Kenneth Amaeshi, acclaimed professor, is a business don. He holds various chairs including Professor of Business and Sustainable Development at the University of Edinburgh; Professor of Sustainable Finance, at the European University Institute; Visiting Professor of Leadership and Financial Markets in Africa, London School of Economics; and Extraordinary Professor of Business in Africa, University of Cape Town. He was appointed chief economic adviser to the Imo state governor, Chief Hope Uzodinma, pursuant to the governor’s economic initiatives, about a year ago. Amaeshi accepted the position on a pro bono basis, saying he was moved by a passion for the governor’s development and a burning zeal to serve his people. Below are excerpts from an interview with reporters in Abuja.
He resumed as chief economic adviser to the Imo state government a year ago. Can you tell us how it all started?
I was appointed in November 2021 but was sworn in on January 5, 2022. So, you are correct. It has been exactly one year since I took up the role of Chief Economic Adviser to the Imo State Government. I do the work pro bono and part time. The beginning was quite sudden. I just got a call from the Governor Senator Hope Uzodimma sometime in October 2021 out of sadness to consider contributing to the development of Imo State. At first, I was very pleasantly surprised. I never expected him to remember me the way he did in the first place, since I wasn’t close to him in any way. The few times we did see each other before then, while friendly, they were weak, subdued, and quite distant. I thought that they were not strong and sufficient enough to justify the request. Second, I did not contribute to his campaign and election in any way that warrants contacting me. In that sense, I didn’t consider myself a critical stakeholder in getting his attention for the role that he ultimately offered me.
So what were your thoughts when the governor approached you?
To be honest, when he asked me to consider joining his government, I had very strong mixed feelings. I had just taken a leave of absence from the University of Edinburgh, where I am a Senior Lecturer, to accept a five-year post at the prestigious European Graduate Institute. It would be difficult to shorten or abandon this rare opportunity. Second, there was a lot of negative news on social media about Imo State and the world coming out of the COVID-19 lockdown. Unfortunately, unlike me, I didn’t get a chance to check things out for myself. I visit Nigeria often, but did not have the opportunity to between January 2020 and December 2021. So my palpable anxieties were not unreasonable. Adding to these concerns, some of my professional friends and colleagues were extremely skeptical of the idea and did everything they could to discourage me, for very good reasons I might add. According to most of them, they didn’t want me to destroy my records and tarnish my reputation. For them, it is better to avoid Nigerian politics and politicians. These genuine concerns gave me headaches and sleepless nights, especially since I knew they were coming from a good place.
So how did you solve the apparent dilemma?
Well, subsequently, I had additional phone calls with the governor. He understood my concerns and encouraged me to visit his home at his expense. Work and international assignments got in the way and I was unable to travel to Owerri. When we finally met in London at the end of November 2021, he convinced me that he was heavily addicted to social media narratives. I shrugged silently. When I finally visited Owerri in December 2021, I knew he was right and I was wrong. The state of Imo, especially Owerri, which social media had portrayed as a world-class war zone, was far from that description.
What would you consider your main achievements at work so far?
I was sworn in on January 5, 2022. Immediately after that, the governor turned me over to his chief clerk to set up my office and other logistics. And that was it. I went into action, created a work plan, and the governor approved it. In the 12-month period, my office established a bi-weekly radio show on economic opportunities in Imo State. The radio show is broadcast on both mainstream and social media platforms and reaches an audience of over 5 million. The office also launched an exclusive magazine on the Imo State economy titled: IMO Economics Summary – which has been well received. The second edition was published in December 2022. We also started the Corporate Imo Impact Partnership, a voluntary network of companies and organizations eager to contribute to the progress of the Imo State. This network has been able to attract a major grant from a global company to support the digital skills development of youth in Imo State, another initiative promoted by the Office of the Chief Economic Adviser. In November 2022 we launched the Imo Industrial Policy with the motto: “make industries work for everyone”. The industrial policy may be the first since the creation of Imo State in 1976.
Sounds like you’ve accomplished a lot in just 12 months. How did you do it?
I do this job part-time, which means I spent most of the 12 months out of the country. However, as you can see, this does not affect my office productivity in any way. I have a strong and very professional team that makes sure everything runs smoothly even in my absence. We take great advantage of digital technologies. For example, I run the bi-weekly webinars from anywhere in the world, as long as I have good internet access. In addition, I have great colleagues from the ExCo who make my life easier. They are always willing to supply, when needed. They are just wonderful. Beyond this, however, the governor has been very supportive and encouraging. He has not once interfered with our agreed plan.
And this is a big plus. One of the concerns that some people expressed when I was considering the position was that most governors and politicians don’t listen to the experts. Fortunately, this is not my experience so far. Senator Hope Uzodimma not only listens, but she also carefully participates with ideas and makes valuable contributions. Of course, sometimes it is difficult to communicate with him due to his busy schedule; but when you finally have an audience with him, it’s always amazing how you come away confident that he’s practical and well on top of issues. His practical wisdom is often invaluable. Luckily for me, we don’t talk about politics, and he has never made any political demands on me. Therefore, I am safe from such pranks, which can sometimes interfere with work. When we met in London in November 2021, he made it clear that technocrats should focus on their forte, not politics. From what I can tell, he has stayed true to his words and his point of view on this.
What is it about the governor that makes it easy for you to work with him?
This year, I had the opportunity to work closely with Senator Hope Uzodimma. Through my interactions with him, I have come to understand him as someone who believes in the power and freedom of the market. He thinks that the government should not be in the business of business. Hence his preference for privatization. He likes public-private partnerships and he believes that the government should be primarily an enabler. Despite his love for the market, he strongly believes that it should work for everyone. This inclusive market thinking is at the heart of his Shared Prosperity Agenda, which is expressed through the growing number of signature infrastructure and social development projects and initiatives that follow his rule.
From what I have seen so far and my direct experience with him, I am convinced that he is a people-focused person. This is something we share. Perhaps his perspective gives you the rare opportunity to see the sufferings of others and do whatever you can to alleviate them. I wish he would one day articulate his ideology and philosophy of government perhaps as Hopism. It would be a valuable contribution to practical political philosophy, at least in Nigeria. Of course, this is my personal experience with it, so far. Obviously, others will also have their experiences with it. However, it is not a competition of experiences, since the experiences are usually unique.
What lessons have you learned and what message do you have for other technocrats and experts?
The first lesson is not to judge a book by its cover. As they say, seeing is believing, and experience is the best teacher. It is very easy to judge people and situations from a distance. Second, we make an opportunity an opportunity. Otherwise, the opportunity ceases to manifest. I don’t wait for them to tell me what to do. ideas occur to me. Every good leader needs solutions and not problems. I try as much as possible to bring solutions to the Governor. It is very easy to complain and feel helpless due to the many challenges of the system. However, I try to see every challenge as a potential opportunity. That mentality helps me a lot.
I am also grateful for the experience, which at least adds to my performance in the classroom. It is an opportunity to test theory in practice and theorize practice in academia. So it works great for me. Based on this experience, I strongly encourage other technocrats to consider supporting the government when the opportunity arises. They should not be discouraged by negative comments. Although there is something to learn from others, each experience is unique, and we should not rely solely on the experiences of others for our choices and decisions. Sometimes it can be wise to get out of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves in a positive way. I believe that I have done this through this enriching experience, despite the initially perceived risks, which I have continued to manage and mitigate in my own way. And so far, very good. Just wish me luck!