the peace sign.
Akin: Once you were endorsed by Afenifere, you were locked in to win an election. Now, nobody really bothers about that. Whether they support or they oppose you, people a lot more independent in their views. Back then if you were Ohaneze Ndigbo you win in the South-East, I don't think that that holds very much now. Otherwise, APGA would be the dominant party in the South-East.
Tobi: But to pick up on that point, wouldn't you say that was better in some sense? Okay, if I'm voting in the South-West, for example, and whether true or false if someone is running on an Awolowo platform, I know the antecedents of that...
Akin: But the truth...
Tobi: I know the history of that...
Akin: But the truth of that is that people only use that... some people use that as a vehicle to get power. It's not because they believed in the philosophy of man or the philosophy of the UPN or the Action Group. Tell them to tell you any part of the AG manifesto that they know. They don't but they've realised that people took things at face value and if you wore a cap and did a peace sign you win an election.
Tobi: But is that any less preferable than 2000 naira at the polling unit that we have now?
Akin: I'll tell you one thing...I'm a big fan of marginal gains as you might have suspected, there were times... look, till today, the election that was superintended by Maurice Iwu, show me anywhere where you can find the breakdown of results whether real or imagined per polling unit for the presidential election. The's a summary, take-it-or-leave-it there's no breakdown of the election anywhere.
Tobi: How did he get away with that by the way?
Akin: The point is Obasanjo made him get away with it. Let's be clear... so let me tell you one thing: I'm not saying elections are perfect, the fact that people are paying for you to vote for them means that they believe your vote counts...(because if you don't pay) Let's be honest about this, right?
If I'm paying you 2000 naira for you to vote for me what does that tell you? It tells you that they need you to act to vote to win the election. They actually need that act from you. In 2007, in 2011... by 2011 things has started changing but as of 2007, you did not need that physical act of voting to happen. What I'm saying is that things have shifted... you might... people can disagree and it's an opinion, but I'm saying things have shifted, they might not be perfect or close to perfect but things have shifted and our goal is to ensure that things continue to shift. Maybe in 2023, we will create a situation where you can't even tell how I have voted to remove the incentive of paying me to vote. INEC did some things like, say, we don't want to see mobile phones, etcetera. We're going to keep improving the process. I think that we have moved. People are now saying, oh, we want to... some people will say oh, PDP wanted to infiltrate and hack our servers. Somebody will say the results on the server was different from the one you published. We are now having a conversation where we've moved the realm of the debate to cybersecurity...
Akin: And cyber attacks. Ten years ago the conversation was they snatched 20 ballot boxes.
Tobi: [Laughs] But they're still snatching ballot boxes.
Akin: But it's reduced.
Tobi: Yeah... yeah.
Akin: Let me tell you, if you think about it, twenty years ago people were saying, look, we did not even vote here.
Akin: We are reducing those issues. Social media is helping us democratize those issues. If you look at the 2019 elections, whether real or manufactured people were reporting issues in their polling units on the go. You could tell even just looking at some of the results per PU who was going to win an election where. Ekiti elections for example - I was away, I was not even in the country on the day of the election and when I saw the results from my polling unit, I knew immediately that Dr Fayemi had won that election, because we were on course to win Ikole local government, which is my local government, which is a place that, historically, we've always struggled with as a party. So you can tell that look, elections are starting to count, matter a lot more. It's not perfect, it's not anywhere close to perfect but let's not say that there have not been any gains and I have my views on one of the biggest reasons why we've seen those gains. It's the absence of General Obasanjo...President Obasanjo (apologies) from mainstream politics in Nigeria.
Tobi: Why? Explain that.
Akin: Because I think that the winner-takes-all mentality that he personally projected transcended beyond him and then influenced, broadly speaking, political parties on the country. I think that President Yar'Adua, Jonathan and Buhari have been less involved in ensuring that their parties remain dominant across the country. President Yar'Adua, for example, he had an "I came in through a tainted process...
Sometimes keeping the people you meet in government is as important or more important than appointing new people. - AO
Akin: And, I am embarrassed by it and the way I will resolve it is by taking my hands off and saying let the will of the people be done. President Buhari, for example, has shown a willingness to work across parties with the governors. If you talk to the governors in Nigeria today, all of them are united in the fact that regardless of our political parties this President is happy to work with us. There was a time in this country where ecological fund and all these special projects were only reserved for governors of the party in power. Where if you had a loan request and you are an opposition party and you wanted to borrow from the World Bank, the government will not approve it. Those times existed in the country. Today, in fact, some of the opposition governors are being accused of underhand support for the President. Because think about a lot of the things happening across states, many of the projects are happening in states that are not APC states.
Tobi: And you think that is really a byproduct of President Buhari's leadership?
Akin: I think it is. Look, the Nigerian presidency...
Tobi: Ain't you partisan here, Akin?
Akin: I'm always partisan.
Akin: Let's put that caveat there. I'm an APC member.
Akin: Meanwhile if you choose take it with a pinch of salt, that's your business.
