Reviving Nigeria’s indigenous local industries is the surest way to encourage an organic job and wealth creation capturing the micro sectors of our economy. In an exclusive interview with Mary Amodu, Natasha Akopti, a lawyer, social entrepreneur and founder of Builders Hub Impact investment program, speaks on the importance of reviving Ajaokuta Steel Company and National Iron Ore Mining Company, Itapke in Kogi State.
Who is Natasha Akpoti?
I am a lawyer, an MBA professional, social entrepreneur and the founder of Builders Hub Impact Investment Program. My father is from Okehi local government area in Kogi state while my mother is a Ukrainian. I have 3 male siblings and 3 amazing children. I had my elementary education at Christ the King Nursery and Primary School, Okene and my junior secondary at Government Girls Unity Secondary School, Oboroke, both in Kogi state. Senior Secondary in Federal Government College Idoani, Ondo state; where I was the Head Girl. I obtained my Bachelor of laws from University of Abuja, attended Nigerian Law school, Abuja and was called to the bar in 2005. Worked for a few years as a legal counsel at Brass LNG Lagos before proceeding to the United Kingdom for my MBA in Oil and Gas management and LLM Petroleum Law and Policies. I have an insatiable appetite for acquiring knowledge and thus, attended a number of international professional courses. However, of all my life achievements, nothing is dearer to me than my desire to impact socio-economically in the lives of poor and ordinary people.
How did you begin your foray in social entrepreneurship?
Let’s say it is a passion I was born with and grew out of my life experience. My father, late Dr. Jimoh Akpoti was a heroic philanthropist in Ebira land. From him I learnt the true essence of living – “there is no joy living in an island of wealth surrounded by an ocean on misery”, he would often say. He gave all he had to the poor and the poor made him rich at heart. Upon his death 19 years ago, I assumed the breadwinner position in the family, it was no garden of roses but I embraced every challenge and learnt life’s lessons from each pain and disappointment. One faithful day, a story I shall share later, in dire need, I made a pledge to God to help me just once more so I shall have a chance to reach out to people and teach them out of my lessons how to rebuild their own lives and expand their personal economies. You see, people find it difficult to succeed in life because they have very limited opportunities; even where they are opportunities, people do not understand how to connect to these opportunities and create a meaningful sense of existence for themselves- success of which would trickle down their immediate communities, then state, then nation at large. The fulfillment of this purpose fueled my passion into social entrepreneurship”.
What area are you most passionate about?
Reviving Nigerians abandoned industries in particular our near obsolete local industries. This is the core vision of my initiative, Builders Hub Impact Investment Program. To achieve this feat, we shall harness and channel resources in time, effort and money toward responsible tailor-made projects, to advocate and support every cottage industry of pre-colonial economic heritage and government industries such as Ajaokuta Steel Company, Kaduna Textiles, Jebba paper mills etc that are rendered moribund due to the effects of bad leadership and policies.
The rationale behind this is simply wrapped around 2 notions –
Reviving Nigeria’s indigenous local industries is the surest way to encourage an organic job and wealth creation capturing the micro sectors of our economy. The micro sector makes up over 70% of Nigeria’s population and they are usually the poorest in capital but wealthiest in skills which are passed down from generation to generation. The strongest nations in the world have the cottage industries as their economic backbone. Italy has the leather and furniture as a local industry earning over $40b. France has its wines generating $11b annually, Russia its Vodka generating $20b annually, Scotland its Salmon with £700m to local salmon farmers, China its tea and porcelain and so on. The beauty of a structured local industry is one need not obtain western educational qualifications to key in. Skills, talent and passion are the necessary ingredients. The government must focus on harnessing these skills that are usually rare in form and capable of ushering unique Nigerian crafts such as Ebira hand-woven clothes, Benin carved furniture, Bida brass works to the world. A robust cottage industry is the quickest way to diversify our economy, create millions of jobs, increase foreign exchange earnings, reduce rural-urban migration and accord proper distribution of wealth.
