I was supposedly born as a special child, which symbol in line with Yoruba tradition manifests in my relatively long given names – Shakiru Olabosipo Olajimi Adebisi; so, if only for convenience, I simply go by Jimi Adebisi Lawal. Mum and dad were both from Ijebu Ode, my city of birth and early childhood.
We were not born with the proverbial silver spoon or pampered, but we were a comfortable middle class family. Dad was an educationist, a teacher, lecturer and part of the post-colonial first Grade Two teachers, who also went to the University of Ibadan and became a principal of many colleges. These included the Teachers Training College, Ota and Ago-Iwoye Secondary School.
It was a very strict family upbringing. Dad believed that knowledge is power and so the best thing you could do was to sit down and read your books. He was also not one to spare the rod and spoil the child.
Growing up, I was called “Omo teacher’ or ‘Omo 36’. The origin of the 36 reference was very simple; when you committed an infraction and were brought before Dad, you would almost be sure to receive 36 strokes of the cane in one go from him. And this he would usually do from one spot, and almost without blinking! So, most of the people that Dad taught in the South-West knew him very well; as it was practically impossible to pass through such a disciplinarian and forget about him.
We were also quite a mobile family. As a principal and later an education inspector, Dad would be posted from Oyo to Ogun this week and the other week to Lagos; all being part of the then Western Region. That was the structure of the school system at that time and that was how I grew up.
We were a family of eleven and Dad had three wives which was normal with most well-to-do homes then. And as I was later told, I was supposed to have been the first born child, of my parents. My mother was the first wife and she is eighty-three years now. As the story went, their first son died. And this was in the same day that the second son – my brother, Remi – was born. Dad was very sad over the loss. He was consoled with a dream that the dead son would be replaced with a better one in the near future; which he believed and took to heart.
Eighteen months down the road, I was born. And in line with his belief, I had to be named Olabosipo Olajimi. Abbreviated, some called me Jimi while others preferred Bosipo. I also had nicknames from my classmates – Champion Bosi or Professor. My name has a traditional meaning. It means, “back to prime position”, and I was literally named to compensate for the loss of the first son. So growing up, so much was being expected from me. This explains the toga of being a special child.
There also exists a second memorable complication in that I was born with asthma. Being asthmatic in those days was like living with a death sentence and it used to cost so much money then to raise an asthmatic child. In those days, when the attack came, it would feel like I was going to die. Even the memory of it now still haunts me but I have really been lucky and blessed in life. I had since stopped coughing and I’m now a nature therapist, with no medication whatsoever in over four decades. When I am tired I just go to sleep. I don’t take any medicine whatsoever, be it Aspirin or Panadol. I just sleep and wake up and eat and there is no way I would not go to the gym within every two to three days. But my ease with asthma now is a far-cry from my days growing up. Each time I see those with asthma today having attacks, I therefore empathise with them in a deeper sense, because I had been there.
Looking back, my disability turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Unlike other children, I had to keep to myself and take things easy to reduce the chances of having attacks that would significantly affect me. Out of boredom then, I took to reading and read constantly. So, my being a life-long bookworm is as a result of the fact that I have had no choice other than to read. Till date the habit has struck and I almost cannot do without reading. If you go to my bedroom now, you will find out that there will be at least two books that I am reading at the same time. It is really the source of who I am today.
The same situation was applicable to my Islamic education. The way Quranic learning was carried out was by memorizing and it is more difficult than reading. I was trained in English and I understand the language but nobody y really taught us the Arabic language. We just memorized all the verses of the Quran. Till date, I can remember by heart several of the verses of the Quran because I learnt them. With this background, I find that I can repeat most of what I read as they stay in my memory. For me, it is like opening a page without seeing the page.
My early education was not typical. When I outgrew asthma and had to go to school, a special arrangement had to be put in place for me. Largely then, I was home taught by my teacher-father in my infancy and given the attention he gave to it, I caught up quite fast to the extent that Remi and I took common entrance jointly and on passing, were admitted to start From 1 together at Muslim College, Ijebu-Ode. In our Form 4, Dad had a near fatal accident and was bedridden for months without salary, such that he could not pay our school fees and we were asked to withdraw from school. However, on account of my outstanding academic records, I was allowed to take my school Certificate Examination from Class four, which luckily I passed. The same consideration was unfortunately not extended to Remi, even though he was also brilliant; so I left my elder brother in secondary school.
BANKING FINDS ME
Whilst growing up I had a single-minded ambition of being a banker. You know when a new wife is married into a family in Yorubaland; she is not allowed to call the younger ones in the family by name and uses pet names. It was in this way that the wife of my Uncle nicknamed me ‘Doctor’. But I refused, and told her back then, at age ten, that I was not going to be a doctor, but a bank manager. So, she calls me bank manager until tomorrow.
She asked me why I wanted to be a banker. I then told her about how I had come to like banking through the activities of my trader-grandmother, mama Ode, who was the leader of the market women and fishermen in the community and would usually take me along with her to the bank to make her deposits. I was attracted to the profession by the tie and neat appearance of bank managers.
