By ADEBAYO OBAJEMU
The disappearing presence of Nigerian Chief Executives of multinational companies Nigeria may be a vote of no confidence by foreign investors on the capacity and morality of Nigerians manage well structured business. A few decades ago Nigerians boasted of men and women of high management acumen who by dint of hard-work and competence assumed leadership as chief executive officers of many a multinational company in the country.
However, after their exploits and achievements, it seems the successor generation did not live up to the standards of these pioneer-indigenous CEOs who held sway in the past. The names that come to my mind include such management luminaries as Samuel Asabia, Michael Omolayole, Christopher Kolade, Chris Abebe and others.
Pioneering this indigenisation of Nigeria’s multinationals’ top positions was Samuel Asabia, a banker who was permanent secretary in Western Region Ministry of Finance from 1966 to 1970. He later became the first indigenous chief executive and managing director of First Bank of Nigeria in 1975.
Asabia was head of a few organizations and committees that brought him into prominence. Between 1970 and 1975, he was deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, and also chairman of the Securities Issues Commission which later became Securities and Exchange Commission. Between 1975 and 1981, he was president of the Nigeria Stock Exchange and in 1983 he was vice president of the Nigerian Economic Society.
Asabia was the founding chief executive officer of First Interstate Merchant bank (now part of Unity Bank of Nigeria) and he was founding chairman of Banque Internationale du Benin in 1989. He laid the groundwork for modern First Bank, brought modern management to bear on the operations, a solid foundation built on by successors. Among his successors is Oluwole Adeosun, who later became finance secretary in Shonekan’s interim government.
Dr. Chris Abebe, another pioneer indigenous chief executive officer of a blue chip company, joined the services of the United Africa Company (Nigeria) Limited (UAC) in 1935 at the age of 16. He started as a Clerk and was promoted to Chief Clerk in 1944.
By sheer dint of hard work and total dedication to duty, Abebe rose through the ranks and became the first African Group Personnel Director of the UAC in 1959 and ultimately became the Chairman and Managing Director of the company in 1972. After four years in the saddle, Abebe retired from the services of the UAC to pursue other interests.
He went to the Nigeria Breweries Limited and became the first Nigerian Chairman of the company. He left indelible marks in the organisation as his tenure witnessed the rise of the company to the top in the industry and dominance of its products in the market. He made important contributions to the development of both UAC and the Nigeria Breweries.
Michael Olawole Omolayole was at a point synonymous with Lever Brothers, now Unilever. His career started in 1952 as a science teacher at St. Gregory’s College, Lagos where he was until 1958 when he joined Lever Brothers Nigeria Limited as a Training Manager. In Lever Brothers, Dr. Omolayole proved his outstanding qualities and within seven years had risen to the post of a Personnel Director. He became Vice Chairman of the Company in 1971, a post he held until 1975 when he was appointed the first Nigerian Chairman and Managing Director.
Dr. Omolayole has been Chairman and/or Director of various companies outside Lever Brothers. He was a Director of UAC of Nigeria Limited from 1969 to 1974, Director and later Chairman of National Bank of Nigerian (1972-1975). He is at present the Chairman of Board of Directors of Chemical and Allied Products Plc., Ogun State University Investment Company, American International Insurance Company Plc. (AIICO) and Industrial Gases Plc. He also sits on the Board of Nestle Foods Nigeria Plc.
Christopher Kolade did much to raise the corporate profile and profitability of Cadbury Nigeria Plc when he was managing director, the first Nigerian to be the top man at the multinational. He is a veteran broadcaster and sometime Director General of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.
He was Chief Executive and Chairman of Cadbury Nigeria Plc and later the Nigerian High Commissioner to The United Kingdom. He was a colonial era Education Officer in Nigeria. He also taught Corporate Governance and Human Resources Management at Lagos Business School (LBS), and Leadership & Conflict Management at School of Media & Communication (SMC). LBS and SMC are both schools of Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos.
Formerly a member of the University’s Governing Council, Dr. Kolade as of 2012 was the Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of the Governing Council of Pan-Atlantic University. He is presently the Chancellor of McPherson University, Ogun, Nigeria.
Under his watch, Cadbury not only raised its profitability but also was outstanding in making the company one of the best, such that its products were leading brands. Unfortunately, his successor, Bunmi Oni, could not maintain the standards, and eventually under Oni’s watch, the company was sanctioned for book cooking and other corporate infractions.
Looking back at the achievements of these pioneer CEOs, it is sad to notice the decline in status and integrity of those who succeeded them and how it has negatively impacted on the country as foreigners have taken over. No matter how you browse its current status, it is hard not to think of Nigeria as a nation in decline, with indices of a glorious past looking today like feats that are difficult to replicate.
The voice of Africa’s giant, once commanding and compelling on continental affairs, is increasingly dwindling to a barely audible squeak. Another important dimension of Nigerian stupor was put on the table, last week, by the Pro Chancellor of the University of Lagos, Dr Wale Babalakin, SAN, when he delivered the 20th Anniversary Lecture of the Yaba College of Technology.
