In a bid to learn what makes Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu tick, Baba Chenzira went to meet him.
Orji Uzor Kalu is a colourful and somewhat controversial figure in Nigerian political circles. But trying to find a political figure in the West African country who is not controversial is almost an impossible task! So, there did not seem to be any reason not to hear what the man had to say on a number of issues that face Nigeria today.
We began our conversation with a little bit of background information. Kalu was born in 1960 in Aba, to a family of traders. He did well enough at school to get into Maiduguri University, where he entered the world of student politics, becoming the student union president.
It was in this role, as a student union leader, that first came face-to-face with institutional injustice, and the way he tells it, that was a formative experience that influences his thinking to this day.
It seems that the university authorities attempted to impose restrictions on male students visiting the halls of residence of female students. Infuriated by this heavy-handed imposition, arguing that Abia State did not follow Sharia law and they were responsible adults, the students demonstrated.
As many demonstrations are liable to do, things got ugly when the authorities attempted to break up the gathering. In response, the students went on a rampage, burning down some university property. Kalu had argued the students not to resort to violence and destruction, but they had not heeded his warnings.
The upshot was that the university set up an enquiry, and 14 students were suspended – 10 later expelled – including Kalu as a student leader. The authorities subsequently rescinded his expulsion, but Kalu declined to return to the campus unless all the other students that had been expelled were also pardoned.
What made his decision especially self-less was that he had just a matter of five days to continue his studies, to sit two more papers and hopefully graduate. But he stuck to his guns, finally leaving the university to attend Aba Business School, and then leave his country for the US and Harvard Business School.
By this time he had also entered the world of business, making some forays into the volatile world of Nigeria’s oil and gas market, and successfully establishing the foundations for what would later become a massive business conglomerate, Slok Holdings. But he also made a decision to enter national politics. “After my education I started planning my life; in 1991 I went to the House of Representatives to be a member of the Federal parliament in Abuja. I was a member of the parliament for a couple of years before the military took over,” he recalls.
He was also to become a banker, chosen as the chairman of the Nigeria Cooperative and Commerce Bank, in fact the youngest ever chairman of a Nigerian bank.
When finally military rule ended in 1998, Kalu went back to Abia, his home state, to seek the mandate to be the State governor. “I was elected for the first time in 1999 to 2003 and in 2003 I asked for re-election and they re-elected me on the platform of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP),” he explains.
“Since then I have been at the forefront of asking for justice not only for people of Nigeria but people of Africa because I see Africa as one entity. I see inequality, corruption and injustice as being the factors that are impeding the continent’s development,” he adds.
Along the way, Kalu had formed his own political party, the Progressive People’s Alliance, but he has since returned to the PDP fold. “I came back to the PDP early this year,” he clarifies.
Meanwhile his business empire expanded rapidly. Slok Holdings operates Slok Air International, and has interests in banking, insurance, household goods, foodstuffs, and publishing. It spans the West Africa region, and is pan-continental and international in scope. Slok is also still in the oila and gas business, as well as operating the largest fleet of off-shore service vessels in Nigeria. But the vested interests that Nigeria is so famous for attempted to end his businesses and he was almost forced out of the country – for example, he had to relocate his airline and banking business to the Gambia. Nevertheless, Kalu insists that his company is prospering, despite the political interference of previous administrations. “We are one of the top 10 companies in Nigeria with assets of $4.2bn,” he states. “So we are a major player in the Nigerian economy,” he adds.
It seemed appropriate to steer the conversation towards Nigerian politics, and to begin with I asked Kalu about his opinion of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) that is laboriously making its way through the Nigerian legislature. I had thought that as an indigenous Nigerian oil and gas player, he might have welcomed the way that this piece of legislation will empower the local industry.
“My own opinion is different,” he told me. My opinion is that there should be a joint conference between the Federal president, the local industry and all the international majors.
“You cannot just puss a law that affects the oil majors like Shell, Total and Exxon Mobil … how can they be expected to invest money with so much uncertainty? Nigeria needs all the international investments it can attract, so for the PIB to be beneficial to Nigeria it must also treat the international oil companies in a fair and transparent manner.”
We next got to the matter of the crisis that is confronting Nigeria as it grapples with the terrorist threat of Boko Haram. It is here that Kalu is in strong disagreement with the current administration that appears determined to crush the movement.
Indeed, President Goodluck Jonathan has declared a State of Emergency in three states of north-east Nigeria and mobilised the military to flush out the insurgency.
Kalu doubts that this approach has any chance of succeeding, and is on record as offering his services as a mediator between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram.
“We must talk with Boko Haram,” he insists. But when asked what he would say to those that believe you must never negotiate with terrorists, he is adamant. “They are wrong,” he insists. “The Nigerian government must talk with the militants. They talked with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) so they should be able to talk with Boko Haram. You should be able to talk with kidnappers. You should be able to talk with everybody. We must stop the bloodshed and the terror even if this means offering some kind of amnesty to Boko Haram.”
Reports from Nigeria had mentioned that Kalu was chairing a new movement in the country, dubbed G37, a non-partisan grouping set up to seek solutions to Nigeria’s most pressing problems. But Kalu declined answering any questions on the G37 group until it had been formally agreed that he could make a statement on its behalf.
However, as he told the press regarding the setting up of M37: “The onus is on Nigerians to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps and redefine the country’s trajectory in order to entice and encourage much-needed investment from around the globe.”
It is clear the Orji Uzor Kalu can talk the talk, but the question many are asking is whether he can walk the walk. So we ended our conversation with the main telling New African about his presidential vision.
“I want to see a president in 2015 who will be able to address the harassment and intimidation of voters. I want to see a president who will be able to address the rights of the minorities. That is the kind of president I want to see.
“What Nigeria needs is a Nigerian president. They need a president that will not know whether he, or she, is Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa or any other ethnicity. They need a president who will have all their interests at heart.”