IN MY OWN WORDS BY ‘GBENGA SESAN: A Review by Chude Jideonwo

Like most autobiographical work, ‘Gbenga Sesan begins his third book from the beginning – becoming chairman of his university’s Electronic Club in final year, and getting the opportunity through that to contact the revered ‘father of the Internet’, Philip Emeagwali.

The book’s format is simple: speeches and papers he has delivered, but with an introductory two-pager on where he was at the time in his career or life when the specific paper was written or delivered, giving context and soul to the nuggets he is presenting. Very remarkably, most of the work is as relevant in the contemporary as they were in the years – as far as 7 years ago – that he wrote them.

But ‘Gbenga also has no patience for ceremony, and so from the beginning he begins to outline his world view: right from page 2, he tells you that resource control should not be about the resources beneath the soil, but those above it – “intellectual capital”.

The strength of this book comes from the fact that every principle and every point of view that ‘Gbenga espouses is followed by a practical life experience – in essence, ‘Gbenga stands as the physical proof of all that he has written: giving the book immense authority and credibility. When he says in page 35 that “the boundaries that mark the locations of nations are fast blurring as technological innovations turn the whole into a global village,” it is easy to see it because ‘Gbenga’s life and work have managed to defy space, time or place.

Some weeks ago, this reviewer spoke at a conference where ‘Gbenga was also a speaker, and an offhand statement he made in a question to me was striking. “I am cynical about seminars – I know that is strange for some like me to say,” he confessed, “But sometimes it’s like we keep saying the same old things and there is no new impact.”

Indeed, for the cynical, those whom ‘Gbenga reserves unusual derision towards the end of the book (“the Hopeless” he calls them), a man who has travelled to tens of countries, from Switzerland to Morocco, Sri Lanka to Burkina Faso, Austria to the United States, for assorted seminars and conferences has no moral right to say this, but in this one case, Mr. Sesan can, because the crux of his life’s trajectory has been a transformation from gaining knowledge as Nigeria’s youngest IT ambassador to applying that knowledge practically and sharing it strategically to cause verifiable impact. Ajegunle.org and Paradigm Initiative Nigeria are the most visible examples of these. ‘Gbenga’s work, like his ideas, is consistently outcome oriented.

Following that tradition, “In My Own Words” gives practical, well-researched advice on every single issue that the 32-year-old raises. Indeed, right from the first chapter, he begins to submit his ‘key points’ for how Nigeria can harness its e-commerce potentials on every level – from schools to the organised private sector.

‘Gbenga’s case on the urgency of ICT development in Africa is best presented on page 27: “While it took telephony technology 75 years to reach 50 million users worldwide,” he says, “it has taken the World Wide Web only 4 years to hit the same target.”

However, the author mostly answers his questions by bypassing government, constantly choosing to speak in a global context. When he does speak of the Nigerian government for instance, it is to draw a parallel. But one wonders about how effective the concept of a global village really is in local contexts? There is a loud question about how far international engagement can translate into practical international progress, and one wonders why ‘Gbenga doesn’t dwell more on the problems of corruption, the volatility of African politic systems and the direct link of this sum total to poverty and resultant underdevelopment. Only once did the 32 year old refer to the “ill-equipped, ego-centric leaders” (pg. 108). Still, you might disagree with him, but he yet makes a compelling case.

Constantly also, like with the chapter on the digital divide, ‘Gbenga displays an admirable knack for correctly identifying gaps, analysing them – again crisply – and then suggests solutions. He does the same in identifying why it is in the interest of developed nations to give the developing world a fair chance to participate in the New Economy. “Establishing dynamic e-working relations between developing and developed nations,” he says, “would reduce the expense incurred by developed nations on travel, logistics and training.”

Indeed, it is remarkable what the initial workings of this highly talented yet rookie mind was bale to come up with in 2001, when he was only 24. ‘Gbenga was born, like Chinua Achebe said of another writer, almost ready made. Indeed, one can ask how a 32 year old happens to have penned an autobiography, but Mr. Sesan is not one of those you can define with obsolete standards like age.

One gets a glimpse into the young man’s essence in an anecdote in chapter 3, on ‘The Nigerian Youth’s Dream’, of his very first visit to the Senate Committee on Science and Technology. As everyone assumed he would be nervous and tried to calm him down, ‘Gbenga told himself: “If only they knew ho prepared I was; after many years of experience, addressing imaginary audiences behind closed doors. This is the Senate of the Federal Republic of one nation! I have hardly even started.”

‘Gbenga’s initial life disadvantages colour positively his views and his opinions, leading to a convincing thesis on the problems that hinder the continent’s technology growth. “Technology continues to expand exponentially,” he notes with palpable worry on page 37, “but then these people (poor citizens of developing countries) have no access to the basic tools of this dynamic revolution. Unfortunately (and here he stresses the bottom line), they still have to compete in the same global market as the 3G generation from developed nations.” On page 56, he almost screams with agony: “Some young Africans have never touched a computer!”
What is truly remarkable however is that, many years after writing this, ‘Gbenga kept true to his vision and translated work into action when he established Ajegunle.org, for young people from disadvantaged communities.

Gossip can also be gleaned from the book by those who have always wondered how ‘Gbenga came to be one of the most widely travelled professionals in his generation. It evidently started with a May 2002 presentation at the World Summit on the Information Society, put together by the United Nations. It turns out ‘Gbenga wasn’t always this confident; always having the right words. He reveals instead that he was battling a serious inferiority complex, having to watch and learn the protocols and processes that he now commands with enviable ease.