BARCLAYS BANK DAYS
My journey to getting into my dream career happened just like that. I had taken my visiting Uncle to the 40 Marina, Lagos head office of Barclays Bank for him to write an employment test and shortly after we got there, one of the invigilators suddenly asked all the candidates to get seated to begin the test. At this point, I made to go out, but he stopped me and after confirming that I had sat for the school certificate exams stated that if I did not mind, I could also sit in and write the test; that there was no harm in trying! I did and when then scripts were graded, I had emerged as one of the top three best performers! It was such a dramatic turn of events that I remember being taken before the British staff Manager, Ron Dietritch, who quizzed me some more, and upon his being satisfied, asked that I return on Monday for my letter. I had been offered a job!
On getting home, my Dad asked me if all had gone well with my escort duties and I answered in the affirmative, adding that I had also gotten a job from the bank in the process. He laughed and thought I was joking. But when it later transpired that I was not, he still would not approve for me to take up the job as I was required to further my studies. So, I had to beg and cry for days before Dad relented.
My subsequent career rise was also meteoric as I was the regular beneficiary of promotions, bonuses and salary increases. But having my sights on something more, I knew I had to get a higher education. When I told Dietritch, who had also become my branch manager of my further education plans, he seemed upset and he asked me to go and bring my Dad. When Dad came with me, I was shocked by the tone their exchange. “That’s a very prized son you have there; please do everything to help him fulfill all of his goals. I will also be available to helpout as much as I can.” Rather than a rebuke, I was getting a commendation and expressions of even further support he had pledged.
On completion of my preliminary studies and the professional examinations at the City Banking College and the South West College, Dietritch sent me word that Union Bank, the successor to Barclays Bank in Nigeria after the 1977 indigenization processes, was coming to set up shop in London and encouraged me to apply. I did and began work there as one of the pioneer staff of the Union Bank, London Branch.
ONE GOOD TURN……….
One of my more remarkable reminiscences of my day with Union Bank, London was on the day I met the then Colonel Ibrahim Babangida in 1983. He had walked into the branch to process a draft but was not being paid because the foreign exchange cover had not been received from Nigeria where the transaction was originated.
When the issue was brought to my notice, I reviewed the facts of the matter and concluded that he should be paid. When he found out how the headache had been cleared, he requested to see me. He asked why I had taken the decision to pay him and I explained that I was professionally satisfied. Besides, it was also, I told him, not very likely that an officer of his rank and standing, who was still in the service of the Nigerian Army, would travel all of those miles to come and play games in London. He was impressed and reached out to give me some money but I turned it down. He then gave me his card with a blanket invitation to call upon him anytime I was in Nigeria.
A couple of years later in 1985, I read from our regular supply of Nigerian newspapers that there had been a coup in Nigeria and the new military President was the same Ibrahim Babangida that had given me that invitation. So, I renewed the acquaintance by sending him a letter of congratulations; to which he responded promptly with a renewed invitation.
On getting to Dodan Barracks, my name was at the security gate and I was ushered in to see the President. Babangida welcomed me warmly and after pleasantries asked about my future plans. I told him I was interested in getting a banking license. He responded, “From what I already know about you, you will surely do well in banking. Go and talk to my Finance minister.” President Babangida was truly charming.
I met Dr. Chu Okongwu who was the Minister of Finance then; we talked and the process was underway.
SETTING UP ALPHA MERCHANT BANK
While President Ibrahim Babangida had given his blanket support for the project, there were however nuts and bolts issues to work out.
One of these had to do with getting reputable shareholders, at least twenty, given the restriction of five percent per investor and then raising the statutory minimum share capital of N5 Million – about five million US dollars. We then had to file a formal application with the Central Bank and fulfill all the stipulated conditions.
I went to all the people I could reach to interest them in the project. Obasanjo gave his word to come on board and did in fact effected payment of the initial deposit ofN50,000 each for himself and Dr. Soleye. Babangida would not consent to being involved at this time because of his position. A prominent businessman, Lord Chief Ifegwu was a most generous supporter and there was also another investor, Chief Micheal Omisade, who I was favourably disposed at this time, to his serving as Chairman; but on hearing this, Obasanjo backed off and requested his money back. He was adamant and all my appeals and those of my father-in-law who facilitated the introduction fell on deaf ears. It was him or Omisade. Even Chief Omisade offered to apologise for having wronged him in the past but Obasanjo bluntly refused. So, I had to choose and decided to go on the basis of first-come, first-served. Of course, I was upset over this development but with the benefit of hindsight, I ought to have thought more deeply about it then.
At the subsequent, meeting of shareholders, we were however still having something like a 20 percent equity shortfall to be raised; which made the loss of ten percent from Obasanjo and Soleye even more frustrating. But I had to stick to principle. At this point, the protem Chairman, Chief Omisade requested for a private audience with Ifegwu. He requested Ifegwu to loan him personally the sum required to pay for the outstanding shares, pledging his house in Victoria Island – the venue of the meeting as collateral.
Rather than agree to this arrangement, Ifegwu returned to the meeting, agreed to give an advance for the shortfall for those that had not paid but then turned to me, requesting that I give him there and then a written undertaking that I, as the chief promoter and originator of the project would pay him back the said sum in future or in the event of a default, the shares would then revert to his nominees in lieu. Everyone was grateful and I was particularly touched and humbled, but Omisade expressed disappointment that Ifegwu turned him down for me.
OMISADE AND THE TROUBLES AT ALPHA MERCHANT BANK.