Babalakin lamented a situation where the chief executives of western multinational companies in Nigeria are overwhelmingly expatriates, drawn from the host countries of these companies. Pinpointing the growing lacuna, the guest lecturer cited names such as Ernest Shonekan, Christopher Kolade, Rufus Giwa, Abel Ubeku, Festus Odimegwu, Olusegun Osunkeye, and Sam Ohuabunwa, who once sat at the helm of western multinationals in Nigeria.”Today”, bemoaned Babalakin, raising his voice, “the advent of indigenous CEOs in foreign companies on our soil is virtually over, punctuated, of course, by a few honourable exceptions”.
There is no gainsaying that Babalakin is right on the money, and has provoked national conversation on a topical and vexing subject. For example, a situation where, as happened recently, a Kenyan was redeployed from another African country to be the chief executive of a beverage manufacturing multinational on Nigerian soil, tugs at our sense of national self-worth and self-validation.
How did this state of affairs, this palpable dimunition of Nigerian technocracy, arise? Babalakin suggested that the reasons connect with the lowering standard of education in the country and the attitude to work of Nigerians, and of course the moral decay.
Undoubtedly, these factors have roles to play, but only as part of a larger narrative of decline, even decay in our national affairs. To make the point clear, a former deputy Governor of the Central Bank, Dr Obadiah Mailafia, argued recently that the country has not only careered downhill in the educational sector, but has specifically downgraded or ignored business and management education, citing the fact there are no world class centres of management education on the scale of the Harvard Business School in the country.
Of course, our multiplying universities offer training and degrees in management; however, we are reminded by the incessant strikes of the Academic Staff Union of Universities that government has failed abysmally to fund universities and to upgrade their lack of topicality and universality. Evidence of this is provided by the fact that investment in the business sector is shallow and perfunctory.
Innovation and development usually occur in any country, let us not forget, when there is fluent interconnection between the state, industrial cum business sector, and the academia. In Nigeria, for the most part, this interconnection is weak or rudimentary. That is only part of the story however. There is an ethical and moral downside to our management culture, which mirrors the monumental corruption and sleaze in the public sector.
The expectation that the private sector is more virtuous than the public does not seem to hold true any longer. Hence, as a senior management official in the private sector, Dr. Olu Omoyele, put it to this newspaper “There is no denying the fact that several Nigerian CEOs, working for multinationals, have let down their moral guards, through unethical behaviour and empire building”.
This may have led to the lowering of trust, regarding Nigerian CEOs in the business sector. It may also be that the multinationals have capitalised on the excesses of a few Nigerian top hats to bang the door against the appointment of Nigerian CEOs. After all, there is no convincing or systematic evidence that, Nigerian helmsmen and women exhibit less integrity than their foreign counterparts.
Professor Hassan Saliu, former Dean of Social Science, University of Ilorin told this newspaper that “the era of Abel Abeku, Omolayole, Festus Odumegwu and others are difficult to replicate, because ethical standard in business and management has suffered asphyxiation.”
There are other factors at work. For instance, the ownership structure of these companies, during the golden era of Nigerian CEOs, was usually 60-40℅, with the understanding that Nigerian shareholders constitute influential minorities, whose views must be considered in the management process. It made sense, therefore, to put in place Nigerian CEOs, as part of a governance structure, entailed a win-win situation for dominant and minority shareholders.
These days however, most of these companies are predominantly owned by their parent firms, with minority Nigerian shareholders stake, hence, reducing the need to defer to Nigerians through the appointment of local CEOs. A more general point arising from this fact is that Nigerian capitalism is on the wane, illustrated by the lack or shortage of indigenous entrepreneurship that can give western multinationals a good run for their money.
True, a smattering of Nigerian banks and industrialists such as the Dangotes as well as the emergent owners of carbonated soft drinks like Big Cola, are carrying the battle to the gates of foreign investors. The general picture however, remains desultory to the extent that indigenous entrepreneurship continues to be weak and shallow with the Nigerian state constituting an absent or derelict midwife.
In addition, the business climate remains inclement, illustrated by the claim of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, that 37 companies closed down last year, or relocated to nearby countries, while over the last few years, Nigeria has lost close to 40% of its industrial capacity.
So, the dearth of Nigerian CEOs in western multinationals put on the discourse agenda by Babalakin should not be viewed in isolation, but in the context of the loss of economic vibrancy and de-industrialisation suffered by the country. No doubt, as a nation, we are not at the cutting edge in the commercial, industrial and technological sectors, mainly because the nation’s latent potential and huge human resources profile are not harnessed.
It is a crying shame, in this connection that the universities and colleges of education are shut down, because government has failed to attend to repeated demands for infrastructural support and welfare upgrade. Even at that however, it is hard to believe that there are no competent Nigerian managers, who can take over from their European and American colleagues. If indeed there is a mentoring and succession scheme put in place by these companies, it ought to include the prospect of Nigerian CEOs, which in any case will flash the idea that these companies take Nigerians seriously.
That is another way of saying that the deficiencies notwithstanding we should begin to look at a commercial future which includes the mentorship and consequent appointments of Nigerian CEOs. Siemens took a good step in this direction, a few months ago, when it appointed Tisafe Onyeche, as perhaps the first female executive of an influential western multinational. Instead of adopting a “siddon look” or bystander posture, government should bring its political weight to bear by creating rewards for companies that comply with best practices in this area.
Beyond that, government should create short term and medium term policies that will bring Nigerian business and industrialisation out of the bottom league of global development.