Aig Imoukhuede: I am Driven By National Interest

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Unless you are able to unravel the key driving force behind a man’s actions, trying to understand who that individual truly is may turn out a fruitless exercise . Two Saturdays ago, for almost three hours, Ayo Arowolo engaged Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, a former Group Managing Director of Access Bank Plc and gained insight into his world views: he shared his perspectives on success; on wealth creation; on entrepreneurship; on governance; and many others. Of course, Aig, who is also the President of The Nigerian Stock Exchange, also spoke at length on his new pet project-Africa Initiative for Governance (AIG), a concept he says could revolutionise the civil service in Africa and put the continent on the path of sustainable progress. Excerpts:

So who is Aigboje-Aig Imoukhuede? A banker? A business man? An entrepreneur? A career professional? An investor? You probably won’t be wrong if you pin him down to any of those nomenclatures. He fits perfectly into any of them! Within a period of about three decades, Aig, as he is fondly called, has stamped his feet firmly on the Nigerian landscape creating a string of successful interventions. Aig himself admits: “People say that things I identify with closely tend to succeed, I’ve heard people say that and I am grateful to them for saying that and I am more importantly grateful to God for giving me whatever endowment that have made that possible. But perhaps I can think through two reasons for this. First, I don’t embark on something that I don’t believe in. When I start something I am totally committed until I finish it. That’s number one. Number two is that everything I am involved in there are certain principles that are fundamental and cannot change. One is excellence and embedded in that is best practice, another is sustainability.

So I don’t like to be viewed as a shooting star, the one who shoots into the sky and then evaporates, no. so excellence, sustainability and partnership.

What does success then mean to Aig?

“First of all I have told you that success that does not endure is not success. Ok, I measure the success of an individual particularly when it comes to institutions by what happens to that institution after the person had gone. So I can acknowledge the progress that an institution made under you, but I rarely admire you for that. I admire you for the progress that the institution that you founded makes after you have gone, perhaps even when you are dead. For me if you are using my standards, as to whether I have succeeded or not I won’t be around to know. For me, success should be measured in longevity, the sustainability and so on. The other thing about success is I don’t do incremental interventions, you know what I mean by incremental, I like to build things, I like to create, I don’t like to manage. So I would like to create an i-pad, or create a business that makes i-pad, I am not interested in taking i-pad sales from one billion to two billion…I intend to move more towards creation of platforms; there are others who thrive in building it up to scale.

Those who are close to Aig would say that for the past three years or so, he has been hinting at a pet project he and a couple of like- minded individuals have been planning to push out, a concept he says could revolutionise the civil service in Africa and put the continent on the path of sustainable progress. In just a couple of days, Africa Initiative for Government-AIG, will be unveiled to the public.

Just what is AIG all about? Is not just another foundation?

“I will redirect the question to, why is Aig involved in this initiative? My professional background is in the private sector, I’ve been in the private sector all my life. I have been in banking and finance since 1988. But I am the son of civil servants; I grew up as a civil servant’s child. I was born in 1966, my formative years as a student were Nigeria’s and possibly Africa’s golden period of intellectual development. I have seen the best of what Africa can offer itself intellectually… Where am I going to with all these? Perhaps as a result of my growing up, I have always had national interest particularly from the point of development upper most in my mind. I am a private sector person, I am a very entrepreneurial person but I have always questioned why is our state of development where it is? And you find me even though I don’t work for government, involved in many initiatives that have led to a better Nigeria one way or the other; I am very passionate about that. Even in working with several governments particularly since we returned to democracy in 1999, I have had a great frustration and that is that we have been unable to create sustainability and gain traction in terms of the public service and the public sector’s ability to improve the lots of Nigerians.

Now my experience is not just in Nigeria, I’ve had this same experience in Ghana and in other African countries. I am fortunate to be widely travelled so I have seen what countries can do to develop themselves whether advanced or developing countries. I have seen what is needed to get a country to move forward, from third world to first world. I have read about it and I am very frustrated for the fact that Africa seems to be unable to get their acts together. Why is it that we can fix our board rooms but we can’t fix the city halls.

