Business in Nigeria - Entrepreneurship or Opportunism?

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“The pursuit of wealth is not a bad thing in itself because without food and comforts which wealth provides life will be penurious and drab. But always remember that any wealth accumulated on a selfish basis, at the expense of others or at the expense of the State, in defiance of social justice helps to create a disorganised society in which everybody will eat everybody, and no single person can be safe.”
– Chief Obafemi Awolowo


“We are all complaining of corruption but when corruption works in our favour, we call it connection”. – Anonymous

This article is written by Lateef Adewole
I love wealth! I love wealthy people. I love to be wealthy. Who doesn’t? I once wrote an article titled: “Money is the root of all happiness!”. I got a lot of adminitions as reactions from sanctimonious people, who love to use religion to colour opinions. I disagreed with many of them since their religious evidence didn’t suport their claims. I queried if money is not that critical to human existence, why then is it that in Nigeria and most African countries, the religious leaders acquire plenty of it “in the name of God”? They build mansions, palatial homes, luxury cars, acquire multiple private jets, “even during Covid-19 lockdown”.
I have an habit of reading about the world’s billionaires. I am a keen follower of Forbes, the global organisation that rates the wealthiest people around the world. I could remember how a friend usually laughed at me as I read and talked about Forbes’ wealthy people. They evaluate individuals, organisations, etc, all over the world for their wealth, “based on obviously available and provable financial data and information”.
The last part of the statement above is instructive. This is because, there are numerous people who could be wealthier than those they listed but the information about their businesses, assets, wealth, etc, are not available to Forbes or could not be proven or traced or when acquired illegitimately. This must have explained the fewness of the number of people from Africa that usually made the list. Only 18 this year. Would they ever put late General Sani Abacha on the list? But this was a person who had billions of dollars stolen from the Nigeria’s treasury.
His case became public because he is dead. There are too many others like him and far worse than him. Nothing is being done to them because they are alive. Many are even revered. They are regarded as national or subnational leaders in Nigeria, and still making decisions, guiding directions of the country directly or indirectly. They assert political, social and economic influence till date. But can they explain how they became wealthy? Not publicly, since there is too much dirt involved. Many of them stole from Nigeria and Nigerians directly or indirectly. They never worked for those wealth.
Just this week, Forbes released its 35th Annual rating of the world’s wealthiest people. Only three Nigerians made the list. Alhaji Aliko Dangote, Otunba Mike Adenuga and Alhaji Abdulsamad Rabiu, in a population of 200 million people. The rest of big businessmen and women either did not make it or dropped off the list. In the whole of Africa, with 1.2 billion people, only 18 people are “officially” among the wealthiest.
Let’s juxtapose this statistics with few other continents / countries, the United States of America with a population of 331 million has the highest number of billionaires; 724. China /Honk Kong with 1.45 billion people have 698 billionaires. They actually have the highest number of new entrants at 210 people. India has 140. Europe has 628. Why then is the case in Africa different?
Like I said earlier, it’s because, many who we claim to be wealthy cannot justify it. I watched a programme where one Nigerian who was once listed on the Forbes was invited to inspire people, especially young ones, to be courageous in pursuing their dreams and attaining their life goals. The person was asked how they became billionaire. The response was; “I found Jesus” (OMG!). I have never heard of more ludicrous response to such a question. That’s a typical wealthy Nigerian.
We could see what many on the Forbes’ list do, how they accumulate their wealth over time. We could read their trajectory. Jeff Bezos of Amazon retains the top spot for the fourth time with an estimated wealth of 177 billion dollars. Followed by Elon Musk of Tesla ($151bn), Bernard Arnord ($150bn), Bill Gates ($124bn), and Mark Zuckerberg ($97bn) in the top five.
In Nigeria, I have tried to study and understand how people become wealthy. The truth is, many times, “it’s more of abracadabra. The more you look, the less you see”. When many rich and successful business people are asked how they attain their riches, there are always some gaps in their stories, which they often gloss over or remained silent about. That’s where “Nigerian factor”, a pseudonym for “corruption”, usually comes in.
In those years when I started reading about wealthy people in Nigeria and around the world, I was fired to belong to that class. I love the feeling. Even as an employee, as a side effort, I invested my earnings with people who were in businesses for investment purposes and to learn about business, in preparation for what I do today. Many didn’t turn out well. I got my fingers burnt. I lost tens of millions of naira (not dollars yet) in personal incomes and borrowed funds. I ran into huge debts.
At a time, I “technically” worked for my creditors for many years. This was because, I had to use substantial portion of my monthly salaries to offset my humongous debts. It was a very rough, tough and difficult period of my life. Although, in spite of all of that, I never gave up. That’s why I was still able to voluntarily resigned from my paid job to pursue my dreams. I became courageous. Sincerely, even till now, it has not been easy. Those bitter experiences taught me a lot. I learnt more life lessons than previous decades I had lived.
The education and business lessons I learnt were more than all I learnt in my MBA Business Management classes. Ever since, I have become toughened. I don’t get scared of losing my money. I am no longer risk-averse. I take risks but with more caution and calculation. I have learnt so much in the importance of communication, team work, decision making and many vital parts of business. I am a work in progress as I continue to pursue my dreams.
One thing I realised late was that disparity in the process of building businesses and creating wealth in Nigeria, compared to many other parts of the world, especially Western countries. When I read business books authored by the people from those countries, I remember how my friend usually sounded it to my ears that those things I read were not majorly applicable in Nigeria, but I was adamant and often disagreed with him. This was a mistake I later realised.
Many big businesses and their promoters in Nigeria are “opportunism and opportunists”, rather than the “entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs” that we take them to be. What then make them different?
Entrepreneurship can be defined as “the activity of setting up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit” (Oxford dictionary). An entrepreneur is a person who does the above.
