Mike Adenuga and the Ijebu spirit
By Lasisi Olagunju
It was almost a missed call; or, more appropriately, an ignored call because the telephone number was unusual – an eight digit number. But, something told me: pick it, and I did.
“Hello, is that Mr. Lasisi Olagunju?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered, waiting for what would come next.
“My name is Mike Adenuga…” It took me two, three seconds to process what I just heard: Adenuga? Of Globacom? The voice sounded real. I heard myself exclaim “Ha!” He heard me too and burst into laughter; he laughed heartily.
Then, he followed up; telling me that he called to appreciate what I wrote. “I have just read your most recent article,” he said while commending the language, the choice of words. That was four years ago. He was referring to my August 19, 2019 piece I entitled: “Awujale’s Ojude Oba ‘swansong.’” He, particularly, thanked me for the mention I gave him and his company in that piece. But – I told myself – words about him and his exploits were in not more than two paragraphs, yet he was effusive in appreciation!
“Are you from Ibadan,” he asked me.
“No, sir. I am from Eripa.” I could guess what would follow.
“Eripa? Where is Eripa?”
“Eripa is in Osun State, sir.”
“Osun State. Osun State. Why are you not from Ibadan? You should have come from Ibadan.” I burst into laughter; he laughed too.
Then, he said some other great things and ended the call. The significance of that conversation was not lost on me. The man who just called and spoke so affectionately with me is one of Africa’s authentic richest and best. The call was a surprise king-size call; it is impossible to forget that moment.
That reach-out speaks to the man’s humanity and the values undergirding his essence. I noticed that the hugely successful businessman used the Yoruba honorific pronoun ‘e’ for poor me throughout that encounter. It was a lesson in humility and the reason why the great is great and will remain so. It was a privilege that was also a reminder that the world was reading and watching; and that the writer should be very careful about what he writes and how he writes it. When you choose to speak or write, you’ve become an egg thrower; you cannot repack whatever you have unleashed. I learnt that lesson from home and had it burnished one busy evening in 1996 or thereabouts. Mr Biodun Oduwole was our Editor-in-Chief. He sauntered into the newsroom that evening, glanced through a story, looked up and commented: “You people should be careful in your choice of words when you write. These things that we write, just one line are enough to build or destroy…”
I have, these past days, read with relish tomes of tributes from Adenuga’s fans and beneficiaries on his 70th birthday. The climax came on Saturday, 29th April; it was his day and the way it was marked showed that what was celebrated was not just the billionaire or his billions. More significantly celebrated was the social value of the billions the man has – the humanity behind the wealth. How does it feel to be 70 in great wealth and gracious quietude? Those who have been there will tell us. We know one thing, however: Man is not born perfect; he has weaknesses but men of distinguished provenances age quietly and get better; the tannins get dissipated; a bouquet of rich flavours seep in – exactly like extraordinary wines of 70 years, preserved and aged under ideal conditions- right temperature, stable humidity. I carefully read many of the tributes, testimonies and testimonials. His ways teach us that you don’t have to be in politics and public office to impact humanity in positively unforgettable ways. Adenuga deserves every great thing that has been said about him. He deserves more – including this postscript.
We hear and read of Adenuga’s astounding life-saving interventions involving the high and the low, particularly the low. I remember a case: A member of Globacom’s PR team sent me a WhatsApp message three years ago. It was a video clip that had gone viral. The sender accompanied it with a request: “We are looking for this woman. Can you help?” The lady in the video was stark naked. She was shown in her thatched hut flinging away her own scant wares. She was obviously not insane. What I was seeing in that video was not madness; it was the world showing the woman how wicked it could be. The strange behaviour was the victim’s reaction to the harassment she was getting from some agents of state; the wicked could be heard behind the camera issuing threats. We tried and searched everywhere but couldn’t locate the woman. Months later, I read in a Glo in-house magazine that the hunt had yielded results; she was discovered deep in the woods of a village on the outskirts of Badagry, Lagos State. She was met broken and bruised by life. The woman’s consequent trip to Adenuga’s presence in Banana Island was a journey of total rebirth and reinvention; her story changed positively forever. There are many of such search-and-rescue stories involving the quiet man of means who clocked 70 on Saturday.
