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In Nigeria, it’s almost impossible for a public official to be investigated by security agencies over allegations of fraud and malfeasance, and nothing was found, especially if the individual was a marked man/woman. But Ms. Yewande Sadiku, the immediate-past Executive Secretary/CEO of the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC), Nigeria’s foremost investment promotion agency, broke that record. In her five-year tenure, devoted to institutional reforms, Sadiku was faced with petitions that saw her being investigated by seven agencies of government, which are the Code of Conduct Bureau, the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), the Accountant General of the Federation, the Auditor General of the Federation, the Department of State Services (DSS), the Bureau of Public Procurement and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). She also had petitions investigated by the Presidential Villa, including those from some staff of NIPC against her. But the ICPC in a letter dated December 16th, 2021, and addressed to the CEO, NIPC, cleared her of all the allegations levelled against her and the ICPC closed the case. In this interaction with THISDAY, she speaks about her experience working in a government agency. In addition, she also talks about measures that the government should adopt to make the country the investment destination of choice in Africa and how to improve efficiency in the public service, among others. Excerpts:

You were the Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC) for five years (2016 to 2021). What was your experience at the Commission like?
I was the Executive Secretary of the NIPC from November 8, 2016, to September 24, 2021. In that time, I learnt a lot about Nigeria. I came to understand more, not only the length and breadth of the wealth of Nigeria, in terms of the people and resources that the country is blessed with on a state-by-state basis. I came to understand the public sector and why some things work and why many things don’t. I came to understand the challenges that reformers in government face; I came to understand the difficulty of running a government agency.

But I also came to appreciate the presence of both good and evil. I think in that period, I came to understand a lot about human beings and I left with a deep appreciation of what is actually possible in Nigeria. On the one hand, I had a humbling experience of how difficult people can be if you do not conform to their expectations. But I also left with a clear belief that Project Nigeria is possible with the right alignment of people who are interested enough to want the best for Nigeria and are committed enough to do what it takes to make that Nigeria happen.

We don’t really have the luxury of time. Time is going and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) for instance has put us even under more pressure to get our act together quickly before other countries get ahead of what should be Nigeria’s “birth right” in the sense that Nigeria is close to that prize of benefitting the most from AfCFTA because it has disproportionate strength and advantage to be the winner in this new way of doing things.

Can you proudly say you left the NIPC better than you met it and what were the reforms you introduced?
Yes! I can say that I left the NIPC better than I met it without a shadow of doubt. And the records speak very clearly and loudly. In my career in the private sector, I worked for organisations that were strict about governance; that were very structured. But I also came because I have a background in the capital market, an environment that is dominated by rules of engagement. You have to work with the rules of engagement; the rules of engagement do not stop innovation but they mean that you have to make sure that whatever you are doing is in line with the rules.

The way that I like to think about it is that you first tick the box to make sure you are not breaking any rules. But ticking the box does not prevent you from thinking outside the box. And I brought all the skills that I had to the NIPC. My work in investment banking was selling Nigerian companies to domestic and international investors. You cannot sell a Nigerian company without first selling the country. I believe that the better governed a company is, the better it performs on a sustainable basis. The same is true of government agencies. So governance was important to me.

The kinds of things that I thought government agencies should be doing when I was in the private sector, I tried to hold and work to the same standard when I was working for the government. So accountability to the public in terms of financial performance, in terms of the work that we were doing; in terms of the results we achieved, in terms of the mandate of the NIPC. And the proudest proof that I left NIPC better than I met it is its Freedom of Information (FoI) ranking for government agencies that essentially measures compliance and accountability. When I joined in 2016, NIPC was ranked 90th out 121 agencies.