Why embark on new projects every now and then only to abandon viable projects of past administrations? Continuity is key for long-term sustainability of any nation’s economy. Government must set up a solid structure that would ensure the revival of industries which cost us a whole lot to establish and can still yield Nigeria a whole lot of good fortune instead of embarking upon new capital adventures. From Italy to America, Russia to India, you shall see 50 year-old factories operating, why is Nigeria not boastful of a single one? Nigeria must begin to understand the importance of sustaining long-term projects through the establishment of good management habits and polices which by all means are important economic components.
From your various researches and advocacy, what exactly is delaying the completion of Ajaokuta Steel Company?
Well, I shall say it is the lack of political will and vested interests. Political will to take firm and proactive decisions in the face of international giant-nations to develop our steel sector irrespective of what sanctions may befall us. It is time Nigeria realized that we are in an era of economic slavery where by Nigeria is maintained as a distant colony to the West. Like a systematic transition from physical slavery, there are countries that strategically place Nigeria in a position of not dying, but not growing too strong to overthrow their “interference” in our domestic and foreign policies. Nigeria needs to stop playing by dogma; we must look inwards and do only that which will be of holistic benefit for Nigeria. We must stop seeking development permissions from countries. No country ever gets its freedom on a platter of gold. NO. We must get it ourselves and by possibly building allies with Nations who stand for true economic independence.
Vested interests on the other hand are the more dangerous of the two. This has predominantly played out in last 15 years. In 2001, President Obasanjo traveled to Russia and signed a bilateral declaration that included the completion of Ajaokuta Steel plant amongst others. Putin sent 40 experts to conduct a technical audit and also secured financing for the project. What happened? President Obasanjo renegaded on the agreement and gave Ajaokuta and NIOMCO to his son’s unqualified company SolGas Energy. Upon realizing their mistake, SolGas sub concessioned to Global Infrastructure Nigeria Limited (GINL). Amidst organizational chaos, the Federal government terminated with SolGas and engaged GINL directly. Asset stripping and fraudulent Corporate Debt Restructuring became the norm of the day. Late Yar’Adua terminated the concession with GINL upon the incriminating findings of Engr. Inuwa Magaji’s panel of enquiry into the affairs of GINL. Arbitration ensued at the International Courts in London at the stance of GINL. On an out of court settlement, they got NIOMCO back on the 1st of August 2016 amidst terms and conditions extremely unfavorable to Nigeria. I took time to summarize this case so that Nigerians would understand that Ajaokuta, NIOMCO and many other common resources of national wealth reside in the hands of a few greedy Nigerians. These Nigerians control a SYSTEM that manipulates its way through government (APC or PDP), religion and ethnicity to get and keep within its elitist cabalistic wimps the resources meant for all Nigerians.
Do You Foresee the completion of Ajaokuta Company given current Federal government interest?
I will like to say partially ‘yes’. If we save time and take the best decisions for Ajaokuta Steel plant, we could have portions of her up and running by mid next year and the rest in 2 years. Best decisions include getting the original builders of the steel plant in the company of TyazhPromExport (TPE) of Russia back to site under a completion and operation agreement. Nigerians must understand that steel plants are extremely expensive and highly technological in nature. However, if we decide to be truthful to ourselves, TPE are the most cost effective and time efficient partners. Our engineers would readily tell you the importance of staying true to like technology as against mix matching. Why do we want to give Ajaokuta to the Indian/Chinese when we can as well engage the first handlers? Vested interests? Very much so.
President Buhari has invested a whole lot in the fight against corruption for he rightly said “we cannot build an economy where corruption is the working capital”. Now that our president fights decisively against the economic progressive ills, we must know that corruption is fighting back. It’s important for every Nigerian to understand the nature of this agitation so we can lend our support by inclusive governance and help our president fight the corruption which trails NIOMCO and Ajaokuta Steel plant. A powerful tool we shall use is information. We should ensure we read broadly and educate those around us on the need to speak up and demand economic justice for Ajaokuta, NIOMCO and many other national assets that were nepotistically sold or should we say “gifted” to incapable hands. Knowledge and an assertive voice in demanding what is right, is the only emancipation that will free our economy from the stagnant control of our own very Nigerian colonial masters. The application of a commonsensical, logically technical and peaceful means is the only way we can foresee Ajaokuta Steel successfully revived by this current administration… anything short, 10 years from now, we will find ourselves in this same spot. Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. Nigerians, we are not insane and let nobody make us seem otherwise.
