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A toast to Tony Elumelu, the quintessential pan-africanist

By ‘Femi Olufunmilade
01 December 2021   |   2:55 am
My acquaintance with pan-Africanism as a concept began when I became a political science undergraduate three and half decades ago.

Tony Elumelu

“I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”_
– Stephen Grellet

My acquaintance with pan-Africanism as a concept began when I became a political science undergraduate three and half decades ago.

What is pan-Africanism? It may be described as a conscious effort by people of Africa on the mother continent and people of African descent in the diaspora to promote the unity of purpose among their kind towards the restoration of their human dignity in a world where the black race is regarded as an inferior species of homo sapiens and has been subjected to structural and psychological degradation through slavery, colonisation, and neo-colonialism over a period spanning centuries.

In an article titled “On Afro-Pessimism and Pan-Africanism” published in The Guardian newspaper of 20 July 1991, I identified three phases of pan-Africanism. The first was the cultural phase, which began with the abolition of slavery in Europe and the end of the American Civil War, which marked the victory of forces opposed to the perpetuation of slavery in the United States.

The cultural phase was characterised by the liberated blacks beginning to assert the fact of their humanity. In the US, “I’m black and proud” was a statement of self-assurance popular among the black folks asserting their non-inferiority to any human group created in the image of God. It was a phase that witnessed a ferment of multiple genre of uniquely black music-making a clear statement of the fecundity of the black man’s creativity and cultural sophistication.

From the Spirituals to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Jazz to Pop, blacks in the US stamped their dominance on the musical scene in no time. On the mother continent, a cultural revival took the form of rejection of names linked to whites. The great Zik of Africa, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, dropped his baptismal name ‘Benjamin’ and not a few Zikists acted in tandem during the anti-colonial struggle in Nigeria.

Those were times when an emergent, young African literati comprising Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Kofi Awoonor and countless others gave to the world a culturally rich repertoire of knowledge aptly christened African literature, classified into prose, poetry, and drama.

Next was the political phase of pan-Africanism. This phase overlapped in some respect with the cultural phase. It began as far back as 1845 when returnee slaves from America founded and governed Liberia. In 1920, the inimitable, ebullient, and cerebral Marcus Garvey, (whose octogenarian son, Dr. Julius Garvey, I had a zoom conference with weeks ago), in order to give a fillip to his “Back to Africa” campaign, declared himself the Provisional President of Africa. It was a riot act for the white colonisers on the continent to get out and it emboldened several educated Africans to start demanding independence from colonial rule. It was an era when the first generation African nationalists like Herbert Macaulay and Casley Hayford in Nigeria and Ghana, respectively, came into the limelight. By the early 60s, one African country after the other had gained independence.

The next phase of pan-Africanism was to be economic. Colonialism had tied the African economy to the apron strings of the metropolitan economies of Europe. Hitherto Africans were not planting cocoa and rubber, for instance. But the colonial masters introduced these crops and promoted their cultivation on the African continent by tagging them “cash crops”, making their cultivation veritable means of earning the paper money they had introduced and, in which form, mandatory taxes were to be paid.

That was how many African farmers abandoned the cultivation of food crops for cocoa, tea, coffee and the like to satisfy the palate of the white man. And till this day, most African countries remain dependent on these crops whose prices are determined by the buyers and never the producers!

The indigenous ruling authorities in postcolonial Africa have bungled the economic phase of pan-Africanism. They seem to be at a loss on how to utilise political independence to wrestle back the economic independence of Africa. In fact, in not a few cases, they succeeded in returning Africa to the manipulations of the erstwhile colonisers through debt peonage.

Economic development ought to be a self-enlightened, autochthonous exercise, informed by the peculiarities of a country’s ecology.

But the continent’s leadership often surrender the initiative to external forces on this score. The decade of independence, for most countries on the continent, was labelled the Development Decade (1960 – 1970) by the United Nations. Of course, with a clueless Africa in mind.

Subsequently, we had the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) succeeded by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), both orchestrated under the auspices of the UN with 54 African nations boldly in focus, while we rotate on the same spot like the barber’s chair.

In-between, we have had the Bretton Woods sisters taking the initiative to lead us by the nose. Both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund imposed a purported market-driven reform programme on African countries that came with anti-developmental conditionalities for most parts of the 1980s through the 90s, dovetailing into the new millennium. Our leash in their hands was our indebtedness, the size and duration of which they determined for us. The hardships their structural adjustment programmes subjected us to can only be adequately judged by God himself!

It is amidst this gloom that the efforts of one man in the person of a banker called Tony Elumelu renew our hope in the possibility of Africa getting it right. The only road to the reclamation of the dignity of the Blackman globally is an economic breakthrough. Once this continent gets its acts right and is on the path of sustainable economic growth and development, all the stigma and discrimination against black folks everywhere will go. The Chinese have earned their own respect. Black people on the world’s most endowed continent have a greater chance to do even better!

