By Eric Elezuo
Talent and target delivery are not rocket science, and so has Afolabi Imoukhuede, proved. A proud son of a distinguished father, he believes that his status today is a consequence of choices and decisions hinged on character and culture. In this exclusive chat, he reveals the intricacies of being an aide of the president, the arithmetics of job and wealth creation and of course, the beauty behind his latest bestseller, Never An Afterthought. Excerpts:
Can we know you sir?
My name is Afolabi Sokpehi Imoukhuede; my new book has revealed the Sokpehi part as I am popularly known as Afolabi Imoukhuede. I am the Senior Special Assistant to The president on Job Creation. I am just a public servant.
Becoming a public servant, and especially the SSA to the President, is no fluke. There would have been a background. How did it all happen as you didn’t jump to the position?
I clearly did not. Well, everything about me is clearly documented in my new memoir, released on June 20, 2020, with the title Never An Afterthought. My background started with my family, late Chief Joseph Imoukhuede, of Sabongida Ora, Onwa West, Edo State, who was the Secretary and Head of the Civil Service to the government of the Midwest Region when late Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the Premier, and my mother, Mrs Olubunmi Olayinka Imoukhuede, who incidentally just passed away. It may interest you to know that this is where I got my name, Afolabi. While there are many from my area who have natural Yoruba names, mine was actually borne out of the fact that my mother was full blooded Yoruba person, Ijebu decent to be precise. I am the last child from both parents.
I had my secondary education at the Federal Government College, Warri before moving to the United States to study Accounting at the Rutgers University, New Jersey. From there, I started experimenting on professionalism with one of the world’s best accounting firm, KPMG. And in 2005, I finally moved back to Nigeria, to the surprise of most people I know. At the time of my moving back, I had done a lot of international development engagement with the World Bank Group, African Project Development Facility, GIZ and some African development organisations. All these are recorded in my book. My experience spanned through business management as an Accountant, and secondly international development by virtue of the volume of work I have done, and again as an entrepreneur because my engagement when I returned to Nigeria was with a company which I set up with a few of my friends called the MCS Consulting Limited, so yes as an entrepreneur as well as product, which is also a major skill that encompasses a lot of work that I have done. I also navigated into human capital development, specifically on how to develop human skill in technical development area and create entrepreneurship job and many others. That’s exactly what landed me into the role in government as the Senior Special Assistant to The President on Job creation and Youth employment.
Quite an impressive resume. In five years as the SSA to the president, that’s since 2015 if I’m correct, what could you say is the highpoint of your tenure?
The first thing is to create a content from the background of the tenure in itself, and of course, I quite expose that in the book where I even explained the concept of President Muhammadu Buhari’s ascendency to the presidency. Of course, the 2015 election itself was well heated because it displaced an incumbent. As the new administration took office in May 2015, the economy jumped into recession, and every campaign promises were supposed to be fulfilled. President himself was not unaware that the younger who voted for change, was actually clamouring for the change in terms of job creation and employment. It would noted that the generation of youths then know of only one democracy and that was the PDP unlike most of us who were privileged to witness though as very young people, Shehu Shagari and his NPN, Nnamdi Azikiwe and his NPP, Obafemi Awolowo and his UPN and even MKO Abiola and his SDP. That was the only democracy change the youths of the day were exposed to, and one could understand their excitement and expectation. The president, then as a candidate had promised that he would fight insecurity, corruption and create economy that works for all, and the young people were looking for excitement. So coming into government, and meeting so many maladies such as recession, unrest in the Niger Delta and more. There is a whole lot of priority mix, and I was thrown right into the centre. But when I picked up my appointment letter in october, 2015, I set to work. The question therefore, was how do I do so much with so little coming in, and within a short time. So what I did was to put on my thinking cap, and for the fact that I was coming from a private which is known for pragmatism, I inculcated it into the government idealism. I started with putting up a strategy document, and again my experience, friendship and partnership with the international community and development world proved helpful. I tapped into my connection with UK DFID, Ford Foundation and gained their support. We started with questions such as which sectors of the economy can we find potentials or huge entrepreneurship employment opportunities and which particular sub-section are we going to do something to show quick and early wins because we have a short time. You know our democracy demands our must go for a re-run in four years if he is still interested. Obviously, there must be tangible result in two and half years so that you have something to present as achievements during your reelection campaign. That was the pressure, but thankfully, with the pragmatism as portrayed in my book, Never An Afterthought, we were able to come up with a strategy document as early as March 2016, with global development advisers supporting in every ramification including finance.