From your recent post on Facebook, one could deduce that the Hon. Minister of Mines and Steel development Dr. Fayemi could be behind a conspiracy stalling an honest reactivation of Ajaokuta Steel complex; what do you think?
As an optimist and one always giving people a benefit of doubt, however, by my legal training, I rely on facts ab initio, to which I shall categorically say that something isn’t just right with the manner in which Dr. Fayemi is handling matters relating to NIOMCO and Ajaokuta steel complex. You see, Nigeria is one country whose citizens have perpetually been kept in the dark of all vital aspects of governance and decision making only for the effects of such secretive decisions to be thrown right in our faces years later. So many facts are too often hidden from the public while sugar coated lies are released in a bid to control the public’s mind. Remember that controlling information by withholding truth from the people is misinformation, and misinformation is a crime against democracy, and a crime against democracy is a fuel for dictatorship.
Dr. Fayemi has withheld a whole lot from the public. I have spent most of my time scouting to bring Nigerians exactly is happening behind the scenes. Most recent of my notifications were the Inuwa Magaji reports which indicted GINL of fraudulent operations forming bases upon which late President Yar’Adua terminated their contract; and the modified reconcession contract FGN signed with GINL on the 1st August 2016.
Inuwa Magaji’s report clearly counters what Dr. Fayemi said on Channel TV’s interview of August 4th 2016. Dr. Fayemi said amongst others that Nigeria lost NIOMCO to the Indian GINL because we had no proof of fraud as levied against GINL to present before the London Arbitration court. No proof? We should ask the Minister if he read and presented the Inuwa Magaji’s report before the Arbitral courts or mediator as the case was. The report made reference to documented evidences, which were used to clearly indicted GINL. Were these documents presented before deciding the case in favor of GINL?
Dr. Fayemi further stated that Nigeria stood between a choice of paying $525m to GINL or giving NIOMCO to GINL for 7 years to complete the earlier terminated 10 year concession. Inuwa Magaji’s report clearly stated that there was NO PROOF that GINL invested $200m into Ajaokuta and NIOMCO. One should ask Dr. Fayemi how he arrived at a constituted damage of $525m payable to GINL.
On conspiring facts emanating from the modified concession recently signed is the most hilarious of all. Nigerians should know that Dr. Fayemi only signed the contract ex-AGF Adoke pushed for to sign but couldn’t succeed because ex-Minister of Mines and Steel Arch. Sada refused to sign. Let me explain better. On 12th December 2014, Adoke submitted to President a request to sign this very (Fayemi’s) contract giving NIOMCO to GINL. President Jonathan approved it on the 7th January 2015. Adoke tried vehemently to see that GINL got hold of NIOMCO before the Buhari elections just incase the PDP party lost. Arc. Sada wasn’t comfortable with the terms and did not sign. For that, the modified concession giving hold of NIOMCO to GINL couldn’t be signed into effect. Until 1st August 2016, when Dr. Fayemi signed the same document…even repeating the exact same grammatical and typographical error contained in Adoke’s 2014 contract. I uploaded the documents on my Facebook page and for those unable to access the contracts, I shall make mention of a few of the many errors:
1. On page 1 under WHEREAS ‘B’ fine clay is supposed to be fire clay.
2. On page 9 Article 7.1.2 where complete appeared is supposed to be compete.
3. On page 12 Article 8.1.10 where developed appeared is supposed to be develop.
4. On page 21 Article 15.5.4 where indicted appeared is supposed to be indicated.
5. On page 23 Article 23.1 where even appeared is supposed to be event.
Hon. Minister Dr. Fayemi told Nigerians several times in print and electronic media that his numerous international trips got him working so hard to negotiate a higher annual concession fee from 3% to 4% of the turnover to be paid to Nigeria. This is being economical with the truth. The 2013 Adoke’s draft agreement has already negotiated and obtained the 4% rate, even the term ‘modified concession agreement’ was given in the 2013 agreement.
