Last night, the United Bank for Africa (UBA) Plc held its 2019 CEO Awards Ceremony, to which I was invited. This year, the bank is celebrating its 70th anniversary — having been established as the French & British Bank Limited (B&FB) in 1949. It took the name “United Bank for Africa” in 1961 following its metamorphosis and incorporation under Nigerian laws after the exit of the colonial masters. Although there was plenty to eat and drink at last night’s event, dining is the least exciting thing for me. Something else has been playing on my mind: when will Nigerian brands begin to play really, really big on the African continent and, indeed, all over the world?
South African brands are stamping their feet all over Africa. Shoprite is putting its footprints in almost every Nigerian state. There is basically no Nigerian competition to the retail chain. MTN is Africa’s king of telecoms. DStv, owned by Multichoice, is fully in charge of the cable TV market. It is worthy of note that Dr Raymond Dokpesi set out to rival DStv, but his Daarsat pay TV is yet to break through. Years ago, HiTV attempted to take the Nigerian pay TV market from DStv using the English Premier League and UEFA Champions League, but it didn’t end well. Meanwhile, Ethiopia is not joking. Ethiopian Airlines and Ethiopian coffee are winners on the global stage.
It is not as if Nigeria is completely missing from the picture. Dangote Cement is present in 13 other African countries — and is targeting the Asian market, beginning with Nepal. Globacom has always had the African market in sight and currently operates in Ghana, where Silverbird Cinema is also present. In truth, when I started the series on “Made in Nigeria, Enjoyed Worldwide” in 2005, my hope was that by now, Nigerian brands such as Oando, Zenon and Zinox would have stormed the African continent and even started playing on the global field. I predicted that “Made in Nigeria” would delight the world and Nigeria would no longer represent all that is bad on this planet.
You can argue that my enthusiasm was misplaced. Between then and now, Nigeria has become a global “brand” in the wrong things. One of such is terrorism — Boko Haram has dubiously become a global icon — and another is the kidnapping pandemic. We have not been able to get our politics right, much less our economy which has been going through boom-bust cycles for decades. We can still hold our heads high, though, that Nigerian cable wires remain among the best in the world. In the creative industry, Nigerian artistes are increasingly playing in the global arena. Nollywood movies are making it to Netflix. We can say the cup is half-full and half-empty.
Interestingly, when Professor Chukwuma Soludo became governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in 2004, the first major policy step he took was the consolidation of banks. His stated aim was for us to have stronger banks that can ultimately play big beyond the shores of Nigeria. I was one of the fiercest critics of the policy. I argued that consolidation should be voluntary and organic — not regulator-ordered. No matter the value of my argument then, Soludo has been largely proved right over time. The banks certainly became bigger and stronger, although a few still ran into troubled waters and died thereafter. By and large, Soludo’s consolidation has served us well.
I am not an expert in banking and finance, so there is a limit to which I can really discuss the intricacies, but I would say the sector is now more stable in Nigeria than it used to be. We are now seeing organic mergers. It seems the regulators are determined not to allow any bank to go down again. There are bailouts in various shapes, and depositors are not losing money, unlike decades ago. The bailouts come at a cost to both the public purse and the economy, but the other options are not better. Reckless lending has apparently reduced, thanks largely to the emphasis on risk management by Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi who succeeded Soludo at the CBN.
One of the unusual highlights of the consolidation era was the merger between Standard Trust Bank (STB) and UBA in 2005. STB was a much younger bank under the leadership of Mr. Tony Elumelu, and it had fundamental cultural differences with UBA. Founded in 1987, STB was not the darling of old-generation bankers who felt the Young Turks in the banking hall were too smart for their liking. By special arrangement, the old and the new became one in 2005; unsurprisingly, the UBA identity was retained and Elemelu became one of the most powerful bankers in the land. The new UBA went on to acquire more banks and aggressively embarked on an expansion drive.
For sure, UBA was already a big bank before the consolidation era. It prides itself as Africa’s global bank. It has grown to become one of the most visible Nigerian banks outside the country. With its commencement of business in Mali two months ago, it now has operations in 19 African countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Mozambique. Last month, the bank re-launched its UK franchise under a new licence granted by the financial sector regulators. UBA also operates in the US — and is the only financial institution from sub-Saharan Africa licensed to take deposits in the country, according to the bank’s official profile.
As UBA marks its seventy years of existence — which makes it the third oldest bank in the country after First Bank Plc (established in 1894) and Union Bank Plc (1917) — the bank has been highlighting and celebrating its landmarks: the first among international banks to be registered under Nigerian laws in 1961; the only Nigeria-headquartered bank with footprints across all Africa’s sub-regions; the first Nigerian-headquartered bank to offer an IPO following its listing on the Nigerian Stock Exchange in 1970; the first Nigeria-headquartered bank to hit N1 trillion in balance sheet size, contingents inclusive; the first to launch cash deposit ATMs in Nigeria; and several other firsts.
