One of the most vocal and easily recognized voices in the social and political spaces in the Niger Delta region and especially in Rivers State is Mr Eugene Abels. He describes himself as a troublemaker and member of Chartered Institute of “Table Shakers” in the witty and pointed way that is characteristic of his writing.
Eugene Irefa Abels hails from two oil-producing communities of Bassambiri and Finima, both in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. He is a social commentator, environmental activist and has enjoyed a career spanning both the public and private sectors across Nigeria. Earlier this year, we met with Eugene Abels at the parking lot of the Port Harcourt Pleasure Park, as one of our features in “For the Love of Business.” We talk about a variety of issues ranging from his work, the business environment in the Niger Delta and his hopes for Nigeria.
Interviewer: Let’s talk about Eugene Labels. Who is Eugene Abels?
Eugene: Troublemaker. (Shrugs)
Eugene: And an ordinary Nigerian who desires that in his lifetime, things should begin to change for good, that people in Nigeria should go above subsistence existence, that the issues of house, food and clothes should not be the things we think about, that we begin to think about life beyond oil, we begin to think about artificial intelligence, we begin to think about 5G technology – what life is going to, where the world is going to. That’s who Eugene Abels is. I’m a natural table shaker. Chartered.
My name is Eugene Abels. I am a member of the Chartered Institute of Table Shakers, mixed with legitimate troublemakers. I am a stickler for Best Practice and for the respect of institutional processes. I am known for saying the things that are not popular these days – the truth. A couple of days back, the Supreme Court justices made a judgment concerning Imo State and most people in society are viewing it from a partisan perspective, either APC, PDP. PDP people are sad, APC people are happy. But for me, I’m viewing it from entirely – on the basis of merit – concerning the primary responsibility of the Supreme court which is the apex of justice, which is supposed to be an arbiter of justice, and I’m saying that what they just did in Imo State is an aberration, is an embarrassment. This is not a popular thing to say.
Growing up, as we are growing each phase of Life [came with] opportunities to serve. When you were in school you had dreams of where you wanted to be. When you come out of school reality begins to serve you grapes, so you’ll begin to adjust. I never knew out that I will start life as a procurement officer. I never knew that I would serve in Lagos State I never knew I would serve in the first public institution in Nigeria that had the first one billion Naira budget which was the Directorate of Food, Road and Rural Infrastructure. I never knew I would serve in all the local government in Lagos State. So, every assignment I’ve had in life, every experience I’ve had in life has prepared me for where I am today. When people hear me – and I’m a graduate of the University of Port Harcourt. We had the best teach us, and at the time which we went to school what we gained there formed the strength you see today in whatever I exhibit. Then professionally, the strength that you see in terms of analytical strength and courage to say the truth came from my experience in banking. And my ability to innovate is also based on my experience in banking. Because in banking, you’re asked to account for your time, you’re asked to budget for your business, you’re asked you generate the business and they will tell you that it is not your duty to identify problems, it’s your duty to provide Solutions. When you provide solutions people pay for them, that’s how we are trained in the bank. So naturally, we fit into the creative economy. Today it’s much easier with the advent of the internet. There so much information around, unlike those days when you need to struggle for information. I’ll give you an example; if you need to do a credit for purchasing of an aircraft you need to understand how they build the aircraft, what that company is who are the players there, who are the international players, who are the local players, what are the strengths before you begin to talk about the financials of it. If you need to finance a steel project, you need to discuss the Politics of Steel, that’s how we think in banking. [It] makes you become analytical and creative. It is easy for me to fit in anywhere and I can blend.
Interviewer: I’ve come across your work on YouTube for Extra Steps Initiative. What is the Extra Steps Initiative?
Well, Extra Steps Initiative naturally fitted my thing. Its an institutionalization of the things I do and a couple of friends who I like-minded came together and set it up and basically our job is to identify the gaps in the public space and a show that these gaps are filled particularly when it has to do with best practices so where individuals fail, particularly public office holders, [on] issues that have to do with abuse of children, child labour, abuse of women. Extra steps initiative comes in.
Now that name was coined because the average Nigerian, when something wrong happens says “leave am”. That “leave am” is what has brought us where we are. If you get on the train anyway it in the world nobody stops you. But don’t swipe your card and let them catch you. The five pounds you’re supposed to pay, you’ll pay two thousand pounds. They won’t say, “Leave am.” They won’t say leave am.
So we are the extra steps initiative. I run operations there and that is the institutional form of me speaking, where we say the things that are not popular – which is the truth, which is about equity, which is about justice.
Interviewer: Let’s talk about business. you’ve been in the business environment in this region for a while now. What would you say are the biggest achievements in the Niger Delta?
