Mazi Okechukwu Unegbu, former president, Chattered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria will clock 70 on August 19. In this interview with Business Hallmark’s Editor, Okey Onyenweaku and Senior Correspondent, Emeka Ejere, he shares his many years of experience as a banker, lawyer and stockbroker, advising Nigeria’s economic managers on how to achieve the much desired economic growth among a wide range of issues.
What does it feel to be 70?
Ah, it’s very…very beautiful. To be 70 means you have to thank God for your life. It’s not 70 days; it’s not 70 months; 70 years. And God has been so gracious to keep me up to 70 years, because I’ve had so many fracas, so many accidents. For instance, I survived the war and I was a commander. I was 71 Battalion Commander. And I also commanded a battalion under Col. Chima Onwuatuegwu. And I was defending from Enyiogugu Mbaise to Owerri to avoid people coming.
So, with all that experience, I thank God for sparing my life that I didn’t die in the war front. It’s a blessing, many people died. It’s not that I’m the best or that I don’t have sins, but God was just so gracious. That’s what it is and that’s why I have to say my 70 years is a very big milestone in my life. For instance there was a time we had an accident, my wife and I and all my children – all of us and nothing happened to us, we came out at a place they call J3 in Ijabode. We were all saved and I thank God for it. So that’s why to be 70 is a joy to me. To be 70 is a way of giving thanks to God, telling God you have done graciously for my life.
And in fact, after my 70, I’m ready to die. I keep saying that because it is something I never believed could happen. Even when I was born, I had an open skull and people never believed I would live. So my father, my mother, my maternal grandmother, they were all there watching whether I was going to survive or not. People in my compound will come in the morning to check whether I woke up or not. I was crying all the time until a native doctor brought by my maternal grandmother came and did something over my head and the thing healed after eight days, from what my father told me.
So, there’re so many things that have happened in my life that make my celebration of 70 years a very happy moment and an event I couldn’t believe was possible but for the grace of God.
Are you looking at retirement anytime soon?
In fact, I’ve retired from active work. For instance, I retired from First Bank, retired from then Progress Bank, Citizens International Bank – areas where I managed. And, of course, why you still see me in the office is because I’m a lawyer – lawyers don’t retire. Lawyers retire when they get to the grave. Otherwise, lawyers are everlasting, they don’t retire.
And that’s what Rotimi Williams, the greatest of all said. He was going to court until the last week of his death. He said lawyers don’t retire. You can retire in any other profession, but lawyers don’t retire. That’s why I said I’ve retired from other jobs, but as a lawyer, I’m still active.
A man of many parts, you’re a banker, you’re a lawyer, you’re a stockbroker. Which of these professions gives you the most joy?
(Laughter) If I choose any, I will be offending most of my colleagues. I will be offending the people that have helped me to be where I am as members of my professional colleagues. In banking, I’m happy that I was helped by bankers. For instance, Alhaji Papa Otiti who was a former deputy governor of central bank did so much for me as a banker. He made sure I became the president of Chattered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria. Himself, Ola Vincent and Francis Ijewere, they were very…very good.
When I wanted to go the first time, they told me no, stay, when your time comes we will be your campaign managers. When the time came they did. So, in banking I thank God and I thank my colleagues who up till tomorrow are still behind me. In stock broking too, fantastic people, I’ve had a good life with them. I must confess, under them I also made some good money, even though somewhere along the line we still lost it. But I still believe in the market, the way it’s growing and they’ve changed from Nigeria Stock Exchange (NSE) to NGX and they are now doing so many things that help people chart their investment future.
And in Law, oh, my God…. And let me tell you first I read Law out of… in fact I was forced to read Law so to say. I think it was good anyway, what happened was that I was supposed to be an expert witness in a case in First Bank when I was working in First Bank. And when I was in the witness box I was rattling, rattling, rattling thinking about how good and how I was able to present the case. The lawyer of First Bank was happy about that. But somewhere along the line, the defending lawyer really messed me up in terms of asking me questions and I wasn’t ready to answer them. The man messed me up, I must admit. I’m sorry to say he was crappy looking. The lawyer really rattled me and I said to myself, what sort of thing is this? When I looked at him, he was very aggressive.