We actually focused on about four sectors which include Agriculture (Agri-business), construction, Technology and Retail Trade. We also added Solar Renewable Energy right after because we saw we could create opportunities there also. That actually made it five priority sectors. That document predicted the strategic framework; Job Creation Implementation Strategic Framework. It predated as well the National Government Document which is the Economic Recovery Growth Plan (ERGP). It was though later embedded into the ERGP document. We set to work to see how to use those sectors to create employment opportunities for our young people bearing in mind the campaign promises of Mr President and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo that they were going to run an all inclusive government; a government for all. And that led to the implementation of the National Social Investment Programme (NSIP). And later N-Power, which is the job creation component comprising the conditional cash transfer to the poor in the community, government enterprising empowerment programme for artisans, traders and market women/men. It also has the national home grown and school feeding programmes. We then used our strategic document framework to create opportunities both within the social investment programme and outside for the young people. It is captured in full details in Never An Afterthought.
In the first term, we were able to create direct job opportunity or employability enhancement platform for over 500, 000 employed Nigerian youths. We focused on teaching, Agric, health, tax because it was in the midst of recession in trying to focus on the tax bracket. The then Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun really harped on this. On capacity building programme, we targeted a hundred thousand to be trained during the year, but we got 60, 000. About 50, 000 was trained in construction while 10, 000 was trained in technology. Lastly, we had the Tech Ovation Hubs; one in each of the geo-political regions of the country located in Akure, Enugu, Benin, Kaduna, Adamawa and Abuja. It created opportunities for a lot of youths who were interested in technology based innovative solutions. That’s my scorecard in brief. The detail is contained in Never An Afterthought.
Okay, now to the book; in the first place, why that name, Never An Afterthought
Ordinarily, the book is a memoir though a few reviewers have struggled between labeling it a memoir or a life manual. But yes, it is a memoir because it documents my life trajectory across many junctions. But what you find in each junctions is the power of choice, the consistency of character, culture and how both influenced my choice and decision making all across the junctions. The first was my choice to switch from Medicine to Business. I earlier mentioned that I went to America to study; well, it wasn’t just as easy as that. I was actually a student of Medicine in University of Lagos, went to MediLag, as a medical student MBBS. But I left in part two. The reasons are copiously documented in Never An Afterthought…
…Meaning you would have been a medical doctor?
Yes…a reviewer, Abimbola Idowu, said of me Afolabi (MBBS) would have been treating thousands of patients now, but Afolabi (HCS) is now helping thousands of young people find their paths in entrepreneurship, job creation and wealth creation.
Between both of them, which do you think is more prolific, the choice you made notwithstanding?
