Aluko & Oyebode, Nigeria’s formidable commercial law firm, at No.1 Murtala Mohammed Road in Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria, is unusually empty for a Saturday.
It gives one enough time to admire its plush interiors. Describing it would be taking a page out of a John Grisham novel.
The imposing building houses three floors of prime real estate in the heart of the city and on one of the most expensive strips in Lagos.
As you walk in, the blood-red walls are juxtaposed with grey metallic fixtures and fittings. The décor of the building is reminiscent of past cultures of various African countries.
Each floor is delightfully curated with Afro-centric artefacts and in the middle floor of the building is the firm’s seat of power, the office of its leader, Gbenga Oyebode.
For a sweltering Nigerian afternoon, Oyebode is dressed like no other in a 100-mile radius of the elite Victoria Island hub of Lagos: in a two-piece power suit, his signature outfit. Today, it is in black, accented by a deep blue tie.
Oyebode is cordial and pleasant with the team as he takes his position on the ground floor for the first set of pictures for the FORBES AFRICA cover.
He is the Chairman of Aluko & Oyebode, one of the largest integrated law firms in Nigeria with over 70 lawyers and three offices in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt.
The firm provides a comprehensive range of specialist legal services to a highly diversified clientele including top-tier Nigerian, international and multinational clients. In his capacity as chairman, Oyebode coordinates the various practice areas of the firm.
Described as a consummate dealmaker who has received plaudits from clients and peers alike for his corporate acumen, Oyebode’s areas of expertise cover energy and natural resources, power projects, foreign investment and privatization, telecommunications and project finance.
It is not just his formal dressing that is unusual.
Law firms in the country, family-owned by tradition, almost never run their firms like well-oiled machines providing solutions for several sectors at the same time. Oyebode was one of the pioneers of this concept. And it has not been an easy journey.
“It exposed me to these great minds I read about in the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and I said very quickly to myself that I wanted to be like them,”
The 59-year-old spent the early years of his life musing over the promises of life in the civil service, a path taken by his father. It was a stable and comfortable job and one had guaranteed employment as well as a good salary. But he was compelled to ponder the possibilities of a riskier career.
“In those days, being a civil servant was the dream of every young person due to the stability of the job. However, as I started reading law, it became clear to me that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and for a lawyer that means opening a law firm,” says Oyebode as he takes a break from the photoshoot to begin our interview.
And that is exactly what he did. But not just any law firm, he wanted to leave behind a dynasty of great lawyers whose work would carry on long after he was gone.
If he had worked for any Nigerian law firm, his future would not have been guaranteed.
“The history of Nigerian law firms in the early 80s and some of them today was that they were set up by great minds essentially to be kept in the family. Their children went to law school and even if you were a great lawyer who worked with them, they make it very clear that you shouldn’t be thinking about your future at the law firm, because they were going to hand over the business to their children. So I understood that it was not going to work for me,” says Oyebode.
At well over six feet, Oyebode has a towering presence in any room, yet his calm and cordial disposition immediately sets you at ease and makes you feel as though you are having a conversation with an old friend.
Sitting in the conference room of his eponymous firm, Oyebode recalls a series of events that shaped the course of his career.
Like the time he was going to university and struggled to get guidance from mentors who would have advised him on the best path to take to become a successful legal entrepreneur.
The prominent Nigerian lawyers at the time were not strictly lawyers who worked at the firm but were mostly also involved in other professions.
According to Oyebode, the earliest nationalists of Nigerian politics were all lawyers, who used the law that they had learned abroad to change the system in Nigeria to gain independence and push the envelope against colonialism.
That would later become the real motivation for Oyebode to become a lawyer. For him, the ability to use law to change the political system with democracy or creating value was a calling he wanted to be a part of.
After graduating from the University of Ife in 1979, he immediately went to the Nigerian Law School and thereafter, completed his postgraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in the United States (US).
“What UPenn did for me was show me that there was a different way to do things and that the world was bigger than the opportunities I had in Nigeria. One of the most significant things about going to an Ivy League institution is how they draw from great minds around. So we went to conferences where great minds in the capital markets were and it was a game-changer. It exposed me to these great minds I read about in the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and I said very quickly to myself that I wanted to be like them,” recalls Oyebode.
His journey is a textbook case study on how to systematically build a business step by step. He eschews convention. From the minute he finished primary school, his father signed up to a subscription of Reader’s Digest that was to become his monthly diet.
“He thought that it was important for us to read. He said it was important for us to understand what happened around the world. So one of the things that I do continually even today is I read the Reader’s Digest every month. It shaped my view of the world and created for me a situation where I learned more about the things that were happening around me and I was not limited to Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
His tenure as an associate at White & Case, one of the world’s leading law firms, helped him visualize the type of law firm he wanted to build of his own.
“American law firms were the type of law firms I thought we could replicate in Nigeria. Their vision for building big partnerships and for those partnerships to survive named partners was impressive. So it was very clear where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I worked with White & Case for a year and I said to myself it was time to come back home,” says Oyebode.
Home had changed a whole lot while he was away. Nigeria had returned to democracy after years of military rule. The business environment was growing and there was a need for competent people to push the envelope and help with the development of law and business.
Furthermore, there were less than 10,000 lawyers admitted to practice law and Oyebode decided he would rather be one of 10,000 in Nigeria than one of a million in the US.
Soon after making that decision, disaster struck. No sooner had he returned to Nigeria did the crude oil market collapse and the Nigerian economy took a dip for the worse. The democratic government that had motivated Oyebode to come back was very quickly removed in a coup d’état in 1983.
“Before we knew it, the [Muhammadu] Buhari government was in power. To make matters worse, the naira had collapsed and the country was looking at a structural adjustment program with the World Bank. So contrary to my plans, things changed very quickly. I couldn’t go back to the US and I had to make do with things in Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
But where there are clouds, there is also a silver lining. Oyebode chose to keep faith and stick it out. He applied to work for the Gulf Oil Company, which later merged with Chevron, and spent two years learning about the oil and gas industry.
