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Ask for Your Balance, Not Change!

A man had just concluded his transaction at a market in Abuja, paid for the consumables he bought at scandalously high prices and was expecting his change. Sensing that the seller who collected his money was not paying attention, he repeated: “I said you should give me my change.”

At that point, the man looked at him and replied: “I heard you the first time but let me offer you one piece of advice: In this market, you ask for the balance of your money, not change. We don’t want to hear that word again in this market. Last year, we voted for change but see where it has landed us!”

That Nigerians are going through a most difficult period is no longer in doubt even though it is also not unexpected given the crash in the price of oil, a problem compounded by the wrong choices we have made over the years. However, having come to power raising the expectations of Nigerians, it is not surprising that President Muhammadu Buhari is fast losing the support of many of the people who only a year ago idolized him. Yet, it is difficult for any fair-minded person to blame President Buhari for our woes as a nation when he has only spent one year in office.
Since he came to power on three broad promises of tackling insecurity, fighting corruption and revamping the economy, one should give it to President Buhari that on the first two scores he has not done badly. He has restored a measure of sanity to the military operations against Boko Haram such that the insurgents are in disarray and by implementing with greater vigour the Treasury Single Account (TSA) he has helped to bring transparency into public accounting with impressive results. With his legendary body language, those who fiddle with public treasuries also now know that if caught, there will be consequences.

The bottom-line, however, remains the economy that is in a tailspin with millions of Nigerians battling with poverty and deprivations. While Buhari may not be responsible for how we arrived at this sorry pass, that is not the kind of tale you tell a man who finds it increasingly difficult to feed his family or send his children to school. That is also why it is important for those who speak for the administration to exhibit a certain level of humility and sensitivity. Telling Nigerians to be grateful that Buhari is our president at this point in our history betrays a clear lack of understanding of the mood of the nation. I also hope that is not what they are telling the man.

In reflecting on his experience as a turn-around expert for companies, Mr. Doug Yakola of McKinsey’s Recovery and Transformation Services (RTS) group, said recently, that he had seen his fair share of “boiled frogs” in the course of his career. What that means, as he explained it, is a situation in which a live frog on fire doesn’t notice that the water inside which it is being boiled is heating up until it becomes too late to act. Yakola said that is how many managers walk into a crisis without recognizing that their situation is worsening. “They’re not bad managers, but they’re often working under a set of paradigms that no longer apply and letting the power of inertia carry them along.”

As it is with companies so it is with countries where some leaders are deluded into believing all was well with their nation until the situation got out of hand. As I stated earlier, I hope President Buhari is not being insulated (or isolated) from the reality of the Nigerian condition so that he can take a lesson from Yakola’s proposition on the importance of building traction with quick wins—something that comes handy at a time majority of our people are going through distress. While Yakola’s intervention may have been targeted at companies and not countries, there are also lessons that political leaders can draw from his examples.

This is the way Yakola explains it: “In any given company, you’re likely to find that a fifth of employees across the organization are almost always supportive. They work hard. And they will change what they’re doing if you just ask them. These are the people you’ll want to spend most of your time with, and they’re the ones you’ll promote—but you’ll probably spend too much time with the bottom fifth of employees. These are the underachieving ones who actively resist change, look for ways to avoid it, or are simply high maintenance.

“What often gets ignored is the remaining 60 percent of the organization. These are the fence-sitters, and they are tuned into action, not just talk. They see the changes going on, and if you proactively work with them, then 80 percent of the organization will be behind you. But if you don’t give them a reason to stand up and be positive about the company, they’ll go negative. That’s the importance of quick wins. When you quickly take real action, and when those actions affect the management team as well, you send a powerful message”.

In a recent piece titled “Of Wailers, Counter-wailers and the Buharideens”, I tried to make these distinctions and to put into perspective the changing demographics of the supporters of the president against the background of the state of the nation. If I borrow the thesis of Yakola, it is easy to conclude that the president still has his 20 percent die-hards as a counterpoise to the 20 percent naysayers who will never see anything good in his administration no matter what he achieves. He is then left with 60 percent of Nigerians to play for: those who want him to succeed because in his success comes their own prosperity. But if he continues to take them for granted—and I can write a whole book on how he has been doing that in the past one year—then he places his presidency in serious danger.

Having resolved that today is not about ‘dogo turenchi’, I will conclude the piece with a popular story which I had used several times before on this page to admonish former President Olusegun Obasanjo when he was in power. As the story goes, in a village was an all-knowing legend to whom people came from all over the land to seek advice on matters both small and great. While he had a solution for every problem, and an answer for every question, some of the children in the village didn’t believe that it was possible to always be right. Surely he could not know everything! Yet, no matter how hard the questions, the legend always answered correctly.

