Ken Okolugbo: As a Kid, I Used to Oppress My Older Brother

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 Apartments, his former boss and former governor of Delta State, Emmanuel Uduaghan, and how he felt about not completing the glass house projects when he was a commissioner
If you want to make a list of young visionary Nigerians, Ken Okolugbo ‘s name will be difficult to leave out. Subtly aggressive and determined young man, Okolugbo is ahead of his time when it comes to leadership. At a time when young people were wasting away and still looking up to their parents for direction and pocket money, he was already a leader of men. At 37, he was made the Knight of St Christopher of the Anglican Church. He is the chief executive officer of Kenkol Nigeria Limited and was appointed a commissioner in the Delta State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission (DESOPADEC). He speaks with Azuka Ogujiuba about his hospitality venture, the 

• PDP Cannot Speak with One Voice Unless its Crises Are Resolved

How do you feel like being out of the political terrain?

It has not been the same. I remember when I had to meet with the present Governor of Delta State just before the main election for some certain reasons. I remember telling him that I did not want any political appointment that the most important thing is that I wanted to register with the government. I did not actually know what it was going to be like coming back to the hospitality business. When I was making that statement, I was making it basically because I wanted time back with my family and it has been quite effective. It has given me more time to bond with my family, especially the children. I have time to teach them my mother tongue and I have time to see how they study at home and in school.

Is there a particular project you thought you could have finished before leaving office?

Well the most important project I did was the glass house. That is the first glass house in the whole of Delta State especially in Delta North apart from Warri and I thought I could build a glass house sitting on 2000 square meters that has everything encompassed. It has a library, a research centre, computer study centre, a restaurant, event center, offices and even accommodation. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to equip it and so I couldn’t commission it even though I finished the entire structure, I couldn’t equip it and that’s one of my greatest regrets.

Being a young leader and politician from the Niger Delta, do you accept militants’ activities in that region?

 You know I’m a member of the stakeholders and interestingly and we have our leader, Chief Edwin Clark. There’s one thing he said in one of our stakeholders’ meetings. He said one of the things he’s bothered about now is that he is on his way out and that all we can fight for now is for peace and that the crisis won’t do the region any good. Several pipelines that are being busted are causing oil spillage, we are talking about cleaning up of Ogoniland and we are causing more oil spill and it’s not attracting any attention but negative attention to us in the Niger Delta. But most importantly, the most potent group, the Nigeria Delta Avengers, has pledged alliance to our group. The alliance that they have pledged to our group is that we are the only group so far that they have said that they are comfortable with negotiating with the federal government and the genuineness of our negotiation. There is a politicisation of the process. Rotimi Amaechi, the former governor of Rivers State, has also not done too well because he is one of the reasons for the crisis being that his statement on the maritime university was what generated the initial problem.

These are the things that I think have contributed to make the process look cumbersome. But it’s not cumbersome. The key reason why we are experiencing this recession right now is because of the vandalisation of pipelines in the region by the youth which nobody is happy with they do it because of the attitude of the federal government. The deployment of troops to the area seems to be counterproductive. It is important to note that negotiation is a very good option and is needed in order to move forward. We had our general meeting at a conference in Warri and the governor was there and he was also saying the same thing: negotiation. So that’s what I believe is the way out.

 Do you plan to go for an elective position in the future?

Certainly as a politician, there’s no way you will not have plans for the future. That position I do not know now but I certainly will have an interest in running for a position in 2019. The most interesting thing is that my party is in disarray right now. But if you’ve noticed, I’ve played a very prominent role in identifying the impunity that has been going on in my party and had also concluded details about the congress but most of the governors hijacked the process and they actually took advantage of the fact that Ali Modu Sheriff seems to have been imposed by them and they took a unilateral decision of who and who was to become the women and youth leader. They do not even seem to know the variables that pertain to these areas.

We have said no; which was why we had another convention in Abuja. But we are looking for a way forward. Our prayer is that we begin to settle our differences because without a united opposition, we cannot contend with the government in power. Right now, if you’ve noticed, a lot of things are going wrong because we are not united. Any problem that does not have a viable solution will lead to dictatorship and so, that is exactly where we find ourselves politically now. Once we have peace, for those of us who want to contest for election most likely in 2019, we can now define what process we are going to follow to achieve those aims. But I’m still very politically active.

