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Boardroom colossus and Castro’s friend

In the journey to the publication of the book Boardroom Leadership and Corporate Governance in Nigeria, we have had to cast wide our net for corporate figures with valuable board experiences that will be handy for business executives, business schools and business-minded individuals.  We are hunting for first-hand accounts of pragmatic leadership and good case studies of boards in Nigeria. The quest had taken us to the old and the new schools who combined to give a grand view of leadership at the board.

We searched the nooks and crannies of corporate Nigeria, in conventional places (such as the boards of renowned corporations) and by references, and also in unusual places such as bookshops, where we first met Chief Arthur Mbanefo, through his scintillating biography, Arthur Mbanefo: A Fulfilled Life of Service that has chapters on his board experiences, from UAC to ACB to university councils.

He was just a phone call away––his number graciously supplied by the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Matthew Hassan Kukah.  Coincidentally, our appointment with him fell on the week his very good friend, Cuba’s Fidel Castro died at age 90.  We met Chief Mbanefo with a newspaper article: Tribute To An Unforgettable Icon – Fidel Castro by Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, Governor of Osun State.  Naturally, the opening salvo was about his “Castro Experience.”  His book recounts his meeting with Castro, when he was chairman and chief organiser of UN G-77 Summit hosted by Cuba but chaired by Nigeria, the year’s group leader.

On his visit to Havana in 2000, Castro drove him back to the airport in his car, made him sit in the “owner’s corner” where on the floor reclined an AK-47.  When he drew Castro’s attention to the gun, the Cuban leader simply chuckled, and said “a habit from the past” before transferring the firearm to an aide in the front seat.

Mbanefo relished his friendship with Castro: “I met Fidel in 2000 when I was chairman of G-77 ambassadors in the UN. My relationship with him was sustained. In 2003, I met him again in Kuala Lumpur, the last meeting of the non-aligned movement.  After the meeting in 2000, for the whole period I was in the UN (1999-2003), every Christmas, he sent me a box of cigarettes (I have stopped smoking so I gave them out).  The last he sent came with his card attached to the box.”

Castro was just the appetizer that prepared the ground for our discussion.  Meeting him for the first time in his Ikoyi, Lagos home, you formed this impression of a bookworm. His abode, an island of books and documents, forested by awards and plaques; his table, laden with current readings, which included John Paden’s biography of President Buhari, and Flashes of Thoughts by Mohammed Bin Rashid Maktoum, Prime Minister of United Arab Emirate, which he had read and underlined everywhere.  There is Dynamics of the Nigerian Financial System, a collection of essays in honour of Phillips Oduoza, former group managing director and CEO of United Bank for Africa Plc.  And there is End of the Alchemy: Money, Banking and the Future of Global Economy, a book by Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England.

And wait for this: the man who would be 87 by his next birthday is in the middle of writing his second book. That tells you instantly just how busy he is.  He is also a man of letters. Literally. He read to us a letter he wrote to President Shehu Shagari. “In 1981, I wrote a letter to Shagari expressing my personal concern over the fact that he is the first president that has moved us from a parliamentary system to executive presidency which is a completely different thing, moving from bicameral governance to exclusive governance that is like business.”

This was Mbanefo’s concern: On the first of October 1979, after General Obasanjo handed over power to the democratically elected Alhaji Shehu Shagari government, the General retired to Abeokuta, the army returned to Dodan Barracks, and the president started governing. The question was: how much of the new government system did he know? A minister under Tafawa Balewa, yes, but that dispensation was a bicameral system where the tradition was to argue, debate and make a point in support of a law or stand in opposition.”

He had charged the president: “you owe this to every Nigerian to establish something before you leave office.”

He showed us the president’s response.

If you are meeting Chief Mbanefo, you are in for a treat. You would enjoy listening to his deep knowledge and experience as he swings from one topic to another.  A caveat, however: if you are in the news profession, you are likely to find yourself in a dilemma:  here before you sit a man who is a cornucopia, from whom you’d want to squeeze as much information as you can, but where do you start? Should you focus on his Nigerian Civil War experience, during which the young globetrotting emissary of Biafra met many leaders in Africa and the world at large seeking recognition and legitimacy for the breakaway republic?  Should you draw more from his robust professional experience that spanned government and private corporations? Is the account of his stewardship at the UN as ambassador plenipotentiary and permanent representative of Nigeria who was in the thick of world affairs in those historic early years of the millennium not the big deal?  Or simply, should you just relish his native wisdom, sturdy principles and abiding philosophies that are as delightful as an elixir and as soothing as a balm?

His is a life that segues seamlessly across a spectrum of vast and varied fields: accounting profession and corporate career, diplomacy and international relations, academic and traditional institution, politics and philanthropy. In just few minutes he would pass you through the spectrum.

As King Arthur is to the Matter of Britain, so is Chief Arthur Mbanefo to the Matter of Nigeria, a man who is a national monument not merely by virtue of his national honours––MFR and CON––but by the magnitude of the history of Nigeria in him, and the profundity of the larger piece of him in the Nigerian history.

To view him through the narrow lens of a trained accountant is to catch a glimpse of his shadow. He is as good as any cerebral academic, as astute as any first-class ambassador anywhere in the world (who was lauded by the then UN scribe, Kofi Annan as one who “analyses issues very critically and has the capacity of going to the core of issues”) and as competent in the boardroom as they come––as explained by Dr. Chris Abebe: “Anyone who had Arthur Mbanefo on his corporate board had to sit up and really prepare for a meeting. He never ignored any point or issue that he thought required attention…he puts executives on their toes all the time.”

The business of the day is about boardroom leadership. This he handled with dexterity, drawing parallels between his time on boards of bygone years and the present ones where he is serving.  And he has a big sense of history. Every narrative is tucked in a historical context. Of UAC, for instance, where he put in 22 years of service––he referred to himself as a “son of UAC,” the company where his father worked and retired, and where he was invited to the board in 1978––he gave insights to the scheme of affairs, from the time of UAC’s first Nigerian chairman-CEO, Dr. Christopher Abebe to its nadir in the mid 1980s.

He described an independent director (the board position he freshly resigned from at CitiBank––“I needed to leave and I left”) as “somebody who has conviction of his own thought.”  Conviction, for him, could only come from knowledge. And knowledge, a product of wide reading. “With reading, you have to run the gamut. How can you claim that you know something when your knowledge is limited?”

For an effective board, Chief Mbanefo, believes the ability to read the balance sheet is essential.  “Being an accountant helps you in the boardroom chair because the bottom-line of any business is the financials of the business,” he says, adding that a board chairman who cannot read a financial statement is seriously handicapped.

He touched on the integrity question.  A good board chair, he says, must be like Caesar’s wife––above suspicion. “In my profession, accounting, you are as good as the man who trained you. If the man who trained you cut corners, you must cut corners. If your trainers are fraudulent in the ways of doing things, you will not learn any other thing, but those things.”

While the three-hour marathon interview lasted, he took us back and forth, through the tunnels of history, through the passages of government, and through the intrigues of the UAC board in the years leading to its downturn, carefully drawing out lessons in a way that is amazing.  Again, it was our lucky day.  We ended up with a large haul of board lessons from a man who is a colossus in many ramifications.

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