A spending guide for wealthy Nigerians By Tolu Ogunlesi

Tolu-Ogunlesi-266x300The point of today’s article is to offer advice to our “one-per cent” population how to spend their money. Somewhat presumptuous, admittedly. Please bear with me. All I’m doing is arrogating to myself the sort of audacity embodied in the title of one of my favourite magazines, “How To Spend It”, a part of the Financial Times family.

According to the Africa Wealth Report 2015, Nigeria has 15,400 dollar millionaires; that is, people with at least a million dollars in assets. More than half of that number is in Lagos, making the city number two, after Johannesburg.

Now, I’m not sure how these numbers are calculated, especially in a clime like ours where secrecy is the overriding principle in wealth management. What I know is that that culture of secrecy suggests we’re grossly underestimating the number of millionaires and billionaires in this country. Anecdotal evidence indeed suggests that: for every one person that the Forbes list pinpoints, we all know a handful of people who belong to it but are not named. A good number of them don’t want to be named, in any case.

Now, not all of this money is legitimately earned. In fact, maybe, not even most of it. But the matter of the provenance of the wealth is for another discussion, another day. The point of this article is not to question the wealth, but to find progressive uses for it.

In an article on this column on April 7, 2014, I quoted the development economist, Paul Collier, explaining, in an article published around 2008, why Nigeria and Indonesia had such different development outcomes even though they shared a very similar history of military dictatorships and kleptomania. Collier’s words: “In a country like Indonesia, corrupt money was invested in the economy. In Nigeria, even honestly acquired money was sent out of it.” His estimate was that by 1999, the year we returned to democratic rule, more than $100bn had been stashed abroad, in the catacombs and alleyways of the banking systems in Switzerland and elsewhere.

Collier’s words are now almost a decade old, and I think that things have changed slightly since then. Nigerian money is now much more likely to sit at home than chase a visa to travel abroad. Whether legitimately or illicitly acquired, there’s now a lot more incentive for Nigerian money to stay in Nigeria. That has to be good news.

And this is where I come in, in this piece, throwing up ideas about what our rich people can do — philanthropically speaking — with some of their money. It is not enough to be known only for throwing the biggest parties, or seeing who can keep the largest amount of unoccupied real estate, in a country where there’s so much opportunity to use money to do ambitious good.

Crowd-funding is a great principle, no doubt, and sorely needed; our modest naira piling up to do useful stuff. But there’s definitely also a place for the transformational effects of ambitious giving by society’s wealthiest lot; the sort of effects that crowd-funding will find difficult to achieve. Think of James Smithson’s estate providing the wealth that founded the humongous cultural institution that is the Smithsonian, almost a quarter of a millennium ago. And, in today’s age, of Bill Gates devoting a large portion of his wealth taking on Goliath diseases like malaria and polio. It will take some time for crowd-funding to get to that level, I think.

So here are four philanthropic initiatives I’d like our dollar millionaires and billionaires to seriously consider:

Co-working spaces

These are essentially office spaces available for persons — mainly freelancers and independent workers and entrepreneurs — to share. The edge they give is that the principle of sharing allows costs to come down, and intensifies the possibilities for impactful collaboration. The Co-Creation Hub in Yaba, Lagos is one such space, bringing together lots of young people working in and with technology, giving them access to relatively inexpensive working spaces, and infrastructure: electricity, Internet.

Lagos needs wealthy people who will provide or fund or underwrite many such spaces around the city. This is a city with one of the worst housing problems in the world, not merely because of prohibitive prices, but also because it is perhaps the only important global city in which rents are paid two years – one if you’re lucky – in advance. In that kind of setting, how does a young person just starting out in business cope?

The spaces I envision need to be in and around the city’s most central business districts – Yaba, Surulere, Ikoyi, Victoria Island, Lagos Island. They should target young people who are starting, or already running, their own businesses. They would have to demonstrate that they deserve access to that space. These spaces also don’t have to be free, the key thing is that they are affordable. Ikoyi and Victoria Island are full of empty apartments, locked up by their owners for reasons unknown to the rest of us. Every time I see those buildings, I think of the sort of ideas and businesses that could be sprouting within them, if only…


I know of only four museums in Lagos: The National Museum in Onikan, the Railway Museum in Yaba, the Awolowo Museum in Ibeju-Lekki, and the Fela Museum in Ikeja. For a city this big, and this storied, that’s not good enough. London has, by one estimate, 200; New York has, between 80 and 110. There is very little in Lagos to remind us of where the city is coming from, what it has gone through. It’s as though we’re allergic to monuments and memorials, and everything that seeks to remind us of anything in our past. The state government deserves kudos for its efforts – as far as I know it was the Fashola government that gave us the Awolowo and Fela museums. And Freedom Park as well, which marks the site of a colonial prison that once housed some of our best-known nationalists.

I believe we need wealthy Nigerians falling over themselves to fund museum projects. In the spirit of enlightened self-interest – which this column appears to be obsessed with it – it’s a no-brainer. What easier way to immortalise yourself, dear rich Nigerian, than to have an attention-grabbing (Insert Your Name) Museum of Nigerian Art/Music/Innovation/etc.


It must be acknowledged that wealthy Nigerians have left their mark on sports promotion in the country. I’m thinking of the efforts of MKO Abiola, that earned him the ‘Pillar of African Sports’ moniker. Orji Uzor Kalu has since tried to step into those shoes. Ifeanyi Ubah has bought a football club and is building a stadium for them. In the absence of government seriousness, our rich people have done a great deal. But more is needed.

A few days ago, I found myself thinking about family entertainment options in a city like Lagos, full of people who like to think of themselves as worldly. Where does a family go, at the weekend, or on a public holiday, to entertain itself? The answers I came up with: Owambes, cinema, mall-shopping. Nothing relating to sports comes up in the picture. And yet we appear to be a sports-loving people, going crazy over foreign football and tennis and boxing and golf. So, why can’t we start to create avenues to domesticate some of these passions? Why can’t we flock, at weekends, to tennis and boxing and swimming matches in our major cities? And why can’t we have more rich people paying to build and maintain these facilities, and train new generations of stars? We’re a country that desperately needs to reclaim our Indoor Sports Halls, wherever they might be, from the grip of churches and party planners.

Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) Education and Development

I’m not sure the concept of STEM education exists in this country; I haven’t seen any evidence of any philanthropy – or policymaking – around it. It’s not that Nigerians are not technologically inventive, it’s that there’s no support system around that inventiveness, to hone it from crudeness into sophistication. This is where private individuals ought to come in, funding researchers and research institutes, sponsoring competitions (similar to what the NLNG is doing in Science), endowing university chairs, creating platforms that support mentoring and role-modelling. It’s fascinating that some of the most exciting stuff happening in space technology in America is being funded by private visionaries like Elon Musk, who have not yet figured out how they will make the money back, but realise that every society that takes progress seriously requires healthy doses of ambitious private interventions like theirs.


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