You may disagree with President Muhammadu Buhari on many fronts. But you cannot question some of his decisions. The recent conferment of the prestigious National Productivity Order of Merit (NPOM) award on Leo Stan Ekeh, Oba Otudeko, Aliko Dangote, Tony Elumelu and others speaks to the President’s quest for a better Nigeria. No fewer than 25 individuals and seven organisations were honoured with the productivity award.
This is not an award influenced by political patronage, party affiliation or so-called electoral value. The NPOM is insulated from filial favours and political persuasion. It’s strictly on merit, steeped in productive values and conferred on those individuals and organisations who have against all odds broken free from the manacle of failure to create wealth and add value to society. The award has three categories: Individual, Special and Organisations. It’s a reward for genuine enterprise; for thriving in adversity; for ploughing where others pillage.
Winners spanned various fields: academia, science, entrepreneurship, media et al. But one winner stands out: Leo Stan Ekeh, a serial digital entrepreneur who has for over three decades striven to expand the frontiers of Africa’s digital economy. He’s the quintessential man who saw tomorrow; who worked the mills. He, singlehanded, placed Nigeria on the anvil of information communications technology (ICT) and beat her to shape and global reckoning.
Restless with an incurable proclivity for patriotism and national service, Ekeh has influenced the global ICT community especially the trend-setters in the mould of Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Apple, Lenovo etc to look in the direction of Nigeria. Not one to walk in any person’s shadow, he defined his own vision, found his own path and has ever since walked on that path once thought to be the exclusive preserve of the white man. From partnering with the white man, the same white man now seeks him out to partner with him.
Scorer of many firsts and pioneer of multiple ICT initiatives and outposts, he has on several counts, driven by patriotism, saved the nation from embarrassment and technical shutdown occasioned by poor and in some cases inadequate application of digital tools to solve national problems. He is the undisputed progenitor of Computerise Nigeria Initiative which brought thousands of Nigerian students in tertiary institutions face-to-face with computers (some for the very first time in their lives); and the chief driver of e-Government (today Nigeria continues to ascend on the global e-government index).
We remember him as the pathfinder of the Direct Data Capture (DDC) technology which has significantly helped to clean up the nation’s voter register. We remember him as the first Nigerian to export Nigeria-branded computers, Zinox, when in 2006, he got the nod to , computerise the 17th Africa Union conference in Banjul, Gambia. Zinox handled the full computerisation of the AU Summit, including the Presidential Villa and the Media Centre with Zinox brand of desktops, laptops and UPSes.
We have not forgotten how Zinox computers were deployed to power the Commonwealth Heads of Government Mission, CHOGM, in 2003 in Abuja; the All African Games, Abuja 2003; the African University Games held at Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi, FASUBauchi 2004; the INEC rescue mission in December, 2006 when it provided 12, 000 systems for the voter registration exercise which became a precursor to the full deployment of DDC machines and by interpretation, full introduction of e-voter registration. Again, we won’t forget that ahead of other firms, said to be multinationals, contracted to supply the DDC machines, it was Zinox which delivered far ahead of deadline to the relief of INEC and joy of Nigerians.
Professionals in the Nigerian media, from newspapers to advertising, will not forget how he computerised the media space, replacing our giant compugraphic machines with smarter Apple desktops and printers.
Till this day, Mr. Ekeh, once described as ‘Icon of Hope’ by President Olusegun Obasanjo, remains one of the most patriotic Nigerian entrepreneurs. He has not only domesticated his wealth and established businesses across the country, he has also continued to create jobs and create wealth from Maiduguri through Sokoto across the lush Middle Best and South-south to Owerri and Lagos.
For a man honoured by Bill Gates and his team as Global Microsoft Ambassador, it is not hard to place his position in the Africa, if not global ICT ecosystem. He belongs to the front row of innovators, pioneers and nerds in an ever expanding geekdom. But what drives him? What would make a post-graduate student cut short his academic pursuit overseas and return home to kick-start an adventure into computer technology at a time the nation was comfortably stuck in the mud of analogue technology; the good old days of the typewriter with all its clattering noise in the workplace.
It was far more than profit and healthy balance sheet. It was more of patriotic ethos, an innate derring-do. But much more, young Ekeh was fired up after a chance meeting with the late Steve Jobs, the iconic and uncanny founder of Apple Computers. Sometimes in life, we get what we wish ourselves. Steve Jobs had addressed a group of African students and young Ekeh was among the crowd of Africans chasing after knowledge offshore. And like any feistily ambitious youth, he quietly wished to explore the minefield of computer technology after his studies. And he was true to his dream. It’s no surprise that he was the first to introduce Steve Jobs product, Apple, to the Nigerian media.
Looking at this year’s productivity merit list which included the likes of Dangote; Elumelu; Otudeko; Vice Chancellor of Lagos State University (LASU), Prof Olanrewaju Adigun Fagbohun; Registrar of the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board, Prof Ishaq Oloyede; John Momoh of Channels TV among others, you get the impression that this is not another government reward-system for political jobbers and price-inflating contractors. It’s a list of worthy men and women whose intrepid and unrelenting devotion to duty has brought them to the cusp of success in their respective callings.
However, Mr. Ekeh’s badge of honour seems to tower above the rest because he has made a success in a sub-sector that is the chief enabler of the economy and by implication the chief driver of the success stories of others. He deserves his award. The man who had previously been garlanded with the national honour of Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR) has remained a pathfinder for various generations of Nigerian youths. The Ministry of Labour and Employment deserves commendation for recognizing the existence of an oasis of excellence in the often neglected ICT sector.
For Mr. Ekeh, this award should go beyond personal deification; it represents hope for all the players in the nation’s ICT landscape. It is a testimony to the spirit of chutzpah, consistency and focus. Above all, it is a reward for integrity for a man who has built a digital conglomerate through the thorny blades of a largely analogue economy.
The Federal Government should continue with the standard set by the NPOM award. It should remain the Holy Grail of honour for Nigerians who rode the storm to birth enterprise and productivity. Congratulations to the man Nigerians fondly call the African Bill Gates, Leonard Stanley Nnamdi Ekeh.