 What exactly do you do with your spare time? I know you’re a businessman. Given that you’re into property business, what are your challenges?

Well you’re very correct. I’ve been into the property business for a very long time and I’m back into the business. It’s challenging because first of all, the recession has not done us any good; it has made some people to map out what their priorities are but again it’s not been all bad. For those of us into the hospitality business instead of going into hotels we do a lot of what we call apartment suite: short let and short stay apartment and this short let and short stay apartment has made it possible for us to offer our customers prices which no matter what they are going through they cannot resist. For example, we have two-bedroom apartments which we offer for as low as N25,000 a month, completely furnished with everything you need: DSTV, plasma TV and all that. Now, why are we doing this? We are doing it because we have seen that people are not growing, the property business. We are in 17 million deficit in terms of houses in Nigeria; but it will surprise you that 20,000 flats are still empty in Lekki and it’s getting to about 55,000.

So most of us that are building now, we’re not finding people who are coming to even say they want to inspect. At least, when they inspect they give you a ray of hope. The people that even come to seek my counsel, because we also run a consultancy, I tell them that look, this is not the right time to build and that’s the actual truth. Even though we have this short-fall in terms of houses, prices of materials are not getting any lower. We were buying POP cement at N2300 now it’s at N3800. We were buying cement at N1600 now it’s N2200. I can give you more examples. If you check the differentials in price, naturally it should have been times two in terms of prices of our rent in these high grade areas but we cannot even afford to add five per cent of the price of rent because it already seems to be over priced and even at that price, people are still not coming forward.

So the beauty of it is that this hospitality business has a way out: instead of waiting for people to come and rent your apartment, you need to device a means of letting it to those who want it for short stay. You see that even if it’s just 50% occupancy you have in a year, you collect the same amount you would have collected in rent but then the money will come in trickles. How you now manage the money is what matters.

From your perspective, what will you say about President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration? Do you think they have a direction?

 They keep complaining and blaming the past government but when Jonathan came to power he didn’t blame anybody

Sanusi summarised it all. I’m happy that Sanusi was one person that seemed to have been oppressed by the PDP, so when he speaks nobody will say he is speaking because he served in the government of Jonathan. He fell out with the government and was suspended by that government. People are saying the blame game should come to an end because it is time for the government of Buhari to take the bull by the horn. The truth about it is that Buhari’s ministers are not doing well. If he had put a square peg in a square hole, it would not have been the same. The only person that I can say he is performing is Fashola even with the little resources that he has. Especially the minister for finance, I don’t want to use the word clueless but the same word that was used on Jonathan can be used on her as well.

She mapped out N50 billion that she wanted the state to access and then she gives the 22 codes of conduct that all states must adhere to, at the same time you devalue the naira when you have no subsidy. If the naira had been devalued when it was called for, you would not have presented a budget that is impracticable because even though the benchmark is at 38 dollars at this particular point in time, we are not even producing up to 1.7 million barrels of crude oil. You said you are embarking on $900million foreign borrowing, at the same time you did not even make provision for where you’re going to borrow the money from and you presented a capital budget of N1.3trillion.

So what have you done to yourself? You have already killed yourself because as it stands now, only N474 billion has been released and we’re already approaching December, we’re looking to release another N350 billion.

Now, can you say this budget has been a performing budget when in actual sense you have not released up to 30% of your capital budget talk less of your recurrent expenditure? So I think we need people that are very experienced in terms of international financing. You say you want the naira flexible and you’re not doing things to make it flexible. You make it almost impossible for the naira not to go on a free fall as we are experiencing. Look at the issue of students who are studying abroad; students who usually purchased their forex at N197. You claim you are selling N2billion dollars to them and you don’t want to sell to them anymore.

Now you suddenly told them to come and start purchasing dollar at N500 naira. Now you have 400 and 300 level students withdrawing. What have you done? You are bringing them back to the country and all the funds that has been spent on them up to when they got to 400 level have been wasted. They go into the unemployment market, making the economy worse. One would have thought that there was an exit plan for those studying abroad. The CBN left the MPR at 14% yet the principal cash reserve ratio is at 22.5%. When you put the cash reserve ratio at 22.5% what you have done is telling the bank that at any point in time they cannot touch 22.5% of the money that somebody has put in fixed deposits and you’re telling the same bank to loan out cash at 14%, it doesn’t take rocket science to know that you’ve already killed the bank. With treasury single account, you have moved government funds to CBN. You said that banks must have a minimum amount in terms of their fixed deposits of funds that people are putting into the bank. So if I come to put N10 million for example in fixed deposit, 18% of it already cannot be touched by the bank.

