Olorogun O’tega Emerhor is the Founder, Standard Alliance Group. In this interview, he talks about his life, business and foray into politics
What stirred your interest in politics?
When you operate in the public sector, you are confronted with different kinds of developmental issues, especially when you visit your home state. Then, you begin to feel that the competence you have developed can help your people. I think that is what happened to me. I realised that as a businessman, even though I could help, my capacity was limited. That is what happened to me in 2006 when I first aspired to become Delta State governor. At that time, James Ibori was rounding off his governorship tenure in Delta State and I behaved naively by joining the Peoples Democratic Party, thinking that my competence and capacity would be recognised.
In 2013, you contested and lost the Delta Central senatorial by-election in Delta State…
When the All Progressives Congress was coming together in 2013, Senator Pius Ewherido was one of those who worked to ensure that the party is well represented in Delta State. Unfortunately, he died and that was when I moved in to fill the vacancy created by his untimely demise.
When that didn’t work out, why did you go ahead to contest the governorship election in Delta State in 2015?
I did so because my senatorial bid did not work out and we knew why: The party was registered in June 2013 and we went for that election in October 2013. APC was relatively new and we were there to just organise things. The parties that came together didn’t have enough time to integrate, so we understood why the opposition was able to leverage on that even though there wasn’t really a proper election. They took advantage of the fact that we were still having integration problems to rig the election.
In 2015, the idea was to change the government in Delta State and we, the progressives in Delta State looked for an arrowhead to rescue the state from years of misrule.
Why did you contest the final outcome of the election?
Let me tell you this, there was no defeat. We hope that this country is going to get to a stage where elections are free, fair, and people are allowed to exercise their voting rights.Then it will be very evident who has been defeated and who has not. When you have a situation where it was very clear that no election took place and even where the election took place, the results didn’t matter and people just wrote figures because they were in control of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Police, security forces and they were able to ensure that what they cooked up was what was announced, then you are then told to go to court if you are not pleased with the outcome. That is what has been happening in Delta State and hopefully, that is what we are going to stop anytime now.
But the court upheld the election. Have you lost confidence in the judiciary as a result?
Take a look at what is coming out of the courts and the Supreme Court judges who are being tried. It is a terrible system that we have and we all must play a part to ensure elections are free and fair.
It is a pity for the country; it has nothing to do with the resources we put in. Some of us who go to court want to establish that this is not how things should be done and that we want a country where if elections are free and fair, I will go shake the hand of my opponent and congratulate him. It has nothing to do with the resources because before you contest any election, you are already aware that there can only be one winner. You do your best, put in your effort, put in your resources and you should know that whatever money you spend during an election, there are only two outcomes- you win or you lose.
Did you expect to win, bearing in mind that you flew the flag of a less popular party?
The truth is that PDP has never been popular in Delta State. PDP established what you call an oligarchy system of government all over the state, so what they do is feed all those oligarchies in a way that when its time for election, the electorates are completely ignored and they get their people to generate results for them. If you conduct a free and fair election in Delta State, the opposition will beat PDP hands down and they know it.
Is contesting for governor something you would like to do again?
We have not rescued the people of Delta from years of misrule. When we calculate what has come to the state in the past 17 years, we don’t see the evidence on ground, we don’t see the roads, we don’t see the industries and we don’t see the human development capital that it has increased. What we see is misery, bad roads, no jobs, and no payment of salaries. We see a few scattered rich people who have benefited from government and are building big houses. That is not what Delta state is looking for, so we can’t back down.
Judging from your experience in politics, what has changed about you?
The territory comes with a lot of frustration and it is very different from the business or corporate sector. I was a businessman before I became a politician.
Have you ceased to be a businessman?
