Niyi Yusuf: For the love of country
By Jemi Ekunkunbor
Mr. Niyi Yusuf is the Chairman, the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, NESG.
The Managing Partner, Verraki Partners, whose career journey spans over 30 years, he has traversed top organisations such as Arthur Andersen, JKK-Joint Komputer Kompany and Accenture where he was responsible for the firm’s strategy, team and operations.
The dotting father and husband who holds a combined honours degree in Computer Science and Economics from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, has interests in three areas of endeavours; education, employability and nation-building. His interest in nation building is why he currently functions at the NESG–a private sector-led think thank saddled with promoting reforms in the Nigerian economy.
As Nigeria turns 63 today, we turned to the management consultant guru for some answers about the nation’s independence and economy.
At his Victoria Island office, we were pleasantly surprised to meet an IICC Shooting Stars fan, a humble boardroom guru, the dotting husband of Muinat, passionate about growing the economy of Nigeria.
Your office is saddled with the heavy responsibility of promoting reforms in the Nigerian economy. How well are you championing this cause?
We like to say that we play four roles; first role is as a dialogue partner, we engage in critical conversations and dialogues with various partners, including the public sector. Our second role is as a connector; connecting various parties together. This is because the kind of problems we are facing as a nation is such that no one entity or group can solve.
Our third role is as a watchdog, to track how well the nation; both government and private sector are doing in certain activities. The last role is as an intervener; sometimes we just get in and do things ourselves.
Over the years, I will say there have been interesting results; some successes and some, challenges.
Part of our most recent successes include the passage of the Petroleum Industry Act, the review of the Company and Allieds Matters at CAMA 2020, the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission Act, and the telecoms revolution.
It has not been easy; we have paid quite a significant price for some of the actions that we have taken in the interest of the nation.
In what ways can the Nigerian economy be made modern and globally competitive?
First is around macroeconomic stability. Inflation rate has got to be low. If you look at the advanced countries, inflation rate is between two, three and six per cent. Not 24, 25 per cent as we have it in Nigeria and other countries.
Second is the Human Development Index, HDI. So, whether you are talking the quality of education, access to or quality of healthcare, or you’re talking about infant/maternal mortality, the numbers must be low. I will also then add infrastructure. We cannot have a modern economy if we are running on generator.
We will have a modern economy when almost every part of the nation has access to constant power supply. So, modern infrastructure, whether it is power, road or telecom, must be evenly distributed.
Those are part of the hallmark of a modern and competitive economy.
Let us look at the sustainability of the economy in the face of dwindling exchange rates between the naira and the dollar. How can we ensure sustainability?
The first thing will be diversification of the economy. Today, oil and gas account for about 95 per cent of our foreign exchange earnings. All others account for between five and six per cent. That means we are heavily concentrated on oil and gas. The challenge, therefore, is how well we are doing in oil and gas?
The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, has given us a quota of 1.6million barrels per day. In the last one year, we have been struggling to do between 1.1 and 1.2 million barrels per day. So, we are leaving money on the table. If we can even just match our OPEC quota, there is so much foreign exchange that can come in that way. Which means, we need to promote investment into the oil and gas sector; investment has not come into that sector.
The low investment in the last ten years is what is impacting us today. Of course, we also have issues of crude oil theft, leakages, and others.
Back to your question, the low hanging foot in terms of increasing our forex supply, will speak to how we can increase our crude oil and gas production.
Between oil and gas, which will you put in first place?
Sustainability talks about a leg in today and another leg in tomorrow. On a long term basis, it is clear to everyone that the direction is gas. We need to optimise our investment in oil and use the proceeds to develop our gas sector.
What is your assessment of the economy in its first nine months and what is your outlook for the fourth quarter of the year?
‘Challenging’ is the only one word for the effect of the economy in the last nine months; you see it in the inflation rate and many other things. What’s the outlook? My sense is that the removal of the fuel and forex subsidy should provide more revenue to government. I also look forward to seeing them deploy the additional revenue in critical sectors of the economy by next year; which is when there will be a budget owned by this administration. Right now, this administration does not have its own budget. So, I think Q4 will just be like Q3.
The sentiments expressed by citizens at Nigeria’s independence was that people were being marginalised. We still have that with us, with people being treated as second class citizens. How can true freedom be guaranteed?
Three things come to mind. First is really around education. Like Nelson Mandela said, education is what frees a man. Unfortunately, we are not doing well in terms of education. Adult literacy level in Nigeria is about 66 per cent, and we are a nation of about 220 million people. In China, a nation of over one billion, adult literary is 98 per cent. We need to improve education.
