Ogbeni Oja Kuku: Genius. Icon. Magnate. Mentor.


Those who leave their mark on history typically do so by excelling in a field of human endeavour. Their paths to greatness are normally defined either by genius, industry or altruism. Rarely does one individual acquire iconic status by affecting society in all these spheres as signposted by Olorogun Sonny Kuku.

On January 3 2024, Dr. Sonny Kuku turned 80. On February 3, he will be conferred with the prestigious title of Ogbeni Oja of Ijebuland, only the third person in history to hold this most prestigious non-hereditary crown.

For significant context, the Ogbeni Oja literally translates as “leader of commerce and industry”. In practice,  it has attained greater significance of prime minister. Even here, further context is required to situate the weight and implication of this recognition. Historical accounts of the evolution and establishment of Ijebu Kingdom is hardly complete without the affirmation of Ijebuland as a hub of commerce and industry. In fact, credible history has proclaimed Ijebu eminence in African commerce, and particularly during colonial adventure in the continent. For this reason, the title of Ogbeni Oja is proclaimed to be “as old as Ijebu Ode” the political, commercial and cultural capital of Ijebuland.

An alumnus of very prestigious institutions including Kings College Lagos, University of Lagos and University of London, Dr. Sonny Kuku’s ascension to this prestigious title can therefore not be perceived in the realm of the regular ‘chieftaincy’ conferment. To put the title (Ogbeni Oja) in more context is to appreciate the different sectors of enterprise in which Dr. Sonny Kuku has excelled. In fact Olorogun’s story is one that can aptly be described as that of a man of many trades and master of all of them.

A renowned endocrinologist, Dr. Sonny Kuku co-founded the prestigious EKO Hospital of which he is also a co-chair. The hospital, which was the first private health facility to be recognised by government, is also the first to be listed on the stock exchange. The import of this distinction is that it effectively laid the template for sustainability in health and human service enterprise.

To be sure, the story of how the EKO Hospital vision evolved is a classic lesson in entrepreneurial courage and calculated risk-taking. It is also a testimony to strategic thinking and sacrifice of short-term economic security for long-term visioning. By 1978 when EKO Hospital was established, Dr. Sonny Kuku already had a promising career as a medical doctor in the university teaching hospital. At only 34, Olorogun Sonny Kuku already held a Doctor of Medicine degree, in addition to an already impressive collection of medical degrees. With such CV at an early age, Dr. Sonny Kuku would attain any position possible within the government health system. Therefore, a career path in this direction was perfectly in keeping with conventional logic. But not one who seek comfort in convention, Dr. Kuku, without wealth or benefaction, without sponsorship, traded the security of a certain career path for the uncertainty of private practice. With two other colleagues, an apartment and a bank loan, he took the plunge to establish the hospital.

Today, the hospital is one of the top, most successful private health facilities in the country. Olorogun would tell you that “the vision was more important than the material gains”. No doubt the vision has produced value beyond any gain that can be measured. Today, the facility serves as a top destination,  not only for therapeutic medicine, but for medical research and training which are the foundations of advancement in medical science.

But as significant as this achievement is, Dr. Sonny Kuku’s other accomplishments make even the EKO Hospital one sound like only a footnote among the rich array of qualifications and attainments in the course of his career and business. In the field of medical science, Dr. Sonny Kuku’s credentials read more like an aggregation of professional qualifications of several people than that of a single individual acquired in one lifetime. For starters, Dr. Sonny Kuku holds several degrees including a Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery, Master of Science in Pathology, Doctor of Medicine and Doctor of Philosophy. His remarkable feats in the field of endocrinology have undoubtedly propelled him to the prestigious fellowship of the Nigerian Academy of Science and a senior fellow of the National Postgraduate College of Nigeria of which he also holds a trusteeship. He is the president of the Nigerian NDC Alliance, the national arm of the Global Non-communicable Disease Alliance.

And of course, the recognition of Dr. Sonny Kuku’s accomplishments deservedly extend beyond the shores of Nigeria and even the continent. He was a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, the first black Master of the American College of Physicians, and the first African honorary fellow of the Colleges of Physicians of South Africa and Glasgow.

Olorogun Dr. Sonny Kuku is simply a colossus in size and accomplishment.

At Kings College, Sonny as he was popularly called, was clearly at the top of his class. Outside the institution, he became a mentor to younger ones who came after him. One would say Dr. Kuku is a quintessential Kingsman. In fact if one were to look in the dictionary for the meaning of the word “kingsman”, the picture of Sonny Kuku would immediately pop up.

In the institutions he attended, his pre-eminence followed him beyond the walls of those institutions. It is certainly not by chance that he became the president of Kings College Old Boys Association and also the president of the University of Lagos alumni association.

Beyond his academic and professional achievements, and as a testament to his versatility in industry, Olorogun Sonny Kuku has played and still plays a prominent role in the Nigerian banking sector, having sat as director of Midas Merchant Bank and chairman of Eco Bank.

Like a golden fish with no hiding place, Dr. Sonny Kuku has consistently been singled out for leadership among his peers in practically every sector in which he has participated. He was chairman of committee of university pro chancellors, chairman of committee of chairmen of university teaching hospitals and chairman of bank directors.

Olorogun Dr. Sonny Kuku’s appointment as Ogbeni Oja is by no means the first recognition of his accomplishments by the traditional or political establishment. He was Pro-chancellor and Chairman of Council  University of Benin, Pro-chancellor and Chairman of Council, Olabisi Onabanjo University and also received the national honour of the Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Indeed, Dr. Kuku’s odyssey through life is epic, his academic prowess is legendary, and his interdisciplinary accomplishments awe-inspiring. Kuku is simply of the stuff from which successes are made.

There is no doubt then that Dr. Sonny Kuku has done very well. He has also done a lot of good. For two decades the Sonny Kuku Foundation has devoted resources and expertise to tackling the scourge of diabetes and sickle cell in Nigeria. As one who has invested over half a century of his life and work in the field of medicine, there is no doubt that his compassion and devotion to the cause would have been borne out of his deep knowledge and awareness of the burden that sickle cell and diabetes have brought upon millions who suffer from these afflictions.

As the new Ogbeni Oja of Ijebuland, Olorogun Dr. Sonny Kuku becomes only the third person in history to hold the title, which also makes him a kingmaker in Ijebu Kingdom.

Having previously held the hereditary title Olor’ogun of Ijebu Ode, Dr. Sonny Kuku can rightly  be described as one who attained royalty both by blood and sweat. He became Olor’ogun by birth, now he has attained the prestigious title of Ogbeni Oja by industry and hard work.

Having attained the very distinguished age of 80 on January 3, there can be no more fitting birthday present.

Dr. Kasim Ibrahim-Imam (OFR, CON) is a former president of the Kings College Old Boys Association

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