Akin: My own is to share my views, right? I'm not asking anybody to accept the views. But here is what I'm saying, under the President, you cannot really say that the governors, as opposition governors are suffering. Under President Obasanjo, people were saying we want to...I don't want to use those words but they were almost military dictatorial words of "we want to capture the South-West".
Tobi: Yeah, there was that sentiment.
Akin: APC has not said, "oh, we have to capture the South-East." We went from having one South-East governor to having none. We lost Imo State. It doesn't mean...
Tobi: But when you have the President say things like "parts of the country that gave me 95 percent...
Tobi: Cannot expect the same thing as the people that gave me 5 percent." How do you... where do you put that? Where does that fit?
Akin: I think one of the things as well is I think that our political leaders need a lot more media training. Because, honestly, I feel that sometimes these conversations are...you see, politics comes... there is some reward that comes with political support. Now, if you're going to, for example, appoint people into roles, those roles are going to... those appointments are almost like reward for support, some of those appointments. So you're going to find that they are going to be skewed in some degree to places where you feel that you got more support because there's a sense of giving back, but it doesn't mean that projects will now be dependent on that. I tell people that for what it's worth, things like the cleanup for example... the Ogoni cleanup, for me, is a fundamental environmental project. We had a South-South President that did not start that work, let's be honest with ourselves.
Akin: Today that project is going on. I follow the updates on social media and I'm happy to see that that project is moving. For me, that's a fundamental project that is that this country needs because the South-South needs an environmental cleanup to even give it a chance of whether its aquaculture, crop production...there's an agrarian community there that has suffered because of the degradation of the environment. For me, if that's the one thing you bequeath that zone, it's a fundamental thing to do. The whole work being done with probing NDDC, it's not for the North. NDDC is a Niger Delta Corporation but those people have taken money and they've not delivered any project. When people say oh, there's a tribal ethnic sentiment...in Nigeria, the Elite has always been united about money. Let's not deceive ourselves. Why haven't the governors of that region, if they are so insistent on... it's when you're in opposition that you can say "oh, we're being marginalised." What happens to when you are in government? What happens? I tell people I don't care, honestly, where someone comes from. So when people say "oh, this guy is Northern"... I don't care. I really do not care. Can you do the work? Are you qualified? That for me is a bigger thing. Femi Gbajabiamila is the speaker of the House of Representatives, so, how is he going to improve the life of someone in Surulere? The life of the man in Surulere is not dependent on that. That for me is a fundamental issue. I don't care where the person is from. The point is is the person qualified because I definitely am a big... look, I understand what federal character has done and the importance of federal character in terms of just the cohesiveness of the country and at the time the country was a lot more fractured, so I recognise that it's one of the things that I'll say has actually helped Nigeria remain seemingly united. But do I care where the president of the country comes from? I don't. I don't. I honestly do not care. The important thing for me is that the does it increase my chances of being successful? Does it increase the chances of my children being successful? A rising tide lifts all boats, are we as a country improving regardless of where the president is from? So I always take these conversations as a distraction... zoning, no zoning, we want a South-West president, we want a South-East president, I don't care where the president of the country comes from. Does anyone care where Donald Trump was born? Does anyone care where Boris Johnson was born? It doesn't really matter to me. The reason we having this... we are majoring in the minors is because we're still an impoverished society.
Tobi: And probably diverse.
Akin: Diversity... look, let me tell you what... when they are Nigerian elites sit, do they care where they're from?
Akin: Nobody cares.
Tobi: But that division could be a useful political tool because diversity is our, I don't know, maybe, geographic reality.
Akin: You see, my brother, let me tell you one thing. I feel that... everybody realises that Nigeria is stronger together. We deceive ourselves... we can say, oh, we want to secede, we want to do this, we want to do that... I almost feel that all that is gamesmanship. The reality is that we are stronger together. Our collective ability to influence the region is based on the size...
Tobi: Of the country.
Akin: Of the country and the ability to manage the federation. There is no part of the country, even the oil-rich part of the country cannot survive in isolation. We have seen it in South Sudan and Sudan and that diversity happens everywhere. In Ekiti State, somebody will tell you that an Ishan man who is governor today cannot be succeeded by an Oye man because they are from the same Ekiti North Senatorial Zone. This is Ekiti, one of the more homogeneous states in the country if not the most homogeneous state in the country...
Akin: Where every part of the place is an Ekiti. There is nothing that separates the guy from Ishan and the guy from Ikole until there's election, then they will tell you that "no now, the senator has come from Ifaki three times and now he has to come from Ikole or Oye" that's when a man from Ikere will say "Ikere has never produced a governor, it's our turn". So when we talk about these things, uh... these things are just tools to manage political interests. I think that we should be more concerned about the quality of people in office not necessarily where they're from and I think that these things...
