"We are ready for business."Following a distinguished 34-year career in the Nigerian government, spanning a lengthy career in the diplomatic service, in which he served as Nigeria's consul-general in the US as well as a stint in the office of the president, working as the permanent secretary in the cabinet office, 63-year-old foe Keshi, unlike many of his peers, has opted not to walk into the sunset of retirement, as he takes up what he describes as: "an exciting new challenge. "
Charged with the task of using his wealth of administrative experience to steer the ship of sustainable development, he is the founding director-general of the BRACED Commission.
Keshi says laying the foundation for transforming the oil and gas region into a diversified, globally competitive economic hub, well-prepared for life beyond the hydrocarbons era, will preoccupy his mind for the next five years.
A fellow of the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Keshi insists a new page is being turned in the development of his region, which he confidently insists will become the new destination for international investors, keen to cross new risk frontiers and take advantage of the region's untapped business opportunities.
In conversation with Osasu Obayiuwana, associate editor for New African, in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial nerve centre, and Asaba, the Delta State capital and venue of the 2012 South-South Economic Summit, Keshi laid out the Commission's roadmap.
New African: What are the cardinal objectives of BRACED?
Keshi: The cardinal objectives of BRACED are to promote economic cooperation and integration amongst the six states of Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Edo and Delta States, all in Southern Nigeria. We are to harmonise their policies and assist in the acceleration of growth and development. But essentially, we are to help create an economy in the South-South region that is sustainable, providing jobs for the people and creating prosperity.
NA: With the proximity of the member states and the longstanding areas of common interest, why has it taken so long to adopt a common economic position? Keshi: I will simply say that it is an idea whose time has come. The governors of the six states realise the importance of economic integration and are determined to ! drive the processes required to transform I the region.
NA: What can the Commission do in the near future, that can demonstrably transform the lives of the region's people? Keshi: I think we can make an immediate impact on the agricultural industry, as well 1 as improving the state of the environment ... j In agriculture, we will identify the strengths I of each state, in terms of the key products they're able to produce, with the intention of j ensuring they reap the maximum advantage, ensuring they get the financial benefits; obtainable through the whole production I value chain.:
We also have to improve the quality of transport links between the six states. But the most important objective the governors have identified is to, in the long term, prepare the region for the time when it will no longer have oil as its main resource asset. If we are able to improve production in agriculture, we will be on our way to achieving our aims.
Without question, we have to tackle the environmental issues that the region is facing, as a consequence of the activities of the oil industry. A lot more attention should have been paid to this and we are hoping to play the role of a catalyst, clearly focussed on cleaning up the polluted environment.
We also have to ensure that the region has adequate electricity supplies, to ensure that the plans we have are achievable. There is a determination from the six states to ensure they are self-sufficient in energy.
NA: I understand that a BRACED investment company will be set up, to make corporate investments on behalf of the region. How will it function? Keshi: It will identify the keys areas of economic activity in which the region can benefit from the principles of comparative advantage, and make investments which the member states will jointly own. But the process will be driven by the private sector. An oil company is one of the things that we are looking into.
NA: Will the international capital market and other foreign investors be expected to play a key role in these new economic plans for the region?
Keshi: Of course. If we promote the region as an investment haven, considering the resources we have in oil and gas as well as agriculture, I believe that investors will come. We must create the atmosphere that will encourage them to come. Investors all over the world are looking for where they can expand their businesses. Nigeria is definitely on the radar as an investment destination but many are wondering about the safety of their investment. Once we can allay those fears, I believe we will attract them.
NA: Consistency and longevity of govern ment policy, which is a key issue for any serious long-term investor, has been a big issue in Nigeria. What can be done by the BRACED Commission to allay their legitimate concerns?
Keshi: Your observation is apt. We must create a stable environment. For instance, if j some of the policies initiated by the govern ment of Olusegun Obasanjo had been kept in place by successive governments, we would have made much more progress as a country. But policy somersaults have taken place and if we look deeper, we find out that we end up going back to what was initially; discarded. Stable political processes and strong institutions will ensure that there is continuity in government. This is what we must do in the South-South region. We must ensure that the leaders succeeding the current set are active participants in the formulation of economic plans. Only this can guarantee stability.
NA: The key task, in terms of guaranteeing stability of policy, is to ensure that leaders: across the various political parties will commit to the long-term economic strategy. What is being done to ensure this? Keshi: Whether at the micro or macroeconomic level, harmonising policy across the various states is always a challenging task.
The only way out is dialogue, educating the key people, workers in the public sector and the politicians. When they understand the comparative advantages that the region has to explore and profit from, all the stakeholders in the region will buy into the overall plan.