I chose to be an executive Director on account of age in spite of being the chief promoter and we had hired Macaulay Iyayi as the MD. The bank opened its doors for business on 6th June, 1988 and within three months had not only broken even but also posted a respectable profit. It was an industry record.
Shortly after the good fortunes of the bank had been announced at board meeting, Omisade called me and asked that I arrange a loan in his favour to the tune of $2 million. It was an off-the-hook request and he was not willing to provide any collateral or pass it through the regular mill. I objected and he instantly threatened to get me out of the bank.
The first thing he did was to engineer my dismissal and arrest over the fact that I had not participated in the National Youth Service Scheme. Of course, I had not because I had only returned straight from the UK to start the bank.
I reported the matter to Babangida who sent me to the NYSC Director, Col. Braimah. On getting to Braimah, I gave him the full picture and he stated that my options were between serving and being exempted. At this time, I was still under thirty and so could not lawfully be exempted. I therefore opted to serve. I wrote an application to serve on the spot and he immediately posted me to serve at Alpha Merchant Bank. One day, I was an Executive Director at my own bank; one of Nigeria’s fastest growing and the other I was a Youth Corp member at the bank, earning a paltry N200 per month in line with the usual allowance for other Youth Corp members. But Omisade would not be pacified.
Things got to a head and the issue had to be taken to the board to decide between Omisade and me. After an extensive deliberation and having heard from both sides, a vote was taken and by a margin of six to one (with Omisade’s vote being the only one in his favour), the directors affirmed their belief in me and refused to work with Chief Omisade, so he was removed as the chairman.
We subsequently called an extraordinary general meeting of the shareholders who also voted by a margin of ninety–four to six percent to remove him as a director. The six percent he got were the five percent shares He owned and the one percent by a lawyer in his chamber. Otherwise, all the shareholders as with the directors supported me.
You would recall that initially Omisade had wanted to get the twenty percent extra shares which Lord Chief Ifegwu had then paid for. It was then that I realized the value of Lord Chief Ifegwu’s standing by me and saying that he would rather give the loan to the promoters for us to get the licence in return for those shares in the event of a default. If those shares had gone to Omisade the bank would have been more or less destroyed.
Although Omisade had lost his place on the board as chairman and also with the shareholders in his futile bid to remain as a director, he did not give up. He went to court and also went public, making all kinds of wild allegations against me.
He wrote petitions to the State Security Service, the CBN and the Ministry of Finance, alleging that in addition to my not having National Youth Service certificate, that I had dropped out of Muslim College. For the latter charge, he had gotten a letter from Muslim College on this, which of course is the true position. But then, why did I compulsory need to go to class five when I had passed my school certificate in class four?
He also went to Union Bank of Nigeria, London where I had at a point quarreled with the manager, Mr. Jeffrey Efeyini over some infraction he had committed but would not own up to after I confronted him with the facts. Rather than do that, Efeyini had taken to transferring me around departments until I got fed up and resigned.
Omisade was now alleging that I had put in my resume that was sent to the CBN that I was a departmental manager at Union Bank, London. Of course he knew what had happened between Efeyini and me. So, Efeyini also wrote, saying that I was just his supervisor, not departmental manager. With those two letters and the fact that I didn’t initially honour my youth service obligation, he went to court and got an injunction against me, that I should not be allowed to lead the bank, that I had bribed everybody and that was why the Director of the National Youth Service Corps, Col. Braimah, had posted me to eventually go and serve in my own bank.
He was doing all of these because he wanted me out of the bank, but he couldn’t get me out. So, he went to court and got an injunction against me. For the first couple of months, the judge was adjourning the case. Like I said before, I have been very lucky. The lawyer that I got was pro bono. He is Chief Frank Akerele who was our landlord when Alpha stated trading at Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, Lagos. The old man liked me so much and when he got to know about my troubles with Omisade, said, “Jimi, you could have been Demola (Demola is his first son and we were close friends). There is no way I will allowed anybody to cheat you. Omisade is a thug, he is my age mate but I won’t allow it to happen.” The old man went to court on my behalf, free of charge.
So, after the judge had adjourned the case a couple of times, Akerele wrote a personal letter to the judge and said, “Listen, all I want is for you to just listen to the other side of the case. This young man called Jimi Lawal is one of the best brains I have met in my life. Just hear him out, if after you have heard him out and you believe Omisade, fine. But I am taking on this case, not because of money, but because I believe the young man is being cheated and it’s not in our interest to allow it to happen.”
The judge then agreed to hear us and Chief Akerele took the podium. He said,
“My lord, I just want say three things to you if Jimi lawal was your son, you would be more than proud of him. The way the plaintiff, Chief Micheal Omisade – who is my colleague in the legal profession, who I have respect for, but on this occasion, I don’t think he has come to you with the truth of the position-is carrying on a simply not fair. He who seeks equity must come with clean hands. Omisade has not come with clean hands.”
‘I will give you just three examples my Lord. First, Omisade wrote to say that Jimi Lawal is not qualified to be Executive Director of a Bank on the grounds that he stated. But my Lord, look at this letter.”
At this point he brought out the letter of recommendation sent on my behalf to the CBN for them to exempt me from the age limit of thirty-five years as well as the requisite twelve years’ experience in the banking sector and it has been writing by Omisade! I had even forgotten about this. But Chief Akerele found the document during the investigation and now tendered it in court. The judge then cut in to ask Omisade whether he indeed wrote that and he said yes, but that he did so when all of the facts were unbeknown to him then.
