Nze Chidi Duru, a former member of the House of Representatives, means a different thing to different groups – an entrepreneur, politician, political activist and lawyer. He speaks about the reforms he co-championed in his days at the National Assembly including the pension reform, the political reforms Nigeria urgently needs, the untapped strength of the youths and many other issues in this interview with senior journalists, including The Guardian’s MARCEL MBAMALU.
You’re one of those who started the new democratic era in 1999. You disappeared after your term as a lawmaker only to return for the 2019 elections. What have you been up to?
Well, from 2007 when I left Parliament, the National Assembly, I focused my time, energy and resources on rebuilding my business. It is important to mention here that before I went into politics full-time in 1999, I already founded a company that was into the environment, firefighting and asset management.
After 2007, I went back to rebuild my business. Fortunately, in the course of my stay in the National Assembly, I had the privilege of founding a company in the pension industry called First Guaranty Pension Ltd, which I was the Vice-Chairman of the company. So, much of my time was devoted to this and the holding company – Grand Towers Ltd.x
I have also been involved in the affairs of my community, inspiring the younger ones, sharing my time and experience with them and, of course, in mentoring.
Considering your popularity during your tenure, what informed your taking a break from politics to go into business?
It was not a deliberate choice; it was forced on me and a number of us. In 1999, when we were elected for the first time into the House of Representatives, we set up a group called the G-14 comprising people of like minds. We had the Nduka Irabor, Tony Anyanwu, Faruq Lawan, Suleman Ishyaku and their likes.
Our conviction was that we could change the paradigm. For our political activism, there was a deliberate effort to ensure that we did not return to the House of Representatives in 2003. About 95 per cent of my colleagues did not come back in 2003. Yet, a few of us that return were still forgiven. By 2007, it was clear that the government had taken a deliberate effort to ensure that under no circumstances would someone like me return to the National Assembly.
You were instrumental to creating the contributory pension scheme. What challenges at the time necessitated the decision?
As a lawyer, I believe and I say it with every sense of conviction, that Nigeria is not a land of laws. What we need in Nigeria basically is more of the enforcement of laws. And I also believe that we also need to begin to address the policy thrusts and the institutional reforms that are required to move Nigeria from where we are today to where we would like to see Nigeria. One of the things that gave me joy is being offered the opportunity to serve as the Chairman of the House Committee on Privatisation and Commercialisation. Earlier before then, I was invited to chair the House Committee on Appropriation, but I felt that my talent and my abilities would be better utilised in privatisation and commercialization. But people did not understand how one could turn down a grade A committee.
I was also fortunate to work with the Bureau of Public Enterprises which was responsible for mid-wifing the privatisation and commercialisation, which was Mallam Nasir El-Rufai. Working together, we mid-wived a number of reform-minded policy thrusts that gave birth to what we now enjoy in the telecommunication space.
The other thing we talked about but unfortunately, couldn’t get it to get through was the antitrust law. Lack of understanding of the impacts it would have on the dominant companies was a challenge. It was very difficult to lead members to understand that unless we changed the rules that inhibit antitrust behaviour, Nigeria would suffer the consequence.
It was one bill I was interested in but couldn’t get it passed before we left parliament. But I am happy that in 2019, that was passed, of course, with some measures of confusion. There was confusion on whether it is an antitrust bill or a consumer bill. What I find now is that more emphasis is placed on the consumer aspect of the implementation of the Act on antitrust behaviour.
You mentioned the pension reform act. Nowhere in the world do countries make progress without long-term funding. And it is the pension access that provides long-term funding for key investments that crystallise development. South Africa has over 500 or 700 billion dollars in pension assets. And many countries in the world have asset sizes of close to three, four or five trillion dollars.
One of the strategic decisions that we took when I got involved in the pension industry was to review the pension. We asked what we can do to address the challenges that faced the civil service and civil servants while are on service and when they retired. One of those things was the unfunded pension scheme and we looked at Chile and many other countries. We adopted the Chile model, which is to transform from an unfunded pension scheme to a refunded pension scheme to the extent that you are certain of your contribution to your scheme while you are working. It is guaranteed and that when you retire, your pension will be able to take care of your lifestyle for the rest of your life.
The second benefit of that is to also have a pool of funds that will be targeted for long-term investment and development. Today, we have close to about 11 trillion in our pension asset and that, in a way, is good news even though in 2004, when we passed that bill, we had expected that by 2015, the asset class would be 30 to 40 trillion naira.
