By Moses Ochonu
As an economic historian who edited a well-received book on entrepreneurship in Africa, the introduction to which argues for the recognition of distinct African entrepreneurial traditions and innovations, I find the case of Obi Cubana (Chief Obinna Iyiegbu) quite fascinating.
Let me first get a few caveats out of the way. I do not endorse his vulgar, exhibitionist, and performative wealth, but I do not judge it either. To each their own. We all operate from different value and ethical scripts, but none is, in the final analysis, inherently superior to the other.
Besides, a person has a right to spend their money as they wish, and Cubana’s exhibitionism cannot be analyzed or understood outside his business and brand, which are anchored by show business and entertainment, the lifeblood of which is performance, vulgar excess, and razzmatazz. In other words, his antics have instrumental and utilitarian logic in his line of business.
What appears to others as his vulgar exhibitionism and excessive self-indulgences are actually part of his business repertoire, part of the script, and aspects of a carefully, strategically organized spectacle to boost his brand. If I’m right then this is a type of genius.
Others of course have a right to be disgusted and to express that disgust, but ultimately, a person has the right to bury their loved ones in the manner that pleases them.
On the question of how Cubana and his associates became so wealthy, any explanation outside of privileged insider or documented information is conjecture and speculation. I will also leave the question of how he started and how he obtained his seed money to those with privileged information.
I heard of this man for the first time only a few days ago, although I knew of Cubana night club in Abuja because a friend once took me there. I did not know the owner, nor did I know that it was part of a larger entertainment empire.
In fact, when I read about Cubana Chief Priest, one of Cubana’s associates, meeting with Kogi Governor, Yahaya Bello, recently, and they said he is a nighclub operator, I thought he was the owner of the Abuja Cubana that a friend took me to. In other words, I mistook the associate for his Oga.
All of that said, I find Cubana to be an interesting case study in entrepreneurial insurgency and innovation. Insurgent because he refuses to conform to and in fact challenges some of the tropes established by more established people of wealth in Nigeria in terms of how to mold and curate one’s image to the public as a person of means. Innovative because, well, all successful entrepreneurs are innovators.
Whether you like him or hate him, it is to the man’s credit that he dominated the news cycle for an entire weekend and that the debate and conversations he sparked have not only continued but have netted him and his brand tons of free, enduring publicity of the type that other brands pay tens if not hundreds of millions of Naira for. By the way, I am aware that by posting this update, I am giving him even more publicity and extending his dominance of the news cycle.
The other aspect of Obi Cubana’s profile that fascinates me is his model of what one might call associative entrepreneurship (I’m copyrighting this coinage so don’t use without permission or acknowledgment, lol). He is at the top of a core group of entrepreneurs who are roughly of his age and are his friends and enablers.
In this way, Obi Cubana’s success is also his associates’ success, and his associates’ associates’ success, and so on—a collective and shared success, if you will. As he and the business rose, his associates, including the more visible and vocal face of the empire, Cubana Chief Priest, rose with him.
Whether Cubana himself and observers realize it or not, this model of entrepreneurship is distinctly African, as I argued in the introduction to the aforementioned volume on entrepreneurship.
This is why the highly individualized entrepreurship model of the Western capitalist experience theorized by Alois Schumpeter, with the emphasis on the sole, individual catalytic business innovator and disruptor, does not apply to the African entrepreneurship landscape.
Sure, Cubana fits partially into the Schumpeterian model of an innovative disruptor who identifies a niche and its deficits and proceeds to disrupt it with innovative and more efficient solutions. But unlike the Dangotes, the Elumelus, and Adenugas, the Otedolas, the Abdulsamad Rabius, and others, Obi Cubana is not the sole patriarch of a business fiefdom or a consanguineous empire but rather the coordinating leader of a multilayered business empire where brand building is diffuse, fairly decentralized, and robustly delegated to and distributed among the core players.
The African group entrepreneurship model is not just about the formation of an inner core of invested entrepreneurs, as is the case with Cubana; it is also about the cultivation of a wider concentric circle of collaborators, communal support, a social network of beneficiaries, an elastic chain of empowerment, and a communally shared prosperity.
These are my “serious” provisional reflections on the Cubana phenomenon for now. I may return with more thoughts, some of them hopefully more well-formed.