Meet Nduka Obaigbena

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Words Angelo Ragaza

On October 14, with 5,500 people packed into the Royal Albert Hall for the THISDAY Music & Fashion Festival 2008, a man will take to the stage. Though chiefly in stature, he won’t hold the stage for long. He knows that the audience have paid to see celebrity and glamour, the chance to witness Christina Aguilera torch the proscenium with such rousing hits as Beautiful and Ain’t No Other Man, to gawk at Naomi Campbell and Tyson Beckford strutting the catwalk in sleek fashions by Africa’s leading fashion designers.

Unlike the celebrities, he’ll also be omnipresent backstage and in front of house, overseeing details like ticketing, press badges and seating arrangements. Onlookers might see him dressed in white tunic, trousers and head cloth, the regal, traditional Nigerian costume in which he has greeted heads of state and global geopolitical figures such as former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Or he might sport one of the bespoke Lanvin suits he has made in Paris, replete with bowtie, cufflinks and hand-sewn shoes.

Remiss is the onlooker who takes this man’s understated leadership at face value or underestimates his importance. He is Nduka Obaigbena, chairman and founder of Nigerian newspaper THISDAY, one of the largest and most influential media brands in Africa, and the visionary behind Africa Rising. It’s because of Obaigbena that for three years running, a dizzying constellation of stars – Rihanna, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Shakira, Usher, P. Diddy, Mary J Blige, to name a few – have hopped on flights bound for Lagos, Nigeria, many to perform in Africa for their first time. Obaigbena’s indefatigable drive to promote Africa has compelled top artists to join the THISDAY/Africa Rising caravan beyond Nigeria, to inaugural concerts this year in the US (Washington, DC on August 1, with Jay-Z and John Legend) and in the UK.

The festival is also making ripples in the upper echelons of government: the October 14 concert will see former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell address the crowd. General Powell, the first African-American to to hold the post, will convey the central message of a festival that showcases the best of Africa – that the country needs investment, not aid.

Get Obaigbena alone in one of the five-star hotels he stays at when in the West, including the Lanesborough in London, the St Regis in New York and the Ritz Carlton in Washington DC, and the mogul and family man (he is father to eight children, including three daughters at university in the US) won’t make much of a to-do about himself. He will greet you at the door of his palatial suite in a polo shirt and jeans. He will invite you to pluck a beverage from the mini-bar and order something from room service. He will ask you how you feel Obama and McCain have fared in the US presidential elections. Just to poke fun, he will ask you whether the bright green top you are wearing is Cameroonian green or Nigerian green (a football reference). He will do more listening than speaking. While The New York Times described him as the leader of a multimillion-dollar empire in a July 10 interview, and featured him  on the cover of its business section, Obaigbena himself was quoted as saying: “I like to live simply and discreetly.”

His message about Africa is similarly concise and direct: contrary to what international media would have you believe, there is good news coming out of the continent and much to celebrate. Africans, and people of African descent around the world, have not only achieved landmark successes in fields as varied as music, fashion, business and politics – they have
formulated and spearheaded solutions to Africa’s many challenges.

Nigeria rising

He cites his native Nigeria as a prime example. With the largest population in Africa (146 million), an adult literacy rate of nearly 70 per cent and the 10th largest oil reserves in the world, Nigeria should by rights be an economic powerhouse. But after colonialism, nearly three decades of military autocracy and the looting of public funds to the order of US$380 billion, Nigeria was beset by the problems facing too many Africans – a paucity of employment and healthcare, tragically short life expectancy (47) and high infant mortality rate. Yet Nigeria has, in the last decade, achieved what many would have considered the impossible. In 1999 voters chose their first democratically electedleader since 1983, President Olusegun Obasanjo. In short order, the Nigerian government instituted sweeping economic reforms and inaugurated the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, which went on to secure over 200 convictions for corruption,  some against senators and a former chief of police. “The sight of the outgoing chief of police showing up in court in handcuffs was really a landmark moment for the country,” says Chris Albin-Lackey, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Such moves have helped restore businessconfidence in Nigeria. From 2000 to 2006, foreign investment in Nigeria nearly quadrupled. Because of loan restructuring and climbing oil prices, Nigeria has nearly erased its foreign debt and accumulated US$70 billion in oil reserves. The attendant influx of capital, combined with new leadership, has had an impact: The Economist says that between 2003 and 2007, Nigeria’s gross domestic product more than doubled, from US$58 billion to US$132 billion. “We have an emerging economy,” Obaigbena says. “We have to sustain that momentum.”

