Talking to Obi Asika is like opening up a verbal encyclopaedia of culture, business, the arts and technology. With an impressive career in business, entertainment and government, Asika is one of Nigeria’s most respected entertainment and digital business visionaries. Amongst other things, he is the founder of Dragon Africa and co-founder of the ground-breaking digital event; Social Media Week, Lagos. We sat down for a chat with him at his Lagos home.
ILT: Before the age of 50, you have packed so many accomplishments in your lifetime, can you take us through your background?
OBI ASIKA: My names are Ojinnaka Obodoechina ( Obi) Ogbogu Ukpabi Asika. I am from Onitsha, Ogbeoza Village to be precise… My late father was Ajie Ukpabi Asika and my late mother was Dibueze Chinyere Asika. I am a proud Onitsha man. Funny enough, I didn’t grow up in Onitsha; I grew up in Enugu then in England where I studied.
Because I was born during the civil war, my name is Obodoechina literally meaning ‘My country will not die.’
ILT: You studied at the prestigious Eton College alongside world leaders like David Cameron. How was it for a young Onitsha/Nigerian boy?
OBI ASIKA: I get irritated when people say my father got me into Eton, my father had nothing to do with my entrance. It was my headmaster in prep school in England that recommended I should take the aptitude test at the age of ten. Life in Eton was great; the thing is that when you are there , you are not thinking about history, you are simply trying to survive school…Eton is the oldest school of its kind in the world. I had great peers like David Cameron who was ahead of me with 2 years and Boris Johnson ahead of me with 4 years, some of us are still connected. In Nigeria we are in the neighborhood of 5o people in total that attended Eton.
ILT: Your father was a respected statesman. How was it growing up as son of Ajie Ukpabi Asika?
OBI ASIKA: As a student of history, or a child of circumstance, we were lucky to have lots of history and arts during our childhood. My father’s epitaph reads: ‘I was born a Nigerian, I will die a Nigerian’. We were blessed with literature, the arts, there were archives upon archives from Onitsha, Eastern Nigeria and Nigeria.
During the civil war, my father took a position that has been misconstrued many times. The easiest way I can explain it, is that he was of the firm opinion that his role was to make sure that his people were protected; he was not a soldier but he knew what was coming.
It’s funny when you say I am accomplished before fifty (laughs) my father was thirty one when he was called into public office! He had ambitions and dreams for Onitsha, my father and the late Owelle (Nnamdi Azikiwe) were in public service together and he looked at Zik as the father of the nation. Being a young man in a high position, like the average Onitsha man would do, he and Zik would have light hearted disagreements in public but in private, they were close. A particular instance was about the Onitsha main market when people were upset with my father because he didn’t give them what they felt was an adequate allocation.
After the war the market had to be rebuilt and Onitsha was allocated 5% when they had agitated for 50%. He had to remind them that the market was rebuilt with East Central money. He didn’t allocate any stall to himself or to any member of the family; our house in Onitsha was the only house he owned after 9 years of service.
Till now, I can’t remember discussing money with my father, all we discussed was history, culture, knowledge, progress. How to move your people forward, this was the same thing with my mother. For me, that is my abiding concern about Onitsha; I am excited about the developments I see coming, transforming Onitsha into a truly modern enterprise. Onitsha has incredible potential both as an economic gateway and a cultural powerhouse.
ILT: What is your position on the Onitsha Main market?
OBI ASIKA: As concerns the location of the market, I would love to see that market close down forever; it has become an environmental disgrace and disaster. I think the OMATA should reengage and relocate the market; look at the waterfront, there is no reason to deny ourselves a positive experience! Dredge the port, put up the second Niger Bridge, erect an airport, a toll road connecting Abuja in three hours, we would quickly be an investment hub!
Why do we go to Dubai to enjoy shopping? Why can’t we come to Onitsha to enjoy shopping? All these brilliant and wealthy Anambra men should come and invest in our home state because there is no reason to complain. Peter Obi has tried in the state, if we get people to drop their ego and engage for the progress of the state, Anambra will recover in five years what it lost in 50 years.
ILT: How influential and effective is Onitsha culture today in your experience?
OBI ASIKA: I remember when I put up a picture of myself in Ozo title regalia, people started congratulating me ; I had to explain that I took this tittle over 2 decades ago, and that my title is Ojinnaka, meaning ‘right hand of the father’ or ‘older than your mates because of father’.
When I buried my mother, I was fined traditionally for throwing a funeral ceremony for someone that was not up to eighty years; It is a taboo. In Ime obi, the customary court meets every Wednesday, you can’t bypass it, and that is what separates Onitsha as special people; the dignity , the culture , the Obi of Onitsha. We haven’t commercialised it, there is no third party influence. You cant just come from anywhere and take a title from Onitsha.
ILT: You were appointed Senior Special Assistant to the President of Nigeria on Social Media earlier this year with the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan. How was this experience for you?
Obi Asika: It was an eye opening experience for me.. Unfortunately , we were unable to do a lot because of the extremely brief time frame; we were able to move for two months, then the elections came up and everything had to take a back seat. There were a lot of misconceptions about President Jonathan then. However, he was a man very open to change, to progress and to the development of Nigeria. I was honoured to have served in his government.