Some people say the president has appointed this person, he can't replace a Southerner with the Northerner. I'm like "look, guy, these are irrelevant issues." I'll rather have a conversation of - is this guy qualified? If he's not, that's a different issue. But if he is qualified who cares where he's from? Do you care where your account officer is from? When a surgeon is going to operate on you, are you going to say "oh, I'll only allow Yoruba surgeons operate on me?" No, let's be honest. If the guy is the best brain surgeon in the country and somebody has a surgery tomorrow, are you going to say "oh, another Kanuri surgeon, the last time my dentist was from Borno, why is the gastro-surgeon from Borno State too, is it only Borno people that can be surgeons?" Do you care? You don't care. You don't make those decisions because when you have skin in the game, real skin in the game you don't care where the person is from. So these conversations for me, they are distractions. I generally feel that we should just be focused a lot more on competence and we lose that narrative.
Tobi: Now, let's return to President Obasanjo.
Akin: Yes, one of my favourite topics.
Tobi: Yeah. Some will say that he is our best president. On the back of the economic reforms of the 2003 to 2007 era and part of his legacy was that he actually appointed some competent hands, a lot of people that will still throw their names around today came up during that era. Isn't that something at least praiseworthy in your view? That's one. Secondly, now, and quite critically, Obasanjo supported your party in 2015...
Akin: We didn't request for it.
Tobi: Shouldn't that count for something?
Akin: The second question is easy to answer.
Tobi: I mean, for someone that is notorious for being rigid to abandon PDP...
Akin: I can answer the second question a lot (more) easier than the first.
Tobi: Please do.
Akin: President Obasanjo, in my opinion, is self-obsessed. In 2015, he supported the APC not because of any love for the APC or the key actors in the party, but because he wanted to punish his own party for what he saw as an affront and a lack of respect for him. He was very critical of the incumbent President Jonathan because he felt he was frozen out of government and even in his home state he was frozen out of choosing candidates in that place. So it was more an act of self-inflicted opposition. And to be honest, I don't think his support amounted to much, which is why in 2019, despite the volume of letters that he wrote, the APC still won the elections fairly easily. So I think that has, sort of, put to bed the myth that you need President Obasanjo to support you to win an election in Nigeria. To be honest, I don't think that his political might counts for much anymore, this is just a man who is constantly seeking relevance, so I don't really rate his political relevance in the country. Honestly, that's me. I might be wrong but that's me.
On the first point, I think that look, I'll be very honest...he's a very...his second term in office was very good for the country, it could have been a lot better but having said that it was still... there were a lot of good things to talk about. I think that the jury is out on being the best president ever. You also must realise that he is the only president who served two full terms and I don't think his first term was steller... right?
Akin: His first term was, in my opinion, below par.
Akin: So I think that, for example, President Yar'Adua was in office for too short a period. President Jonathan had one term, you could say full term. President Buhari is going to be the best comparison...right?
Akin: By 2023 and I think that we should wait till 2023 before passing our judgement. There are some things that the APC government if we deliver, will be transformative to this country. The conversations with Siemens and the work being done to improve the generation, transmission, and parts of the distribution infrastructure in Nigeria, if done by 2023, will be transformative and it will show significant gains, the kind of gains we haven't seen in this country in the last 20 years. I mean, if we are able to fix large parts of the transport infrastructure, the Lagos to Ibadan line is already done. Fully operational now, probably in March, and if we then extend that from Ibadan to Kano, I don't need to tell you what the impact of that on the country will be. I mean, if people say "oh, why are you patting yourself on the back for fixing Lagos-Ibadan expressway" and I ask them "so why wasn't it done for the last 30 years?" So sometimes you say these are mundane things but you also have to ask yourself why haven't these things being done? If we get some of the roads working - Lagos-Ibadan, Benin-Ore, Second Niger Bridge - these are transformative projects for [the country]. I travel through Lagos to Ado, if that Lagos-Ibadan road is completed, Lagos to Ibadan is suddenly a 45 minutes trip. It means that I have a good chance of getting to Ado-Ekiti in 3 hours. Now, imagine what that does for investors. Imagine what that does for the transport of goods and services. It's transformative stuff for the economy if you can improve power supply from what is today between 2500 to 3500 megawatts to even 5000 megawatts, we're talking almost from 3,5 to 5k, is almost a 50% increase. It's transformative for the economy. If we can fix some of the long-standing issues with our ports, these are transformative things for the economy. So I think that there's a sense the jury is still out on President Buhari's government and I'll say that when we give those two people 8 years each, we can then start to say where do we think we've seen more transformation. But even in terms of the quality of people, I would agree that, yes, these were fresh faces in government at the time, but at the end of the day that government also had T.Y. Danjuma in it, if you remember in his first term. He had Cornelius Adebayo, had a lot of old people in it - Barnabas Gemade, they were old people who...Tony Anenih. So we mustn't make it look like Obasanjo was this guy who was like the patron saint of youth and young people in government. Today, for an Oby Ezekwezili or a Nasir el-Rufai, there's a Yewande Sadiku at NIPC. I'm biased to someone like Yewande Sadiku because she was my colleague but this is as good as you get running the NIPC. Jumoke Oduwole, the work she's doing as a special adviser to the president on Doing Business, fantastic work. My current boss, Dr Fayemi was Minister of Mines, I don't think...yes, I'm biased, but I think that he's one of the finer thinkers you'll find in government and there are many of those people.
