By Lanre Alfred
It has been a while since the outside world saw him. Dr. Mike Adenuga Jnr, the chairman of Globacom, is one of those patently reclusive billionaires that would rather be heard about than being seen, a cloak of mystery that has come to define his persona and accomplishments in business and philanthropy. In recent years, there had been conjectures and speculations as to why he has completely shunned public outings, not that he was ever a social butterfly even as a younger man with all the appurtenances of fame and fortune at his beck and call. Being unobtrusive and unseen had been his style since he worked his way to the acme of prosperity and prominence.
Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, Adenuga had completely given the limelight a wide berth, thrusting his adorable daughter, Bella, to the forefront of his businesses and other activities that require posing or smiling for the cameras.
Thus, his appearance in Versailles, Paris, for the Choose France Summit last Monday, June 28, occasioned gapes and gasps. Spotting a greying but well-trimmed beard, Dr. Adenuga looked the picture of health and well-being in his bespoke suit than many had known him to be. He wore his trademark toothy smile as he hobnobbed with other frontline Nigerian businessmen like Tony Elumelu of Heirs Holdings, Alhaji Aliko Dangote of Dangote Group and Abdul Samad Rabiu of BUA Group. For a lot of discerning Nigerians, they were not surprised to see Adenuga at the French summit. His relationship with France and its youthful president, Emmanuel Macron, was consecrated long ago.
Adenuga and the French Connection
According to the multi billionaire, “Our relationship with French business has been a long and extremely beneficial one,” he says. “The genesis and bedrock of that relationship was the energy team at the Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP) Paris office, led by Guillaume Leenhardt. A great deal of our early success can be attributed to the professionalism, customer orientation and creativity of that team,” says Adenuga. “We worked extremely hard and well together to meet some ridiculously tight deadlines – working through the night till 6am only to resume work again at 8am after a quick nap and shower! Those are days I remember with a lot of fondness.”
“Soon after the award of our telecommunications license in 2003, our relationship with another prominent French company, Alcatel, led at the time by Serge Tchuruk, enabled us to fast-track the roll-out of our infrastructure and close the gap on the competition, which had had a 15-month head start,” says Adenuga.
According to AfricaReport, another key relationship for Adenuga is with French oil major TotalEnergies. “We won the concession to an offshore block in which we then discovered substantial amounts of oil and gas resources, with certified gas resources in excess of eight trillion cubic feet. TotalEnergies subsequently farmed into that asset,” he says. “This is a strategic relationship; we intend to commence production with a floating liquefied natural gas facility soon.”
Interestingly however, back in 2017, the French government, in homage to Adenuga’s humanity and relentless strides at rewriting the African business narrative, invested him with a Knight of the Legion of Honour (Chevalier de la Legion d Honneur), the highest French decoration and one of the most famous in the world. Dr. Adenuga is the only and first-ever Nigerian to have received the award since inception. He was honoured for his “remarkable contribution to the development of the French-Nigerian relations and appreciation of the French culture.”
Adenuga would later prove that the honour was not misplaced as he relocated and rebuilt the Alliance Française, located in Yaba, Lagos, for several decades. The Alliance Française, committed to promoting French culture and teaching French as a second language worldwide, was relocated to a new home in Ikoyi that has been aptly named the Mike Adenuga Centre. Since its opening to the public in 2019, the centre has commanded commendations from far and near. Unapologetically modern, the centre’s white exterior spews elegance without recourse to obscenity and has an interior ornamented with pristine decor.
Everywhere is spick-and-span and has the halo of an improvised Eden on earth. Apart from a spacious car park, the venue offers facilities such as a world-class art gallery, a French restaurant with a bakery, a state-of-the-art cinema, artists’ studios, an outdoor amphitheatre, a library and e-library, nine fully-equipped French language classrooms, translation and interpretation service, Campus France branch, offices and much more. Every house has something of the owner’s personality in it, a hint of the people behind the design; no wonder the centre has the touch of a billionaire with a taste for all things exotic and exquisite. Its beauty has been inspiring gawks and double-takes, and odes and appreciation to Dr. Adenuga, whose love for the arts spurred him to create this hub of cross-cultural immersion to make an exciting and impactful contribution to the arts scene in Nigeria.
While inaugurating the centre during a visit to Lagos, President Macron said the centre to foster friendship between Nigeria and France, saying, “Lagos is one of the challenges of, not only Nigeria but Africa. This huge city is a tremendous challenge about how to make people live together in peace and better society; I want France to be part of this story. I do want my country and citizens to be part of this experience, which means sharing the same values, cultures, languages, literature, music, movies and common economic projects, among others.”