“That was very instructive because it gave me an opportunity to work in an industry, which was Nigeria’s biggest foreign exchange earner. I essentially cut my teeth working in Nigeria’s oil industry. I saw through the merger of Gulf and Chevron and then decided it was time to go out and do my own thing.”
In 1985, Oyebode went into partnership with friends and started his first law firm
Ajumogobia, Okeke, Oyebode & Aluko. After eight years of success, the firm was dissolved due to internal challenges. The string of such incidents, be it the country’s economic downturn or disagreements with partners, have all contributed to the success story Oyebode is today.
“What is impressive about Oyebode is his calmness and composure in times of crisis. He has the ability to look beyond that problem and says ‘how do we move on from this and get to the solution’,” says Tunde Folawiyo, Managing Director of Yinka Folawiyo Group in Nigeria.
That steadfastness has been an invaluable trait for Oyebode over the years.
He went on to establish Aluko & Oyebode with his other partner. Perpetual wins translated into mammoth personal gains for the legal mastermind.
Oyebode’s is also the story of a smart entrepreneur who, spurred by the increase in the proliferation of Western companies in Nigeria, spotted an opportunity in corporate law and has methodically worked to cash in on it.
He is currently advising on the Brass LNG Project, a joint venture between NNPC, TOTAL, Conoco Philips and Agip for the construction of a $3.5 billion Liquefied Natural Gas plant. He has also advised on key transactions like the $1.275 billion financing of the Exxon Mobil Natural Gas Liquid II Project, the $1.06 billion financing of trains four and five of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Plant Expansion Project and the $3.5 billion financing of the NNPC and Mobil Producing Unlimited Satellite Oil Field Project. He sits on the boards of MTN Nigeria, Nestle Nigeria and CFAO, among many others.
“Corporate law was something I was good at. It’s something that is dependent on your network and it is something that comes naturally to me. At White & Case and at Gulf Oil, that was my forte. I had invested a significant amount of my time around that so I was able to very quickly develop as a good oil and gas lawyer,” says Oyebode.
His wife, Aisha, attests to this. “What I admire most about Gbenga is he is very kind and warm and he is a people’s person. I do not know anybody that doesn’t like Gbenga.”
It was what Oyebode did next that distinguished him from his peers.
“One of the people that I studied a lot was Chief Chris Ogunbanjo. He ran the biggest law firms in town and was a lawyer who represented all the multinationals and was a lawyer who got involved in the businesses he represented. So when I came back [to Nigeria], I saw his model as one that I could emulate. I saw that he was able to achieve his objective, which was essentially run a significant law firm and become the advisor of the biggest corporates in the market as well as the repository of knowledge of what it means to work in Nigeria,” says Oyebode.
And that was to become Oyebode’s operating style over the next two decades. His modus operandi was simple.
Find opportunities, which he could maximize, and provide professional services and legal advice to top-tier corporate clients and where there was an opportunity, take a chunk of the business.
“One of the things as an entrepreneur that you tend to look at is opportunities around you, so long as those opportunities don’t divert your from your chosen path. If you ask me what I want to be known as, I would say a lawyer first, then an investor,” he says.
Oyebode sits on boards of companies that he has invested in as well as boards that he has been invited to join due to his significant expertise in corporate Nigeria.
The last two decades have seen a veritable boom in the business. For Oyebode, the key is passion for what you do.
“I am driven to build a big firm. We have 85 associates in three offices. There are 16 partners in the firm across the different practice areas that you expect a full service law firm to have, from legislation to corporate law to intellectual property, to risk and governance. So these are all key sectors that are sectors for growth of the Nigerian economy. The rationale is building a legacy that is driven by return,” says Oyebode.
Ever the opportunist, Oyebode is also looking to capitalize on the growth in demand of global companies looking for local partners in the real estate sector. He has a two-hotel deal with the Fairmont Group to establish hotels in Lagos and Abuja. Given the size in the number of tourists and business people in the country, Oyebode believes there is tremendous growth opportunities in this sector.
“The view is that there is still a gap around the hospitality business in Lagos. I go to Accra and I see the Kempinski and Movenpick hotels and I know that if Accra can do it then Lagos certainly has significant scope to develop hotels. Abuja only has the Hilton.”
But it has not all been smooth sailing. No sooner had he started his second stint at a law firm that tragedy struck.
“Life is about tripping and falling and learning from mistakes, pulling your strengths and moving on. My partner, Bankole Aluko, had a mild illness and called in sick for a couple of days. I decided to pay him a visit after work and on my way there, I was told he had passed away suddenly. It was a big shock because we had built everything together and most of the lawyers that joined us did so because of our strength as a firm. I had the corporate law expertise and he was a litigation expert. I thought it was all over at the point,” says Oyebode.
It was dark times for Oyebode.
“In those days it was very difficult to get clients. They came to you because they knew you and your reputation so it was very personality-driven. Today, clients look at your brand and your track record. So losing Bankole both as a dear friend and a professional was devastating.”
He vowed to continue the legacy they had started together and leave his name on the business as a named partner, which still stands today. These days, Oyebode is more interested in giving back. He mentors the next generation and is finding ways to give back. He has also turned his attention from corporate boards to philanthropy boards and actively seeks out opportunities to contribute to the community.
On the issue of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s (EFCC) fight to retrieve Nigeria’s stolen loot, which is estimated to be billions of dollars from state coffers, Oyebode offers some practical advice.
“My concern about Nigeria is not the lack of law or policy but always about execution. I think we have a robust legal system, we have laws and policies in place and we have a strong civil service. Do people obey the law around the world? Yes, and that is because they are afraid of sanctions. So if you do not obey the law or sanctions, then you pay the price. So our problem is a lack of execution of good policy, inconsistent application of the laws and sometimes, we have allowed federal character and the process of rotating positions to trump skill and expertise so therefore mediocrity is able to rise to the very top.”