I think that the CBN is taking over the job of people like the BOI, BOA etcetera and I think that even the multiplicity of development finance interventions affects the impact of those interventions. - AO
For what you say about Babatunde Fashola, I think that he has more pluses than minuses. A lot more pluses than minuses and those are the kind of people that I want to see in government. You won't ever get a government filled with those kinds of people because there's a balance that you need to find but I definitely think that there's enough talent in this government both at ministerial and parastatal level. Uche Orji at NSIA is doing fantastic work in that place. I don't think you'll find better public servants, and sometimes even keeping the people you meet in government is as important or more important than appointing new people. Having Yemi Kale serve two terms at the NBS has done significantly great work for the bureau that I think keeping Dr Kale there is, for me, a much bigger thing than appointing a superstar somewhere else. I watch football a lot and Jose Mourinho will say to you [that] sometimes, keeping your players is more important than signing new players and recognising that continuity [etcera]...Look, these are some of the mature decisions that I think that the current President doesn't get credit for because they are the right decisions to make anyway. But previous governments, I mean, President Obasanjo will remove you for opposing a small view. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, yes, he brought her into government but people often forget how you remove her from office.
Tobi: Did he? I thought she resigned.
Akin: Oh, really, you call that a resignation.
Akin: You call that a resignation when someone is outside the country and she hears about her movement to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. You might as well say, hey, get out of my government. You forget that in his first term President Obasanjo allegedly had unsigned resignation letters of his ministers. I mean, people forget these things. The man ran the government like his personal enterprise. He had three or four... how many senate presidents? Enwerem, Chuba Okadigbo ...
Tobi: Okadigbo, yeah. Ken Nnamani.
Akin: Chuba Okadigbo, he was teargassed. People forget this, this is not... we're not talking about small-time politicians, this is Chuba Okadigbo, the Onye of Onye.
Tobi: But you people also persecuted Saraki.
Akin: What persecution? The man, Saraki, left his party. He left his party. President Buhari did not oppose him, he served his full term, what's persecution? He served a full term as senate president.
Tobi: Now, the Kwara State Government is demolishing his father's house.
Akin: You see, this has a sub-national issue. I'm not going to... and that is an issue that is a Land Use Act issue. The real disease there is the Land Use Act which is an Obasanjo creation.
Akin: Who foisted the Land Use Act on Nigeria?
Tobi: From '79 to '99, yeah, yeah.
Akin: This is an Obasanjo creation.
Akin: And he had an opportunity to unwind his disaster, he refused. So, look, Senator Bukola Saraki whom I personally like and I always say that, I like and respect him as an individual but the point is he went against his party. The party did not... he became the Senate President. They asked the President, he said I have no horse in the race. Senator Saraki served a full term as senate president. The only time that we saw security forces play games around the national assembly, the DSS... the chief was fired.
Tobi: Okay, but VP Osinbajo was later undermined.
Akin: Those are now rumours. I'm not going to go into the sphere of [rumours].
Tobi: Fair enough.
Akin: I have no credible source to...
Tobi: I don't either for the record.
Akin: So these are all Twitter-related banter.
Akin: But let's be clear that ... I always say that Senator Saraki served his full term. He lost at the ballot box.
Akin: He was defeated.
Akin: Not only was he defeated, his entire... I always tell people that you have to respect the political power of the APC, every senator that defected from the party is no longer in the Senate. It is a message. We don't have to do anything to you when you are there. Dino Melaye was running his mouth like a teenager. Today, he is no longer a Senator, that's how to punish people who do not tow the party line. Look, party discipline is important.
Tobi: I think he's into acting now.
Akin: Or music, that's not my thing.
Akin: But recognise that all the senators who defected are no longer in the senate. It is a strong message that you will be disciplined at the ballot box. We are not going to be uprooting senate presidents. No, we will respect the office. Saraki... Senator Saraki, Speaker Dogara... they were always invited to state events, they will sit with the president, they will smile and they will eat together even though they held different views, this is how you disagree.
Tobi: Okay. Okay. I hear you.
Akin: General Obasanjo... Eh?
Tobi: I hear you.
Akin: President Obasanjo...
Akin: He won't even sit with Okadigbo...
Tobi: I hear you.
Akin: He was such a petty president.
Tobi: But, okay, talking about President Buhari and appointments, how in god's name would anybody explain Godwin Emefiele?
Akin: I mean, you know... how in god's name? You will explain god's name in a few minutes...that's an interesting question...
Tobi: There's a reason
Akin: So, what's your biggest...
Tobi: There's a reason for that snark.
Akin: Yes, yes, and I want to understand why?
Tobi: You said... in the early part of this conversation...
Tobi: You said the primary function of the Central Bank should be price control.
Akin: In Nigeria today, price stability, not control.
