Chief Alaba Lawson is the immediate past President of the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture. The first female to occupy that position, the 68-year-old tells ERIC DUMO how Nigeria can revive its ailing economy
You are the immediate past President of the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture; from that experience, how would you describe the Nigerian economy?
Well, the Nigerian economy has been up and down, trying to find its balance and improve. We need to do a lot to bring the economy back to shape and grow our Gross Domestic Product.
In what ways do you think we can improve the economy?
There are so many things we have to look into. One of them is to find out where we got it wrong as a nation. We need to look into improving electricity supply. If we can get the power problem solved and all the manufacturing areas of the economy become buoyant, we’ll have more people at work. That way, we’ll be able to absorb many of our young people roaming the streets.
Another area we need to look into is technical education so that focus would not only be on white-collar jobs. If people have technical education, they’ll be able to use the skills to create jobs for themselves. So, these are areas that we can look into for now while still looking for other ways we can remedy the economy and country as a whole. It is a long-term process.
Talking about technical education, in what specific ways can we improve it?
We used to have technical colleges where the talents of everybody were developed; young people learnt all sorts of skills there, the kind of skills that are demanded in almost every home on a daily basis. Things have become so bad that these days, you have to go to neighbouring countries to get tilers and even bricklayers to do a good job for you. This is happening because our technical colleges are no longer functioning the way they used to function in the past.
We need to wake up and be focused. Our leaders need to be focused. We must strive to leave good legacies behind.
In recent years, many businesses in Nigeria have collapsed. Beyond the issue of electricity, what other government policies do you think are responsible for this and how can we surmount the challenge?
Our problem is not about government policies, it is about the implementation of such. We lack the will to implement many of our policies. Of course there are some obsolete policies that have to be reviewed but those that are supposed to be working are not well implemented.
Many Nigerians in the Diaspora want to come home to invest; do you think our environment is conducive enough to welcome such at the moment?
Nigerians cannot stay away from their country and think that they can help from afar. There is a need for all of us to come together and resolve the issues affecting our country. As a person, I have never thought of leaving Nigeria. This is not for us alone but for future generations yet unborn. We have to lay our lives down for them so that they can have the Nigeria of their dreams.
You have run your school and other businesses for several decades, what have been the ups and downs of that experience?
There is nothing in life that doesn’t have its own ups and downs. But more than anything else, one has to be God-fearing to make progress in life. Only God can tailor our lives. As a Christian, I commit my ways every morning into the hands of God. I allow Him to lead me in everything I do.
Therefore, as a country, we must be God-fearing in all we do, even as individuals. We must also teach our children to know and serve God. It is only through this way that we can change the whole system of the country.
I encourage Nigerians in the Diaspora to come home and invest; however, we must improve in the area of the kind of news about our country that we put out for the world to see. The news shouldn’t be about all the negative things happening here. We should also project the good things.
Under your watch, what type of inroads did NACCIMA make in terms of promoting commerce, industry and the synergy among different trade groups in the country?
During my two-year tenure, we did a lot. We created the NACCIMA Youth Entrepreneurs. They are doing extremely well and projecting the image of the country positively. This has also contributed to creating employment.
We have organised a lot of capacity building workshops that have contributed positively towards societal development. The empowerment of youths was one of the biggest things God used me to do while heading NACCIMA. Under my watch, we had the opportunity to sign a lot of memorandums of understanding with some international chambers of commerce. Some of them are here in Nigeria now, resuscitating abandoned factories.
What would you say was the toughest decision you made as President of NACCIMA?
Well, there were so many but my focus was to restore the voice and lost glory of NACCIMA.
When I took over the leadership of the organisation, the secretariat was not in a proper shape. A secretariat that is saddled with the responsibility of interacting with various regional chambers of commerce is supposed to be in a great shape to live up to that expectation. I thank God I left a good legacy in this regard.
So, the first tough decision was to reorganise the secretariat. Though some people felt they were being witch-hunted but to make NACCIMA work the way I wanted, there was the need to step on some toes. To do that took a lot of courage. I made my mark and it was a great experience for me.
Would you say you earned more friends or enemies by stepping on toes during your time as President of NACCIMA?
As a leader, if you are required to have many enemies to get the job done, then you have to do so. When I want a job done, I don’t care who gets offended. As far as the job is to serve a good cause, I really don’t care. As a leader, you must have focus and not give room for distractions.
