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Why we are honouring our exceptional business leaders, by Mbanefo

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SECCIMA President-General, Gozie Akudolu

Like a lot of men, in pursuit of novelty and amusement during the months of COVID-19 isolation, Ifeanyi Igwebike Mbanefo, President of Champions Court, grew facial hair. It was a surprise to see this former editor, an alumnus of The Guardian, African Concord Magazine, Independent Newspaper, Reuters News Agency, Federal Civil Servant, and until recently, senior manager with Nigeria LNG Limited sporting Abubakar Abdulsalami type beard. Ifeanyi’s new looks has aged him, but has also made him somewhat “distinguished”, enhancing his eyes and redefining his face with fetching handsomeness. Ifeanyi, who in his time in Nigeria LNG Limited created Africa’s biggest Science and Literature Prizes – The Nigeria Prize for Literature and The Nigeria Prize for Science both with cash values of $100,000 each – created N75 billion Community Development Foundation for Bonny Kingdom, N500million microcredit scheme for host communities in Rivers State, has with friends and in partnership with South East Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (SECCIMA), South East Amalgamated Market Traders Association (SEAMATA), National Commissions for Museums and Monuments, and National Gallery of Arts, recently instituted the Igbo Business Leaders Hall of Fame to celebrate entrepreneurship in South East Region of Nigeria. In an encounter with LEO SOBECHI, Mbanefo discussed this new pet project and reflected on his long and illustrious career.

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You suddenly went off the radar. You walked off your job at Nigeria LNG Limited, what happened?
Nothing happened. I retired voluntarily. I felt it was time to move on. Just the same way I moved from The Guardian, from African Concord, from Federal Civil Service, I left as a level 14 officer in 1998. I gave NLNG 20 years of my life, but the company doesn’t define me. It was just another stop, a waiting lounge, in my life’s journey. I had played my part, groomed young men and women who could take over and run the business better; I had reached the peak of my career. What’s the point of hanging on, marking time, as if NLNG is the last bus stop; a terminus of sorts. It would seem as if I was waiting for old age and death. It was time to move on, to give younger ones a chance to grow. I still haven’t reached the official retirement age yet.

The words of American rapper Stormyz sums up my story: “I am deeply flawed and still figuring out how to grow into the person I need to be, but within all of that confusion … I have purpose. And my purpose has led me here.”

I had other plans for my life. I had trained my children in some of the best schools in the world and I secretly admired them. I always wanted to go to Harvard University. Go to that fountain of knowledge. Just to take a sip; just for the fun of it. I did that as a treat to myself. I wrote a weekly profile column for The Guardian. I wanted to write long-read biographies, to explain lives of some of Nigeria’s controversial figures, especially now that history is no longer available. I have collaborated with some eminent personalities in this regard. I have been very busy with writing, and with passion projects. A passion project is a challenge that you willingly embrace for fun, increasing your zest for life, or making a contribution to the world. Igbo Business Leaders Hall of Fame is one of such projects; this is my way of giving back to my society. I want Igbo society to regain pride in its past. To learn to celebrate its exceptional children.

This project has attracted a fair amount of curiosity. It has many supporters. Some have challenged its scope. Why not the entirety of Igbo achievers? The question is how do you eat an elephant? Answer, one bite at a time. This is where we start, others can take up other aspects of Igbo history and culture.

Given the project’s attempt to unsettle the way that Nigerians think about their entrepreneurs; given the attempt to make business men and women role models and thought leaders, it is bound to raise eyebrows. I have followed keenly the work of our research team and their painstaking efforts to check all claims for factual accuracy. But most importantly, I have tried to let the project to speak for itself; to chart its own course.

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What is your view of the current state of the Literature and Science Prizes? Are you satisfied with their growth and progress?
The newspaper is not a good forum to give advice. If I have a criticism of the prizes, how they are run or managed, I will simply pick up my phone and call my colleagues in Nigeria LNG. I left the prizes in the hands of people better than I. The current managers, Anne-Marie, Yemi, Elkanar, Emma, Patience and Dan Daniels, are very competent people. They don’t need my advice.