Why is it that today you see across Africa companies emerging that are challenging big companies that came from advanced countries, why do we have banks in Nigeria for example that are lauded for the great feats they have achieved, they have managements and technologies that can march any other in the world, why can’t we describe the Nigerian public sector in this same terms after all it is the same Nigeria and Nigerian people that are making it happen in the private sector, why are Nigerians not making it in the public sector?.

I have no doubt that if we have the same quality of people and the same capabilities that reside in the people in the private sector in the public sector, Nigeria, and indeed Africa will have a totally different story.

For me it is not about if AIG is going to work in a certain government institution or run for electoral office. I can choose to do that, but I have seen people like me or who are even more gifted go into government make their mark, but Nigeria remains the same. So it can’t be about one person. We need to create a generation of several people in the public sector working at the same time, having a common understanding of what best practice is, of what excellence is and committed to deliver for this nation. It is not going to happen overnight. Unfortunately, our government has a resource challenge right now in terms of capacity building. I actually started thinking about this initiative when I was in Access Bank as CEO, I spoke to the board and the board was kind enough to provide us with development lead, some support financially to develop this concept, we brought in consultants, we worked with Nigerian consultants, and they did a first class job. But the thinking was that an initiative like this would be constrained if we locate it within a private sector institution, it is this same issue of ..they can fund it, there is no doubt about that, but for sustenance you have to decouple it from the concept of vested interest. So I said I believe in it, I convinced the board to support it, therefore I think I can convince others outside of Access Bank. Most importantly, I will dedicate my own resources and my time amongst other things to support this. So that is it!

Aig says that is the driving force behind African Initiative on Governance (AIG) Scholarships and AIG Fellowships as well as the AIG Index, he is about to launch, a project that focuses on strengthening the public sector by building the capacity of the people as a guarantee for real development for Africa.

The initiative which has been in the works since 2012, is modeled after the Lee Kuan Yew’s initiative that transformed Singapore from a third world country to a first world country within a short time because of its focus on building the people.

It is essentially a scholarship programme that will see young and brilliant Africans sponsored to one of the world’s best universities for their masters programme, thereafter they will return to their home countries and work in the public sector for at least five years bringing into the system the skills and knowledge they acquired in the course of their training.

For Aig, there is nothing more important than building the human resource of the country. According to him, if the public sector has the same quality of persons that are available to the private sector, Nigeria’s, and indeed Africa’s story would have been different.

He finds it difficult to comprehend that in the 60s and 70s, the public sector in Nigeria and most African countries had the best brains the continent could offer and the effect was tremendous, but today, the reverse has become the case, brilliant professionals would rather work for the private sector or move to Europe or America with heavy costs to the development of the continent.

“Essentially my goal is that in the next 10 to 15 years,” Aig says, “through the intervention… we will bring as many as 200 individuals into the public service, men and women, people of strongest intellect who have had great exposure intellectually in a formal academic setting as scholars.”

“So with this initiative, I am not looking at creating academicians, we are looking at creating public servants who are intellectually sound and understand what development means. We will create the scholars, you can call them the core of those who will work in the public sector in 15 to 20 years time. We will not stop there, at some point in time we will have a stock, maybe the core will grow to a thousand. Also within the public sector, it will not just be the scholarship, for those who go in and begin to stand out from amongst a very strong group, we also create fellowships for them, the AIG Fellowships, to go back and refresh. Then we have a mentorship arrangement where we link this group of hopefully super achievers with wise old men and women who had been there before to tell them the realities of life and support them. As you know time has shown there are some of us who have gone from the private sector into the public sector, who went to good schools, and yet they disgraced us. It is not like everybody who moves from the private sector to the public sector will deliver. We need to ensure that people stick to the straight and narrow.

“I have no doubt that if we have the same quality of people and the same capabilities that reside in the people in the private sector in the public sector, Nigeria, and indeed Africa will have a totally different story.”

Using the example of Rwanda where there are more excellent people in the public service than in the private sector, Aig said that is actually what it should be. “But I don’t get that across Africa and that explains our low level of development.”

