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Mike Adenuga: A Samurai at 60

05 May 2013

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Mike Adenuga


By Gbolabo Ogunsanwo
As friends, family, associates and Nigerians celebrate the birthday of Dr. Mike Adenuga, it is appropriate to reflect on the life’s journey of a major national icon.

The popular, public image of Mike Adenuga is that he is a man of money, plenty of it and when he wants to splash it, he know how to do just that, perhaps better than anybody else.
This trait he shares with the American real estate mogul - Donald Trump. Both men are charismatic and can be flamboyant when they want to.

But Mike Adenuga is more than just money. He is a boy-wonder. A man with the Midas touch. A hard-nosed businessman, with an iron determination, incredible vision, will-power, courage and energy who believes that there is nothing he sets his mind to achieve that is impossible. I salute him.

In 60 years, he has achieved much more in his life than most people can achieve in five lifetimes. He is a walking personification of a major MBA programme. You watch him, you study his life and go “do thou likewise” you’ve got your MBA.

Because of his image as what ordinary Nigerians call a “money man”, it has been difficult to fully and adequately appreciate and take a full measure of the man.

Michael Adeniyi Agbolade Isola Adenuga is an achiever extraordinaire and qualifies as a major African icon in his own right. Apart from the Federal Government, he is possibly the largest direct employer of labour in Nigeria. By so doing, he has personally affected, for the better, the lives of more people than many pretenders in the public arena who deceive themselves that they are impacting the lives of Nigerians for the better.

A close and complete study of his life will fill anybody with awe. It would appear that very early in his life, he had made up his mind he was reaching for the top of the mountain that he has set for himself.

If the fact that he had become a multi millionaire by the time he was 30 years old without having a major financial inheritance does not qualify as a extraordinary feat, the fact that before the age of 40 he was already a silent economic titan, with ownership of two banks, investments in real estate and commodities and the big one - oil, clearly shows there is something special, something magical, something extraordinary about this man.

At the age of 38 on December 24, 1991, by which time many of his contemporaries were still carousing in seedy night clubs, Mike Adenuga struck oil and produced it in commercial quantity. What bravery! What imagination! What derring-do! And in a country where the per capita income at that time was nothing to write home about and when few contemporaries would dare not go into even small cottage industries not to talk of highly complex and highly technical industries as banking, and petroleum exploration. Most were content with “buying or selling contract papers”.

To take the full measure of the man, we should realize that operating in the then most modern and most sophisticated economy, John D. Rockefeller, the first billionaire in history and the eternal grandmaster of the oil business got into the oil business at the age of 25.
A 38-year old man who owns two banks and has an oil bloc that is already producing oil is not just a rich man but an extremely serious-minded visionary and bold entrepreneur. He is a conquistador, an African Samurai.

In Japan, they call people like Mike Adenuga a Zaibatsu i.e. a national living treasure. If he was a Japanese, he would be in the class of Akio Morita and Masaku, the founders of Sony Empire or Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda or Mitsu Takaloshi, the founder of Mitsui.

In our clime, Mike Adenuga is in a class by himself – a Pathfinder, a Trailblazer, a Mountain Mover.
In a country that critics say that “nothing works”, Mike Adenuga has achieved world-class success in some of the most difficult businesses ever - the telecommunications and Oil & Gas business. If he could achieve this much success in an atmosphere that is often hostile to business, it can only be imagined what he would have achieved if the atmosphere had been more business-friendly.
A man with tremendous physical presence in his own right, one can say that again, Mike Adenuga is worth his weight in gold, sorry – in diamond.

He is a man after my heart. He is a man who has defied insuperable odds to be where he is today. He deserves to be saluted for his vision, for his bullish doggedness and for his appetite for risk-taking.

There are businessmen and there are businessmen and we have them aplenty in Nigeria – many who have achieved success in many business endeavours, but Mike Adenuga stands out. His life is a testimony to the triumph of human spirit over any obstacle or adversity.

The story is told that the great Sir Winston Churchill was invited to deliver the convocation address to the graduation class of one of the top universities in the UK. Seated were the High and Mighty of British Society and the nation’s intelligentsia, all waiting for the great Churchill to speak. The man lifted his rotund frame up, took the microphone, asked the graduating class to stand up and pointing at them said – “Never give up. Never give up. Never ever give up” and he sat down to the great applause of the graduating students.

Never ever giving up was the defining symbol of Sir Winston Churchill’s life. The British owe him an eternal gratitude as the man who prevented Adolf Hitler’s Germany from ever conquering Britain. During World War II, the Germans had practically defeated the British.
The Germans  had bombed the Britons into surrendering but they the Germans did not know. Then Sir Winston got up and made the greatest and most inspiring speech of his life which was broadcast all over Britain and was listened to by Adolf Hitler himself. So memorable was that speech that today almost 70 years after, the speech is still being played every hour at Madame Tussaud’s in London.