Is there anything you regret that you didn’t accomplish in your time at NLNG?
Plenty. my boss, the great Siene Allwell-Brown, a super star in her own right, and I fought to endow those prizes. We met with opposition from NNPC representatives on the Board of NLNG. We wanted to gift the prizes to Nigerian writers and scientists. We got the best minds in actuarial science in Nigeria and overseas to work on the endowment. And they came up with very persuasive arguments. We needed six years budget, bulk park, to endow the prizes in perpetuity.
The history of similar prizes shows that eventually, promoters of the prize run out of zest and the prizes falter. That was the case with Booker, later renamed ManBooker, Orange Prize. Nobel started as an endowment and has survived; indeed thrived. Endowment was the way to go. Everything was right. Oil price was high, NLNG was making tonnes of money, the Boards of Trustee for literature and science prizes were headed by the venerable Professors Ayo Banjo and Umaru Shehu. Board chairmen don’t come better than those. The only thing missing was that NNPC representatives on the Board of NLNG refused to approve the endowment. Because the company was making lots of money, they declared that NLNG could always afford the cost of hosting the events, yearly. NLNG Board works on consensus so their objections prevailed.

By the 10th anniversary of the prize, the company had not only cancelled the award night events, as a cost cutting measure, expenditure on the prize had far exceeded the amount needed to endow it in perpetuity. Short-sightedness is a curse. The prize is in its 16th year, and has spent multiples of that budget. I still get nervous that a major plunge in oil price would spell doom for the prize. I regret our inability to endow the prizes. We did all we could to convince them to endow.

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I also regret inability to inaugurate the Bonny Kingdom Development Foundation. We worked on changing the parasitic community relations paradigm. We worked with Accenture and created 25-year masterplan for development of Bonny fully funded by the NLNG Board and Shell. An MoU was signed among NLNG, Bonny Kingdom and Shell and witnessed by state governments and International Development Agencies ready to contribute to the development of Bonny kingdom. Professor Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke was appointed the chairman of the foundation. It was a missed opportunity for Bonny Kingdom. It was the kingdom’s best shot at modernity.

What is the motive behind your new project?
We instituted the Nigeria Prize for literature because we wanted to bring writers and scientists to public attention and make them role models and rock stars. They are by far worthier of respect than say Nigerian politicians, Nigerian royalty, and Nigerian clergy. The three groups we venerate.

The case of Igbo entrepreneurs is similar. Our schools, churches, in some cases roads, scholarships to our children in Eastern Nigeria were products of community efforts. Until recently, government was on AWOL. It is still on AWOL in many places. The vacuum has always been filled by the citizens with entrepreneurs in the lead of these efforts. Yet, they are unsung, unknown, except when they are the butt of jokes for probably lack of education or lack of finesse. Yet they have played the role of government without the power. They have created wealth, grown the economy of the South East to more than $28 billion, created and managed the successful Igbo apprenticeship scheme that has provided lifelines to millions of Igbo youths. For their roles and accomplishments, they deserve honour, praise and veneration.

Take the case of the two Ojukwus. Dim Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Ikemba Nnewi of blessed memory was by far the most famous Ojukwu. His name is written into history, there are status of him all over the East. All very deserving. But it is Sir. Louis Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the father and patriarch of the Ojukwu family who paid the bill for Emeka’s fame. From good education, (Kings College, Lagos, Oxford University, etc.) to his upper-class lifestyle and politics. Sir Louis paid the bills. It was even rumored that the Biafran war was prosecuted with his money.

Yet this giant of industry is hardly known or remembered despite his enormous wealth and achievements. Founding president of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, President of ACB, and major shareholder and board member of Shell Oil Nigeria, Guinness Nigeria, Nigerian National Shipping Lines, Nigerian Cement Factory, Nkalagu, Nigerian Coal Corporation, Costain West Africa Ltd, John Holt, etc. Unlike his prominent son, Sir. Louis pulled himself up by his boot straps as he started his career as a tyre sales clerk in John Holt. It is an irony that he returned to the company as board member and major shareholder. Such a man deserves a place in our history. He earned his spurs. There are many like him in the South East. These are men and women we want to honour.

Margret Thatcher put it succinctly, “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he had only good intentions; he had money as well.” Like in the Bible, the Igbos want to remember their Good Samaritans.

Besides, honouring successful Igbo business leaders we will display a roll of honour for winners and warehouse a collection of trademark personal items of these men and women who dared to make a living out of the rugged, but hostile Nigerian economic landscape in our museums and galleries. Nigeria and Igboland, have been improved by their accomplishments, enriched by their wealth, and magnified by their greatness.

