At the request? Instigation? of my friend and brother, George E Uriesi, I am sharing this. It is an ongoing discussion and I hope it makes sense.
General Wealth Transfer: An African problem?
Elsie O. Dennis
In my mid twenties I was dating a lawyer with whom I shared a love of books and political discussions. One day he told me about a book written by a European named James Clavell. He said the book tells a Japanese story in a way that would help me understand the character of the then President of Nigeria, Ibrahim Babangida. There was only one catch: he didn’t know how I could get a copy. This was way before the days of Google and cellphones. I started searching for the book the only way I knew- in libraries and by word of mouth. I hit a brick wall and all but gave up.
Months later, we had some friends over and there was this handsome banker who had been toasting me for months among the crowd in our flat that evening. As had become the practice with me, I found a way to bring the discussion round to books and I mentioned my quest for the book on Japan. People made comments, the banker said nothing.
A couple of weeks later, he came to my house very early in the morning with a wrapped package, said “good morning”, handed me the package and hurried away.
I unwrapped it and, yes, you guessed right. It was the book-Shogun by James Clavell.
I fell in love; with the book and the banker. We have been married for over twenty years. And that’s where my story begins.
In the book, Shogun, I met a character called Toranaga, and got introduced to the way Asians think. Toranaga had plans for a thousand years. He made plans that neither he nor his immediate descendants had any hope or dream of seeing or benefitting from.
I was shocked!
I wondered how people could make such plans and to what purpose. And I began to ask questions and to look around. I started comparing the African society and the African way with the ways of non- Africans, and I am still searching, looking, comparing and asking questions.
What separates the African from his peers? What are we doing differently? Why does corruption destroy our society even though there’s corruption everywhere else? I don’t claim to have answers, but I have found a thought that I want to share with you all today.
Generational thinking, generational wealth transfer, generational planning; these are things that are alien to the African mind.
We do not know how to think in generations. And we certainly do not know how wealth is transferred from one generation to another. You see, when the African thinks of generational wealth, he is thinking of keeping money in cash, and building houses, and buying cars for hi children and grandchildren. He thinks about buying lands and investing in real estate in the names of his numerous offspring and the children of his offspring.
But that is not how the Asian thinks; and from my research, that is not generational wealth transfer. This way of thinking is the reason why an individual will steal a billion dollars in cash from the National treasury and keep in foreign accounts. That individual believes he is keeping money for his generations unborn. But he is not. I will tell you what he is doing.
He is helping those who know how to think generationally to grow their wealth. When you store money in a foreign account, you rely on financial systems that are strong and reliable, and safe, to keep that money for you. What you do not think about is that those financial systems were built as a way of transferring wealth from one generation to another. Because Swiss ancestors think generationally, they built strong financial institutions and as a result, a young Swiss graduate of banking will always have a well paying job in a bank. A bank not built or owned by his father. When you fly business class or first class, or any class, it is because a European ancestor put money into research so that aircrafts could be built to conquer the skies and ensure that his descendants would not have to rely on horses and canoes to move from one end of the world to another.
It is generational mindset that made the rulers of Dubai to channel their oil wealth into developing a tourist haven, and an unrivaled property market in the desert. Generational thinking is what makes a Mark Zuckerberg to build a Facebook app that connects the world. Generational wealth transfer is what powers the mind of a Bill Gates to build windows of opportunity that his own immediate children do not need in order to eat pizza or soak garri.
Many years ago, when I was working with the International Red Cross, there was an argument one day in the office about a seemingly unfair practice. I don’t remember the details but I will never forget a statement by Mrs. Odugbesan, my Boss’ secretary at the time. She said, “when Henri Dunant, the founder of Red Cross was forming an organization that would provide employment for generations of Swiss citizens, what were our people doing?”
It is a question I have never been able to answer.
Maybe Henri Dunant did not start Red Cross with the aim of employing his countrymen, but he certainly wasn’t thinking of only himself when he started. He was thinking bigger than his own generation.
This is where the challenge lies for me. If we understand the principle of generational wealth transfer in Africa, there would be electricity; the hospitals would be well equipped and would have drugs. The roads would be maintained, national assets would not be stolen. Monuments like the National Theatre and the National Stadium would not be in ruins. And certainly, no politician would be applauded for stealing the commonwealth.
You do not transfer wealth from one generation to another by keeping money in the bank or buying houses in the names of your children. You transfer wealth generationally by building systems and institutions that work for hundreds of years. If you are thinking of the next ten years, or twenty or fifty, you are not a generational thinker. In fact, if you are planning for the next one hundred years, you are not thinking far enough. Instead, we should think of what will be in a thousand years. That is how the Japanese think. That is how Jesus Christ thought, when he ordered his men to preach the gospel to the ends of the Earth. At that time, the ends of the Earth was way beyond their reach, but He knew a day would come when the ends of the Earth would be one click away.
I struggle to recall an African corporation that has existed a hundred, or even fifty years. When I was preparing this document, I asked my husband this question and he mentioned “Guinness” I quickly reminded him that Guinness is Irish. He said UAC, and I again reminded him that UAC is British, used to be the Royal Niger Company, I think, but certainly not African. We don’t have a single institution that has survived for generations in Africa. And why is that so?
I refuse to accept that we do not have the capacity for generational thinking. And I refuse to accept that we do not have traditions that are good and noble enough to develop generational thinking. After all, our oral traditions have somehow survived. Our respect for elders, our love for the land, these are things that have served us well, and continue to do so.
Why then have we not been able to rise above our limitations and leave the myopic and selfish ways behind?
I do not pretend to know the answers but I hope we can think about these things. When we talk about wealth, we immediately think of money, cash. That is wrong thinking. Wealth is not money; and until we straighten out our thinking, we can not change our definition of what wealth is.
My aim in this discuss is to stir us into thinking critically about the choices we make, and the options we applaud. If we do not question the way we are now, our society will remain underdeveloped and the generational wealth we talk about will continue to elude us.