Leo Cendrowicz, Brussels correspondent for TIME magazine
Orji Uzor Kalu’s pitch as peace broker could yet propel him to Nigeria’s presidency. However, the former state governor will struggle to be heard above the chaos consuming the country
Nigeria is Africa’s eternal prospect. Twice as populous as any other African country, it is an emerging economy with fantastic oil and gas reserves. It has natural resources as varied as cocoa, uranium and rubber, as well as skilled, low cost labour. But much of this remains mere potential. Conflict and corruption have cut into the country’s core, draining its credibility in the eyes of outsiders. Businesses are reluctant to invest, and western governments advise against travel to Nigeria.
Orji Uzor Kalu, a former governor of the tiny Abia state, admits that Nigeria today is a turn-off. Bombings and killings by Boko Haram, the extremist Islamist movement, have claimed the lives of perhaps 10,000 people over the past decade, undermining stability. And the corruption that seeps through both business and politics has engendered a cynicism that further saps entrepreneurship and creativity.
Yet Kalu says the answer is simple if Nigeria’s leaders show enough courage. For starters, that means talking to Boko Haram under the umbrella of an amnesty. “You have two choices. Either you fight them in a head-on collision or you sit down with them,” he says. “My suggestion is that there should be round table discussion with the terrorists. They can do it through NGOs, through the federal government, however they like. But people are dying. Nigeria is in civil war.”
This is risky, and Kalu knows it. If the government is seen as rewarding terrorism, it could damage its authority. But Kalu says the situation has become so precarious that it would be riskier still to ignore talks. “The monster has woken up from its slumber, and it seems our leaders have gone to sleep. Nobody is talking or doing something concrete to stop the carnage.”
Kalu’s peace initiative is just one facet of his thrusting drive to raise his profile as he lays the foundations for a potential presidential bid in 2015. He has spent much of this year in Europe, meeting top officials, connecting with the Nigerian diaspora, and managing his extensive business interests. Having shared a London platform in February with Labour leader Ed Miliband – who described Kalu as “a tested and trusted politician and leader – he has returned regularly to the capital, and was the keynote speaker at a meeting of key British-Nigerians at the House of Commons last week. This week, he is in Frankfurt for Africa Business Week 2013.
In Nigeria, he has teamed up with 200 political heavyweights to form a new political group known as G-37, and at the same time he champions Njiko Igbo, which represents the minority Igbo community which he belongs to. Indeed, in his House of Commons speech, Kalu played heavily on the Igbo history of misery, from “the hellfire that was black African slavery” and dozens of massacres since 1945, via the Biafran War of 1967-1970. He quotes a 1969 Henry Kissinger memo stating that, “The Igbos are the wandering Jews of West Africa.”
Kalu first came to prominence as head of the Cooperative and Commerce Bank Limited, aged just 27, but his current business empire is a sprawling conglomerate covering airlines, publishing, and shipping. He is also the owner of Enyimba, an Aba-based football club (whose name means People’s Elephant in Igbo) that has won Nigerian Premier League six times in eight years as well as twice clinching the African Champions League.
Kalu is not universally acclaimed in Nigeria. He needs to polish his campaign rhetoric: his heavy emphasis on Igbo rights leaves him open to accusations of sectarianism. His successor as Abia State governor, Theodore Orji, has lambasted Kalu for leaving what he says is a legacy of rot, while the country’s anti-graft agency has launched a court case accusing him of stealing Abia state funds while in office. And as for his peace gesture, it is hard to see what accommodation could be reached with Boko Haram.
Nigeria sits atop some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world, yet most citizens have benefited little from the revenue, and corruption has eaten away at the wider economy. Fundamental infrastructure needs continue to go unfulfilled, especially roads, factories, schools and hospitals. Some 60% of Nigerians still live below the poverty line, while crime is a risk throughout the country, from assaults and burglaries to kidnappings and extortion. Elizabeth Donnelly, who manages Chatham House’s Africa Programme, says Nigeria’s mix of concerns also includes prospects for reform, human security and poverty. “Nigeria’s roads are still more dangerous than Boko Haram,” she says.
Kalu agrees, but says he is undeterred. “Yes, corruption is endemic. It is as bad as it has ever been. But it could change,” he says. “Oil money should be money for investment. Can you believe that Nigeria cannot refine its own oil? Our country is selling 2.5 million barrels of oil a day, but cannot have good infrastructure, universities, cannot make tomato paste or grow rice. That has to change.” Whether it will, and whether he will be the man to lead it is another matter.