PERSONALITY OF THE WEEK: NIGERIA IS MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

Chief Kenneth Chukwudumebi Iwelumo is the Alibo of Onicha-Ugbo, a peaceful community in Aniocha South Local Government Area, Delta State. He is an economist by profession and retired as senior vice president in one of the biggest financial houses in the United States of America, Merrill Lynch because Merrill Lynch. Chief Ken Iwelumo as he is popularly called is now back in Nigeria after many years of living and working abroad where he currently manages Oranugo Farms, situated at Onicha-Ugbo. Aside the Alibo title which was conferred on him by the Obi of Onicha-Ugbo twenty-years ago, Chief Ken Iwelumo has received several awards both local and international. In this personality of the week interview with Ika Weekly at his country home at Onicha-Ugbo, Chief Iwelumo said that the Nigerian democracy may be faced with serious challenges but it is moving in the right direction, stressing that Nigeria has vast potentials that will make it a developed nation in the future. He maintained that every Nigerian should learn how to speak good about their country and not the negative. He equally advocates for an effective tax system as a way of driving the Nigerian economy just as it is done in the United States of America and other developed countries of the world.
Enjoy reading.
May we meet you sir?
My name is Chief Kenneth Chukwudumebi Iwelumo, the Alibo of Onicha-Ugbo.
Can you tell us about your background and the schools you attended?
I am an indigene of Onicha-Ugbo, my late father, Chief John Oranugo Iwelumo was the previous Owele of Onicha-Ugbo, he was a diplomat and served in about fifteen countries, so myself and my four brothers grew up in different countries of the world. It is only myself and my immediate junior brother who are pure Nigerians, the rest of my siblings were born abroad. When I was 12 years old, my father sent me down to Nigeria because he wanted me to understand our culture. He sent me from London straight to Onicha-Ugbo to attend St Pius Xth Grammar School, I nearly died there before I was moved to Lagos, after three months. In Lagos, I attended St Gregory College. Thereafter I proceeded to University of Jos, where I did my B.Sc Economics. I did my National Youth Service Corps in Port-Harcourt in 1980. After my youth service I was lucky to b e engaged in the services of International Merchant Bank where people like Jim Ovia, Henry Masaka, Reginald Ihiejiayi, Akinfeyinwa were my work mates. Then I used to give a ride to a student called Tony Elumelu. I left Nigeria for the United States in 1984. While in the U.S. I earned my Masters in Economics at Rutgers University, New Jersey. I became an investment banker with the world largest investment bank, Merrill Lynch now a unit of Bank of America. While there, I managed millions of dollars in portfolio’s for clients around the world including Nigeria. In 2009, the collapse of the American Banking system, and the stock market led to the acquisition of Merrill Lynch by Bank of America. Bank of America being an inward looking Bank, cancelled the international status of Merrill Lynch. Because of that, I took an early retirement in February, 2012. I decided to come back to Nigeria to help, because home has vast opportunities whereas . America and Europe for the time being are down economically. Opportunities in Nigeria are mind boggling. The reason many people are slow to come back home, is that Nigerians seem to accentuate with the negative sides of the country and not come up with the positive. There are more positive things in Nigeria than the negative. We should not always be focusing on the negative sides. There are countries in the world that have higher crime rates than Nigeria. South Africa for instance has the highest crime rate in Africa. Johannesburg is the most dangerous city in the world, yet, South Africans do not dwell on that, instead they encourage people to come to South Africa and invest. But in Nigeria, the reverse is the case. Nigerians refused to acknowledge the fact that Nigeria is moving on and getting better as a country. In Newart the largest town, New Jersey where I live, on a typical night at least twenty people are murdered and nobody hears about it. I asked a friend the other day how many people were murdered in Asaba last night and he said no one. So, which is more dangerous, Nigeria or the U.S.? The Police force is being re-organized, positive things are happening in Nigeria. In 1980, when naira was two to one dollar half of Nigerians could not wear shoes, Bata was reigning then. But now the naira is one hundred and sixty to a dollar every Nigerian has shoes. Government may be corrupt, but a lot of things are changing. We have millions of Nigerians who are into manufacturing, and many others who are making money from different areas. The reason why Nigeria seemed not to be making progress is that our tax system is weak. Another major factor militating against the progress of Nigeria is lack of a national identity card. National identity card is very important when it comes to the issue of development like in America. With my identity card, the government knows everything about me. They know how much i make, and how much I am paying as tax. We know that no government is perfect, but in America, nobody will allow you to squander tax payer’s money. Our tax system is bad. Nigeria tax system needs to be modified. Lagos State is doing its best. If the Federal Government refuses to give Lagos State Government allocations, I do not think it will be poor. 90% of the states in Nigeria will collapse without allocations. In the U.S., the two things that are certain in one’s life is death and taxes. You cannot afford not to pay your tax in the U.S.
