A lawyer and former member of the House of Representatives, Ned Nwoko, and his wife, Regina Daniels, tell FRIDAY OLOKOR about their careers, family and other issues
I met you and your family playing football and lawn tennis. Is this how you unwind with your family?
Every Sunday afternoon, we all come together and engage in different sports, including tennis, swimming and squash. We also visit the gymnasium. I believe there is no better way of getting one’s family together. Engaging in sports is very important for physical and mental well-being. In my family, it is part of our lifestyle.
Many successful people don’t have time for their families. How are you able to manage your schedule in a way that you spend adequate time with your family?
My family has always been my priority. Even if you speak to my older kids in London (United Kingdom), they would tell you the same thing.
You are involved in a lot of philanthropic activities. What inspired you in this regard?
It is my philosophy to provide for others as much as I can. Whenever I do that, I feel good and happy. Even as a kid, I usually gave to friends and people around me. It has always been part of my upbringing. Philanthropy has many characteristics. One must have a giving nature and must not like to see others suffer.
Is that what inspired the formation of the Prince Ned Nwoko Foundation?
I believe every foundation is borne out of the need to use whatever one has to provide for others, and mine is not different. Luckily, we have the ability to provide for others in areas such as education, environment, sports, culture and health.
You have embarked on the elimination of malaria in Africa. Do you really think that malaria can completely be wiped out from the continent?
If we can achieve what was done in Italy in 1937― which was total sanitation and fumigation of their country― we can do it. It just requires the efforts of the government and private. Mosquito is not like COVID-19 that is practically invincible. Right now, we are all wearing face masks and staying indoors in a bid to avoid contracting the coronavirus. If we put half of the efforts into the eradication of malaria, it would be done. Malaria is caused by mosquitoes that breed in dirty environments and the first thing to do is clean the gutters, streets and everywhere that is dirty.
Also, people should take up the responsibility of cleaning their environments. As long as we are able to stop mosquitoes from breeding, we would have gone a long way in stopping malaria.
What are the successes you may have recorded in the foundation?
We have done many things, including sponsoring over 1,000 students in various universities within and outside Nigeria. We have also hosted and promoted many sporting events.
You are an accomplished lawyer. What inspired you to study law?
I have always admired great men and women. I grew up wanting to emulate people such as Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, who were both lawyers. I later found that many great leaders around the world (such as Barack Obama (USA), Tony Blair (UK), Nana Akufo-Addo (Ghana) are lawyers. That is not to say other people are not great but I have always believed that with law, one would stand on a solid foundation.
Who are your role models?
When I came back to Nigeria in 1999, I went straight into politics and contested a seat in the National Assembly. However, I admire former President Olusegun Obasanjo. I was very close to him and I see him as a steadfast and strong leader. He was not sectional at all and he really inspired me. He may not be tolerant but he is much focused and has strength of character.
President Muhammad Buhari is also a role model because I see him as someone that cannot be corrupted. He is a disciplinarian that we are lucky to have, though he may not be as strong as he ought to be. Assuming he had this political power when he was younger, things would have been a lot different.
What were the highlights of your time in the House of Representatives?
Nigerian politics is very complicated and every moment that I was there was very important. I witnessed things that were different from what I saw abroad. Every day was exceptional in many ways― whether it was in the area of constitutional reforms, efforts to create states, or minimum wage. However, in Nigeria, we are yet to imbibe the culture of rule of law and order. There are still a lot of misnomers in the system. People are not prepared to lead by example, so there is still a problem of leadership and followership. The laws are not enforced properly or not at all. Nigerians are generally good people but because many people commit crimes and get away with it, a lot of others follow suit. There is a lot of lawlessness at every level because there is no deterrent. We are in a society where it is basically a matter of survival of the fittest. The system doesn’t protect or provide for the weak and that shouldn’t be the case because governance should cater for people at every level. There is still a lot to be done for the people and until we have a government that is focused on delivering on healthcare, housing and education for the masses.
You were part of those instrumental to exit of Nigeria from the London and Paris Club loans. Can you expatiate on your involvement?
Since 2005, I have been at the forefront of the campaign to exit Paris Club. The then-President Olusegun Obasanjo bought into the idea because we had overpaid and there were many questionable debts and projects that needed to be unravelled and stopped.
With the support of the Finance Minister at the time, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, we took the step to exit. But even at that point, the Federal Government’s figures were wrong, which meant that states and local governments were hugely indebted to loans that they didn’t take or that they had already paid off. And that was where my role became very important. How does one tell a state like Abia that had paid off its debts that it owed over $700m? It is either the records were deliberately not kept or they were intended to mislead people. Yet, their money was being used to service foreign debts.
