CNN's Fareed Zakaria was the main attraction at an event graced by many of Nigeria's elite. Demola Ojo reports
Last week Sunday, the Eko Convention Centre of the Eko Hotel and Suites in Victoria Island, Lagos was again the venue for another evening of glitz, entertainment and on this occasion, a healthy dose of substance. The red carpet that is a signature of events like this paled into insignificance with was on offer inside the hall. This being an Airtel event tagged a Night of Influence, it was understandable that the hall was bathed in swathes of red, the telecommunication company's predominant colour.
However, despite the sometimes surreal red theme, accentuated by the impressive overhead lights, this was no Valentine Day's event. Rather, Fareed Zakaria presently famous as the host of the CNN programme Fareed Zakaria GPS had been invited to come and share his vast knowledge and experience with an elite selection of Nigerians.
Zakaria is an Indian-American journalist and author. From 2000 to 2010, he was a columnist for Newsweek and editor of Newsweek International. In 2010 he became editor-at-large of Time before his current role with CNN. He is also a frequent commentator and author about issues related to international relations, trade and American foreign policy.
This was an event money couldn't get you into; it was strictly by invitation. Power, influence and class were the determining factors. An indication of this was evident from the security at the entrance where an individual key card was the mode of entry rather than the VIP, VVIP etal segmentation that events here are prone to. Everybody was a VIP here.
Kicking off a little after 5pm, the evening started off with a cocktail session where the affluent and influential and affluent rubbed shoulders - sometimes literally - due to the sheer number of those present at the event. After about an hour of mingling at the cocktail section, it was time to proceed to the section of the hall where the session with Zakaria would take place; already, a live band had been serenading with catchy Nigerian tunes.
Guests were ushered to their numbered tables which seated an average of six; more than 50 draped in red, a few in black or white, with complimentary bouquets of nice scented flowers. It all reeked of class. And why not?
The guest list included but was not exclusive to former President Olusegun Obasanjo; Airtel chairman Oba Otudeko (host would be a better description); Oba of Lagos, Oba Rilwan Akiolu; former Minister and Bharti Airtel director, Dr Oby Ezekwesili; Prof Pat Utomi; former health secretary, Prince Julius Adelusi-Adeluyi; Mr Goodie Ibru of Ikeja Hotels; member of the House Abike Dabiri; numerous bank MDs, vice chancellors of a few universities and of course many more this writer couldn't recognise.
The event's emcee was ace comedian Ali Baba, on hand to infuse a relaxed atmosphere into a hall filled with big guns. It was an indicative of the event that he was mostly serious apart from a few occasions when he could obviously not help himself but throw a few jabs.
Oba Otudeko as chairman of Airtel took to the stage for a few minutes to welcome the dignitaries; "We are proud as an organisation, that we have been able to attract some of the best and finest Nigerians under a single roof. This forum serves the dual purpose of offering a platform for high-business networking between Nigeria's best and brightest as well as a chance for us to rub minds...
"As influential people, we are all unanimously obliged to share ideas and thoughts on the place of leadership in Africa's political and economic development. It is therefore clear that our choice of Dr. Fareed Zakaria as the distinguished personality to illuminate our conversation tonight was not made by chance as Fareed is easily one of the few leaders of thought in the current generation whose genius and zestful engagement of issues that trouble our world have captured the imagination of the attentive world," he said.
Not long after Lagbaja comes on stage. Lagbaja is always a pleasure to watch. First he is heralded by that notably African instrument, the talking drum. His art is a lot more than music; the masked one's costume is an indication that drama is at the core of his performances, and he did not disappoint as he wowed the appreciative audience with hit after hit going back as far as a decade ago.
I couldn't help but marvel at his dexterity and the thought crossed my mind that there was a possibility of a younger person as adept with the saxophone taking his place behind the mask! He doesn't seem to age judging by his dramatic dance steps.
Lagbaja used his medium to pass on the message that wherever you find soul in music, it must have had roots in Africa. This through the song "Africalypso", he was ably supported by two young ladies with piercing voices and they ably complemented his performance with the sax. They also contributed to the dramatics; during a rendition of the song "Skentele" - a track about the Nigerian woman's love for the native headgear- as they got their "geles" tied on stage.
All this to whet the appetite before the real star of the show strolled in from backstage after his impressive CV had been read out by none other than former presidential aspirant, Pat Utomi.
Zakaria is more impressive in person than on TV. Here his sense of humour shone through and he got a crowd who had waited with bated breath on his side with his opening remarks: "Everybody is so full of energy and excitement. I used to think New York was an exciting place but I've decided, to get real excitement, you have to come to Nigeria."
He continued working the crowd; "I have to confess I am very nervous. Because I discovered at my table I have one emperor, one former president, and one man who seems to be chairman of everything," he said in reference to the Oba of Lagos, President Obasanjo and Oba Otudeko respectively.
Zakaria continued by harping on the fact that he finds in Africa what he initially went to the US for; optimism. "Now, I like this because I am by nature, an optimist," he said.
Zakaria narrated how there was so much gloom and doom from the seventies when he first went to America till the turn of the century but despite this, things have only improved.
"I remember when I was teaching at Harvard and the Dow Jones dropped 22 per cent, the highest drop it had ever seen to date, every one said, this is over. The great economists from all over were saying 'this is our generation's version of the Great Depression.' Actually, one week later, the market was back to normal, the economy had not even gone down and so the growth continued."
"What I've told you about the last 30 years is not that there isn't a crash or a crisis but that there is always a recovery, there is always a return," he continued.
He explained that it is a new world that is more politically stable, economically convergent and technologically-advanced. He goes on to sober the audience by telling them the tough task that confronts us as Africans but still restated his belief in a bright future because of the human talent.
"For the last 300 years, the world has been run economically, politically, intellectually by 10 per cent of the world's population. That's it. That is where you have all the businessmen, the statesmen, the artists, the painters, the adventurers, the philosophers; but now, everyone is joining in this game and who knows what that will mean?
"There is so much human talent in Africa that is being unlocked... Good things are going to flow in ways we don't know. I'm not going to care whether some Chinese, Indian or Nigerian invents the new heart disease medicine. I know I am going to be saved because of it and there will be so many of those things happening because now there aren't just a few hundred people participating in this process.
"It will be a few billion and that change has just begun and it's going to hit Africa just as it has hit Asia. Once it hits Africa, it would have hit the whole world, and then we really will be in a new and much better world."
There was so much he said but there is so much that can be crammed into one article. His performance was summed up by a member of the audience who was meant to ask questions but gushed with admiration saying, "...this is truly a night of influence. We have all been influenced positively by you Fareed."
A sumptuous buffet was served after and you would be hard pressed to find anyone who wasn't filled on the night; not necessarily from wining and dining but rather from the nuggets of information flowing from the famous Fareed Zakaria.