But that is an ongoing fight, which Oyebode believes will not be solved overnight. Presently, his focus is on leveraging his expertise as one of the most formidable and accomplished legal minds to add value and give back to Nigeria.
His legal firm is a victim of its own success. And this is a happy problem to have.
Herbert Wigwe, the CEO Access Bank, one of Nigeria’s top banking institutions, calls Oyebode one of the strongest legal minds, not just in Nigeria but also across the world.
“And I say this because I have a strong personal relationship with him, apart from the fact that in Nigeria, he runs the strongest corporate law office. The existence of what is a modern Access Bank would never have happened but for people like Gbenga….All of these attributes have led him to sit on most of the large corporate boards in the country…Saying Gbenga is the new face of business in Africa is not something that is far-fetched; it is something that he has proven over and over again in his career.”
‘From Zero to Hero’: The Queen Of The 800 meters Caster Semenya
Caster Semenya, the Olympian, on never quitting, come what may.
It is August 2009 in Berlin, Germany, at the finals of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships.
It’s the 800 meters race; among the eight female runners is 18-year-old South African Caster Semenya, in a yellow track top and green shorts.
Thousands watch from the pavilion, loudly cheering as they await the gun to go off.
In the fourth line, Semenya waits too, blocking out all the noise in her head.
She takes in a long, deep breath and says a prayer.
“On your marks!” shouts the referee.
The women crouch.
And the race is on.
The young Semenya from Limpopo, one of South Africa’s nine provinces, runs alongside some of the world’s most famous athletes such as Mariya Savinova from Russia.
In two minutes, a winner will be crowned.
In an impressive show of might and mettle on the track, Semenya sprints ahead of the others.
With long strides, she is the clear lead.
A competitor from Kenya, Janeth Jepkosgei Busienei, then manages to run ahead of Semenya. It’s a tight race as they lead neck-to-neck.
At the sound of a bell signaling they have reached the 400-meter mark, Semenya bolts ahead of the group leaving a wide gap between her and the others.
At 1:55:45, Semenya is officially the champion.
It is a big win for the village girl from Limpopo.
“Things just went from zero to hero, so boom! Zero to hundred. It was just great,” beams Semenya when we meet her for the interview with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
At the end of the race, she does her signature move – the cobra – hands facing inwards and then outwards.
Holding the South African flag, she runs a few meters in a lap of honor.
Her country is proud, super-proud of its millennial daughter.
This match was the unforgettable milestone that launched the career of a simple girl from Limpopo on to the world stage.
Her name was soon going to be etched in gold.
Caster Mokgadi Semenya is the reigning Olympics and world champion in the women’s 800-meter race.
On a hot Monday morning in October, we meet Semenya in the leafy suburb of Greenside in Johannesburg, South Africa.
She arrives ahead of the appointed time with her wife Violet and her manager Becky Motumo. Her vehicle is number-plated ‘CASVIO’, an amalgamation of Semenya’s and Violet’s names.
That weekend, she had just returned from New York City, in the United States (US), where she received the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award from the Women’s Sports Foundation and from tennis icon Billie Jean King.
The ceremony was to award women who have extraordinary achievements in sport, and Semenya was one of the recipients.
As she enters the studio for our interview dressed in all-blue Nike apparel and sneakers, she greets everyone warmly.
First on the agenda for the day is makeup, something the sports star says she can never get used to.
“I like to be myself, I am true to myself. I just like myself the way I am and I don’t want anything to change in me,” says Semenya.
“With makeup, it’s the part I hate the most because I don’t like it. That’s not me, so it’s just something else. I don’t like it at all, I just do it because it is business,” she says, laughing.
Semenya opts for the natural look.
She says she loves the simple life, and has always been this way since her early years growing up in the small village of Ga-Masehlong.
As she readies, she reminisces those years.
“Growing up in Limpopo was special to me, I’m a village girl,” she says.
“When you grow up in a big family, obviously, they appreciate you for who you are and everything you do. They support you. They don’t criticize your work, they just go with the flow and they want what makes you happy.”
Her family was extremely supportive of her love for sports.
Semenya started playing soccer at the age of four, on the street with her friends, and in the bush, where they would bet on matches.
“Actually, I was the best striker in the village [when it came to] street football,” she laughs.
“Everytime I got on to the pitch, everyone wanted me, so I was that kind of a kid.”
In a few years, the young Semenya traded in the football boots for running shoes.
“Before you can kick a ball, you have to run first. Football is all about speed, it is more about agility and how you can move.”
In grade one, Semenya was introduced to athletics and immediately found her feet as a sprinter.
But due to a lack of facilities and proper coaching at the school, she decided to opt for middle-distance running, instead of sprinting.
“With middle-distance, you can run anywhere you want and you can still perform. You don’t really need to be surrounded by mentors and stuff like that,” she says.
Semenya came to realize that she enjoyed running more than football and so traveled a lot to take part in competitions.
At the age of 12, she moved from living with her mother to taking care of her grandmother who was getting older.
“She’s a great human being. I am truly blessed to walk in her footsteps,” she says about her.
“She taught me more responsibility, how to take care of myself and how to take care of others. She also taught me respect, how to appreciate and how to accept others.”
Her grandmother supported her dreams to run, unaware then of how far it would take Semenya.
In 2007, at the age of 16, Semenya ran her first international race in Botswana.
Unfortunately, she was placed fifth and returned to South Africa defeated, but hopeful.
“From there, I discovered that there are a lot of things to learn and I need to focus more and concentrate.”
Semenya worked harder and pushed herself to become better than her competitors.
It was the beginning of her international career in sports.
From ‘zero to hero’
The year 2008 was her final year in high school.
Semenya continued to compete whilst pursuing her studies.
She had qualified for the 2008 World Junior Championships held in Bydgoszcz in Poland in July that year.
