We meet Arunma Oteh on a Friday evening in Johannesburg. For a person whose day has started at 3AM and been relentless since – filled with high-level meetings and interviews – she is remarkably energetic. In fact, the former Director-General of Nigeria’s Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) is all charged up.
The canary yellow Tahari suit she is wearing ably complements her striking personality as she speaks with both alacrity and wit.
Her five-year term at the SEC ended in January this year, the same month she turned 50. How does she feel?
“Fifty is the new 16,” laughs Oteh.
“I have to say I knew I would enjoy being 50, but I couldn’t have imagined how enjoyable it will be. It’s like I am walking on air. You kind of feel you can literally do whatever you want!”
Going forward, Oteh says her objective will continue to be to serve her country, and Africa. She feels “blessed” for all the opportunities she has had so far to impact society. In her years at the SEC, she had driven the transformation of the Nigerian capital markets and helped grow investor appetite.
“I come from a family [where] my parents have spent their lives serving, so I am usually attracted to opportunities that help me serve,” she says.
Oteh speaks with passion about Africa, about security, capital markets, infrastructure, e-commerce and governance. She also speaks keenly about topics such as women’s empowerment, youth – and music. For the record, Oteh is a huge fan of American singer Beyoncé.
“My next Whitney Houston is Beyoncé. She is amazing and stunning. Look at what she has achieved!”
In this interview, Oteh speaks about Africa’s future and why she is so excited to be a part of its growth story. Excerpts:
What does the future hold for you?
I am looking at a number of incredible and exciting opportunities, and taking my time to deliberate and determine which one has the most impact. There is so much I want to do, and could do.
I thought about focusing on an initiative that helps people develop their financial capability, as I do think raising financially-responsible citizens has far-reaching impact. If you understand the discipline of managing your money, it’s almost like managing your life.
Also, can you imagine if this continent decided that by 2020, every African will be knowledgeable from a digital point of view? Can you imagine what it could do? It will accelerate the economic development of the continent.
What does legacy mean to you?
Whatever you do, be the best you can be. It takes one person at a time to make a difference. I want young people to realize their potential. I want to see Nigeria become truly one of the most industrious countries in the world. I want to see Africa be the place where no one writes those articles about wars, disease and famine, and [where] people are writing about being inspired by all the entrepreneurial opportunities here.
I am currently angel-investing in companies that are owned by young people making a difference. Paga, a payments administration company, is one of them.
I like the e-commerce area. When I look at what has happened with innovation in the mobile phone space in Kenya, when I see examples of how certain sectors of Nigeria have transformed…I sort of think that you can be the next Obama, you can be the next Mark Zuckerberg, you can be the next Beyoncé. It’s really up to you to put in the effort. The common theme is hard work, vision and determination to change the world.
You have previously co-edited a book, African Voices, African Visions. Is there another book in the offing?
Everyone says I should write a book – I am sure I will write several. I think writing books is a way to keep your legacy alive. I have very specific views on issues, and the way to communicate it globally is to write. I would like to write books on leadership. I also feel passionately about capital markets, and I do think not many people understand it.
My first experience of capital markets was sitting around the dinner table with my father, who would make us read annual reports to him. I hated it, but God was planting a seed in me for what I have done today.
What is the way forward for capital markets in Africa?
So much needs to be done, so much has happened. I think we had eight or nine stock exchanges in 1989 and today, we have over 20. We have bond markets that are doing well around Africa in many places where we didn’t have bond markets. A lot of progress has been made. But the future is brighter than where we are, because we have got so much to do as a continent…And we are not going to be able to do it if we don’t have capital markets that can mobilize resources. We would not be where we should be as a continent if the ordinary person thinks the only way to save money is in a bank account or under the pillow, whereas there is the possibility of him being part owner of a company. We have not democratized ownership of shares; the average American owns a mutual fund that can fund the education of his children and issues of health. We are not there yet. So the possibilities for Africa are immense.
When do you think this will happen?
There are a few factors that will either make us move quickly or slowly. The first one is the realization that domestic resource mobilization is what is going to help achieve some of those goals, so if you have leadership of countries that understand why capital markets are important, then we will make progress. If we have the right regulatory environment, you can attract both domestic and international investors…If we get security right, if we get the politics right, if we get the macroeconomic environment right, those things will happen.
The role of regulation is very critical. It should be tough because [the person then] feels his money is safe. Without creating a market where there is trust and integrity, it’s not going to happen.
Who have you been most influenced by?
I was profoundly impacted by those who sacrificed their lives for the war against Ebola. My most memorable example is Dr Stella Ameyo Adadevoh. During my time as DG of SEC, and in 2012, we established an integrity award to a deserving Nigerian, and as a way to reinforce the importance of integrity to the development of world class capital markets. Dr Adadevoh was the 2014 awardee for SEC’s Integrity Award. She took risks with her life to limit the damage done by the first index Ebola case in Nigeria that arrived on a flight from Liberia.
I have also been influenced by Dr Ian Crozier who decided to go back to Sierra Leone after surviving the Ebola disease; as also the staff of Médecins Sans Frontières and other NGOs that work in difficult places when they don’t have to.
By a huge margin, my biggest influences were my parents. I believe early foundations are critical to who you become. I also want more parents to spend more time bringing up their children. My emphasis on character and standing alone came from my parents. Those who knew them said they were not surprised at how I reacted to the House of Representatives Committee on the Capital Markets inquisition in 2012.
Other influences have been Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates, Madam Walker, Oprah Winfrey, Beyoncé and Bono.