by Chude Jideonwo
A few days ago, I received this message in my email from a highly respected colleague with the Punch, which inspired this article:
“Thank you for staying true to the cause. I have seen too many people transform into villains in recent years; but you have been steadfast and I couldn’t be more proud.
“I remember being in your office in 2012 when you returned from a meeting with the NLC concerning the Occupy Nigeria protest at a time many thought you would do anything to protect the Goodluck Jonathan administration.
“This year, I saw you standing in the sun on February 6, once again risking more than people know, to draw attention to Nigeria’s heartbreaking situation. All I saw was a man who has chosen to put his country first.”
Beyond the obvious warming of my heart, this message did something much more important: it led me into thinking about why I have been able to do the things that I have done above.
Why have I, a typically fear-filled follower-type person, been able to conquer the fear and my default mode to undertake the risks, as the writer seems to think, to “put my country first”?
The answer I discovered shocked me as it much as it may shock you: I realized it is because I am, first and foremost, an entrepreneur.
This is weird because, on the face of it, business is not the thing you think about when it comes to nation building.
You think about activists, you think about public officials, maybe you even think about journalists. But not ever do you find yourself thinking ‘I could change government in my country’ by being a businessman.
How did all of this come about?
In 2009, I think, we had hosted four editions of our popular brand The Future Awards Africa (TFAA), when – at a review meeting in Terra Kulture, Lagos – the filmmaker, Chris Ihidero corrected an error.
TFAA – a brand focused on nation building – was founded on the passionate assumption, we repeated regularly, that young people could change Nigeria “in spite of the government.” This, Ihidero sadly informed me, was a historical fallacy. No modern nation that he knew had been remade or transformed in spite of its government. Government, he said, had to change first.
This fundamentally altered the way that I saw my self and my role in nation building. It was a shift in paradigm that practically changed the course of my life.
In 2010, I had the first opportunity to test out this new understanding. Soon after Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as keynote speaker at TFAA that year, had revealed that the youth were the majority of the nation’s population and challenged them to get actively involved, our president, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua went missing.
It was a time as any for the youth to take advantage of those numbers.
Many people know the history now: I sent an email to friends, we hosted the EnoughisEnough (EiE) rallies in Abuja and Lagos, trended globally on Twitter, were on front-pages of national dailies and across international media, and more importantly, before our ultimatum expired, our demand was met and Goodluck Jonathan was declared acting president of Nigeria.
What many don’t know is exactly what happened after.
The co-founders of EiE came together – the emergency executive committee we had gathered – after the Lagos protests, and discussed how would EiE transmute. It had been established primarily as a conduit for protests, but now that it had become successful, it couldn’t possibly disband. Young people were looking to it for eldership, and it couldn’t disappoint.
Now, up until this moment I had thought of EiE it as a media brand, since that the core of our experience at RED. With its scant resources, we had approached it as a pop-culture brand – co-creating a mainstream product that captured the popular imagination.
But it had evolved into something else from there. It had gained a life of its own.
“Chude,” my friend, Segun Demuren asked at the meet. “Would you lead it?”
“No,” I said, after pretending to mull the thought. “My hands are too full at the moment. But I have been looking at ‘Yemi (Adamolekun, who had joined us at the Lagos protests) and I believe she has the exact mission mindset and temperament to make this work.”
Adamolekun, who was then supporting the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy was shocked. “Me? Temperament? I will chase all the funders away. I am not a patient person.”
But I had paid close attention to her in the days since we had met, from the afternoon we had ridden in the same car after the Lagos protests. There was something about her. From pure instinct, it had become abundantly clear that if this mission was to survive, she was just the exact person it needed to make it happen.
Pretended to mull, I had said earlier, because I already anticipated that as convener, that request would be made, and I had already thought seriously about it. I had agonized over the decision, because in EiE I saw the beginnings of something truly powerful and deeply useful for Nigeria (evident through this February’s #IStandWithNigeria protests). I really wanted to lead it. I almost said yes.
Painfully though, I realized it had to be no.
I couldn’t do it. Because my calling was different. My calling in this phase of my life, as far as the world’s present labels go, is business.
For EiE to succeed, even if it began as a media brand, I could see that its purest, deepest expression (and the only way that it could sustain its coalition, which was its strongest brand asset) was for it to evolve as a not-for-profit civil society organization.
And that was not a fit for my personal mission, and for my talents.
Indeed, this has always been the prevailing arc of my career. My passion from my teens has always been nation building. As I grew older, I realized that my immediate desire was to do this through enterprise. It is the reason we refused to launch TFAA as a not-for-profit – so that, as we told the media at our first press conference, it could generate the income to be sustainable and to be independent, for the 20-year goal that we had set for ourselves.
EiE was not the vehicle for that, and so I let go of that assignment to someone who has now done it even better than any of us could have imagined.
In letting go of it, my co-founder, our management board and I now set ourselves to the task – how would we achieve this passion within the ambits of our talents?
We had no models to look to. But that is in fact the idea and beauty of business: to create where a thing previously didn’t existing. We realized we had ample space to build out that value proposition… as it were, blue ocean.
Of course, the one reason I could say no to the glistening opportunity to lead this historic organisation (also the one reason I have been able to say no to two offers to join separate administrations) in the first is because I had a clear personal mission for the first phase of my life.
That mission is our business; with a potential so vast, and opportunity so endless that it would be frankly stupid to ignore the benefits of what venture capitalist Peter Thiel calls “delayed value” for temporal gratification.
