Tony Elumelu: I Struggled to Eat Three Square Meals

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With a trademark, serene smile, dressed to the nines, he sat across a marble table that reflects his distilled silhouette – decked in a black suit, white shirt and a red tie to match, his face radiates with hope and commitment as he talks about leaving a legacy in Africa and the need to let the African youths take a shot at leadership. Wealthy, philanthropic and visionary, he has come a long way through the parched path of deprivation and discomfort of a nation promised to be a giant but sleeps on. Now a global brand, Tony Elumelu, the economist, entrepreneur and philanthropist, as the Chairman of Heirs Holdings, the United Bank for Africa, Transcorp and founder of The Tony Elumelu Foundation, is a strong believer in diligence, innovation, wealth and prosperity. At the recently concluded Mandela Washington Fellowship summit where he spoke to over 1,000 young African leaders in Washington, D.C., Elumelu relieved memories of days he struggled to survive. The accomplished banker and philanthropist tells Adedayo Adejobi how he became what he is today

What is the role of the Tony Elumelu Foundation in changing the political framework in Africa?
Setting up the Tony Elumelu Foundation is about economically empowering our young ones and I would be happy if one day a Tony Elumelu entrepreneur becomes the president of his or her country – and it will happen. We also play an advocacy role because we realise that for entrepreneurs to succeed the operating environment must be right and we engage with governments to help shape policies. So, I would say changing Africa is a collective responsibility for all of us. Every one of us must realise that we need an improved Africa in the 21st Century; because the truth is that the world is moving and new leadership is evolving in other parts of the world and we may face a huge risk of Africa even retarding further instead of making progress. So Tony Elumelu, Tony Elumelu Foundation, yourselves, friends of Africa and other Africans must realise that we need a new kind of leadership, public sector and private sector to move Africa forward.

How do you deal with other governments trying to interfere in Africa?
In the 21st century, we need massive investments into Africa and investments should not have any colouration. We should encourage Africans to invest in Africa. We also need the Chinese, Japanese, Americans because it is the inflow of investments that will ultimately help us to create the jobs that we need as a continent and that is encapsulated in the economic philosophy of Afri-capitalism. That is the private sector getting involved by investing in key sectors that will help create economic prosperity and social wealth. We need to begin to change our mentality as a people. In the 21st Century, we should be engaging in a different fashion to create opportunities. If we have the right leadership, our leadership will engage in a manner that creates opportunities for their people. It is the lack of opportunities which is driven by the myopia of leadership that creates the kind of problems that we see.

How did you build UBA, what inspired TEF and what will happen seven years after your tenure expiration at the foundation?
The first reason is our people. What you are to the continent of Africa is what people are to our organisation. Great leaders have a pipeline of successors so that when they leave, others will come in because it is inevitable. So, we assembled the right team, shared the aspirations, they owned them and bought into them and we had a three-tier strategic intent. Tier one was to get a distressed bank and turn it around and make it viable and we gave ourselves a time-frame. With purpose and vision, we created milestones and put a time-frame. That way, in accomplishing those aspirations, because they were long-term, we create meaningful impact.
The second-tier intent was to become one of the top-ten banks in the country. We worked hard and accomplished it. And the third-tier intent was to become one of the top-three banks and we accomplished that. So, I would say that significantly helped; getting the right people; thinking about what we wanted to achieve; setting milestones; working very hard and being resilient. All of this helped us to achieve what we want to achieve.

What motivates you?
I grew up as a typical African boy: born, bred and schooled in Africa. I worked in Africa and attained a level of comfort. When I retired as Chief Executive Officer of United Bank of Africa, I asked myself if I could institutionalise luck because we were all a product of many factors: the kind of place you worked, the kind of leaders you have, your upbringing and so on. So, I just felt that it would be nice to give support to young Africans who have ideas and no capital.  The next thing was, should it be a Nigerian or African-focused foundation? I think it was Benjamin Disraeli that said this thing about poverty anywhere being a threat to mankind everywhere and because I was born in Nigeria, I’m more of an African citizen. There was the need to let prosperity spread. At the end of the day, our hope is that not what we do as a foundation but how we help to catalyse action. For example, we talk to other organisations and say we have many people applying, take some and help. We want this to be a movement on the continent.

How do you deal with rejection?
Entrepreneurs do not give up; they are resilient. I am resilient.