As a politician, I have to rely more on other people to run my business. But when I was running business in the boardroom, I knew what to do. I mean you give out assignments; you trust the people and believe that they share the same vision with you. You set targets and get things done. Politics is a different thing entirely. Unlike in business, there is only one winner in politics, so it makes it very rough. When people see politics as a do-or-die affair, it gets really complicated. What it does to you is take you through a school where you learn how to deal with human beings and the people who you pay to work for you. At the end of the day if you don’t succeed, they still come back and say they worked for you and you have not compensated them enough. What that means is that even when you don’t win, you still have an army of supporters to look after, because they were hoping that when you win, you will be their source of sustenance. Even when you don’t win, they don’t go away and you don’t even want them to go away because possibly, there will be a next time since you have not achieved your mission of providing good governance.
What is your assessment of the Buhari-led government?
The truth is that Nigeria is passing through a hard time and I don’t think Mr. President anticipated the level of problems he inherited as president. You cannot discuss what is happening now without talking about what happened before APC took over. So, when you meet a bad situation and the world economy in terms of oil prices and exportation conspires against you, the result is what we are experiencing today.
We must also admit that certain things could have been addressed quicker because when every government comes into power, it takes time to study what it met on ground and it is cautious to ensure that proper policies are put in place. This is why a lot of things have yet to be done. Also, a lot has been done that is yet to manifest but will do as time goes on.
Would you rather we have professionals or politicians manage our affairs?
I will continue to use Lagos State as an example because there can be a balance between the two. One philosophy that has worked for the state is that in running the government, they have attempted to ensure that a technocrat handles that but as for politics itself, professional politicians play it better.If you put a professional politician in charge of running a government, he tends to feel that dispensing favours to buy goodwill is the sole reason for governance, whereas the sole reason for governance is to improve lives of the average citizens and that is best understood by a technocrat. To answer your question, both must show interest. What we have found out is that fewer technocrats have the courage jump into the fray and they have left the ground for professional politicians. So some of us who are technocrats and have gone into politics are endangered species because it takes time to understand the game. Also, you have to be extraordinarily strong to break into it.
Looking at all you have achieved, one is tempted to think you were born with a silver spoon?
That is not correct. I come from a lowly background and I was born in Evwreni, a village in Ughelli North Local Government Area of Delta State. My parents were peasant farmers but they had the consciousness to ensure that their children went to school. Education is an important element in one’s life because it opens your eyes to many possibilities.
I remember when I first came to Lagos and saw professionals, I told myself that this was where I wanted to be. Luckily, I did well in school; I graduated with a first class and it was easy to get a job.
Coming from a lowly background and with the financial constraints you must have experienced, how were you able to graduate with a first class?
Your background could affect you in terms of financial constraints but if you are brilliant, it does not matter whether there is money or not. I also think that children from a background like mine usually know that whatever opportunity given to them must be utilised properly. Sometimes, hardship strengthens and causes you to focus on the prize. At a very young age, I knew my parents were giving me a unique opportunity and I used it well.
Who were some of the people that inspired you?
After I graduated from the university and began working with PwC, I began to see people from my area that were already doing well in Lagos. There were people like the Ibru family, the late Gamaliel Onosode, and the Dafinones to name a few. These were people who were doing well in the business and corporate sectors. They were worth emulating.
Why did you choose to study accounting at the university?
I can’t recall why I chose to study accounting. Maybe the course just appealed to me. However, I am glad I did. I once worked with an accounting firm and that experience exposed me to many things and people because we used to travel all over the country to audit companies. It opened my eyes to several things because I met with managing directors in various sectors of the economy. Accountancy is the bedrock of any business and for an accountant to put all your transactions together, he or she needs to understand the thread of those transactions. We determine if a business is doing well or not and we show the way where necessary. Doing an accounting job which is also called financial control, can be likened to an entrepreneurial training. Once I became an accountant, I also trained to become a financial controller. I worked with GTBank and many other banks as a financial controller. Naturally, once I got to a certain level, I realised that I could become an entrepreneur because I knew the ingredients needed to do so successfully. That propelled me to set up my business.
Why did you make the switch from accounting to insurance by setting up Standard Alliance Insurance?