This is what we study in many of the global businesses we see. We could study an entrepreneur, see how he or she started from scratch, gradually built their business, the failures, the cycle of rebuilding and failures that continued till they attain that height. That’s not so about many big businesses in Nigeria.
Opportunism means “the taking of opportunities as and when they arise, regardless of planning or principle. Another word for it is exploitation” (Oxford dictionary). An opportunist is a person who does the above.
What we have in abundance in Nigeria belong to this category. It covers areas like commerce, politics and religion which are the commonest and most pronounced.
Let me make some things clear. It is not only in Nigeria or Africa that this situation exists. In many of the advanced countries, there are numerous wealthy people who are similar to those I talked about in Nigeria. The only difference is the level of it. In many of these countries, the existing structures and strong, effective and efficient government institutions usually put them in check.
Also, similarly corrupt countries and those with corrupt leadership and systems are replica of what obtains in Nigeria. Not all successful business people in Nigeria are crooks or could not explain their wealth as I described. There are some, known for decades, from generation to generation, who made money, toiling days and nights for years. They are often referred to as “old money” in local parlance.
It’s not common to see multilayered generational wealth or businesses in Nigeria, because of these same reasons. Like the Yorubas will say; “atakoro wonu ado, kole mu omo inu re wo be”. Because there are always certain “secrets”, not necessarily spiritual, connected to many peoples’ wealth, which they could not reveal, the demise of such owners could mean a gradual end of that organisation / business. There are many that could be recalled.
Businesses are supposed to solve problems, meet up certain needs or fill in gaps. This is through production of goods and services. In the process of “serving” customers, revenues are generated with corresponding returns on investment. The continous accumulation of such returns, which are majorly reinvested over a long period, creates wealth. The journey could be tortuous.
However, many businesses in Nigeria strive on exploitation of the people, beyond serving their needs. They take advantage of the weak systems and corrupt leadership in almost all facets. Many business owners are opportunists claiming to be entrepreneurs.
The worst of this category is people who go into politics. After stealing public funds, they established some businesses as covers and then people celebrate them as successful business owners. That’s thievery. I have always said that if you make your money like that through politics, you are a thief! You don’t deserve our respect, but for our jaundiced society. You belong to jail. The others are those who use the name of God to steal from the people under different guises.
Experience has taught me that it takes more than good products and excellent service to “blow” in Nigeria. Many businesses are extension of governments. They cannot survive without them, either through actual patronage or by the involvement of political authorities in them, which often give them undue advantages over competition. It could be that people in governments have stakes in them or the companies are fronts for them. In that case, they are given some priorities and leverages, that could count for illegalities. Let’s examine few instances.
Oil and gas sector seems to be the most riddled with unwholesome practices. From top to bottom, practitioners in the field must belong to the “caucus” to breakthrough in big way. Oil blocks are allocated to individuals, just because such people are in power or have people in power. What are supposed to be national assets are ceded to private individuals. Then you see such people becoming stupendously wealthy at the expense of the impoverished country and citizens. Many of them would not even add any value to it. They will simply trade them off at a margin and collect their rent, running into billion dollars sometimes. How can Forbes recognise such? They will still call themselves entrepreneurs.
We saw how many people carried papers about while referring to themselves as petroleum importers during the subsidy scam galore. They made claims for subsidy payments without importing a single litre of petroleum products personally. They get allocations through dubious connections and simply sold the “papers” and collect rent.
There are government companies and national assets sold at giveaway prices to cronies by people in political authorities. The cronies hold these assets in trust for them. After such people must have left office, they continued to enjoy the proceeds of such illicit business deals and claimed to be business owners. Even when such stolen assets are worth millions or billions of dollars as we suspected in some cases, how would Forbes recognise them? Many of them cannot even lay claim to such investments publicly. Shame.
Some business owners get unmerited favours from governments through various “connections” in government agencies. It could be waivers on import duties, lower tax payments and tax holidays, or on other statutory obligations. It could be like availing an organisation more forex than others or at far lower rates than given to others. These put such business owners at undue advantage over competition in their products pricing. Such practices have led to few organisations monopolising some sectors. It can create “monsters” in auch sectors.
There was a story many years ago, where a business owner usually gets privileged information as to federal government’s plans to increase fuel prices. The government would then approved large quantities of petroleum products to their company at the going price, only to jack it up few weeks later. Such company made “kills” in margin doing that many times. Was that business ingenuity and creativity or crookedness? That was done because the people in power then must have had their shares in the deals.
The avenues that business owners game the system because of corruption are too numerous to mention. We all know one or more instances where many organisations, which are supposed to provide goods and services to the people, simply take advantage of them since no government will protect them due to corruption. They are opportunists.
Like I said earlier, “ko sibi ti won ti kii k’adiye ale” (there is no saint country in the world), but the situation is far worse in some countries than the other. I am not saying it is worst in Nigeria. There are worse countries than ours, especially in Africa where leaders still go into primitive acquisition of wealth stolen from the public purse.
The remedy to all of these involves building strong institutions which can checkmate such unwholesome practices to reduce the preponderance and depth of such rots. But who will do this when the political office holders are themselves, part and parcel of the scams? Patriotism on the part of business owners is key. Business must have human face. Political authorities should also be up and doing.
May God continue to guide us aright.
God Bless Nigeria.
You can follow me on:
Twitter: @lateef_adewole
Facebook: Lateef Adewole.
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