By Ethelbert Okere
Not many people have the privilege of watching a friend grow from a fledgling client-seeking retailer to a producer of world class, state-of-the-art, gadgets sought after across the globe, as I have in Chief Leo-Stan Ekeh. Leo-Stan’s story is not the typical “grass to grace”. He comes from middle class parentage. He is well educated and his choice of carrier was deliberate even though computer science or computer making was not his initial field of study, the very thing that first set him aside. With a background in Economics, how Leo transformed himself into the “Bill Gate of Africa” he is described as today remains a marvel.
As Business/Economy editor of Champion newspapers sometime in 1990, I sent a reporter to cover an exhibition by his company, Task System Ltd., at Sheraton Hotel, Ikeja, Lagos. The young man rushed to my office as soon as he dropped his bag in the newsroom and said: “Editor, That Your Friend Is Too Much oo. See The Way He Was Talking About This Desktop Thing”. That was at the time Desktop Publishing was just creeping into the Nigerian publishing industry and Leo’s company, Task System Ltd, was one of the very few that brought the technology into the country, as a representative of Apple, the biggest brand, then, in computer technology. It was this pioneering effort, which transformed the newspaper publishing industry in Nigeria, that first endeared Leo-Stan to media practitioners as well as newspaper proprietors during that period. As a matter of fact, Task System’s clientele was made up mostly of newspaper publishing companies.
It was in this context that I first met Leo-Stan; in the office of Mr. Emma Agu, the then editor of the Daily Champion. Leo was on a business visit to the newspaper house and as the Business/Economy editor of the newspaper, Agu invited me to his office for a short interview with him. That was how a relationship that has blossomed till today started.
I was to later visit him in his office at 32 Kadiri Street, Alausa, Ikeja. On my second visit, I met, for the first time, Rev Father Matthew Kukah, now Bishop Matthew Kukah, who was then incharge of communications at the Catholic Secretariat, Onikan, Lagos. Kukah had come to discuss the supply of Desktop equipment to his organization.
With time, I became a regular caller at 32 Kadiri Street. Another frequent caller was Mr. Manuwa Kiewunmi, who was a reporter with the Business Concord, a title in the Concord stable owned by the late Chief Moshood Abiola . Manuwa and I became close because, apart from that we had a mutual friend in Leo-Stan, we were covering the same beat – Business and Economy.
Before joining Champions newspaper, I had completed the manuscript of my first book, entitled, “Nigeria: Agenda For A Modern Police Force”, and was looking for a publisher. I had begun the writing sometime in 1989 while I was on the pioneer editorial staff of The Financial Post, a weekly magazine on Business and Economy. The proposed book was an expansion of an article I did on police brutality – I can’t remember the title – for the Guardian sometime in 1988. Mid way in the preparation of the manuscript, I left The Financial Post to join Newbreed Organization, publishers of Newbreed and The President. The latter was a weekly on Business and Economy.
Chief Chris Okolie, the founder of Newbreed Organization and Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of both Newbreed and The President magazines, had invited both me and Ikechi Emenike, now a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC), to join his organization. Emenike and I were on the pioneer staff of The Financial Post. While he was appointed the editor of Newbreed, I was made Associate Editor of The President, with concurrent responsibility for Newbreed, the flagship publication of the organization.
I continued working on the manuscript at Newbreed, but no one day, I discovered that the entire hand-written material had disappeared from the drawer of my table in our office at Ogulana Drive, Surulere. I kept calm while trying to figure out what happened.
The publisher, Chief Okolie, was fond of me. He used to describe me as “a good and hard working writer”; and invited me quite often to his office to ask about one thing or the other in my beat. One afternoon, I was in my office, which I shared with Godfrey Obioma and Roseline Umesi, when his – the Publisher’s – secretary, one Godwin, came in, with a message that “Chief” wanted to see me.
Upon getting to Chief Okolie’s office, he went straight and said: “Make We Go Chop Naa”. I was completely taken aback but it was an offer I could not reject. We both drove to an eatery along Masha street and midway into the meal, my boss asked in a low and friendly tone: “When Are You Launching Your Book?”. I got stung. But without waiting for a reply and seeing my countenance, he continued: “Are You Not Writing A Book On The Police?”
