Want to be a billionaire?
Two things happened on Thursday that forced me to write on this topic. First, I bought a copy of TIME magazine featuring “100 Most Influential Companies”. I will explain why. For 20 years, I have been challenging my wife to come up with an idea that would make us billionaires. I regret to report at this point that she has not delivered. I admit that my own ideas are a bit silly. I once suggested we could invent a face mask fitted with a microphone so people could talk without pulling down the covering. That would also help reduce the spread of COVID. The missus and my daughter laughed so hard that I felt like a comedian. So, buying the magazine was to help me get better billionaire ideas.
Second, later in the day, Forbes released its World’s Billionaires List for 2022. Again, I began to study the list to get inspired. I discovered that the world’s richest people are concentrated in technology, finance and manufacturing. There is also a long list of billionaires in fashion & retail, healthcare, food & beverage, real estate, energy and media & entertainment. The US has always dominated Forbes Top 10. This year, there are nine American entrepreneurs within that bracket. In 2021, there were eight Americans — same as in 2020. How does the US produce the highest number of billionaires? Why are the Chinese in their hot pursuit? Is there any idea Nigerians can steal from them?
On the latest Forbes list, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, president of Dangote Group, maintained his status as Africa’s richest man with an estimated worth of $14 billion in his cement and sugar businesses. Dr Mike Adenuga Jnr recorded a significant rise in his fortune and is now ranked Africa’s second richest man and No. 345 globally. He leapt over Alhaji Abdulsamad Rabiu, chairman of BUA Group, who has dropped to Africa’s No. 3 and No. 350 globally with his cement and sugar wealth. Both Dangote and Rabiu are from Kano, a city historically reputed more for trade than manufacturing. Dangote and Rabiu actually started out as traders, so you could say they were both cut from the same cloth.
Forbes measured the wealth of Adenuga, chairman of Globacom and Conoil, based on only his telecoms and oil businesses. He is apparently worth far more than the $7.3 billion attributed to him: some of his companies are not publicly quoted and Forbes uses stock market value and exchange rate. Even at that, his wealth has grown from $6.1 billion in 2021 to $7.3 billion in 2022. He was Africa’s No. 3 in 2020, dropped to No. 5 in 2021 and is now No. 2. This is a big leap for a mogul whose business affairs are well talked about but which only a few have insight. Nigerians know him more as the man who revolutionised the telecoms sector by introducing per second billing in 2003.
While the families of Dangote, 65, and Rabiu, 61, were big on trade, Adenuga’s father was a school teacher. The Kano duo were importing rice and sugar in their teething days while Adenuga, 68, started out by selling lace materials and distributing soft drinks. He drove taxis to fund his studies at the Northwestern Oklahoma State University and Pace University, both in the US, where he earned degrees in business administration. But the millions he made from selling lace and soft drinks definitely paled into insignificance when his company, Consolidated Oil, struck oil in commercial quantity in the shallow waters of Ondo State in 1991. It was a first for a wholly Nigerian company.
However, this article is not about Dangote or Adenuga. I’ve written quite a lot about their stories and adventures in the last 19 years. Rather, I am interested in how we can write a new story about Nigeria and produce more Adenugas and Dangotes. The US has the world’s largest economy and this has translated into prosperity not just for the entrepreneurs but also for the average American. China, whose incredible blend of communism and capitalism has produced “state capitalism” (an oxymoron, since capitalism is supposed to be “private”), now has more billionaires per one million people compared to the US and the prosperity is well shared across its 1.4 billion citizens.
In Nigeria, we continue to brag about being Africa’s most populous country, but what productive advantage does this bestow on us? With 200 million citizens, most of whom are ravaged by poverty and disease, what are really the big benefits of being the most populous? Having a high population with low quality of life — as defined by access to water, sanitation, power, education and healthcare as well as gender equity — is, to my mind, the principal reason we are hemmed in by terrorism, kidnapping, yahoo yahoo scams and money rituals. Instead of producing billionaires, we are rolling out bandits and beggars. So, what’s all the noise about being Africa’s most populous country?
Having the continent’s biggest economy should translate to dominating the African markets with made-in-Nigeria products — if we are strategic in our thinking. Chinese products are not all over the world out of accident or for the fun of it. Human beings sat down and came up with a policy to make the Chinese economy export-led and they implemented the plans with utmost commitment and a sense of patriotism that would overshadow the selfishness and shallowness that are always at work in Nigeria. Government policies in Nigeria are mostly selfishly conceived and not meant to last the distance. Even the well-conceived ones would get frustrated by those who should make them work.
The purpose of this article is quite simple: to discuss how Nigeria can unchain its potential entrepreneurs, multi-millionaires and billionaires. We need leaders who are able to understand that there is a link between governance and prosperity. They must understand that shared prosperity can become the fodders for the much-needed national peace and progress. Government, or should I say policy makers, should stop thinking that poverty eradication or job creation is something to be done by a minister, a commissioner, a special adviser, a director or an agency. Politicians must know that distributing Keke NAPEP and wheelbarrows will not address the fundamental issues of poverty.
It is an obvious fact that most jobs are created not by politicians but by businesses — big, medium and small. Dangote, Adenuga and Rabiu employ tens of thousands. One branch of a bank employs dozens — and there are thousands of branches nationwide. Imagine the millions of jobs in SMEs, which form the engine of the economy. If our politicians and policy makers can overcome their poor concepts of poverty eradication and job creation, they will finally see that their primary role is to make the economic environment fertile and conducive to investment and to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of Nigerians. That is how to create jobs and tackle poverty and disease.