Promising to do all he can to address other developmental challenges facing Africa such as infrastructural deficiency which he acknowledge are actually symptoms, he says: “I will continue to try to attack the symptoms. What are the symptoms? We have a power problem, we need to find the power solution, we have the corruption problem; we need to deal with that, we have economic policies that frankly speaking, some times you know that it won’t work. So we try and fix those things. But I don’t think that is sustainable. I think the issue is we need to get our public policy right; we need to get our public administration right.

Explaining how the initiative would be modeled after the Lee Kuan Yew initiative, Aig said: “One thousand people will make a great impact, but we want to scale this initiative up even further. I spoke about Lee Kuan Yew, I spoke about the impact not just in Singapore, but in South East Asia. Lee Kuan Yew created Lee Kuan Yew Institute and the whole idea was that the learning and experiences of Singapore in building a world class public sector should be made available to other countries in the region because the other South East Asian countries failed to develop at the same pace as this their neighbour that was just near them, so people from Malaysia, Korea and so on particularly those from the public service could go there to develop themselves. The wonderful thing about it was that that school is now the gold standard on how to develop those who will serve their nation in the public sector capacity. We want to do that here to serve not just Nigeria, but Africa, but Nigeria being the principal point of focus.”

And which institution is he modeling AIG after?

“Deciding which university to partner for the initiative was not an easy one as there are several world class universities and business schools especially in the UK and US. Of course it is not just a good university; it must have some special features that set it apart”. Aig continued: “I can readily think of domestic institutions we can partner with, but you know when it comes to intellect, and scholarship, I know as well as you know that there is no shame in admitting that Oxford University has over the past several hundreds of years been producing first class outputs, you know, and if you look at how many heads of state, people who have made impact globally that have come from this university, they are many. If you go to North America, you can speak the same of Harvard University or Stanford and so on.

“So in the same way as you want to nurture a great footballer, you want to give them the opportunity to join Barcelona Academy or Chelsea Academy and so on, the same way I believe that we want best Nigerians, best Ivoirians and so on to benefit from these world class institutions as scholars. Also you want to look at how they have built post graduate institutions that provide skills to equip leaders in the public sector so that we can create the same here.

“We went around and looked at world class universities and the one that kept standing out for me is Blavatnik School of Government (BSG) in Oxford. The Dean is a fascinating woman, what I love most about her is her ability to work with talented people and make them realize their full potential and go back to their countries and do great things. You have people who go back to Asia, go back to Africa and they are doing great things. We spoke, exchanged views and so on and we agree to go into a partnership whereby if we identify great raw materials that is people between 25 and 35, Africans who have the characteristics and talents to gain admission into the school which only admits 120 of the best of the best, we will then give them scholarships. “During that year that they are in BSG, beyond the BSG typical curriculum which builds great leaders, we will also infuse them with visits from notable Africans and so on. We will try and even get them to do there dissertation on things that could impact the whole country and Africa in general. This scholarship is on the condition that you come back and work for your country for five years.

“We also have the idea of through e-learning platforms to begin to deliver training for public servants that have shown significant talent and high potential. There is a limited number that can go into BSG for Masters but certainly we can have online programme so to speak and also visitations by professors to supplement the online experience.

“So in 10 to 15 years, we will have 200, 300 core scholars and then maybe we have another 2000 people in the public service who have benefited from this process through the online programme, you begin to see the possibilities, that is what excites me.”

Beyond the scholarships, the initiative also has a measurement mechanism to ascertain the effectiveness or otherwise of the intervention. The AIG Index, a key component of the initiative, will measure public sector performance. According to the visionary banker, the index is very imperative as it would be difficult to know if the intervention is working or not.

He said: “We thought about it and say fine, how are we going to even determine that this initiative is working, how do we know that okay, you brought these great people into the public service, right, we know that change is happening but how do we prove it on scientific or empirical terms? So we thought of bringing the idea of AIG Index, AIG Index will be an index of public sector performance, it is not going to be every ministry or every state, we will pick key ministries, key states and measure them from an output standpoint, administered like the most respected index whether it is financial index or qualitative index, such as social governmental performance. In all of these, BSG has agreed to partner with us.”

