By Jimi Lawal*
AWUJALE STEPS IN
The dispute went on for a while more until Kabiyesi, the Awujale summoned is. 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 to 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 mole 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 government 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 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 respect 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 Yoruba land, I will fight you the way papa was not able to fight you Anything I known 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 mobilized the whole of Yoruba land against you”
He then started saying, “em….. Mama, but you are not being fair. You didn’t ask what I want. : She said; OK, 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 sat 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 refuse 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 said he will convince shareholder 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 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 Quran 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 Quran but asked to known 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 source I instantaneously return the Quran 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 endured 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 am 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. In 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 Hostel 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 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 known a firm of quantity surveyor –EL-RUFAI and partner. My brother 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 proble, 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 Afique 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 is 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 Mam, 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 one 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 accession 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 our of the country but that their attention should rather be called I attempted to 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 sigh 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, filled 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 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 the 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 $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 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. Secondary, 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 100 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.
*This is the concluding part of the Jimi Lawal story