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In popular American drama series, ‘Power’, starring James St. Patrick (played by Omari Hardwick) and American rapper 50 Cent, St. Patrick runs a successful nightclub in New York City through which he launders the proceeds of his illegal drug business. Though purely fictional, the plot of this drama series may just be playing out in Nigeria going by investigations being carried out by the country’s National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA).
Obi Cubana, whose real name is Obi Iyiegbu, joined the hospitality business in 2006 with the establishment of Ibiza Lounge in Abuja. He subsequently founded the Cubana Group which included night clubs and hotels spread across about five states in Nigeria.
The opening of Club Cubana along with Joe Nazzal in Lagos – Nigeria’s commercial capital – in 2017 was described as daring because the Lagos nightlife had hitherto been dominated by socialite turned politician, Shina Peller, of Club Quillox. Within months, however, Obi Cubana was able to dominate the nightlife in Lagos.
However, it wasn’t Obi Cubana that was synonymous with the club but his celebrity bartender, Cubana Chief Priest, who had an interesting Instagram profile where he showed off pictures with celebrities and wads of cash, garnering over a million followers in the process.
A funeral like no other
While many Nigerians didn’t know Obi Cubana before 16 July 2021, he found fame nationwide the next day when he threw a lavish funeral for his mother, Ezinne Iyiegbu, in Oba, a small town in Anambra State southeast Nigeria, which like many other towns in Nigeria’s semi-urban areas lack basic infrastructure and good roads. And yet this town attracted some of the most famous entertainers like Davido, Phyno, D’Banj; and influential politicians in the state like Senator Ifeanyi Ubah and Stella Oduah. The funeral had in effect become a carnival.
But the highpoint of the party was not the guests. It was the unprecedented ostentatious display of wealth. Wads of cash were thrown at guests indiscriminately while naira notes were sprayed like confetti. In a video which went viral on social media, wads of N50,000 ($119) are thrown intermittently at Obi Cubana by his friends while he juggles them like a football, dancing to music playing in the background. About 400 cows were said to have been donated by friends.
Obi Cubana’s friends also engaged in a ‘cash fight’ where they threw wads of money at one another. This trended on social media for weeks and glossed the cover pages of all notable newspapers in the country with the caption, ‘naira rain’. Nigerian law forbids the spraying of naira notes although it is hardly ever enforced.
Obi Cubana’s event overshadowed another funeral organised by Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, one of Nigeria’s richest men and co-founder of Nigeria’s biggest lender, Access Bank. Even though dignitaries including former Presidents had attended the funeral of Aig-Imoukhuede’s mother, it was the one organised by Obi Cubana that dominated headlines.
Obi Cubana’s social media following tripled after the ‘funeral of the century’. He was encouraged by many to join politics due to his rising popularity and was even invited as a special guest of honour by the Nigerian Army at a book launch and was named Hospitality Man of the Year by Nigeria’s The SUN Newspaper, reasserting himself as the king of Nigeria’s nightlife.
However, with more fame came more trouble. Some of Nigeria’s most notable columnists criticised the event, tagging it ‘the festival of money’ while some others likened it to the sort of reckless splurging that Scott F. Fitzgerald documented in Jay Gatsby, the main character of his novel The Great Gatsby, who threw parties of extravagance.
They argued that not even Bill Gates would spend his hard-earned money so frivolously. “Even Elon Musk wouldn’t spend money like that,” said Reuben Abati, a former presidential spokesman.
Questions about Cubana’s source of wealth and net worth also dominated headlines. In an interview with BBC, Cubana said he moved to Abuja in 1999 and soon joined the real estate business where he got a contract to furnish houses. The socialite added that he got a contract with the Pipelines and Product Marketing Company and later ventured into the hospitality sector where he has made billions of naira, but Nigerian authorities were not satisfied with his story.
Sources told The Africa Report that Nigeria’s tax authorities began looking into Obi Cubana’s businesses and discovered that his taxes did not reflect his ostentatious lifestyle. Secondly, some of his close friends were under investigation by the authorities for suspicious activities.
“There are others in Obi Cubana’s circle like E-Money who bought two Rolls Royce in one day but his source of wealth is equally questionable. E-Money has been questioned several times by the police,” said a detective.
“One of Obi Cubana’s close friends is Jowi Zaza, named after Joey Zasa, one of the antagonists in The Godfather, Part 3 known for selling drugs. Another of his friends is Escoba Smith. None of them has been indicted, but why are friends in his close circle named after drug dealers?” the investigator asked.
The official said all of Obi Cubana’s bank accounts were looked into and some of the sums of money deposited by known drug dealers were flagged.
“There were many payments made but three are now of interest to us”. One of the persons that paid money into Obi Cubana’s account was convicted in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Many drug cartels from Nigeria operate in Malaysia. Another payment was received from a convict in New Delhi, a city in India which is infamous for drug consumption and being a transit hub of the narcotics trade.
“Another man we arrested at the Lagos international airport and convicted in 2017 also paid money into Obi Cubana’s account. The huge sums of money paid by these people made us believe that Obi Cubana may be a drug kingpin and we are working on this assumption,” said a detective.
The drug enforcement agency has also shared information with the country’s financial intelligence unit, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and INTERPOL due to the international dimension the investigation had taken. At the EFCC, Obi Cubana spent three nights in detention but was later released on bail while investigations continue.
‘I’m not a drug dealer’
The drug enforcement agency has refused to make official statements as the spokesman for the NDLEA, Femi Babafemi, refused to speak with The Africa Report due to the sensitivity of the case “There is no comment for now,” he simply said. The EFCC spokesman, Wilson Uwujaren, only said, “our investigation is still ongoing,” when The Africa Report reached out to him for a comment.
Obi Cubana also did not respond to calls from The Africa Report on Saturday. He, however, took to social media to inform his 2.6 million followers on Instagram that he was not a drug dealer and that he was confident that his name would be cleared.
Narrating his experience with the drug enforcement agency, the club owner told blogger, Daddy Freeze, that he felt so low to be linked to drugs.
“I’ve never felt so low. To me, it is repulsive,” he said.
“I was never linked to anything, but they said somebody paid money into my account and I believe that the agency in question is a very responsible one. I know that at the end of the day, they would make their findings public,” the socialite added.
However, activist Deji Adeyanju, who is the Convener of Concerned Nigerians, believes Obi Cubana put himself in the government’s crosshairs by being too showy.
He said: “I think it has become a witch-hunt. The EFCC is investigating him and now the NDLEA? It is true that Cubana didn’t do well by showing off but I think he has mellowed down. I don’t believe he is into drugs. He is a club owner and the people who spend the most in clubs are drug dealers and Internet fraudsters so the fact that money was found in his account is not enough indictment.
“I also agree that he needs to be careful with the company he keeps. There is a proverb that says ‘show me your friends and I will tell you who you are’. He needs to distance himself from questionable friends.”
With investigations still ongoing, the question on the lips of many Nigerians remains, ‘Is Obi Cubana the king of nightlife or a drug kingpin?”
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