It moved to 75th in 2017 and was ranked 17th in 2018; in 2019 and 2020 it was ranked second but in 2021, it was ranked first out of 213 government agencies. When I arrived in November 2016, NIPC did not have audited accounts for the year 2014 but when I left in September 2021, the NIPC had published audited accounts for 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. This meant that all the backlog had been covered before I left. Government agencies that generate revenue have an obligation to remit to government the share of their revenues that is due to government. For a government agency that is listed on the schedule of the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA), you are expected to remit 80 per cent of your operating surplus. The NIPC had not been complying with that requirement on a disciplined basis. In my five years at NIPC, it first took a while for us to close the gap on the outstanding.

But once we closed the gap on the outstanding, the remittance was done on a quarterly basis in 2020 and 2021. Then, there were obligations that were stated in the laws, including the Industrial Development Income Relief Act (IDITRA), which created pioneer status incentive and the NIPC Act. The IDITRA had an annual reporting obligation that every year, the details of the companies that applied for pioneer status, those that you granted and those that were rejected were supposed to be published. Prior to 2016, the report had never been published. It was published every year in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. So NIPC’s obligation from a legal perspective to IDITRA, the FRA, and the NIPC Act were complied with on a disciplined basis.

Then on governance and accountability, there were administrative approvals that all government agencies need for their organisational structure, for the staffing structure and for allowances and the like. The NIPC had never gotten those approvals, but we secured them for the first time in 2021. So I left an organisation in my view that was much stronger than the one that I met. Even matters relating to staff welfare had a material improvement from the years before I joined to the year that I left. I challenge you to find another government agency with the quality of published financial, operational and legal reports like the NIPC.

The “Book of States” was launched during your tenure. What was it all about and how is it beneficial to the country?
To sell Nigeria or to sell any asset, you first need to properly understand what you are selling. To properly sell Nigeria, we needed to move beyond generalisations to selling Nigeria on a more specific basis. The Book of States helped us to capture the competitive advantages and investment opportunities in each of Nigeria’s 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) on a disciplined basis, on a state-by-state basis so that we can sell the states for what their particular strengths are rather than talking about Nigeria only in the general at all times. That project started with my first visit to Borno State in February 2017. This visit was what inspired the Book of States.

For most people, when they think about Borno State, they will think about the insurgency and may not know why an investor should be interested in Borno State. But there are many reasons why an investor should be interested in Borno State. It is the second-largest state in Nigeria and covers about 10 per cent of Nigeria’s land mass. It is a strategic location because it shares borders with Cameroun, Chad, Niger and four Nigerian states. So it is an important trade route to the countries it shares borders with. It is an excellent source of groundnuts, cattle, rice, maize and cowpeas. It has a dedicated gum Arabic belt and more than a million hectares in the state were reserved for livestock production.

For me the Book of States was the first step and an important step in properly selling Nigeria. So if you are engaging investors and you know the difference properly between Borno and Kano; between Lagos and Ekiti; between Anambra and Oyo, it will be easier for you to find targeted investors which I believe to be the ultimate goal of investment promotion. Targeted investment promotion to find the best investors for the particular investment opportunity that is most suited to their investment appetite. The book is not an end in itself but an important part of the bouquet of tools that are required for investment promotion in Nigeria.

Why has Nigeria not been able to utilise the special economic zones to promote investment in the country?
The special economic zones are under a different government agency. The Nigeria Export Processing Zones Authority (NEPZA) is the agency under which special economic zones fall and not NIPC. My knowledge of the NEPZA is tangential and not direct. It was not my responsibility.

Recently, the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry disclosed that Nigeria received $232.74 million FDI in the first half of 2021, what were the reasons for the drop in investor confidence in Nigeria, given the fact that this happened while you were at the NIPC?
First of all, investment flows have been declining globally since 2015. Investment flows in Nigeria have followed a similar trend although the decline in Nigeria has been more dramatic for several reasons. There is a need for a coherent alignment of all government policies relating to the investment landscape. There is a need for an all-government approach to promoting investments. It cannot be the work of a single government agency because none has the muscle to pull everybody together. But if we have an all-government approach with everybody moving in the same direction, we are more likely to be successful.