Then came one day when a boy decided he was going to prove that the legend couldn’t know everything. Hatching a devious scheme, he told all his friends to meet him at the legend’s home the following afternoon. “What are you going to do?” asked one of them. “I am going to hold a bird in my hands and I am going to ask the old man if the bird is alive or dead. If he says that it’s dead, I will open my hands and let the bird fly away. If he says that it is alive, I will quickly squeeze my hands together and crush it so I can present the bird to him dead. Regardless of the answer the old man gives us, it will be the wrong answer.”

This, to his friends, was a clever move and excited they all followed the boy to the house of the wise man. Holding the bird behind his back, he said: “They say you know everything, now is the time to prove it: Is the bird I am holding alive or dead?”

The wise man paused for a long moment while the boy waited with anticipation for his opportunity to prove him wrong. Then the legend spoke calmly, “Whether the bird is alive or dead is not a problem my son. The answer is in your hands.”

President Buhari has three more years in office; maybe effectively two to govern, considering that the last year would be for electioneering. But the period is still long enough to make a difference in our lives. So, whether he succeeds or fails as President of Nigeria within that period, the answer is right there in his own hands!

Private: Dangote and the Road Ahead
After the Federal Executive Council (FEC) session last week, the Minister of Power Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, announced the approval of the proposal for Dangote Construction Company to build a section of the Lokoja-Obajana-Kabba-Ilorin road by concrete. It was not only a landmark decision that may change the face of road construction in Nigeria, it is also a big coup by Alhaji Aliko Dangote who is always several steps ahead of his competitors.

According to Fashola, companies are ordinarily supposed to pay income tax‎, but there are existing policies in the nation’s laws which enable government to consider and give such tax incentives for Dangote to build the road. “The memo presented to council for consideration seeks to take benefits of tax policies, tax laws for the purpose of using them to drive infrastructure development and renewal. So, we presented a proposal by one of the subsidiaries of Dangote group for the construction of a section of Lokoja-Obajana-Kabba-Ilorin road. The company proposes to fund the construction of that section of the road in exchange for some tax remissions,’’ he said.

As a solution provider, I am not surprised that Fashola is exploring different options for reconstructing our roads and I have no doubt that he will make a huge difference in that sector. However, while Dangote may have secured a 30 percent tax benefit, that is not his real intention because what he wants to showcase is that concrete roads are better and cheaper and that they last longer than asphalt roads. By that, he is pushing for a model that is now becoming increasingly popular in India and many other countries, where the authorities now take advantage of cement to build beautiful concrete expressways like the one from Pune to Mumbai.

Interestingly, an unintended but major positive fall-out of the construction of the Obajana-Kabba road, when completed, may be the exposure of the monumental fraud associated with road contracts in Nigeria. The 42.5 kilometre road is estimated to cost Dangote Group N11.5 billion, even though it was the sum of N5.24 billion with 30 percent tax concession that has now been approved by FEC based on the 2012 estimate, when the project was first conceived. Considering that there is hardly any state in Nigeria today where a kilometer of road is built for less than a billion Naira (the situation is even worse at the federal level), there will be questions about some of the figures being quoted for such contracts in our country by the time the Obajana-Kabba road is completed.

That, of course, is not the motivation for Dangote who believes that with his intervention on the Obajana-Kabba road, Nigeria may be persuaded by the argument that concrete, as opposed to asphalt, is the way to go as we seek to revamp our dilapidated roads across the country. Indeed, the arguments for concrete roads are quite compelling. One, they have a long lifespan of between 25 and 40 years and do not require frequent repair or patching, whereas asphalt roads last for between five and 15 years and often require constant patching or resurfacing. In fact, given that most of our local contractors like to cut corners, many asphalt roads in Nigeria do not survive beyond three rainy seasons.

Two, concrete roads can support trucks and articulated vehicles carrying heavy loads with less impact than asphalt roads and while the cost of such roads used to be higher, they are now estimated to be less expensive to construct in addition to the fact that they do not get damaged by the leaking oils from vehicles or by weather conditions like excess rain or extreme heat. Three, it is now empirically proven that a vehicle, when run over a concrete road, consumes between 15 to 20 percent less fuel than that on asphalt roads, essentially because a concrete road does not get deflected under the wheels of loaded trucks.

Four, concrete roads are also more environment friendly since asphalt (bitumen) produces highly polluting gases at the time of melting aside the fact that less fuel consumption by the vehicle running on a concrete road means less pollution. Far more significantly, asphalt (bitumen) is produced from a wasting asset (petroleum) whereas concrete (cement) is produced from limestone that is available in abundance.