He added that the Alliance Française is a commitment aimed at making the friendship between both countries, which have different but vivid and vibrant cultures and lifting barriers that have existed between both cultures. “The common space we have is not linked to language or country. We are different people, but we share the same values, and it is precisely these common values we want to convey,” Macron said.
Coincidentally, it was at the hallowed hall of the Alliance Française that Bella, one of Adenuga’s daughters and the executive vice-chairman of Globacom, was honoured with the ‘Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres’ (the Order of Arts and Letters). It is an award given by the French government to recognise eminent artists and writers and people who have contributed significantly to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world. The award is given at three levels: Commandeur (Commander), Officier (Officer), and Chevalier (Knight). Bella got the Chevalier (Knight), which comes with a medallion worn on ribbon on the left breast in 2019. According to the representative of the President of France, Bella was honoured for having shown an abiding commitment to important social issues and her “significant contribution to the enrichment of the French cultural inheritance.”
Bella thanked the French government, particularly President Macron, for bestowing her honour, saying it was the fulfilment of a dream.
Aliko Dangote, Abdul Samad Rabiu Reunite?
Beneath the plastic smiles and photo ops, there is a deep-seated animosity between Alhaji Aliko Dangote and the chairman of BUA Group, Abdul Samad Rabiu. Aside from their Kano kinship, BUA Group and Dangote group are leading players in the fast-moving consumer goods and cement sectors. And while Dangote is the richest African and black man in the world, Rabiu is the eighth richest African with an estimated $3.13 billion fortune. They are also two of Africa’s biggest philanthropists, donating significant chunks of their wealth to various humanitarian causes. But that is as far as the parallels go. As relationships go, however, the flames of mutual respect and kindred love have petered out.
Early this year, Dangote and Flour Mills of Nigeria Plc chairman John Coumantaros petitioned the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Otunba Niyi Adebayo that the establishment of a new sugar refinery plant in the country posed a threat to the attainment of the National Sugar Master Plan (NSMP) and the sustainability of the country’s local sugar industry.
They also argued that the country currently had enough refining capacity to meet national demand and protested the recent commissioning of a sugar refinery in Port-Harcourt, Rivers State, owned by BUA International, a major operator in the sugar industry. They urged Adebayo to prevail on the Nigeria Customs Service and the Central Bank of Nigeria to ensure that the provisions of the NSMP were enforced and that no additional allocation of quota should be given for raw or refined sugar for the sugar refinery in Port Harcourt for local market production. Among other recommendations, they said no allocations should be issued or applications considered for quota intended for re-exporting sugar as this would be difficult to monitor and may be open to abuse.
Reacting, the BUA Group chairman said that his investment in Port Harcourt did not in any way pose a threat to the country’s sugar policy. Rather, he said that it would checkmate arbitrary price increase by the major players, among other benefits to Nigeria. Minister Adebayo then issued a directive prohibiting the importation of sugar. However, according to credible sources, Adebayo was instructed to respect the rule of law and play fair. Later, a penitent Adebayo wrote to the finance minister, rescinding his earlier directive while asking every agency of government concerned to maintain the status quo on the matter. Both Dangote and Rabiu had not been seen together since then until they surfaced in Paris. Are they back on good terms? Time will tell.
About the Choose France Summit
The Choose France Summit aims to showcase and promote France’s economic appeal while also encouraging foreign investments in French local areas. Over 120 global CEOS from Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Netflix, Microsoft, Ali Baba, and Google, among others, converged on the historic city of Versailles for the summit. There was, however, a special event that brought together leading Nigerian and French industrialists to underscore President Macron’s affinity for Nigeria. Nigeria was the only country to receive such preferential treatment at the summit: a sign of how important France’s economic diplomacy in Nigeria is to President Macron.
For perspective, Macron spent some formative years in Nigeria, which signalled the beginning of his relationship with Africa. In 2002, he spent six months as an intern at the French embassy in Abuja and discovered. He would later say, a country with little in common with more familiar francophone countries like Abidjan, Dakar or Libreville.
He said recently, “Nigerians have no inferiority complex about France because the country is not on their radar. I was very happy in Nigeria. There was so much to do, with extremely entrepreneurial people, very creative, with whom I was able to have a relationship of equals in a very spontaneous and natural way.”
Before that time, President Macron told The Africa Report, “40 years ago, France occupied a prominent position in Nigeria. Major French companies occupied leading positions in the construction, manufacturing, and logistics industries. More than 10,000 French nationals used to live in Nigeria at that time.” By the early 2000s, however, French companies lost their way.