She was one of two Africans competing in the 800m-race.
Unfortunately, she didn’t make it.
Three months later, her luck changed.
She competed in the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, India.
Semenya won her first international title with a record of 2:04, which was not bad for a 17-year-old.
It was a defining moment in Semenya’s career.
“From there, that’s when I knew this is my field. I need to be in command and I need to train hard. I need to be strong physically and mentally, and everything needs to be ready,” she says.
Since then, gold has become her color.
After the win and back to reality, Semenya went back to high school to complete her matric examinations – these were two fulfilling accomplishments for the young athlete.
2009 was a year of monumental change for Semenya.
The village girl moved to the big city.
She traveled 317km from Limpopo to Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, and enrolled at the University of Pretoria studying athletics science.
While there, she trained under Micheal Seme, preparing for more career-defining races.
Semenya dedicated her time to intense training, working on improving her running time.
She ran the 800 meters in two minutes and qualified for the 2009 IAAF World Championships, but due to lack of experience, she didn’t know much about her competitors who had been running for years.
“I knew what I wanted to achieve. It was all about running good times and back then, good times take you to winning big championships,” she says.
In July that year, at the African Junior Athletics Championships, Semenya won both the 800m and 1,500m races with the times of 1:56:72 and 4:08:01 respectively.
She had improved her 800m running time by eight seconds since winning the Commonwealth Games nine months earlier.
She was the fastest runner worldwide for the 800m races that year. She had bested the senior and junior South African records held by South African female athletes Zelda Pretorius and Zola Pieterse, popularly known as Zola Budd.
But there was no time to lose.
Semenya continued to press on training to compete in the IAAF World Championship 2009 in August in Berlin.
She went on to win as a newcomer among some of the world’s best runners.
The long run to freedom
Back home, she brought more glory to the nation.
But as South Africa cheered and celebrated her, others had different plans for the teenage athlete.
At the time, news reports surfaced about the IAAF looking into the young athlete.
The reports suggested that they were conducting gender tests on her.
In a statement published by the IAAF in September that year, they declined to comment on the medical testing of Semenya but confirmed that it was indeed gender-testing.
“We can officially confirm that gender verification test results will be examined by a group of medical experts,” they said.
At the time, they were in discussion with the South African Ministry of Sport and Recreation and Semenya’s representatives, with the view to resolve the issues surrounding Semenya’s participation in athletics.
It was a dampening end to her year.
In November, the results came back.
They found Semenya to have high testosterone levels.
As a result, she was suspended from running and forced to sit on the sidelines.
Semenya’s response was released in a statement by her lawyers.
“I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being,” Semenya said.
“Some of the occurrences leading up to and immediately following the Berlin World Championships have infringed on not only my rights as an athlete but also my fundamental and human rights.”
Reminiscing on the events that took place, Semenya tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA that she wasn’t and still isn’t worried about the IAAF.
She will continue to run the race she started.
“Actually, I never thought anything about them. It was just all about me. What is it that I can control? Of course, if someone is or wants to do whatever they want to do, there is nothing you can do,” she says.
“So, I never think about such people. I always think about myself and what will benefit me… There’s nothing I can do about what organizations think and there’s nothing they can do about what I think.”
The case was complex.
Media reports and critics questioned the ethics of their testing and their methods.
But Semenya was not the first.
News items and academic reports suggest that sex verification tests at the IAAF started as early as the 1950s.
Dutch athlete Foekje Dillema was reportedly banned in July 1950 after undergoing gender-testing by the IAAF.
In more recent times, Dutee Chand, Pratima Gaonkar and Pinki Pramanik, all from India, have reportedly had to undergo gender-testing too.
But Semenya stood strong.
After her experience, she calls on all women to unite.
“I think we as women need to come together and support each other,” she says.
“Without that, you will still feel discriminated, you still feel oppressed, you still feel criticized in everything that you do and you will still feel like you are not recognized,” she says.
During this trying period for Semenya, back home in Limpopo, a 15-year-old girl from the small town of Westenburg was acting as Semenya in a high school play.
Sevenah Adonis was finishing her grade eight at Hoërskool Pietersburg when she played Semenya for the year-end school concert.
It was also the same period Adonis first heard about the track star.
Semenya’s trial had inspired the young girl.
“My general perception of Caster Semenya when I had just heard of her is that she’s a very fantastic athlete,” Adonis tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
“Limpopo is a very isolated place. There’s not a lot of exposure or anything, so for her to actually make it over the parameters of Limpopo is remarkable. I do look up to her and I aspire to go beyond my borders and accomplish things that she has accomplished,” she says.
Adonis is currently pursuing a degree in economics at the University of Limpopo.
The 22-year-old hopes to meet Semenya one day, but for now, she watches and cheers on her fellow Limpopo native making a global mark.
Back in Semenya’s world, July 2010 (after six months of being suspended) was when she received the news she had been waiting to hear.
The IAAF announced that she would be able to compete again.
“The IAAF accepts the conclusion of a panel of medical experts that she can compete with immediate effect,’’ they said in a statement.
The medical details and findings are confidential.
Despite the controversy with the IAAF, Semenya had been dubbed a hero by many for the way she handled the situation.
During the interview with us, she remembers what former South African President, the late Nelson Mandela, once told her when they met.
“Be the best that you can be,” he said to her.
“He just told me, ‘people can talk, people can do whatever they want to do, but it’s up to you to live for yourself first before others. So, the only thing that you can do is to be the best that you can be’,” she says.
It was the best advice she had ever been given.
Semenya returned stronger, winning every race and championship she entered.
“My goal is to be the greatest and there is nothing that anyone can do about it,” she says.
“I’m an athlete, I train and I perform. That’s me and that’s what keeps me going. I believe in myself and I trust myself and I’m always motivated. I’m a very positive person. So even if something comes in a negative way, I always find a way to put in more positive,” she says.
