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Ahmed Onibudo: World War II child brought up by granny

Ahmed Onibudo
Ahmed Onibudo

The son of a mechanic, Ahmed Onibudo narrates the story of his upbringing, how he was raised by his granny after his parents separated, and by the standards of those days, the herculean efforts of his family members to get him educated until Chief Obafemi Awolowo happened along with free primary education. Unable to proceed beyond Standard VI, he became, in turns, a vendor, an electrician, later still a printer…..Enjoy the story of Ahmed Onibudo’s rise to the peak of enterprise and wealth.

World War II kid arrives

I was born on December 30, 1939 in Lagos. My father, Wahab Onibudo was a mechanic who had worked with several companies before he decided to stand on his own. Although my mother, Alhaja Akanke Kehinde, a petty trader, was his second wife, father later married others. The polygamous environment did not please my mum. So it was not long before they parted ways.

My mother actually took me to her new home and it was here that I spent the first 24 months as a toddler. This development irked my father’s mother, Alhaja Alimotu Amolese, alias Iya Alawo (woman who sells plates) who requested that I stay with her, at least to maintain a link with my paternal family. So about three years old, I moved to my paternal granny’s home to live with her.

This did not, however, mean that I lost touch with my mum. As part of the liberal tradition of the Yoruba in marital matters, she visited me regularly. She stood by me through thick and thin until she answered her creator’s call at age 84 in 2001. She was a positive influence on my life.

For Nigeria and the world, 1939 was very significant. It was the year that World War II began, instigated by the German leader, Adolf Hitler’s bid to rule the world. Since the end of 30’s, the colonial economy of Nigeria had been depressed.

The outbreak of the war promised mixed blessings. It meant that the enormous pressure on the resources of the Allied Powers, such as Britain, Nigeria’s colonial master, and France, its ally, would cause them to rely on the supply of exportable goods from the colonies. On the negative side, war conditions would impede the production of importable goods, and thus, hurt that segment of the trading sector in the country.

For Lagos, in particular, it portended very unpredictable developments. The foreign companies involved in the importing business were adversely affected and sought to cut their overheads by sacking staff.

The depression years had witnessed efforts by the government to curtail expenditure, by introducing direct taxation, retrenching African employees, turning permanent posts into casual workers, reducing the working days in the month and calculating wages on hourly basis. Workers’ struggles, which culminated in the cost of living allowance strike in 1954, began as reaction to these colonial policies.

The war period signposted a boom for exporters of goods and commodities as groundnuts, cocoa, rubber and cotton were in serious demand. To prosecute the war successfully, jobs had to be created. Soldiers had to be mobilised. People had to cook for them; defensive structures had to be built. Labourers had to be engaged. More people came to Lagos from the country and Lagos gradually became over-crowded between 1939 and 1945. Greater money in circulation meant that many could afford to educate their children and the increasing pool of school leavers widened the cycle of newspaper readers. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s West African Pilot newspaper was the rave of the moment.

Growing up amid nationalistic fervour
In those six years of growing up, politics was in the air. The colonial government divided the southern provinces into Eastern and Western provinces in 1939. Election into the Nigerian Legislative Council, which featured Herbert Macaulay’s Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) and National Youth Movement (NYM) as the major platforms, generated controversy.

So I grew up at a time when Lagos was a melting pot of activities which provided various opportunities. Of course, I watched most of these developments from my immediate environment. As a trader of plates and household items, my granny dealt with imported articles of trade. Trading was not booming but I was greatly influenced by her tenacity and hard work.

She was always getting something done. With her modest means, she was able to feed me and my cousins who stayed with her. And she was very fond of me.

I believe her penchant for hard work is the greatest thing she bequeathed to me. She taught me to frown at idleness and deplore laziness, to create value from time. Through watching and internalising what she practised I developed an attitude of mind which made me look out for opportunities and devise means to maximize them. It is a lesson in survival.