Are Nigerians playing major roles in governance in America?
America is a huge country, many Nigerians living there play insignificant roles in government. Most Nigerians in the U.S. are either in the middle or lower working class where they have little or no impact to make in government. They are just comfortable with the system. They are part of the system and not the ones running it. If you are just a junior officer in a small ministry, you cannot contribute much.
What is your take on the Nigerian democracy?
Nigeria is moving in the right direction with different religions, different backgrounds, different history and different cultures. Nigeria seems difficult to rule but it is our diversity that will help us develop faster.
Can you explain more on the statement that there are more opportunities in Nigeria than in Europe and America?
America has reached its highest stage, whereas in Nigeria, whoever that has an idea and a little capital can easily create a change. It is actually easier to borrow money from Nigerian banks than banks in the United States. America. All areas in America have been developed. Nigeria has not reached that stage. If we can focus on areas where we are good without relying on the negative side, we will be able to attract many foreign investors to Nigeria. Look at the Asaba international airport, it has the ability to develop the whole of Delta North, if it is properly managed. It is a fantastic point for markets in Onitsha, Nnewi, Oba, Obosi and Awka. It will also provide thousands of jobs for Deltans. This will only be possible if the will and awareness is there. That is the problem we are having in this country. Here in Nigeria, we are too impatient. We want instant results even when we have not done anything. It is only a few persons that make America to be great, these people have talents and the system allowed them to flourish and the whole country are benefitting. Nigeria is getting to that point. They are many millionaires in Nigeria who are not known. I have told many people that the Nigerian economy is bigger than that of South Africa. We do not know it because we have a system that is not well structured. I have over heard some people saying that Nigeria GDP is 35%, that is a big lie. There are small businesses taking place everywhere and everyday in Nigeria which the government does not know about. So, who are you to say that Nigeria economy is smaller than South Africa which only has a population of about 44 million people. I went to a shop the other time, and I was pleased to discover that half of the products in the supermarket were made in Nigeria products. Gradually we are getting to our destination. Rome was not built in a day. But when we continue talking about Boko Haram, we will not do anything meaningful for ourselves. Boko Haram is one of those things a democratic country encounters, there will always be radicals and fanatics. How you control or manage them matters a lot. America has had KKK, America has had Black Panters, America has had Mafias, America has had all sorts of terrorist groups, yet they overcame them overtime. It did not overcome them in one day. Mexico at the moment is fighting the worst drug war ever in history. For the past three years, almost eighty-two thousand Mexicans have been murdered, yet millions of tourists go to Mexico each year. Talking of tourism, tourism is what would have helped Nigeria to develop faster if only the government was aware. We can turn the Nigeria immigration service into a multi million dollar organization through tourism. Thailand, Turkey, Mexico, Brazil, Malaysia, Honkong, and Singapore are examples of countries that were able to attract foreign investment from tourism. We have not recorded any occurrence of earthquake in Nigeria, we do not have flood except the small one we had recently. We have the population and our people speak fantastic English Language better than the Indians. So, Nigeria should be a strategic place for investors. Apart from tourism, government should look for ways of transferring technology by forcing investors to come down to Nigeria to establish industries. This idea will give instant access to technology transfer. That was how China developed. Three, four, five years ago Nigerians were laughing at made in China phones, today who is laughing at who.
Is politics hindering the progress of Nigeria?