The President’s mission, therefore, is to plug French companies back into Nigeria. The mission didn’t start today. After Macron’s 2018 presidential tour of Nigeria, which included a trip to the Afrika Shrine, owned by Femi Kuti, multiple-Grammy nominee and scion of the iconoclastic Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a Franco-Nigerian Business Dialogue was held in Lagos. But on the return leg to France, French business leaders were reluctant to meet visiting Nigerian CEOs. “Not one French CEO came,” Macron lamented.
However, Abdul Samad signed a contract with Axens, a French company, to construct a refinery. BUA Group is also signing with French group St-Gobain to build a plasterboard factory. Similarly, Access Bank has been working on acquiring a French banking licence as part of the plan to become the ‘Citibank of Africa’, and help plug the gaps in the global financial architecture that have left African companies shut out of financial markets.
President Rabiu of France Nigeria Business Council
The French Nigeria Business Council, a private sector initiative to facilitate business cooperation between both countries, was launched on the margins of the Choose France summit at Versailles on June 28. Rabiu was fittingly appointed as the inaugural President of the Council by President Macron.
Other Nigerian members of the council are Gilbert Chagoury (Chagoury Group), Mike Adenuga (Globacom/Conoil), Aliko Dangote (Dangote Industries), Tony Elumelu (Heirs Holdings/UBA/TEF), and Herbert Wigwe (Access Bank). Also on the council are more than a dozen CEOS from some of the biggest French companies, including TotalEnergies, Axens, Danone, and Dassault.
Last April, Macron had also appointed Rabiu as chairman of the France Nigeria Investment Club, commending his commitment to the development of French and Nigerian businesses.
The BUA Group chairman thanked President Macron for “his vision in creating the French Nigeria Business Council which has led to a reset in the business relationship between Nigeria and France and has created a viable platform for business from both countries to partner and improve business ties.”
Rabiu said, “Nigeria is blessed with numerous potentials for French companies to do business across different areas, notably solid minerals, mining, manufacturing, agriculture, associated equipment, power, food processing, and even in the business of associated equipment or infrastructure for the value chains of these sectors.
“Where French businesses have formerly been risk-averse or outrightly unable to do business with Africa’s largest economy, they can now be assured of a platform through which they can penetrate and mutually grow the market. Nigerian companies had not seen French companies or the French market as a viable destination due to a lack of information. They can now be sure of a platform to facilitate this. This is all thanks to President Macron’s foresight and vision.”
According to AfricaReport, Axens is not the only French company Rabiu is working with. He is also partnering with St-Gobain to deliver a plasterboard factory in Ogun State, where there is a plentiful supply of silica (quartz). “Currently, we import all our plasterboard – around 350,000 tonnes, so this is a real opportunity,” says Rabiu.
The new venture, which will cost in the tens of millions of dollars, will have a capacity of around 250,000 to 300,000tonnes.“I have to commend President [Emmanuel] Macron for the engagement he is paying to Nigeria,” says Rabiu.
Herbert Wigwe… The Miracle Working Banker
Who knew France could dazzle with Nigerian gems? Who knew the garden city of Versailles could pulse and list to the weight of Africa’s finest moguls and super bankers? Yes, Herbert Wigwe, the ebullient Managing Director of Access Bank, was also there. Indeed, Herbert has charted a radical path for one of Africa’s largest and most influential banks. His leadership is authentic and in the cutthroat terrain of Nigerian banking, he rides the tides of the industry thus dictating the pace of change and influencing the thought of his time. There is no gainsaying, therefore, that he would command the epochs that follow and impress his name on eternity by his dazzling strides.
However, he was the centre of attraction that day as he bowled everyone over at the event with his infectious candor and charisma. People who know him well never got tired of purring odes about him on his account of his humility. His oratorical prowess and his well-groomed intelligence was overwhelming enough to elicit never-ending admiration from everyone. He talked so well about banking and finance. He cheered rapturously in victory. AfricaReport reports that Wigwe has been working on acquiring a French banking licence. It is all part of the plan to become the ‘Citibank of Africa’, and help plug the gaps in the global financial architecture that have left African companies shut out of financial markets.
Access Bank has pan-African ambitions. “We want to be the Citibank or the JPMorgan of Africa ” says Wigwe. Is there enough intra-African trade to justify that? Wigwe points to the gap left by international banking groups in recent years as Basel III and other regulations make compliance more costly for global banks.
“There is no point in waiting for other banks from other continents to come and serve you. You must create your own,” says Wigwe. The African Continental Free Trade Area offers proof, he says, that intra-African trade is set to increase through formal channels. Intra-African payments are also on the rise – Nigerian parents paying school fees in Ghana, for example – while there are also investments and remittances worth billions of dollars. “And we want all of that to be coming through our franchise,” says Wigwe. To beef up its correspondent-banking links, Access Bank has an office in London that will soon be joined by a new banking operation in France.