Semenya went on to win a silver medal in the 800 meters at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in 2011.
But it was in the year 2012 when she showed the world her true prowess on the track.
Leading the charge in London
Semenya was only 21 years old when she participated in her first Olympic Games.
“I was more mature then I think, but I didn’t have that knowledge of understanding my body; how to train myself, you know, to calm down,” she says.
But the prestige of the Olympic games excited Semenya.
It was the opening ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics and Semenya carried the South African flag proudly in front of thousands at the London Stadium (formerly known as the Olympic Stadium), while leading the South African Olympic team.
It was a proud moment for South Africans across the world.
Thousands and thousands cheered her on.
“It shows a great quality, especially more in leadership. So, I lead the team in and then, of course, I still have to go deliver because people look up to you. Your family, your friends, the entire nation. They expect you to perform,” she says.
One of the challenges she faced was not knowing whether all her training had been good enough for that moment.
She didn’t know what to expect.
“What’s going to happen in this championship? Am I going to win? Am I going to even win a medal?” she asked herself at the time.
“It was kind of the most stressful championship I have had in my life…” she says today.
It all came down to how prepared she was.
“When I walk onto that track, I perform. So, when I perform, I expect people to recognize my work but not just because I am me, but for the work that I do,” she says.
But once it was time for the race to take place, Semenya put all her worries aside and stayed focused.
“It is no longer about what happened last week. It’s about what’s going to go down now. We are more focused about it. It’s do or die,” she says. The pressure was on. Semenya was determined to win. Crowds in the stadium cheered waiting for the gun to go off.
The runners started off.
Semenya began to pick up pace.
As she did, she looked back and saw the other runners catching up.
It was do or die.
“The main thing was to think ‘I have to keep going’. But my other mind was like ‘you have lost the race, there is nothing you can do’… But when you believe that ‘ok, I still have a chance for a medal’, you will just keep on pushing until you get the momentum.”
In the end, Semenya was placed second, behind Russia’s Savinova.
Semenya brought home silver.
It was a proud moment and South Africa celebrated with her as the whole world watched the new face of 800m.
Francine Niyonsaba, an 800m Burundian gold and silver medallist, was a competitor alongside Semenya at the same race.
After meeting a few months earlier in Monaco, they had become friends.
“Caster Semenya is a good runner. She loves everybody and I think she is a very talented girl and an inspiration to all, especially African youth,” Niyonsaba tells FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.
Twentyfive-year-old Niyonsaba draws inspiration from her friend.
She says that the challenge women face in Burundi is that they feel they can’t achieve anything, elsewhere in the world.
“In Burundi, in our culture, women believe they cannot do something special in the world but it is just a mentality,” she says.
“A woman can do everything!”
Both Niyonsaba and Semenya are passionate about inspiring other women in sport and putting Africa on the map.
At the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio, Brazil, the two competed again.
This time, Niyonsaba won silver and Semenya won gold.
They met again at the 2017 World Championships in London and it was the same win again; Niyonsaba silver, and Semenya gold.
Despite the two always running against each other, Niyonsaba says on the track, Semenya has been very encouraging towards her and the others.
“As an African, she is trying to do something special. She is an exceptional girl, because you know as women in Africa we are afraid to do some things. So, Caster Semenya is trying to show everyone that women can do everything,” says Niyonsaba.
‘I don’t see myself
After bagging world titles and beating records, what else is on the cards for the sports star?
For Semenya, there’s no stopping her and she plans to stay on in the sports industry.
“I don’t see myself stepping down; until I’m 40, that’s when I’ll be satisfied.”
Semenya plans to become the greatest middle-distance runner in the world and she plans to break more records.
Back home, in Pretoria, she has been running the Caster Semenya Foundation aimed at coaching and equipping children who are active in sports.
The foundation currently trains 20 children aged 12 years and older.
She plans to expand it to other parts of the country.
“My main goal is to empower women and help other young men to be better in future,” she says.
“You have to show them first that education is important and we balance it with sports. If we can perform both sides, I think we will be fulfilled,” she says.
“Education never stops, you keep on learning every single day.
“Without education, your decision-making will be weak… when you are educated, it becomes very easy to make decisions and decide what is the next step.”
In 2018, she received her diploma in Sports Science from North-West University.
But she hasn’t stopped.
She is currently pursuing a degree in Sport Management at the Tshwane University of Technology.
It has been a big year for the athlete.
In September, she joined the Nike ‘Just do it’ campaign for its 30th birthday.
It featured some of the greatest athletes, the likes of tennis icon Serena Williams and former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick, with each bringing social issues to the fore.
In October, she became the ambassador of Discovery Vitality.
In November, she won big at the South African Sport Awards. She took home the People’s Choice Sports Star Of The Year; Sports Woman Of The Year, and the Sports Star Of The Year.
She was also nominated for the 2018 Female World Athlete of the Year at the IAAF Athletics Awards in December.
With all her accolades and achievements, as her star continues to rise, what about her finances?
During the interview, when asked how much she is worth, the village girl from Limpopo simply smiles and says, “I’m just priceless, to be honest.”
‘She Is So Humble; Does Not Sweat The Small Stuff’
Becky Motumo describes what it’s like managing Caster Semenya’s busy diary.
What is it like working with Caster Semenya?
I love how driven she is… Every single day is absolutely dynamic, ever-changing. It is always a rush. When I talk about a rush, I mean in a good way, because it is a very busy period for us.
I think that having a boss like her, is unique in the sense that she is very direct. So she knows what she wants. She is very assertive. I think for me it’s those little experiences that really make it special.
What are some of the qualities that make her who she is?
People are always quite taken aback by the kind of person she is, her humility. They will try to deck it out, you know roll out the red carpet.
They want to offer her the world and she is so humble. She wants to walk in and get the job done and be professional. She will deliver everything that needs to be delivered. And she respects your time as well. She gets it done and she is out, and you know you have to appreciate someone with a work ethic like that.