You have to understand one thing, every Nigerian wants to be rich, so politics has nothing to do with trying to make money. Politics comes in when you are depending on the government for a bloated contract. Yes, the government contractors are there, but have we forgotten that there are still private contractors as well? We have private businessmen and private skilled labourers making their own money. So, overtime, a lot of things we are seeing which is typical of a country that is just beginning to develop will go away. Another problem is that our diversity is weighing us down, but that same diversity is what will propel us to become a future super power. It is the difference among us that will allow ideas and competitions to flourish. Look at Lagos State that has a strong tax system, things have changed drastically since the past five years. Twenty-years ago, if some one told you that Lagos will be what it is now, you will say it is a lie. With taxes, good management and less corruption, Lagos, is moving in the right direction. Edo, Ekiti and Osun States are copying what Lagos State is doing. May be, Delta state might follow tomorrow. It is not all about collecting monthly allocations. Asaba airport was not supposed to be built with federal allocations, since the airport is a pro-fit making venture. When you borrow to fund investments that will bring money, it allows you the opportunity to use federal allocations to help to provide social services. If government tars the whole road in Delta State it will not give yield a kobo. Government should borrow to build projects that will generate money. That is how America government works. Nigeria right now has a high interest rate of about 11 or 12%. If there is stability of the naira, more foreign investors will come in. Right now, we are having port folio investors. We call them wrong investors because they do not want to build companies. What we want in Nigeria is Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Investors who will come here and build factories. By building factories here they can teach us their technology and also provide jobs. Our major goal is job and wealth creation, when those key things are achieved, other West African counties will start coming to Nigeria.
Why did you decide to return to Nigeria?
I have nine children. My ex-wife is a medical doctor form Anambra State. After my divorce, I started coming to Nigeria to see how I can use my skills to help, and that was easy for me because, a lot of my colleagues were already in the banking business by the year 2000. So, I have a lot of connections in the financial world. We became successful because we were focused. Special thanks to Chief Ebitimi Banigo, who is now the paramount ruler of Opoboroma Brass. He was the one that actually made banking to flourish in Nigeria. We also appreciate the two major reforms carried out in the banking sector by Prof. Chukwuma Soludo and Lamido Sanusi Lamido. They have made Nigerian banks to be extremely strong. Now, we are moving into investment banking. In the U.S now, there are over twenty million people without jobs. Do not be surprised to see an exodus of unemployed people in the next five years. It will be better that one comes down to Nigeria and start up a beautiful business Nigeria will move faster than it is moving right now. After twenty-eight years with Merill Lynch, I decided to come back home. I hoped to run the sovereign wealth fund but somebody else was chosen. However, there are so many opportunities. While I am waiting for these opportunities to show themselves, I decided to go into farming. I am growing paw-paw, and also have a large fish pond. These things are keeping me busy. Living in Onicha-Ugbo gives me a sense of peace that I will not get in cities like Lagos. I am very happy to be around to learn all the aspects of our culture that I have missed all these years and also try to add my own experience and wisdom into the ways things are done here.
When did you establish your fish pond?
The fish pond started in 2011, a year before I returned to Nigeria. It does not take too long to grow a business. All you need is a little capital, the know how and the passion. I have always been passionate about growing fish. I know every aspect of aquaculture. Each time I drive pass Uromi, I am always shocked and overwhelmed with the presence of fruits like paw-paw planted in acres of land. The demand for paw-paw is inexhaustible, juice companies use it, we can export it to countries like Dubai, we can even dry it and eat, just as it is done in the U.S. Dry paw-paw is sweeter than the fresh one because in the process of drying it, the sugar content decreases. These are the things I am doing here but on a large scale. I thank one Mr. Odije from Agbor for assisting me during the time the farm was taking off. Right now I am experimenting on the huge Egyptian guava whether it will be good on our soil. And there is a fruit I want to bring to Delta State. It is called passion fruit.
How many countries have you travelled to?
I have travelled to forty-five countries in the world. My passion is photography. Although I am not known in Nigeria but I am famous around the world as an aviation photographer. I go around the world taking photographs of aircrafts. A lot of magazines use my photographs. I am an authority in the Nigeria Airforce. If you are looking for photographs of Nigeria Airforce, 90% of them are mine. I do attend the biennial Nigeria Airforce expo where I take photographs. I am proud to be a Nigerian. I am proud of my country. It is nice strolling around at night. There are dangers everywhere but we should sometimes use our senses. For most Nigerians, their cars are more important than their lives. We complain about the activities of Boko Haram but we should also not forget that it has transformed the security system in Nigeria. Nigeria Police are now more experienced and exposed. Things are changing. Every Nigerian should be proud of their country. We should contribute to its development. Education for instance is bad because nobody is ready to pay. We still have it in our mindset that everything should be free in Nigeria. I have tried to help some of our people who told me that they are graduates but do not have jobs. Surprisingly 90% of those people complaining that they do not have job have pass or third class degrees. So, should I kick out first class, second class upper and second class lower, and assist those with third class and just pass with jobs. Some went to school to read while there are still some who went to school to play and now they are saying that they do not have job. I asked someone who has �B� in Economics what is demand and supply, he said, he does not know it. Most of our students do not read, all they do is to go to miracle centres. A young lady the other time told me she scored 50 marks in the supplementary examination in Delta State University, Abraka. I then asked her, 50 marks out of what, she could not tell me, only for us to find out that she paid somebody to write the examination for her. In America, it is not compulsory that everybody will go to the university. Those who are not qualified to be in the university can start up their own businesses and they will do well in them. If God has given you talent to do business, you do not need too much capital from anybody. A little money you might decide to borrow from a family member can go a long way in establishing you, after all, how did Dangote start? Ask any successful man, they will tell you stories of how they started. Here in Nigeria people want to work in air conditioned offices, that is why most people do not make progress. We are happy that irrespective of failures in some quarters, some Nigerians are learning everyday. Go to Onitsha today, you will see a lot of manufacturing companies. That is a good indication of a country that is moving forward. Like I said earlier, we should be focusing on areas we are getting positive results not on the negative.