After that encounter, immediately I left the court, I went straight to University of Lagos and collected form to read Law. Because when I was in the university I had this believe that lawyers were lazy set of people; that they don’t read unless exam is coming.; that if you don’t know Mathematics, if you don’t know sciences you’re a nobody. That’s how I saw lawyers. But after that encounter, I knew Law was very important. That was what made me read Law. And since I graduated and was called to the bar, I’ve enjoyed the benefit of my colleagues. At least Akeredolu sees me and he would say banker lawyer…banker lawyer. A lot of them say banker…banker, I say I’m a lawyer. They’re all friendly with me. They’ve been very nice to me. A lot of them have shown me ways. Emeka Ngige has been fantastic.
So many of them, most of those SANs; they’ve been very nice to me. And they respect me, I respect them. I give them their respect, even though I’m their senior age-wise, but at the bar, they are my seniors and I normally recognise it anywhere I am. So I give them that respect. So I cannot say I prefer any of the professions. The three of them have made me; I think I’m happy with them.
You were in First Bank, then, you became Executive Chairman of Progress Bank. You also became the MD of Citizens International Bank. What lessons did you learn from managing those banks? How do you compare them with what obtains now?
A very good question, and very thoughtful too! Hah, it’s a mouthful. I tell you one thing, banking during my time, for instance, I thank First Bank for my life. First Bank made me. When I joined First Bank, they gave us history of the bank, how it started with 50 pounds in those days and all that. So we read it and followed the tradition of growth, knowing that something you start today small will grow big tomorrow. And while I was there, they trained me from day one to look up to a career and I tried very much to build a career around myself of banking. And that has helped me to go to other banks, manage other banks.
What it shows is that at hard time, the bank cared for you. They made sure that you get loans. The first house I built, they gave me the money; the second one, they gave me the money. They made sure that your career is there, so that if you’re comfortable you’re not likely going to steal. They make everything available to you; they provided for you. In fact, my master’s degree was financed by the bank in Ibadan. They paid everything, made it so comfortable for me, gave me a house in Ibadan apart from the house given to me in Lagos.
When I was leaving, my family stayed in that house till I finished. So, they bank cared for you. But you yourself put everything that you have to the bank so that the bank would continue to take care of you. You don’t look back; you are a total person. You are in it and they are in you. You get into it and they are into you too. So that was the type of symbiotic relationship that I had with First Bank, and it’s so with every other staff of my time. They cared.
Now I moved from there to Broad Bank. In fact, I set up Broad Bank. What I tried to do was to take all my customers from First Bank to that bank. In fact, people used to see Broad Bank as an extension of First Bank because I was doing everything to make sure we grew like First Bank. But unfortunately, I was working with people from other areas, so it was a difficult task at the time. But all the same I tried to infuse the First Bank idea and principle into Broad Bank.
Then I went to Progress Bank. Progress Bank was the one that gave me nightmares. As a state bank, then I didn’t know the difference between a state bank and the other banks. If I knew, I wouldn’t have gone there. Having gone there, I tried my best to make sure that we did the best that we could. But the state will intervene, the governor will intervene. I remember when I was in Progress Bank a governor came to the bank and said we should give him N250, 000. I looked at it, he had no account in the bank and I did ask him question sir, N250, 000 as what? You don’t have account here, how do we do it?
The man was so angry. I didn’t care anyway. I still maintained my position; you don’t have an account, which account are we going to debit? I faced the same problem when I was in Broad Bank. You know George Ini was a director of the bank. George Ini gave a lady a letter for me to give half a million naira to him. According to him, he had shares in the bank. But I said having a share and being a customer are two different things. You must have to be a customer. The man left Benin and came straight to Lagos to come and confront me and said he will sack me, I said I don’t care. All I know is that I’ve looked at your account, you have zero balance, and you didn’t apply for a loan or overdraft, on what basis I’m giving you money?