Since the rebirth of UBA in 2005, it has had three CEOs: Elumelu, who is now the chairman after a regulator-forced retirement in 2010; Mr. Phillips Oduoza, who was in the saddle for six years, from 2010 to 2016; and Mr. Kenneth Uzoka, who succeeded Oduoza. Elumelu, the proponent of “Africapitalism” — which preaches positioning the African private sector as the engine for growth and empowerment as well as prioritising social and economic wealth creation — proudly announced in 2016 that Uzoka’s appointment “has once again proven the resilience of our succession planning process and the value we place on having in place a strong corporate governance system”.
This brings me to my central point today: we cannot talk about building strong Nigerian brands without talking about the need to build an enduring structure. Many Nigerian companies die as soon as the founders are no longer on the stage. That is why it is a rarity to see Nigerian-established companies celebrating 50 years of doing business. I don’t know if it is fair to say UBA is still alive and kicking 70 years after its establishment partly because of its European roots, but when you consider how many home-grown banks have gone under in the last 30 years, it is clear that African entrepreneurs need to do more about building legacies that will outlive their founders.
I grew up being told the fascinating stories of great businessmen such as Alhaji Alhassan Dantata, believed to be the first Nigerian millionaire (and great grandfather of Alhaji Aliko Dangote), Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu and the Odutola brothers, among several others. What about Chief MKO Abiola? You really have to wonder what happened to their businesses after their deaths. Many of the pervasive global brands of today were modelled to outlive their founders. Some of them, such as Cadbury, Barclays Bank and Quaker Oats, are over a hundred years old and you know they would be around for much longer. What are they getting right and what are we getting wrong?
While I am happy for UBA that it is now a “septuagenarian”, the biggest challenge for Elumelu and his team today is not just how they can dominate the African market but how the brand will still be around long after they are no longer on the scene. Taking over a historic bank and keeping it competitive and growing can be very gratifying. But if Nigeria must play big on the global stage, if “Made in Nigeria” is going to be enjoyed worldwide, the entrepreneurs must pursue their visions with passion and purpose. Politically, Brand Nigeria is a difficult product to market. That is why we are looking up to business brands and the creative industry to help us keep the flag flying.
And Four Other Things…
“When you have something in excess, you export and earn foreign exchange.” Those were basically the words of Dr. Chris Ngige, minister of labour, when asked about medical doctors leaving the country. He said we have enough of them and they can go! Ngige, himself a doctor and husband of a doctor, has a way of saying annoying things, but this should be his worst yet. All credible data point to the fact that not only do we not have enough doctors in Nigeria, we are, worryingly, losing the ones we have — mostly as a result of poor working conditions. If this is the kind of argument Ngige makes to President Buhari at FEC meetings, then our trouble has just started. Unhealthy.
An official of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) was said to have deliberately rammed his vehicle into an Easter procession in Gombe, killing 10 people instantly. Eight of them were children. Mr. Adams Borkono, the state chairman of the Boys Brigade, said that after a disagreement, the NSCDC official switched off his headlamp and rammed into the boys from behind. The official, named as Adamu Abdullahi, was then killed by a mob. Gombe is one of my favourite northern states where Muslims and Christians accommodate each other. I can only hope and pray that the demons of Kaduna are not about to pay Gombe a visit. It never ends well. Frightening.
President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan fell after 30 years in power — and an increase in the prices of bread and fuel. The military seemed to have encouraged the people to take to the streets to demand al-Bashir’s ouster in order to stage a coup. Many Nigerians, particularly on social media, are suggesting a similar situation for Nigeria. I assume that they were not yet born when the military ruled Nigeria — or they have lost memory of the terror and the impunity of the Nigerian military. Did you see the video of Nigerian soldiers torturing a disabled man in 2017 for wearing a replica of military camouflage? That is a small idea of what military rule brings upon us. Myopia.
Forget Zik, Ahmadu Bello and Awo. One of the greatest Nigerians since 1914 is Mallam Musa Usman. You don’t know him. He was a gateman for 25 years in Lagos. Upon retirement, his boss, an Indian, offered to build him a house in his village — a Fulani settlement in Jigawa state called Giljimmi. My hero said: “No Oga, please build a borehole for my people in the village because they trek kilometres everyday to fetch water.” Oh my God! Alhaji Sule Lamido, the self-acclaimed champion of the talakawa (the masses), was governor of Jigawa for eight years. He built an airport while the masses were dying from thirst! Mallam Usman has a special place in my heart. Selfless.