I managed to overcome my shock and replied that I was still working on it but that I would bring the manuscript on completion for his comments. He said nothing else and shortly after, we finished taking our meals and returned to the office. Two days later, I saw the missing manuscript on top of my table in the office!
Back to Leo-Stan, however. After a few more visits to his office, I decided to request him to sponsor the publication of my manuscript. He took interest the moment I mentioned the matter and the subject of my work and there and then, informed me that he also owns a publishing company, and that he was ready to bank it.
The next day, I took the manuscript, which was still handwritten, to him. After attending to some matters, Leo personally drove me to Ikeja Plaza, near Ikeja bus stop, where he handed the manuscript to a type setter. I kept visiting the latter for weeks until the material was ready for proof-reading. Thereafter, it was printed out in hard copy and also put in a compact disc. There were no flash drives then.
When we met the following week, Leo told me that he was going to take the manuscript to Pacific Printers for printing. A day was set aside for that and that morning, we started the long drive from Ikeja to Iyede in Ikorodu, a journey of about two hours, where the printing press was located. Upon getting there, we went straight to an office to meet a lady whom Leo personally handed the manuscript to.
To cut a long story short, that was how it came to pass that New Concept Media Ltd. of which Mr Leo-Stan Ekeh was chairman and managing director, published “NIGERIA: AGENDA FOR A MODERN POLICE FORCE”, my first book. So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that the book in question won a prize for me, the author, and the publishing company, New Concept Media Limited, owned by Mr. Leo-Stan Ekeh. But I will return to that after this digression.
Before the final proof-reading of the manuscript, I had left Champion newspapers and returned to The Financial Post, where I started writing the book as earlier narrated. I had earlier moved from The Financial Post to Newbreed, as also already narrated, then to Champion Newspapers where I met Leo, as also earlier stated. However, after about one year at the Champion Newspapers, I was approached by the management of FP Communications Ltd, publishers of The Financial Post, with an offer to return to the company for the position of editor of the prestigious weekly magazine. Some months later, I was appointed General Manager/Editor-in-Chief. It was at The Financial Post that the cover of the book was designed by one of the graphic artists, one Osahon, whose other name I cannot remember.
It took Pacific Printers, at that time one of the most reputable printers in the country, over three months to come up with the book and once it came out sometime in November 1991, I took copies to nearly all the newspapers in Lagos for review. I got very good mention, as our colleagues went all out to support one of their own.
Then one evening sometime in May, 1992, as I arrived the Sheraton Hotel, Ikeja, for a function, I met the late Dimgba Igwe, then the deputy editor of Weekend Concord. Immediately, he said to me:, “Congratulations”. And I said: “For What?” I learnt from Dimgba, for the first time, that my book had been shortlisted by the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) for a prize award.
I return to Leo-Stan and fast ward to the prize winning and award ceremony also at Sheraton Hotel, Ikeja. Leo and some members of his staff were present, having been invited by the organizers of the event as publishers of one of the shortlisted books as was their custom. As usual with book prize award ceremonies, nobody was sure of what the outcome would be. But when it got to the “winner is” stage, “NIGERIA: AGENDA FOR A MODERN POLICE FORCE won a prize in the category of “First Author, Non Fiction” for both the author and the publishers.
After the ceremony, journalists besieged Leo; surprised that he was also into publishing; appreciative that he had brought one of their own to further lime light and in admiration for taking the risk of publishing a first-time author. Leo, as I got to know him even as early as then, is not easily given to emotions but his excitement that evening was palpable. In the course of his interaction with reporters, he showered praises on me and told the reporters that for bringing such an honour to his young publishing company, he would publish anything I write henceforth.
Thus in 1996 when I came up with my second book, NIGERIA AND THE SEARCH FOR LEADERSHIP ( A Return To The East), New Concept Media Ltd also published it. Again it was a big deal: Nigeria And The Search For Leadership (A Return to the East) was an unashamed advocacy for a fellow from the eastern part of Nigeria – the former Eastern Region, to be precise, – to become the next democratically elected civilian president of Nigeria after General Sani Abacha, the then military head of state. The book came at the heat of Abacha’s scheming to transmute from a military head of state to an elected civilian president. It was, therefore, a highly risky venture for Leo and his business; and for me a big gamble with my job. At that time, I was the deputy editor and member of the editorial board of the DailyTimes owned, hundred per cent, by the federal government.
