2023: LET US SALUTE GREAT MEN
TEJ award for Persons of the Year
To say that 2023 was an tumultous year would be a gross understatement. For the majority of individuals and families across the nation, 2023 was a gruelling experience that tested their endurance to the limit. It was a year when the nation held its closest-ever election after a campaign that, for the most part, deepened the country’s already-frayed ethno-religious fault-lines. Economically, the country clung on the cliff’s edge it had been on for too long now, with no easy options in sight regarding its recovery from the doldrums.
But 2023 was also a watershed year in the lives of some Nigerians, as they reached certain milestones in their respective careers whose impact was felt not only in their own lives, but in others’ as well.
One of them was Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, whose election and inauguration as Nigeria’s 16th head of government marked the actualisation of what he had described as a lifelong ambition. In a world (and especially on a continent) where democratic values and their legal underpinnings are fragile and prone to abuse and disruption, Tinubu’s ascension to power underscored the faith Nigerians still reposed in the democratic process as their preferred form of government.
In the seven months or so since his assumption of office, the former Governor of Lagos State has instituted far-reaching reforms to deal with the challenges of widespread security, Nigeria’s currency crisis, fuel and power shortages, high unemployment, rising inflation, a deeply entrenched culture of corruption, and a country divided along ethnic lines. To many Nigerians, Tinubu has taken on ‘Mission Impossible‘. But in the words of one of the lead chatacters in the blockbuster movie of that title (featuring Tom Cruise): ‘ Difficult … is a walk in the park. Impossible simply takes a little more time.’ Will Tinubu make a positive difference in the limited time he has? Nigerians certainly hope so.
Another political player who saw the realization of a long-standing quest for elected office in 2023 was Dr. Alex Otti, Governor of Abia State. A banker, economist, investor and philanthropist, Otti was sworn in as the 5th elected Chief Executive of Abia State, having run for office under the Labour Party banner. He is currently the ONLY Labour Party Governor in Nigeria. The elation that greeted his victory in 2023, after a failed attempt in 2015, was palpaple among Abians and other Nigerians who saw Otti as that rare thing among Nigeria’s political class – a man of integrity and forthrightness. Those who have followed the man’s life-,journey, and especially his illustrious banking career, describe him as a result-oriented problem-solver. Born in 1965 in Umuru in Isiala Ngwa South LGA of Abia State, Otti obtained a first-class honours degree in economics from the University of Port Harcourt in 1988, followed by an MBA from the University of Lagos in 1994, as well as certifications from various international institutions. His banking career, which began in 1989, took him to various leading banking establishments before culminating in his appointment as the GMD/CEO of Diamond Bank in 2011. In 2014, Otti took voluntary retirement from the Bank to focus on his burgeoning political career. A member of the editorial board of Thisday Newspaper, Otti is also known for his fortnightly column, ‘Outside The Box’. The feel-good factor that has pervaded Abia State since Otti’s inauguration is based on their belief that, by electing Alex Otti to be their leader for the next four years, they had acted outside the box. Events will show if, in Otti, Abia will see a radically different paradigm of governance – or same old same old.
He may not have realized his long-standing quest for the highest office in the land in 2023, but no one can deny the contributions of Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, GCON to the evolution of Nigeria’s democracy. A veteran of many campaigns, he was elected in early 1999 as Governor of Adamawa State (before being picked as Obasanjo’s running mate ahead of that year’s presidential election). And apart from his high-profile political career, Atiku also enjoys a reputation as a foremost entrepreneur and serial investor, with interests in real estate, agriculture, trading, media, education and transportation.
For someone who almost missed the opportunity to acquire formal education in his childhood (due to the vehement opposition of his own father) Atiku’s rise to become one of Nigeria’s most prominent citizens is a testament to his self-belief and determination. Born 1946 in Jada (in what is now Adamawa State), Atiku rose to become the Deputy Director of the Nigerian Customs Service before retiring in 1989 to embark on what would become a highly rewarding career in business and politics.
He was arguably the most powerful vice-president in Nigeria’s history – especially during his first term. His second term, however, saw him lose much of his powers and influence within the Obasanjo administration, no thanks to his stormy relationship with the then-President, apparently due to his opposition to Obasanjo’s controversial bid for a 3rd presidential term. As a result of that rift, Atiku switched parties (from the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, to the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN), ahead of the 2007 elections – where eventually stood as the ACN’s candidate.
His star-crossed ambition has seen him contest every presidential election since 2007 (on the platform of both major parties) without success so far. But hope, as far as he’s concerned, springs eternal.
Atiku is an ardent advocate of restructuring the Nigerian polity arising from his belief that political decentralization would help to strengthen Nigerian democracy and encourage more accountability from political office holders. He is equally passionate about the value of qualitative education at all levels. Having benefitted from education in spite of early odds, it was only natural, he has repeatedly said, that he should invest so much of his wealth in education. His largest investment in this regard is the establishment of the American University of Nigeria (AUN), the first American-style private university to be established in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2011, he was honoured with the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award in recognition of his contribution to the development of higher education on the continent of Africa.
2023 was the year Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai, CON was finally leaving the office of Governor of Kaduna State. But true to character, he was not going with a whimper. His role in helping Asiwaju Tinubu win the Presidency served to keep him front and centre in the drama and intrigues that played out before and during the 2023 general elections. A courageous man with a reputation for taking difficult, if controversial and sometimes unpopular, decisions as Governor of one of Nigeria’s most pivotal Northern states. el-Rufai’s previous tenures as Director of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) and Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) were also marked by upheaval and, by most measures, success.
He is certanly one man that is easy to love or hate, but impossible to ignore. Born in 1960 in Daudawa, Kaduna State, he was educated in Barewa College, graduating at the top of his class in 1976. He went on to receive a first class honours degree in quantity surveying from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. In 1984, he followed this up with an MBA from the same university, as well as important certifications, including in law and public administration, from reputable international institutions.
