Convener and chairman, organising Committee of Rivers State Investors Forum 2011, Atedo Peterside, in this interview with Festus Akanbi, stressed the need for the private sector to complement the effort of government in boosting economic activities in Rivers State and its environs
Can you explain what brought about the idea of an investors’ forum for Rivers State especially at the end of the year?
A group of eight entrepreneurs and business leaders who are all stakeholders in Rivers State and its environs had a meeting with the governor of Rivers State about four months ago and in the course of discussing how to help boost economic activities in the area, the governor made it clear that he thought private sector leaders could also do more to compliment the efforts of the government. The conversations dovetailed towards an investors’ forum as part of a wider effort to carry the message to existing and prospective investors that this region is ready for business and Port Harcourt is the obvious commercial and services hub which should correctly serve as a pivot for any such revival. The eight of us from the private sector who were present at that meeting metamorphosed into a forum organising committee and I was given the unenviable task of chairing this effort, while Mr. George Etomi assumed the role of member and secretary. The other six members are Senator John Azuta-Mbata, Mr. Tonye Cole, Mr. Tein George, Mr. Emmanuel Georgewill, Mr. O.C.J. Okocha and Mr, Herbert Wigwe. Our initial preference was to host the Rivinvest Forum in mid-October, but we shifted to mid-November in order not to clash with the South-South Economic Summit, whom we were told was targeting early October at the time. It later turned out that the South-South Economic Summit moved their date one more time and this time to end-November. However, there was no going back for us as we had already committed and mobilised speakers, sponsors, etc, for 16-18 November.
Is it usual for the government of a state to be involved in its own summit and that of its zone at about the same time?
First, let me reiterate that the Rivinvest Forum 2011 is an entirely private sector funded event. We are not receiving one naira from the Rivers State Government or indeed from any other government in the zone or the federal government. Second, the Rivinvest Forum is not an economic summit. It has a much narrower objective and focus. It is an investors’ forum only and so the entire focus and pre-occupation is about investment and what can be done to bring investment into Rivers State and its environs. By “environs”, I am referring to neighbouring states such as Bayelsa, Abia, Imo and Akwa Ibom, but then the reverberations from major investment activity in Port Harcourt will be felt further afield in Delta, Edo and Cross River states also. The economic spill over or trickle down effects of a major investment decision in a commercial and business hub, does not respect state boundaries. They simply fan out in all directions from that hub. Third, we have chosen just six tracks that we will focus on at the Rivinvest Forum 2011 and these are: agriculture and rural development; infrastructure with emphasis on power and transportation; oil and gas; services, including finance; industry, trade and investment climate; and development of the Greater Port Harcourt City. An economic summit would typically cover a much broader array of topics and address education, health, security, housing, information technology etc. We are not trying to be all things to all men over one and a half days. This is an investment forum, pure and simple. The Rivinvest Forum starts with a welcome cocktail on the evening of Wednesday, November 16 and the business sessions commence early on Thursday, November 17 and end at lunch time on Friday, November 18. In one and a half days you can lay a solid foundation to build upon some selected and very important tracks. You cannot do everything in that time frame. Rome was not built in a single day.
How long has this idea been in the pipeline? Or was there a particular development that makes it necessary to draw attention to the economic potential of Rivers State at this period?
I think it is fair to say that the Rivinvest Forum 2011 is an idea whose time has come. If it had not, we could not have been successful in putting together a purely private-sector funded event which is financed by corporate sponsors and participation fees. Our platinum sponsors include ANAP Foundation, Access Bank, Stanbic IBTC Pensions, Shell Petroleum Development Company, Siat Group nv, Belgium, Skye Bank, Zenith Bank, Monier Construction Company, Dangote Cement, Delmar Petroleum Company, NG Power (Sahara Group), Lubrik Construction Company, Diamond Bank, and Moni Pulo (Petroleum Development). Our Gold Sponsors are FCMB, Nigeria LNG, First Bank, Greater Port Harcourt City Development Authority, and Total Upstream. The forum is also being supported by Nigerian Breweries, MTN, Ibeto Group, Dredging International Services (Nigeria), Eleme Petrochemicals Company, O.K. Isokariari & Sons and our media partners include THISDAY, BusinessDay and Silverbird Television. The forum idea was born about four months ago in early June 2011. I think this array of sponsors have ‘voted with their feet’ or they have ‘put their money where their mouth is’. They all came on board because they felt the timing was right or indeed almost overdue for the Port Harcourt area/business hub (our region) to host an event of this nature.
Can we say this initiative was borne out of the concerned stakeholders’ desire to build on the return of peace to the Niger Delta region?
