Nigeria’s Citizen Resistance and the Obi Cubana Paradigm

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Ameto Adepoju

Nigerian businessman Obinna Iyiegbu, popularly known as Obi Cubana, was recently questioned by the EFCC, Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, an investigation described as centred on issues of money laundering and tax evasion.

Cubana’s arrest or detention, though he was released shortly after, is a fall out from the fantastically lavish burial he recently held for his mother, a spectacle that redefined the use of currency notes as an instrument of wealth display.

Thick bundles of notes in Nigerian naira, American dollars and perhaps other currencies were distributed like flows of rain and used as footballs. A large herd of cows, the most expensive and most prestigious form of livestock, were assembled for the carnivalesque celebration of his mother’s transition from the world of breathing humans. Obi Cubana instantly became a household name in Nigeria, as short comedic films and journalistic and scholarly essays examined the implications of this unusual carnivalization of wealth.

This display was all the more striking in being from a person not known to be among the defining figures of Nigerian political and economic space. Amplifying this paradox was the fact that his means of income as a night club owner is identifiable but his economic trajectory to the heights he demonstrated at that burial were unknown to most.

These perplexities were aggravated perhaps by efforts he later made, as in a BBC interview, to clarify the sources of the wealth of himself and his associates who contributed to the dramatization of economic power at the burial, an interview in which he mapped his journey from university education to economic powerhouse. Obi Cubana is a person outside the circles of enablement by political association, one of the primary means of economic ascension in Nigeria.

He is also not a pastor, another central means of economic empowerment in that nation. Being outside these chief means of economic expansion in his country, he may be seen in terms of the average Nigerian’s struggle against a system rigged against him. Obi Cubana thrives in a country in which, according to then central bank governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, a good part, if not most of the country’s earnings, are spent in running a government in which a single member of the legislature is described as earning more than the President of the United States of America, the world’s most prosperous nation.

Governors retire on particularly lavish pensions and even recycle themselves as senators even as those pensions keep running. The current President flies abroad for all medical attention, even for weeks at a time, as the nation’s health sector decays, constantly interrupted by strikes. Electricity supply is uncertain, spiking the cost of doing business.

Welfare services are almost non-existent. Over the years, insecurity has escalated through terrorism, banditry and kidnapping. Within this terrible situation, the average Nigerian is largely on his own in a world more feudal than democratic, a society regressing rather than growing in strategic sectors of national life. I see in Obi Cubana a version of the Nigerian as an economic revolutionary, a fighter triumphant against the unjust universe in which he finds himself.

Fighting against a failed system, a system he grew up looking up to with sky high hopes but which had failed him badly. His hopes came crumbling after he had joyfully clutched his certificate scroll on the matriculation day following four years of hard work in the proverbial ivory tower, rushing off to serve his motherland in the National Youth service scheme, hopeful of gainful employment as a logical trajectory in his journey to becoming a man.

According to his BBC narrative which 85% of Nigerian youth can connect with, he trudged the streets of Abuja, the national capital, in search of employment till his shoes warped. At that point he had no choice but to help himself by cooking and selling food as a squatter in an Abuja garden. He must have dreamt of growing from those humble beginnings to owning a full-fledged restaurant in the nice parts of town. This dream, however, again evaporated into thin air like the dust that rose from the bulldozer blades as it moved into the gardens and structures where he had found refuge but which were not fully in the city planning permit, and were therefore destroyed by the state.

I can imagine the helplessness, the hopelessness of Cubana and his associates as they went home that night to lay their dozen heads in the 12ft by 12ft room where they were all squeezed into hoping for a better tomorrow. Beyond the dust of the raging bulldozers, perhaps apocalyptic for the young struggling man, came a glimmer of sunshine and hope as he was introduced to working as a real estate agent, and, like magic, he got his first lucky break from the 5% commission of sales, an unprecedented boost for him.

From that point his fortunes reversed for the better. He became a winner in a war he fought without intending to but was compelled to fight because he could survive only by fighting it. He became a revolutionary in the struggle against the class cult, the aristocrats and the sons of the godfathers. He fought against the Nigerian stereotype of the wealthy and the ruling class, the mandatory pedigree that admits one to influence and power.

He demystified points of access to high velocity monies for the average Nigerian, breaking the monopoly of semi-cultic alliances which Nigerians have been deluded are primary to rising above the struggle for existence that is life in Nigeria. His proletarian identity is further consolidated by working with the Nigerian YouTube comedian Mr. Macaroni, an opportunity he is likely to grant to any other Nigerian comedian who wishes, such as the unforgettable Sergeant Efosa and Sister Equitous, projectors of iconic Nigerian identities, distilling laughter from Nigeria’s harsh socio-economic environment, representing the pulse of the Nigerian common man, generating meaning from the beleaguered Nigerian existence.

Most members of the Nigerian economic elite are beyond the reach of most Nigerians who aspire to grow but Obi Cubana looks accessible as a person who rose from the ranks to what he is now. He is available in his night clubs. He is a man of the people even at that stratospheric economic level. He is proudly home grown and home schooled, rising from outside all other circles of privilege, with a thick ethnic accent from his native Igbo which he deliberately flaunts, most often speaking his native language, seasoned with pidgin English, Southern Nigeria’s lingua franca.

His persona, though larger than life, connects with the sidelined and disadvantaged majority of Nigerians. In using bundles of naira notes as footballs, he was not disrespecting the naira but demystifying the almost magical hold of money on an impoverished populace, a person for whom money was once a rare commodity, now able to play with it as a toy in his hands. Redefining the character of wealth and public acceptance in the Nigerian context, he has created his own Republic-”The Cubana Republic” where he sets the rules and maintains them.

I expect he will contribute to the development of his beloved home town, Oba which he speaks so fondly of. I am sure he is presently investing in individuals who in turn will run the infrastructure he is contributing to constructing in that place. He may be seen as starting first with the foundational need represented by human power development. Rather than throw stones at him, he should be commended and encouraged to continue his philanthropy which certainly will extend to community infrastructure. The Lekki Toll Gate Revolution reverberates in Obi Cubana.

Those idealistic youth massacred by the Nigerian army on that fateful day in 2020 for seeking creative change in their home country have been muted for now, but their presence lives on in various forms of resistance. Our heart goes out to those who were felled but Obi Cubana carries on the struggle in another dimension. The street vendor, the roadside trader, the Uber driver, the man hawking his wares under the heavy rains and hot sunshine, all forms of honest enterprise, surviving against all odds in harsh conditions created by a feudalistic rule, constellate in the image of the man from Oba in his display of wealth in defiance of the crushing powers represented by the hard road it took to reach the heights of the economic mountain. 21 Nov. 2021.