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A place in the hall of fame, museums and galleries is greater honour than wreaths and eulogies. It is a way of tethering the present to the past; of making history real through stories we save and pass along. Our work will illuminate the past, empower the present and inspire the future.

Every entrepreneur desire two things: power and prestige. We cannot give power, but we can provide prestige. And more than anything else we offer them immortality. A place in the museum, gallery or hall of fame equals immortality.

Why the prize is different from other prizes such as the Man of the year awards?
The objective and focus of the awards. The awards you mentioned are omnibus in focus. Today it is a politician, tomorrow, a businessman, a government official. The criteria are unclear.

The Igbo Business Leaders Hall of Fame has a defined audience and the criteria are clear and simple. In order to establish an Award with good standing, it was decided that the prize will be FREE and that the nomination, evaluation, and selection process associated with the Prize will be of the highest standards. The system for nomination, evaluation, and selection of future Award Winners is structured and transparent. The Award will be given to an entrepreneur who has created an important and outstanding business and has made significant contributions to the society. The prime reason for receiving the Award is outstanding entrepreneurial achievement.

Self-nomination is not allowed. Nominations by experts and members of the public will provide the first step in the creation of a list of potential candidates to be considered by the Prize Committee. It is at the discretion of the Committee to decide which candidates should be targeted for a more thorough evaluation.

A candidate can be on the list for several years and during that entire time be regarded as a potential candidate for the Award.

Since the inception of the Prize, invitations have been extended to leading economists, analysts, journalists to nominate candidates. Members of the public will also be allowed to nominate candidates for the award from 2021. The selection of the Award Winner will be made by a Prize Committee. To be eligible for this award, the candidate must show up-to-date personal and company tax certificates, must have groomed no less than 10 entrepreneurs who must be willing to publicly attest to his mentorship, and must have given away nothing less than $10 million to charity and have made substantial investments in South East Region of Nigeria. The award panel will also be interested in the number and names of persons groomed and mentored by a candidate. In simple terms, the committee will take a head count of those who became entrepreneurs following in a nominee’s footsteps, mentorship or intervention. These protégées must be willing to publicly attest to a nominee’s support and mentorship.

All winners must evidently have had a profound impact on entrepreneurship and society, although how this will come about may differ considerably. In some cases, cases, the entrepreneur may have made ground breaking innovation in business; may have made outstanding contributions to human capital development in his community and in South East region; or may have made enormous contributions to community development.

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The selection of the eventual winner will be based on thorough evaluations and comparisons of a number of worthy candidates, and the pool of candidates from which the winner is selected must be reasonably stable, reflecting the long-term efforts of the Prize Committee. Except in rare cases—the winner will be selected from a pool of short-listed candidates. The names of those not immediately selected will be kept warm as potential candidates as they might make the final cut in future. It is after all a lifetime achievement award.

Why the stress on tax, mentorship and philanthropy?
The focus on tax is obvious. If you don’t pay tax, then you are not a good or responsible citizen. We shall make no moral judgement about the size or quantity of the taxes. That is the responsibility of the revenue service. However, the reason we reward philanthropy and grooming of entrepreneurs is that it takes a village to raise an entrepreneur. The lone heroic entrepreneur who launches a business with courage and heroism is a myth. Every successful entrepreneur was helped along the way by countless influences and supporters such as mentors, advisers, creditors, suppliers, partners, and customers. Every business exists in the context and fabric of the society. If you don’t care about the community, then the community has no business honouring you.

I need however to point out some unique features in our ranking system. We recognise that were not all born of the same pedigree. We acknowledge that some individuals have travelled further in their life’s journey than others. There are scions who inherited family wealth. There are those who came from upper and middle classes. There are people who grew up poor and overcame significant obstacles in their climb to the top. There are people who did not get any education.
And there are those who got little education and were self-taught.

SECCIMA President,Humphrey Anthony Ngonadi

As a result, the award panel shall look at upbringing, paying special attention to their parents’ socio-economic status. Orphans, victims of child labour and menial jobs, those who faced abuse, served prison terms, discrimination, sexual abuse, survived war or were known targets of government intimidation or lawlessness will get extra points. Female entrepreneurs, because they face daunting hurdles, will similarly get extra points.

