Obaigbena: Larger than life

Nduka Obaigbena
LAGOS, Nigeria ? It?s hard to rehabilitate a country ? especially Nigeria, best known these days for violence in the oil-producing Niger Delta.
But Nduka Obaigbena is used to long odds. The Nigerian media mogul ? part Bono, part Diddy ? has been challenging his country?s often brutal kleptocracy for decades. And, in what passes for high praise from the organization that has consistently rated Nigeria one of the most corrupt nations in the world, Nancy Z. Boswell, president and chief executive of Transparency International-USA, says of Mr. Obaigbena?s efforts to clean up his country, ?There is reason to be cautiously optimistic.?
Mr. Obaigbena (pronounced Oh-bayg-BEH-na) has more enthusiastic fans. ?Nduka obviously has a remarkable vision, real passion and a special message,? said Naomi Campbell, the supermodel and a converted admirer. ?He?s not just a promoter. The more I found out, the more I wanted to be involved.?
So did John Howard, the former Australian prime minister. ?There are so many investment opportunities at present that good governance is going to be quite material in where that investment goes,? he said by phone from Sydney. ?Obaigbena is striking a blow for the truer path.?
But can a party save a country?
Every year since 2000, Mr. Obaigbena has honored Nigerians who fight graft or injustice, in particular government officials and corporate executives who exemplify good governance through financial transparency, accountability and respect for the law.
But he celebrates them by hosting the likes of Ms. Campbell and Mr. Howard at star-filled events, including the ThisDay Awards, named for his media empire and the influential independent newspaper at its center. The last awards ceremony was attended by politicians and socialites, including Mr. Howard, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin of France and Paul Begala, a former adviser to Bill Clinton.
Since 2006, Mr. Obaigbena has also held a mammoth summer concert series promoting Nigeria?s economic and political progress, the ThisDay festival, luring the likes of Beyonc?, Jay-Z, Diddy and Shakira to perform in Lagos.
The next concert, Africa Rising, is scheduled to take place in Abuja on Friday, starring Mary J. Blige, Usher and Rihanna, as well as Ms. Campbell. On Aug. 1, it travels to the Kennedy Center in Washington, headlined by Beyonc? and Seal.
To some observers, the lavishness of Mr. Obaigbena and his events ? he brought in a dome from Davos, Switzerland, for the 2008 awards ? undermines their credibility and their message.
?All this talk about good governance does not go beyond sloganeering,? said Philip Ikita, a Nigerian journalist, sociologist and development worker. ?We who have stayed connected with our rural population know that there is no progress for the Nigerian people.?
Mr. Obaigbena disagrees. ?We have the longest period of democracy in Nigeria, ever,? said the mogul in March, sitting in a suite at the St. Regis in New York. ?We have new leadership. We have to sustain that momentum.?
Though no one is saying Mr. Obaigbena is responsible for those changes, he has become their promoter, just as he promotes his glittery events. And his optimism is not completely unwarranted. To be sure, half of Nigeria?s population lacks access to potable water, and the infant mortality rate is 1 in 10 births. But foreign investment nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Because of a financial restructuring and swelling oil prices, Nigeria has almost no foreign debt, almost $50 billion in foreign reserves and a growing trade surplus.
Sectors other than oil have grown, too: in 2007, Nigeria?s telecommunications industry was set to overtake South Africa?s as the largest on the continent. ?Among our clients, particularly banks, hedge funds and investors, there is a lot of interest in Nigeria,? said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, an analyst for the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk analysis consultancy.
Crucial to that interest is the progression of Nigeria?s anticorruption efforts, which began in 2002 with the establishment of the Economic and Federal Crimes Commission.
With $380 billion looted from the government treasury since independence in 1960, Nigeria has become synonymous with graft. Its vast oil resources ?will not be enough to attract foreign investment if there were a complete loss of confidence in governance,? said Mr. Howard.
What role Mr. Obaigbena?s ThisDay Award has had in encouraging good governance is impossible to say ? it has honored people whose efforts are already well known. Winners have included Bukola Saraki, the governor of Kwara state who invited Zimbabwean farmers persecuted by the regime of President Robert Mugabe to resettle in Nigeria; and Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former finance minister who negotiated $18 billion in debt relief for Nigeria and was named managing director of the World Bank in 2007.
Last year, ThisDay honored Nuhu Ribadu, the anticorruption chief who oversaw 200 convictions in Nigeria since 2003, bringing down several senators, governors and a former chief of police.
Still, Mr. Obaigbena has not abjured the trappings of power. An elegant man with a blunt, chiefly demeanor and a taste for bespoke Lanvin suits, he maintains a home in Lagos, a country estate in Nigeria?s Delta State and a penthouse at the Ritz Carlton in Washington.
He will not disclose his net worth, but says that ThisDay?s corporate parent, Leaders and Company, of which he owns 95 percent, had $100 million in revenue in 2007. He earned $20 million from real estate and stock holdings.
?I like to live modestly and discreetly,? said Mr. Obaigbena, with no trace of irony.
Outside Nigeria, paparazzi frequently snap him in velvet-rope settings with the likes of Lil? Kim and Ice-T. ?He?s a larger-than-life personality,? said Bayo Alade-Loba, head of sub-Saharan banking for Credit Suisse.
A descendant of the Ika, one of the smaller of Nigeria?s 200 ethnic tribal groups, Mr. Obaigbena began ThisDay as a weekly, then called ThisWeek, in 1987.
During a violent government crackdown on the press in the late 1990s, he was arrested for publishing articles criticizing the military regime of Gen. Sani Abacha. ?Scores of journalists were arrested and killed,? he said. ?The publisher of our competing paper, The Guardian, was shot and almost died.?
After a brief detention, Mr. Obaigbena went into exile for two years, returning just a month after Mr. Abacha?s death. ThisDay has continued to be a lightning rod. A 2002 editorial criticizing Islamic officials for condemning the Miss World pageant led to ThisDay?s offices being ransacked and burned; fatwas were issued against its editors.
In December 2006, the editorial board chairman, Godwin Agbroko, winner of the 1997 PEN Freedom to Write Award and a fearless critic of Nigeria?s ruling party, was found in his car after work hours, fatally shot in the neck.
The next month, ThisDay?s offices suffered another arson attack. ?We get threats every day,? Mr. Obaigbena said. ?But it doesn?t matter. We?ll keep speaking the truth.?
At the next festival and awards, Mr. Obaigbena plans to sound the drum for microfinance as the way to empower Nigeria?s 146 million people. As he sees it, if the sleeping giant that is this consumer market, the largest in Africa, were to rouse, ?African superpower? would no longer be a contradiction.
?It?s a new country emerging,? he said. ?And it?s time to showcase it.?

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