We also need to dramatically reduce poverty. That’s the second thing that can guarantee freedom.
Thirdly, we need to have social systems that will protect the poor, whether it is access to health or some job safety nets.
Lastly is the rule of law; when we have all of the aforementioned and a rule of law where what matters is not who but what is done, we will begin to have true freedom.
Do you think the issue of ethnicity and religion will change when we have these four? Take education for an example.
Karl Max was said to have said religion is the opium of the poor. I think the more people are educated, the less income inequalities you will have. The stronger the rule of law, the less important religion and ethnicity will become. The failure of government is what has made people to go back to their ethnic groups so much that everybody has become tribal.
Also, the fact that government is not able to provide social services is what has made people to go back to religion. When those are no longer issues, you will realise that we are all united.
What childhood memories of Independence Day celebration do you have?
Independence Day celebration was fun. First, it was a public holiday. Second, it was an opportunity to go to the Liberty Stadium for March-Past in Ibadan where I schooled. When Chief Bola Ige became the governor, we had a calisthenic display which was wonderful. It was a period one looked forward to.
What do you miss most about those days?
The attention to youth development. Dubbed Independence Day celebration, the target really, was primary and secondary school students, and then you had weeks of practising and team work. The activities we did back then are no longer in vogue.
Part of the challenge we have now is that we have people being more individualistic.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would love to learn a few more languages beyond English; French, given that half of our neighbours are French-speaking. I would also love to learn Arabic.
On a personal level, I would like to be a bit more patient. I’m not as patient as I would and my view is that the situation of the country requires a lot of anger and less patience.
On a more serious note, I would like to exercise more patience, especially with people around me.
When you’re not working, what do you love to do?
Beyond Verraki, which is my day job, I’m involved in up to like 20 not-for-profits that I support. For relaxation, I listen to old school music. Of course, I also read management books and autobiographies.
What’s your favourite travel destination?
It’s Mecca, for spiritual reawakening. If it’s in-country, then it’s Abeokuta.
For busy men like yourself, how do you juggle career, charity work, and family life?
One of the things I learnt very early in my career, from my mentors, is the concept of work-life integration. I’ve integrated my work with my life and most of my clients and I have become family friends. Another thing that has helped is building a strong team to support you.
Also, ensure they have complementary skills so you all cannot be the same. Then have the confidence to delegate.
What football club do you support?
None, and it is deliberate. I grew up in Ibadan and I was an avid supporter of the Shooting Stars. We all know what happened to our sports and clubs. Deliberately, I choose not to support any of the international clubs. I salute those who do, anyway.
Is there a way of reviving some of these clubs because those who support them seem to have very fond memories…
Yes, there are ways of reviving them and the NESG has just started that process. Three or four years ago, we worked with the Ministry of Youths and the National Bureau of Statistics to make sports to become an industry sector so that its growth can also be tracked alongside other industries. We created what we call ‘Sports as a Business’. The body is focused on turning sports in Nigeria into a real business.
The Nigeria Economic Summit is coming up in October; how will it be different this year?
The first thing that will be new is the presence of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu who will be declaring open the summit. He has also agreed to have a dialogue session with the private sector at the summit, where he will expand on some of his goals and ideas for the nation, economy and the private sector. The other thing that will be different is that, this year’s summit will be looking at how to promote social coercion and unity. We’ve seen that without social coercion and unity, there will be insecurity; and when there’s insecurity, you can’t make investments.
So, it’s not just about the economy; we have to ensure that all our diversity as a nation is a strength and can lead to shared prosperity for all.
What’s your word of advice for young people who aspire to be successful business leaders like you?
First is hardwork. Those who achieve extraordinary results tend to put in extraordinary efforts. You also need to learn humility and patience because life is a journey of multiple seasons. There will be raining seasons and also dry seasons when things will be tough.
Last thing is, you need to have mentors; mentors who have walked that path and can show you the way.
Talking about mentors, who are yours?
I have mentors for different areas of my life. Professional/career-wise, it is Dotun Suleiman. From him, I learnt the values of hardwork, excellence and of community service.
Omobola Johnson is another. She recruited me in 1995 and from her, I learnt how you can juggle and balance work, life and family.
From Dr Tunde Popoola, I learnt how you can use your professional success to help your community and religious organisations. From my mum, I also learnt patience, hard work, humility and prayerfulness. So, I’ve learnt bits and pieces from different mentors.