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Published On: Sun, Jan 29th, 2017

Tony Elumelu’s Africa Ambition

I have met Tony Elumelu only once. That was in Port Harcourt at one of the branches of the defunct All States Trust Bank (If remember clearly) where he was Branch Manager. It wasn’t in his office but at a waiting space where he asked us to come back to see him the week after so he can respond to our request of a token to encourage the Banking and Finance Students Association of the Rivers State University of Science and Technology as we organised the association’s week in the middle 1990s.
On that occasion, he smiled at everything we said and spoke little. I admired his gold and blue coloured cufflinks which had inscribed the bank’s logo. I have not seen Elumelu since, a situation I rue not only because, as we thought, his token would have gone a long way but also that he has gone on to become a colossus in the Nigerian Banking Industry and a global force in entrepreneurship with original ideas on Africa’s development.
When a man has conquered his immediate environment, literally speaking, he seeks challenges beyond his shores and comfort zones. Elumelu’s comfort zones, it appeared were banking and finance where he spent over two decades rising to the very top in the industry where his major achievement remains orchestrating a stunning merger of Standard Trust Bank where he was CEO and United Bank for Africa, one of Nigeria’s biggest banks. He went on to serve as UBA’s CEO and only recently returned as Chairman of the Board.
His maverick tendencies saw him sit atop one of Africa’s biggest banks by capitalisation, assets and branch spread.
At only 47 years of age, he had served out the number of years required by local regulators for bank chiefs and had to make an exit, leaving market watches wondering what his next move would be.
His moves were not muted for long (at least in the public eyes) as soon after leaving UBA, he floated Heirs Holdings an African proprietary investment company. With interests in financial services, health care, agriculture and oil and gas, the company targets opportunities that will create economic prosperity and social wealth in Africa.
In 2011, Heirs Holdings gained a controlling interest in the Transnational Corporation of Nigeria Plc, a conglomerate that operates in the Energy, Agribusiness and Hospitality sectors.
His Africa vision seems even better defined with his Tony Elumelu Foundation, which wants to “prove that the African private sector can itself be the primary generator of economic development.” The Foundation sets out to promote and celebrate excellence in business leadership and entrepreneurship across Africa. Its approach is different from traditional grant-making organisations as it does not focus only on grant-giving but advocates the use of market tools to solve previously intractable social problems”, according to Wikipedia.
Perhaps this vision is occasioned by the fact that in Africa, the biggest business is government business. Private enterprises get asphyxiated by the dearth of infrastructure and regulatory booby traps.
Where private businesses exist, qualified manpower to drive them becomes the missing link. And where there are qualified hands, capital becomes the lacuna. Elumelu wishes to close that gap.
But in the light of the huge gulf created by our little understanding of the triune of market economics, capitalism and business, Elumelu’s task is a daunting one.
Indeed Elumelu’s dream though not far-fetched would require consistent effort considering how terribly backward the continent is. But beyond the leg work, one must start with believing.
So beyond the theories, practice and what lies between, he spurns a philosophy by which he believes the African continent can emerge: “Africapitalism”. On his website, tonyelumelu.com, he says the concept is all about “a private sector commitment to the economic transformation of Africa through investments that create economic prosperity and social wealth”.
“It is time to develop an environment that creates employment and value, catalysts for economic growth and quality-of-life gains for all Africans”, he declared.
His philosophy or belief is indicative of a higher calling, a mission, glimpses of which were hinted on in his UBA days, where he spearheaded branches across the continent.
“African-led entrepreneurship is growing rapidly and needs to be encouraged further; and longterm capital commitments that build economic prosperity and social wealth should not be a niche asset class— they should be the heart of all investing in Africa,’ he said about Africapitalism.
He described it as “an urgent matter”.
It is urgent because it is at once an opportunity and a threat, “Africa’s workforce will soon be the largest in the world. According to McKinsey & Company, by 2040, Africa will be home to one in five of the planet’s young people and a working population of 1.1 billion people. Many believe this “demographic dividend” can fuel Africa’s economic competitiveness, but it could also pose a huge global burden if that potential is squandered,” he surmised.

Business students in Philadelphia got a dose of his abiding belief in the continent in the fall of 2010 when he asserted, “I want to spend my time, my resources, and my experience building a legacy for Africa.”
The occasion was the 18th Wharton Africa Business Forum (WABF), which perhaps by design rode on the theme: “A Blueprint for Africa: Navigating the World’s Fastest Growing Continent”.
A stirring speech for the students where he admonished them to be preoccupied with Africa as he is, revealing that he was able to get and take his opportunities because he stayed back in Nigeria.
“If I had left the shores of Nigeria, I would not be what I am today and I may not have been in a position to take advantage of the boundless opportunities in Africa. The right people have been a critical ingredient in enabling me to actualize my vision and achieve set goals”. He revealed.
After sufficiently rousing Africa’s future leaders, he turned to his contemporaries as if to say, ‘I can’t go it alone, we are all in this together’.
“I call on Africans who have succeeded as entrepreneurs to start giving back to Africa. To do as Gates and Buffet have done, and make a difference in Africa. We must all join hands in the 21st century and ask ourselves where Africa will be ten years from now and what role each of us will play. We need to make Africa a proud part of the 21st century world community,” was his clarion call on that day.
But how can Africa or indeed, Nigeria emerge when the image of the people is being battered with the unwarranted corruption toga, Elumelu retorts at another occasion.
At the 8th Economic Summit in Abuja, he declared that while he doesn’t condone corruption, the situation in the country is been blown out of proportion, with baleful consequence for the economy. He stressed the need for investors to report positive issues that would encourage doing business in the country.
“Without sounding a bit defensive, I think we tend to over bloat this issue of corruption in Nigeria…”, he was quoted as saying.
For good measure, he gave an example to show Nigeria is not all about corruption.
“When the GSM licensing started in Nigeria, most strong telecommunications company didn’t want to come to Nigeria to do business because they were afraid of corruption.
“MTN came to Nigeria to do business, they got the licence, the stock price crashed in South Africa Stock Exchange, they started five, six years down the line; Nigeria produces over 60 per cent of the GDP across the world.
“But they don’t tell that story about Nigeria, the story you hear is about corruption,’’ he said.
According to him, the company won one of the biggest power stations at 200 million dollars without consulting anybody but going by the process.
He said that Nigeria was a country of over 170 million people and should not be projected in a bad light.
“Yes some people are corrupt in Nigeria, a country of about 170 million people; we have one, two, or five per cent that are corrupt; we talk so much about corruption and every speaker wants to talk about it instead of saying the good things,’’ he added.
Indeed, Elumelu’s passion for Africa, nay Nigeria, could just be that small step required for a giant leap for the continent.

Kirk Leigh

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