The second point had to do with a handwritten note that Omisade had written. This was on a day in August of 1988 when we broke even just after a few months of commencing operations and at the board meeting, he wrote me a note, affirming that I was ‘a whizkid, a genius,’ and that he was indeed ‘very proud’ of me.
So, again, Akerele tendered it and said, “If you didn’t know in 1988, after the bank started trading and you had seen Jimi’s performance, you then wrote this, so what happened?” He couldn’t talk, he had no words.
Akerele dug in. “So, at that time, you had seen him in action, he had run the bank for a few months and you wrote this to him. Why is it that now in September/October because you were removed from the board, you are now denying your own testimony? The judge was at this time shaking his head, but Akerele even had more ammunition.
“My lord, that’s not all. The third reason my lord is that Chief Omisade when he came to you and got this exparte injunction against Jimi Lawal said to you that he was giving an undertaking for damages, that he would post a bond for half a million naira to the court. But my lord, up until this morning, that I checked with the registrar of courts, no bond has been posted and no such undertaking has been written which means that this injunction was procured by fraud. So without even going to the issue of whether or not Jimi Lawal did not go to class five or stole two million dollars as he initially alleged or he did not do his youth service, this injunction should be vacated because this man has not come to equity with clean hands. We can then go to trial to determine the other facts he has stated, but for the three reasons I gave, I believe each of them is enough to vacate the injunction. First, he recommended the same man he was coming out to say no to, and his answer is that it was because he didn’t know him then. Second, even after he got to know him and the bank did so well, he wrote another statement of applause to him. And third, when he came to court to ask for injunction, the assurance he gave to the court to obtain it, he did not meet. So, why are we continuing to sustain the injunction, my Lord?”
The judge then asked Omisade what he would say in the points raised. He said, ‘em…em…’ The judge said “Ok, the court will adjourn for one hour.” He came back in thirty-five minutes with an order reversing himself and apologizing to me. The injunction was lifted. I almost cried in court that day. Again, I was not thirty when I went through that. It was in open court and the judge was saying that he was sorry and that he believed my lawyer, that the injunction was not fair, that I should go back to the office, and the trial should continue.
IN ALIYU GUSAU’S COURT
Omisade now petitioned the intelligence services. Thus I was summoned by the head of the service, Brigadier Aliyu Gusau. I met him and they proceeded to investigate the matter. They sent someone to Muslim College and someone else to London. When they all came back and reported to their boss, he then called Omisade and I to his office. So, we went to his office in Ikoyi, Lagos and we all sat down along with two of his officers. Then, he said, ‘Chief, you wrote this petition that Jimi Lawal stole two million dollars from the Dutch auction and took the money to London, but we have investigated and it is not true. You said he had no certificate; that he dropped out of class four? It is true he did not go to class five, but he passed his exam in class four and we have the certified result here. And number three, you said he didn’t do youth service, but he has been posted to his bank; he applied and got the posting, so what’s the problem?’
Omisade responded, ‘Ah! Jimi Lawal has done it again; he has done it again. The young man knows how to use money. Even here where I thought in the intelligence service he would not be able to do it, he has done it again…’
I had never seen such anger in my life. Aliyu Gusau lifted his desk and said, “Omisade, I will lock you up, you will never see the sun for the rest of your life. You are accusing me of being bribed, of being compromised by this young man who is not older than your son and my own son? Take that bugger and lock him up, take him in, lock him up!” At this point, Omisade started begging. “Oh! I’m sorry sir, I didn’t mean that sir, I mean, maybe your boys…”
That even incensed Gusau even further, “Hold it there! What did you just say? By accusing my men, you are accusing me, I am in charge of this investigation and even the president will never say that to me; lock him up!”
Omisade continued begging as he was being bundled away and I instinctively joined in the begging before remembering that he wanted me destroyed, if not dead. It took a while for Gusau to relent before we returned to our seats. We concluded with Omisade being cautioned to allow peace to reign and not destroy the new bank. Till tomorrow, General Gusau and I have remained close. If I call him, wherever he is in the world, he would be so happy to hear from me. If he is asleep, he will take my call or call me back thereafter.
Indeed, in a rather paradoxical way, Omisade did me a big favour by making all those wild allegations against me. Through the wild allegations and my high exposure to what I call ‘my baptism of fire,’ I got refined and also made life-long friends. So, in the course of the Omisade persecution, those who actually got to know me got to like me even the more.
AWUJALE STEPS IN
The dispute went on for a while more until Kabiyesi, the Awujale summoned us. At the meeting, Kabiyesi told him, “You know Jimi is my son, by fighting him you are fighting me. What has he done to you?” So, he told Kabiyesi all that had happened, but conveniently failed to add that he had asked me for money and I said no. When Kabiyesi asked him about that, he said, “Sir, even if I asked him, what is that? It’s just people who wrote petitions against him, that was my concern.” Kabiyesi told him, “Chief, like I said, by fighting Jimi you are fighting me, now do you want to withdraw all these cases and find a way to work together?” He said yes, that he would go and think about it and come back the following week, but he never returned. Kabiyesi subsequently sent him a message saying, “You are fighting me by fighting Jimi and if I got onto this ancestral throne of mine by right and if Jimi had done you no wrong, we will both survive you.”