Brilliant idea one would say, but there is a challenge, the challenge of keeping the brilliant chaps in public service considering the frustrations arising from poor working conditions, nepotism, corruption and inadequate work tools. Aig is very much aware of this challenge as he admits: “One of our greatest challenges is going to be, how do we keep these outstanding individuals in the public service in Nigeria for example? The reason why people say to Aig- Imoukhuede, come and serve in the public sector, they say is because of your track record in the private sector. I am not the only person who has that track record in the private sector and I didn’t work alone. “Perhaps my track record comes as a result of my ability to identify very strong talents to work together as a team and achieve great things, okay. Then I get to the public sector and I must work with a team and I can’t bring the type of people that I have worked with in the private sector, I then begin to see why these things are not sustained. Fine I can kill myself for five years, tremendous things happen, then afterwards, all their virtues are lost, that is not what is going to sustain this nation. Where is the pool of talents I am going to work with or that any other person is going to work with? That is what we should be talking about.

“The key challenge is that when we get these great talents, how do you get them to stay? What are the things that are unattractive about working in the public service? Remuneration, the greater political context, which is a political system that is not merit driven, and therefore will naturally frustrate a talented individual. You also have the issue of corruption. For an enlightened individual, one of your greatest concerns will be, okay I am not corrupt but I am going into a very corrupt system and I am alone, what happens to me, am I going to be a fighter and I go in there and I lose the battle or worse still will these people actually corrupt me?

“If you look at all of these things, and then you look at also policy inconsistency which is very unfortunate. Ordinarily, if you see a great initiative in the public sector you ensure that irrespective of where it came from, it is sustained, but our political process seems to suggest and this is not changing from one party to the other, even within the same party, once there is change of leadership, everything that the predecessor did are abandoned. In view of all these, the young man simply tells himself, let me just go to Access Bank and revolutionalise banking, let me go to Wapic Insurance and revolutionalise insurance or any other private sector institution for that matter, but that has to stop.

“There is need to create the enabling environment for talents to stay in the public sector. That is what we are going to base our first round table brainstorming session on. We have done a lot of work on this initiative, in fact the process started late in 2012, so we have been working on it for four years before we are launching, because the challenges are immense.

“I remember when I spoke on it for the first time at Lagos Business School, people said great, great idea, but how will you keep them in government? I say to people if we are going to die trying, we’ve got to because I think this is our last hope. I mean we have to move from fighting the symptoms which are too many, to face the root causes. One way or the other, we will find a solution to keeping people in the public sector.

“I told you we are adopting the Singaporean model. There is a lot of literature on this and if you read Lee Kuan Yew book ‘From third world to first world’, Lee Kuan Yew says he is embarking on the process of building a nation that had so many challenges that actually dwarf the type of challenges that we some times allude to in Nigeria, and he wants to do it very fast, he doesn’t want the world to change and leave them behind and he knows that, right apart from ports, they don’t have any natural resources, they don’t have large population, their environment is only good for growing flowers, they don’t have the type of land mass to say they want to do agriculture.

“He said okay, the only thing I have is my people, the human talent, if I am going to be able to create a private sector, I have to ensure that the private sector has a business environment that endures, I have to ensure that I have the best people in public service. Public policy in Singapore must operate at the highest standards you can imagine anywhere in the world, I want to move from the third world to the first world. The way the public sector work in Singapore must be better than the way the public sector works in the best performing country.

“He said you know what, we will attract the crème de la crème of Singaporean students and so on. It is not really an elitist thing, it is not about where did your father go to or come from, it is not just to staff positions in what they call the civil service, the Army, the judiciary, across every segment of the public sector.

“When I went to Harvard for my first long programme, in my class, in fact in my study group was a colonel in Singaporean Air Force, a colonel, I didn’t say a general and this is not the first. Imagine that part of the process in developing officers in the Singaporean Army is that they go to Harvard Business School? Why won’t their Armed Forces operate the way their Armed Forces operate?