In the years that Nigeria recorded its highest investment flows, government had bold policies that stimulated investment flows; bold policies that drove changes in sectors and completely opened sectors. We saw it with telecoms; we saw it with the sale of downstream oil and gas assets and in banking.

Similarly-bold policies that are aimed at reforms that open up sectors will have the required ripple effects to stimulate investment flows. And of course we need to deal with the challenges of insecurity, which affect not only foreign investors but domestic investors. They affect the movement of people and can potentially restrict investment flows to one part of the country rather than distributing them in the more balanced way that Nigeria needs.

So how did you receive the news from a recent report by RMB titled, ‘Where to Invest in Africa 2021,” that Nigeria is no longer among the top ten investment destinations in Africa, considering the efforts you made at the NIPC?
That report is published on an annual basis. Nigeria left the league of the top 10 not in 2021 but a couple of years ago. So the list did not surprise me because it was a trend that we had seen coming.

So when did we leave the top 10 on the ranking?
I believe that it was in 2017 or 2018, but it was a few years ago. We need all policies to be aligned. Capital goes where it is courted and does not feel threatened. It goes where it is made comfortable and where it has a chance to grow without intimidation. The most senior people in government say the right things about attracting investors, but the actions of a lot of people who work for government generally send a different message to investors. Generally, investors do not listen to what policymakers say; they watch how policy makers behave, act and treat investors that are similar to them. These are the things that really give them the sense whether someone is serious about a policy or not.

And how will you assess Nigeria based on this?
A lot of policies that we have do not appear to be aligned. Our foreign currency policy does not appear to be fully aligned with our industrial development aspirations. Our policies relating to education, relating to inflow and outflow of goods and people all need to be fully aligned and to say to investors that we want you to come. Not that Nigeria is ready to business but that Nigeria is open for business. Investors even look at the judiciary and how we treat matters that are related to the rights people have.

What other steps should Nigeria take to create conditions that would make the country a favourable investment destination?
The first is that we need coherent government policies. We also need an all-government approach to investment promotion. It should not be the job of only one government agency no matter how large that agency is. And certainly NIPC is not fully skilled to do that job all by itself. The Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council that is tasked with the work of improving the business environment has an important job to do. We also need to look at the cost and competitiveness of doing business in the country. We need to show that we are willing to welcome investors and make them comfortable; that we will resolve their issues and will provide an environment conducive enough to their business to continue to grow.

There have been several calls that Nigeria should channel more of private capital for infrastructure development but the country has not been recording tangible success from that direction. What are the constraints?
The way infrastructure investments are targeted is differently from the way portfolio investments and direct investments are targeted. Infrastructure investments generally have a long gestation period. They take a long time to deliver; the returns come very slowly and they have transformational effects, especially impacts and socio-economic value. The manner in which we target infrastructure investments needs to reflect the nature of infrastructure investments. Investors need material confidence in the stability of the policies of government, given how long it will take for those investments to generate returns.

So the frequency and the suddenness of government’s policies change is a challenge. What I have found from my years of working with the government is that for every investor that desires growth and opportunities, there are few countries that are as robust and full of opportunities as Nigeria. That is the reality and I actually believe it. But there are many difficulties that have been placed in their way.

When will Nigeria translate its much-talked about potential to reality?
That is a function of leadership. But leadership is not about one person, rather it is about the totality of a people that are working towards a cause. And we need the civil service to actually work for Nigeria to achieve her full potential. Political appointees such as me and people who are elected into office have a fixed tenure in office, but the people who serve as the fabric of the institution of government need to be better equipped at understanding the value that Nigeria offers; they need to be better able at defending the long-term interest of Nigeria. They actually need to do what they are employed to do, which is public service for public good and public wealth creation rather than as we see in many instances a fair bit of self-service.

