Sunday, August 1, 2021

Obi Cubana and the theory of associative entrepreneurship, By Moses E. Ochonu

It is far too early to canonise Cubana as the patron saint of associative entrepreneurship, but my scholarly intuition leads me to read his entrepreneurial vision in this theoretical frame. Other scholars should take up the challenge of investigating whether or to what extent Cubana embodies this theory, whether his business practices and accomplishments merit the credit I have accorded him…

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. The fascination grows when one looks beyond the visuals coming out of the funeral in Oba and the justifiable moral panic they  have provoked.

Let me first get a few caveats out of the way. I do not endorse his 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.

In this piece, I am not concerned with the moral and ethical ramifications of the optics on display in Chief Iyiegbu’s mother’s funeral. Morality is in the zone of the personal, and there is no single moral code for everyone. What matters is whether there are clear, unambiguous ethical and legal boundaries that safeguard society as a whole from acts that hurt non-participating compatriots or bring the country to disrepute. From my admittedly limited vantage point, I do not see how Cubana and company’s vulgar materialism and revelry transgress any extant laws, but I am open to being proven wrong.

Besides, a person has a right to spend his money as he wishes, and Cubana’s exhibitionism cannot be analysed or understood outside his business and brand, which are anchored in show business and entertainment, the lifeblood of which are performance, choreographed pageantry, excess, and razzmatazz. In other words, his antics have instrumental and utilitarian logic in his line of business. The person, the performance, and the profession are all intricately connected in a symbiotic web of mutual reinforcement.

What appears to others as his offensively filthy exhibitionism and excessive self-indulgence are actually part of his business repertoire, part of the script, and aspects of a carefully, strategically organised 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 in moral, ethical, or religious terms, but ultimately, a person has the right to bury his loved ones in the manner that pleases him, and he is accountable only to his conscience, to God and, to a lesser degree, to the natal community from which he derives social legitimacy and cultural capital. On the last point, I have not heard the people of Oba complain about the events of this past weekend.

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. He has granted an interview to BBC Pidgin in which he goes into details about his beginnings and the early days of a hardscrabble life of hustle and modest successes, punctuated by failures. Alternative stories of his financial ascent would have to convincingly refute and displace the autobiographical narrative of his wealth.

I find Cubana to be an interesting case study in entrepreneurial insurgency and innovation. Insurgency because he refuses to conform to and in fact challenges some of the tropes normalised by more established people of wealth in Nigeria, in terms of how to mould and curate one’s image to the public as a person of means.

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 a certain Cubana Chief Priest, one of Obi Cubana’s associates, meeting with Kogi State Governor, Yahaya Bello, recently, and the report indicated that he was a nightclub operator, I assumed that he was the owner of the Abuja Cubana that my friend took me to. In other words, I mistook the associate for his Oga.

I find Cubana to be an interesting case study in entrepreneurial insurgency and innovation. Insurgency because he refuses to conform to and in fact challenges some of the tropes normalised by more established people of wealth in Nigeria, in terms of how to mould and curate one’s image to the public as a person of means. I associate him with innovation because, well, all successful entrepreneurs are innovators in their own different ways.

Whether you like 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 publishing this essay, 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, my coinage, and theoretical framing for the central role he accords associational relationships and trust in organising and operating his enterprise. Obi Cubana is at the top of a core group of entrepreneurs, who are roughly of his age and are his friends and enablers.

Most of them began with him. Others, we are told, are independently wealthy but have embraced the aura and magnetic social charm of the Cubana brand, finding it a worthy and profitable canopy for their own endeavours. This is not traditional franchising, as taught in business schools. Rather, it is an informal arrangement among trusted friends to support and build one another up by adopting a common recognisable insignia, much like the Wangara merchants and traders of precolonial West Africa, whose permissive, inclusive, and integrative brand-making I have researched and published on.

Obi Cubana’s associative entrepreneurship leverages the same power of inclusion and integration. In this way, Obi Cubana’s success is also his associates’ successes, and his associates’ associates’ successes, and so on — a collective, shared, replicable 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.

It seems to me, but I stand to be corrected, that Obi Cubana has produced a new model of entrepreneurship that is an improvement on the familiar “Igba boi” Igbo apprenticeship system of business tutelage, service, training, and “settlement.” His model seems to take the apprenticeship model to a new level of collaborate entrepreneurship and wealth creation.

Whether or not Cubana himself and observers realise it, this model of entrepreneurship is distinctly African, as I argued in the introduction to the aforementioned book on entrepreneurship.

This is why the highly individualised entrepreneurship model of the Western capitalist experience theorised 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  Alakijas,  the Abdulsamad Rabius, and others, Obi Cubana is not the sole patriarch of a business fiefdom or of a consanguineous empire but rather the coordinating leader of a multilayered business empire where brand building is diffuse, fairly decentralised, and robustly delegated to and distributed among the core players.

It seems to me, but I stand to be corrected, that Obi Cubana has produced a new model of entrepreneurship that is an improvement on the familiar “Igba boi” Igbo apprenticeship system of business tutelage, service, training, and “settlement.” His model seems to take the apprenticeship model to a new level of collaborate entrepreneurship and wealth creation.

Obi Cubana did not recruit apprentices, but rather associates — friends and contemporaries of his who have helped him build an empire in which they are key players and co-creators. To the extent that, by his own account, he did not pass through the traditional Igbo apprenticeship system and does not implement it but instead created a new system of associative empowerment and conjoined wealth creation, he has, in some ways, improved upon and challenged the Igbo apprenticeship model.

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 supporters, a social network of beneficiaries, an elastic chain of empowerment, and a communally shared prosperity.

It is far too early to canonise Cubana as the patron saint of associative entrepreneurship, but my scholarly intuition leads me to read his entrepreneurial vision in this theoretical frame. Other scholars should take up the challenge of investigating whether or to what extent Cubana embodies this theory, whether his business practices and accomplishments merit the credit I have accorded him, or whether these accomplishments are merely the product of what Nigerians colloquially call packaging.

Moses E. Ochonu can be reached through: [email protected]mail.com.

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