Despite the foregoing advantages, concrete roads also have their own drawbacks and a major one concerns safety. In rainy seasons, vehicles tend to slide thus making them easily susceptible to accident. In our kind of environment where motorists hardly obey traffic rules, that is a serious issue. There is also the challenge of maintenance. In case the concrete road breaks, the whole concrete slab needs to be replaced so the maintenance cost of a concrete road is higher than that of asphalt.

Notwithstanding, in many countries today, concrete roads are being preferred, in part, because of their cost advantage and durability. For instance, India, which has the second largest network of roads in the world (4,689,842 kilometres) after the United States (6,586,610 kilometres) built its first concrete road in 1914 (the year of our amalgamation) and because it remained pot-hole free for about 60 years, that has continued to encourage the trend in the country.

From the foregoing, it is easy to understand the thinking behind the offer to build the Obajana-Kabba road by Dangote who has long moved beyond making money to creating wealth as the first multinational company to grow out of Nigeria. The calculation is that having strategically positioned his cement companies in most African countries that would need to develop their infrastructure, and at a time the debate between asphalt and concrete road is gradually shifting in favour of the latter, he stands to reap heavy windfall in years to come.

With Ajaokuta-Kabba road, Dangote intends to present a model. If he succeeds and Nigeria and African countries buy into the idea of constructing concrete roads which are cheaper and more durable, that can only be to the eternal advantage of Dangote Cement Plc as Africa’s leading producer with three plants in Nigeria (Gboko, Benue State; Obajana, Kogi State and Ibese in Ogun State) as well as operations in 17 other African countries where each of the investments is in hundreds of millions of Dollars: Ghana, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Cameroun, Liberia, South Africa, Kenya, Zambia, Sierra Leone, Congo, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Chad, Mali and Niger. The cement plant in Nepal will make it the 18th country where Dangote operates but the first outside Africa.

I am well aware that you cannot have the kind of wealth available to Dangote and be a saint, especially in our kind of environment. But it is also no secret that I am a great admirer of Dangote and that has more to do with his humanity than his wealth which for me does not in any way define the man. In any case, unlike most other people, whatever benefits he derives from the system, he invests and ploughs back. Therefore, investing his money, time and energy in our country and on the continent where he has put thousands of people to work—with the prospect of becoming a great net importer of foreign exchange to Nigeria in a few years to come—should count for him.

Beyond that, Dangote has also become a catalyst in many areas of our economy. For instance, a major highlight of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) 2013 audit report released on Monday is that the Dangote Group alone contributed N15.9 billion which represented 53 percent of the total federal government revenue (N33.86 billion) accrued that year from the solid minerals sector. While that is a subject for another day, as we seek to reposition our economy, what Dangote has done is to show the way forward in a promising but long neglected sector.

All said, to the extent that the argument currently being canvassed in favour of concrete roads also goes for Nigeria—that because the technology of laying bitumen road is fairly simple, all manner of crooks with political connections are in the business of road construction where they do shoddy jobs as against concrete roads which require significant technical expertise—I believe that the Dangote option is worth exploring as we seek to revamp our road infrastructure. But first, let’s see what he does with that terrible stretch of road from Obajana to Kabba in Kogi State. That may be a new and very revealing beginning.

The Prodigal Billionaire
I didn’t coin that headline, it was used by an online publication to describe Mr. Mohammed Indimi, who recently donated a whopping sum of $14 million (about N5 billion) to Lynn University in the United States to have its International Business Center named after him. For a man who hails from the North-eastern part of the country whose people have been ravaged by poverty and want as a result of Boko Haram activities, I have never heard about any meaningful intervention by Indimi. The CEO of Oriental Oil and Gas whose name features every year in the Forbes List as one of the richest men in Africa is also not known to have supported any worthy cause in Nigeria. Yet, we are talking about a man who made his money from our oil and gas industry that has, for decades, been run on the basis of man-know-man.

While I do not begrudge Indimi his good fortune, it is indefensible that he cannot even invest a fraction of that money at the University of Maiduguri (his hometown) or any other institution of learning in Nigeria. He has to go all the way to Lyn University in the United States for his vanity project, just because two daughters of his graduated from the school. The Mohammed Indimi International Business Center, according to the information on the website of the university, is designed to provide students with the best opportunity “for ingenuity, with incredible options for hands-on, technology-based learning.”

That exactly is the kind of resources we need on our campuses in Nigeria. So, while Indimi’s charity begins abroad, it is my hope that it doesn’t end there!

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