The first and only African born till date, to attain a Mayoral position in the United States and Deputy Mayor of the City of Newark, New Jersey, Hon. Ugo Nwaokoro graced us with an interview during his ‘Meet and Greet’ visit to the Secretary to the State Government, Rt. Hon. Festus Agas, hosted by the Senior Special Assistant to the Governor on International Relations, Dr. Genevieve Mordi in Asaba, Delta State. Hon. Ugo Nwaokoro the Deputy Mayor on International and Diaspora affairs, Newark, New Jersey enlightened us on the very many ways we can improve the standard of living of Nigerians. He also expressed his interest in helping Nigeria solve its key problems, especially in the area of Energy, by giving credible ideas and suggestions that can be borrowed from developed countries.
Can you please introduce yourself?
I am Ugo Nwaokoro and I am the First African Born deputy mayor of the city of Newark, New Jersey and the first African-born deputy Mayor in the United States. I hail from Imo State, Nigeria but I have lived in the United States of America for over 25 years.
You lived outside Nigeria and you must have a different view of Nigeria, how do you reconcile that?
I’m still very much Nigerian. I was born here and I visit Nigeria at least three times every year. So, it doesn’t seem like I left. Plus the world is a smaller place since communication technology. We read and hear of everything that is happening here in Nigeria. The internet has made the world a global village.
What is your view on the issue of corruption which is endemic in Nigeria?
You see, the issue of corruption in Nigeria has been over flogged and somewhat overemphasized. Every country has its peculiar problems. Corruption is not peculiar to Nigeria alone. Every country has its corruption issues. No country is devoid of corruption. However, the problem of Nigeria is that of its image. We focus more on the negative parts which is very minimal compared to the positive sides of Nigeria. If you really want to look at it, many developed countries have more criminals than Nigeria has today but we have painted that image of us and allowed the world adopt it. The government, on the other hand, isn’t doing much to promote the positive things about Nigeria and Nigerians. If the government can counter that misconception then I don’t see how the world will see us in such bad light. I will give you an example, in the USA Nigerians have the highest number of Ph.D holders amongst other nationalities and we are talking about very wide margins. Nigerians also have the highest number of Master’s degree holders and First Degree holders compared to other immigrant nationalities in the USA by very wide margins. It is on record. There are no progressive sectors in the American economy that you would go to that there won’t be lots of Nigerians at the forefront. Talk of finance, education, medicine and others. If you go to Harvard, you probably wouldn’t be able to count the number of Nigeria professors with your two hands. Your ten fingers probably won’t be enough. You could say the same for Princeton, Yale and all others. There are more positive things to publicize about Nigeria and Nigerians than those negative things. We are letting people dictate the narrative to us and the government is not doing enough to promote the positive sides of us Nigerians. Because the government is not ready to do that it is then left to you to sell Nigeria to the world. We have to sell Nigeria to the world. We just have to do something.
I am talking to you as the first and presently the only African-born deputy mayor in the United States and I am a Nigerian. That is not being promoted. There is only so little that I can do. There is also a Nigerian nominated by me and appointed by my mayor as a judge. He is the first African-born judge in the United States and he is from Ebonyi state here in Nigeria. That is also not being promoted.
I am a proud Nigerian. I flaunt my Nigerian passport with pride. I put it side by side my American passport and I make no apology for being Nigerian. So, I can say that Nigeria has no monopoly of corruption or economic ills and by the time we start to match America and Nigeria, you will discover that Nigeria has much lesser problems. The problem is that the good things about us are not being projected to the world and that alone makes us look pretty bad.
How do we project the positive image of Nigeria to the world?
The government has a foreign affairs office and through that office, a lot of image transformation and re-branding can be done. One of the easiest ways is to project the feats exceptional Nigerians have achieved so far. Take for example Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist whose impact and feats in the United States was portrayed by American A-list actor Will Smith in the movie titled “Concussion”. He is recognized more in the United States than in his home country Nigeria and this is not good for the image of Nigeria. People like these should be recognized and celebrated in so doing it will rapidly change the negative image and preconception people have about Nigeria. Nigeria has to project these people. When Nigeria gives awards, such people should be given awards and let’s invite CNN, BBC, VOA, Aljazeera and other top international media outfits to publicize these events. It will go a long way repairing the image of Nigeria and that is the only way the world can see the positive sides of Nigeria. There are also people doing great things within Nigeria. Such people should be honoured with National Awards and a public profile of such people and their achievement should be documented and publicized. Nigerians have evolved. We are usually competitors for top positions at international firms and human endeavours. So, instead of saying that Nigeria is a dangerous place to do business I would rather say, I can’t go to China to do business.