Adenuga has had very many profound engagements with the Nigerian society. In my 2019 piece on Ijebu’s Ojude Oba, I said the king’s thoughts had an intriguing confluence with Adenuga’s intervention in telecoms in Nigeria; the need to enthrone the right values in public and personal policies. Nigerians of 30 years and younger might likely not know that digital mobile telephony came as expensive as wanting to be president of Nigeria. Payment was as unfeeling as Multichoice’s erratic, ever-increasing DSTv subscription fees; the SIM card you get for free today was N30,000 or more. Worse, it did not matter that you made a phone call for just a second – you must pay for 60 seconds. It was ‘buy a second, pay for a minute’ –which was N50. Phone users cried and wailed but the kingly ‘foreign’ operators dispensing telecom favours in 2001, 2002 insisted that per second billing was not possible. Then the Ijebu man came with his Glo on 29 August, 2003 and, from that point, telecom kingmakers stopped playing god – a second’s call started attracting a second’s pay across all platforms. SIM cards became affordable; Glo leveled the ground for the rich and for those on the other bank of life. What heartless business said was impossible became possible; Adenuga’s entry and intervention snatched back for Nigerians their country from the jaws of invasive Shylocks in telecoms. The crocs ate their own jaws, teeth and all; they surrendered. You can now see why the beneficiaries of Adenuga’s life and business choices are not only Globacom’s 55 million subscribers. The entire country is his beneficiary. That is why his quiet 70th birthday was made deafeningly loud by usual and unusual people. The reason I am writing this, wishing him well.
How does it feel to be wealthy? A Yoruba saying says having a lot of money gives peace of mind (ìfòkànbalè); an old musician, Yusuf Olatunji, defines “having money at home” as the father of peace (baba àlàáfíà). And, so I ask: What is the purpose of wealth? Or, how does wealth advance one’s goal in life? I go to Aristotle, ancient Greek philosopher, who exhaustively engaged the subjects of wealth, life and happiness. What is the ultimate purpose of life, he asked? It is to be happy; and happiness is “to find joy, contentment and satisfaction in one’s pursuits and relationships.” He further described ‘happiness’ as “the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” He said a person is happy “who lives in accordance with complete virtue and is sufficiently equipped with external goods, not for some chance period but throughout a complete life” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1101a10). In other words, to be truly happy, you need money, you need lovers, friends; you need skill, knowledge, sound education, sound health and other “external goods” sufficient for a lifetime, enough for “a complete life” – and you deploy all these “in accordance with complete virtue” for the general good. When a man of means sets targets of goodness and meets them; when he chooses a life of ‘seclusion’ and of quiet bonding and connectedness with the high and the low; when he avoids the tempting flashlights of loud giving, he achieves for himself a definition of happiness that goes beyond the limits set by the masters of philosophy.
I read some headlines that described Adenuga as the “Spirit of Africa.” What I see is the never-say-die spirit of the Ijebu in the man. Many roads lead to the Ijebu market; the successful homeboy, most times, chooses that one which is rarely taken. And it leads gracefully to the throne of grace. The apple never falls far from the tree. The 2019 article that attracted that telephone call from the Globacom chairman was on Oba Sikiru Adetona’s preemptive demand on the kind of person that should be allowed to succeed him as the Awujale. The oba spoke at that year’s edition of the annual Ojude Oba festival sponsored by Adenuga’s Globacom. And there, he said what no oba likes to say – words about death and succession: “When I eventually go, please, go for a capable successor. Reject any candidate that will put Ijebu land into regression. Do not politicise the process of selecting my successor. Do not go for people that will draw Ijebu backwards. If the next ruling house does not present a viable candidate, please, reject him and go for the next ruling house with a capable candidate. Do not go for moneybags that will destroy the achievements Ijebu land has recorded so far.” I felt (and still feel) that only an unusual king of an unusual people would so calmly breach the iron wall of fear; a sovereign talking so loudly about his own after-reign.