Tobi: Price stability, sorry. Now, there are good reasons for that. Inflation is running at amok, destroying wealth in real-time. But here we have in [a] Central Bank President...
Tobi: Governor, sorry...that clearly sees his mandate has a lot more expansive. He is basically doing industrial policy, sometimes, without proper directions or strategy. So I don't know how much... that's my biggest grouse, really.
Akin: I mean, (I think I have...) my partisanship does not prevent me from saying that I do not agree with a lot of what the Central Bank is doing. And in my opinion, I think that the Central Bank...I've said this before and I'll say it again: price stability should be of... today, should be our fundamental objective. And I think that... in fact, bar Chukwuma Soludo, Professor Soludo who was the only one bold enough to say I was going to set an inflation target, I think that that would be where CBN should be headed. I don't think that the CBN is a Development Bank, I think that the CBN is taking over the job of people like the BOI, BOA etcetera and I think that even the multiplicity of development finance interventions affects the impact of those interventions. I think that the Central Bank should also not be focused on fiscal policy, it's not their job to determine what goods should be FX allowable and otherwise. I think that those distortions create opportunities for arbitrage and also take away capital from productive parts of the economy to start chasing higher returns, arbitrage returns. I mean, if we're being honest with ourselves, the era where we had multiple exchange rates and a wide variance between those rates meant that capital was looking for [ways] to exploit those arbitrage opportunities...
Tobi: Yeah. Yeah.
Akin: And that takes away capital from the productive sector of the economy. I think that some of the policies are also, sort of, like, on the go and I don't think that we have enough discuss around the impact of those policies and just the impact assessment isn't done and we now quote numbers from our buyers' positions. So I think that the real issue is that the rigour that you require from a Central Bank is not currently at the level that I hope we'll get to. But, again, when you ask why appoint him? He was a Central Bank governor that was met in the office.
Akin: And that was retained and it's at the prerogative of the President to retain the Central Bank governor.
Tobi: True, but...
Akin: And also, some of the things about this conversation is that if tomorrow... let's say... hypothetically, let's say the governor of the Central Bank was replaced, somebody will come and say oh you've removed a southerner again, you brought in its northerner. I'm just telling you the difficulty of making decisions, whatever decisions you make you'll get criticized one way or the other and again the truth is hopefully... I hope that something like the EAC will help, sort of, steer...
Akin: Or moderate some of the actions of the CBN and that we will now have an idea's based or at least a knowledge-driven decision-making process. So, I will not say that all hope Is lost because, for me, some of these intentions however noble must be done the right way. I'll be the first to tell you that if the CBN do not, for example, try to minimise milk importation into the country, our diary farm in Ikun might not be revived today. Sometimes, these decisions start as sub-optimal decisions, you've got to make the best of those decisions and, you know, over the medium-to-long term we could actually make those things work for the country.
For me, the biggest issue now is how do we improve productivity? So, why is rice cheaper from China than locally? One, because our yields are very low. Two, because our logistics is dub-optimal. If we quadruple the yields, if we improve logistics, it will be cheaper to eat Nigerian rice than Chinese rice, so, there won't be a conversation of rice from Thailand or rice from Nigeria. And if we see that it's still not competitive because those guys are subsidizing their farmers, we will subsidize our own farmers too. If we subsidize our farmers, I would rather the subsidy goes into production than consumption. So if we were to say let's take out fuel subsidy today, and let's move those subsidies into production subsidies that allow our products, our Agric products...
Tobi: Be competitive.
Akin: Be competitive, then I'm happy. Those are the conversations I think we need to have. We're not having those conversations. Let's ask ourselves, why is the yield on Nigerian rice low? Irrigation? Because you have one planting season in most cases? Your yield is low because your seedlings are poorer? You don't apply the right fertilizer because you don't know what soil types there are? Even the planting methods and the harvesting methods? Then storage? How do we minimise farmgate losses, etc? Those are the issues that we need to resolve. There's a 100,000 metric tonne silo in Ado-Ekiti wasting away. We are now asking Agric producers, rice producers "come and mill in Ekiti." People don't know, Ekiti State is the highest producing rice corridor in South-West Nigeria, more than Ogun and their Ofada [rice]. Apologies to my friends from Ogun State. But the milling capacity is not there, now we are bringing the milling capacity and that's private milling capacity. The silo is run commercially. You the miller, you do silo owner - oya, come and talk. That's how to optimise these things and all of a sudden you see that we are quadrupling the yield per hectare. Suddenly the rice becomes cheaper, it becomes more competitive. That's the conversation we need to have. How do we optimise productivity? Transportation is a productivity conversation. If we minimise the time we spend on the road, it's also improving the productivity of our human capital. Those are the productivity gains that we should be looking for - electricity, transport, agriculture. In my opinion, those are the three critical areas we should be focused on.
But to your point on appointment, I think, again, we have to recognise that many of the appointments are... is the prerogative of the President.
Tobi: Yeah, well, there'll be hits and misses.
Akin: As with all appointments there will be hits and misses.
