Arese Ugwu: My Rivers State chronicles…and the money lessons to take from it

A while ago, a group of us were privileged to take a private tour of the developments in Rivers state, hosted by the then Governor, Rotimi Amaechi. I wanted to share my experience but I thought it was best not to write about it until after the elections.  Plus una know say I like money so you know I had to throw some money lessons in there.

My love affair with politics ended in 1999, I thought Falae deserved to be President because he was a Yale graduate and we didn’t need to be recycling military rulers, in an era when we were all excited about democracy! My friend Isedua disagreed. She thought Obasanjo was the man, because he had experience.  She won. I lost! We were 16.I was too idealistic and my heart was broken! Let’s just say I haven’t been very political ever since, but the experience, certainly made me cynical.

So I’ll admit, as I embarked on my trip to Rivers state, I carried several biases.  The strongest of which was…Politicians are not to be trusted! Any good they claim to have done is only part of the propaganda! *insert uppity facial gestures * but my biases certainly weren’t going to stop me from taking advantage of a very unique experience. Let’s call a spade a spade, not many people would turn down the opportunity to get a private tour hosted by a governor. Plus I had questions! Rivers state benefitted from a substantial part of Nigeria’s oil revenue. So why had civil servants not been paid for several months? Why were there incessant complaints of bad roads and a general lack of infrastructure? What had all the oil revenue been spent on?

We visited an Olympic style stadium (it was really awesome, it could have been anywhere in the world), a primary school (he told us he had built 500 but only 300 were functional), a secondary school, a farm (a large scale facility that trained people who were interested in pursuing agriculture) and a primary health care center.

My first question was, what legacy do you think you’ll leave behind when your tenure as governor is up? What do you want the people of Rivers state to say about Rotimi Amaechi? He explained that his main objective was to alleviate poverty in the state and he felt the best way to tackle that was primarily through education, because giving people a better skill set meant they had access to better job opportunities. He also explained that developing other industries aside from oil would help to create more jobs. He gave the example of the Songhai farm built on 314 hectares of land that had the potential of exporting 6 million boxes of bananas annually. He said that empowering his people was paramount to him and he hoped that all his work would represent that.

As we drove around in that bus and I listened to him talk about the people of Rivers state and all the projects he was taking on simultaneously, my first money lesson hit me!

 The idea that any one entity has unlimited resources is a myth!

Whether you are Dangote, the richest man in Africa, Tajudeen who sells garri in the market or the governor of a state, your resources are finite! This means that, at some point, they finish, because no matter how much money we have; consumption can always rise to meet income.  Let me explain, we all assume that if we had more money all our problems would automatically go away but the fact is they don’t always go away, they just become more expensive problems.

The key lies in reshaping our perception of how we see money. Understanding that it is finite, so instead of constantly thinking if we had more, we would be more, we should be asking ourselves how to allocate our limited resources in a way that creates the most meaningful impact.

In Tajudeen’s case, if he goes from earning N50k a month to N1m a month, his spending activities would probably change, worrying about rent in Sango ota would change to worrying about rent in Lekki and the school fees he complained about when his children went to Fruit of the loom primary school wouldn’t seem bad, compared to what he was now paying at CIS. Lets say he also wants a new car for his wife; to build a house in the village and take the kids to Disney.  Although all valid expenses, something has to give. He has to determine what is most important to him in a specific timeframe, cut out everything else and spend a proportion of his income in a way that makes more money.

In the case of Rotimi Amaechi, revenue from oil seems infinite, especially when you consider the billions involved but the problems to be tackled are also expensive problems that include roads, civil servant salaries, education, power projects and unemployment.  Governments have to allocate their resources in a way that creates the most meaningful impact and improves the standard of living of its people. We can argue about the largess, corruption and excesses of the government but maybe Amaechi believed that tackling education and unemployment through schools and resuscitating the agricultural industry proffered a longer-term solution to the numerous problems the state faces.

Spend sustainably

One of the most impressive things I encountered on the private tour was the model secondary school. It was very similar to the secondary school I went to as a child, Igbinedion Education Centre and in some aspects a bit of an upgrade. The school had a capacity for 1000 students, an auditorium, a fully equipped library, state of the art, chemistry, physics and home economics labs and a primarily Indian teaching faculty.  There were boarding facilities, two students per room with an en-suite bathroom. In I.E.C we were four in a room with two communal bathrooms on each corridor.

