Leo Stan Ekeh, Chairman, Zinox Group is unquestionably the biggest digital entrepreneur in Nigeria today, employing thousands and expanding rapidly. His multi-billion Naira businesses have spread their tentacles to countries like the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates and Ghana. As a result, Ekeh’s beloved people in his native Imo State want him to become governor come 2019, so that he can translate his business success into good governance in the traumatized state. Pressure is mounting on this immensely talented man from all directions. Will the Zinox boss bow to this pressure? The signals from him are not too encouraging. Ekeh sure has the capacity to change the Imo State narrative, but he says he can’t be in politics and in business at the same time. He is not scared about leaving Zinox in the hands of some others, but he believes the time is not ripe else, it will crumble. He declares: “I have secured this business and if it was a part-time work, say part time governor, I can do part time.” In this exclusive interview with Yemi Adebowale and Ahamefula Ogbu, the Zinox boss shares his dream for his beloved Imo State and reservations about becoming governor
Imo State is over 40 years old now. Looking back, would you say the dreams behind its creation have been realized?
Well, let me put it this way, I was reasonably mature when Imo was created. In fact, I was in secondary school. Have we done badly? I won’t say yes; but have we excelled to expectations based on global standards? I would say no and there are many reasons for this. Even when we were created, I don’t think that Owerri as a capital had electricity in major places but some of those infrastructure have come in; they might not be the best but at least we have something. In recent times, during the military, you can’t question them because you didn’t understand their budgetary allocation system. Democracy, yes, we were blessed with a person like Achike Udenwa who you could say is a homeboy and naturally realistic. Subsequently, we have had other governors. Sometimes, it may sound easy for us to stay outside the net and blame the players but when you are inside, you understand better. Yes, I hear a lot of complaints, things are not working and all those but I have an attitude. I am very positive about my state and I just believe that like any other thing in Nigeria, God will intervene and correct them if the people are willing and ready to receive. We have knowledgeable people who can turn things around but things are not generally right in the country. So, it is really difficult to define and blame another person till they tell you their own story. My nature is that I don’t talk in the press to criticize my state government if I have access; so, when I have good ideas I send it to the government through text. Sometimes I call the governor. I am a subject of the governor; so it is his business if he decides to take my advice or he trashes it. This is the little I can say about Imo State. It could be better.
What has been responsible for Imo State’s inability to achieve its potential?
I have always hammered on human capital. I have done a whole lot to raise human capital through education, sponsorship. I extend a lot of scholarships to people silently, to go to world class institutions. Even last week, there was a boy who made a First Class. I told the parents that he should go to Imperial College and I support them. Such kids are the ultimate leaders of tomorrow and must be well equipped to confront the erratic challenges of an emerging larger world. A lot of our people in Imo State have in recent times confronted quality education with the determination to win but there are gaps. The general Nigeria standard may not be world class but requires few months of going through a finishing school to become world class. The new educational standard defines and influences the mindset of a man to be positive and see the bigger picture in everything including in bad health. When you educate a people and they become global citizens you have successfully prepared an army of quality billionaires. So, I see quality local educational standard deficit as major issues to producing quality human capital for internal progress etc. I am not sure Imo can today boast of two industries that can contribute to the state’s IGR. The bigger headache is years of neglect of critical infrastructure that will encourage location of industries or even motivate indigenes to establish businesses and finally, sometimes unfriendly governments that avoid her established citizens.
There is so much survival concentration on the state while people from the West and the North head to Abuja to get the national cake. For you to get a share of the national cake, somebody of substance must facilitate it and who is more qualified than your state Governor? Your governor is the easiest person to secure higher access for you in Abuja but frankly I am not seeing excited young men and women in Imo state benefitting from national legacies. What I see are people waiting to make money in the state from the little allocation to the state. The first line charge should be salaries. You can’t develop the infrastructure of a state with today’s meager government money. You look for credible investors; it is a business decision and the science of business should guide you. You invite investors who have capacity to come and develop and find a model without really killing the people to recover and make a little profit but these investors must have faith in the structure and the locals must not be hostile. My people need to move more to the center to take a percentage of the national wealth. They have the decency but need to manage their pride.