You have played in both the private and public sectors, can you share your experience from both sides and what do you think can be done to reform the civil service and make it a vehicle for efficiency in governance?
The public and the private sectors are very different and are like two different worlds that speak different languages. I have a lot of respect for what the public service should be. I spent a lot of time reading documents that were prepared for the Nigerian public service in terms of what it should be and what it should deliver. Public servants should be highly respected and should be very diligent. The quality of their work should humble others based on written documentation. They should be experts in administrative acumen.

The reality though is that many public servants are underpaid, undertrained, underexposed and underequipped. I met in my time at the NIPC a lot of public servants whose commitment to Nigeria and dedication to their work trump the best that you will find anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, they are in the minority. We need to have a culture that allows such people, not only to do their work but to grow the camps of such people.

What is your view on the country’s foreign exchange regime?
There needs to be better alignment between the foreign exchange policy and the industrial development aspirations of the country. In my view, I do not believe that they are well aligned. There is no country that develops without investment capital and investment capital comes in layers. The easiest first layer is portfolio investment: buying securities as short and midterm investments. The objective is to develop confidence in the system, in the country, that allows capital to come and go. The more comfortable investors are with their ability to come and go, the more likely that they will make longer term investments in that country and that is where direct investment comes in.

As they get more comfortable with their portfolios and the risk of the country, they are more likely to take even longer tenured risk and diversify their portfolios across different sectors and tenors. The more comfortable they get, the more the message reverberates about how well investors are doing, the more likely that message goes out to others that are interested in the same market and that is how you broaden the scope, universe and tenor of investment. They need to be able to bring in foreign exchange and take their money when they are ready to get that confidence. From a trade perspective, most foreign entities would enter a country by trading.

This is to establish that there is a market in the country for their products. No one will build a multi-billion dollar factory without first establishing that there is an interest in their products. If the market exists, then it will be easier for them to increasingly domesticate part of their value chain. The ability to bring in goods and take away profits at the beginning is a part of the development chain and breaking it has a lot of implications. The quality of education that is available in Nigeria and skilled people also affect investors’ interest as does the quality of life in the country. The forex policy needs to align with all these aspirations. If we take a short-term view in reacting to a particular problem today without considering the longer term implications, we may trigger unintended consequences; such that capital that should come in at portfolio level is not coming in at sufficient quantity or there is insufficient trade to support the totality of the investment aspiration.

One of the reasons for the country’s forex challenge was the absence of a trade policy. Presently, the country does not have a trade policy, what is your take on that?
The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment and the relevant agencies responsible for trade have been working on a modern trade policy for Nigeria. That work is still ongoing.

In your opinion, why do you think the Lagos port congestion remained a difficult challenge to resolve?
There are a lot of vested interests in government and outside of government. There are very few problems that are impossible to solve if you have the political will to do it and the right set of people to confront the vested interests. Those confronting the vested interests needed to be supported to ensure that they see the required policy reforms through. In my view, the port issue is a case of vested interests that hold the country to ransom at great material costs.

What were the reasons behind your investigation by several agencies of the government on fraud allegations?
Reform is generally not popular when people are used to doing things in a particular way. I came from a culture where work was a big deal. I came from a culture of accountability and one that drove for results. Many people are not comfortable operating under these conditions. I believe in meritocracy. The people who do the work should be rewarded for doing the work. And I guess that, that push for reform was not popular. Even demanding from the staff that every department must prepare a report of its activities on a quarterly basis so that it feeds into the publications that go out from the organisation was not very popular.

In my five years in NIPC, if you look at NIPC’s revenues from the last report that we published, which was for June 2021, from January 2016 to June 2021, the NIPC generated a total IGR of N11.9 billion. The payments that were made to the Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) of government in that period were N5.8 billon. Even though we were required by law to make those payments to the Consolidated Revenue Fund, I faced opposition in complying with that requirement. The opposition started internally from staff and was driven in many ways by some Governing Council members that came with their own interests. In fact, a Governing Council member was behind three court cases that were instituted against me.