Two things stand out in that royal statement: viability of leadership and repudiation of unethical deployment of resources. If the oba had said what he said before a Nigerian general election, his dove would have been accused of chanting incantations to the hearing of our politicians’ irritable pigeons. What he said is truth that gives allergies to priests and principalities of Nigeria; angels who share kola nut lobes with the devil. But, the oba’s words were straightforward and his audience well-defined. His Ijebu people were his audience. Every Yoruba person knows something about the Ijebu’s affinity with money. They are not menial because they know money lives in elevated grounds. While the Yoruba of the hinterland were beating their chest with cutlasses and hoes and saying ìgbé l’owó wà (money is in the bush/farm), the Ijebu, very early in life, rejected that business sense; they proudly told themselves that the city was their own farm. Daniel R. Aronson’s ‘The City is Our Farm’ (1978) is about Ijebu families and their very eloquent ways and means to fame, power and wealth. People who know the Ijebu know they’ve always had money and know how to spend money. Their carriage, however, suggests that the value they place on wealth is directly proportional to how it benefits the world of the wealthy. It is the functionalist route; a rejection of wealth for wealth’s sake. They measure the social value of money in terms of the functions money performs. That, incidentally, is the position of grand old economist, Walter Stewart (1885-1958) in his ‘Social Value and the Theory of Money’ (1917: 984). Wealth profits the wealthy only when it is virtuous in usage and makes the less fortunate happy. Did you not read testimonies on this in articles, columns and advertorials, etc celebrating the essential Mike Adenuga on Saturday?
Every nation has founding ethics which define its values and shape its people’s politics and economics. The Awujale knew his people and why he believed leaders affect destinies – and that money should not be a city’s electoral college. What picks leaders is in their history. Tradition says the story of Ijebu and its stellar spirit started with the migration (from wherever) of an inventive people. Read T.O. Ogunkoya’s The Early History of Ijebu (December, 1956). It tells us how from their beginning and across centuries the Ijebu have proven to be a resiliently resourceful people with a very rich history in war, politics, trade and commerce. They have always been a people of “change and continuity.” They traded with Europeans before colonialism and gained power and prestige. They are a people who send power and money on errands, not the other way round. They can be very tenacious in pursuing goals and unyielding to challenges. Like lions, they hold their ground and defend their territories. The British-Ijebu war of 1892 was essentially a war over trade and routes. They lost that war, but they gained the respect of the British who saw how worthy the Ijebu were as an adversary.
We gain a better insight into what is stocked in that DNA when we read the words of a pioneer Yoruba clergyman, R. A. Coker of the Church Missionaries Society (C.M.S.) in one of the church’s ‘Annual Letters’ dated December 19, 1897: “The Jebus are an ambitious people and will not be rivalled. They are quick at acquiring the art of anything and are too impatient to go through a thing systematically. For instance, they cannot see why the art of reading could not be acquired or accomplished in a week at most (as well as) master carpenting, shoemaking and tailoring. One man learnt to read the Bible in a month. Very large numbers of books are sold – 600 portions of scripture….Many begin to read from curiosity or in order to know what their companions may be boasting of or from some other motive” (see J.D.Y. Peel, 1977: 130). That was over 200 years ago. There is no way you read their contemporary history and look at them today without those same traits winking at you. If Adenuga was denied a GSM licence in 2001, lost $20 million and he dug in and reapplied, paid $20 million again and got it in 2002, you can understand where he was coming from.
Excellence is never an accident; that, again, is from Aristotle. The philosopher added that excellence “is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” Trees tower in the forest because they mastered the art of putting the wind on the leash. With their deep roots and sturdy stems, they shame storms; they habitualize excellence for the world to marvel at and applaud. And, the fruit is a product of the tree and the soil that sires it. Peel (1977) said Ijebus are “one of the most distinctive Yoruba-sub-groups.” The British sociologist was right. In politics, commerce, religion, scholarship, entertainment and in virtually all other sectors, Ijebu’s exclusivity and distinction have not stopped to amaze the world around them. That sub-group gave us Obafemi Awolowo; gave us Tai Solarin and Wole Soyinka, Prince of Isara. It is a corridor with a womb for giants, producing world champions, the pride of the black race. Think of boxers Anthony Joshua and Israel Adesanya, current global sensations. Today’s biggest is Mike Adenuga who sits atop the throne of business – and of philanthropy.