In the speech – Winston Churchill said – “We shall fight in France. We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”
Hitler heard the speech and erroneously believed that the British still had great capacities to fight on and so he slowed down his bombing activities on that island. That was what saved Britain.

In 1999, Mike Adenuga through a company called Communications Investments Ltd (CIL) had obtained a GSM licence. This license was later revoked.

In 2002, the Olusegun Obasanjo government decided to auction 4 GSM licenses. The story is told that Mike Adenuga instructed his bidding team going to Abuja never to come back to Lagos without a GSM licence no matter the cost. Adenuga is alleged to be the person that drove the sale price of each licence to $265million. He had paid the mandatory deposit of $20million. Unknown to him, there was allegedly a powerful person in the Presidency then who had sworn to do everything to ensure Adenuga did not get any licence.

A few hours to the closing time for the payment of full auction price, Mike Adenuga was able to successfully pay into the New York account of the N.C.C.
During the crisis that followed this affair, Adenuga published for all Nigerians, photocopy of the exact time that the money hit the NCC account. But the “Oga at the top” at Abuja decided that Adenuga did not meet the deadline. Maybe he was using Greenwich Meantime on his wristwatch. And so Adenuga lost the licence. That would have knocked out practically any man except anybody made of steel. Adenuga was down but not out. He decided to try again when he bidded for the Second National Operator’s Licence in August 2002 through another company called Globacom Ltd. The SNO licence empowered him to operate a GSM network. It is estimated that what Adenuga lost billions of naira in the initial attempt to have a GSM licence. How many people – Nigerian or non-Nigerian would still be interested in a business after losing such a fortune and to make matters worse, when competitors have gone ahead to try to capture the entire market. Even the big Vodafone did not believe there was anything left in the market. That is the main defining character of Mike Adenuga.

How Adenuga eventually got the SNO’s licence in itself is a saga worthy of a James Bond thriller.
In a game of intrigue and counter intrigues. I reliably understand that major movers and shakers of Nigeria – Emirs, Obas and Obis intervened to beg the then “god” of Aso Villa without success. In frustration, I was told, Adenuga approached even Mandela and important European Presidents WITHOUT any result. Someday, the cloak and dagger story will be told possibly on Africa Magic.
A divine intervention enabled Adenuga to get the licence. “When your ways please the Lord, He makes your enemies to be at peace with you.”

Adenuga got on the ball and forced his 2 competitors who had been raking in unconscionable multiple millions on the basis that there was no way a “Per Second” billing for GSM telephone usage was possible in Nigeria, to sit up and know that a war was on. A Samurai nay, a Sumo wrestler had arrived on the scene. The Barracuda was determined to eat them live – with magi or no magi.
The rugged pursuit of his goal which culminated in his acquisition of the GSM licence is perhaps the ultimate public display of his ruggedness as a businessman and his fierce determination to succeed in life.

Adenuga had neither a golden spoon or nor a silver spoon – possibly a plastic spoon which was the business tutelage his enterprising mother gave him early in life. He had lost his father early in his life – the first Michael Agbolade Adenuga.
I often wonder whether the first Michael Agbolade Adenuga knew that he would not live long, that was why he decided to duplicate his name in our hero of today.

M. A. Jr. as he often signs his documents, is now a major brand in Africa. Perhaps the next task is to make the name a worldwide universal brand like Bill Gates, Donald Trump or Ray Kroc of McDonald’s.
Adenuga had led an indifferent life as a secondary school boy at the famous Ibadan Grammar School. But just before he left for the United States a chance meeting in Lagos at a social gathering with the then unknown Lt. or Capt. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida turned out to a meeting with destiny.

The two of them became great pals. He openly acknowledges the good hand that IBB later dealt him and his business in life. But the question is – Where are the other Nigerians that IBB tried to provoke to success by giving them oil licences?

His training in America, the land of Horato Alger, of Nelson Rockefeller, of Andrew Carnegwie, of J. P. Morgan, of W. Clement, of Robert Schuller and his MBA at Pace University, New York must have inspired him that there is no mountain high or big enough to stop him from achieving any dream he was determined to achieve.
Returning to Nigeria, he dabbled in commodities and real estate, becoming a millionaire before age 30. Most young men of 30 then, even now would have lost their head with that asset value but not Mike Adenuga.

Rather, plotting his way to the top with the calculation of a master tactician, he decided to go for the big game. He obtained two banking licences and soon after an oil bloc. There is the uncharitable gossip that he was fronting or is it backing for a known military officer. But there was a number of Nigerians that the IBB government decided to empower by such means. Most of them except M. A. Jr. either sold off their licences to some pink coloured men or leased them out to collect yearly rent.

Against all odds, against the blandishments of foreign oil companies who told him he must want his head examined for wanting, as a Nigerian, to actually utilize his oil licence, risk tens of millions of dollars, dig the ground for oil without absolute, cast-iron guarantee of success. But M. A. Jr., the ultimate risk-taker, did just that. The rest, as they say, is history.