According to the governor it was all free! This shocked me because I still remember my first term school fees in I.E.C, N55, 600. Yes I remember because back then that was a lot of money and a huge sacrifice for my family, so that figure was a reminder that I had to work really hard to deserve it.  The cost of attending a private school with similar facilities today would run in the hundreds of thousands per term.

The implication was not lost on me, the school represented what we would expect in an ideal world, that a child from a poor home automatically had access to the same education as the child from a wealthy home, if they studied hard and passed the exam.

The intention touched my soul but my admiration did not come without questions. How sustainable was this impact? A thousand students had been given a fantastic opportunity but how many less privileged students were there in Rivers state? Was it realistic to think that this model would be replicated? Given that historically, in Nigeria, most governors tend to scrap all the projects of their predecessors both good and bad, only to start from scratch. Eight years is not a lot of time to undo all the damage that has been created over a 40- year period. Which is why I believe that todays Lagos is the product of the succession planning Tinubu put in place. Tinubu and Fashola’s combined effort over a 16-year period of executing the same vision, is the impact we enjoy today but I digress. The money lesson here is that even when we are spending money on something that has positive externalities we must consider the sustainability of it.

Let me explain. The social good of Amaechi’s projects are undeniable but the capitalist in me believes that a modern government should establish more projects that create a social good but can also generate their own revenue, create jobs and pay for themselves in the long run, so we don’t end up with hollow monuments and hungry people.

In the case of the school or the stadium, it might be beneficial to engage both multinational corporations and local businesses in partnerships that help reduce the cost burden on the state and act as corporate social responsibility for the private entities. For example a group of businesses jointly undertaking to provide the daily meals for school or endowment funds for uniforms, books and sports equipment.

This money lesson also applies on an individual level. In my opinion, Africans are culturally generous givers, we believe giving makes us good people and sometimes, we even give to the detriment of ourselves, which is unsustainable for building long-term wealth.

For example, my hairstylist and good friend Laurent, who came to Nigeria from Togo to hustle and make money has gotten to a point where he’s made a name for himself and is making a decent income but every month he is broke. Why? Because a large proportion of his income is being sent back home in bits to solve one relative’s problem or the other. If this continues, in 20years what will he have to show for all his hard work? And will said relatives be able to support him if he lost his source of income.  I explained to him that a more sustainable way to give would be to set a budget for giving every month, a set amount he can afford to part with that would solve problems in a way that could ensure his relatives aren’t dependent on him forever and puts them in a position to help themselves in the future. i.e. money towards education or starting a business.

Expect the best…. But prepare for the worst!

We are often caught in a cycle of spending that does not prepare for scarcity. For example, if Femi gets a job that pays N20m per annum, he starts to spend and plan according to his new income but most likely doesn’t plan for unforeseen circumstances beyond his control that might reduce his income. We are all guilty of this but sometimes-bad things happen to good people, which is why I encourage everyone to have an emergency fund.

In the case of Rivers state, I saw a lot of ambitious projects going on at the same time, In fact unless my eyes were deceiving me, the man was attempting to build an alternative city, which I thought was awesome but some of these projects were incomplete. It occurred to me that many of these plans were made during a time of high crude oil prices, which were unlikely to last forever.

At this point, I asked how he felt about the incomplete projects and he admitted that he had to slow down and prioritize the projects that would empower his people the most in the long run. He said that the problems were complex and further complicated by the fact that Federal government owed him billions of naira. He used the example of a Federal government road; he had spent N30bn on and was yet to be refunded.

In my estimation, a combination of decreasing oil prices, devaluation and his very public dispute with the president may have hampered some of the progress of the projects. However, like individuals, governments must put strategic plans in place that prepare for emergencies and worst case scenarios in order to achieve sustainable development.

Although I can only speak to what I saw on the Private tour, my limited understanding and perhaps naïve perspective of Nigerian politics, in my opinion, Rotimi Amaechi left Rivers state better than he met it and isn’t that what we need in this country? More people who leave a place better than they met it?


Ayo Animashaun, Gov Rotimi Amaechi, Adebola Williams

ClassroomsCompoundComputer labGov Rotimi Amaechi interacting with a family who visited the health care centreGov Rotimi Amaechi showing guest the Home Economics lab in one of the training centresGov Rotimi Amaechi showing his guests around 2Gov Rotimi AmaechiGuest at the state officeHome Economics lab


This post originally appeared on Smart Money Africa

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