Adekunle Olumide, one of Nigeria’s finest diplomats turned 80 years old Saturday. His first posting in the Nigeria Foreign Service was to New York in 1966 and he retired as a Federal Permanent Secretary in 1991. In this interview, with STEPHEN ONYEKWELU, he shares thoughts on what has sustained him in the last eighty years; what Nigeria needs to do to accelerate economic growth, among other issues. Excerpts:
You have had an illustrious career in Nigeria’s Foreign Service and now you celebrate your 80th birthday in a country with 53 years as average life expectancy for men; how has the journey been? Is there a recipe for longevity you want to share with us?
This is surely through the enabling grace of God Almighty that has kept me healthy and at this age of 80 years. And also made me not to be a burden to my family, I give gratitude and honour to God. But as a human being, in my own small way too, I think that my lifestyle can partly account for my longevity. Early in life, I started out having the right diet. I have also been conscious about exercise.
At school, I was the champion of the games in athletics, sprint, high jump and all that. When the points are calculated whoever has the highest point is called victor ludorum. I played soccer and later in life lawn tennis. This has kept me fit most of the time and I am lucky that I did not get injury in any of the games I participated in.
When I got married, my wife guided me on what I should be having and took care of my health too. She is an emerita professor of medicine, by the way. Many of my friends say I do not look my age, we thank God for that.
The life expectancy in Nigeria used to be much lower earlier on. I think that it is a sad commentary on the health system in the country. Normally, health services should be free, at least, for the generality of the people. And those who can afford it can go to private hospitals. Then the health insurance, which at the beginning I thought will be a revolution, the implementation has not been as effective as one would have expected. In the countries we copy, they have extensive arrangements for taking care of the generality of their people. The quality of life has diminished, and these are all factors that can affect your longevity. Basically, as I said earlier on, it is by the grace of God.
You had a long diplomatic career; how did you get into Nigeria’s Foreign Service and which posting has had the most lasting impression on you?
While I was at the University College in Ibadan, studying history; even before then, when I was doing my high school certificate course, I used to admire diplomats and thought it was a noble profession, which I can attempt to join. And in my final year at the university, someone came from the ministry of foreign affairs and spoke to us about career in the Foreign Service; so as soon as I graduated I did not have second thoughts. I applied.
Luckily, I graduated with honours, second class upper, which made me competitive during the interview at federal civil commission. That was how I found myself in the Foreign Service and I think that for the fourteen years I was there, it was very exciting and I benefitted a lot.
Regarding the posting, I find most significant, without question definitely it is the permanent mission of Nigeria to the United Nations in New York. In the United States we had three Nigerian legations at that time; the Embassy in Washington, the permanent mission to the U.N. in New York and the Consulate General in New York.
While at New York, I got exposed professionally, because at the United Nations headquarters, you had experts who produced documents for members on any subject. I handled the second committee of the U.N. which is mainly economic. We dealt with economic and social issues. We also received reports from the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) mainly economic issues.
In the university, I studied history but during my training, I was trained in diplomacy in Canberra, Australia. There, I was exposed to international economics, law and politics. It was significant that on going to New York I was put on the economic desk. While in New York, Nigeria was a non-permanent member of the U.N.’s Security Council. This enabled me to listen to debates by top diplomats from around the world. In those days, countries used to send their best diplomats as ambassadors to the United Nations because that is the peak of conference diplomacy.
At that time, I remember Lord Caradon, the permanent representative of Britain, who used to be chief secretary in Nigeria decades ago. You also had Arthur Goldberg, a retired U.S. Supreme Court judge who represented the United States of America. It is interesting that I am remembering these names. This was in 1966. Nikolai Fedorenko who was a brilliant professor of Chinese studies represented Russia. Of course, Nigeria, we had Chief S.O. Adebo, a well-respected top African diplomat. Listening to debates involving such people, you cannot but benefit. Then there was the U.N. General Assembly itself. Professionally, it exposed me.
However, as Chief Adebo said, “Kunle, your first posting is New York. After here, no other posting will impress you.” I just smiled when he said that. But in reality he was right; every other posting was an anti-climax. From New York I came back to Nigeria and was posted out again to Geneva. This was a significant posting for me because at that time Nigeria was on the 18-nation disarmament committee.
At the time I was in Geneva, 1971 to 1974, Nigeria did not have an embassy in Austria. I used to travel to Austria to represent Nigeria on the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency and UNIDO. I also handled consular issues because we had Nigerian students and some Nigerian nationals living in Austria. This was also exciting. To come back to the question, the most significant in terms of professional exposure and satisfaction was definitely the New York posting.
But in terms of sentimental fulfillment, I would say Libreville, Gabon. This is because during the civil war, Gabon recognised the Biafra Republic. So, Nigeria had no relations with Gabon. After the civil war, there was need to normalise relations with Gabon. I was sent as charge d’affairs to open the embassy. I set up the chancery, the entire embassy and related to the host government at the highest level. From sentimental point of view, this is the one I appreciate the most because I started everything from scratch, whereas in New York and Geneva, those Nigerian missions already existed.
How would you compare the education you got at the University College, Ibadan in 1964 to what is obtainable today in our tertiary institutions of learning?