Going into business upon graduation, he founded El-Rufai & Partners, a quantity surveying consulting firm in 1982. Between the early 80s and late 90s, he and his partners enjoyed enormous patronage from a multiplicity of clients, receiving building and civil engineering contracts, a number of them to do with the construction of the then-emerging capital city of Abuja.
With his appointment as director of the BPE, and secretary of the National Council of Privatisation by Pres. Obasanjo, el-Rufai spear-headed the privatisation of several government-owned corporations. In 2003, he was appointed Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, where he did much to restore the federal capital to its original master plan after years of abuse and corruption.
His foray into the murky waters of party politics in 2011, after a brief period of self-imposed exile abroad, saw him being appointed deputy national secretary of the newly-formed All Progressives Congress (APC). In 2015, he was elected Governor of Kaduna State and re-elected four years later. As Governor, he did much to block bureaucratic leakages and also reduced the cost of governance. He also embarked on an ambitious programme of educational reform.
His transition from the meticulous world of engineering to the hurly-burly world of politics is typical of the daring spirit of Seyi Makinde, two-term Governor of Nigeria’s Oyo State since 2019. One of the country’s youngest Governors, Makinde has had a chequered career in politics – and is very much acquainted with its highs and lows. His first contest, for a seat in the Senate in 2007 under the PDP ended in disappointment. So did his second bid in 2011. Turning his ambitions to the Governorship in 2015, he also failed to secure the PDP nomination for that year’s election. Determined to pursue his gubernatorial ambition, however, he moved to the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Again, the result of that primaries did not go his way. Makinde returned to the PDP in 2017 – following intense representations by the party’s national leadership, along with consultations with leaders of the SDP. In September 2018, he emerged as the PDP’s gubernatorial candidate, winning the office of Governor in March 2019. He was reelected in 2023.
Such rapid progression in spite of repeated setbacks, has been a feature of the Governor’s career from a young age. Born on Christmas Day, 1967 in Ibadan, Oluseyi Abiodun Makinde had his early education in schools within his locality, following which, in 1985, he gained admission to the University of Lagos, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. From the early 1990s to the early 2000s, he also received further training in various aspects of his field from institutions in the USA and in Nigeria.
Following an NYSC stint at the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) of Nigeria as a pupil engineer, Makinde worked at Rebold International Limited, where he rose to become a Field Manager in 1995. Two years later, he established his own business, Makon Engineering and Technical Services Limited (METS) at which he served as the MD/CEO before becoming Governor.
A member of various influential associations in the industry, the Governor is a proud recipient of various awards and recognitions within and beyond the engineering ecosystem.
It was not only political players who made 2023 such an eventful year. In spite of the challenging business environment in Nigeria, a number of highly-motivated businesspersons rose to the occasion and had a remarkable impact on the country’s economic fortunes. They expanded their businesses, entered into new and game-changing deals and partnerships – and in the process created jobs and enlarged the circle of economic opportunity for many.
One of these individuals is the billionaire tycoon and philanthropist, Femi Otedola, CON. who is currently Executive Chairman of Geregu Power Plc. He is also the founder of Zenon Petroleum and Gas Ltd. His other businesses span sectors such as shipping, real estate, electricity power generation, and finance.
These days, Otedola, a son of the late former Governor of Lagos State, Sir Michael Otedola, has been as assiduous in giving away his money as he had been in making it. Over the years, the core of his social investment (especially in the field of education) has been in the form of donations to various educational institutions and programmes. Outside education, Otedola has also made substantial personal donations to projects such as National Ecumenical Centre in Abuja; the Lagos State Security Trust Fund; the Otedola College of Primary Education in Noforija, Epe; the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Port Harcourt, and even the Super Eagles, Nigerias national football team.
In 2023, especially, Otedola proved to the world that far from just being a go-getter, he was also a go-GIVER.
2023 was the year in which the much-anticipated Dangote Refinery in Lagos opened its doors, to much fanfare and general excitement. Against the price and supply crises that threatened to throw the Nigerian economy into a tailspin, news of the event felt like the proverbial oasis in the middle of a parched desert. Already well-known as a giant of Corporate Nigeria, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, GCON, Chairman of the Dangote Group, emerged anew as THE saviour of the Nigerian energy ecosystem.
Acclaimed as the richest person in Africa, and the world’s 107th richest person overall – with an estimated net worth of $16.1b according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index – Dangote has, through his business ventures, and especially the Dangote Refinery – shown that he is a man who puts his money where his mouth is.
Election year in Nigeria is always a season in which the decibel of discourse goes up a little higher. When you add to the cacophony of political brickbats the snipings of a vibrant press ready to take the political class to task on the issues, you have the makings of a political bar-room brawl.
In 2023, nobody embodied the determination of the Nigerian press to ask difficult questions of political players (and try to keep them on the straight and narrow path – a tall order) than Rufai Oseni, a host on the Arise TV news channel. Throughout the campaign season, Nigerians were riveted by Oseni’s robust (his critics would say, confrontational) engagements with guests on his programme. While critics decried his attack-dog style of questioning, his admirers praised his thoughtful insights on the issues of leadership, good governance, the rule of law and development in Nigeria. But all agreed that a one-on-one interview session with Oseni was certainly not for the faint-hearted!
It is a combination that has made him a household name in the Nigerian media industry. Oseni’s insightful analysis on Nigerian and African issues, coupled with his eloquence and versatility, have earned him recognition beyond the shores of Nigeria, and has graced the halls of a number of prestigious international institutions as a featured guest speaker.
Nigerian democracy is the better for the likes of Rufai Oseni.