Bisi Olaoye pays tribute to Leo Stan Ekeh, champion of Nigeria’s digital democracy

The world daily empties into America to chase the American Dream. Even Nigerians do. But there is also the Nigerian Dream. One man who epitomises this is tech mogul, Leo Stan Ekeh. At a time when the fad was to study in Europe, Asia or the Americas and tarry there to make a career in one’s area of calling, Ekeh, after his educational pursuit in Asia and the United Kingdom, returned to Nigeria to start a business from ground zero; from practically out of nothing.

It was both a risk and a gamble. But patriots are redoubtable risk-takers. Most men and women who dare are those driven by patriotism, self-belief and nationalistic fervor. They believe both in themselves and in their environment: community, county or country. They see a bright future where others see glum and doom. They are usually dreamers who would not mind to inconvenience themselves to create the future they have envisioned. Such persons abound in the global tech space. Some just can’t wait for the future to happen. They are in a hurry to make the future happen. It’s the forte of innovators. Some even drop out of school to create the future only they can see. And they have made a success of entrepreneurship in their chosen fields.

The list of such successful school drop outs in the global tech agora is a noble cast dripping with names like Bill Gates, Mack Zuckerberg, Paul Allen, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs (now late), Craig McCaw, etcetera. Add to this list, Africa’s Leo Stan Ekeh who had to abandon his postgraduate studies in the UK to return to Nigeria to innovate a digital future for the workplace including the media ecosystem. The difference between these icons and Ekeh is that while the rest started out and flourished in the United States and the advanced West where ease-of-doing business, electricity, general infrastructure and ready-made human capital abounded, Ekeh left the comfort of Europe to return to Nigeria in the mid-80s to pioneer a startup in an environment that has nothing but all the factors that would made an enterprise suffer still birth.

Today, over three decades after returning from UK to start his Nigerian Dream, Ekeh has not only proven that a Nigerian Dream truly exists and is attainable, he has become the patriot and nationalist who at every twist in his country’s transition to digital socio-economic and political economy, shows up with both the solution and the seasoner. From a mere type-setting office, he has grown his start-up into a global tech conglomerate, earning the trust of mega tech giants in the mould of Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Acer, Samsung, among others.

But this little tribute to Ekeh as he marks his 67th birthday on Wednesday, February 22, is not about his ability to turn adversity to advantage, or build start-ups to scale-ups. It’s about his interventionist roles in the deepening of digital Nigeria’s socio-political cum economic ecosystems. Doubtless, it may have been painful for young Ekeh to abandon his postgraduate studies and posh life in the UK to return to Nigeria with all the uncertainties. But what was pain to him has become gain for Nigeria.

In a matter of days, Nigerians would be heading to the polls to elect a new president and members of the National Assembly. It is Nigeria’s first election with fairly advanced digital enhancement called the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS). The introduction of BVAS has its history in the first ever digitization of the nation’s voter register through the Direct Data Capture (DDC) machine in 2007 by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The DDC machine, a brainchild of Ekeh, thus became the forerunner of digital democracy in Nigeria. It paved the path for the introduction of card reader technology as a means of voter accreditation.

To his credit, Nigeria successfully conducted the 2007 and 2011 general elections deploying the technical backbone provided by Ekeh’s Zinox Group. It’s obvious that what drives him is the passion to build a knowledge-driven nation and re-brand the African continent, not the dainties of cash and materialism. Ekeh is the undisputed champion of Nigeria’s digital democracy.

In a matter of weeks after the general elections, Nigeria would be undertaking yet another census, 17 years after the last headcount in 2006. This time round, it will be different. Branded a ‘digital census’ by President Muhammadu Buhari, the digital component of the 2023 population and household census is being provided chiefly by Ekeh’s Zinox Technologies. Such interventions at moments of national challenges has earned Ekeh a reputation as the ‘Tech Conscience’ of the nation.

The same national digital intervention was enacted by Ekeh between October 5 and 17, 2003, when Nigeria hosted the 8th All Africa Games codenamed COJA 2003. That same year, Nigeria hosted the 18th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The event held in Abuja between December 5 and December 8 during the tenure of President Olusegun Obasanjo. Again, Ekeh’s Zinox powered the event to the pride of both President Obasanjo and other Africa heads of government present.

The feat was repeated in June 2006, in Banjul, capital of The Gambia which hosted the 7th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Africa Union (AU). The event which held from July 2 to 5 was powered by Nigeria’s Ekeh. It bears restating that Ekeh’s Zinox has also executed major projects offshore in Guinea Bissau and the Arab nations through partnerships, a testimony to its technical competence and capacity to compete at the global turf.

At 67, Ekeh is still listlessly innovating solutions, creating armies of digitally-savvy Nigerian and African youths through the many tech capacity-building hubs across campuses in the country and growing partnerships with state governments in Nigeria and other Africa nations’ governments to engender a culture of e-governance.

As he marks his birthday, he would be remembered as one man who proved beyond any doubt that there is a Nigerian Dream. He has become a role model for teeming youths who should now look to his path and business model to draw inspiration. He has proven that despite the mounting odds including insecurity, lack of infrastructure and dearth of skilled human capital, Nigeria can still carve a huge niche in the global ICT marketplace.

 Olaoye writes from Lagos

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