Adenuga @ 63: The power of silence

By Louis Odion, FNGE
One of the enduring puzzles of Nigeria’s political narrative of the past seventeen years is undoubtedly the Third Term saga. It is perhaps a fitting tribute to the pervasive culture of amnesia today and a shame on the nation’s indolent intelligentsia that, ten years after that attempted political heist, no documentation of note – official or independent – yet exists to preserve its grotesque memory. Nor are there any signs today that a symbolic rite – like a colloquium – will hold tomorrow in remembrance.
Yet, TTA (Third Term Agenda) sign-posts a defining moment in the evolution of current democratic experience. By the depth of perfidy and the breadth of chicanery, its historical parallel would only be Ibrahim Babangida’s convoluted transition programme which literally dragged the nation up-hill and down the valley for years, eventuating tragically in the June 12 annulment of 1993.
Till date, without shame, Olusegun Obasanjo has continued to live in denial. Even in the face of numbing proof, he insists at no time did he seek – nor was he aware of attempts – to elongate his stay in power. History however mocks that big lie. For, the body interred in the shallow grave still has its bruised toes sticking out.
Intoxicated by a false sense of messianism, the Ota chicken farmer had sought to turn Nigeria to a banana republic and make himself emperor for life. Not content with a second term of office as elected president, he coveted more. A “national conference” was hastily cobbled together. For months in 2004, a motley crowd of “eminent” Nigerians cutting across all the divides camped at taxpayers’ expense in Abuja to deliberate and fashion a new corporate charter that would hopefully plug the sundry cleavages and effectively weld all the disparate tendencies into a truly united nation.
The naive were swift in rendering a standing ovation for the “father of modern Nigeria” for finally finding what they considered an ingenuous formula to fix, once and for all, the knotty National Question for which militants of Nigeria’s progressive community had waged relentless battles for ages.
But the truth soon unravelled after the panel wound up and submitted its voluminous reports to the crafty paymaster at the Villa. It did not take long before the hidden agenda unfurled. Legislative hirelings like Ibrahim Mantu (aka “the magician”) took over. Before the nation knew what was happening, an extraneous clause seeking to remove the cap on term limit for elected public officers had found itself in the executive bill tabled before the National Assembly!
In all, the proposal contained over a hundred provisions, some of which were otherwise thoughtfully progressive. But the inclusion of the “Third Term” clause contaminated every other thing.
Its promoters left nothing to chance. To other sitting public office holders already growing apprehensive, a sweet bait was dangled: “It’s of general application”. Meaning: “automatic ticket” for everyone. To federal lawmakers expected to undertake the dirty job by simply following the cues from magician Mantu, a humongous war-chest had been provided. Those who acquiesced – who were in the majority – were plied with staggering bribes ranging from N50m to N100m. Thus were billions of tax-payers’ money incinerated.
For clarity, it must be stressed that TTA actually failed not because of paucity of bribe to induce anyone willing to collude. It collapsed under the weight of its own treachery due more to the many acts of courage and defiance by few patriots who overtly and covertly pooled resources – both material and intellectual – to defend the territory of democracy. One of the unsung heroes of that momentous moment is Dr. Mike Adenuga Jnr.
This history is dredged up today partly in memory of the tenth anniversary of TTA’s demise and partly as tribute to the courage of Adenuga who, by the way, turns 63 next week. In fairness, there were countless others who stood up to be counted against TTA. Why Adenuga’s is significant is the character he showed at a colossal risk.
As was the practice in those imperial days, the power of the presidency was invoked indiscriminately to summon people to all kinds of meetings with little or no clue given as per the agenda. It was at one of such nocturnal meetings that Adenuga, fondly called the “Guru” or the “Bull” in the corporate world, reportedly ran into trouble. By then, TTA had coasted into bad weather on account of mass resistance from across the land. The nocturnal strategists thought it auspicious at this point to co-opt key players in the economy.
Not surprising, the evil design was elegantly disguised and introduced as “the urgent need to sustain Baba’s good economic reforms”. Stripping the funny masquerade bare and describing it starkly as Obasanjo’s inordinate quest for life presidency would easily have put decent people off. So, it has to be put nicely as seeking constitutional amendments to “deepen the reforms already started”, some of which fruits were already being harvested bountifully and savored in earnest by all and sundry.