That’s actually the essence of the book. For me, the HCS is more prolific because that’s the reason I talked about consistency in character of choice in decision making. Medicine was actually was my father’s choice for me. He died in 1989. I nurtured the dream out of respect for him, but events took a different shape and I found my paths. I have documented those events. I discovered that I was first an entrepreneur before anything else. Even my foster father, an uncle, Mr Seyi Olusoga, also told me about some great medical doctors who transitioned to become great entrepreneurs. One of the such examples was the three great friends that started Eko Hospital; Eneli, Kuku and Obiora. It was even their initials that formed EKO. Though Eneli and Obiora are late, but Kuku is alive. I said to myself, if these men after completing medical studies and practiced for many years, yet abandoned the profession for entrepreneurship, for me I’m still on in part 2, and have all the time on my side. My mother also dissuaded me, asking me to face the certain instead of delving into the world of uncertainty. That was the kind of heat and pressure I was facing in my nuclear family when I decided to leave Medicine and travel to America to study Accounting in 1997. But I took the bold decision, and crossed over in December 1997, and the rest is history. I succeeded. That’s one decision point in the book. The second was the choice of university I was to attend; between the one that gave me full scholarship and the one that gave me partial scholarship. Anyone would think I will opt for the school that gave me full scholarship, but I did not. I went for Rutgers University. The third decision bordered on coming back to Nigeria, especially at a time when everybody was clamouring to go to United States. I decided to return home. It was a time the President, Olusegun Obasanjo was calling on Nigerians abroad to come home and help build the country. I want to say that I’m one of those that heeded the call. The funniest part was I was not living in America as a refugee; I was working with the world’s number one accounting firm, KPMG. Those mark the consistency in character and culture as it relates to choices that have influenced my decision making towards getting to where I am today. As a result, a lot of people have told that I needed to document these attributes for the benefit of the future. Note that there is no place that I shared my experience that I was not blessed with followership, and those asking for mentorship.
Obviously, I am not the only one with a beautiful story to tell, but the challenge is that they are never documented, especially in this part of the world. Now, my father’s story is worth studying as the youngest black person to be honoured with OBE, but it was not documented. So that is lost to those that should have benefited. These events, even as we were preparing for my father’s memorial, it dawned on me that I have to document my own experience so that it doesn’t get lost too. So when one considers the foregoing vis a vis the rigours we went through before getting to where we are, you then realise that there was no part of my story that was an afterthought. Even the accidental parts form part of a well curated story.
It may also interest you to note that even the title was not the originally intended title, not even the pose on the cover. However, for the exclusivity of this interview, I will tell you that the original title or working title is A Driver and His Bus. That gave me the inspiration that book was going to be a memoir. To answer the question; who owns the bus, and who is the driver? My father becomes the owner of the bus, and that makes me compulsive to go into family background and tell his story in Chapter Three. Then the bus. This speaks about the government and my work in government. That was the content upon which the manuscript was being developed.
The title came when a third eye came across it when the manuscript got to my publisher, a classmate of mine from Federal Government College, Warri, Dr Egusa (another medical doctor who transitioned to entrepreneurship). He just looked at at said, ‘put NEVER AN AFTERTHOUGHT on it. When it got to me, I found myself in it, and stamped it as the title.
Now, the picture pose is a generational pose. That’s my father’s pose, and all of us, the children adopted the pose.
If you look at the foreword as written by the Minister of Works and Housing and former Governor of Lagos, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, he made references to the ‘bus’.
Fashola in the same foreword, said the book is for the future, when we are no longer there. Could you please elaborate on what he actually meant?
If you know Fashola very well, he is a thinker, a philosopher and many things in one, and I couldn’t think of any other person to do my foreword. I am honoured he accepted. What he said simply denotes my stand on the conundrum between the fact that the book is a memoir and a life manual. He means that the book is dateless unlike newspapers and other publications. The present generation will get the importance of the book, and so will the coming generation. The book will tell the story of job creation even when this present generation is no longer here. He vetted through the content of the manuscript, and realised that the book is as important now as it is tomorrow. He talked about a new Nigeria that all of us desire. He made it clear that poverty is man-made, and cannot be defeated without conceited efforts of men. He stated also that when you launch out in an ambitious programme as Social Investment Programme, a systematic response to combating poverty through wealth creation, you begin to realise that you can only compare it to free education policy of Pa Awolowo in his days and the National Housing Programme of UK. That no longer how it is criticised, it cannot die. That is the future he meant.
