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Knowledge based Economy: What do we learn from the legacy of Chief Nelson Oyesiku (Nelson I)?

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Sir Muir Gray (Oxford) once famously said that the future belongs to an evidence-based health care whereby the best available knowledge (“best available evidence”) is used to support the health economy.

This is what he said: “In the nineteenth century health was transformed by clear, clean water. In the twenty-first century, health will be transformed by clean, clear knowledge”.

I believe that the same applies to the economy in general. Historical economists would argue that successful economies have simply, timely and appropriately exploited evolving economic opportunities.

Nelson  Oyesku
Nelson Oyesku

Nigeria’s pioneering millionaire, Candido Da Rocha of Water House, Kakawa Street, Lagos is a prime example. He made his money from selling “clean, clear” water from his borehole and the first water fountain on Lagos Island. Sensing the inevitable municipal necessity of potable water, he was also instrumental in the establishment of Iju Waterworks, the first public “clean water” enterprise in Nigeria.

Following the above, was the successful international foray into commodities: cocoa, palm oil, groundnuts, rubber, kolanuts, et cetera. This, I believe required the appropriate infrastructure and transport, hence the success of early enterprising industrialists: Alhaji Alhassan Dantata (Aliko Dangote’s great grandfather); Sir Louise Odumegwu Ojukwu and Chief Adeola Odutola (“Ogbeni Oja”).

Where did it all go wrong?

The recent passing of Chief Nelson Oyesiku (“Nelson I”), the Elebute of Egbaland and the first indigenous Chief Executive of the defunct Nigeria National Shipping Line (NNSL) led me to reconsider this subject deeply.

Nigeria is a natural port: geographically, historically, culturally and conceptually. The Portuguese were in Nigeria several years before the British for this reason. Lagos was given its name by the Portuguese; and was well-placed to become the commercial hub for the West African trade corridor.

Therefore, why is Nigeria not making money from its rich maritime opportunity?
By way of comparison, Singapore is an isolated island. It does not have tangible oil or natural resources.

When I worked there, it relied on water mainly imported from neighbouring Malaysia; because at the time it was considered too expensive to desalinate its own water for domestic use.

Therefore, I often wondered: how come it was at the time, the third fastest growing economy in the world? The simple answer is commerce underpinned by efficient communication and transportation. In short, a knowledge-based economy.

The Port of Singapore and the Singapore Changi Airport are the most successful and efficient sea and air ports respectively in the world. They form the hubs for the most efficient knowledge-based economy that I have been privileged to witness.

It is clear, therefore, that we need to learn from the legacy of Chief Nelson Oyesiku (“Nelson I”), described recently by Loius Mbanefo, SAN as the “foremost maritime man in Nigeria”1.
Nelson I had the advantage of being born into a meritorious family, but in my opinion he left an even more enduring legacy (infra).

He descended from a legacy of leadership, health care, education and music; but he clearly knew that efficient communication and transportation were the necessary catalysts for these endeavours.

His grandfather was a chieftain (Chief Charles Valentine Oyekanmi Oyesiku Taylor), from the Oyesiku-Taylor dynasty who adopted the penultimate personal name, “Oyesiku” which he felt accorded more with his new chieftaincy (“Oye” meaning chieftaincy in Yoruba language) rather than the ultimate patrilineal surname, Taylor, which did not.

His father (Ladipo Oyesiku) was one of Nigeria’s pioneer indigenous licensed dispensers, chemists and druggists; and, as such, the ultimate indigenous health care professional of his time.

His mother (Victoria Oyesiku [nee Pratt]) was a teacher at St. John’s School, Aroloya, Lagos and
quite remarkably, his maternal grandfather (Simeon Dina Pratt) had been a Master at CMS Grammar School, Lagos, which was the first secondary school in Nigeria.