If you had the chance to go back to that same position, what are the things that you’d have done differently?
I have no regrets in my life. Once I’ve done something, it is done. As long as it is for the benefit of the generality of the people and not me alone, I am okay.
Being the first female President of NACCIMA, what sort of support did you receive from the men?
I enjoyed a lot of support from the men. But the few men who opposed me, just looking at them, you’d know they don’t get along well with their wives at home. I really got along well with those who wanted the progress of the association. When I left that position, I had to, in fact, give some presents to some of those people to appreciate all the support they gave me.
You must have felt fulfilled being the first female president of the association, what was the feeling like on the day you took over the saddle of leadership?
I felt great. In fact, if you saw me on the day I was handing over to my successor who is also a woman, you’d understand the joy I still feel for that amazing opportunity. It is a huge fulfilment for me.
You have been at the forefront of educational development in this country, in what ways do you think we can improve the standard of learning?
When you put round pegs in round holes, things will work well. Our government needs to carry the stakeholders in the education sector along. We need to look within and find out where we got it wrong. Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
We need to change the way we treat education as a society. We must pay serious attention to the things that would improve the quality of our education. We need to look at the quality of the teachers. If we allow people with no discipline and moral strength to impart knowledge and positive values to our children, they will do more harm than good. We must instil morals and etiquette in our children for them to be academically sound.
It is worrisome that today we have graduates of tertiary institutions that cannot even spell their names correctly. We have to start from the cradle to address this problem. Parents must also not leave all the work for the teachers to do. They must take interest in the progress their children are making in their academic work.
The future of any child in education is like building a house. If the foundation is very poor, you can’t build on it but if it is solid, then you can continue to construct on it and make progress. God created us to be talented in different ways. If a child has talents at drawing, such a child should be encouraged to become an artist instead of parents paying people to take exams on behalf of their children that are not academically inclined.
At 68, where do you still find the energy to oversee your several businesses?
That is a secret between me and God. The secret is the fear of God. When you fear God, He bestows wisdom on you. I help my community and the people that come my way in the little ways I can. I feel at ease, I sleep well. I eat a lot of vegetables and this helps me stay healthy.
Do you ever find the time to do some exercise?
Yes, I do that three times a week. I have a physiotherapist that comes in and we go jogging. I do gymnastics too. I do a lot of gardening because it helps to keep me busy and fit. I cannot stay in a dirty environment. As a matter of fact, gardening is my hobby.
How do you relax?
I do so by listening to Christian music. Even while in the car, I listen to this type of music a lot to feel good.
Despite your age, you are still a stylish dresser, do you have a personal stylist or you dress yourself?
Nobody can style me. I dress myself. I dress to please myself and not anyone else. These days, I dress in Adire most of the time. I also wear a lot of other local fabrics too. It makes me happy and it pleases my God. I dress to please my creator and not any human being.
Are you training any of your children to take after you?
Two of my children run the school with me. I have six men that God has given me as treasure.
How does it feel at times finding yourself among these men?
I have become a man myself by virtue of being in their midst. I am now a proud grandmother of eight granddaughters and six grandsons.
Don’t you sometimes wish you had a female child that could discuss fashion and some other things with you?
I don’t feel that way because my daughters-in-laws are my children as well.
Do you still find the time to go on vacation?
Yes, I do. Sometimes I go across the border at Benin Republic and sometimes I go to Jos in Plateau State but because of the security situation in that region, I have not been able to go there for some time.
Even when I visit Abuja, I curtail myself to the places where I need to be alone because of the security situation.
What are some of the major lessons that you will say life has taught you at 68?
The challenges of life have taught me to rely only on God. The promises of humans don’t hold water. When you decide to remain quiet, people sometimes think that you are a fool. But I prefer not to talk too much so as not to give them the chance to reach unnecessary conclusions.
What would you like to be remembered the most for when you are no longer in this world?
I would love to be remembered for being a promoter of quality education. Seeing those that have passed through my tutelage making huge progress in life gives me a lot of joy. It will give me so much happiness to be remembered for my intervention in education. Even though I am fulfilled in life today, any area God wants me to go, I am prepared and He’ll surely lead me. I am contented with what He has made out of my life so far. I hand over everything to Him at every point for Him to take control.