Well, as for the 419 scams Nigerians are well known for and their victim. I do not pity them. As a matter of fact, I blame them. I receive such emails promising juicy rewards for helping someone access or help transfer some trapped millions hidden in a bank somewhere in Nigeria. Anyone who falls for that is either a criminal as well or just down right greedy. So, the blame doesn’t only fall on the scammer in Nigeria but on the greedy person at the other end of the email. It would take a greedy person to fall for such emails.
What do you think of Governor Okowa’s two-year administration of Delta State?
I am not a stranger to Delta State and I often visit the state’s capital Asaba. I am very impressed with what he has done in just two years. So, it shows that Delta State has a future and I think if the governor is given time, he is truly going to transform Delta State and that is what I think. I must also say that some of the members of his team, I am speaking for those that I have met too starting with the Secretary to the State Government and he is a straight-shooter and I am just meeting him for the first time. And of course, my dear friend who came all the way from the United States Hon. Dr.Genevieve Mordi, actually, when I first heard she took an appointment here in Delta State, I knew something great was going on in Delta State. I know she is meticulous and she doesn’t play around. She is a goal getter. She was really yearning to come back to Asaba. Now I know why. The governor is focused. I think the SSG gives him good advice. If Delta State continues on this path then it is going to become one of the greatest states in this country.
I was surprised that the people are quite civilized. I was amazed by how they observed the traffic lights. Here they are doing it like we do in America. And they do it as if someone is watching them.
The problem of development in Nigeria is not new to you but with your exposure and experience in America what do you think is the way out for Nigerians suffering from lack in the midst of wealth?
There are some grey areas that I am not allowed to speak on and I will leave that out of this interview, however, the development of Nigeria in most sectors are stunted by some individuals and that is one of the problems. Another is resource control. Nigerians are suffering in the midst of plenty and that only happens because there are no adequate plans for controlling the resources. The way natural resources are being controlled in Nigeria can be modified. It narrows room for production or productiveness and limits the creation of wealth.
The Federal Government will make more money if it gives lee way whereby localities, states and cities control the process. Let’s use the petroleum sector for example. The Federal Government can authorize the State or local government to control the drilling and the production of crude oil while NNPC becomes the monitoring or administrative arm. The Federal Government will now set up a monitoring and policy making body that will only control how crude is being drilled to ensure it is being done in an environmentally friendly way and the body would also take account of how much crude oil is being produced. Now, the Federal Government monitors the oil-producing states but with much less overhead costs than the Federal Government is carrying now. So, the oil-producing states will produce their crude oil and the Federal Government taxes fifty percent of whatever is produced and this fifty percent goes to the Federal Government without overhead costs. So, the federal government no longer bear the overhead costs. Bringing in this system, the Federal Government makes more money without deducting overhead costs or burden of any of such responsibilities but it will have a lot more control on what is being produced.
Because crude oil is very lucrative, the government can now look towards the north and say I want you guys to go into farming and agriculture full time and there would be no taxes on agriculture. You can do your farming, poultry, animal husbandry etc., without taxes. This will give more incentives to agriculture production and drive that sector to produce even more. The agriculturally focused states can continue producing their tomatoes, pepper, yams, potatoes and what have you and also keep the money. You see that? The Federal government can now look towards those who have resources such as bitumen, coal, limestones etc., but because they are not as prolific as oil and tax them fifteen percent. The government can look at all the sectors and tax them accordingly. That will give people the incentives to create and produce. Part of the fifty percent from crude oil and the taxes from other sectors that go to the Federal Government can then be allocated to disadvantaged states, while part is used on infrastructural development. It doesn’t mean the oil producing states still won’t get their own share of the allocation but they will be sharing from the fifty percent and from whatever comes from the taxes of other natural resources. The oil producing states will take care of the overhead costs from their fifty percent and those producing agriculture will have all their money to themselves as an incentive to produce and expand. This is the area of resource control that works well.