What is your favorite memory of her?
Every day! I think especially the times when we are traveling, when we are brainstorming and when we are talking about future plans. She is a very animated individual.
She has an incredible sense of humour and I don’t know anybody who wouldn’t enjoy being around that. It makes working with her an absolute pleasure.
Yes, we are serious, yes, we are professional, yes, we are about the business, but it does help to have those moments of humour when she is talking like Michael Jackson, or dancing, or doing something completely out of the ordinary. And that’s a side of her people wouldn’t know about unless you are close to her.
But I enjoy that, and I enjoy the relationship that I have with her wife Violet.
What kind of a leader is Semenya?
Her time is very important to her. She likes to show up on time, she is extremely professional in terms of that.
I try to arrive at a venue 30 minutes before she gets there. But, if you are late and you are messing with her time because she has such a tight schedule, then definitely she will let you know about that. She will try and be kind about it but she is very stern, so you know that’s one of the examples.
But, as soon as she has told you how she feels, we quickly move on and it’s about the work. And I think that’s the one thing I love about her. She does not sweat the small stuff.
She does not sit and harbor any ill feelings, or spend too much time worrying about anything in the past, so we move on very swiftly.
At the end of the day, it is about getting the work done and that is what we are about.
2018 African Of The Year – President of Rwanda Paul Kagame
In an exclusive interview, Paul Kagame, Rwandan President and Chair of the African Union, speaks to Methil Renuka about intra-Africa trade, how governments can drive entrepreneurial growth and why he will always find time to play sports.
The appointment is at 11AM on a November morning in Kigali, and past the tight security at the presidential offices located on KG7 Avenue, the views are of manicured lawns and a verdant paradise with hulking trees, chirping birds and cobbled pathways fringed by hibiscus and frangipani flowers. Kigali is a clean city with rolling hills and green valleys, but the foliage within Village Urugwiro, where we are meeting President Paul Kagame, is a botanist’s dream. A few minutes in the airy waiting lounge – accentuated by cream, olive green colors and a touch of wood – and the president walks in, tall and in an immaculate blue suit. He greets us warmly and is relaxed, joking about how much he dislikes posing for photographs. Yet, he obliges, against the greenery.
Kagame, who is also head of the African Union (AU), has been adjudged the ‘2018 African of the Year’ at the eighth All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLA).
Who is he dedicating it to, we ask? “The people of Rwanda,” he says. He shares more with FORBES AFRICA:
Q. You are completing a year as chair of the African Union. Africa is such a diverse heterogeneous continent, with each country having its own interests. How challenging is your job in bringing a balance?
A. It’s absolutely challenging, and as you rightly said, you have to deal with diverse interests, cultures and backgrounds. Yet, Africa needs to be together in handling continental matters because there are more things that similarly affect Africans than are different. There are also different mentalities. You find some people are used to doing things a certain way, even if they are shown – or they see for themselves – that doing things differently might bring better results, they still stick to the old ways.
Talking about my task… The first thing is to pay attention to people’s concerns, to people’s ways of looking at things and take all that into account, as you also create space for people to discuss openly and show how we are all together in a different time than we have been used to… The moment you create that space for discussion, which we have done, the moment you increase consultation and also allow people to participate in challenging the points of views out there that tend to shape directions, we all have to follow, especially when you are able to identify things with certain success stories that exist. For example, in a country not making good progress or that is not ready to change, you can still point to their own situation and say ‘no, but you actually made good progress in this area because these were the contributing factors’. This can always be explained even in the wider context of where we want to go as a continent by coming together. So unity and regional integration have been emphasized.
We have been able to show that entrepreneurship, business and intra-Africa trade that have been lacking are actually more important than focusing solely on the market outside of the continent… That conversation helps people understand more, it helps people come together and we keep reminding them your neighbor is more important than someone far away from you. We are all neighbors one way or the other. My country has four neighbors and then one of the other countries we are neighbors with has nine neighbors. So it cuts across. We find we are actually very closely-linked and therefore, as we look at ourselves as individual countries, we need to recognize that if it’s sub-regional blocs or the continent, we become bigger, we are actually better off for it if we work together. Businesses and economies grow multiple times when we work together.
What I discovered from the beginning was there is no magic here other than just working with what there is and being realistic about it and allowing that conversation, and challenging one another, and being real in pointing out real things that matter, and we take it from there. And I think it has been good progress. We have put a lot of effort into it and every African country, every African leader, has played their part. So we just keep encouraging and keep going. Later, we can show everyone the benefit coming out of this very short period’s effort of working together.
Q. One of the aspirations of Agenda 2063 of the AU is a united Africa. How important is it for the rest of the world to see Africa as a single powerhouse?
A. We need it. We need that backdrop from which we should see things and remind ourselves how this continent is actually great, a continent projected to be 2.5 billion by 2050. That’s huge, bigger than any other continent. Africa is endowed with all kinds of resources, and natural resources, so how do you not think it’s important? Therefore, we have to create a clear context in which we operate and understand all aspects of this value of being in a position where we have huge assets in terms of people and natural resources and everything that anyone would wish for. So what remains is, how do we harness this? How do we leverage this? So we had to create long-term, medium-term pathways and say we should develop human capital and infrastructure. This huge workforce that keeps coming… 29 million supposed to be [pouring] into the labor market every year [until] 2030; you’ve got to think about this and ask what it means. It’s a huge asset if we make correct investments. It’s also a huge risk if you just keep [pouring] 29 million people in the labor market when they have nothing to do. The framework of 2063 provides sufficient room for us to think, reflect and therefore make the right investments for us to fulfill continental aspirations.