And unfortunately (for him), he was in a course where I was lecturing. He was a director and I was lecturing in a course and he was there, I pointed to him: I said even some directors will like to take money anyhow from a bank. Of course, he told me that he is a catholic that he goes to communion, I said that you take communion has nothing to do with the business of banking. So he was not happy, but I had to say what I wanted to say. It was a way of telling the directors that even though you are a director of the bank, the money of the bank does not belong to you. It belongs to some people. It belongs to shareholders and the views of shareholders must be respected. So that’s what happened.
But today’s bankers, my dear, it’s a different story. Maybe it’s because you no longer have career bankers. What you have now are – I don’t know whether to call them labour force or workforce in banking. They’re not career bankers. They have no career in banking. They do anything they want to do and they don’t care. And that’s why you have the high level of fraud in banks today. And banks should learn that if you give somebody a career, he should be able to survive and grow in that career. Most bankers see themselves now as going there, get what they can get and go away. They’re no longer there for career purposes and that’s the difference.
Even the central bank, I keep saying, is a political bank now instead of an economic bank that works on the economy of the country. And as a political bank, you’ll be bowing to political pressure without looking at the economy. You’re supposed to manage the economy and create opportunities for growth in the economy. But we now seem to be doing more politics in central bank than economic policies. That’s one of the things I discovered. We must have to re-strategize, bring back bankers that want to build a career, let them harden in that career; believe in it so that the bank can make them.
I don’t know how it is in First Bank today, I cannot say. If they do the way they did to me, I think everybody will be happy. But I don’t know whether they’re doing it again. Because as you’re in the bank, they’ll give you loan to build a house, loan even for commercial property, which is no longer possible now.
What is it like running your own business after decades of successful banking career as an employee?
I think running my own business has its own challenges. First of all you have to have your money; you have to invest your money. In the first place you probably don’t have that money and have to depend on people who came. And that’s why I’m not happy because we lost money in the capital market. But what you do, if you’re running a business, your staff must be the key people; you must make yourself available to them, known to them. And that’s why the people out there (his staff), they are like my kids. They’ve stayed here for so long despite the difficulties, they’re still here. I thank God for them.
But I will tell you, if you must run your own business, you must also have run other people’s businesses with integrity. Otherwise, in your own you will fail. If you run somebody’s business like it doesn’t concern you, when you run your own, you probably will fail because the same thing you did, somebody else will do it to you. So that’s one of the tenets and believes in doing business. And then you must believe in your staff, you must encourage them. There was a time I discovered that there was a property being sold, I made sure all my staff bought the property in Ikorodu. Some of them built their own houses, what I call batchers, and they’re staying there today and they’re happy.
And then the same thing I do with my lawyers when I left the stock broking thing. I told my lawyers, if you get your business, a law work and all that, I will help you. And give them things that will make them know they’re human beings. You must have to let them know that they are part and parcel of you. That’s one of the mistakes people make when they employ people to work for them. But I must tell you it’s been very fulfilling. I’ve been very lucky in the things that I did, and it is all grace of God. I don’t know when I talk of God, I say in business, prayer is okay, but a prayer must be backed by your actions to make sure that if you do something and you pray, yes.
But the first thing is make sure you’re going to do something that will be good so that when you pray, the prayer will work in what you’re doing not the other way round. You can be praying every time that God should do this or that for you; God is not going to do it for you, you have to do it yourself so God will now see if you have not left him, He will help you to achieve your objectives. If you go and get every time and say God bring, no, God is not going to bring any business to you. You have to look for it and put God first in terms of what you’re doing. Ask Him to help you. But you must have to work first yourself. You must have to work really hard. I keep saying hard work doesn’t kill. What kills is laziness.
When you’re lazy, laziness kills. Laziness does not grow any business. So I must say that I thank God so far. That’s what I tell my children, I keep telling them. My father after secondary school, my father said okay look at the road o, follow the road. And that’s what I tell my children, follow the road. You have gone to university, if I do this and do that for you, what will you do for yourself? It’s wrong. So, I encourage them to make their own achievements and don’t depend on me.