At the said historic meeting, while the conveners, as usual, rambled on and on and the horde of sycophants present joined in parroting the need to “sustain the reforms”, Adenuga’s continued silence, as the story goes, unsettled the gathering. It was too obvious the Bull was battling hard to conceal the embarrassment of finding himself in such slimy company of political pimps and scavengers. When finally he broke his silence, his words were chillingly cold. He was for reforms to grow the economy, right. But his candid view was that getting the constitution changed overnight to enable Baba continue in office would be a tough call. His own take: are there no other options by which the reforms can be sustained?
There was a pin-drop silence after Adenuga spoke candidly.
Alas!, the only exhibit the sharks had longed for had finally fallen in their laps. No sooner had the company dispersed than the tale-bearers rushed to Obasanjo’s lair to brief him how, of all the rich men in town prospered by Baba’s reforms, Adenuga was the only ingrate opposed to rewarding him with extended stay in office. From that point, the Globacom boss became a marked man. (Needless to say that was the last time he was reportedly invited to the Third Term’s “strategy meeting”.)
By listing Adenuga among the reforms beneficiaries, what they actually meant was the rise of Globacom. To many however, it is debatable if Obasanjo can justifiably appropriate the glory only to himself bearing in mind the full details of the story. Adenuga’s Communications Investment Limited (CIL) was earlier issued a conditional license in 1999 and frequencies to operate the Global System of Mobile Communications (GSM). The license was later revoked with the loss of $20m deposit. It was adjudged to have failed to meet the deadline for the payment of $265m by few hours. Sustained direct appeals to nationalist sentiments that Obasanjo should exercise presidential discretion by allowing Adenuga enter the market did not change anything.
Undaunted, Adenuga soldiered on. Obasanjo was out of the country on one of his many foreign tours in August 2002 when the federal executive council chaired by VP Abubakar Atiku approved Globacom license after a bid for the Second National Operator (SNO). Luckily, unlike the 1999 bid in which CIL controversially lost not only the license but also the $20 million deposit, the SNO packed more fruits. It enables Globacom to also operate as a national carrier, digital mobile lines, international gateway for telecommunications in the country and fixed wireless access phones.
So, when finally the Third Term bill got shot down and buried during a televised session at the National Assembly in May 2006, it was clear a red flag had inadvertently been waved at the raging bull at the Aso Rock Villa. It did not take long before Obasanjo went after the likes of Adenuga for opposing his imperial ambition. Indeed, the nation would watch in horror as the full might of Federal Government was brought against the Globacom boss shortly afterwards through the EFCC as security personnel invaded his Lagos home in the broad daylight in Gestapo fashion. (So, when the Pharisee of Ota whines today that Buhari’s EFCC “does not have bite”, we should understand the dark, devious context he means.)
After hours of humiliating siege, they took Adenuga away. Without shame still, Obasanjo, through the security agencies, later deployed magnifiers, oil-lamps and sniffer-dogs looking for what was not missing at Adenuga’s business premises. But everyone knew it was all because the Guru refused to join the TT gravy train.
But ever so deluded, OBJ least anticipated the intensity of the national outrage the action triggered and the backlash from global capital. You don’t maltreat someone of Adenuga’s international stature and expect the world community would keep quiet. The global spotlights eventually forced OBJ to let go his captive. Obviously traumatized, Adenuga soon left Nigeria on self-exile and would not set foot on Nigerian soil again until Baba was forced out on May 29, 2007.
Indeed, as the Guru turns 63 next week, there cannot be a better time to salute the man with uncommon business ethic, a corporate enigma who however fiercely shuns the kliegs light, a compulsive recluse whose near obsessive aversion to open flirtation with political authority would then appear a show of piety to the original catechism of free enterprise. That the market be defined strictly by the fidelity to its rigid rules, not seeking easy riches by merchandising access to political authorities. Such attributes are indeed uncommon in today’s Nigeria where the average “billionaire debtor” prefers to wallow in vanity by paying Forbes to put him on the rich list, hustling for photo ops with top politicians at public events and generally loitering around corridor of power, scavenging for duty waivers, concessions or other seedy avenues to make cheap money.