If there was no peace in the region, I do not think the array of sponsors I mentioned above would have come together to commit themselves financially to organise and host an investors’ forum. Yes, we are clearly building on the successes of the amnesty programme and other initiatives. Suffice to say that there is a consensus to come together and take our destiny into our own hands, while working closely with the government. The private sector has to live up to its responsibilities as the engine of economic growth and we must do so at the national, regional, state and even LGA level.
Is there any provision for the thousands of youths recently rehabilitated by the federal government’s amnesty programme in your quest to stimulate investment in Rivers State and its environs?
The ‘provisions’ are indirect. There are no handouts to give to anybody. We are in the business of putting in place the right policies that will stimulate investment activities in Rivers State and its environs. Investment brings jobs. Without additional investment, there will be no new jobs. The youths will be the ultimate beneficiaries if we stimulate economic activity in our area/zone.
Nigeria doesn’t have much to showcase as far as public-private sector partnerships are concerned because of some recurring irreconcilable differences. How is this initiative going to be different at the end of the day?
I think we all underestimate the extent to which the public sector and the private sector collaborate nowadays. I am a member of the National Economic Management Team and it is obvious to me that President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan is inseparable from the private sector. It is the same in many states of the federation, including Rivers State.
You were formerly the Honorary Economic Adviser to the Governor of Rivers State. If you have left this position to take up national duties in the Economic Management Team of the federal government and the National Council on Privatisation, why are you back in Rivers State, taking a lead on a state/zonal effort like the Rivinvest Forum 2011?
All the eight members of the Rivinvest Forum 2011 are gainfully employed doing one thing or another. I view this as a community self-help project. I do not need a formal title or a job before I do community work. I would encourage all to do the same. I aspire to be active at the federal, zonal, state and even LGA level. I set up ANAP Foundation as a non-profit organisation that will help promote good governance and this can be at all levels. Indeed, we aspire to eventually become active internationally. However, it is important to remember that charity often begins at home. I have been active before in Lagos State, where I reside. Why can’t I be active in Rivers State or Bayelsa or Cross River? I think the important thing in life is to avoid conflict of interest situations because it is impossible to serve two masters on a matter in which their interests clearly conflict. As a student of good corporate governance practices, I am quick to identify and extinguish conflict of interest situations. Rivinvest Forum 2011 does not fall into this category. Indeed, I see it as being consistent with the federal government’s economic transformation agenda which encourages private sector initiatives to stimulate economic growth across the length and breadth of the nation.
What is the level of commitment of the federal government in this project?
This is not a federal government project. Having said that, we have had phenomenal support and encouragement from several key players in the federal government’s Economic Management Team. If you visit our website(www.rivinvestforum2011.com), you will see that the array of speaker/panelists that we have lined up, include the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Finance Minister, Dr (Mrs.) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Mr Sanusi Lamido Sanusi; Minister for Agriculture, Dr Akinwunmi Adesina; Minister for Petroleum, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke; Minister for Works, Mr. Mike Onolememen; Minister for Power, Professor Bart Nnaji; and Minister for Trade and Investment, Mr Segun Aganga.
I think they all understand the importance of business and commercial hubs and the role these can play in national economic development. I have said before that a key economic minister who only sits down in Abuja from morning to night will surely fail sooner or later. You cannot transform the economy of a nation rapidly without encouraging and/or taking your key message to the existing important business and commercial hubs/clusters. It is also true that the region/area we are talking about currently accounts for close to 90 percents of Nigeria’s export earnings.
What happens after the November event? Will there be a committee to monitor the implementation of recommendations expected to come out of the forum?
We will help mobilise local groups to follow-up on key deliverables. Do not forget that we are also collaborating with government. We want the Rivinvest Forum 2011 to be an eye-opener, but we also want it to represent a solid foundation that we can build on. It should become some sort of compass that will point the way for future investment activity. We are also creating awareness internationally that the region/area is ready for business. I wish the handful of trouble makers in the north-east of the country would take a cue from this and realise what damage they are inflicting upon themselves and their own people. Lagos and the south-west are not waiting for anybody. They are forging ahead. Port Harcourt and the south-south are also forging ahead. The north-central zone in Nigeria has the lowest unemployment rate because they are very successful farmers and serve as the bread basket of the nation. Each zone has to wake up.
You have a number of banks as co-sponsors of the forum. What specific role(s) have you assigned to them? Do their roles end with the forum?
The banks have no special roles assigned to them. They will partake and explore opportunities like all other sponsors. We offer equal treatment to all sponsors in the same class/category. Accordingly, Diamond Bank will be treated the same as Siat nv of Belgium and Shell and Stanbic IBTC Pension Managers and others because they are all platinum sponsors. Likewise FCMB and First Bank will be given equal treatment with Nigeria LNG, Total Upstream and Greater Port Harcourt City Development Authority because they are all gold sponsors.