Eugene: In terms of business? I’ve not seen any form of innovation and I suppose that ideally naturally, we supposed to have pointed it… Well, taking it down the line after our forbears, after the first set of governors we had, like Spiff – King Diete Spiff – that set the initial groundwork. The likes of Okilo, the late governor Okilo who pioneered the things like a State providing the first Power station – independent power supply, which was built like in, 1981 is the one Bayelsa state is still using till today. And he was the one – was the first person – who insisted that radio stations, Frequency Modulated radio stations can be handled by states. Radio Rivers 2 was ruling the airwaves, from Port Harcourt to Bakassi to Enugu and down to Ondo, because we only had one in Nigeria and that was at 2 Mattis street. So those pioneering efforts were abandoned after a while. Now the only person – Rivers State through Dr Odili started the River State Sustainable Development Program which created a whole gamut of structure for Agriculture, but that has been jettisoned. The next person who has been trying to show some form of innovation is the Cross Rivers State governor, but there is no depth and content.
But in totality – in terms of – if we need to do a cost-benefit analysis, in terms of the amount of resources, human and institutional capital, that have come into the region we have not taken any step forward, we are just reacting because every month money comes into the system and people are no longer thinking. We are a backward region.
Interviewer: And, what would l you say you do for a living?
That’s the most embarrassing question to ask the average Nigerian because of where we have found ourselves. I’m in my 50’s and for every 10 of us you see, you see [that] we have fantastic degrees, qualifications, but there is something missing. We were made to believe because we are a carryover from the colonial economy – the nature of our educational system was meant to provide labour for the colonial system, which we are still running. So we were made to believe that once you graduated and got the certificates, the rest would be added unto you. But the current economic realities have shown that those in my generation, ninety-five per cent of us are unable to translate our certificates into meals on our table. So currently what we’ve been doing because of our unpreparedness for the decadence that has taken place, is that we are a jack of all trades. We do whatever that comes, we’re transactional-based. Whatever that is legitimate, that can bring business we do, and in the spirit of the creative economy, we tend to innovate, to create and provide services we will be paid for sometimes, in human capital, sometimes in cash. But we find a way to pay our bills. I don’t like titles, so whatever you want to call me, call me. In reality, my fundamentals are, I’ve been a banker for over two decades before I left. And I’ve been a procurement man, I’ve done merchant banking, I’ve done commercial banking, I’ve done the real sector – which you call manufacturing, I’ve also done public sector. Right now, people like toga’s, I don’t want to be called a member of civil society, the things I do is that I must impact my local environment. Then while doing that, I also do things based on my training which earn me income, some of them have to do with financial forensic services, the rest I will not say so that you won’t go and block it.
Interviewer: What’s that one thing you want to be fixed? Looking at Nigeria now.
Eugene: Leadership, competence in leadership.
Interviewer: Why leadership?
Eugene: Competence. If we have competent leadership. Competence naturally, will identify the problems and know that your problems are beyond today, you begin to plan. Like [when] Christmas is coming, and tensions were building up. We started making announcements to people. “Please do not even spend for Christmas, if you know that you have not set aside school fees which will be due in three weeks.” So, competence. A competent leadership will analyse the issue historically, identify our situation, come up with the solutions and try to mitigate against potential problems that will arise in the future. If you don’t do that, any level of leadership that does not do that will just keep living by the day. What we’re doing here, for me currently, I think its subsistence leadership. You come back, cut cakes, do this, do that, announce budget. [instead] you to sit down and review, do historical analysis, do a forensic of where you are, tell yourself the truth, begin to sit down with regions and think of things they can do.
What are your principles for success?
My principles are the truth, just say the truth and number two, expect the next person to fail you. I expect people to fail me. Because of that, I mentally make provisions for them so when they don’t [fail me] I commend them. When they do, I don’t feel disappointed because I have already prepared myself and mitigated against that failure.
I think this arose from the several heartbreaks I had from my girlfriends growing up. I suddenly came to realize what I used to call love – that love is a disciplined Way of Life. Love is Like a gas turbine. Like an aircraft engine, you don’t park it in the air. It’s one way, it’s disciplined and in my desire to love I give my partner everything and I forget that this person is a human being who has her own choices and distractions so whenever things go wrong I am completely devastated. So, the person gives back to you based on how he or she feels. In this instance girls – whoever was my girlfriend – and love does not expect a return because it’s a one-way street. In my dealing with human beings now I provide for them to fail me too, so because of that as a banker and mitigate against emotional risk. I mitigate against non-performance, so if I interrogate you in a conversation or a transaction. I try to identify your weaknesses and your strengths and I immediately point out the gaps, “Sir, look you have this weakness here and I expect you to do ABCD so that E and Z will not happen.” But if you go against it – because I have warned you – I will apply the sanctions because, by virtue of my training, we reward when it is due and we are not afraid to sanction irrespective of who is involved.