Would you possibly consider returning to the political arena to actualise some of the visions that you have for the country?
I didn’t leave politics; politics left me (laughter). I was forced out and I give kudos to people like El-Rufai, who in spite of the odds, have remained faithful and consistent in his belief to continue to contribute his quota to Nigeria. I also appreciate the likes of Fayemi Kayode for their contributions.
They’re all members of G-14?
No. They belong to a larger group that we belong to – the Pat Utomis of this world. Of course, you did mention that in 2019, I tried my hand again at politics. As appealing as the ticket was, unfortunately, I come from a state that did not find a reason why they could contend, so they countenanced my association with the APC. And regardless of the appropriateness of my ticket and the fact that I would give them equitable and effective representation when it came to speaking with their votes, they decided otherwise. So, in answer to your question, I believe that having taken that decision in 2019, it means that if given an opportunity, I will make myself available.
What are your views concerning restructuring?
I believe that institutional reforms are very important but also more important is that the players in the political space come to an understanding and appreciation of the higher responsibility or the burden they bear by being elected to elective positions and help, through that, to transform Nigeria.
The downtime we’ve had as a country goes back to 1999 when, given an act of grace of God, a former military head of state, was again elected as a civilian president. And the wish of most of us, I believe, was that he would have invested his time, energy and resources in helping to map a new Nigeria but I think that what has happened to us as a country took root in what happened in 1999/2000 when we left governance and began to play politics.x
Do I agree with restructuring? By all means, I do. I do agree with it and I see the need for it. And I am one of the advocates that believe that Nigeria will get better if we can look at these things and address them politically. El-Rufai committee set up by APC recommended restructuring as one of the signposts that the party should champion. But of course, up till today, I don’t think there has been any deliberate effort on the part of the government to bring the recommendations to the table for discussion.
So, what do you say to people who, whenever you raise the issue of restructuring, automatically associate it with separation and oppose it?
It does not by any means, mean separation or secession or parting of ways. What it means is giving people more responsibility to be able to deliver more.
Take the example of state police as one of the items that have been discussed and have been put on the table as a component of restructuring. The concern and fears of most people are that if you leave state police in the hands of governors, they will abuse it. And the counterpoint to it is: have we not abused the police whether you leave it for the centre to control?
That the fears are not misplaced but a clear understanding of it will give each and every one of us comfort to understand that you are better policed and protected by one who comes from the locality and understands the terrain and culture of the people.
What is your position on a part-time and unicameral legislature and jumbo pay to lawmakers?
I believe by its nature lawmaking in Nigeria is already part-time. That is already the pattern because in parliament, they sit only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Mondays and Fridays and the weekends are used for constituency clinics, visits or oversight. I am one of those that believe that what we possibly need in Nigeria may not necessarily be a part-time legislature or a unicameral legislature but revert to a parliamentary system of government that enables people to spend a bit of more time in representing their constituency in the parliament.
And also, if you’re a government in power from the parliamentarians to become the ministers, secretaries as we may call them. So, you’re doing a dual role. You’re having an executive responsibility as well as a parliamentary responsibility. But barring that, Nigeria is ripe for a unicameral legislature, and not a bicameral legislature. It is bloated. Unicameral legislature maybe it if we insist on a presidential system of government if not a parliamentary system of government. More importantly, legislation that we need to have would be legislations that guarantee that people don’t go to parliament for a means of livelihood but to contribute their quota to the betterment of Nigeria.
You achieved so much as a young man between 20s to early 30s. Juxtapose that with what is happening in our economy which has forced youths to demand justice.
For me, I think it’s basically about one’s background. I would say that one was privileged to come from a background that was business-oriented. And I also learnt under the best of human beings who incidentally is also my dad who is given to hard work, discipline, and integrity. He believes very strongly in hard work and the God factor. He espouses the view that when you work hard, help will always come your way and that what you are given is not for you and your family alone but the development of the community where you find yourself. And in doing that, you must be truthful and you must never do anything that will harm your fellow men.
If you put all of these together, it is the bedrock of his success and he impacted it on all of us. So, we took that on and we moved on to the larger society. And one of the restraints he also imposed on us, his children, is not to ever get involved in government business. I think the only salary I’ve ever earned working for the government was while I was in the National Assembly. Outside of that, it is a matter of principle in Duru family that we don’t tender; we don’t dupe; we don’t accept any government work or job.x
And he has a reason for that which I will explain later offline. But again, in our time, there was also a sense of the state reaching out to you. If not for nothing, most of us are benevolent to public schools, whether to federal government schools or state schools.