As a scholar once put it, Adenuga’s own business model is not cutting corners but rolling your sleeves, getting your hands dirty to earn profit fairly: “Today, it’s no coincidence that whereas many others rely on special favours from government in form of duty or import waivers to keep afloat, Adenuga never asks for anything other than level playing field to compete. He believes in free trade. Again, if you check those who betrayed public trust like in the case of fuel subsidy scam, you don’t see Adenuga’s name or his company on such inglorious list. It simply tells you the business ethic of not just a true Nigerian entrepreneur but also a patriot par excellence.”
No wonder, debutant Globacom in 2003 pioneered per second billion system in the telecoms sector, halting MTN’s cold-blooded exploitation of Nigerians for two years.
True, it is impossible to survive the dog-eat-dog world of big business and remain a saint. Whatever may be his own shortcomings, Adenuga compensates for with a generous spirit. Even more remarkable is that he, as usual, prefers to conduct his philanthropy in strict anonymity in an environment where most men and women of means would not give if no one is watching or willing to cheer. Today, what is documented is the billions of Adenuga’s money that go into supporting Nigeria’s creative industry (music/movie world) and the soccer league. Much more of his wealth quietly goes to countless charities both at home and abroad, giving life-line to humanity in need.
Four years after his ordeal at the hands of OBJ’s goons, our paths crossed in Accra, Ghana. The occasion was a global award (Black Star) ceremony put together by Ghana’s respected foundation to celebrate some illustrious Africans. Naturally, our own Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, topped the honour list. Awardees included South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa. I was among Kongi’s guests from Nigeria led by -who else- Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi.
Inside the commodious hall that night, the air literally froze when the MC announced Adenuga’s presence. He was resplendent in a snow-white Agbada and white cap to match. Thereafter, his corner became the cynosure of eyes. In Ghana, he is revered as the great son of Africa who owns a world-class telecom company.
Characteristically, he had literally sneaked in through the VIP door unannounced. Not for him the usual disruptive antic of the Nigerian Big Man arriving late and moving around when the ceremony is already underway, hugging and bumping fists.
Incidentally, tonight, the Guru chose the seat next to me in the VIP section. Ever genial but nonetheless graceful, he threw the first salvo.
“Oh! Louis, you’re here,” he teased. “Well since you started winning awards all over the place as Writer of the Year you’ve abandoned your old friends.”
“Ah! Otunba!!,” I fired back, hand raised to the head mock salute. “How can your little boy abandon you. That’s attack as the best defense. That’s not true. It is you that’s inaccessible. In fact, it’s easier to see President of Nigeria than to see you sir.”
He laughed heartily. As the ceremony progressed, our discussion naturally drifted to happenings in Nigeria. But what I consider most memorable was his reading of the significance of the award ceremony:
“I think we need more of fora like this to build bridges of unity across Africa. We need to celebrate our own heroes and heroines to inspire the young ones. We need to stop the pull-him-down syndrome which is why Africa is yet to tap its full potentials to achieve greatness. By joining hands, Africa can move mountain.”
This perhaps explains why Adenuga yearly commit tens of millions of dollars to promoting soccer on the African continent. Weighed down by colonial legacy in form of language barrier, football provides a tool to reunite the people of Africa.
Six years earlier (2004), his look-alike son, Paddy, had opened a rare aperture on the domestic Adenuga, the enigmatic dad. The occasion was a dinner to mark his being named the “Sun 2003 Man of The Year”. Then, I was Sunday Sun editor. On the sidelines of the cocktail, Paddy and I got talking. Though born with proverbial silver spoon, he hinted of “tough training” and being made to appreciate early that things have to be earned and not taken for granted.
“You know dad’s standards are quite high,” he opened up. “It’s hell living up to the high standards he set for us. He’s a great dad who teaches us the dignity in hard work because he worked himself real hard to get to where he’s today.”
He obviously was referring to his dad’s humble beginnings in United in the 1970s when he juggled menial jobs of cab-driving and security guard to support himself while studying business administration at the North-Western University in Oklahoma and Pace University, New York.
Decades later, Paddy himself would enroll in a military school in the United States where he received “hard training”, not the luxury college of privilege where rich brats are pampered and spoilt. The idea was to inculcate the right values in him and his siblings, toughen them in order to compete well in the world out there and, above all, make them appreciate the true worth of things.
So, will Michael Adeniyi Agbolade Ishola Adenuga, Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON), now take a bow.

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