The case continued. By August 1989 when I finished my youth service, he had lost the substantive case and filed another one and eventually by the time I returned to the board of the bank in September 1989, Macaulay Iyayi had done some very dodgy stuff. He didn’t steal money, but he had granted bad loans that put the bank more or less in near-distress. So, not quite two months after I got back – this was in November 1989 – the board got so upset with Macaulay after a report of what had happened in the bank, that five of the directors said they wanted Macaulay to go and that I should become the MD.
I refused. But when they put so much pressure on me, I had no choice. So, from being an ED that was hunted, and then a youth corp member; within two to three months of my getting back, I became the MD of the bank in late 1989.
HID AWOLOWO TAKES ON OMISADE
Then Chief Mrs. HID Awolowo, Mama as we called her, sent for me and I went to see her. I did not know if it was Kabiyesi or someone else that had spoken to her about my long-running battle with Omisade, but that was the reason for her inviting me.
When I got there she said, “Jimi, who will not be proud of you as a son? I am not going to allow Omisade to destroy you the way he tried to destroy my husband.” She never told the entire story behind the treasonable felony trial and how chief Awolowo got convicted but apparently, she hinted as much that Omisade was one of the moles used to rope in the sage. Again she told me about how Omisade had insisted on contesting against Bola Ige in Oyo State and how that almost destroyed the party when Awolowo stood his ground that serving governors be allowed to fly the UPN flag, uncontested for a second term during the 1983 election. So, Mama said that I should please give her the honor of intervening in the matter.
I replied that I could not refuse and told her how Kabiyesi, the Awujale, had mediated between us but that Omisade did not show up for the follow-up meeting but she said not to worry that I should leave that to her to address.
She subsequently called us and we went for the meeting. There, Omisade stated his own side of the story and then Mama asked me what the issue was. In my response I told her that the issue was that Chief was lying because he would not admit that the real cause of the problem was that he had asked me for two million dollars which I would not give him.
“How can you say that?’’ Mama cuts in, lashing at me. “You came from a decent home; you are well brought up, how can you say that the old man is lying? You shouldn’t say that.” I replied, “Ok, I am sorry Ma.” At this point, Chief took up the matter. “You see it? You see the kind of boy he is? He has got a big head because…”
Mama now descended on Omisade. “Chief, please, you better stop your own. I have corrected him because I want him to be respectful, but you are a dangerous man. From what I have heard now, I will curse you and fight with you to heaven. I will go naked in the market because of you. This matter must be settled. I will not allow you to destroy Jimi and Alpha Merchant Bank. This young man is a credit to Yorubaland. I will fight you the way Papa was not able to fight you. Anything I know about you, I will use it to fight you.”
Omisade, now seriously shaken, asked what she wanted him to do. Mama said, “You should withdraw all your case and make up with Jimi. I have corrected Jimi where he is wrong. But I have seen that you are lying. I have also heard that Awujale had called you and Jimi to make peace but you didn’t agree. From this moment, if you fight Jimi, I will mobilise the whole of Yorubaland against you.”
He then started saying, “em….. Mama, but you are not being fair. You didn’t ask what I want.” She said, “Okay, what do you want?” His response was telling. “Jimi has humiliated me, I want to go back to the board of the bank. We started the bank together. I want to be back in the bank as chairman and then we can have peace.”
Mama said, “Jimi what do you say to this?” I said, “Ma, I will not lie to you I can get him back as a director, but somebody is already chairman and that person ought to finish serving his term. Chief Omisade is a Yoruba man, I am a Yoruba man and the chairman is Igbo; I will not remove an Igbo and replace him with a Yoruba.”
Omisade refused to be persuaded on this. But Mama said, “Chief, Jimi is making sense to me. He didn’t say he would not bring you back as director. He could have said he can’t do it. But he has said he will convince shareholders to vote for you as a director. But he will not remove an Igbo chairman for you, and I think he is a very wise young man. If it is another Yoruba man, he can ask him to step down for you, but an Igbo person, let the man finish serving his term.” She now turned to me, “Jimi, how many years?” I said, “Four years, ma.” So, when the man finish serving from 1989 to 1993, he can come back.” So, he agreed.
On the way back to Lagos, Chief called me aside and asked if we could meet later in the evening, strictly one-on-one at a location of my choice, as he was anxious for the settlement that had been brokered to endure. I promptly agreed and offer to meet with him in his house in Victoria Island. He was surprised that despite the bitterness and enmity between us, I was willing to come to his house. He emphasized that I came alone and we agreed to meet at 8pm.
I showed up as appointed and Chief ushered me into his office in the back of the main house where we exchanged pleasantries. He proceeded to bring out copies of the Bible and Qur’an from one of his drawers and asked me to choose which I would like to swear by as he was aware that I was comfortable in church in spite of being a Muslim. I chose the Qur’an but asked to know what the subject of attestation would be before agreeing to swear as requested. He then informed me that he needed me to swear that I would stop ‘washing my head with blood’ every morning as he had been reliably informed by more than two sources. I instantaneously return the Qur’an to him and made it clear that there was no way I would stop the practice because it was a means of protecting and strengthening me rather than it being done to harm him or anyone else for that matter.