And for those inevitable few who are quick to put it all to fortune, ‘Gbenga has something in response: “When preparation meets opportunity, what follows may look a lot like luck – it is not.”

He has no patience for young people who refuse to be driven. To those who act like they alone face challenges, he says; “what young people need to understand is that they are not alone in the battle against mediocrity and it is in their best interest to fight”, to those who are waiting for things to get better first, he says; “A baby will never walk on its mother’s back” and for those who will say things like “I have no email address”, he reserves scorn: “You are not a valid citizen of the world we live in today!”

There is a special category though that he calls “The Hopeless”. Rather than divide Nigeria along tribal or class lines, the author thinks Nigeria should in fact be categorised in four ways only: the Relieved, the Hopeless, the Returnee and the Strategically Positioned. Those he calls ‘Hopeless’ are those who only see history as an archive of mistakes and are quick to criticise change agents; calling them unrealistic time wasters. The Strategically Positioned, a group to which ‘Gbenga aligns himself, are the ones that effect change, sticking to what they believe – while the rest of the world tags them lucky, or dismiss them as having friends in high places. Again, ‘Gbenga’s life stands to put a lie to this.

He takes the reader on a journey into the mindset with which he began the climb to the top of the food chain. At the age of 14, he says in the chapter on his IT Youth Ambassadorship Service Report, he began to question his existence; ending up with a promise to himself that his purpose in life wouldn’t end at going to school, getting a job, building a family and dying unsung. Though the process to acclaim would not begin until 8 years later, he decided then, sitting at a church meeting listening to a sermon about the bible’s David, that the search for true meaning lies in serving one’s generation.

How to do this? He again uses his personal example. In Chapter 8, whilst he says that “it is impossible to tell you the one ‘secret’ of my transformation,” in the typical ‘Gbenga-esque way, he still tries to help, eventually sharing what he calls the three circles that should define your work: passion, skills and economic value.
The chapters ‘Where do you Stand?’ and ‘I have No Excuse’ deepen the effect of this message, and are ‘Gbenga at his best; eloquently challenging his generation to get up and do something – and from student level to NYSC level, he practically indicated his suggestions for snapping out of lethargy and defeatism. He asks: beyond complaining, “have you stopped for a second to find a way to stand out of the maddening crowd”? If only 1 in 10 University graduates will get jobs, why haven’t you sought for an alternative? “We have no excuse,” he says, “and we need to keep reminding ourselves of this blunt truth.” Every young person should read these homilies.

In terms of structure, this is a 12 chapter book, broken in the middle by pictures. It has a foreword by Prof. Pat Utomi, the author’s personal mission statement written like a poem and a compelling introduction titled, ‘Why I do What I do’.

Now does this book have any weaknesses? Thankfully, it does, proving that ‘Gbenga is after all human. Some of the titles could have been edited further to become book-friendly, as an autobiographical work should be a flowing narrative: ‘The Nigerian Youths’ Dream’ for instance could have been better and more engagingly constructed by an editor.

Also, like many biographies, the author succumbs to the temptation to give ‘votes of thanks’ at every opportunity, something that really couldn’t be helped since these presentations were made at different times. Still, a creative editor could have found a way around it without watering the work’s integrity. For one, the all too frequent, though deserved, references to Philip Emeagwali, could have been minimised, for their deadening repetitiveness. The creative license to deal with one’s original work is after all a wide one.

Another weakness would be a pervading presence of clichés and platitudes every now and then: forgivable since ‘Gbenga is not primarily a writer. Even then, he understands the problem with these, as he sometimes begins his sentences with “I will not waste my time stating the obvious”, even though he goes ahead and does so. But, as anyone who has dealt with international development agencies will tell you, stating the obvious comes with the job description.

Still, phrases like “most populous black nation”, “there’s no nation that can progress without its youth”, “1 minus 2 is impossible until you know the answer”, “lessons of life”, “today is a snapshot, tomorrow is the full length movie”, “water will find its level” and others will grate the nerves of the anal retentive, no matter how necessary they are.

Fortunately, one notices remarkable improvement in ‘Gbenga’s language as he progresses from paper to paper over the years: and as he finally masters the lingo of civil society, he is able to apply his own unique flair to great effect as the last two chapters show.

Also, whatever points knocked off for predictable language are more than balanced out by the crisp, clear language that he employs. ‘Gbenga’s book says what he means, and at the risk of using a cliché, thankfully also means what it says.

And it all boils down to one question, asked in the last chapter: “can our generation inspire visible and sustainable change through leadership?”

However, one can only see the question as rhetoric; because ‘Gbenga not only answers it “in his own words”, but also with his own life.

On page 64, Mr. Sesan repeats his popular story of the first time he stood to make a comment at a public ICT forum. A man sitting beside him promptly advised him to sit down because, according to him, “young men do not know much more than girls and music”. The continent’s experience has shown clearly though that it is men like that who have kept Africa so far behind in the digital race. It is time for people like ‘Gbenga to take over Nigeria.

Ayo’s Note:
A very objective review of a wonderful book. I guess it is not a question of how relevant this book is. So please visit www.gbengasesanspeaks.com to order a copy.