Can you please itemise in clear terms the jobs you have created so far in your capacity as the SSA, and how far that they have created wealth for the people?
First, let me put out a disclaimer… in the context of Nigeria, we run a federation of three parts; federal, state and local governments. It is my personal dream that the development as a reflection of the change that all of us desire to see will begin to come in a faster pace when our federation takes its true position. In every part of the world, the most contributor to development of human capital or indices is the local government. In America, it is the Mayor you hear about before the Governor or the President.
All these job creation, wealth creation, poverty eradication will really begin to happen when we have a functioning federation, when the local government are really empowered to be local governments, the closest government to the people. I mean everyone at the tier of government has a responsibility as posited in Chapter 15 of the book. We must build on that synergy to see the results we desire. Coming to specific numbers; one of the divergent views of people has been didn’t they promised 3 million jobs, where are they? Oh yes, there was a campaign promise of 3 million jobs, but what people didn’t know is that it was a calculation of multiple jobs across the multiple layers. At that time, the number was arrived at that government will create 20, 000 jobs across the states which should have 720, 000 jobs. There were also jobs to have been created from different sectors as the SIP creation of 500, 000 jobs. So it was a cumulation of jobs to be created by those multiple layers that make that 3 million. We always want to hold the federal responsible for the promise, but where is the contribution of the states to that number. Again, jobs are created as a result of the inter-function of the economy. If the economy is not expanding, jobs cannot expand. It is direct correlation. We started with an economy that went into recession, though it came out of recession, but it has not grown that much. We are still in very single digit. we are struggling to build, and now, COVID-19 pandemic has worsen the growth.
Another reason we never post high jobs is because of our population growth. Our population is growing exponentially faster than our economic growth. Countries that have got it right have one thing in common; they have a check on their population Take the Scandinavians for example. But our multiplicity of culture and religion have worked against any government idea around population growth. If population outgrows economy, we will continue to have this damning numbers of double digits of unemployment and underemployment. Those are the realities. Then I asked myself, in the midst of these realities, what should I do? So we came with the following 1. we must drive entrepreneurship at multiple levels. We did. But with all Federal Government efforts in training and all, there is no FG’s child; every child is a member of local government in the context of Nigeria. Take for example, those who were trained in automobile will then ask, how do you set me up? The truth remains that I can only set you up in partnership with your state. The FG cannot do that alone.
But don’t you as a Federal Government command a liaison with the state governments to set up these facilities to accommodate them?
That, I have stated in the book to show that the over 500, 000 direct beneficiaries of this programme had President Buhari as their local government officer. That were stationed in various local governments with supervisors, and paid directly from Abuja. For that, most LG staff have complained of the truancy and recalcitrant attitude of staff, saying they have no control over them as their pay is secured from the FG. But I tell them that they have power over them in recommending disciplinary action. It is a culture change, but also a clear vision. So in Chapter 15, I recommended that the pattern we have worked out need to be leverage upon and built on. In Chapter 12, I devoted it to heroes and sheroes of empower. From their stories, I can stay that I created opportunities to about 1.5 million. They also created opportunities from their own jobs. There is also the value chain we created through which jobs were created. Each one of our graduate beneficiaries got a tablet. This was an asset finance between Bank of Industry and the beneficiaries and we brought in eight device providers. Two of them being foreign; Samsung and Tecno while others were local content. We were looking for 200, 000 in batch one, and in batch 2; because of the transition between us and the newly created Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, the conversation is still on to get their devices to them. We were going to distribute the devices. We partnered with MTN because there is no part of this country that you won’t find an MTN SIM. So we told them that the same way your SIM got to everywhere, replicate it in making sure these devices get to the 774 local governments in Nigeria. They hired people when distributed them. The SIP model is a well thought out model.
