Prince Obaigbena Emmanuel jettisoned his childhood fantasy of becoming a Medical Doctor, and opted to become an economist. This decision elevated him to the policy-shaping echelon of the country’s apex bank, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), where he retired as a Director. He tells OMON-JULIUS ONABU about his early childhood and career, as well as his passionate thoughts about the Nigerian economy, especially the financial sector
What was the Christmas season like in your days as a young boy?
Our celebration of Christmas in those days was a thing of joy; and it was peaceful. The mood then was that you could perceive Christmas in the air. Christmas was in the air from the very first day of December. Everybody looked forward to Christmas; everybody looked forward to a peaceful celebration. For us children, it was a time to put on new clothes, eat rice, plenty of rice. Rice was not common; it wasn’t a staple food then, it was a kind of celebrity food. We eat rice and drank a lot of soft drinks like Tango drink. It was actually a thing of joy. Anyhow, the stress in the economy today has watered down, has more or less removed the joy. All over the world we used to talk about white Christmas; everywhere was so cold with the harmattan. Today, it’s quite different. There is now heat during harmattan. All the same, we thank God. The Bible says we should thank God in everything. We thank God for the birth of Jesus that is Emmanuel, which actually means God with us. He is the reason for the season.
Retiring as a Director in CBN, you obviously rose to the pinnacle of your chosen profession. Did you always want to be a banker?
At the outset, at the beginning, probably because my mother happened to be in the medical profession, I wanted to be a medical doctor. As a matter of fact, in my hay days in primary school, my friends used to call me “doctor, doctor”. Then, I had one experience I would like every parent to keep away from their children. One day, the nurses on duty kept coming to tell my mother who was with us at table, “Three fingers!” Later, they said, “Two fingers!” Finally, immediately they said, “One finger!”, my mother rushed out, she left the food she was eating to take the delivery. I soon followed her into the room; I was curious. I thought they were talking about a baby with three fingers or two fingers or one finger. I did not know they were talking about dilation. I thought instead of five fingers, the baby had three fingers, two fingers or one finger. So, I decided to see the baby that had just one finger! So, without their knowledge – because they were busy taking delivery of the child – I entered; and, I was busy watching out for the baby with one finger. But when the baby came out, all the fingers were complete! Eventually, by the time they were in a relaxed mood, they were now laughing because everything had been done successfully.
They did not even realise I was there. I then asked them, the baby you people were saying three fingers, two fingers, one finger,….look, all the fingers are complete! Well, they then drove me out. They drove me out without explaining anything whatsoever. Anyway, I left and with the blood and everything I saw, I made up my mind, that if that is what it takes to be a doctor I wasn’t interested. Thus, when I got to secondary school I asked my teachers what subjects I would do to be a doctor. They said you must be good in Mathematics and General Science, including Biology, if you want to be a doctor. That term, I failed mathematics and general science! Well, my teacher said, it is impossible for you to fail mathematics, because you are among the best in this class. What happened? I told him that I didn’t want to be a doctor. He said, No! With mathematics you can do other things. So, the next term I was the best in mathematics. But I never passed biology. However, when I started reading economics in class four, I made up my mind I was going to be an economist, because I was in love with the subject. So, from secondary school days, I loved economics. Even when I got to the University of Ife, I read economics. Thank God, the maths was very helpful. While in the university, I had a little dealing with the central bank; I was collecting some publications for them. I think I made up my mind that this is the kind of place I’d love to work in. And, as God would have it, I was posted to Maiduguri to do my youth service (NYSC) in 1981. While in Maiduguri, I was posted to Central Bank, no influence because you didn’t need to know anybody then. You see, God has a way of doing His own things. When I was posted to Central Bank, I had nothing doing that particular day, so I was the very first corper to report to central bank. Fourteen of us were posted to central bank, but they then sent a message that 14 was too much. They would take just seven; the other seven should go. They decided to use the method, last in, first out. Obviously, I was retained. It used to be automatic employment, but we attended interview for the job. In fact, it began with our set; I traveled to Lagos from Maiduguri for the interview. So, I joined Central Bank as a staff in 1982, after my youth service.
So, it’s not really that I had always wanted to be a banker. You see, there is a difference between a banker and a CBN banker – all those commercial, industrial or micro bankers and the central banker. For me, I worked in the research department of the CBN, worked in the then Banking Operations Department that is now Banking and Payment System Department. We were instrumental to setting up the payment system, changing the horizon of the payment system in Nigeria. I was chairman, Electronic Fraud Unit Forum, a body that was in charge of educating the banks on fraud especially electronic fraud.
We brought in most of these things including the ATM card. Before then it was the marked stripe, but we were able to reduce fraud drastically with the introduction of the ATM card by over 99 per cent. Though it was cheaper to produce than the marked strip, we needed to restore confidence in the system, and we did that by ensuring that the ATM card was foolproof. What needed to be done next was to educate the populace on the use and benefits of the electronic fraud detecting device, like the chip in your ATM card.
Talking about restoring confidence in the system, we have witnessed a lot of bank mergers, the latest being that of Access Bank and Diamond Bank. Does it have to do with confidence restoration or instability in the financial system?
When you talk about merger and acquisition, the bank usually seeks to have more strength. In fact, if they can be strengthened, they could become a mega bank, and able to accomplish greater things the banks couldn’t achieve severally. I think the banks in the country are at the moment are in a stable condition. The CBN, to the best if my knowledge, is working hard to ensure the stability of banks and the stability of the naira. Let me say this unequivocally: if other areas of the nation’s economy are as stable as the financial sector, then Nigeria will go places. However, I think the CBN is really overstressed. For instance, when you talk about diversification of the economy, we talk about agriculture. Even then, the agricultural sector today is being driven primarily by the financial system. We are too import-dependent and we still rely heavily on revenue from oil. Now that the developed countries are talking about less emphasis on oil, but the production of electric vehicles, I think it is time for us to sit down and work out a way to really diversify our economy, instead of quarelling and fighting over smaller matters. These countries, what do they buy from us apart from oil?