The Federal Government is presently overwhelmed by running parastatals and agencies leading to so much spending on salary payments. For there to be sustainable development in Nigeria most of the powers or controls of the government have to be decentralized. Let’s take education for example. The government has no business in the running of universities. The Federal Government is also not supposed to be running schools with everything that is going on. So, what the government can do in this case is to free those schools. The Federal Government could say since there are six geopolitical zones in Nigeria, every quarter the government would pick on Federal School from all the zones and say this quarter I am going to give you one billion dollars and with that money grant them autonomy so that way, the school is going to decide how to run the school and also decided what to charge as tuition fee and stuffs like that. That way you would free those universities. All you just have to do is set up supervisory bodies to monitor how and what the money is spent on and the supervisory delegates can also decide how the money is going to be disbursed. The US only operates station schools that are unlike the conventional schools. We are talking about station schools that has to do with the Navy, Army, NASA and other specialized schools. So, if the Federal Government does this they will be freeing up six federal universities every quarter and in a year they will be freeing up 24 schools. The process may take a year or two but in the end the Federal Government has removed their hands from the schools. So, the money that would have been used for the schools in future budgets will now be kept aside for any of the schools that are doing exceptionally well. We call it grants in the USA. It is often offered to develop technological discoveries that the government consider useful. Let’s say Federal University of Owerri developed something that if developed on a large scale would be beneficial to the Nigerian citizens, the Federal government gives them such money as grants. The money could also be given as investments, grants or loans to such institutions and these schools will function better. The United States have been able to develop many technologies that way. When these policies are put in before you know it the power of the government on the educational sector will be completely decentralized.
Another aspect of the Nigeria to be developed are the small and medium scale entrepreneurship. The US thrives because of the very many small businesses. I am talking about businesses that provide employment for one and five persons. These are key sectors that drive the development of any nation. I am talking about the small roadside restaurants, the shop around the corner selling bottled water, the carwash down the road, the farms in the village and other small businesses such as those. It is not like there are not many of them around but how have they evolved. How have they improved on their service delivery? One of the major problems that is affecting every business both small and big in Nigeria is energy although it has more impact on the small business owners than the larger ones. Energy is synonymous with developed countries. What does United States, Germany, China, United Kingdom, Japan, Korea, Dubai, Singapore all have in common? Energy! Constant reliable and sustainable energy! In the western world we believe that the difference between a rich country and a poor one is energy. The small bottle water sellers won’t be able to sustain their business or even evolve or expand when they can’t even afford to refrigerate their bottled water. They won’t be able to expand and start selling ice-cream because there is no power to keep it refrigerated even if they have the desire to expand the problem of energy still is a limiting factor to such dreams and desire.
It is very unfortunate that the populace focus on the big brand businesses than the small ones. There is little room for big businesses but there is endless space for little ones and the government can cultivate the potentials of such. I am more concerned about the small scale business industries and how we could develop an environment that is conducive for these small businesses to thrive with little to no problems. Such small business can become big national franchises such as the ones that can compete with those from all over the world. It would also curb the issue of agricultural waste. If the farmers can store their produce via refrigeration there would be no need to waste during the harvest season and there would be agricultural produce left for sale off harvest season. The small fishery will not have their produce go to waste since they can store their produce in their cold-rooms so they can decide not to sell all the fish during the season, they can afford to continue selling and that creates abundance. But in a situation whereby during the harvest seasons we have abundance and waste and soon afterwards scarcity it wouldn’t give room to spread the produce all year round and create abundance until the next market season. The main sector that drives development is Energy.
You hammered on Energy and that as you have said is the bane of development in any nation but so far with several billions of dollars and trillions of Naira pumped into the Nigerian energy sector we have little to nothing to show for it and instead of that we are retrogressing, where do you think we went wrong or what do you think we are doing wrong?
Well, Nigeria and its energy problem is not new. Some of the functions such as energy, needs to be decentralized. It is actually one of the proposals we made to the Federal Government. There are several areas that the government doesn’t need to be fully involved in but they can be part of the policy making for such sectors. If the government decentralized energy production, the problem of lack of sufficient and sustainable energy will slowly be eradicated.
I am here on a ‘Meet and Greet’ to get to know the people of Delta State more, study the terrain and understand their energy needs. I am going to propose that Delta State government generates powers from radio frequency. It would halve the cost of deploying solar energy. It would also require much less space than needed for solar energy last but not least, it is environmental friendly. It is a technology which my company put into function in Honduras and it is far efficient than solar energy. We are on course to deploying another unit in Abuja within the next two months. If this technology is deployed, it will help Delta state and Nigeria as a whole achieve regular, affordable and efficient energy. Security will be significantly improved with constant energy supply. I hope to be back to Delta soon to discuss the details with the Governor.