Tony Elumelu, the former MD/CEO of the United Bank for Africa, an investor with hands in many tasty pies, is empowering African youth entrepreneurs with a spread and on a scale that is causing Frederick Douglas, Marcus Garvey, Kweggir Aggrey, Kwame Nkrumah, Zik of Africa, Patrice Lumumba, Agostinho Neto and other unforgettable Africanists to smile at us from yonder.

Three weeks ago, on 12th November, a Friday, I was marking scripts but soon got distracted by a live programme on Arise TV, Nigeria’s best in terms of quality of audiovisuals. The 2021 cohort of the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme was being unveiled. It was breathtaking as the statistics were reeled out and youthful beneficiaries from across Africa testified!

This commenced in 2015 and has waxed stronger and stronger such that in 2021 alone, the programme admitted approximately 5,000 beneficiaries from across our 54 countries. Each got $5,000 seed capital, after undergoing a robust training programme Hauwa Liman, a fashion designer from Kaduna, Nigeria, described as a “Mini MBA”. Hauwa was a member of the first cohort in 2015 and she was glad to testify because her fashion business is on a steady growth trajectory, according to her. Her speciality is fashion with the African signature.

I was impressed. Most of those who testified from South Africa, Benin Republic, Kenya etc each touched on the quality of the entrepreneurial training they got from the Tony Elumelu Foundation team. We are not just talking of theoretical stuff, but largely hands-on teaching by those who had themselves navigated the unique terrain of the African business ecology like Tony himself who has his banking business across the continent.

Talking of the pan-African focus of his bank, a couple of years ago, I met my university hostel mate whom I had not seen in over 30 years, Demola Ogunfeyinmi (alias Hajji One!), galloping in the departure hall of the Murtala Muhammed Airport as he used to walk in those days. After a tight embrace and exchange of pleasantries, I told him I was going to East Carolina University, USA, where I’m an Adjunct Professor. He told me he was going to resume duties in Tanzania as the MD of UBA Tanzania. I exclaimed, “You mean UBA is in Tanzania now”? He replied, “Everywhere on the continent, courtesy of Tony Elumelu”. I thought for a while about the information and felt good. This is how it should be in Africa. We should be growing our own multinationals. That’s why I’m enamoured of the Dangote Group too.

Of course, the UBA is the bank disbursing the $100 Million revolving seed fund of Tony’s personal money committed into this unprecedented, mother-of-all entrepreneurial philanthropy across Africa. Who says raising 5,000 young entrepreneurs annually is a mean feat?! One of them, a Kenyan, has created up to 30 jobs and has expanded his production capacity in the recycling business that is just starting! Imagine, the multiplier effects of 5,000 fresh entrepreneurs annually in 20 years to come. I mean on jobs, revenue streams, infrastructure etc on this continent for 20 years! This is an African initiative!

We are talking of the effort of one African! This year Tony Elumelu Foundation pored over more than 400,000 applications out of which 200,000 were shortlisted and about 5,000 eventually clinched the trophy! That’s a huge job, men!

To underscore the credibility and effectiveness of its offerings, the Tony Elumelu Foundation is now partnered by international organisations like the UNDP, the EU, and business conglomerates like our NNPC, Indorama, and the list keeps growing! They are supporting with funds for more youth entrepreneurs to be mobilised in agriculture, ICT, manufacturing etc.

At this juncture, may I advise our federal and state governments in Nigeria to partner with the Tony Elumelu Foundation in empowering our unemployed but talented youths. The Foundation already has the infrastructure for training and disbursement of the seed capital. No point reinventing the wheel. Key into what the world has recognised as successful! Delta state governor, why not set the ball rolling? Tony is your son. Exploit him to the fullest! Give him $100 million to be used for youth empowerment in your state for decades to come. It will be your greatest and most enduring legacy. This is what happens with proven success stories in other climes. I give an illustration shortly.

Warren Buffet is America’s oldest living billionaire. He’s a mentor and friend to a much younger and richer billionaire, Bill Gates.

After Bill set up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Warren observed it was well-structured and making real waves in global philanthropy, he decided to put a huge chunk of his funds to charity through the Foundation. He didn’t ask for his name to be added to the Foundation. It remains Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to date. And it may interest you that of the $51 billion value of that Foundation, Warren Buffet’s hard-earned money accounts for $32.7 billion in 2021! That tells you something about the mentality of the white man.

Warren Buffet, as far as he is concerned, is being saved from the hassles of having to put an administrative structure in place to put the money he knows he won’t take to the grave to the use of suffering humanity that needs it most, globally. He found in a younger Bill Gates a credible ally and simply keyed into his successful charity, exceeding the younger man’s input to boot!

Let our billionaires who might be thinking of how to help the less privileged in Nigeria, partner with the Tony Elumelu Foundation. It’s credible. It’s formidable. I didn’t say so. The EU, UNDP, Indorama, NNPC etc are saying so with their money.

Ladies and gentlemen, at this juncture, I propose a toast to the long life, good health, and abounding blessings of Tony Elumelu, the Quintessential Pan-Africanist of the 21st century!

Cheers, everyone!

Prof. Olufunmilade, a political economist and Pan-Africanist, is pioneer director, Buratai Center for Contemporary Security Affairs, Igbinedion University Okada, Edo State.