If the poor mindset can be dissolved, the solutions to our problems are in plain sight. I will list three fundamentals. They are by no means exhaustive. One, let’s become a country where the rule of law means something, where the legal system is not a joke, where there is respect for the sanctity of contracts and where government agencies do not behave like village tyrants and sadists. Any country where the rules mean nothing, where the government can just wake up and do anything it likes, and where individuals can easily procure dubious orders from court will only succeed in stifling entrepreneurship, investment and innovation. I don’t think I need to overemphasise this fact.
Two, countries where entrepreneurship flourishes and where wealth is created and shared have something in common: policy consistency. Entrepreneurs want to be sure of what they are signing up for. You cannot pump billions into a business only to be told midway that the rules have changed. Many people in government cannot be bothered about the consequences of their actions and pronouncements. It would appear they are more interested in milking businesses, harassing entrepreneurs and investors, and making life hell for them in the name of raising revenue. It is all a result of selfishness and a poor understanding of the link between policy and prosperity.
A critical, very critical factor in policy consistency is the macro-economic environment — the management of exchange rate, inflation and all. If indeed we are to inspire confidence in the economy, I assume that a government would understand what it takes to stimulate the necessary investments that would unleash growth. Such a government should not need much persuasion on the monetary policy actions that have to be taken. My biggest fear is adopting painful macroeconomic measures on the one hand and negating it with a horrible policy environment and a disregard for the sanctity of contract and the rule of law on the other. We will just suffer for nothing.
Three, government must continue to invest in productive capacities, particularly public infrastructure. I stumbled on a social media debate the other day over if government should focus on infrastructure or job creation — as if they are mutually exclusive. Building infrastructure is job creation. Thousands are engaged in the construction. However, with good policies and a conducive environment, government will not be the only one building infrastructure, much less taking loans to do it. Investors would complement government under PPP. But no sane investors will try that in Nigeria — where the next government, or even same government, can dishonour a contract.
Although I started this article by poking fun at my own business ideas and billionaire dreams, the indisputable truth is that Nigerians are exceptionally enterprising in spite of the absence of the necessary ingredients to flourish. I bear Nigerians witness that they toil through the chaos to create opportunities. In some instances, government is the biggest obstacle to entrepreneurship. You can imagine how far Nigerians can go if the basics are there. We would be to Africa what China is to the world. Nigerian products and services would be flooding the whole of Africa. You can imagine how many potential multi-millionaires and billionaires have been caged by Nigeria and may never bloom.
Do you want to be a billionaire? Why not? When I look at the number of billionaire entrepreneurs on the Forbes list, I ask myself: why are some countries more conducive to actualising potential? What do they have that we do not have? Can we learn from them on how to harness human, material and natural resources and banish poverty and insecurity? As we prepare to elect a new government, these are the questions we should be raising and discussing with passion. But we appear to be more interested in the dramas. A group has bought nomination form for somebody. Some clowns are begging someone to run, otherwise they will sue him or her to court. We need to buy some sense.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
Governor Bello Matawalle of poverty-infested Zamfara state has dished out 260 cars to traditional rulers across the state. He gave the Cadillac 2019 model to 17 emirs, 13 senior district heads and 230 district heads “in recognition of the traditional institution as the custodians of religion and culture and vehicle of cohesion and peace”. I don’t know what amuses me more — the senseless use of resources and misplacement of priority at a time of economic crunch or the deadened consciences of the “custodians of religion and culture”. Sadly, the car gift bazaar to traditional rulers is commonplace across Nigeria. It is driving the people crazy. The cup will be full someday. Inevitable.
THIS NIN THING
Over 75 million phones were barred from making calls on Wednesday as the government began enforcing its policy of linking the national ID number (NIN) to mobile lines. The measure is for security reasons: to be able to track down criminals. Obviously, criminals are not out of options — what kidnappers normally do is use the phones of their captives to call family members and associates to demand ransom. Terrorists, meanwhile, use satellite phones, according to reports. One thing for sure: this NIN thing will hurt the telecoms sector, which has been the saving grace for the economy in recent years. How can we make getting and integrating NIN more seamless? Critical.
Pastor EA Adeboye, the general overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), was clearly in pains last week. He spoke extensively on the state of the nation, notably oil theft, debt servicing and the 2023 polls. He hardly talks like that. But he said something that got me worried. “Why always Kaduna?” he asked. That question is loaded — some attribute the terrorist attacks to the fact that Kaduna has a substantial Christian population. In truth, it is not “always” Kaduna. Predominantly Muslim Niger, Sokoto, Katsina and Zamfara states have been under attack as well. This is well reported. But whoever is spinning the religious narrative is not doing badly. Selective.
It was exactly seven years yesterday that my friend, brother and mentor, Oronto Natei Douglas (OND), drew his last breath after a prolonged but brave battle with stomach cancer. Up till the point of death, he was still taking walks around his residential area and using the rest room unaided. Before he answered the final call of his Maker, he was still calling me on the phone to find out how I was doing — knowing full well that in a couple of days he would be gone forever. Memories of my last encounters with him torment me till this day. Oronto lived such a meaningful and impactful life that though he is gone, he will never be forgotten. He was a genuine human being. Fulfilled.