It takes weeks to secure an appointment with Nigeria’s high-profile Director-General of the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC). And when we do, it’s on a public holiday.
Walking into Arunma Oteh’s office in the country’s capital Abuja is like walking into a trophy store: shiny medals, mementoes, plaques and trophies take up an entire wall.
One glance is enough to convey the success of Nigeria’s tough-talking chief capital market regulator. A career she couldn’t have imagined.
As a child, Oteh wanted to be an inventor. A proud workaholic, she puts her discipline down to her sound upbringing.
“My parents were really stern but also loving, and for my two sisters and I, the constant quest for knowledge and excellence was firmly rooted in this background. They had such a great sense of character and the courage to be different and standing up for what was right regardless of the cost. I believe they instilled this in me. My childhood is really what has made me who I am today,” says Oteh.
It was tough being the daughter of a father who had exalted expectations. Once, she ran home elated, report card in hand. She had big news.
“Dad, I did it, I came first in class!”
One look at her report, and her father said: “Great, but next time, you have to be first plus plus.”
Such was Oteh’s family. They looked down on mediocrity and believed in brilliance. Hailing from the southeastern part of Nigeria, Oteh grew up in Kano, northern Nigeria.
Oteh’s mother, a nurse, wanted her to become a medical doctor, her father, an engineer, wanted her to take on his profession. But Oteh had other interests. She recalls fondly her obsession to become an inventor. Computer science was in its infancy in the 1980s; she loved the sciences and believed she could become a pioneer. So she studied computer science.
In 1984, Oteh graduated top of her class and faculty from the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, after which she taught computer science to first year university students as part of National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), a compulsory government program for Nigerian graduates.
After NYSC, she went to Lagos and was interviewed for jobs. The offers came thick and fast, and she decided to work for Centre Point, a stockbroking firm, because she admired Dennis Odife, the owner of the company and a highly respected businessman.
“I was impressed with what he had done with the company and what he had become. It was an amazing decision and defined what I ended up doing later in life. I was hired at the time to start the management information systems department but few months into that role, he thought it would be good for me to work in corporate finance. That’s how I got into finance and got really excited about it too,” says Oteh.
Oteh’s fascination for her new found career grew and she explored the next step for growth. Her mentor, Odife, had been to the prestigious Columbia Business School in the United States. And she saw this as a must.
She started reading up about business schools and applying in her first year at Centre Point. The acceptance letters poured in. And she made it through the selection process at Harvard Business School.
“My father had always said, if you do well, you can always get what you want,” says Oteh.
Oteh worked in the United Kingdom for some time and flew to Harvard in September 1988. Here, she found herself surrounded by intelligent people and erudition.
“Business school was amazing. The case study methodology employed at Harvard also helped hone my skills in decision-making and problem-solving. This is an environment that prepares you to take on the world. I was very interested in finance. As the first Nigerian woman in the Harvard Business School MBA program, my class mates were quite wowed and thought I was a princess.”
It all led to a career as Director-General of the SEC, a post she has held since January 2010.
This is merely one of the many hats she wears. She was also elected Chairperson of the Africa Middle East Regional Committee (AMERC) of the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) in June 2010. She is a member of the Nigerian Economic Management team and serves on the board of a number of organizations including the National Pension Commission (PENCOM) and Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON).
Today, Oteh is charged with transforming the Nigerian capital markets and unlocking the country’s economic potential.
Her appointment four years ago came at a crucial time, on the heels of the global financial crisis. Nigeria’s stock market had fallen 70% from its peak in March 2008. Investor confidence was low. There was need for change and a tough regulator.
By the time she started, Oteh already had a wealth of experience and believed she had the panacea.
Her message to the people was to save and invest wisely. To the policy makers, she preached against depending on short-term bank finance, and in favor of medium and long-term finance to fund infrastructure.
“Having that crisis helped, because people had seen what could go wrong. The environment to support a tough reform agenda was present as they could see the importance of a regulator that would do its job. When I joined, the vision was for the SEC to be the best regulator in Africa and I said, ‘best regulator in Africa?’ That’s not ambitious enough. Our aim should be to be the best regulator in the world. Nobody invests in a particular market because they love it. They are more interested in the safety and security of their funds. In that case, it is important to build a market that can stand globally acclaimed. This isn’t possible without integrity,” says Oteh.