One was to have me removed from office on allegations of corruption; the other two were instituted to frustrate NIPC from performing the functions for which it was mandated. There were two ways to deal with these allegations when they were made. One was to resort to the court of public opinion where people who are not fully informed make comments about matters they know nothing about. Then there are government agencies that have authority and power to investigate.

And in the course of my five years in NIPC, I was investigated by the Code of Conduct; the ICPC, the Accountant General of the Federation, the Auditor General of the Federation, the Department of State Services, the Bureau of Public Procurement, the Presidential Villa and the final one that blew into the public domain was the investigation by the EFCC – eight bodies investigating only me. The recent letter that the ICPC wrote should encourage others who have a reform mindset that you will get opposition; you will get a lot of attempts to distract you, but it is possible to live by your principles and to serve Nigeria.

What specifically, did they allege you did wrong?
The ICPC letter referred to a number of allegations but stated that the ICPC did not find any merit to the allegations that were made against me. The more important question is that some of these investigations went on for three years. There are people who made those allegations knowing they were false. What will happen to those people? If we are not careful, we will scare people who will want to work in Nigeria’s interest because of those who are used to the status quo? I mentioned the remittance of N5.8 billion to government. Managed differently, those funds would have grown legs and gone in different directions. There is nothing wrong with whistle blowing because not everyone is doing the right thing.

When these allegations were made, I had the option of “settling” so that the allegations and investigations would disappear. I chose the more difficult route of being investigated because I thought that it was the easiest way to defend my integrity. If you are a professional and the only thing you have is your integrity, then you will not mind having that allegation investigated, otherwise there will always be a comma.

In the five years of promoting and coordinating investments in Nigeria, according to you, you’ve had to respond to different petitions, what made this last one different?
My tenure ended on September 24, 2021. For me the cost of working for the government: the emotional cost, the financial cost, the spiritual cost and the intellectual cost were too high and I could not have afforded a second term. So I had indicated very early on that I was not inclined towards a second term. But there were people who could not take the pain of my style of accountability for another five years and wanted to ensure that I was not considered for a second term. So making a public show of what they knew were false accusations was an attempt at discouraging me for another term and discouraging the appointing authorities from considering me for another term.

Would you say the petition was sponsored by powers that be?
The petitions were not sponsored by the powers that be, they were sponsored by very selfish people with their own interests in mind. If the petitions were sponsored by powers that be, they would have had the powers to achieve the things they intended. But I am happy that the allegations were properly investigated.

You were accused of embarking on foreign trips without express approvals of the governing council of NIPC. What ordinarily, was the process?
The rules do not require the Governing Council of any government agency to approve trips undertaken by any chief executive. Even making that allegation demonstrated the ignorance of those behind it. The trips undertaken by senior people in government have procedures for approval. For heads of government agencies, it is the supervising minister and the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF). And all the necessary approvals were sought for my trips.

Another allegation was that you used the commission’s fund to repair your personal car. How true is this?
As contained in the letter from the ICPC, none of the allegations was established.

On the allegation of receiving “illegal foreign leave allowance”, shouldn’t that be the norm when one travels out on an official assignment? Was there anything other than that?
What is paid on official assignment is estacode, so the allegation referred to something else. As I said, I think that we should respect the findings of those who did the proper investigations.

You were also accused of “fraudulent abuse of office; waste and mismanagement of public funds through incessant tours and travels within and outside Nigeria without adding value to the commission. Did you?
As I have said, there were lots of frivolous accusations aimed at distracting me. The ICPC did a thorough investigation. They asked for materials, they asked for evidence, they asked for payment vouchers, they asked for trips that I went on and what came from those trips. I think that it is unfair when allegations have been investigated and they were not established to be true to keep asking the person who was wrongly accused those questions. I think that it is important that we ask: if you made a false allegation knowing it to be false, what consequences should come to you to protect the next person from being distracted by false allegations? What should happen to the people that made the false allegations?