What percentage is the bank going to give to me when they want to loan out the money at 14%? So, it doesn’t make any sense; it just simple economics for you to see that CBN governor has not helped matters. He has continued to bring out policies which are very unpopular and has refused to accept that these policies are what is giving naira a free fall. So, Buhari needs to get his team together, otherwise there’s going to be an economic revolution in this country. I think the patience of Nigerians is being tested at this point. From what we can see, people are already committing suicide. So the misery index has gotten to a point where we have never been with regard to the economy in Nigeria. His economic team needs to be overhauled.

It’s like nobody in PDP is talking anymore, people are scared. The only ones that seem to be talking are Fani Kayode and Fayose

Fayose has been talking but the thing is that we have not put our acts together, settle the differences among ourselves before we can speak as a united front. Right now, our house is in disarray. It looks as if it’s a curse. We believe it is not a curse and we’re going to get over this so that we can now have somebody who can speak. One person is speaking for the Makarfi group and another is speaking for the Sheriff group; it makes a mockery of the whole thing. So by the time we put our acts together, we can speak and say the truth.

How do you relax?

I play tennis. I used to travel a lot but with the recession now, traveling is not how it used to be. I also try to read. I read a lot, but I don’t have the time and I watch football. I’m very crazy about football.

You used to be called‘Ken Plaza’. How did you come about the name?

Long ago when I was in school, I think it was in 1990, I had a party at a plaza in Benin City and trust me, that was the first time I was drunk and the party was very successful. You know how it used to be in school. If you didn’t have an invite, you could not come for the party and it meant you were not happening. So, somehow the name just stuck. Someone just started calling me Ken Plaza and the name just stuck to me and interestingly that is the name I used on Facebook. A lot of people know me by that name. 1990 till now, it’s been 26 years. So, for 26 years down the line, I’ve been answering the name Ken Plaza.

What was your favourite subject in school? 

It was Mathematics. Most kids run away from it but then my mother was a Maths teacher and she taught maths in my school. So that’s what got me attracted but by the time I got into secondary school, I realised that I was more interested in government. Maybe that’s why I read political science in the university.

So when you were in school, what were your results? 

I used to take first but there were these two girls, Opebi and Mary. Sometimes Mary would come first and I would come second and I used to be very angry about it. So I would beg my mother to change the result that I wanted to come first. That day, my father beat me so much. Funny, Opebi is an accountant now; she’s doing very well. I think she’s in Canada. I don’t know where Mary is. They are doing very well. I think they had first class in the university.

Do you have any of those childhood memories that just wouldn’t leave your head? 

Being the last born, my elderly ones were much attached to me because I had two big sisters. My brother is just a year and four months older than me, so we grew up like twins. The thing was that they used to buy us the same shirt, the same shoes you know. He was slightly taller and he remained taller even till today. So when I wanted to wear my own shoes, my dad would put a foam and knowing well in my mind that it was not mine. He would want to take his shoes back and I would start to fight and the other ones used to support me. So that’s the mischievous thing I used to do. I used to oppress him by taking his own.

Is he the first son?

Yes and he is a consultant now. I used to look at it like he was just a year and half older. I would lie about my age; I would say I’m older than him. I don’t know why but I just wanted to be bigger and older because I used to relate with those who were not in my peer group. So, I didn’t even go through so much of peer pressure. The peer pressure I went through was the peer pressure from the older ones.

When you were growing up what did you want to be?

I wanted to be an architect, that’s the only thing I wanted to become. It was something I always desired but for some reasons I strayed. I did not concentrate anymore.

What is your greatest sacrifice?

I built a church for my community. It was just something I got from God that I should build a church. So I pulled down a church and in my community and rebuilt it. Years later, I realised that it was a seed that I was sowing, that’s it.

You were made a Knight at a very young age.

I think I was the youngest knight. I was knighted by a reverend in my church. It gave me more responsibilities. It made me quite conscious of what I was to do and it strengthened my faith too.