By Jimi Lawal*
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 (JAL). 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 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 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 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 whatever 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 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 10 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 for everything to help out 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 go with getting reputable shareholders, at least twenty, given the restriction of five percent per investor and then raising the statutory minimum share capital of N 5 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 of N50,000 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 to at this time, 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 ALPA 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 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 Omisades 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 promoter’s focus 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, the CBN and the Ministry of Finance, allegation that in addition to my not having National Youth Service certificate, that I had dropped out of 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 to 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. He went to court and got an injunction against me. For the first couple of months, the judge was adjourning his 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 friend). 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 – 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- what he is carrying on is 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 on unbeknown to him then.
The second point had to do with a handwritten note that Omisade had written. This was on 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 you 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 further, “Hold it there! What did you just say? By accusing my men, you are accusing me, I am in charger 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.
* To be concluded.