Chief protested vehemently and asked how I got my supply of blood to which I responded that it was from my mother. He was agitated and enquired further as to how my mum was able to sustain the supply. I answered that she had assured me it was saved during childbirth; and I never asked why it hadn’t ran out as I only used a drop at a time; and it also explained why my head is usually clean-shaven. Chief, there and then, conferred a nickname on me as “eni ti a pa ti o ku”; “the person that we killed but refuse to die.” In closing, I reaffirmed the assurance that the practice was not meant to harm him and I was willing to swear on that consequent upon which we parted on that note.
We revived Alpha, and it started growing. I was on top of the world again. I was shaken but restored back and in a better position as MD of the bank. We started building a five star hotel in Victoria Island called Alpha Sofitel Hotel. Then we were also working on building a befitting head office for the bank, just after I got back.
We had recruited a legal adviser, a young man called Aminu Dikko. He was an assistant manager in Savannah Bank. The post of a legal adviser for the bank was supposed to have been a GM level appointment, but because he was so young, and indeed younger than me, and an assistant manager, we brought him to the bank as a deputy manager and every year he got promoted. He came to me in 1989 after I got back, and said, “Sir, this head office we are trying to build, I know a firm of quantity surveyors – El Rufai and Partners. My brother’s friend and partner is the managing partner and he is a young man called Nasir El- Rufai, you will like him. Please give them a chance to bid for the job.”
I replied, “no problem, bring them. Get El-Rufai and Partner to apply.” That’s how I met Nasir El-Rufai, when he came to bid for the job. I looked at his submission and it was by far the best. We invited them for an interview and I met a man that is smarter than me. People say I am smart, but he is smarter. But since that 1989 meeting we have been very close. He came to apply for his firm to be the quantity surveyor to do the bank’s head office, but was so good that I asked him to join us as a staff and partner in our real estate development company.
At this time I was also making money with my properties in the UK. I also had other properties in Nigeria apart from those of Alpha Merchant Bank. So, I said please join me in Alpha Properties as GM; come and run the property company for us. He replied that his family was in Kaduna. But I told him that it didn’t matter. I persuaded him and he joined. Since then, we have been like brothers and we have been through ups and downs together. I thank God for His mercies.
So, by 1989, I was back in the bank as MD, Omisade had gone to withdraw all the cases we had settled. We convened a shareholders meeting and he was restored to the board as a director, but not chairman. Alpha was peaceful and we were making progress and money, without problems.
We then went after Afribank. Because we were a merchant bank, the lesson to be learnt from what Macaulay had done with the bank being illiquid with bad debt was that you had to find ways of continually raising deposits. Merchant banks were restricted to taking hot money from the interbank market as deposits. We didn’t have the branch network for current account operations, what we call checking accounts where people leave free money. That is the secret of banking success and we didn’t have it. The moment it became clear to me, I decided we should go after a commercial bank.
Ordinarily, what people do here was to get a second license. Mike Adenuga, for example, had Devcom Bank and Equatorial Trust Bank. But I refused to go that way. As luck would have it, whilst we were carrying out the Alpha Sofitel Hotel’s site development in Victoria Island, the Managing Director of Accor Afrique informed me that the French conglomerate – Banque National de Paris had resolved to sell their controlling interest in Banque Internationale pour l’Afrique Occidental (BIAO) that was the predecessor of Afribank.
They were divesting their equity interest in all the countries they were in to, so their shares were up for grabs here in Nigeria. We went after the acquisition with vigour in 1990. Before going too far, I went and met with President Babangida and thanked him for his role in the progress Alpha Merchant Bank had made so far and told him that we need a commercial bank, but that rather than taking a second license I would prefer to acquire Afribank as it is available. He said, “why not? Go and see the Finance Minister and Abdulkadir Ahmed, Governor of the Central Bank and carry them along.”
The Finance Minister at the moment was Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji. Dr. Okongwu had been moved to National Planning and I wished it was still him in the saddle there because Alhaji Alhaji or Triple A as he was more fondly called, took longer than necessary to grant us a formal approval in spite of having complied with all the requirements. He never asked us for bribe but just said, “Jimi, I know you are a good man. I am told that anything I want you will give me. I will work for you to make sure you get this bank.” He went into alliance with us, we eventually got the approval and were making even more progress.
On getting the approval of the Minister of Finance, we bought the shares and at the point of taking over, the Governor of the CBN received fresh petitions which I later discovered were being engineered from Omisade’s house. This was in 1993, and some two years into the purchase.
Instructively, when we went for the bid, the then Chief of Army staff, General Sani Abacha, had a finance company, which also bid alongside us. But we won the bid on merit and we actually proceeded to appoint two directors into the board of Afribank.
At the same time that we bought the forty-five percent shares from BIAO, Afribank was also being privatized locally. Taking advantage of this, Lord Chief Ifegwu, other friends and I also bought some more naira shares during the privatization exercise. At the end, between us and Alpha, we had over sixty percent control of Afribank. Effectively it had become a subsidiary of Alpha but, we had not gotten the final consent of CBN when we had our AGM in April 1993. It was like yesterday as it remains fresh in my mind; the event was at the Transcorp Hilton, Abuja and the place was packed.
Before then, in 1992 or early 1993, Alpha had gone public and we became the first merchant bank to be publicly quoted in the Nigeria Stock Exchange. During that listing, our shares were over-subscribed by three times! We were building our head office, acquiring Afribank and the sky was the limit. The wizkid was back full time.