Q. The concept of a single African market. How far are we from realizing that?
A. I was pleasantly surprised when we had the summit here for the African Continental Free Trade Area. Initially, scepticism was expressed by some people, saying ‘but this can’t work, it can’t happen, Africa is divided, it never gets things right together’. So when the leaders came to Kigali for this extraordinary summit, we expected only a few countries to sign up, but we got 44 countries signing up on the first day. But we have also seen how it has been increasing, with countries ratifying the free trade area and free movement of people, goods and services. Therefore, that is a signal Africans understood the importance of this, and it is important indeed if we want to transform our economies and allow opportunities for prosperity to our people… I think [the single African market] is making very good progress even with that background of scepticism. We have already left that behind us and are moving forward.
Q. You are a leader who looks to the future not forgetting a painful past. How hard were the last two decades for you?
A. Very hard (laughs), which is an understatement, but that is the spirit, about learning lessons of the difficulties you have gone through but not allowing that to hold you back, to make you a hostage of that tragic experience, but rather learn lessons as quickly as you can and focus on where we are going in the future and doing our best to even keep making references to that past if you will. And therefore helping you to decide which choices to make at any given time in the future. So, 20 years has been a journey of difficulties but I think of the good stories too, and that is what encourages all of us.
We have had tragedies, and at the same time, the efforts of bringing people together through reconciliation, through deciding which direction we take for our future… the people have responded with energy, with positivity, and that has not come to nothing, it has actually borne fruit. We’ve seen progress.
Even the people, when you look at their faces and you look at how they go about things, it as if nothing ever happened here, yet history is loaded with terrible experiences. And apart from those tragic experiences, we have had other external pressures – people who are quick to forget. Sometimes, the demands [are] even from the outside about how we should deal with things, what we should do, what we shouldn’t do, as if our lives are to be decided from the outside and as if we have nothing to do with determining our own course in the future.
But we have calmly had dialogue with such people behind those pressures. We have also focused and really concentrated on what we understand, even the hard choices we have to make, but the good thing is, every three or five years down the road, we were able to measure and say, ‘well, what have we gained from the different choices and efforts we made’. Could we have done things differently or even better? Even putting into account all these unnecessary external lessons, and pressures, we still listen. We don’t fall short on that. We always listen, but at the same time, we fully understand we are the ones for ourselves.
Q. Speaking about the future, Rwanda has been a pioneer in private sector-led economic transformation. What to you are the new industries and wealth creators of the future?
A. From the outset, we understood we have to deal with people. How do you invest in them, how do you prepare them for their role? As a government, we have to improve their lives but also allow this broad national transformation to take place. Then it comes to skills. You give them more opportunities to access things that cut across what they have to do, whether it is the agriculture sector and the agri-businesses around that and the whole value chain, and remembering that agriculture, for example, is very important.
The other part is we have seen, in terms of technology, infrastructure, digitalization, the internet; we have to prepare people to use that, as they have a multiplying effect in many ways, even if it is in public service, and delivery of that in the population that plays that part… Different sectors are impacted by this, therefore, provide the infrastructure to do that, and then the innovation that will come along with it… So these are things we think about – how to create wealth for our own people, how to allow people to thrive…
But then, around that are rules of the game. How do you create an environment to allow disruption and innovation? For example, if you look at how we have been preparing the ground and allowing these activities to take place, in terms of even globally in the ease of doing business – the World Bank report where Rwanda is 29th in the world and second in Africa. All these are to answer that question: how do we create this wealth? It’s the environment, it is specific things to invest in, it’s how we leverage the resources we have.
Q. How do you promote entrepreneurial capitalism, how are you looking at youth-led startups?
A. The question you raise is important. For example, we have an initiative called YouthConnekt, where we try to encourage young people to be innovative. We give them cash prizes, but this is to excite them and make them think innovatively. It also creates healthy competition among young people, but above all, it stimulates them to think [about] what they need to do that fits in with the times we are in. We also have formed business development funds that cut across districts and the country that help people understand what entrepreneurship holds for them and that they can participate and therefore, we give them seed money, if they specifically come up with these ideas but some of the ideas may come through this support by educating them. We have created an Innovation Fund, and help thousands of our young people by combining both innovation and entrepreneurship, we hope to keep exciting our young people to be able to do a number of things. We have national entrepreneurship programs.
Every five years, we see what this has done, what impact it has had, and also make improvements. So it keeps going. It has had a huge impact. We see it has been working and draw lessons from these experiences of young people feeding back to us as government institutions and then we respond as much as we can. Of course, governments have limitations. It doesn’t have everything it requires or wishes to deploy, to reach the goals we want. We’ve been trying to be thoughtful in involving the young people. We have also provided them educational programs that include vocational training and technical programs that help them to not just study in schools and sometimes come up with no skills, but to also acquire knowledge. The skills that are required for employment are lacking so we have also tried to cover that gap and are making good progress.
Q. What really drives entrepreneurship? How do we make sure young people stay on the continent?
A. It is a combination of many things. Some of it may even be political, meaning, the political environment must be that of reassurance to the citizens in general, but to the young people as well, and reassurance in a sense that it not something you just deliver to them, but something you deliver by allowing them to participate or [by conveying that] they have a place in their own country, and politically, they can participate, which again relates to the socioeconomic part of it.
Therefore, if politically, they understand they are participants and not just observers – they need to even participate in addressing some of the problems – then the next demand is ‘what about these bread-and-butter issues, how do I take care of myself, take care of my family; every effort is being done by the government to allow us young people to really play our part; and it means I start with my own environment, in my country, but how about if we connect across borders’?
So to a great extent, it speaks to politics. How do African countries and leaders allow this cross-border economic activity that interests these young people and holds them here so they don’t reach a point where they become desperate in which [case] they go to other places? Sometimes, they reach these [other places] and actually find the situation is even worse, so we have to find a way of talking directly to the young people, but above all, create new things on the ground they can experience and participate in.
It’s not one side that is going to deliver it and put on the table, it’s everybody. It has to be everyone, leaders of countries, and leaders of different kinds who have to play a bigger role.