Nigeria’s progress has implications throughout the region. Current global market meltdown notwithstanding, rising commodity prices, a recapitalised banking sector and reforms have helped to boost West African stock markets and foreign reserves to historic highs. “You have growth in the region averaging about 5 per cent every year for the last four or five years,” says Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, an analyst for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy based in New York. Because of its sheer size, Spio-Garbrah sees Nigeria as a lynchpin for the continent. “If the country is able to get its act together, it could spur the whole region to tremendous growth,” he says.

Such growth is visible in Lagos, where Obaigbena maintains one of three homes. Luxury hotels such as The West Foster and Mandarin Oriental are sprouting on the banks of the Lagos Lagoon. Stylish, Asian-inspired lounges and restaurants are opening behind innocuous storefronts. And throughout the US and Europe, young Nigerians are returning, often against their parents’ wishes, to be part of Nigeria’s nascent boom. “There is a lot of money in Nigeria right now,” Obaigbena says. “This is the time of opportunity.”

Political challenges

Conspicuous growth amid harsh obstacles has been the hallmark of Obaigbena’s career. Born in 1959 in Ibadan, Nigeria, to middle class parents, he grew up in  Benin City in Nigeria’s Niger Delta and studied creative arts and English at the  University. After working on Time and Newsweek’s special sections on sub-Saharan Africa, he founded THISWEEK as a weekly publication in 1987, which grew to become the daily THISDAY newspaper.

Since then, Obaigbena, who gives his staff the freedom to report as they see fit, has been no stranger to controversy. During the military regime of the 1990s when journalists were routinely arrested for criticising the governmenty, “the publisher of our competing paper, The Guardian, was shot and almost died,” he told The New York Times. Upon release from his own arrest and detention, Obaigbena went into exile, returning only after General Abacha’s death in 1998.

Even as THISDAY has grown and prospered (the newspaper opened the country’s first four-colour presses), its coverage has been met by firestorms. In 2002, when the paper ran into trouble with Islamic fundamentalists who were denouncing the Miss World pageant, THISDAY‘s offices were plundered and burned, and staff named in local fatwas. In December 2006, THISDAY‘s editorial board chairman, Godwin Agbroko, was killed by gunfire en route from work. “When we hired him, we knew he would always tell the truth,” Obaigbena says of Agbroko, who received the 1997 PEN Freedom to Write Award. “I was shocked. I was very, very sad.”

Such experiences imbue the THISDAY Awards –an annual gala feting good governance – with personal significance for Obaigbena. Every year since 2000, the newspaper has gathered nominations from readers for government officials and business leaders who exemplify accountability, transparency and abidance by the rule of law. Information on each nominee is compiled by the Nigerian affiliate of KPMG, the international auditing firm, and a panel of eminent Nigerians chooses the winners. Recent THISDAY award winners have included Bukola Saraki, a governor who invited persecuted Zimbabwean farmers to resettle in Nigeria, and Nuhu Ribadu, head of the Economic and Financial Crimes commission.

Despite Nigeria’s ongoing challenges, Obaigbena is optimistic. “We have to build infrastructure, urgently,” he says. “The next challenge is to manage Nigeria’s oil windfall.” He insists that microfinance and social investment, not hand-outs in the form of aid, are key to helping the majority of Nigerians lift themselves out of poverty. “Let’s target families, individuals,” he says.  “Nigerians are entrepreneurial. Once they have the resources, they can grow their ideas into businesses. The second therapy is long-term: education. Invest in education, especially technical education. Invest in people.”

Many challenges lie ahead. It will take closed door meetings with powerbrokers, the sheer star-wattage of his THISDAY/Africa Rising spectacles and much more. But Obaigbena is committed to taking Africa’s future out of the realm of wishful thinking, and into the nuts-and-bolts world of action.

This article was originally published in Issue 1, October 2008.

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