May 6, 2021

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Olusegun Ogunsanya: A telecoms luminary gets a big continental call

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By Okoh Aihe

GOOD news is almost a rarity in the land; so, when it comes, we almost have to stand on the rooftop to celebrate it with big megaphones in our hands. The other day we celebrated Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala for clinching the top job as the Director General of the World Trade Organisation, WTO, the first woman ever. From that seat, she will preside over global trade and trade relations.

Some chunk of good news. But that looks like decades ago taking into consideration the grinding life Nigerians have to endure each passing day. Last week there was significant development in the telecommunications industry. Airtel Africa picked Mr. Olusegun Ogunsanya as the new Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, to step into the shoes of Raghunath Mandava who is going into retirement on September 30, 2021.

Ogunsanya, who is currently the Chief Executive Officer of Airtel Nigeria, will have to move to the company’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, to oversee the African market spanning 14 countries. The announcement has been made early, company sources disclosed, in order to ensure smooth transition of responsibilities; first at Airtel Nigeria, and then, Airtel Africa. That is the way of the private sector.

Nobody waits for months to take vital decisions. Nobody waits for the stirring of a receding dodo for vital decisions to be made. But that piece of good news was almost buried in the debris of the daily carnage going on in various parts of the country. Deaths and mass abduction and kidnapping for ransom from schools and higher institutions; some restless bandits and terrorists, once declared as technically defeated, are hoisting their flags in territories not far away from the Federal Capital Territory, and our threats are for the people who are supposedly causing divisions in the land and threatening the authorities, instead of focusing on the real terrorists, the real rebels who mean business and are demonstrating their capacity by destroying whole villages and creating refugees across the land. The appointment of Ogunsanya, once again, demonstrates how much capacity we have in the land and how such capacities are over whelmed by the underwhelming leadership abilities in our nation.

Leadership failure sometimes puts a big lid on the capacity of Nigerians to demonstrate their knowledge, as something about the country pre cedes them in a world which would always question why such availability of knowledge is not used to fix their country. This writer is particularly excited that Ogunsanya is the one enjoying this seeming predilection because of the story of Airtel that I know, a story which is very much in the public domain but whose import may be lost on some of us.

He took over a company that was nearly written off for dead, with corporate morticians hovering round the place of burial. Without trying to belabour the various transmutation of Airtel, let me prod your memory a little bit. Airtel started out as Econet Wireless. Airtel was Vodacom. Airtel was Vmobile. Airtel was Celtel. Airtel was Zain. And then the name Airtel. Without implicit mischief, Airtel was really the industry rolling stone that gathered no moss before the coming of Ogunsanya.

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The Airtel story was really very bad, its corporate existence was perennially threatened and some of its workers carried long faces as the company struggled for survival. Some voted with their legs. The management took desperate measures, looking for results that came sparingly. In one of those days, the management decided to appoint a team of Regional Managers (or was that the right nomenclature) who would enjoy the latitude of developing their markets in their region of assignment.

The new marketing director arranged to take the team for a bonding programme in the holiday resort of Victoria Falls, Livingstone, Zimbabwe. This writer was the only journalist in attendance. They only wanted to intimate me with their marketing plans at the venue of the programme. The team was a beauty to behold. You could feel the ambition of some young people who were being fired up to bring down the stars from the heavens. One thing. I refused to fly with them in their small plane but instead chose to make the journey by road from Lusaka, about eight hours return journey on a narrow road.

Like a fire fighter, Ogunsanya came into Airtel at the height of a raging inferno to perform some magic. The other intriguing thing to note is that the electronics engineer and chartered accountant had never been into telecommunica tions. He was more into soft drinks and bottling business with Coca Cola, Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya as the CEO and had also been into retail banking with Ecobank. But his is the kind of story that makes magic happen.

Called upon in 1993 to save IBM from predictable demise, Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. told those head hunting him that he was not into computers but packaging, having worked at top levels in RJR Nabis co, Inc., and American Express Company. The book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance, tells the story of how this purveyor of packaging enterprises turned IBM around by literally waving a magic wand.

He is the outsider who came to do the computer business good. Just like Ogunsanya, from vending soft drinks to becoming a telecommunications management luminary. Airtel Chairman, Sunil Bharti Mittal, enumerated the qualities that established Ogunsanya for the pick. “We are delighted to appoint Segun Ogunsanya as the Group’s next Chief Executive Officer. He has displayed significant drive and en ergy in turning around the Nigeria business by focusing on network modernisation, distribution, and op erational efficiency.

It is this commitment, together with his industry experience, strategic vision, constant customer focus and proven record of delivery that will enable him to continue to deliver our strategic objectives and to lead the Group in the next stages of its development.” This, in figures, is what Mittal is talking about. From 2012 when he joined the company, Ogunsanya made a steady business of Airtel operations in Nigeria and dressed it up for stout competition.

A company wriggling out of the throes of death at the time, quickly nestled between the second and third positions in the ladder of competition in the telecommunications industry. At the moment market stronghold is between Airtel, MTN and Globacom with Airtel ramming up a respectable figure of 51, 433, 333 sub scribers which is 26.28 per cent of the market, according to the data from the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC. This, from all indications, is a respectable pile of achievements and Ogunsanya should feel satiated that he has done Nigeria proud. We well in his elevated assignment.

Vanguard News Nigeria

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