Imbibed values
Dear reader, you would be doing yourself a great favour if you re-evaluate your attitude to work. Do you see work as just something you have to do to earn a living? If you do, then you’ll love to do as little as you can to pay your bills. A lot of civil servants think this way.

They see government work as a place to put in little and gain much. There are similar people in the private sector, who have poor attitude to work. It is not surprising that those who hate hard work rarely succeed. They cannot undergo the rigour and discipline which success entails. Since they are not likely to be successful, they tend to covet what their successful colleagues have and are often frustrated. Stand far from this madding crowd.

Hard work is full of promises. It enables the rich to be richer and gives hope to the poor that joining the club of the rich is not impossible. No one is damned to the hell of poverty. God has given you the faculties — the hands to use, the legs to walk, the brain to think, the eyes to observe, the mouth not just to eat but to ask questions. Your responsibility is to put them to work.

No one can do that for you. And the earlier you understand this, and put this lesson to use, the better you are likely to be.

If you are a father, still bringing up your kids, seek to inculcate in them the value of hard work. Not just work, but hard work. Seek to make them more hardworking than you are, and you would have given them the minimum requirement for success.

I know many hardworking men who have tried and failed, tried again and made it. But I don’t know of any lazy man, given all the opportunities in the world, who dares to try. Laziness is a disease. It freezes the mind, paralyses the body and turns potential visionaries into impractical daydreamers. It turns full grown men and women into vegetables, wasting the assets God has endowed them with, instead of tapping them and putting them to use, by glorifying God, who blesses honest efforts.

It is important to teach children early that hard work pays. It is the values they imbibe early that they will take into adulthood. If you are a pupil in school and you are reading this book, take this advice and let it be your guide in life. See laziness as a sin against God, who has given you the potentials to be a great person and put you in the environment where you can gain knowledge.

The second important legacy I got is education. My parents named me Ahmed. I grew up answering its local variant, Lamidi. As it is the tradition in a Muslim family, I enrolled in Quoranic classes early. Islamic education was provided alongside western education in these schools, set up by Muslim missions to ensure that their kids were not lured into Christianity in the schools mostly run by various Christian missions.

It was the practice in those days to evaluate a child’s qualification to enrol by asking him to put his right hand over his head and touch his left ear. This was considered the standard measurement of a six year old in view of the absence of birth records in most homes. I did not have any problem because, first, I matured fast; second, the school I attended was run by a Muslim mission founded by my great uncle, Alhaji Lawal Abdulhahman Olorunnimbe and his colleagues.

He belonged to the top echelon of the society of his day. He was a prominent member of the elite Killa Society of Lagos and enjoyed the friendship of Lagos notables such as Pa. Sanni Adewale, Pa Alfa Bello Borokini, Pa Saka Emiabata, Pa Lasisi Dabiri, Pa Agoro of Oluwole Quarters and Pa James Disu alias Askiridi, among others. He was an unflinching adherent of the Islamic religion and was involved in numerous religious activities.

He contributed to the building of Obadina Mosque by donating roofing materials during its construction. When he died in 1948, he bequeathed his landed property at No 25 Willoughby Street, Lagos to Obadina Mosque for its upkeep.

He was a foundation member of Zumratul Hujaj Society in Lagos in 1922 and was elected its first president. He donated a symbolic staff of office to be used on the society’s important occasions on his installation as first president. Alhaji Olorunnimbe was a strong member of the Durosoto Adinni, the religious group that founded the Zumratul Islamiyya Society at Akanni Street in 1926.

His co-founders were Alhaji J. B. Bakrin-Otun, Mr. A. K. Giwa; Alhaji Seriki Otutuloro, Atta Bello, Alhaji James Disu, Alhaji Ladi and Alhaji Saka Amuwo.

Master of many trades: Onibudo climbed up as a vendor, printer and electrician

Challenges with education

As a youth, I combined schoolwork with domestic chores. I would go to school in the morning, return early in the afternoon to join granny and run errands for her. Sometimes, I travelled with her to Ota for the five-day market. So many people, from different walks of life, would be there to trade.