You didn’t put leadership as number one issue because it is said that with good leadership, everything will fall in place…
Leadership is critical but the people led are in the majority, remember; it is the same people who put the leadership. He is a son of the soil and you chose him, it means you conceded to him, you selected him as somebody who should rule you. If you did your due diligence on the person very well, you will know the character of the candidate. It is important to note that people cannot change 360 degrees overnight. If you decided on the right person, he will serve you very well and uplift the profile of the state. People say leadership but I rather think about the people led. If you think you have been rigged for whatever reason, you have a right to revolt and if you shut down the state for one month, the federal government will look into it; but you if you collected a kobo during election and voted for the wrong person and he emerges, you do not have an option but to carry the cross and its huge pain. But when you take a business decision and support the right person, you feel spiritually fulfilled and shortly would start experiencing the positive impacts on yourself, your family and your future. In this 21st century, you don’t take extreme risk with people without certified profile in learning, character and spirituality. This is why due diligence is highest in valuing a man’s past, present and with data, you can anticipate his future leadership style. Today, when people complain, I remain dumb because in this century, many people are talking. So, the smartest thing to do is to pretend to be dumb. You can’t eat your cake and have it. So, why should you complain? This is why I believe it is not just leadership.
But when good people run away from leadership positions, that system will continue to degenerate. Leo Stan Ekeh is a successful businessman; you can translate it into success in governance. Why are you not thinking of becoming governor of Imo State?
This question continues to reoccur every four years; you know I come from reasonably a below average state compared with other states in the country. There are few reasons why I cannot go for governorship of Imo State. The reasons are simple. One, I am a third-world digital entrepreneur with all the difficulties with infrastructure and the people in terms of knowledge. So, I spend my time developing and incubating businesses and these create more excitement for me than power. Two, I don’t give my time and money to the same person. It does not make sense to me to spend money in campaigns to plead with same people that I want to disrupt my personal and corporate roadmap to offer world-class services to and change their story to the glory of God. I rather fix any campaign money, say N10 billion with the CBN and use it to deploy ICT infrastructure in the first six months to major cities in the state which will activate digital revolution that will enhance employment opportunities of the teeming unemployed citizens of the state not only in Nigeria but also overseas. Thirdly, it is not a business to me because I have enough material wealth to sustain my family and myself and as such, I will never steal a penny of the state which belongs to the people. My catholic belief is that the day I do that, my family and I will perish. My grandfather produced the first Catholic Reverend father in my region. Fourthly, I have the responsibility to mentor my kids at this incubation period in their business life until they mature and then I can take further risks outside the family. If Governorship of Imo state is by appointment, then I shall commit my time and use technology to enhance efficiency without running around 27 local government areas day and night campaigning because I know exactly the challenges and solutions for bringing peace and prosperity to Imo people without attending any seminar.
Yes, I appreciate the clarion call from well-meaning people across my state every four years for me to come and serve but I also know that there are other qualified Imo men and women who could offer same quality services. One of the intending gubernatorial candidates called me to inform he was withdrawing in advance because he feels God want to use Leo Stan Ekeh to intervene in Imo state in 2019 and he feels I was created and helped by God to rise for this purpose this time. I only advised him not to withdraw as I have no interest and he concluded by saying I should not challenge God and at that pointed, I excused him to join my colleagues in a meeting.
But if your supporters put money, you won’t spend money…
I have received reasonable financial commitments and physical support from few Imo people who I can trust their words to fund my campaign only if I can do them the favor to agree to run in 2019, but they also know I am reasonably principled. Somehow, no one wants to listen to my reasons and I simply end by saying may the will of our Good Lord be done but same God knows in my heart of hearts that I don’t want to run as I am also doing my little bit in the technology sector.