This must have emboldened him to take the very big gamble of hundreds of millions of dollars to set up competition and get into the ring in the GSM market even against multinational brands like MTN, which then had more financial, technical, management experience than the young Glo/David.

Adenuga was hitting them everywhere. The first blow was his introduction of the “per second billing”. While his competitors were still struggling, trying to figure out what had bit them, he slashed the Sim card cost to N1.00. By that time, I myself thought he wanted his head examined. But he knew what he wanted – to lure customers onto the Glo network – and then they would have to buy recharge cards to stay alive there. He must have been a good study of John D. Rockefeller.

It is not only in his triumph against all odds in the Globacom issue that the Mike Adenuga genius is evident.
He had prior to this acquired the loss-making Premium Motor Spirit dispenser, National Oil and Marketing Company Ltd, done a no-sentiment management overhaul that had the old management screaming and cursing and shouting – Blue Murder. Within a span of 5 years, he turned the company around to profitability. In this operation, which put him very much in the public eye, he showed that he did not mix business with sentiments. In hiring senior managers of any of his companies, after the recruitment consultants have done their jobs and done all the shortlist, Adenuga is wont to sit on the panel where the final decisions are taken. Why? Not because he wants to impress the new entrants as to who the ultimate boss is but because in all entrepreneurs and management gurus from Henry Ford to Rockefeller to Lee Jacocca, Jack Welch, Stephen Covey, Tom Peters, Warren Buffet; there is the quality or gene in them to enable them to “smell” would-be staffers that have not just brilliant I.Os, impressive C.Vs but that unquantifiable factor that makes an employee an achiever, an ultimate star. I think the Jews calls that “chutzpah”.

In any country, in any economy, you cannot run a conglomerate with trillions in yearly turnover without interfacing with the political leaders of your era. In Africa especially, this is a very tricky issue because today you have a liberal government, the next day, a very conservative one and at various times you have ones that come to power after a dawn broadcast to “Fellow Countrymen”. I think in this, having regard to the fact that Mike Adenuga was still in his 30s when he had to “walk” the political tight-rope with the Caesars of Nigeria. He has “walked this walk” so skillfully for over 30 years that he deserves a seat as a Visiting Professor of Political Science at any of our top universities.

wNowhere is his acute understanding of the political terrain and affairs of Nigeria more in evidence than during the “Rumble in the Jungle” of the 2001-2007 political era. The arrogance of our major political players would not allow them to sit at Mike Adenuga’s feet to learn about “How to swim with the sharks without being eaten alive?”

Some discussions I had with him during that era showed how perspicacious his understanding was. He knew where everybody would end up. Those that would get the yellow card, those that would get the red card and how a player masquerading as a referee would eventually dribble himself out of the field. He was just brilliant. He knew who had the JOKER. It was from him that I got a quote I have treasured since then in my treasury. Reflecting on two major gladiators of that era, Adenuga said that the mistake that one major player made was – “You don’t bring out a gun if you don’t intend to use it”. I will never forget that.

Mike Adenuga is the only person that I know - military opponent, politician or otherwise who totally and thoroughly outflanked, outsmarted outwitted “Aremu Aladiye”.

Not even the legendary IBB, the “evil genius” who was maneuvered out of the field, not even the murderous Abacha who was the Federal Reserve Bank’s representative in Nigeria during his era, was able to achieve this. What kind of a person is this guy?

Finally, a word about Mike Adenuga Jr’s generosity. Over the last 30 years he has reached out to hundreds if not thousands of people in cash, in kind, buying or building houses and giving them away, giving out naira in tens of millions, giving out FX in various currencies in hundreds of thousands that I will not be surprised if his welfare budget is not in the billions every year.

There is this contemporary testimony of a friend of mine-a-man-about-town in Lagos social circles who had a major health challenge and managed to prevail over the understandable stumbling blocks that Adenuga has erected to prevent Nigerian pan-handlers from eating him up alive. He asked his aides to enquire where the fellow wanted to be treated – the U.K, the US or India. Inexplicably, the fellow chose Nigeria and Adenuga shelled out breathtaking mllions in Naira to his hospital. On discharge, the fellow wanted to come say “Thank you” to his benefactor – but Adenuga made himself unavailable. Up till today, the man has been unable to see the guy who paid millions for his healthcare.

At 60, Mike Adenuga would not obviously be interested in the free bus ticket on London Transport to which he would be entitled. Rather, I think he would be looking for the next mountain to conquer.

Can I show him one? He should try to grow seven clones of Mike Adenuga Jr. – 7 being the number of perfection.
Mike – Welcome to the Senior Citizens Club.
– Happy Birthday the SAMURAI, our own ZAlIBATSU!

Tags: Politics, Nigeria, Featured, Samurai

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