It is unlikely that people of our age went to private schools. Now, if you benchmark it to what is happening today, I am sure that if our kids are not in private school, it is, maybe, you’re making a deliberate effort for your children to go to a public school. And in that public school, you probably have to think through it and work with a number of people to probably determine the quality of education that is going on in there. They call it the future leaders but I call them the present leaders because well managed, well-groomed and well-nurtured these are people that would help to transform the society.
What does the experience of PayStack that was bought by Stripe teach us? It teaches us that if the government can creatively create a podium to engage the youth, to mentor them, to motivate them, Nigeria will be a better place. And fortunately for them, and I also want to say fortunately for the government, the world has become a global village. What is happening in Ghana, in the US, these kids can relate with. And the youths, the children that we’ve all brought up, some have gone to schools over there, all over the world, some have schooled in Nigeria but through the apps and phones, they have related with the best practices all over the world. They find it intolerable and cannot understand even when we want to make excuses to them why things are the way they are in Nigeria.
So, what do we need to do? #EndSARS, in my view, is a wakeup call. #EndSARS, in my view, is a youth telling us that they are fed up with the way Nigeria is being governed and they cannot accept anything less. It is a statement to the government that let us transform, let us reform, let us go back to the basics of what we need to do to be a great nation and we cannot pretend or play the ostrich that these are not legitimate demands and I hope and I believe that we will listen to it and we will harken to what they have told us or told those in power and that constructively, the government will begin to address it.
It makes no sense that your parents will spend all the resources that they have, train you through school and you can not even be sure of an opportunity of being employed when you leave school. Five years down the line, there are no employment opportunities.x
And yet, someone else who left school, only because he’s a son of Mr. A who is connected to B, now gets employment in a government parastatal for which he is contributing little or nothing to the advancement of Nigeria. These are unacceptable to our youths. But if you create an enabling environment that would prosper and enhance opportunities for our youths to be meaningfully engaged, it now becomes a different equation entirely.
So, I think that this is what it all represents and I believe that given the stance of the governors’ forum and the speech that Mr. President made that engagement will begin to happen sooner than later.
Were you penciled down to run with Atiku in 2003? What was the story?
Well, I don’t know. I know that I worked closely with Atiku from 1999 to 2007 and in particular, 1999 to 2003 when he was the Chairman of the National Council on Privatisation. Through that, we became very close. And of course, working with him, I believe that we also found meaning in the interjections that we got to bear in the way and manner privatisation and commercialisation was being governed in Nigeria to the extent that the number of successes that we recorded was on account of the leadership in VP, and his governance, and of course, our intervention from the National Assembly.
And we went beyond that to understand that unless we champion sectoral reforms around ease of doing business and creating an enabling environment in Nigeria, that the progress and development that we envision will be far-fetched. And that led us to the antitrust reform bill. I talked about the power sector reform bill, the telecommunication reform and, of course, the pension reform that the committees worked hard at. I’m certainly not aware that I was offered the vice-presidential ticket and I know that, in 2003, Atiku did not run for president unless there’s a template. But eventually, he did not run for president in 2003.
You first came out, you went to the House of Reps and rested a while. You came back, you went to the same House of Reps. If you had the opportunity to come back now into politics, where would you start from knowing that the Anambra election is around the corner?
I would say that I remain in APC. I left PDP, following a number of things that were happening in PDP that obviously could no longer accommodate me. And then, our group took an informed decision in 2014 to join hands with like-minds that birthed APC and ever since then, I’ve remained in APC and I hope to remain in APC for a long while. And in Anambra State, as I did say in 2019, when I offered to go back to Parliament under the umbrella of APC, the party wasn’t popular.
People didn’t find a need or a reason why they would elect someone from my constituency and indeed, Anambra State to go to Parliament in 2019.
Of course, they did not vote for me. In 2021, the gubernatorial election in Anambra State will happen and I know that a number of my friends are interested in running for office in APC, PDP and APGA. I am not in running, neither am I in the reckoning to be the gubernatorial candidate of any of the political parties and in particular, my party, APC. Left for me, my work and I believe, I have the temperament, I have the training and I have the skill to work more in Parliament than an executive responsibility as a governor of Anambra State.
That is to say, you’re going to wait for 2023
If I still feel the way I feel.