I can say this now that I believe the dust must have settled at Oba, Anambra State, where an illustrious son, Chief Obinna Iyiegbu (aka Obi Cubana), forced Nigeria to take note that he had arrived. One can understand and appreciate the filial love that drove him and his friends to such extreme displays. However, from personal and corporate branding points of view, there is actually cause for worry. It is this worry that has polarized media analyses of the event, as sympathizers and social values advocates violently clashed.
Allow me to illustrate my worries with a story of two burials, standing some 20 years apart, that took place in the same Oba community. I witnessed the one of some 20 years ago. It was my first and only visit to Oba, the sleepy little town nestling some 10 kilometres away from Onitsha on the highway to Owerri. I went to Oba to commiserate with another illustrious son of the community, the late Mr. Dan Nzelu, when he buried his father. Engr. Nzelu was CEO of PPMC, the NNPC cash cow. We were friends before he passed on. After he left office, he and I agreed to partner on a media publishing proposal. Unfortunately, death took him away barely a week after we had our conversation at his rock-fortified residence overlooking the Aso Villa in Abuja.
When the social media brouhaha over the loud displays at Oba broke out last month, my mind immediately went to Nzelu and the quiet, efficient and understated manner he bid his own father farewell in the same community. The contrast was striking.
The two Oba natives have one thing in common but this is where it ends. Like Obinna Iyiegbu (the Cubana boss), the late Engr. Nzelu worked very hard, quietly and loyally at the NNPC. Not many were, therefore, surprised that he was able to reach the zenith of his profession as he was appointed head of the agency’s cash cow. Unlike Chief Iyiegbu, however, Nzelu planned his entry into the national media stage carefully. Like Iyiegbu, he cultivated and deepened friendships and goodwill that made him such a likeable and noncontroversial fellow all through his tenure.
He also had a close circle of friends but that was the point of divergence. His friends cared deeply about public image and eschewed social vulgarities of any sort. However, from what I have read so far, they shared kind-heartedness and were always ready and willing to help those in need, not least the youths of Oba community. I imagine that the PPMC contracts that Obi Cubana said he did, from where he bought his first Mercedes Benz car, were awarded when Nzelu was either in charge, or secured through his direct or indirect influence.
What is the point of this story? When Nzelu wanted to make his entry into the national stage, I was one of the lucky ones that he reached out to, to ask what he should do to avoid running into controversy, as was the lot of his predecessors. He listened to people who came to offer unsolicited advice, took notes and implemented a simple plan that served him well. There were two things that he took away from his interactions, as he said to me afterwards. One was to scrupulously maintain a national public profile that befitted his status as a federal public servant in the discharge of his duties. The other was to watch his back. He made sure not to cross the path of greedy hawks in the Obasanjo cabinet, especially the desperadoes eager to cut a slice of the NNPC cake who would stop at nothing to remove stumbling blocks against their greedy determination. He accomplished this by running an efficient, transparent and equitable but humane operation.
The image that Engr. Nzelu carefully cultivated is the reason I worry about the Obi Cubana persona today. Understand that this worry has absolutely nothing to do with the burial itself. It has everything to do with the image that he seeks to project, going forward, now that he has decided he will step out in the public square to be recognized and appreciated as a top hospitality player. From listening to his interviews and his subsequent panicky actions to downplay his friends’ obscene displays at his mother’s funeral, it seems to me that the young man needs to reflect on the need to speak to those who are versed in public relations and branding. This is because there will be a number of major hurdles standing in the path of attaining the public image he projects.
Look at it this way. Everything that happened at Oba shows clearly that Chief Obinna Iyiegbu, aka Obi Cubana, has very good friends. The Oba spectacle, however, exposed majority of these friends as people who do not care if they are branded by locals as money-miss-roads. He hasn’t also learnt how to win over his critics. His social media defenders want us to see what his friends did at Oba as a private matter of an individual’s right to bury his mom the best way it suits him, but this is clearly not the case. They also want us to believe that this is normal social entertainment, but it is not.
Those who visit the Cubana business operation (the nightclubs in particular) speak of a tightly-knit operation where everything is organized and everything works to the delight of the fun-seeking customer. This is why what happened at Oba comes to a few of us as an anti-climax for someone who has perfected the art of managing a show. Oba was his mother’s burial and, therefore, his business and show. If he had given to Oba half the attention that he normally invests in making sure he runs the best after-hours business operation in Nigeria, his friends’ kitschy displays may have been avoided. I do not blame Chief Iyiegbu personally. Losing one’s mother, especially one that shares a close bond, is an emotional moment. I am, therefore, willing to allow that his unruly friends took advantage of his vulnerability at that point to show off, to the detriment of the Cubana brand that we have now come in contact with through his interviews. There is room for amends and he ought to recognize this and not become defensive.
My second worry is on the panicky measures he took when things appeared not to have gone the way of the image he sought to project. His prior media interviews actually project positive values of a philanthropic billionaire. The story of how he intentionally created billionaires around his business empire, by empowering trustworthy associates, captured the imagination and admiration of both business strategists and the public at large. To now proceed to “dash” N300 million that friends allegedly contributed to 300 youths of Oba (at N1 million each) smacks of a panic attack. It is also at variance with the well-thought-out strategy that he had hitherto favoured. And it slightly reduces the image he is trying to cultivate as a trans-continental hospitality power player. This needs further elucidation.
Obi Cubana’s traditional chieftaincy title is “Okpataozuora,” which means “wealth that automatically spreads to his community.” This title serves as his brand identity in the Oba community. For him to earn this title means that his people already know him as someone who is firmly rooted in people and community development.
Thus, he has nothing else to prove locally and should continue to quietly and unobtrusively lift those who need his services in Oba. However, he needs to quickly appreciate that the wealth he acquires and the friendships he makes extend beyond Oba. He could equally consider giving a thought to ideas and actions that will promote the national and continental image he wishes to cultivate through future charitable projects. This is especially urgent now that he has decided to step into the public square as a national hospitality player. Beyond these two worries, I actually wish the young man well and I am one of those willing to forgive this first-time social faux pas.
Like many other positive-minded folks, I look beyond the burial spectacle to the inspiring story of a young man who decided to stop looking for a job, immersed himself in the first menial business he could think of and steadily worked his way up to the top of the hospitality industry in Nigeria.