By Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera
On the third weekend of July 2021, Anambra State was rocked by what has been, perhaps, the grandest celebration witnessed in South-Eastern Nigeria in recent memory. Except for the burial ceremony of Globacom CEO Mike Adenuga’s mother held a few years ago, it would be extremely difficult to point out an event whose attendant pomp and pageantry would rival the burial ceremony accorded to the mother of Obinna Iyiegbu, popularly known as Obi Cubana, which held at a small town in Anambra State called Oba.
The whole of Anambra State resembled an event centre for nearly a whole week, and there was little room to stretch in hotels across Awka, Onitsha, and even neighbouring Asaba. The event which had been unexpected, or at least planned away from public gaze, practically took everyone by surprise. What already looked like an extravagant celebration from the beginning, turned out to be something even more profound. Most people were shell-shocked when it was announced that Obi Cubana had bought 46 cows for the burial, but by the time his friends were done bringing their own cattle, the number of cows purchased was nearly enough to kickstart a ranch.
Understandably, the event stirred a myriad of reactions, both positive and negative. There were those for whom the event was an extravagant display of affluence, and there were those who regarded the ceremony as an aberration with respect to the Igbo way of burying the dead. Others argued that the grand display of wealth “created undue pressure for social media users”.
In hindsight, the hundreds of millions expended on the planning of that event turned out to be the mere beginning of something grander; at the end of the day, what the burial ceremony turned out to be, surprised even the people who planned the event.
The pertinent question here is, why did so many people feel comfortable enough to display their wealth at that ceremony? What was the driving force responsible for so many people showing up at Oba that weekend? A man does not cook for a whole community without first being assured that the community will turn up at his house.
Obi Cubana, in his interview with BBC, stated that he did not anticipate the extravagance displayed by the people who showed up at his mother’s burial. According to him, neither he nor the planners of the event expected that kind of crowd, and as a matter of fact, they did not plan to accommodate as much as one-fifth of the people who showed up at the event. It was only when they saw the mammoth crowd that they braced up to accommodate everyone and everything. Many of the people who came to that event were friends and schoolmates, as well as people with whom he had done business over the years.
What played out at Oba was the phenomenon of network creation, as espoused by the Igbo practice of apprenticeship. With the apprenticeship system, Igbo men have created an overwhelming network of friends who are rich and ready to support each other. This practice began from the formation of the People’s Club at Aba by Chief Titus Ume-Ezeoke in 1971, shortly after the Nigerian Civil War. It is through this practice, referred to as “Igba Boy” in local parlance, that the Igbo people have managed to bounce back from the desolation occasioned by the war, and become the economic backbone of the country. The average Igbo man, once he becomes successful in business, wants to expand, but he knows that this is not possible without bringing in other people, and so he searches for people who are willing (to put in the work), takes them in, and teaches them the tricks of his trade. They work for him as he teaches them, then they partner with him for a while, and when the said partnership has run its course, he sets them on a path to self-sustenance with a huge payoff.
Obi Cubana’s foray into showbiz and entertainment made him a benefactor to many, and as the years rolled by, he mentored more people, ultimately creating many friendships. Many of the people who served as apprentices under his tutelage are successful entrepreneurs today, and a good number of them made up the crowd that paid their respects to Nne Obi Cubana at Oba. One of them, popularly known as Cubana Chief Priest, is a celebrity bar owner and restauranteur, widely known in hospitality circles across the country.
If interviews and public statements are anything to go by, Obi Cubana himself does not believe that the magnitude of that event was solely facilitated by his wealth. For him, the people that showed up were not just drawn to the fact that he has money. He believes that his associates turned up in their numbers as a result of goodwill, the sort of goodwill brought about by the willingness to share business secrets and entrepreneurial skills. This willingness to lift up aspiring businessmen is an integral part of the apprenticeship system widely practiced by the Igbo people. Selfish businessmen can never be good mentors.
The apprenticeship system (“Igba Boy”) is, among other things, a chain of wealth creation. But through Obi Cubana’s business trajectory, we learn that when it is decentralised and incorporated into businesses that require showmanship, it could birth a large network of people capable of taking their immediate environment by storm. There have been some suggestions in certain areas that the Igbo people need to incorporate the tenets of the apprenticeship system into other large-scale endeavours like education and politics. Time will tell how possible it is to pull off such a feat, but at least a few lessons in networking and building relationships can be derived from studying Obi Cubana’s journey as an entrepreneur and mentor.
Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera is a freelance writer and journalist. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.