Also, Dr. Fayemi is guilty of withholding information from Nigerian by telling us GINL’s concession is only for 7 years meanwhile on page 6, Article 4.3 specifies clearly the option for additional 10 year renewal . I want Nigerians to join me in asking our Minister the following questions?
Did you seat down to read the contract?
Which part of the contract did you negotiate in favor of Nigeria?
By this and more, it is evidential that our leaders are again failing us. How can a ministry, with so many technocrats at the minister’s disposal, commit such an administrative blunder especially in a cabinet that promises change. Change from what to what? All we see is the same PDP interests taking effect in the APC government. It breaks my heart to see that only a few people share the same vision of change as our beloved President Buhari. This is the more reason why Nigerians must assume control of their future. We must not allow our fate to be continuously determined by a few people. Never again!
Do you see yourself in politics?
Patriotism is such a rare attribute in Nigeria that many connote politics as a reason for social advocacy. I do not know what directions fate would usher me an opportunity to serve the people; but I know my mentors such as Bill Gates, Opera Winfrey, John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie did not impact positively in the lives of people as politicians. So I do not have to be in politics to contribute my quota as a citizen.
My father was a medical doctor, philanthropist and a politician, he was actually the first House of Representative member from Okehi/Adavi L.G.A under S.D.P and I watched him serve briefly in the defunct June 12 administration. Surprisingly, my father did so much more for the people outside of politics than his short stay in the National Assembly. Lesson I got from that is, you do not need to occupy a political position to be of service to your country. Whoever you are and where ever you are, you can find your voice and begin to speak your truth for all mankind.
However, this year long advocacy has made me ponder over some hard facts about life especially in this part of the world generally:
Poor people have no voice; and when they try, even with the most extraordinary of ideas, they are constantly faced with amazing obstacles set by the rich.
Gender gap is real. A woman’s scream only makes an effect as strong as a man’s whisper. She needs to work 100 times more than a man for the same result.
There is racial segregation in Nigeria. My father is from Kogi state and I still had to prove I am Nigerian enough to speak for a just cause.
Single parenthood is looked upon as a sin before God and a crime before man. Remember that your social condemnation of that single mother is a reason your sister or daughter could be killed in domestic violence. Support us!!!
Pedigree and nepotism reigns supreme. If I were an Obasanjo, a Babangida or a Dangote, my opinions would have mattered more to Dr. Fayemi. We would have probably discussed Ajaokuta Steel project over dinner in my house. Or maybe not, because the children of the affluent and powerful do not care to fight for the poor, because innocently, they do not understand what it means to be poor because their future has been secured in our sands of time.
Last year, the media was agog with news of you paying tuition for 600 pupils, what was that generosity about?
That was the way I chose to celebrate my 36th birthday. I drove to the primary school in Ihima community which my late father attended. On arrival, I noticed there were actually 5 schools closely situated next to each other. As the children all came out to celebrate with me, it became difficult to pay for tuition for pupils of one school and abandon the rest. I ended up paying a year fees for 594 of them. It was a huge investment but it felt right in my soul. I shall make payment for their next academic year in a few weeks.
The rationale behind a philanthropic service is basically to support someone whose pain you feel and care enough to help them ease it. For me, it’s an empathy I developed through my life’s journey. There was a time I found it difficult to pay 400 naira tuition in university of Abuja. It could be that someone somewhere might be in search for 400 naira to settle an educational need. The question has always been “ What are you doing for others”? And as philanthropy isn’t always about money, it’s about a humane service; so I dig deep into my single motherhood pocket and help give education to children of the downtrodden.
The challenge I pose for our elites is; with the little I have, I can do this much /little, what is your excuse? Our successful politicians and entrepreneurs should know that small acts done in multitudes create a wholesome big good that moves the world better. The rich should remember that it’s a moral obligation to build bridges and narrow the gap between them and the poor and this should be done constantly not only during elections. Remember, if Nigeria is better or worse tomorrow, either way, we played a part towards it. So let’s start being patriotic today by speaking up freely as one nation in demanding accountability of service from our leaders, transparency of decisions and judicious revival of Ajaokuta steel plant, NIOMCO and other abandoned industries scattered around in a bid to truly diversify our beloved Nigeria’s economy.