With Omisade’s continuing efforts to undermine our progress however, we were not at this point very keen to push for his reinstatement as Chairman. When shareholders asked me who I wanted as the new chairman my answer was “we have had a Yoruba even if he was removed, we have had an Igbo, let’s go for a Hausa person.” So, the following day we had an election and overwhelmingly, we voted for Dr. Audu Abashiya. So, Omisade lost and became even more vicious. Perhaps I should have kept my side of the bargain with Mama, even though he did not keep his!
I was taking the OPM programme in Harvard then and was in my second year. I remembered that after the AGM I took off to Boston, Harvard, to return in May. By the time I returned, Omisade had written a petition again to the same places; The CBN, Ministry of Finance and SSS. He claimed that the shares we had acquired in Afribank were without board approval and it was all Alpha’s money that was stolen. It was a total of sixteen million dollars that we had used to buy the shares. Five million dollars came from Alpha and was guaranteed by Lord Chief plus his own investment of three million dollars; two million dollars from me, which I borrowed from Barclays Bank in London. We borrowed another six million dollars from Barclays. The sources of the funds turned out to be a life saver for me as we would later see.
In their response to Omisade’s petition, the CBN came and said they didn’t know who to believe. They however made the point that if Omisade was right then it means that the board which he was part of had been negligent, so the whole board should go whilst they investigate freely. He didn’t want that and went to court once again.
Unfortunately for us, this was happening at the same time of the June 12, 1993 electoral annulment. There was a huge confusion in the country, Babangida could not sleep, I could not sleep and the country was upside-down.
I remember then that I was trying to fly from Lagos to Abuja and protesters and ‘area boys’ were blocking the roads. Very few people could move about in Lagos as it was so bad, but because of my determination I was able to get through.
I got to the airport, flew to Abuja and booked an appointment to see the president. For the first time, it took me two days to see him. I didn’t go to Abuja with a change of clothes. I wanted to fly in and fly back to Lagos, but there was so much tension in the country that I couldn’t sleep for two days. Eventually I got to see him and said, “Sir I have a problem, you also have a problem and the country has a problem, I am more concerned about Nigeria and you.” I continued, “unless you reverse the annulment, you would go down on the wrong side of history. I know you to be a good man, but we all make mistakes, I don’t want your mistakes to be what will define you as a human being. I don’t want that for you sir, please “de-annul” the annulment.”
We had just gone through a very free and fair election and it was not a good way to conclude the process. By the way, I was very close to Chief MKO Abiola, who was the clear winner of the polls. Not only that, Chief Abiola had promised to make me the Minister of Finance but I didn’t go to Abuja because of that, I went because it was not in Babangida’s interest to not make amends at this time. When he responded, he said, “Jimi, your words have always been very powerful to me, how do I do it? We have convinced our colleagues in the military that we are not going back.” I replied, “Sir, a man, given new information changes his mind. A wise general knows when to retreat, a foolish one fights to finish. I want you alive sir, and write your own history, I don’t want history to be written against you.”
His brother, Alhaji Mustapha Wushishi, his only half brother, later came over to see me as I was still in Abuja and couldn’t indeed go back until the third day. He said, “Jimi, what did you say to my brother that he has now summoned a meeting of the Armed Forces Ruling Council?” I said it was because I wouldn’t want him to end up on the wrong side of history. Before then, Alhaji Mustapha had bought shares in Alpha when we went public. Therefore, I had become even closer to the family.
So, because of the confusion in the country in June, we never got our bank back, the same way we never got Nigeria for many years to come. Finally IBB had a meeting with the Military Council, but failed to persuade them to “de-annul” the elections. He then stepped aside, leaving former UAC Chairman, Earnest Shonekan to head a short-lived Interim National Government, ING. This did not last as the Army Chief, General Sani Abacha soon took over power for himself.
ABACHA COMES AFTER ME
Following Abacha’s ascension into power, among other scorched earth battles that he fought, he was to wage a vicious war against bank chiefs under the aegis of the Failed Banks Tribunal. For us in particular however, the issue of his firm’s loss to Alpha in the bid to buy controlling shares in Afribank was reopened. Abacha still wanted the bank and I was a stumbling block. He came after me and would almost have cut short my life had it not been for the feelers on this that the Awujale had received and passed on to me, advising an urgent flight to safety abroad. When I got to the airport to board a flight for this purpose, a very close acquaintance within the aviation sector who saw me approaching and had only moments ago seen Abacha’s goons come to instruct that I must not be allowed to travel out of the country but that their attention should rather be called if I attempted to do so, ran down to meet me at the parking lot. After herding me back into the car, he explained the situation and urged me to scram. I did.
I decided to leave Nigeria immediately by road and that night headed for the Seme border. As we got close, panic returned to my heart; what if Abacha’s goons had also gotten here ahead of me? But providence had an answer. It suddenly started raining very heavily, such that when we got to the border all the posts had been abandoned and the officers had gone to seek shelter. We drove past and out of the country.
I was still in exile for the whole of the Abacha years and even that, his son Ibrahim had come over and tried to get me to sign away the Afribank shares to them for $5m. When that failed, they now proceeded to push harder with the ‘failed banks’ military tribunal processes and had me tried in absentia. Predictably, the regime secured a kangaroo conviction and proceeded to issue duplicate shares with which they now forcibly took over the investment in Afribank.
