IT was a case of killing many birds with one stone, as I took on His Royal Majesty, the Obi of Onitsha, Igwe Alfred Nnaemeka Achebe on one subject matter after another. We talked on the American presidential election and the Obi said that as a “citizen of the world” and a boardroom leader, he cannot afford to ignore events within and outside the country.
He let me know that before and after board meetings, “there is an opportunity for informal discussions on important issues that bear on the business but which are not on the agenda. Any company that is doing business in any country will pay attention to whatever is happening in the country.”
In a world that has become a global village, Achebe says every business leader should think global and should be interested in issues like the American presidential election “because whoever wins will affect your business one way or another with the economic policies they are going to come up with.”
“That is to underscore the fact that the broad issues in the country are relevant to any business. How is our leader leading? How are the people at the grassroots responding to the leadership? How is the dynamics affecting my business? What is the perception of our field operatives? And if you are in the banking sector, what do we get from the branches? Are people putting in more money or taking more out? For the board, what is happening in the environment in which the company operates is as important as its core business.
“Sometimes, at critical times, when after all the agenda items have been exhausted, we devote the last hour of the board meeting to a general discussion on the basis of environment––non-partisan politics, economy, the state of peace, the social upheavals such as unrest, terrorism and kidnapping–– all of these are relevant one way or another, to different degrees.
“At such perilous times when Boko Haram was on rampage in the northeast, we had advised our branch managers: ‘If you are in difficulty, shut down promptly. Do not wait to get clearance from the head office. While you are waiting for clearance, some disasters may take place. Make a good decision, pull out.’
“We monitor their welfare and wellbeing. As the chairman, I call the MD, how are our boys doing over there? Once, one of our branches was attacked, the manager shot and had to be flown to England for a series of plastic surgeries.”
Donald Trump versus
Back to the American presidential election, the Obi is pro-Hillary. “The prospect of a woman becoming the President of America, I sincerely believe is a good thing,” he says. “Ideally if the Republicans have had a woman, then America can choose the better woman out of the two. But Mrs. Clinton, I believe, is a better choice for the world than Donald Trump. I am speaking as a citizen of the world. Donald Trump has made some stirring statements and the fact that he made them without thinking about them. Every statement he made he has had to backtrack and offer explanations. When you are in Oval Office you don’t have that luxury and you have the world in your hand. Mrs. Clinton has come a long way. Very brilliant a lawyer, and a former First Lady. When she was a First Lady, she proposed a bill on health to the Congress which was turned down not because of the quality of the bill but because it came from the First Lady, an unelected First Lady, a very sound bill which has found its way back. She was Foreign Secretary, she has been a Senator, she has been in the White House before. She was a co-president, let’s put it that way. I think she is a better choice for the world than Donald Trump.”
My friend Yaw Nsarkoh, the managing director of Unilever Nigeria describes his chairman, the Obi of Onitsha as the “Wise One.” To appreciate his wisdom and sagacity, you will have to look at composition of his board. I asked the Obi: What kind of board has Unilever compared to Diamond Bank?
“Much smaller but I cautiously say fairly heavyweight at Unilever,” he replies. “Before Buhari came into office, I was the chairman of the board, I have Atedo Peterside. Do you know Atedo Peterside? He has run a bank successfully; he is the chairman of Cadbury, board member of Nigerian Breweries, and everything else. We have Udo Udoma as a director, chairman of UAC, chairman of Union Bank, director of Unilever. And we have Malam Abba Kyari, as director, member of the board of Mobil, former MD of UBA, among other things. These are the three external directors, the non-executive directors working with me. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
“Our debates are impassioned but very perceptive. Each one brings a different perspective. Udoma is first non-executive chairman of the Corporate Affairs Commission, chairman of the governing board of SEC. So he brings that regulatory knowledge. Atedo Peterside is chairman of the SEC committee that reviewed the Companies and Allied Matters Act and all the SEC regulatory things and so he brings these perspectives. Of course Malam Abba Kyari, besides having been MD of UBA and all that is a lawyer and a sociologist. So the background they bring is just unbelievable. And in one fell swoop, Abba becomes the Chief of staff to the President, and Udoma becomes a minister. That is an indication of the quality that I have and the fortune I have as the chairman.”
So, what is it like as a chairman leading and managing this cerebral team in the boardroom?
“It is fantastic, but I have to be prepared. You don’t wake up in the morning and go to a board meeting. You have to work through your issues. But again it is a happy board, we don’t vote. We have a good discussion and the best views come out and I put them together and everybody agrees that is the way to go. It is a very cerebral board, very perceptive, it is good for our executive directors, all of them are younger than us and they learn from us. What we always do also is that we have lunch at the end of the board meeting. We bring the next line of management who are not executive directors to join us for lunch. We all sit in a manner that you can have a conversation and get to know them better. It is important that we as directors know them. Someday their names come up for promotions, and you have to know who you are talking about.”
Is there anything about the traditional setting that reminds you of the board?
“My Obi-in-council, my traditional council is like a board, and my fortune coming back to Onitsha is that I have been part of large organizations, so I apply the experience I have gained to run my traditional council. For example the two gentlemen you saw there are two of my chiefs. One is a first class chief; the other is a third class chief. Two villages have a land dispute and they are representing the interests of their villages and I am the arbiter. My experience in formal organizations has been absolutely useful running the Obi-in-council, and running Onitsha as a community. We hold monthly meetings. The minutes are written and action points noted. The chiefs have their backgrounds. We have an engineer, we have lawyers, we have doctors, we have retired diplomats. Everybody has a role: political advice, legal advice, medical, security, youth development and education. We have a retired vice chancellor, he handles educational matters. So all of them have portfolios in addition to having their own villages they are looking after. We are basically bringing modern management into the traditional setting without upsetting the traditional customs and beliefs and the traditional environment. We protect our traditions and customs. But customs is not hanging on to19th century because times are changing and you must change with time, if you don’t you are left behind. So we are moving well. If you need to get in touch with me anywhere, you can get to me on telephone, by emails and so on. So it is the 21st century. It is a smart world. And you can get a lot done on that basis. Put it this way: if I was just stuck in Onitsha, pouring libation and breaking kola, I will probably go crazy. So the fact that even at Onitsha, I can get involved, be engaged in corporate issues, without even going to Lagos or going to Abuja, makes me happy. It makes you doubly fulfilled.”
NEXT WEEK: OFALA, FESTIVAL OF SELF-RENEWAL