When I left the banking sector, I thought the next natural financial service I could get into was insurance because insurance and banking are partners in providing financial services. Abroad, most insurance companies are bigger than banks and they own the banks. This is because the funding that comes to insurance companies is usually more long-term than that which comes to banks. That drove my idea. Also, in 1996 when we started Standard Alliance Insurance Company, the capital requirement to start an insurance company was a lot less than that required to start a bank. Those were some of the determinants because when I was in banking, I was a worker and not an owner. We purchased a company called Jubilee Insurance, which we re-capitalised and renamed.
What were some of the challenges you faced starting Standard Alliance Insurance?
The environment then was a lot better because now, things are a bit rough. We started with little capital but the market was open. We knew what to do and got good people.I was ready to provide good management and I got investors who were knowledgeable and could help expand the business and we branded very well too. To run a good business, it is still the same formula anytime, any day.
How well has the business expanded over the years?
A lot has happened in Standard Alliance Group. Because of my decision to go into politics, I decided to bring in new investors to the insurance arm of the business. Right now, we have the insurance arm which is now completely separate from the other companies in the group. The insurance arm has two licences-life and non-life. Because it is a regulated business, I decided to pull back and bring in new investors as I was going into politics. We also have Standard Alliance Properties and Standard Alliance Assets and Capital Management.
What has assisted you to grow as an entrepreneur?
Once you get the initial ingredients right, you must allow people to be themselves. You should encourage them to take ownership of the business and not restrict the ownership to yourself. If you are running a one-man or a briefcase business, it is different but if you are running any business that is listed on the stock market and you are anticipating a public business, the thing is to have good management, engage competent people and become a marketer for the company because business in this environment is about networking. Integrity must be part of business because when you are dealing with people, know that there is going to be return business another time. If your deals are such that you don’t care if the other party benefits from it, you will never get return business from people. Put all of these together and bring God into the equation.
With your level of involvement in politics, how involved are you still in running the affairs of Standard Alliance Group?
Now, I am just a marketer for most of the companies. For instance, I am not on the board of Standard Alliance Insurance anymore. As a politician, if I run into business, I know where to refer it to. I am still a shareholder and like I mentioned earlier, we have two other companies that I am directly involved with as chairman.
What are your other interests apart from politics and operating a successful entrepreneurship?
Those two things are more than enough. However, I used to play golf regularly but I have slowed down a bit. I try to swim and I also visit the gym in my house. The family is also a big part of one’s life, so you must look out for ways to balance your time so that you can provide your family some leadership.
You have been married for 30 years. How did you meet your wife, Rita?
I have done a documentary on this before. We met in the village and we were very young at that time. Happily and fortunately, we are from the same village and we met while we were still in school. We started quite early; she was about 16 when we met and I am seven years older than her. We struggled together and she has been a life partner.
How have you sustained your marriage for three decades?
The thing about marriage is that there will always be issues. You just need to understand that you are together. Your wife or husband is like your right or left hand. If you have issues with it, you must look for ways to accommodate it so communication is important. ‘I am sorry’ does a lot of good, so if you are wrong, you must apologise and I don’t believe that the husband has to lord over the wife. Even though God has made you the head of the home, you must recognise that the wife must be respected and protected. I see my wife as my oga, because she has more time to look at things. Women are a lot more intuitive so if she tells me to be careful with anything, I listen. Also, go out of your way to make the other party happy.
How do you like to dress?
I stopped wearing suits over 10 years ago because I believe the way I dress now is beautiful. Some people call it Niger Delta attire but it’s now a Nigerian thing and it actually feels comfortable. Our weather does not support wearing suits and ties. I like dressing simply and elegantly. I don’t have airs and graces about me when it comes to dressing.
You must have experienced some trying times in your personal life and business…
I will be 60 this year and I really thank God. The most trying moment I have had in life was when I lost my 19-year-old son in 2006. He was shot in Lagos while on holiday from school overseas. It was a trying time for my family because as an only son, he was very close to my wife. It was a devastating experience. It happened at the time that I just went into politics and it appeared as if there was a connection. That complicated matters but God helped us and we survived it. I can’t count too many troubles that I have passed through and therefore, I must continue to thank God.
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