The Death of Family Businesses in Nigeria

The demise of family businesses and succession planning and role of the media
By Eniola Otoki

COLONIZATION is always an interesting topic to breach with Nigerians and Africans at large. While there are those who have moved on in their history, embracing the perks of colonization and infusing it into their culture, there are others who are still stuck on the hate and the losses the continent suffered due to colonization. There is, however, a third class of people; those who may or may not understand that colonization might not have been the best thing for Africa in the first place, but are willing to move past that thought and accept wholly the changes that colonization has brought into Africa.

These people are all entitled to their beliefs and their coping mechanism, but this doesn’t change the facts; with colonization came great change, a lot was lost and some things were gained. The extent to which we feel this loss may vary but it doesn’t discount our loss. Two things that are of utmost importance in describing and identifying a people are their culture and their language. Without these, we lose our identity, we lose self.

We can all agree that in Nigeria today, we are struggling, with conscious efforts, to hold on to both our culture and our languages. You can hardly make progress in society without being fluent in the foreign language; English, which is why this article is so impeccably written, as I would obviously not have this job if I couldn’t communicate excellently in written English. And then there is the continued loss of our culture, from simple mannerism in pleasantries to our clothing and preferred cuisine.

The height of it being that we as a nation seem very oblivious to our loss and continue to embrace every shred of foreign culture we can find. It is not enough that we speak English, now we must speak it with an accent that says we aren’t Nigerian. We don’t stop at perming our hair to achieve the straight western texture, now we must spend a fortune acquiring actual human foreign hairs and wear them just to be perceived as classy and in vogue. All of these are issues that have previously been touched and recognized as the major ways in which our society has assimilated the culture of our colonial masters to the detriment of our own. One issue that I do not think has really been considered is our societal and business structures.

Before colonialism, our societies thrived. We had a system whereby every need was provided by a family or families, we had preplanned expectations for generations; we had dynasties. In this “modern” age this might look like an infringement on freewill, maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, we wouldn’t know because we lost it. And it might not seem like a great loss but allow me explain to you how things worked, and they did indeed work. For a society to run smoothly, it needs leaders. For those leaders to be fairly picked there is a need for kingmakers. To ensure these leaders are fair, there is a council of elders. For the society to thrive there is need for an economic system, there is need for food and services to exchange hands, there is also need to have healers and such.

And so when the head of a family picks a trade, way up the ancestral line, and he decides to be a hunter, he is filling a space in the economic need of the society, and everyone knows who to go to when they need to buy meat. As he grows his family, he takes his children into the bush and teaches them his trade, this ensures that his children are set up in life and there is no void in the needs in that community. Same goes for the farmer, the palm wine tapper, the dressmaker, the herbalist, even the priest. The son of the king is groomed to take his place. The children of the kingmakers are groomed in their trade; they know when to make a rotation in the family to take the throne, they learn the rituals involved in crowning a king. If the priest suddenly died or the palm wine tapper got hurt and couldn’t perform, there was no confusion about who was to take their place, the plan of succession was clear, they had been groomed for this their whole lives. On a level, there was disappointment when children didn’t meet up to the expectations of their parents in order to take over the trade, like if for example a warrior had a child who couldn’t fight.

Building a family business was always a part of our culture, it was always expected that a child will take up the trade of the parents. Farmlands were passed down from generation to generation, just as palm trees were passed down the generations of palm wine tappers, and cattle was passed down from father to son.

But thanks to colonization and western education, we effectively replaced the tradition of family business with the concept of individual achievements. Although there is nothing wrong with the desire to be self-accomplished in a trade or career of your choosing, this new ideology inadvertently was the demise of a society that thrived through family dynasties that have been built and nurtured for generations.

Now family businesses are looked upon as rare occurrences reserved for a few members of the upper class. It is not regarded as normal, but rather as something that happens when a man can successfully run a business and amass wealth, passing the business on to his children. And even at that, a lot of times, it is not with the depth of knowledge required to be a successful successor, rather it is simply now an inheritance. The fact of the matter is that every business starts as a small business and even small businesses can be family businesses. It all comes down to interest.

Generally, Nigerians are not oblivious to the practice of owning a family business, especially those from the eastern part of the country, what we are dealing with here is a reawakening of the culture of owning family businesses.

You might be wondering how the media figures into all this, I’ll tell you. The function of the media is to educate, entertain and inform.  So we all are tuned to a media platform of our choosing for any of these purposes. And the Nigerian media is mandated by its regulatory body to balance its programming between foreign and local content; this is for a lot of reasons, but in my opinion, it is to ensure that we do not totally forget who we are.

We have the government owned media and then we have the private sector; individuals who run media platforms and are passionate about exposing the truth to the public (information), entertainment and education. Who better to champion a cause for a more developed society than the media?
So what is the role of the media in the death of the culture of owning family businesses? To inform, to educate, to bring to the fore issues that have been relegated to the background, not only in practice but by continuously setting the agenda for discuss in this line.

Already, there are a good number of media platforms that are being run as family businesses, such as; DAAR communications (AIT and Raypower) owned by Chief Raymond Dokpesi. Chief Raymond Dokpesi started this business, his fourth wife, who was a broadcaster before they were married, is now the Managing Director at the company, and his son who holds a master’s degree in public relations and public communications has also made valuable additions to the business.

Then there is Channels TV owned by John Momoh; the executive Chairman, and his wife Olusola Momoh; the executive Vice-Chairman. And then Silverbird Communications (Silverbird TV and Rhythm FM) founded by Ben Murray-Bruce, his brother Roy is the President of the group. We can’t leave out the Murhi International Group (MiTV and Star FM) founded by Alhaji Busare Gbade Murhi, his son Idris, a graduate of mass communication, is now CEO at the organization.

There is also The Punch which is run as a family business belonging to the Aboderins, and The Guardian run by the Ibru siblings after the passing of their father who started the business.

There are quite a number of family-owned media businesses and there are still those that might attain that position later on but are currently owned by an individual, like The Nation owned by Chief Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, The Ovation owned by Dele Momodu and even the Sun and Telegraph owned by Orji Kalu.

So it is obvious that the concept and practice of running family businesses is not alien to the media industry, however, a positive step towards enlightening society will be shinning the spotlight on this practice.

The notion of individualism is here to stay despite the strain it puts on our culture and traditions. Nonetheless, if the media is able to tell these stories over and over, maybe on a level we could once again resurrect the tradition of family businesses and succession planning, even if it’s on a high level; where the family can simply run the business as top management personnel, while employing professionals to do more specialized work.

Family businesses are about continuity and building a legacy. World over, family businesses have been known to thrive and survive longer. So even if we refuse to remember that this was once who we were, maybe we could simply copy our Western brothers on this occasion as well and hopefully grow our economy and family dynasties.