“First thing is to identify the best, pay them competitively. In Singapore, public servants are paid, it may not be the same but almost as those in the private sector. When I say pay, I am not just talking about salary, but the overall condition of service. So the cash may not be private sector cash remuneration, but they will live in the same places, their children will be able to go to good schools, I am not saying private schools. You will make sure that the public schools are up to the right standards. One of the great things about government is that government has the best land in the best location so it can give and make sure that its public servants live in the best places. Probably for sustenance, in the Singaporean political economy, public servants are given a pride of place. Not in the context of oh ok you are looking after your village based on the things you obtained illicitly from government, no. by virtue of your, first of all your intellect, by virtue of your contributions, by virtue of your loyalty to your country and so on.

“The message therefore is that, that which happened in Singapore can happen in Nigeria, we just have to have the will and the ability to come up with the structures to put that in place. That is what we want to do through this initiative.”

He said the AIG Scholarship will be positioned to compare favourably with the best in the world especially Rhodes which he very much admires. According to him, people say that things that he identifies with closely tend to succeed, “I’ve heard people say that and I am grateful to them for saying that and I am more importantly grateful to God for giving me whatever endowment that have made that possible. But perhaps I can think through two reasons for this. First, I don’t embark on something that I don’t believe in. When I start something I am totally committed until I finish it. That’s number one. Number two is that everything I am involved in there are certain principles that are fundamental and cannot change. One is excellence and embedded in that is best practice, another is sustainability. So I don’t like to be viewed as a shooting star, I will shoot into the sky then you evaporate, no. So excellence, sustainability and partnership, I don’t really care about being seen as the person, I am ready to partner, let’s work together to achieve our objectives. We started this process in 2014, if we think about the budgets given that it is an international initiative, there is a lot of international exposure, going to school abroad, think about how our budget has changed given the exchange rates alone. Many people I know would have made adjustments here and there or maybe even run away, for us, whether the rates goes to 3000 or whatever it is, God forbid, we will see this through.

“In terms of the scholarships, I am not a Rhodes Scholar, but I have always admired Rhodes scholars, whether those who graduated from Africa and even those who graduated from anywhere else. Bill Clinton is a Rhodes Scholar, just to give you an example and Rhodes Scholarship has been in operation for over a hundred years and it is probably the most prestigious scholarship you can think of. If I give you a picture of Cecil Rhodes you won’t even know who he is and yet when it comes to a process that has led to the production of statesmen across the world, people in the private sector who have changed the world, that is my type of benchmark, the structure, not the individual. We want to infuse sustainability into this so I am endowing beyond the ongoing funding. I am endowing aspects of my resources or assets to ensure that this will survive long after I might have gone and I am ensuring that the governance structure is such that whether my family likes it or not they must continue to support this initiative.”

To show how serious he is with the initiative and how urgently he would want it to be up and running, the first set of AIG Scholars will be unveiled early next year. As he said Oxford University starts to decide on students for 2017 about December this year or January next year. “So if we are going to take students for 2017 class, that means we are going to open for scholarship applications from end of September 2016 and we are going to hopefully finalise the first set of AIG Scholars by October/November this year. I hope that they would have successfully got the admission and they go in.

“The panel of advisers is going to have a first brainstorming session on the 29th of this month. The month of September really is more about educating the world about what we are doing, inviting applicants and by early 2017 we should be advertising who and who our first scholars are.

“Again before the end of this year we are going to launch the criteria for our public sector awards. Our public sector awards are going to be similar to the Mo Ibrahim awards which are afforded at Africa level. Our award would be at a country level. We launch them in Nigeria, we launch them in Ghana and we launch them in other countries as we understand them more and more and it is just one award for one individual every year. The reason why we want it like that is that we want it to be dignified, we don’t want to dilute the attention with many winners. We may expand it with time, but for now it is just one award for one person, one person chosen by Nigerians through a very transparent process.

“With respect to the index, typically it takes about a year to put together a financial index and then you know you have to subject it to third parties to validate and you also need to put the governance of it and the administration into consideration. In other words, how are you going to get the data and verify that it is about public sector performance? We hope to have the index in place in a year’s time and we also hope to be able to administer the index for 2017. Towards the tail end of 2017, maybe about December, the institutions that we covered, we give them their report card. That’s a lot. When I look at the volume of work to be done, I thank God that I am retired because it is almost a full time job, but I think that our team that we are assembling to run the African Initiative on Governance (AIG) will be able to do what it takes.”