The federal government is projecting 4.2 percent GDP growth by 2022. Looking at the realities on ground today and how things are going, do you see that feasible?
The federal government is being unnecessarily over optimistic. Bet me, they can never achieve that GDP growth from what is happening today. I still believe we’re still in a recession. People say we are out of recession. Look at the level of inflation; interest rate in the economy, exchange rate in the economy today is over N500 to the dollar out there, though central bank says N410 or whatever. Tell me how you’re going to achieve the 4,2 percent growth. Your debt service ratio, debt service alone is more than what you produce.
So how can you achieve 4.2 percent GDP growth in 2022? 2022 is here already; we’re in2021. It’s not going to be possible. The only way they can go is to come back, restrategize; look at the various indices of growth in an economy. Unemployment is very high; the tax rate is high and I keep advocating that for us to grow, they should reduce the tax rate. And I’ll tell you why. I remember I made that presentation at the National Assembly and they were laughing and said how are you going to do it? And I said if you reduce the tax rate, you are going to follow what is called volume transaction.
In other words, I’m an employer, if you increase the tax rate, there will be no incentive for me to produce more. Because I will say after producing more the tax will drop it. I will do the barest minimum just to stay afloat. But if you reduce the tax rate, I will be encouraged to produce more and more, so that the volume transaction will result in my paying minimum tax and then employing more people. The more people you employ, the more tax government gets from those people’s remunerations. And that way things work. But when you put the tax rate so high, it’s not going to work. And I insist and I have used figures to prove it.
So, the tax rate is high, interest rate is high, foreign exchange rate is high, there is unemployment, there is high infrastructure deficit, roads are not there, insecurity is there. I’m not talking of corruption because corruption is now inborn in us, and you’re telling me you’re going to achieve 4.2 percent. You’re joking, it’s not possible. All these things I have mentioned will make it impossible for such a thing to happen. All that they need to do is to go back in time, try and see how they can address some of these dislocations.
Even social dislocation is endemic. You have so many internally displaced persons, from where are they going to produce? There is farmers/herders clash, farmers are not producing. Probably hunger is going to come, and once you’re hungry you cannot produce. How are you going to achieve 4.2 GDP growth rate? It’s not possible. Government is just being unnecessarily optimistic. They’re blind without looking at what they ought to do. That’s my comment on that.
Now let’s come to your book, SON OF TWO NATIONS, that sounds like a must read. What informed the choice of that title?
Yes, I was thinking of how to caption my biography. I now gave assignment to my children to get me a title. The one in Australia said daddy, call it ‘son of two nations’, I said ha, that’s okay, that makes sense because you were in Biafra, you’re a Biafran. You’re now in Nigeria. So, tell us what you did as a Biafran and also relate your experience with Nigeria. So you belong to two nations. Biafra was physically and then Biafra of the mind. Because he says whether you like it or not you still have the mind of a Biafran. Forget your Nigeria whatever…whatever. That’s what the guy who is in Australia told me. That’s why I titled it like that.
In one hand, between 1966/70, I was of the nation of Biafra. Thereafter, I now came back to Nigeria. Now the question is; why is it so? Because some of those things that made me become a Biafran in 67 and 70 still exist, even worse, today, worse. So, I’m saying let me be son of one nation Nigeria, but with those things not corrected, it doesn’t make sense. And that’s what I had in mind. I explained my roll during the Biafra war and my experiences in Nigeria. And I still see those injustices perceived by me, they’re still happening. You’ve not changed it; it’s still there, if not worse these days.
So what are we talking about? That’s why I said ‘son of two nations’. And more importantly, I was saying, as a son of two nations, I’m confused. Where do I belong? In one hand, I have a very strong faith in Biafra nation. On the other hand, I still believe in Nigeria if those injustices we saw are taken care of. Then you restructure, you allow me grow at my own pace, then I can say okay, let’s manage Nigeria. But a situation where everything that is done is done, removing me, I’m not part of it, where do you want me to belong? That’s what it is. And that’s why I said ‘son of two nations’. Some people tell me it is controversial, I said it’s not controversial. It’s typical of what I believe that happened.