While I know some of us may not be excited in terms of the number or the volume of jobs we can track, because of the context of our population and the number of people that are really unemployed, but we did was timely. It was not conceivable; people said it was not possible, it was ambitious for us and those who set it, but we went through the rigours, and we have shown that it can work. I recommended in Chapter 15 for administrators from the Federal to the local government levels to see how we can build on it.. Technology also helped us. We reached out to so many people with the little we had.
Brilliant! In a nut, what do we expect as you are already in your second tenure? How do you intend to better the success of your first tenure?
Firstly, I no longer oversight the N-Power programme. By the wisdom of Mr President, and the success of the programme, he decided to set up a new ministry, Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, which has control of the programme. The handover was concluded in May. The ministry is now in charge. However, my role as the SSA to the President on Job Creation continues, and the conversation continues using this book. I am still building conversation because the role of engaging our youths, building capacity and more, is not a one man thing nor political party thing. I align with fully Buhari’s job creation vision in the 2015 budget where he noted that ‘My job creation strategy is with private sector and public sector engagement”. I intend to use NEVER AN AFTERTHOUGHT to drive home a lot of the conversation towards this goal. I will continue in my facilitation and engagement roles at all tiers of government in driving continued opportunities for our young people particularly skills for relevant industries. A pot of focus is on construction, technology and solar. We have dealt deep into these sectors in the last four years even when it was N-Power. We will continue to drive engagements across these multi-channels.
What is your take on the programme initiated by the Minister of State for Labour and Productivity, Festus Keyamo, to provide jobs for about 774, 000 persons across the 774 local governments?
Well, I’ll say welcome to the club to Keyamo as regards the banters with the National Assembly; we had a lot of those banters. He requires stakeholders management skill in this situation as a recommendation. Secondly, in my Chapter 15, there is a message for the lawmakers. I see the lawmakers point of view as the people’s representatives and needs to be carried along, and I understand Keyamo as well, as a senior lawyer. I think Keyamo is pushing forward the meritocracy aspect, afraid that the project will end up in the pockets of loyalists. In our case, we moved with technology, but that alone may not work here because of the kinds of jobs. This is basically because these jobs are more communal, bringing us to the reality that it is more or less a local government job description. And so we ask ourselves again, how did it get to the level where it is the Federal Government that is thinking for the local governments. For those kind of jobs, one can’t just open a portal. This is different from N-Power because N-Power was an intervention for unemployed graduate-youths; a surgical intervention required to stop the something before dealing with the root cause. The reason for N-Power was for intervention in our population growth, economic growth and education. These are long term issues, so N-Power came in to bridge the gap, and is not meant to become the norm. Otherwise, it would have failed. It will stay for only a while, maybe 10-year-plan to correct our root cause problem. If it stays longer, it means the system has failed. It was brought in to intervene in a failing system.
They should work out a modality to handle the situation, but we shouldn’t really beg the question on how to empower the local government. They could liaison with the local government through their fora, and a definite modality is worked out. Again, both of them must answer the question of who is being served. Is it the people of Nigeria
Who and who can read this book, and where can they get it?
The book is for everyone, young and old. Just like Fashola has said, the book has spoken to the future represented by present old and young. It is catalogue in international library. I therefore, enjoin my friends, lovers, fans and all and sundry to support my book scholarship fund to fund the reprinting of multiple copies of the book so that every public library, public tertiary institution, public secondary schools etc should have copies.
We have a dedicated website for selling the book, www.neveranafterthought.com. The site is not informational, it is an e-commerce site. The site is safe, and one can buy on from there. Your copies will be delivered to you within 24 hours if you are in Lagos or Abuja, but elsewhere in Nigeria, within 2-7 days. We have sold over 250 copies, and there has been no complaints.
There are options for payments. It can be through cards or banks. There is also the option of bank transfer. Once concluded, you will get an order confirmation. And another sentimental reason you must buy through the site is because you will get a personalised thank you note from me. The book launch will come soon, and so will the book signing.