Entrepreneurship is celebrated in Igboland because it provides an important route to success for many of the region’s young people. It is their way up and out. It has thrown millions of youths a lifeline out of poverty; and created jobs where and when the government could not. It has given Igbo youths a voice, dignity, opportunities and recognition.

Finally, I wish to point out that discussions within the Committee are strictly confidential. The details of various assessment meetings will not be communicated to individuals, the press and the public. However, it may be possible, based on the shortlist and ultimate winners of the Award, to reflect in general terms on the criteria used. The committee’s citations on the winner may also elaborate in detail on the contributions of Award Winners.

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Conditions for the award are very stringent, will you find worthy candidates or standards be eventually lowered?
A thriving culture of entrepreneurship helped in some cases by the famous Igbo apprenticeship scheme provided us a pool of excellent people for the Prize Committee to choose from. In particular, there are several entrepreneurs that are highly visible and readily recognized by virtually every Igbo man and woman. Even a cursory look at the shortlist makes it clear that virtually every nominee can be labeled a pioneer in some important respect. In summary, there is great diversity in the work and achievements of the nominees.

And the hall of fame?
Until ongoing plans for the permanent site of the Hall of Fame materializes, we shall start with unveiling hall of fame sections in museums and galleries. It is our intention to warehouse the photographs and intimate personal items of our business icons in our museums and gallery of arts. Our work will enable the museums and gallery of Arts to move from safeguarding and preserving our heritage to inspiring a wider public about the extraordinary history and development of our people, our heritage and contemporary relevance.

Our project will include restoring the museums and galleries, furnishing the Hall of Fame and other sections, and generally giving these facilities a facelift. But ultimately, we shall build a more befitting home for these exceptional business pathfinders. The physical location and construction of the museum are still in the planning stages, but several keys features have been identified. I will like to share them with you.

Our research shows that the hall of fame will appeal to a wide-variety of demographics from all over the country, including: the general public, students, and professionals. It will also appeal to academics, tourists, business leaders, historians, and researchers.

The first of its kind, it will provide valuable insights for successful new venture creation and wealth generation. It will have remarkable landmark architecture, including state-of-the-art interactive kiosks, educational programming and memorabilia never before amassed on legends of entrepreneurship all in one location.

But most importantly, it will warehouse a large searchable database of world-renowned business plans that received financing as well as the PowerPoint presentations and marketing materials that supported securing the sought-after funds.

Our offerings will also include seminars and workshops that provide boot camps for entrepreneurial-spirited individuals, especially to help startups be more successful.

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Kiosks with computer touchscreens will display business plans, marketing campaigns, financing PowerPoints, elevator pitches, key interviews of friends, family and colleagues associated with the famous business leaders, psychological analyses of what makes an entrepreneur tick, and timelines and road maps that divulge the strategies and guiding philosophies that ultimately led to these leaders’ success stories.

To keep the IBHOF in tip top shape, there will be paid admissions, annual membership, theatre tickets to entrepreneurially-focused films, a Museum Store, a Café serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, educational programmes and workshops including Camps (Camp CEO), and facilities for hosting a wide variety of special events like the “Mentor Awards”.

We have started raising funds quietly from philanthropists and international donor agencies. We shall be seeking donations of memorabilia from famous business icons and business development materials for the collections that will be exhibited at the museum. The management team of the IBHOF is open to considering multiple investors, partners and other sources of funding and donations.

Our offer allows icons and businesses to embed themselves into the architecture and landscape of the hall of fame property, museums and galleries and their online property. Included is a chance to participate in the yearly hall of fame awards, to have their image and signage on a variety of museum memorabilia and in a number of historical books. And above all, a chance to smooch yearly with business and political leaders during the induction of new hall of famers. Memories are an important part of all our lives. Not seizing a chance to put up old photographs, scrapbooks, and stories of your business in IBHOF lounge, is in our view, akin to walking away and leaving value on the table.

What stage is the preparation?
We have been working on this project for years. On December 5, 2020 at Nike Lake Resort, Enugu, we shall induct the first set of Igbo Business Leaders in the hall of fame. It’s urgent that we tell everyone what this means, and we are pulling out all the stops to do so. We are an independent, fearless and unapologetic about our goals and the ambition of this project. We are aware of numerous awards in the country. But ours is different. We are making history. This is an invite-only gala. Those who cannot attend this glamorous event will be able to watch from the comfort of their homes for free as it will be streamed on our multi-media channels. Time will be announced and links provided.

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