Decoding Mike Adenuga: Africa’s most private billionaire

Mike Adenuga

By Toni Kan

For Christmas, I was gifted a copy of rapper and business mogul, Jay-Z’s (auto) biographical musings, Decoded, which he co-authored with Dream Hampton. One of the most successful rappers ever, Jay Z, is so notoriously media-shy that his rare interviews are media and cultural events where he often talks about racism, family and the black man’s place on the streets and in the boardroom.

Decoded is, in that sense, a dream for any Jay Z-phile because it offers never-before-seen insights into his early beginnings, his time as a drug dealer, his work ethic and most importantly, sets down lyrics to his rap songs because blessed with a photographic memory, Jay Z never writes down his lyrics.

Not even halfway gone into the book, I began to wonder, what book by a Nigerian billionaire will excite such passions? The answer was an easy one – Otunba Mike Adenuga, Africa’s second richest man and the man behind Globacom and Conoil.

When the story of 20th and 21st-century Nigerian enterprise and industry is told, one name will stand out and confound those whose job it is to chronicle such things because they will have so little to go on because Mike Adenuga has built a public persona defined by near invisibility.

In the age of social media and overexposure, the man who admirers and traducers often refer to as The Bull has no social media account, seldom ever attends events, rarely makes public appearances and hardly does media interviews, yet he is always on the pages of our newspapers and on the lips of many Nigerians.

Why is this so? Why are we so enamoured by a man who prefers to operate from behind the scenes? The reason might be twofold – human beings are attracted to mystery and secondly, while Adenuga prefers to stay away from the spotlight, his businesses and the philanthropy that he engages in ensure that he is never far from the news.

When you mention Mike Adenuga, the easy-reference is to Globacom, the telecom company he set up in 2003, four years after the conditional GSM licence he received in 1999 was revoked.

To proceed on that trajectory means glossing over his early beginnings and thus failing to recognise his famed enterprise, acumen, perseverance and tenacity.

He was born on 29 April 1953 in Ibadan and christened Michael Adeniyi Agbolade Ishola Adenuga (Jnr) to a father, Oloye Michael Agbolade Adenuga Sr, who was a school teacher and a mother, Omoba Juliana Oyindamola Adenuga, who was a businesswoman and hailed from a royal Ijebu family.

Mike Adenuga studied at Ibadan Grammar School, Ibadan and Comprehensive High School, Aiyetoro, for his Higher School Certificate (HSC) before making the transatlantic crossing to the United States of America for tertiary education.  He graduated from Northwestern Oklahoma State University with a degree in business administration before proceeding to Pace University, New York. The story has been told of how he drove a taxi to help support himself as a student.

By 26, Mike Adenuga was already a millionaire who dealt in lace materials and the supply of soft drinks. Fast forward 11 years later, the 36-year-old had established himself as an entrepreneur of note with interests in many sectors so that when Professor Jubril Aminu as petroleum minister under General Ibrahim Babangida decided to push forward with his policy of encouraging indigenous participation in the Nigerian oil and gas industry, Mike Adenuga was one of 11 Nigerian entrepreneurs to receive oil licences in what was described as “a discretionary licensing round”.

Critics of that exercise have described it as an example of cronyism but what they fail to note is that as discretionary as it was, without that exercise, the international oil corporations would still have a stranglehold on Nigeria’s oil and gas industry and we may not have the Local Content Act of 2010 or the Petroleum Industry Act of 2021.

Another little-noted fall-out of that exercise is the fact that among 11 entrepreneurs that included MKO Abiola, Alhaji Dantata, Alhaji Indimi, Alhaji Mai Deribe, Chief Michael Ibru, Kase Lawal, Chief Lulu Briggs, Mike Adenuga’s Consolidated Oil which got OPL 113 and is now known as Conoil, was the first of the 11 to bring its field to first oil and has been producing ever since transforming that licence into one of Nigeria’s most successful indigenous oil and gas stories making it safe to say that without the success of Consolidated (Conoil) we may not have Seplat or Nestoil or Aiteo or Midwestern, thus making Adenuga, in many ways, the godfather of Nigeria’s indigenous oil and gas industry.

Mike Adenuga’s early successes selling lace materials and soft drinks was replicated in a grand manner with Consolidated Oil and in time, he would show his entrepreneurial mettle by becoming one of Nigeria’s most successful serial entrepreneurs with interests in banking and finance (Devcom and Equitorial Trust Bank) and then telecoms, the three most lucrative sectors in Nigeria.

His exertions in those three sectors have built him, according to Forbes, a personal fortune of $6.2billion (May 2021), making him Africa’s second-richest man and the owner of Globacom, Nigeria’s second-largest telecom operator, which has presence in Ghana and Benin.

The story of Globacom best captures Mike Adenuga’s can-do spirit, his business acumen, his enterprise, perseverance and tenacity traits many attribute to Taureans whose symbol is the bull. After his GSM licence was revoked in 1999 and with MTN and Econet already enjoying a two-year head start, Adenuga entered the telecom fray in 2003 and disrupted the market by introducing the per-second billing system which had been described as an impossibility. He went further to crash the cost of SIM cards from N15,000 to N100 making it more accessible to the masses while his Glo-1 submarine cable was also a decisive gamechanger in Africa’s race onto the information superhighway.

Today, Globacom is not just Nigeria’s second-largest telecom operator with over 55m subscribers, it is also among the biggest players in Ghana and Benin Republic with footprints in Cote D’Ivoire, Gambia and Senegal.

For a man who has accumulated so much wealth and one who does not live the high-flying jet-set life, what does Mike Adenuga do with his money? Those in the know describe him as a “capitalist with a heart of gold”, a man who likes to make money in order to give to the vulnerable and less privileged.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, he was among the first to offer support with a N1.5bn donation to Lagos State and the Federal Government of Nigeria. His Mike Adenuga Foundation is the vehicle through which he carries out his philanthropic endeavours and his giving is tribal, national, religious and culturally agnostic.

A fervent supporter of high culture, his “An Evening With Wole Soyinka” remains a reference point as is his support for the annual Ofala and Ojude Oba festivals. His provision of a home for the French cultural center Alliance Francaise in Ikoyi precinct attracted commendation from French president Emmanuel Macron who awarded Mike Adenuga France’s highest national honor, “Commander of the Legion of Honour” in recognition of his “contribution to the development of French-Nigerian relations, his appreciation of the French culture and also for the advancement and betterment of humanity.”

Adenuga donated millions of dollars in aid of flood victims in Bayelsa state and has also several educational and religious institutions in Nigeria and Ghana leading to his emergence as recipient of some of the highest national honours in Ghana – Companion of the Star of Ghana (CSG) and in Nigeria Grand Commander of Nigerian (GCON) which is usually reserved for Vice Presidents.

With one year to go to his 70th birthday (April 2023), a biography or autobiography project must be initiated in order to properly “decode” for posterity what makes this enigmatic serial entrepreneur and notoriously private billionaire tick.