Again, it was the listening ears of Obasanjo that made it possible to ensure the right things were done. He was the one that authorised my company along with the old Gongola state (now Adamawa and Taraba states) to be used as a test case with the support of the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Finance, Debt Management Office, Accountant-General’s office and Central Bank of Nigeria. Of course, they realised we were saying the right thing and with that, refunds became mandated. Many ministries sat with us almost on a daily basis for three months and came up with the same conclusion, so it was a big revelation.
It was actually during President Buhari’s administration that refunds were made to the various states and local governments. Though it was President Obasanjo that began the process of reconciliation, the actual refunds were made in President Buhari’s government. So, we must also acknowledge the fact that if they (Buhari’s administration) didn’t want it to happen, it wouldn’t have happened. They agreed to refund over $5bn to states and LGs.
It has been insinuated in some quarters that you got a fraction of the Abacha loot. What’s your response to that?
I was not engaged by anybody to work on Abacha’s loot. I was only involved with Paris Club, London Club and multilateral loans.
You are said to be the first Nigerian to visit the South Pole. Is that verifiable?
If anybody wants to verify, they should go to the place or go on the internet and do their research.
What were the major attractions for you in the South Pole (Antarctica)?
Antarctica is a different world. 80 per cent of the world’s fresh water is in Antarctica. However, it is not habitable. There are 12 research stations there owned by the United States, France, Britain, Russia, China, and other countries. They all have their flags there and Nigeria’s flag became the 13th when I hoisted it. If any Nigerian had been there before me, they would have hoisted our flag. However, as the scientists there told me, if we want our flag to remain there permanently, Nigeria must ratify the Antarctica treaty. There is a need for the National Assembly to take steps to ratify it and send it to the President for assent, so that at least, Nigeria can set up a research base there.
You got married to a popular actress, Regina Daniels. Why her?
Why not Regina? When I met her, I didn’t even know who she was because I don’t watch movies, whether British, Nigerian or American. Also, I am not a social media person. Up until that time, I didn’t have Facebook or Instagram accounts. So, I didn’t know about Regina until she came to my house with her family on a tour. My house in the village (Aniocha North Local Government Area, Delta State) is a tourist attraction of sorts.
I liked her when I saw her, especially when I found out that she was from that place. I had always wanted to have somebody (a wife) from my side. We were introduced to each other and one thing led to another. That was when I found out she is a very decent girl. I have always said that I wouldn’t marry anybody who isn’t a virgin and that is very important to me. When I found out that she was a virgin, it reinforced my decision to marry her. I married all my wives as virgins.
There were reports that her father opposed your marriage to her. Is that true?
When I met her, I didn’t meet her father and she never spoke about him. I was made to understand that she and her mother had been estranged from him since she (Regina) was six years old. However, I have always tried to make her understand that at some point, she should try to reach out to her father. I will also try to do that and I’m hopeful that we would succeed in no time.
Some people are scared of marrying actresses because they feel they are in the public eye. What convinced you to take that decision?
At her age and with her popularity, she was very decent and she is still the same. She is a homely person that loves being with her family life and she is not the party type.
Some Nigerians talked about the age disparity between both of you. Did that bother you?
Age doesn’t matter; it is only in one’s mind. As long as somebody is an adult, age is never an issue in anything I do.
You are set to establish STAR University, which is said to be the first exclusive sports university in Nigeria. Tell me more about it.
STAR is an acronym for Sports, Technology, Arts and Research Sciences. As the name implies, the university would offer conventional courses as well as sports.
This idea came about because of my education in the United Kingdom and my love for sports. While studying in the UK, I played football more than I actually studied. But unfortunately, none of those hours I played football counted towards my academic degree. I also found out that here in Nigeria, many university students don’t do sports though they want to. So, I felt if I could establish a university where students would be able to do sports alongside their academic work and the sports counts towards their degree, it would fill that gap that I missed while studying. If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, we were almost guaranteed of starting in September.
Will studying in the school be as expensive as other private universities in the country?
When the time comes, we would find a way to deal with it. We would make sure most of the students are on scholarships. We hope that most of them would be sponsored by their various state governments. However, the university is not only for Nigerians but other African students as well.
Sports development in Nigeria is not advanced as in other countries. What do you think is the way out?
That is what we are trying to do and it is the first foundation we would lay. If there are other people who can lay similar foundations in other areas such as Computer Science, Agriculture, Engineering, then we would have a Nigeria that is solidly built on ideas.
What is your long-term political ambition?
I am not into politics any more. I have no interest in politics for now. My interest is in malaria eradication; let’s deal with that for now.