Tobi: I get that. I like how we've segued into economics again. So here's something (we'll get to audience questions very shortly)... but here's something I want to get your view on. In Nigeria, for a lot of these reforms to happen, what do you think is the biggest barrier? I know someone like Feyi favours structural forces - he tries to take the long view. He talks about culture, slavery and its influence on the current political economy. Whereas some people say "oh, we are too exposed to macroeconomic distortions like oil prices or The Fed exchange rates and things like that." Which do you think is the biggest barrier to reform?
Akin: I think they are equally important. And I won't place one over the other. I think that there are cultural hangups we have that are now hardcoded into how we think and how we respond to issues. For example, there's a serious power index, power distance index issue in Nigeria and you find that because of that people are hesitant to challenge authority which then weakens the quality of information available to decision-makers. So sometimes I say to people that if I oppose the views of my principal or a higher authority, I do it because I want them to succeed. Because I want them to be exposed to the universal nature of the arguments available before they make a decision. People don't see it that way in many instances, they see it as being confrontational and therefore people tend to keep quiet. So decision-making is not tested. Decision-making does not have the rigour, it's not put to the rigorous examination that it should we put through. So that is where sometimes culture hampers decision making. But the truth is that we are quite exposed to external threats and shocks and anyone who doesn't accept that as a preeminent problem is also not taking an immediate view of the situation.
The truth is as long as our foreign exchange buffers are tied to oil price fluctuations, we're always going to be exposed to shocks in the ...government revenue is still very oil-based. Sub-national revenues are still very federal-based, apart from maybe Lagos, Rivers. Now to some degree Kaduna and Kano, many of the states are still very dependent on federal allocations. If you ask me, where is the fiscal targets we must look at in a state like Ekiti, I would always say that, at the very least, our internally generated revenue should cover our recurrent expenditure. We should start by covering our wage bill and subsequently recurrent expenditure, because you can argue that if that wage bill is not delivering the relevant IGR, then you're not productive. End of conversation, right? So, we should first start with: how does our IGR cover the wage bill, then the recurrent expenditure? And then we can get to the point where it starts to support some of the capital expenditure. That's how you want to progressively grow as a state, so I think that we have to treat both equally. I don't think one is more important than the other and part of the challenges of being in the arena is how do you balance both? No disrespect to my friends on the outside, I say to them sometimes "you have the benefit of not being in government, so you can step back and take a broad view of these issues." But for those of us in government, in politics, we've got to balance those things with also how do we ensure... because, look, if we don't hold... if you don't retain power, then your reforms are not mature enough to survive your ideology being out of office. So you have to balance things and ensure that you can hand over to people of similar ideology.
There's a lock on upward mobility, that is the real problem and so those of us who were privileged enough to grow up with some privilege and who can transfer that to our children must recognise that it is our duty to transferred that beyond our children. - AO
And we saw it in Ekiti where after Dr Fayemi's first term, you could argue that the government that followed it not only stalled reforms, in many instances reversed some of those things even to a worst off position than before we came into office or before he came into office the first time. So you must recognise that the volatility of political office has a strong, strong, strong say on how sustainable reforms are.
Tobi: Okay, so, our audience wants to know: are you going to run for political office and at some point?
Akin: That's a very interesting question. I don't know, I don't know. Honestly...
Tobi: Governor, House of Reps, Senate...
Akin: Honestly, I don't plan like 10 years in advance. If you had asked me five years ago, will you be working in Ekiti State now? My answer might have been "no". If you had asked me pre 2015 would you be working in government now? The answer might have been "no". So I always say, like, we are not even guaranteed tomorrow; not to start making a 5-10-year plan of running for office. Obviously, if the opportunity presents itself it's something to consider, but I always say that I don't think I'll make a good politician. I like being in the political process, I'm not sure that I want to be the man who goes to seek for votes. Some of the things you have to do and I don't mean things that are unspoken... some of the compromises that you have to make, sometimes, I think I'm too rigid in my approach to be able to make those compromises. So sometimes it's better to ride on the back of people who are able to balance those things a lot better. I see politicians at play and I marvel at how they are able to coalesce around different opinions and views etcetera and it's not something I'm very good at doing. So, for now, I'm happy doing what I'm doing. By 2022 when hopefully the government is done, hopefully, we would have delivered some significant gains to the Ekiti people and then I can recalibrate and see what's next.
I always say to people that my ideal job would be to own a football club.
Akin: If you ask me "what do I want to do?" It's to own and run a football club.
Tobi: Probably Manchester United.
Akin: I know I'll do a much better job than the guys running it today.
Akin: So that will be my preferred career change. Yeah.
Tobi: Okay, so you worked in Lagos under the previous administration and the consensus, at least, from what I've heard was that that period was successful and all evidence points to the fact that you actually replicate some of that success in Ekiti as well. So give us the Akin Oyebode production function. What's your secret?
Akin: Okay. I listen to Tyler's podcast a lot.
Tobi: Yeah. [Laughs]
Akin: Honestly, one is: I drink lots of coffee.