Sincerely, money to run election is not my challenge but why should I spend money to beg the people to serve them? It doesn’t add up because I may get to the point where I would have to use family resources to pay workers’ salaries and pensions because as an entrepreneur, I may commit suicide if I get to that point where I cannot pay workers or pensioners. I cannot think of my family and I feeding well while those who worked for the money are dying of hunger. I see it as ungodly and that is why I never sacked any staff during this recession. I also told my staff that I will never sack because without them there is no way I could have been successful; therefore, I cannot abandon them at their point of need. So, we have been going through pains together and I shall sell the last property I have to pay salaries for performing staff if we get to that point. It is my commitment with God and he has intervened severally in my life and this is why all companies launched by me pay corporate tithe every month before we sign salaries. I tell them we can also support any responsible government of the state which sincerely wants us to add value without us really being in the driving seat. I believe at a point they will appreciate my position; that it is not just money but principle. Also mind you, I support my state remotely and in the last 18 years I have had an annual budget of N1 billion to support them without making it public. It is a spiritual responsibility and I believe God had a purpose for bringing me into this world from that remote part of Nigeria. Same way I see Lagos State because it is a classic example of what Nigeria should be in the 21st century. So, it will be wrong not to contribute to her development. I don’t make noise about this but the beneficiaries know and I intend to launch something soon that shall give more joy as I age. This has been delayed because of the current state of affairs not only in this country but globally and you know, when you become a global citizen, you also take global pains. I have taken a lot of global pains in the last two years.
I think you are thinking more of what you will lose than what the people will gain. Why is it a big deal to pack up Zinox for your beloved Imo State and become governor?
Not exactly, but in my thoughts and my being, I always saw wealth as a right and when I launched out 1987, I wanted to be a disruptive digital entrepreneur but somehow, the country did not understand me. Only Chief Gani Fawehinmi and Alhaji Lateef Jakande who officially opened my first corporate office on Allen avenue, Ikeja somehow interpreted my script. I remember Alhaji Jakande telling the press then in an interview more than 25 years ago that if the country had five Leo Stans, Nigeria would be a better place. When I remember things like this, I find it difficult to disappoint and this is the reason I started my business life with a clear roadmap supported by my family so that I can continue to interprete the DNA of my group of which I am the founder, until such a time I retire which will not be too far from now. I consider it a privilege to lead the IT revolution in the continent starting with nothing. I have also grown with some colleagues who believe in me and cannot afford to betray them at this point. It is not very easy to pack up Zinox. If I did in 2006 when everyone wanted me to lead Imo state, maybe the nation would have been deficient with digital registration of voters that has created sanity in the electoral system. I have done more in Arab countries with technology because they gave me space on satellite technology. God has a clear purpose for everyone. Maybe because we are human, sometimes we cannot anticipate it. So, it doesn’t make sense to abandon a ship midway. I love my people and for this special love, I have a spiritual attachment to the three senatorial zones of the state. I am from Owerri Senatorial Zone. I was born in Okigwe Senatorial Zone and married from Orlu senatorial zone. So, this makes me a distinguished Imo indigene and I am not sure any other person has this lineage in Imo. So, I shall continue to be fair to all in my little contributions for the good of the state and shall continue these till I die. All I need is their prayers to continue to add value and like I always told my friends, I cannot challenge God. May His will be done possibly outside politics.
Between driving your dream and assisting someone to drive his dream which one do you think would work better for the state?
The master approach in life is that no one can drive your dream better than you and this is true. When you drive your dream, you do so with your last blood; when you are driving another person’s dream, you don’t do it with hunger in the belly and whatever is the result you tolerate it.