We are also in partnership with Roving Heights, a well known book store with offices in Lagos and Abuja. I commend my readers across the globe; those in Kenya, Canada, United States and more. For this category of readers, Amazon is it. Another advantage of buying from these dedicated sites is getting enrolled in our Book Readers Community and we do have hangouts. You will get updates on these hangouts. What I want to achieve with this book is about continued conversation; how to make our country better than it is now.
What is the cost of the book?
It’s just N5000 for the paper bag while the hardcopy is N10, 000 when it comes out in August.
Okay, let’s dig into your private life a little…how do you relax?
Excellent! First of all, I’m married to my beautiful wife, Oyindamola, and we have two beautiful children, Deborah and Emmanuel. We still forward to one or two more by the grace of God. We are very neatly small bonded family. My mum was an integral part of our life for 31 years, but she passed on on May 1. I am a fun man. There is a Chapter of the book called Verbatim where my brothers and all had the liberty to say whatever they wish to say about me. I work hard, but I also play hard. I straddle between the older generation and the young. I am an original Lagos Island boy, and belong to the Yoruba Tennis Club and Ikoyi Club. I hope to go back to golf which I abandoned sometime ago. I don’t have to go out to have fun; once I have 2-3 friends, we listen to music. I love Ebenezer Obey, Sunny Ade, Michael Jackson and music of the 80s. And so that the young ones don’t think we are out of stock, I’m conversant with new sounds be it Naira Marley or any other. But old school is the in time. And I love travelling a lot. The lockdown has really kept me away from traveling.
How do you love to be seen, fashion wise?
I’m very particular about my dressing because looking good is good business. I have my brand, and all my fashion credit goes to Vivid Imagination. I am always in my ‘traditional suit’. When some of my colleagues, they were surprised. Many known for my African suit, even at work. I’m trendy, but not loud though can be experimental. I am more in blue. It is my favourite colour. It is the easiest colour I could relate, to avoid colour riot.
But as I grew, I realised that blue actually represents stability, trust, trait of integrity and more. So I was more attracted to the colour. And co-incidentally, I support Chelsea because the are the Blues. But I don’t lose sleep about their performances.
One of your reviewers described you as loyal and honest, what can you say about that in line with giving a perfect description of yourself?
by the grace of God, I try to stay true to purpose, my God and self. In this book, I summed up my life principles as PIER; P for Passion, I for Integrity, E for Empathy and R for Resilience. Those are the principles that guided me to select and build my team, and I celebrated everyone of them in my book.
Who are your role models?
My parents are my key role models. It is so intense that in two chapters, I celebrated them. By the grace of god, I have journeyed through several mentors even from the spiritual perspective such as pastors, prophets, teachers and evangelists. No king has ever succeeded without having a prophet; they have guided me right. I don’t to start mentioning names so that I don’t leave out some. In the book, I referenced my egbon, Fashola (BRF), Godwin Mekwuye of Vivid Imagination, my two foster fathers; late Seye Olusoga, and my father’s late business partner, Eddy Yadua. There are so many who affected my life. In book authorship, there are Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, Nelson Mandela etc. In business, the CEO, General Electric, Jack Welch actually affected me among others. More importantly, I am a good student of the Bible, especially Proverbs. I grew up with a lot of the older generation, and they related to us in proverbs, so I have a good repository of Yoruba proverbs.
What are your likes and dislikes?
I really cherish the word candour according to what Jack Welch taught me. It means being frank and true to yourself. Candour must be involved in anything that navigates into lasting friendship, and everything else flows from it. I am also guided by the principle that believes in character, capacity, competence and chemistry.
In fact, he dislikes anyone that doesn’t possess any of the above, especially character; I hate stupidity. Here, we exhibit so much stupidity, and that explains why we are where we are. This is an environment where people live fake lives. Their dictum is ‘we keep faking it until we make it’. They are naturally empty barrels that make the most noise. The biggest of my dislikes is stupidity, which contributed in no small measure in eroding our value systems as a nation.