Akin: I've only had one cup today because we've been talking for so long but I drink lots of coffee. This is probably like my third cup today. So coffee keeps me very active, helps me work a lot better. I tend to do my best work in the mornings so I'd like to say I'm a morning person. I get up fairly early. I like to exercise a lot. I think exercising makes you comfortable with discomfort and it helps you push the boundaries apart from what you hear it does for your mental and physical alertness, because I tend to be on the road a lot. But the one big hack, if you ask my wife, is that I am a very deep sleeper. So I have the gift of being able to [sleep deeply]. I sleep very deeply so you can have an orchestra performing...
Tobi: Right there in the bedroom.
Akin: Right there and I'm done... when I sleep I sleep. So I think that just being a deep sleeper improve my quality of sleep, so I can get away with 4-5 hours of very high-quality sleep. I think, for me, the critical lifestyle things. But other than that I try to read all sorts of things, I try to maximize my time, so I've started spending less time on social media because it's become a bit of a distraction and it's also become very intolerant, so I don't spend as much time engaging as I would have loved. But I've started devoting that time to listening to more podcasts, to reading a lot more books and to actually doing what the people of Ekiti state pay me to do which is to bring investment into the state.
Tobi: So now, your friends that are on the outside, how do you cope? Have you become a bit of an odd lots? You know, sitting right next to someone like Feyi, for example, who, even though he's not going to admit it, has become an activist and someone like you who work in government, how do you guys resolve your differences?
Akin: So let me tell you a little secret. I have this very interesting WhatsApp group. There's maybe 15 of us in it.
Akin: I spend a lot of time on that group and in that group you have me, you have Tolu Ogunlesi who's also (now) a public servant, you have Feyi whose favourite pastime is to tell you everything wrong with the public service, you have Yemi Adamolekun who, in my opinion, has activism running all through her blood, you have Gbenga Sesan who's also a very critical voice of government and I'll keep the others... I'll keep their...
Akin: Their identity secret; but you can imagine the kind of conversations we have and I think...you see, the point is at the end of the day these are not personal conversations because...if Feyi, Tolu and I have the opportunity, every time we'll catch up and eat and chat and talk about other things, as well as government. So we recognise that at the end of the day we all want the common good and our hearts are in the right place. So we're able to disagree on issues; sometimes, yes, I would admit that once or twice some of us have had to leave the WhatsApp group, I can report myself even though we're immediately pulled back by people like Yemi. But it's important that we disagree and I always say like I'm thankful for my family and my friends because they keep me honest. My father always said to me "remember this son of whom thou art" growing up and I always feel like I have my name to protect and I've always said to people that "look, I'm lucky to have a father who didn't place a lot of value on material gains". So that is always in... it's somewhere in my head, I have a family who's not very keen on anything material. If I bring some unexplained wealth into my house today, my wife is going to be the first person to say "where did you get that from?" and she always says it to me that "if you go to prison for anything and not going to bring any food to EFCC"... and so it's a constant reminder, it's good to have people close to you remind you that "look, you have a name and a reputation to protect". The other thing is that my friends keep me honest and I like the fact that they are able to call out things they think we are not doing properly and be very critical of the government that some of us serve; because it's also important not to stay "tunnel vision" and sometimes when you're in the arena, you sometimes get defensive and I always say, like, everybody needs a WhatsApp group like that; because it allows me to, sometimes, even vent some of the frustrations that I maybe cannot vent publicly and it also gives me an opportunity to get feedback from people I know deep down want our best interest at heart, you know...they are not pro- or anti- any government. They are pro-development, they are pro-human rights...so, it's not a personal issue.
Akin: It is almost a situation of "well, if your government did this, we won't criticize the government". And I'm thankful for such people. e disagree on issues but I don't think it affects the quality of our relationships. So I'm happy for Feyi to continue doing what he's doing. When I create a bit more time, then I'll go back into active blogging...
Akin: To share the other side of the...
Tobi: Of the story.
Akin: Of the story and I've told him that at some point you have to come and join us in the arena and come and toil with sweat and blood...
Akin: And to recognise that sometimes the solutions are not as obvious when you have to make those decisions and I'll close that conversation with one comment: people say why can't you take out subsidy tomorrow? and I say, look, there's a clear and present danger that if not well managed a subsidy removal can lead to a deep sense of unrest in the country, and let's be honest about it, people will always forget... when they talk about China and the massacre of '89, they forget that these were deep-rooted issues that came from an economic issue. When China decided that they wanted to liberalise prices and start to remove price control, start to liberalised state-owned entities, it brought a period of painful adjustments and people paid the price for it. And, so, sometimes we can't take these things wholesale. We must say, look, these guys got it right eventually but at this point they missed it. They found their way later but they missed it at this point. The benefit of learning from that example is saying "how do we do it differently?" knowing that we want these outcomes but we don't want to take this medicine, and that is for me why I still always say that we need to have various discussions but anyone who says "oh, everything... the solution to everything is free markets" I always tell them "no, that's... that person is a dangerous person"...