My erstwhile major investor partner in Alpha – -Lord Chief Ifegwu also put considerable pressure on me to deny the bank’s interest in Afribank in return for also $5 million, which I again refused; in spite of being threatened and being desperately broke. A copy of the written offer from Ifegwu’s solitcitors is attached, marked Appendix 14.
Subsequently, one of my uncles, Professor Adesanya, who also happens to be the lawyer who handled the settlement over the Afribank case, filed a suit for me to appeal the conviction while I was still in exile, and he built the case around two very simple legal principles. The first was that the decree of Abacha was backdated to an act that was not a crime when it was done. It wasn’t a crime to have taken a loan on the directive of the bank. He (Abacha) now promulgated a decree to backdate the effectiveness. In criminology, it’s a violation of human right. The second ground was that, I was not given a chance to defend myself. You could have a charge filed in court against me but you must wait for me or arrest me and bring me to face the charge. The case went up to the Supreme Court and the prosecutor lost, so I became a free man without paying a penny.
When the bank was eventually restored to the original owners, I got all the pounds and dollars I can imagine in my life without lifting a finger. But I had suffered. The settlement was effected in June 2003. From June 1993 when the Omisade/Abacha onslaught began, it was exactly ten years of my having been robbed. So, God decreed my life the way he wanted it to happen, from excelling in life, setting up a bank, closing the bank, being broke and now getting the money back. Most importantly also, I was now very free to return home and walk the streets unmolested even as closure had been brought on a very significant decade of stress for me.
Following our victory in the courts, El-Rufai whom I had advised pro bono when he had served as Director general of the Bureau for Public Enterprises, BPE was seriously instrumental in bringing the deeper facts of the Alpha/Afribank crisis to President Obasanjo’s attention, which enabled him take executive action facilitating the reversal of the injustice done to us by Abacha. When Obasanjo got to know the full extent of what Abacha had done, he was so taken aback that he promptly signed off on it for the shares to be sold to the public.
One other reason why El-Rufai and the National council on Privatization were interested in the resolution of the crisis was because they also wanted to bring closure to the Afribank ownership crisis so that they could go on with the government’s plan to fully divest its holdings in the bank. Along this line El-Rufai met with the various interested parties that had been contesting the ownership of the disputed 375 million shares representing 33.96 percent of the paid up capital of Afribank Nigeria Plc. This was in order to ascertain the true ownership of the shares before they could be out up for sale under the privatization programme of the Federal Government.
El-Rufai and his team met with a few of us officially on this matter, including in the course of a visit to Paris, France, that also involved meetings with the liquidator of the original owner of the shares, Banque International pour l’Afrique occidental (BIAO), and a lawyer representing Lord Chief Ifegwu.
At the end, we got back about $33.5 million from our initial $16 million invested. It came to a 105 percent return, thus our money was more than doubled! Alpha Merchant bank also got back about $10.1 million, in return for investing just over $5 million; Lord Chief Ifegwu got back the most, I got back about just over three million dollars. We paid off the Barclays loan and I was like a baby, free and content with real cash in the bank.
When my share of the money hit my personal account, I remember, for the first ninety days or so, I didn’t touch the money. I would wake up at night and call the automated banking services and listen just to hear the balance in my account. ‘The balance on your account was two million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-eight dollars, fifty two cents.” Bank Managers were calling me, how can you leave this kind of money in your current account? Let’s invest it for you. I was not going to invest that money, I just left it there. For ninety days, I was just waking up and thanking God.
Before I returned fully to Nigeria, El-Rufai had now been offered the position of FCT minister. He came to me in London and said, ‘I know that you can now go to Barbados and lie over in the beach for the rest of your life but I can’t do this FCT job successfully without you. I need your brain, I need your support,’ He continued:
Obasanjo gave me this job because two ministers had failed him, we can’t afford to fail. ‘I can advise you from here,’ but he would not agree. ‘No, you cannot advise me from here this time around, it’s not possible. You could advise me from here on BPE but on this one, I am running the federal capital not selling parastatals. I am running a ‘state.’ Everybody sees Abuja, everybody comes to Abuja, I need you here.
I gave in but said it would be on two conditions. ‘I won’t take any penny and no formal title.’ I will just do any special assignment you want me to do. He consented. So, I moved back to Nigeria in late 2003, after I had made some more investments in the UK. I joined him in the FCT and we initiated a couple of major projects that I won’t forget in my life. For example, what is now known as the Abuja technology Village (ATV), including the African University of Science and Technology (AUST), was started by us. I wrote the business plan, Mallam took it to the cabinet and when it was approved by the Federal executive Council (FEC), we started the ATV. Secondly, I chaired the sale of federal government houses in Abuja, where we sold about 32,000 housing units and got back about N32 billion. The sale was successful largely because we got the Federal Mortgage Bank to issue the first mortgage backed bonds of N100 billion to provide loans at single digit interest rate for the buyers.
Meanwhile, NDIC had since declared and paid two interim dividends totaling N7 for each 50 kobo share in Alpha Merchant Bank from the proceeds of sale expressed gratitude to me for ensuring the safe return of their investments, even though some had prematurely condemned me when the bank was put in liquidation.
And one final point. There was no amount of pressure that was not put on me by some shareholders to write a petition and get the bank’s license back, but I was not interested. I was done, I thank God for His blessings. There are many of them like that, and it was because of them that I refused to sell out.