Q. How do you think capitalists, billionaires and African business can help this process and work collaboratively with the government?
A. We want the private sector to be in the lead of our countries’ or continental transformation; that is for sure, but again, collaboration is important and this is the big burden that lies with governments and we must address how we allow not only the private sector to thrive, to freely do what it is meant to do, but how do we work with them. For example, many times that there have been discussions about private-public partnerships, some people are uncomfortable about them. You don’t understand why. There is no question that if the government played its part in allowing the private sector to thrive and the private sector also understands that if they do their part with the government, that’s very important in the thriving of the citizens of the country, which again constitute the market in which we operate.
So if the people of Rwanda are thriving, the citizens are well, then the business person should be happy because this is the market in which they play. But you can’t be rich and continue sustainably as a businessman in a very impoverished market. It’s just common sense. So if the market, the people are thriving, it feeds back to the private sector but then the private sector should respond in the same way… I mean if you’re a government person, a political leader, you also want to see a country that is registering economic growth, registering development. I think the private sector-mind is going to respond positively to these good signals originating from the political environment, from the leadership. It’s in their interest as well. So we really should be happy with the private-public partnership. There is no question about it, it’s a win-win sort of relationship.
Q. A leader, military leader and father to four children. What is the role you cherish most and how do you find the time to do justice to each?
A. I consider myself lucky, in this sense, I don’t even have to make a lot of effort in being myself; that is the starting point. I try to be myself, I try to be a family person, a person that relates with relatives, friends, and not only here, but outside the country. So I am first and foremost comfortable with that. The rest that comes along with that is the responsibility I now hold. I need no reminder that many people look up to me to say ‘what is he thinking [about] us, what are we going to be able to achieve with his leadership’. It doesn’t matter how the leadership role I play came about, whether it was accidental or planned, but I am there, so I have to play this role effectively.
It’s really trying to be comfortable with myself, comfortable as a family person, as a person who has friends, and who relates to even those who are not my friends directly (laughs). I have the responsibility to them and I must do as much as I can fairly without fear or favor. The balance has been happening without much effort.
Q. How do you unwind? Do you get the time to play sport?
A. I do a lot of sport. I have to create time, there is no doubt. In fact, at times, I have to do things at strange hours, sometimes when others are sleeping… I even do my exercises very late in the night when I should be resting, but again, I always find ways of compensating for what I have missed because I also have to find time to rest, to sleep, above all.
I never lack sleep. Whenever I have a few hours to put my head on the pillow, without much effort, I go to sleep.
I do follow sport. I have been a good fan of Arsenal football club for about three decades now. Whenever they are playing, whatever game, whenever I have the time, I always want to watch.
I do follow other sports as well. I watch tennis, basketball – I follow the National Basketball Association (NBA).
I used to play basketball for fun, but am not a professional, and I never came anywhere near that. But I play tennis, I work out and enjoy watching games if I am not able to play.
Q. Your favorite sportsmen…?
A. They are many. For basketball, for many years, my favorite team for NBA has been the Golden State Warriors. I enjoy watching Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, but of course I also enjoy watching LeBron James, and then there are young upcoming players I have now started following.
‘2018 African of the Year’
‘African of the Year’ is one of the categories at the eighth All Africa Business Leaders Awards (AABLA).
The annual event (held this year on November 29) honors business excellence and leaders who have had a considerable impact on their industry and community. The nominees for the ‘African of the Year’ category, including several African statesmen, were judged based on the following criteria: their international profile, positive impact, their ability to build equality, develop society, champion inclusiveness, deal with corruption, transform society, enforce governance, alleviate poverty, lead economic development and be an African leader who is a role model.
Paul Kagame: The Rwandan president and head of the African Union (AU) has spent this year improving the economic conditions of his country, and talking continental trade. He made headlines for the partnership with Alibaba, and for improving the ease of doing business in Rwanda as attested by the World Bank. Rwanda has inked a three-year deal as the tourism partner of English football club Arsenal. As a tribute to growing regional cooperation, three months after assuming the chairmanship of the AU, Kagame hosted, in Kigali, over 50 African heads of state, for the signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area, which envisions a single market expected to generate a combined GDP of more than $3.4 trillion and benefiting 1.2 billion people. So far, 49 countries have come on board.
WATCH | Father-Son Duo Pascal & Uzoma Dozie on Cover of Forbes Africa November Issue
Key contributors to the growth of the Nigerian economy, they have redefined banking by leveraging technology and connecting people to market. From just £100 in his bank account, Pascal Dozie has built a business empire his son Uzoma is taking to the future.
South Africa aims to finalize long-term energy plan next month: minister
Ford and IBM among quartet in Congo cobalt blockchain project
Not So Fast: Can Elon Musk Really Open Tesla’s China Gigafactory This Year?
A Nation Ready For Equitable and Sustainable Take-Off
150 percent price rise fails to fill Zimbabwe’s fuel pumps
Under 30 Business
Under 30 2018
Under 30 Technology
Africa’s New Silicon Valleys
Under 30 Creatives
WATCH | Oprah Winfrey Advocates for Women and Celebrates Nelson Mandela
How Employers Are Recruiting And Retaining Gen Z
WATCH | Father-Son Duo Pascal & Uzoma Dozie on Cover of Forbes Africa November Issue
My Worst Day with Ghana’s Waste Management Mogul
My Worst Day With Atedo Peterside, Founder Of Stanbic IBTC
- 30 under 308 months ago
Under 30 Business
- 30 under 308 months ago
Under 30 2018
- 30 under 308 months ago
Under 30 Technology
- Technology6 months ago
Africa’s New Silicon Valleys
- 30 under 308 months ago
Under 30 Creatives
- Economy1 year ago
Is China Really Helping Africa?
- Wealth1 year ago
The Small Town Of The Super Rich
- Entrepreneurs6 months ago
The Nigerian Who Runs His Business On Luck