Oteh was ready to put her money where her mouth was in an arduous revamp of the Nigerian capital markets.
It wasn’t going to be easy.
“That led us to alleging that 260 individuals and entities had carried out different forms of market abuse. The second thing was to focus on the Exchange. Nigeria had one operational exchange and being a visible symbol of our market, it was very important to ensure that we address the challenges of the Exchange because then, we develop the industry of fund and asset managers and develop the fixed income bond market to the point where it became easier for people
Thanks to her efforts, today, she has the likes of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), which launched a successful bond last year. She has also been able to regulate over-the-counter markets.
“We have two platforms, the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD), which targets unlisted securities so there is more efficient trading in those securities or the platform sponsored by the financial market dealers association which does wholesale trading in Federal Government bonds. Also, introducing new instruments like Islamic finance products, and encouraging real estate investment trusts,” she says.
With all these feats and more under her belt, Oteh believes there is still more to do, and with careful execution, it’s only a matter of time before all her boxes are ticked.
There have also been some dark days along the way for Oteh, as in 2012, the board of the SEC had directed her to go on compulsory leave, following a probe into the near collapse of the capital markets and allegations of misappropriation of funds and disharmony in the apex capital market regulator.
Oteh fought the system tooth and nail and went to great lengths to expose inadequacies in the structure, accusing the Chairman of the House of Representatives of the Nigerian capital market of corruption and unaccountability in a heated exchange at the public inquiry.
Following a two-month suspension, Oteh was cleared of all allegations and went back to her job as Director-General.
“I was angry that a system that is so well-endowed was being managed irresponsibly. I had also built a longstanding career and reputation over 22 years anchored on excellence. I knew there would be risks attached to fighting back and that I would be misunderstood but I also felt that standing up for what was right, far outweighed any costs attached for me. If I didn’t do it, who would?” she told FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
Prior to her appointment at the SEC, Oteh was Vice President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), and was at the forefront of internal reforms that scaled up the bank’s response to Africa’s development challenges.
She had also served as the bank’s Group Treasurer for five years, managing a portfolio of assets and liabilities worth billions of dollars. In her years at AfDB, she restored its ‘AAA’ rating by Standard & Poor’s.
“Some of my most fascinating experiences were that people were just so excited to hear about Africa – there was such a curiosity about the continent. At the time, AfDB was a ‘AAA’-rated institution and we would go to sell AfDB bonds in Japan. People were relatively familiar with why we were so highly rated. So, most people felt very comfortable with the credit when you sold bonds – they knew there was no risk,” she says.
Oteh had also started the Euro currency programmes while at AfDB.
This great adventure with AfDB began post-Harvard, following a year’s project with the Harvard Institute for International Development assessing the competitiveness of manufacturing in West Africa. She had interviewed at AfDB where she got hired into the West and North Africa portfolios in 1992. She covered Nigeria, Egypt, Ghana and Sudan, traveling in these countries.
After being away from her home country for 22 years, Oteh, a proud patriot, believes there is no place like Nigeria. She is highly optimistic.
“There are no countries that have taken the bold steps we have in the financial sector in the last few years,” she says.
As her current term draws to an end in January 2015 – and that’s also when she will be turning 50 – Oteh and her team, are working tirelessly still, raising the bar and repositioning the face of the Nigerian capital market globally. It is yet to achieve demutualization and this is a direction the institution would like to steer towards.
Oteh is also passionate about mentoring young girls, and advocacy. She holds a strong view on women’s place in society, drawing attention to the low number of women in key positions and boards.
“Equal opportunities should exist in the work place. A meritocracy where the best suited and qualified individual gets the job is also as vital.”
She also believes in a great support system and that young women should have self-belief.
“Successful leaders should pave the way for younger women to climb the corporate ladder through mentorship and coaching,” she says.
On career and family, Oteh, who acknowledges devoting her life to career, says she wouldn’t do it differently.
They call her the ‘Iron Lady’ for her tough decision-making.
“If leading change, being passionate, resilient and decisive about a great course is what makes me an iron lady, then I proudly raise my hand up high to that tag,” says Oteh.
She has come a long way from Kano. Oteh is not telling us what her plans are post her current assignment, but we are sure to hear more about her in the news.