Tony Elumelu @60: Celebrating Africa’s Icon of Entrepreneurship

By Chidiebere Nwobodo

On the eve of Tony O. Elumelu’s birthday—22nd March, 1963, not even Suzanne Elumelu; his mother, knew she was about to give birth to a child of destiny that would later become iconic persona in the world of business, investment and philanthropy.

This precious baby—an angel on assignment, was named Onyemaechi, which translates to “who knows tomorrow”.

Tomorrow is pregnant they say but we can shape tomorrow from today if we determine to do so. John. F. Kennedy, former U. S. president, opined that we can carve our tomorrow today if we don’t look only to the past or present.

Onyemaechi was like a rhetorical question the bearer of the name chose to answer later in the sojourn of life. Then young Tony Elumelu set out not only to discover tomorrow but to design it, which exemplifies Abraham Lincoln’s postulation that the best way to predict the future is to create it. He did not wait for life to happen to him—he happened to life!

Six decades on the voyage, riding tides in turbulent ocean of life, like great Michelangelo, Tony Elumelu has not only carved and painted his “tomorrow” but has also become a paragon of success story for young entrepreneurs to copy. His impact in modelling young entrepreneurs has reverberated across Africa via Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF).

He is a private sector leader cum shrewd investor with investments in key sectors of the African economy through Heirs Holdings, Transcorp Group, UBA Group, etcetera.

Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been created by this entrepreneurial maven. At an early stage, with an eagle-eyed focus, he was poised to achieve greatness in life. He could not allow any perceived disadvantage to weaken his resolve to rise from nadir of obscurity to Olympian cliff of fame.

Like Arthur C. Clarke said: “The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible”.

Tony Elumelu, as a pacesetter, believes that impossible is just a word. At 34, he was already chief executive officer of defunct Standard Trust Bank and one of the youngest bank CEOs in Nigeria.

Stories of reforms and revolution of African banking industry cannot be complete without outlining his sterling efforts towards positioning African banking industry to compete with the rest of the world. His indelible footprints of success as chief executive of United Bank of Africa (UBA), will remain a revered point of reference for ages to come.

Tony Elumelu’s ten-year visionary leadership at UBA positioned the Bank as leading 21st century mega bank in the continent, with over 20 million active customers, 30,000 employees, and 1,000 branches across 20 countries of Africa. When Americans brag with behemoths like JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Europeans pride in leviathans like Barclays, Deutsche Bank AG, Africans glow in the UBA Group—all thanks to Tony O. Elumelu, CFR. The man who created his “tomorrow”.

In 2010, he retired as chief executive officer of the UBA Group and founded Heirs Holdings and The Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF). Beyond banking industry, Tony Elumelu has straddled the divide of hospitality industry.

His spirit of excellence can be seen in Transcorp Hillton, Abuja, a five-star hotel located at the heart of the Nigeria’s capital, where he has controlling interest. Transcorp Hillton remains one of the top most exquisite hotels in Africa. When a man has aura of excellence, like Midas touch, it reflects in all his businesses. He has replicated the same standard of excellence in power sector, oil and gas industries, etcetera.

As billionaire entrepreneur is revelling in the euphoria of his 60th birthday, the life of Tony O. Elumelu has become another proof that repeated excellence heralds greatness. It exudes a purpose driven life anchored on eternal philosophy that life is not an accident, which implies that for anyone to be great you have to set out for it with laser-focused vision.

Tony O. Elumelu is the father of Africapiltalism—an economic philosophy hedged on optimizing power of capitalism via entrepreneurship to liberate Africa from the shackles and hackles of multidimensional poverty and crass underdevelopment.

Being one of the Forbes’ recognized richest people in Africa, In 2020, he was honoured amongst Times Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Despite achieving giant strides and reaching lofty milestones in life, the Delta-born business guru has never downplayed the place of grace in his meteoric rise to stardom.

On several platforms, with sense of humility and humour, he has narrated how luck—or what can be called favour, mixed with dint of hard work, contributed immensely to his projectile growth from being just a corp member at Union Bank, to emerging as one of the youngest CEOs of commercial banks, to chairing one of the largest banking conglomerates in Africa.

He has asked this philosophical but rhetorical question in one of his public outings: “Am I blessed or am I lucky?”. I will try to answer it. Tony O. Elumelu is both blessed and lucky. Everything about him bespeak blessings. His body language acknowledges biblical expository that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong but to him God shows mercy.

The experience of Peter as a fisher man expounds it: “Master, we have toiled all day but caught no fish”, Jesus commanded Peter to lower the net into the sea: low and behold! the same Peter that could not catch any fish caught so much fish at one stance to the extent that he had to call for reinforcement to assist him in pulling the huge chuck of fish out of the river.

Peter was hard-working. He was skilled in fishing. He was at the right place at the time. He had instruments of fishing—net, boat, etc., yet “luck” was not there until Jesus arrived and brought “luck”.

It takes unparalleled humility and a deep understanding of the role of the supernatural in the affairs of men, for a billionaire who has attained height of success to openly acknowledge the place of luck in his success story. This is one of the great attributes that stands out Tony O. Elumelu. Despite his hard work and sacrifices to get to his enviable status today, he has always acknowledged that he is a blessed and lucky person.

His philanthropic strides and gestures are driven by this belief that he is just a custodian of wealth meant to better humanity. A school of thought says: “what we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains, and is immortal”. This is the ideology that gave birth to Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF), and transformed Onyemaechi—the founder, from being just a human to a humanitarian.

Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF), in the last decade has done marvellously well to empower over 16,000 young entrepreneurs across 54 countries in Africa, through training, mentoring and funding them with start-up capital of $5,000 each.

In 2015, the Foundation launched an “Entrepreneurship Programme”, a $100 million intervention to empower 10,000 African entrepreneurs over the next ten years. Elumelu’s passion for young entrepreneurs is not only unequalled but contagious. Global bodies like UNDP, UNCDF, AfDB, Red Cross, etcetera, have all identified with the Foundation via partnership.

He was quoted as saying: “Beyond business success, always look for ways not only to give back, but to empower generations coming behind us, so that they can go even further that we have. It can be big or small, as simple as giving advice, becoming a mentor, broadcasting your success. Youths in Africa are determined, energetic, hungry to succeed and make a difference, and are extremely intelligent, but the environment makes it difficult for them to succeed.”

Africa has been described in some quarters as ‘killer’ of dreams because of difficult operating environments for startups. But Elumelu believes that with right mentorship, a lot of ambitious young entrepreneurs will defy the odds, stem the tide and become trailblazers in the world of business and investing.

Tony O. Elumelu, CFR, as an advocate of Africapitalism, and who is fondly called the King of soft life, admonishes that next frontier of Africa’s wealth will be in entrepreneurial quest of her youths. We cannot keep watching African youths risk and waste their lives trying to cross Sahara desert and Mediterranean sea to search for greener pasture in the developed world. As he marked his 60th anniversary, I chose to celebrate his impactful journey so far.

There is a school of thought that encourages us to celebrate lives of those who have become exemplary in order to get our youths to emulate such virtues.

This article was originally published on
Written by Chidiebere Nwobodo.

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