There need to be consequences for wasting the time and resources of government agencies on frivolous allegations. In many countries there are consequences for wasting public resources. We should not allow ‘professional petition writers’ to distract reformers. I was an Executive Director in a bank that I worked in for 21 years. I rose through the ranks from entry level and worked day by day to get there. From the remuneration perspective, the most senior directors in government get about N7.7 million per year; permanent secretaries and heads of parastatals earn N11 million per year.

It is unfair for someone to leave an established career to work for government and be distracted from doing the work they were appointed to do. Sometimes, I want to cry when I think about it. It was a very difficult job to do and a difficult system to work. You want to reform, you want to focus on work, but many stakeholders have their own agendas. I left a career and knew I planned to return to the private sector, so it was important that I managed my affairs in a way that reflected the person I am.

Will you accept to serve again if the government beckons on you?
My honest response is that I learnt a lot from that experience. If I did not go through the experience of being investigated by multiple government agencies and dealing with three court cases instituted by a sitting member of the Governing Council of NIPC, who is still a member of the governing council as I speak, who used information from his privileged position to make these accusations, if I had not gone through that experience, I would not have learnt as much as I have done.

There is a chemical process that glass goes through to make it stronger. It is called tempering by heating and cooling the glass. So I have been tempered in that sense. The second thing is that if I had not gone through that experience many people would have believed that I “settled” myself while working for government. Now there is proof of how I managed myself. The objective was to tarnish my reputation but as someone said, it achieved the opposite of burnishing my reputation.

The fact that I survived it, and that my head is held high, and we are having this conversation today, is an important message to pass to Nigerians. I see it as a vista of hope to show that it will be difficult but it is possible. I will be very circumspect to serve in the government again. The work of reformers is very tough and it is important that they have political support. This is not to allow them to abuse the system but to ensure that they are not distracted.

Would you attribute the fraud smear to the fact that you went into the job without bringing in your own loyalists and forming a team loyal to you at the NIPC? Also, would you advise anybody going into public service to adopt that style?

I am happy that you asked this question. I went in without anybody but I found a lot of people inside who were interested like me in serving Nigeria’s best interest, who worked with me to elevate NIPC’s reputation in other areas of reform. Nigeria is now regarded as an expert and thought leader on account of NIPC’s work. I would not have learnt as much as I did about the system if I did not work with the staff of NIPC. I think a blend is probably more appropriate. We need people from outside who bring fresh perspectives but they must work with those that are inside the system. When I realised that they use circular to set traps for people who do not know the rules, I started building a database of circulars to know the rules of engagement.

Today, I have a digital library of about 1,600 federal government circulars – from 1972 to 2021. Government communicates how it expects administrative matters to be handled and how public servants should conduct themselves in certain affairs. It will be difficult to comply if you do not know what these circulars say. I believe that you must first tick the box before you start thinking outside it. The rules do not stop you from innovating but you should not break the rules.

So have you any regrets going into public service?
No, because I accepted the assignment for spiritual reasons. I was on a pilgrimage when the appointment was announced in 2016. And I went back on the same pilgrimage in November 2021 to close the chapter. I don’t have any regrets but whether I will do it again is another matter. Was it beneficial? Yes, I learnt from it.

If given another opportunity to serve in the public sector, is there anything you would do differently?
Oh yes! There are. I came afterward to understand the civil service structure. Many organisations in the private sector talk about flattening the structure but the public service holds to its hierarchy. It is also important to go in with a small number of your team. If you work only with those you bring in, the changes you initiate will go with you. But if you work with the team you met, your reforms can continue after your tenure, but will happen slowly.

Done with NIPC, what’s next for you?
I have no political ambition but I feel strongly about Nigeria’s development and will be happy to support the country’s development any way I can. I am a private sector person and I will return to the private sector after I complete my extended holiday.

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