You said you want to go into large scale farming, how do you intend doing that?
When I say large scale farming, I mean expanding the farm. For instance, if you want to plant paw-paw, do not plant one thousand, plant thirty thousand. Paw-paw is in high demand from fruit juice makers. Why should Nigeria be importing fruits when we have them here. 20% of the GDP of Kenya is from flowers being flown to Europe. Kenya exports billion of dollars worth of flowers every year. We can grow all sorts of crops in Nigeria.
Can you tell us some of the experiences you got while working in Merrill Lynch?
I left Merrill Lynch as the senior vice president, the highest ranking black stock broker. I managed an average of 1.5 billion dollars at any given time. 40% of the assets I managed were for private sectors including Nigerians. We have zero tolerance for embezzled funds. In Merrill Lynch, no Nigeria public office holder is allowed to have an account. That is why I can boldly tell you that the Nigerian private sector is doing very, very well. There is a lot of hope in Nigeria. Every country in the world has challenges but we should focus on our good sides.
What contributions have you made towards the development of your community?
I have always done my best to make sure that Onicha-Ugbo moves forward. In my house, I accommodate nine youths corpers every year without taking rent from them. I have contributed a lot to the Onicha-Ugbo Foundation, a branch of which I helped to form in the U.S. Our goal is to make Onicha-Ugbo and Anioma in general a peaceful place to be.
How is your relationship with other Anioma sons and daughters?
I am a friend to all Anioma people. All I want is to let Anioma man be governor in 2015. Who will be the person, only God will decide. Whoever it will be, we will back him. All I want is fairness, peace and equity. Politics should not be do or die because we are still in transition. In ten years to come, people will be begged to join politics because then, there will be better opportunities. Our internal revenue system is not robust but if we have national identity cards backed up by law, we will move forward speedily.
Will you return back to America again?
I am an American, my children lives there. For now, Onicha-Ugbo is my paradise, I want to contribute my quota to nation building while I am still young. America has a good number of homeless people but here in Nigeria there is nothing like that. Even the mad man here have place to sleep. Nigerians living in different parts of the world should bring their expertise home.
What is your view on the creation of Anioma state?
Anioma is a wonderful place, but we do not have resources to make Anioma State viable. Like a friend once told me, he will rather be the managing director of a big mansion than the managing director of a boys quarter. It is our turn to govern Delta State, God will decide what happens next. We should let the sleeping dog lie, and focus on how to develop Anioma, instead of clamouring for state creation. We should focus on how to have the governor of one of the richest states in Nigeria. The country is moving forward, we have transited from the military era and are now gradually becoming a truly democratic nation. Rome was not built in a day. A new born baby does not walk the first day he was born, it takes time. Corruption is like cancer, and no corrupt person will like to stop just like that. We should worry less about corruption because the good will always prevail over evil.
Do you have any other recognition apart from your chieftaincy title?
I have received several awards from different parts of the world and they keep coming everyday. But I do not get carried away with them.
Your final word sir?
I am happy to be back home. I am happy that I am contributing my own quota to the development of my own town, Onicha-Ugbo, Aniocha, Anioma, Delta State and Nigeria as a whole.
Our personality of the week for next week is Mr. Chris Ubani, one of the co-ordinators of the just commissioned Igbodo police station building. Mr. Ubani, who is based in the UK, during the interview talks about his background, career and challenges in life. He also speaks of his achievements and passion for his home town, Igbodo. It is a must read.

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