Do you feel the overthrow of Gaddafi was justified?
This is a tough question and I’m sure my colleagues will be cringing that I did not say something but I want to say something to that question. Nature abhors vacuum, so Africa must begin to take its destiny in its hand. We must begin to direct the nature and complexion of conversations with African narrative. We must be concerned about narrative on Africa. We must tell our stories ourselves. We must let those we relate with know things that are important to us as a people. We must not allow for our agenda to be set by others. Leadership is not alien to Africa. We must not allow one form of leadership to determine and define the rest of the world. People have argued and I am in that camp that the absence of some people have created regional security imbalance. We also have seen situations where people have repented, turned a new leaf and have been embraced to become better leaders. At some point, I am sure the world will debate some of these issues and political students and actors who play a role will be in position to comment further.

What must young African youths do to attain leadership positions?
My foundation is focused on promoting African entrepreneurship and leadership. We see the need for a ‘new kind of leadership for Africa.’ African youths must ‘seize the opportunity’ to ‘fulfill their aspirations and dreams.’ To attain leadership positions they must prepare for it as that is the only way they will be able to accept it when it comes. Leadership occurs at every level. There is so much we can all do and you must play your own part. You must prepare yourself for leadership and be able to accept it. Youths must struggle for leadership the same way older generation fought for independence of the African continent. This generation must struggle for strong leadership. Nelson Mandela, the freedom fighter, despite the enormous challenges he faced, was able to fulfill his dreams. The youths carry a huge moral burden. I have realised that for a man to dream is one thing but to realise his dreams, he will face tremendous challenges. He (Mandela) faced those challenges and he never gave up. You must think legacy. You must think long term. You must ask yourself, ‘how would I like to be remembered?’
For a continent that is hugely endowed with so much, we should actually be a land of plenty but unfortunately, we have not been able to get it right and the only reason it is this way is the dearth of good leadership across both the private and public sectors. I would like to share the burden that I carry as I travel all around the world and you see progress. But the progress that you see in other parts of the world is a bit lacking on our continent. So when the United States Government organises an event like this and selects great young Africans, we must seize the opportunity. Youth unemployment in Africa is a challenge to all of us. It is a threat to everyone and at times I wonder if we or our leaders recognise what this means. We must all work hard to put the youths out of the streets; failure to do that portends doom for all of us. We have natural resource and a demographic structure that if well harnessed can confer a competitive advantage on us as a continent in the 21st Century. But we are not doing all that we need to do.

With wealthy and influential Africans and a huge population in Africa with just one Tony Elumelu Foundation from Nigeria, what needs to be done to get people interested in thinking about the rich influencing young Africans positively?
I am a strong believer in prosperity and the fact that we should not criminalise wealth. But it becomes an issue if your wealth is self-centred and that is why the kind of growth and development we want in Africa is an inclusive one. We want mutual prosperity, not barbed wire economy. We don’t want a society where some have and some don’t. It’s all again encapsulated or defined in this philosophy of legacy and I think it’s the deficit of the mind that makes a man think he keeps accumulating forever. You must also find how to share what you have accumulated. When I was in the university, at some point it was difficult to eat three square meals as a student. I had that challenge and I resolved that when I have money I would eat very well. Today, if you eat one, you are counting the calories. So how much can you even eat? Our youths need good education and good moral value so they can conquer the world. I think we all should use social media engagement, writing in constructive manner to catalyse others. This is a journey and it has begun. I would hope that everyone will catch on. I want to be remembered by the impact I make.

Some African leaders are reluctant to leave public office. What career path can you prescribe for people who enter politics so that the younger generation can thrive?
Your question is apt. He who must seek equity must do so with clean hands. We expect so much of our leaders and at times we pay lip service to certain issues. It is not even what they pay or that they steal that is important, but the kind of wrong decision they make because of pecuniary motivation. Let’s support them so that we can hold them firmly accountable for probating. I had a meeting in the office some days ago; at the meeting people told me how they’re hiring the chief of staff to this person who served in America. In fact here, people leave as ministers and senators, while others are begging them to work for them. I’m telling myself if we had this in Africa, it would address the point you raised. But the reason we don’t have it is when politicians are in office they don’t think legacy; they don’t distinguish themselves.
I can only as a private-sector person take on someone who has distinguished himself or herself while in public service. We need to do something about that and the conversation must start. But more important, those public-sector leaders should realise that there is life after office and should do things with legacy in mind. People should leave public office and next day they are okay and that actually can help address the greed that we see in leadership. Africa needs young leaders to develop our continent. This must not be a complaint generation but instead an action generation that will help to take Africa from where it is today to great heights. And most important, it must breathe, think, remember and act legacy.

Can you prescribe a career path to those who enter politics?
I totally support paying our leaders well. Let’s support them so that we can hold them firmly accountable. The reason we don’t have it is because when people are in office, they don’t think legacy and they don’t distinguish themselves. Those public-sector leaders should realise there is life after service.