Don't tell my friends I said this.
Tobi: Okay. So, yeah, public service 101. For someone who is passionate about public service and wants to follow in your footsteps so to speak, what are the advices you would give?
Akin: For me, the most important thing is: stay true to who you are. You have to know yourself and I think that it sounds clichéd but you have to... you must know who you are because if you don't know yourself, you will find out if you go into public service. You must know what you stand for, you must know what you cannot tolerate because anything that you don't know will be found out. I always tell people that everyone has a price and the only time for some people [that] they ever know what their price is when that thing is actually put in front of them. Because, sometimes, it's not monetary. Sometimes it's even your development mindset, it's your urge to do good because there's a price to doing good. So I always say that “look, know who you are”, be clear about what you would accept and what you won't accept because that's the foundation of knowing when to walk away.
The second thing I'll say is that: be comfortable before you go into public service, build a career. Either a private-sector career or a business career where you can go into service knowing that I am doing this for the people. It's very very important. I always think about people like my principal - he's is built a career in academia, in civil society - he'll always say to you that "if tomorrow I'm not Governor of Ekiti, I can do many things". He's comfortable going to sit down in Ife or Oxford or LSE or wherever to take a position as a professor. Look at the man in Oyo State, for example, he can always go back to his private business. If you look at someone like Nasir El-Rufai, he ran a very good business before he became a public servant and till tomorrow he can always go back to private practice. So there's a need to build your career because if you don't have a career and you don't have a second address it increases the number of compromises you have to make. I used to say to people that "guys, if this thing doesn't work out I have a career in finance I can go back to, so it's not by force to do this job" and that's very important. But I think the most important thing is, [to] always have people who are smarter than you and people that you trust will always be true to you because, sometimes, the hubris that surrounds public service is significant and power; and even though people can't tell the difference between proximity to power and actual power, they will tell you all sorts of things, like you can do no wrong. Having people who can honestly speak to you and say "look, I think you and the government you serve have gone too far" is very important. So those three things are, for me, the key ingredients of anyone who's taken a job in public service; without all of those three, you'll struggle to succeed.
Tobi: Interesting. Last question: what's the one idea - in line with the entire philosophy of the show, what's the one idea you'll like to say spread all around the country?
Akin: But that's, for me, very easy. Education. Early-stage education is critical. So if there's one thing I would say: it is education from primary to junior secondary level. If you ask me where is the sweet spot: primary to junior secondary education. And I think that that's where Nigeria has missed its potential or lost its way a bit in the last, I'd say, 20 to 30 years. It's that the quality of basic education, early-stage education, has worsened to the point where kids are barely literate, so as literacy worsens, qualitative reasoning, critical reasoning starts to worsen. I sometimes say that my son at 6 is a lot more intelligent than I was at 6. I marvel at the things these boys can do. My three-year-old now, you give him a mobile phone he... the fastest thing he does is how to skip ads or to decline [phone calls]. If I call my wife I can tell if her phone is with my son with the speed at which the call is declined because the kids know, intuitively they know these things; and you start to ask yourself, what about the thousands and millions of kids who don't have access to mobile telephones at 3, who don't have access to these critical reasoning tools, who don't have access to learning languages early, to things like even being able to swim. It limits the kind of jobs you can take, so I ask myself what are we doing to help these kids? One thing I say to people is that I recognise my privilege. And I don't hide it. So I will not come to you and say I grow up eating corn. I won't lie. I grew up in a middle-class family, with a father who was a professor, with a mother who was an educationist and who had a fairly comfortable civil service job. So I grew up with the finer things of life. I'm sorry, but that's the truth.
The problem today is that the society does not allow a poor kid to grow up and meet me at that level. The society has stopped... it has blocked social mobility. There's a lock on upward mobility, that is the real problem and so those of us who were privileged enough to grow up with some privilege and who can transfer that to our children must recognise that it is our duty to transferred that beyond our children. So I ask myself, my child can take language classes today but can that boy in Ikole Ekiti, can he even see beyond Ikole, to say he wants to learn Mandarin or to say he wants to learn French; because when he's 30...i mean, it's a lot more difficult for me to learn languages than it is for a six-year-old, so those are the things that we have to resolve. And for me, the biggest way to remove that lock on upward mobility is early-stage education. So getting kids properly... and I'm not talking about just putting them in a classroom and giving notebooks - how do they resolve critical issues? How do help them solve social issues? How are they more socially intelligent? And it's by having kids play together, work together, do group assignment...the pedagogy is there, it's available. I don't think we are going to reinvent anything, it's just applying those things and getting more kids to school which is why I'm a big fan... if there's any program that I love, it's the homegrown food feeding program, because if for anything, it is getting kids in school and it is ensuring that there is a minimum nutritional value they get that allows their brains to even receive some of this knowledge that they're getting from the schools.
Tobi: Okay, thank you very much, Akin.
Akin: Thank you.
Tobi: It's been a real pleasure.