The education of the public sector is central, because they work with the authorities and have the duty of driving the vision of the governors. They can also interact with the various political stakeholders, who will understand that the plans are in the overall interest of the region and need to be supported, regardless of who is in control at the executive level.
NA: The governors may sign off on the grand plans but the relevant bureaucrats have to deal with the day-to-day implementation of game-changing policies. How are they being prepared for this task, as there has been a dearth of administrative and management talent in government? Keshi; I really dont agree with that assertion. When I left school, the best brains went to the civil service and I think that still remains the case today. The issue is that the public service has faced a lot of challenges in recent years, as a result of so many factors that are not the focal points of this discussion. But what needs to be done is to improve the quality of bureaucrats, both at the state and federal levels, so that they are exposed enough to deal with the challenges of the 21st century. If the government had been deploying the same amount of resources that the private sector expends on training its staff, within the country and internationally, the difference in quality between the two would be minimal. There will be a public sector forum, where these issues have to be addressed.
NA: What media and marketing strategies will you employ to attract investment? And will the economic counsellors in Nigeria's diplomatic missions be deployed to sell the region? Keshi: The counsellors are already doing a lot and we need to work more with them. But we have to get our policies in order, so that they know exactly what they are selling on our behalf. Do bear in mind, however, that they have to walk a fine line between selling the region and the entire country. During our economic conference, we are also bringing a range of international personalities that will clearly indicate our serious intent.
NA: The commissioners of finance and economic planning in the BRACED states will have to work very closely to ensure that there is real integration. What have they done so far?
Keshi: A lot. We do have regular meetings with them and after the economic conference that takes place in Asaba, the Delta State capital in April, plans will certainly be more focussed. We've also had meetings of the commissioners of transport, environment and agriculture, as well as education.
NA: The region is forming a holding company that will make investments on behalf of the six states. What guarantee is there that it will be professionally run and free of overbearing political influence? Keshi: What we need to do is to encourage the states to make the needed investments in the companies that will come from BRACED initiatives. To begin with, we need the member states to make the required investment in the proposed companies and also the private sector, particularly companies and people who come from this region. After about five or 10 years, each member state would be encouraged to sell their shares to its citizens. In that way, you can guarantee the security and the sa; of those companies, because they can grow unencumbered by the power of the states.
NA: What has been the biggest challenge for you since taking on your responsibilities for the Commission? Keshi: Getting the right calibre of staff to drive our initiative. Because we'll be dealing with issues of sustainable development, we have been looking for people with strong backgrounds in education, agriculture, health and environment. We will be working with other experts as well, but these are the key areas. The other challenge was getting the member states to understand the objectives of BRACED. But that has changed now and enthusiasm for our objectives continues to grow.
NA: What should BRACED have achieved in the next five years? Keshi: Increasing the level of integration and making the best use of the resources within the region, based on the principles of comparative advantage, to create wealth-making opportunities. Obviously some states will do certain things on their own but it should be done within the overall plans for the six member states. We should also work with the Southwestern and South-Eastern states, to ensure the construction of a rail line from Lagos to Calabar.
NA: Do you think perceptions of Nigeria as a risky investment destination, owing to political and economic
uncertainties, need to change for the BRACED states to attract the requisite foreign partners?
Keshi: I really do not have any worries on that score. What does worry me is that those who are doing good business in Nigeria do not speak up for us.
Companies like Chevron and the other oil companies, as well as many others in different economic areas, should be telling the world that Nigeria is good for business. They are making billion-dollar investments and decent profits and have no cause to regret their decisions to come here.
People want to invest in Africa, as it has immense growth possibilities compared to other parts of the world. We just have to do our homework in order to take advantage of the opportunities.
NA: But an industrial plan for the region will be based on the availability of a stable power supply, which has been lacking throughout the country. How will this serious problem be dealt with?
Keshi: As of today, the BRACED states have made more investment in power than any other region in the country. If they are allowed to manage what they have, as in localising the use of what they generate, there will be not be any problems. The power generated within the region is put into the national grid and does not come back to them. In Rivers State for instance, a lot is being done and by 2013, they will be self-sufficient. And other states are making similar plans to develop their own independent power plants.
NA: What would you measure as success by the time you complete your five-year tenure? Keshi: The laying of a proper foundation and being in a position to actualise the objectives of the Commission and meet the aspirations of the founding fathers.
"If we promote the region as an investment haven, considering the resources we have in oil and gas as well as agriculture, I believe that investors will come."
"People want to invest in Africa, as it has immense growth possibilities compared to other parts of the world. We just have to do our homework in order to take advantage of the opportunities."
"The BRACED states have made more investment in power than any other region in the country. If they are allowed to manage what they have, as in localising the use of what they generate, there I will be not be any problems."