At about this time, I was also blessed to become a disciple of Jim Collins. His seminal book ‘Good to Great’ made it clear the thinking that an entrepreneur should apply to such a land of vast opportunity – three circles: What sets fire to your passion? What can you do better than anybody else? What drives your economic engine i.e. what will people pay for?
Energised by this formidable framework, we set ourselves to the task of building a viable business proposition that could solve the problems that lit our passions – nation building.
That is how we came to build the beautiful company now called StateCraft Inc.
The seeds for the company were sown in the elections of 2011, and it grew into full operations in 2015 – a governance consulting company that we, in its first phase, have now deployed as a sharply effective (media) tool to hack into establishments, overturn incumbencies and return power to the hands of the people.
The victories of StateCraft Inc and its utility to nations are, as favour would have it, now immediately clear: with historic anti-establishment presidential wins in Nigeria in 2015 and in Ghana in 2016.
These are wins that, in spite of the short-term challenges that these nations may face after change, have set them on the part to people-driven transformational growth by re-balancing the axis of power in favour of the every day voter, and citizen.
We couldn’t be prouder.
The success of the company proves the theory of the case for business – as a mechanism that forces you to think, in that long term way that truly builds institutions, creates systems and transforms paradigms.
It also re-established the true purpose of business in the world, and its potential to remake society.
There are two crucial roles in this light: one in the short term and the other in the long term.
In the short term, there is the market-driven financial independence to look nonsense in the face and say no.
The creation of financial value creates independence that facilitates action. You don’t rely on grants, you don’t rely on patronage, you rely, primarily, on the market; and that feeds your confidence.
You can see this in America today, as Apple, Uber, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and others have come together to say no in capital terms to the anti-immigrant posture and rolling back of transgender rights from the towers of Donald Trump.
Business gives you the guts and gumption to do this.
Is it possible in Nigeria? Of course it is. I should know. I have lived it.
In 2011, one of our companies worked for the Goodluck Jonathan presidential campaign, and another landed an exclusive cover interview with the incoming president.
In 2012, my co-founder and I put that relationship at risk, when the fuel subsidy protests launched in January and we chose the side of an angry public against the reasonable pull of our business interests.
This was more dangerous than the public knew.
At the time, not only did we have expanded relationships with key members of the government, but another of our clients was a central player on the side of that government in the fuel subsidy removal.
Before the protests began, I sent a text to a key person who was my contact on the account. The crux of the message: “I don’t think we can continue working as we will be joining the protests.”
His reaction was irritation: “Why are you preaching to me?”
My strong personal – even emotional – commitment to that client made it even more difficult to tamper with the relationship. But by the time the dust of #OccupyNigeria had cleared, we had inevitably left the account.
It also put paid to an offer to enable us extend our business operations to Abuja fully. But we told ourselves that if our long-term strategy was valid, and our proposition strong, then we could let go of temporary detours.
Only business could allow me do that.
In 2013, President Goodluck Jonathan hosted TFAA in the presidential villa.
It was deeply gracious of him and a gift to our mission – he was a man whose heart was large, and his people truly believed in what we were doing. It underlined the leadership of the awards by the institutional seal of the Nigerian presidency, and officially launched our African expansion. I remain grateful for that goodwill.
But in April 2014, three months after that, the Chibok girls were kidnapped under his watch. For me, his reaction to that failure became the final straw for a government that had made too many mistakes. My values compelled me to speak out against it.
So I was soon on the streets again. I was writing and speaking to local and international media against it. I made my stand clear.
Only business could allow me take that risk.
In 2015, StateCraft Inc worked massively and publicly for the elections of Muhammadu Buhari. This time around, he was not just a client who fit the values of our business; he was also my personal choice.
I was silent, in fact, for the entirety of my professional duties, deliberately, because I needed full concentration. But a day to the polls, I made the decision to speak out, just in case I could also convince anyone by the power of my personal voice. I wanted, deliberately, to put my voice on the line.
But in February this year, two years after that decision, I decided that the government needed a wake up call. And I was back on the streets, demanding better, holding the government accountable, supporting EiE behind the scenes to make the #IStandWithNigeria protests come alive.
I could only do that because I run a business.
Because I understand that, whatever the temporary backlash and loss of potential revenue that comes, we are blessed with the systems thinking in my organization, beyond my person in processes and people, to generate wealth in the long term.
Of course, over the years, there has been backlash to these decisions.
In 2014, after our #BringBackOurGirls stand, we lost all our work for any federal government organ. I watched with some amusement, and empathy, as friends on that side of town were too afraid even to even attend my book launch.
But, as always, we accepted these with equanimity; didn’t even think, until now, to speak of it publicly. This was the reasonable consequence for the actions we had chosen to take and the way we had chosen to run our business with heart; to always stand, as we say, on the right side of history.
We have always had faith in the concept of “delayed revenue” – in the durability of the market. That faith is not even at all in today’s revenues, which are tiny by the standards of the future we see, it is a faith in the long-term value that a truly solid business proposition can guarantee. Today is never tomorrow.
And in this same way, I know that there are very many businessmen in Nigeria can stand to lose a few millions. They can, if they tried. They just haven’t started to think like that yet. We have to encourage them.
Business gives you the independence to walk away; the independence of thought, and the independence of position to say no, or to say yes to what truly matters. It gives you the freedom to take risk and made decisions that may not make sense in the interim, but serve a long-term strategic purpose.
That is the short-term advantage.
Then there is the long-term advantage, which we will address in the concluding part of this piece.
*Jideonwo is co-founder and managing partner of RED (www.redafrica.xyz), which brands including Y!/YNaija.com and governance consulting firm, StateCraft Inc (www.statecraftinc.com). Office of the Citizen (OOTC) is his latest essay series.