I think one has to be objective in trying to compare what obtained at that time to what is obtainable today. First of all, the University College in Ibadan was the only university in the country when I got in. The number of students was few. Therefore, lecturers paid more attention because we were fewer. The teacher-student ratio was very low, which was a good thing. More importantly, we were a college of the University of London. For instance, my degree was from the University of London. The living conditions were much better. We had single rooms to ourselves.
We had people cleaning our rooms and stewards making our meals. That was a different era because the country was struggling to build its human capital. We got in there at mature ages, whereas our children went in much younger. That maturity is important. At that time, some people were sponsored by some schools and organisations. This contributed to the level of seriousness at studies. We had student movements and organisations but not the type of things you hear about now such as cultism, frightening. We also were rascally but people were never killed. With population explosion and need to meet with demand, quality was lowered in terms of faculty members’ qualifications.
When you look at the science subjects, engineering and so on, the laboratories leave much to be desired, whereas in the earlier days, we had all those things working whether it is in engineering or medicine. But now it is not quite the same.
Having said that, it also strikes me that when products of Nigerian universities go abroad for post-graduate studies, they excel. Perhaps, our standard is not as low as we think. You can argue that those are probably the brilliant ones but it tells something. Those employed locally, some multinationals claim to have to retrain them. This is in terms of refresher courses because if they were not innately brilliant, it will be difficult for them to be trained. I think going forward; the Nigerian government has to declare a state of emergency in education, because no country can develop without its human capital being very competitive and modern. What is most important is the quality of the individual. Singapore, Israel and Japan who do not have natural resources are highly developed today because of the emphasis they placed on the quality of their human capital. Once your human capital is ready for the Twenty-First century, you have little problems. But you can’t have improvement in education by paying lip-service to it. If we are not careful, we will be sowing seeds that will be dangerous for future generations. We need to be globally competitive through better education. We have to start with human capital then align curricular with industry needs and needs of the economy.
Nigeria’s population is growing at 2.6 percent annually, but the economy is growing at a slower pace, 2.01 percent in the first quarter of 2019? What in your view is the problem and how do we fix it, from Vision 2010 to Vision 20:2020 and now the ERGP?
It is a tragic irony that policy measures that need to be pursued to ensure that Nigeria’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate far surpasses its population growth rate of close to 3 percent per annum were contained in past socio-economic blueprints of government like the Vision 2010 document, Vision 2020 plan and lately the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP).
Unfortunately, successive governments tended to discontinue the brilliant blueprints of their predecessors, while at the same time failing to implement their replacements faithfully. It is a known fact that a plan is as good as its implementation.
While there is no single silver bullet to solve our economic problems as such, it is my strong belief that for Nigeria to fast track its economic growth rate there has to be deliberate and sustained investments in basic infrastructures, particularly power and transportation; human capital; agriculture; and healthcare. Efforts should be deployed to attain vibrant open financial markets and currency management as direct and portfolio investments will gravitate towards destinations with transparent markets.
There is also need to improve the business and investment climate through among others curbing corruption, ensuring the sanctity of contracts, transparent public procurement procedures, and streamlining of company registration, export and import administration and fees. In this connection, the Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council (PEBEC) should be encouraged to continue its commendable efforts to enhance the ease of doing business in Nigeria.
More importantly, there is the immediate need for the National Assembly to finalise the Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) which contains far-reaching reforms that will boost the Nigerian economy. The unacceptable delay in passing the Bill is making Nigeria to lose its competitive advantage to other oil-producing countries, particularly in Africa that are now the preferred destinations for new investments in the oil and gas industry.
It has been recognised that government alone cannot grow the economy, hence the need to create the business friendly environment to empower the private sector to invest in the crucial sectors – agriculture, power, manufacturing, solid minerals, services, transportation, etcetera.
What is your take on Africa Continental Freed Trade Area (AfCFTA)?
In principle, the AfCFTA will provide opportunities for trade and economic development among African countries in a similar manner as the European Union (EU) for European countries. In the medium term, Nigeria will benefit immensely from being a signatory to AfCFTA on condition that necessary economic reforms are put in place.
Investment in basic infrastructure, particularly power and transportation, will make Nigerian businesses and products more competitive vis-à-vis most African countries, promote business growth and engender a better business and investment climate. Local manufacturers have misgivings of Nigeria being a signatory to the Agreement because the current poor state of infrastructure makes their products less competitive.
While it is in the overall interest of Nigeria to be a party to AfCFTA, care must be taken to ensure that the Rules of Origin (RoO) are strictly enforced to prevent the influx of ineligible goods into the Nigerian market. This is critical so as to guard against goods from more developed countries being dumped in Nigeria.
How do you unwind?
I swim. I take walks even within the compound, several times at a quick pace. This is good for the heart and limbs. Luckily my wife and I love music. We are members of the Muson Centre (Lagos) where we go from time to time to listen to classical music, operas and different shows. I read too. I read biographies of some distinguished people. I like sports, so during the season I watch soccer. I watch cricket. This is how I unwind.
Occasionally, one is invited to social events. I love to travel. I also keep myself intellectually active. I am a member of the Council of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which is its highest policy-making organ. I was its first director-general by the way. I attend the monthly breakfast session at the Lagos Business School and I am chairman of the African Cancer Centre, which is being set up on the Lagos-Epe expressway.