His brother, Christopher (“Papa I”) became Nigeria’s pre-eminent choral conductor and classical bass, having been inspired by two great musical cultural uncles: the late Dr. TEK (Ekundayo) Phillips (Pioneer Organist at Christ Church Cathedral, Lagos); and Professor Olufela (Fela) Sowande who was a pioneer of Nigerian art music and perhaps the greatest exponent of the African Classical Music genre2.

He did not follow a musical career but I believe that his legacy of strict but fair leadership, education and music led to his understandably ‘suggestopedic’; orchestrated, strict, precisely-timed, firm but fair approaches to communication, interaction, management and leadership.

The evidence produced to me, to date, would suggest that he favoured a Kantian ethical approach, where intention and duty were more important than other sentimental considerations. This Kantian mindset could, in my opinion, have been occasionally at variance with the consequentialist expectations of an increasingly utilitarian world.

Like his brother, father, uncles and grandfather respectively he attended the prestigious CMS Grammar School, Lagos; followed by formal tertiary; as well as informal professional education and “in-service” training in the United Kingdom.

In open competition he was selected as one of the pioneer indigenous African executive staff of Elder Dempster Lines, the then most successful British maritime enterprise in the West African corridor. It is testimony to his excellent nature and nurture that he rose to become the first African Head of its Eastern Nigeria operations. Consequently, what he did not know about Nigerian maritime operations was so little that it could be written “at the back of a postage stamp”.

It was therefore not surprising that when the triumvirate of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa; Chief Raymond Njoku (the first Minister of Commerce & Industry; Transport & Aviation) and Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu (the then foremost West African transport entrepreneur and inaugural Chairman, NNSL) decided on indigenous leadership for the national shipping line, they head hunted Nelson

At NNSL, he immediately sought to establish a knowledge-based economy; by encouraging the use of the “best available” knowledge to improve outcomes. Whereas his predecessors invested government funds on second-hand (“fairly used”) ships (with high maintenance costs), he ordered, on a “cost neutral” basis, three new ships from Belgian Shipyards, with appropriate specifications. He did not seek funding from the Federal Government. He also invested in training and effective communication systems. Given time and political support, these “knowledge-based” strategies would have transformed the industry.

Unfortunately, he was not “Machiavellian” enough to understand the intrigues of Nigerian politics. He would not compromise his Kantian principles3-5.
It is instructive that he was exonerated by the events subsequent to his departure. The NNSL descended into an apoptotic death4,5.
In his personal life, he also sought to establish a knowledge-based economy, by inspiring his entire family (including in-laws) to seek the “best available” knowledge and strive to apply such knowledge, attitude and skills to achieve at the highest level of their personal and professional aspirations, rather than seeking opportunistic “short cuts”. He succeeded tremendously.
At exactly 20.49 hours on the 7th of August 2016, I received a call from Nelson II. It was rather telepathic that before he could say anything, I explained that I had been meaning to e-mail him in the previous 10 days with an attachment of an interesting article by Louis Mbanefo II, SAN and President of MUSON, where he described Nelson I as “The Foremost Maritime Man in Nigeria”.
In his usual calm manner, he proceeded: “Didiu, you are not going to believe what I am about to tell you”. What? I replied. “My dad just passed”.

He clearly carried the heavy burden of such an irreparable loss. Erin wo! We were both very upset about the passing of such a great icon. I duly consoled him in the usual African tradition. I explained that in my opinion his description as ”the foremost maritime man” was the greatest accolade, but, more importantly, his enduring legacy was his greatest achievement.

What followed was a hermeneutic regurgitation of some of Nelson I’s usual one-liners:
“Ko ni ku laiye” ([He will not die (unexpectedly)] the adulation of a successful Captain by a Yoruba Praise Singer)

”Afi te ba pa” ([unless you kill him prematurely] Nelson I’s timely response to the Praise Singer’s adulation)

“Atupa Parlour” ([the showpiece (lamp) of the living room] a derogatory remark about a beautiful, but otherwise unsuitable future partner).