About three weeks ago, I told some entrepreneurs in Dubai that a lot of words in the dictionary shall be redefined before the end of the second quarter of this century based on emerging realities. As someone who read Risk Management at post-graduate level, I try to consider the faith of those with and around me when I take business decisions. So, in the business world, though I have brothers and sisters, I consider myself an only child. This means you know that if strategy and tact fails, you cry alone. Like I said, I do not need 96 hours to know how to turn around Imo state because I built possibly the single largest integrated ICT business on the continent with creative skill, common sense and God. You cannot achieve this with many godfathers. I can tell you with the combination of creative skill, common sense, quality time investment and God, this combination never fails but you have to do a little bit of planning before rolling out capacity for execution so that the sequence of development could be rated and certified. Without measureable milestones for achievement in governance by the people you shall continue to experience difficulties. It is not all about money but you must institute an auditable system that is an open book so that people who believe in rumours will be disappointed. You don’t need money to create wealth, instead you need a consciously instituted structure and people will invest in you. Less than 2 percent of successful entrepreneurs inherited wealth but I have not borrowed a kobo to run Zinox Group in the 30 years of my business life. From the start with all the difficulties, I upped my integrity and same partners I had 25 years ago after my incubation period still remain my partners because I meet my financial obligations most times with difficulties. So in three continents, though I am not God, I try my best to run my businesses with the highest level of integrity. This is why I give my time in serving God and my work. So there is always fear of failure not just for the money to sustain your family but to meet your obligations. With this sincerity of purpose, I can finance any genuine business with the support of my international partners but I must make sure I pay as at when due. With this support, my group has genuinely, intensely, directly and indirectly been funding the IT sector, leveraging on my integrity with my partners and that is why I lost huge weight when the Naira crashed as I had huge USD obligations to meet. This is why I continue to shout that an economy for rich start-ups is not an economy. A lot of governors can alter the destinies of their citizens by using some of their successful subjects to interface with the global community and leverage on developmental funds that are cheap with long-term repayment period. So, I can sincerely stay by the side and support my governor to drive a genuine dream. If I use the administration of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as an example, when he realized I could add value he technically included me in all Presidential committees and I worked quietly with him without being a Special Adviser or Minister. But the most touching strategic committee he formed that was dear to him was the “NIGERIAN THINKERS”. He avoided politicians and selected only seven of us nationwide and we spent quiet hours with him strategizing on which areas Nigeria could lead as number one, two or three in Africa and the entire world. These were very genuine Nigerians and it was not a television or newspaper showbiz of the rich and the mighty but men and women who could defend Nigeria with their life with quality inner content. This is my respect for Chief Obasanjo for his commitment to uplift this country and mind you, the nation did not know we were brainstorming on these. This is an example of helping a genuine leader drive his dream without sharing the front seat and I remain grateful to him for the privileges. In Nigeria, immediately you see those newspapers and television serialized committees, it means they have failed from the start date because it has become a show business. In a nutshell, I think of Imo State in the same way. I can quietly add great value by supporting my Governor like I do presently but quietly but the use of technology shall make it more cost effective and I can give more online.
It is said that people like you avoid politics because of the fear of being rigged out.
I don’t know how to comment on this but definitely I am not a coward. It is impossible for me to lose an election. For me to go for an election it is only by divine call, so how can I lose? It is unthinkable. In my business history, I have never lost a single thing I showed interest in. I prepare very well for anything I want and seek God’s blessing and there is nothing more to add. Nothing is easy but at the end of it, it is victory. I am not new to politics and those I schooled with are in a better position to enlighten others. It is just unthinkable that I will lose an election in Imo state to be their Governor; it is unthinkable. My capacity is only with God’s blessing.
What is your message to the masses of Imo State?
It is very simple, to remain loyal to the present administration and be closest to God but they must not sell their soul in 2019. The current global challenge is enough lessons for all.
We mean in terms of you becoming the governor?
What can I say? The only thing I tell everybody is to continue to pray. Do I want to do it? The answer is capital no. I hate to put myself in a situation that appears like I am challenging God but He knows I am content with the current assignment he has given me. God has been very fair to me. I have worked for a minimum of 18 hours a day in the last 25 years or so and I have never been sick in the last six or seven years – no headache, fever, catarrh, malaria, runny stomach or cough and it is all by His grace. I plan to completely stay out of Imo state politics till after 2019 elections and may be in difficulty to support any candidate so that I can be at peace with my family and friends.
Do you take African herbs to stay this strong?
No I don’t take any African herbs. My mother was a dietician so we ate quality food from childhood and with a tint of gym work. Also note that I have never taken alcohol or smoked in life and if I did, maybe I would have been a drug addict. God saved me from birth.
Do you believe the maxim that the voice of man is the voice of God?
Yes, I believe that to a large extent but remember it depends on the perspective you look at it from. I also mentioned too that many things shall change in the second quarter of this century. I study the future consciously in order not to be irrelevant. Yes, the most respected men of God in my life have spoken to me not 20 times; but over 200 times to go and serve Imo state, extremely good wishes, but also what I tell everybody is to go and pray, while I handle the headache of this corporate body. I still have the future of a lot of people at stake. I don’t want to abandon them. I decided to accept this discussion just to clear the air so that all those candidates who put their intention to run for governorship of Imo state and are waiting for me could go ahead and declare and also know that I am not pretending because most of them are waiting for me to give the signal so that they can support me. And with this, I think I can now have peace because media houses in Imo state are awash with stories of my emergence.