Although I started preparing the manuscript while I was at ThisDay where I was pioneer managing editor and member of the editorial board, the book came out after I had moved over to the DailyTimes in 1997. I received two threat letters: one sent to my home at Oworonsoki, Lagos and the other slid into my office at the premises of the DailyTimes at Agidingbi, Ogba, Lagos.
A chapter of the book was devoted to profiling some prominent politicians from the East, whom I considered were good presidential materials. But for obvious reasons, most of the personalities stayed away from the public presentation of the book even though they were duly invited..
But, of course, Leo was there. He took further risk to come out after publishing such a “contentious” book in the first place. The occasion, which was chaired by Chief Arthur Mbanefo, was, however, graced by Dr. Chuba Okadigbo, Chief MCK Ajuluchukwu and Chief Bob Ogbuagu, all of the blessed memory. Such was the type of passion I shared with Leo, who provided a platform for interrogating such a weighty issue, under the circumstances then, regardless of the clear danger associated with it.
To celebrate Chief Leo-Stan Ekeh for his recent recognition by Forbes, the Nigerian media reeled out at least six companies that were founded by him and all of which are now global brands. Both interestingly, New Concept Media Ltd, was not among them. Recently, I got state-of-the-art electricity-generating set and a stabilizer through Ekeh’s e-commerce outfit, Konga. By 1991 when New Concept published our award-winning book, nobody could ever contemplate that within a period of two decades, you could procure virtually everything in the comfort of your home or office through your mobile phone and that Leo was again going to be at the centre of such a revolutionary breakthrough.
Fobes singled out Ekeh for founding the most integrated ICT group in Africa with influence in four continents. He was also honoured for pioneering Desktop Publishing and computer graphics, as earlier acknowledged in this article; and the first locally assembled and internationally certified computer brand, Zinox, among others.
Unlike the prophet who is not recognized at home, Leo-Stan had much earlier been honoured by Nigeria’s political leaders. He was given the ICON OF HOPE award in 2001 by President Olusegun Obasanjo. Again in 2003, he was conferred with the national honour of the Order of the Federal Republic, OFR, by the same President Obasanjo. And in 2019, he was given the National Productivity Order Merit award by President Muhammed Buhari for his sustained leadership in the area of Information and Communication and Technology.
Leo Stan’s story is typically illustrative of how an enterprise could grow from a small outfit in a corner of a city to a transnational. There could be other factors but from what we now all know, the secret is consistency, resilience and ability to remain focused. Those who have come to know Chief Leo StanEkeh as the highly successful entrepreneur he is today may not be able to appreciate how some of us feel seeing him rise so meteorically. When Task System Ltd, the prarent company of his conglomerate, relocated from Kadiri street, to Allen Avenue, Ikeja, I carried a story in the Daily Champion, under the title, “Task Moves To Allen”. At that time, it was a big deal having your business located along Allen Avenue, Ikeja. From Allen, Task moved to Victoria Island. Today, Leo-Stan’s companies have branches in quite a good number of countries.
Leo-Stan so caught the attention of the media that by 1997, some journalists were already mounting pressure on him to commission them to write his biography. He almost yielded to that and had begun to say that he would like to mark his 50th birthday with it and actually detailed me and Mr. Okoh Aihe of the Vanguard newspaper, to begin to put something together in that regard. Aihe was covering “Computek” for his newspaper and like me and Manuwa, was also a regular caller at Kadiri street. But I was not quite keen on that project simply because I felt that it was too early to do a biography on Leo-Stan at that particular stage in his life and carrier. Leo turned fifty in 2006. In other words, so much has happened to both his business and him, as an individual, that a biography of Chief Leo-Stan Ekeh published fifteen years ago would have by now become anachronistic, so to speak.
Thirty one years ago nobody knew that the fellow who craved the attention of reporters for mention in a corner of their newspapers would by today be sitting atop a big multi-national enterprise and being sought after by the best PR and media organizations the world over. However, my wish would have been that New Concept Media Ltd., Leo’s fledgling publishing outfit then, would have been part of the glitz and glamour of today and a witness to the extra twelve publications from the stable of its first-author client in 1991.