“Funsum Corner” (A Lagos eatery that had a special meaning for Nelson I).
“Wood, Sanderson and Gbajumo” (reference to a pioneering group practice patronised by Nelson I, which, I believe, along with his grandfather’s health care legacy, clearly inspired Nelson II).
“Oil of Ulay Test” (Nelson I’s validated test for a materialistic, but otherwise unsuitable future partner).

“Ona kan o woja” (not only one route leads to the market).
Clearly, for Nelson II, the first “ko ni ku laiye” remains the most resonant. I believe it is a hermeneutic reverence to the personality of a most respected and loved father and his Kantian philosophical mind set. A father whose memory and spirit will never die.

However, for me, the last “ona kan o woja” is by far the most iconic. I recollect the circumstances in which the advice was given by Nelson I to Nelson II over 40 years ago. Nelson II had secured a postgraduate scholarship to undertake a master’s degree in Public Health (MPH) at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It was common ground that Nelson II wanted to become a surgeon. Naturally he sought the advice of Dr. Ghosh, our then Chief Consultant Physician at Lagos General Hospital, who in his usual fatherly manner, advised:

“Oyesiku, you know, you have to get your Fellowship” (i.e. FRCS). In short, his view was that the MPH would be a distraction.

Nelson II sought the wise counsel of Nelson I. In his usual direct, timely and orchestrated approach, Nelson I advised: “Ona kan o wo’ja” (not only one road leads to the market). In essence, Nelson I advised that the Masters in London could be his “scenic” route to Surgery. He was right.

He left an enduring legacy: Nelson I (Maritime Entrepreneurship and Leadership); Nelson II (Neurosurgery; Tertiary Medical Education; Health Care Regulation and Leadership) ; Nelson III (Communication and Social Marketing Strategy); Lola ([daughter-in-law] Women’s Health and High-Risk Perinatology); Angela (Educational Diversity and Epistemology); Linda (Medical Anthropology and Medicine); Mama ([Deaconess]Ecumenical Leadership); Kemi (International Health Care Practice and Leadership); Dupe (Pharmacy; Health Management and Leadership); Kayode ([“KB”; son-in-law] Tertiary Education and Scientific Research); Kitan (Architecture, Planning and Urban Development); Niyi ([son-in-law] Surveying and Geo-Informatics); Damoye (Engineering; ICT and Telecommunications); Kehinde ([daughter-in-law] Health Maintenance and Management); Yomi ([“Papa II”] Electrical Engineering, Electronics and Informatics).

In accordance with his legacy, we need to adopt a knowledge-based economy in all facets of Nigerian life, underpinned by efficient and profitable communication and transportation.
Mr. President and his cohort should seriously consider the concept of knowledge-based economy as proposed by Sir Muir Gray and epitomised by the enduring legacy of Chief Nelson Oyesiku (Nelson I) of blessed memory and who I respectfully invite our Almighty Lord to grant a most deserved eternal rest and perfect peace (RIPP).

Dr. O.A. Oyesanya, London, England.

1. Louis Mbanefo, SAN. From 6 To 70, My Life As A Pianist–Louis Mbanefo, SAN. MMS Plus Weekly. Lagos, 2014.

2. Sadoh G. Christopher Oyesiku:Preeminent Nigerian Choral Conductor. Bloomington: iUniverse (31 Jan. 2011), 2011.

3. Akinsanya A. The Power Structure in Nigeria and the Indigenization of the Economy. Pakistan Horizon 1994;47(2):63-79.

4. Akinola B. Arrested Development A Journalists Account of How the Growth of Nigerias shipping sector is impaired by politics and inconsistent policies Bolaji Akinola. Lagos: AuthorHouse (26 Oct. 2012), 2012.

5. Akinola B. KILLED BY A PADDLE 6. In: Akinola B, ed. An irreverent view of the maritime industry. Lagos: Bolaji Akinola, 2013.

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