The haggling, which featured as bargains were struck, apparently percolated my consciousness. Therefore, from childhood, trading became a way of life for me. I woke with it, spent the day at it, slept in its environment. In retrospect, my disposition to business seemed to have started from there. It also encouraged me to mix with different kinds of people and develop good communication skills.

Primary school took nine years. An average student completed primary school at age 14. Pupils started in Class 1C, moved to 1B and then to 1A which seemed like the nursery classes of today. Then they moved to Standard One through to Standard Six. While instruction up till Standard Two was in Yoruba, from standard three pupils were exposed to English language.

I was a good pupil. By Standard three, I had even begun to take private classes in shorthand.
But challenges set in. My academic progress was slowed down. Between 1951 and 1953, I had to relocate to Port Harcourt to stay with my uncle, Mr. M.S. Pedro, who was working with the Ports Authority. In those two years, I attended Baptist School, Aggrey Road, Port Harcourt. After school, I worked as a houseboy. In 1954, I returned to Lagos to stay with my granny to complete my primary school education.

The Western Region under the political control of the Action Group led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo launched the Free Primary Education Programme in January 1955. The scheme made the regime the pace setting, progressive regional government in Africa the year I wrote my first school leaving certificate.

I might not have completed primary education if the programme had not been launched. Although foreign trade improved, cost of goods and services was high and this adversely affected my sponsor. As a result of the programme I was able to take my first school leaving certificate in 1955 when I was in Standard 5 and passed all the subjects excellently including arithmetic.

Striking out
From 1957, at 18, a new world opened to me. Although I desired to further my education, my parents lacked the wherewithal to cope. And my guardian, my nice and inspiring grandmother, could not be overstretched to cater for this important need.

All the same, I received a lot of encouraging words and prayers from my uncle, Alhaji Bello Olorunnimbe-Amolese, who we fondly called Baba Kekere. He lived at 9, Shakiti Street, Lagos, in the area popularly called Ita Akanni (Akanni’s Court).

He saw me as a brave, courageous young boy, with a lot of promise even though he could not help finance my education.

In short, I was on my own, my destiny was in my hand and it was left to me to break or make it. Notwithstanding the odds, I had a vision. Faced with the prospect of adversity, I fell back on the few skills and values I had learnt.
Newspapers were already a dynamic feature of Lagos life. This was largely due to the concentration of the educated elite in Lagos and the fact that it was the hotbed of nationalist agitation. To further add pep to this situation, the prospect of self-government was becoming surer by the day.

News vending
Newspapers became the main medium where the agitations, bickering among individuals and groups and news of political, economic and social developments took place. Public interest in these issues drew the people to the press.

They were the measuring gauge of popular opinion; Lagosians could hardly live without their favourite newspapers. Long before I was born, Lagos had been the base of many newspapers for a good reason. It had flourishing commerce and the elite were well off. Besides, elections into its legislative seats had been introduced as early as 1924, so that the press had come to play a vital role in the affairs of the city.

The newspapers, which sold like hot cakes in the 50’s included the West African Pilot, often the mouthpiece of the National Council for Nigeria and Cameroons (later National Council of Nigerian Citizens), NCNC; and owned by its leader, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe; the Daily Service, affiliated to the Africa Group, and the Daily Times, which voiced the position of several interests. Others were Success and African Morning Post. The average price of the newspapers was two pence; it provided enough margins for comfortable living. Sale was also relatively easy. The distribution point was Kakawa Street.

From Kakawa Street, I would pass the streets which lead to Obalende, selling newspapers.
Although I believed it was a good business, I also realised that it was an open sesame. Newspaper vending required only labour and small capital. Anyone who could shout on top of his voice and was physically strong to trek vast distance could do it.

So I realised I could not win my fight against poverty by being an itinerant vendor. I calculated that if I acquired a skill that could attract favourable terms in the economy, it would be a good addition to my raw energy. At that time, new areas were being opened to absorb the expanding population. Of course, facilities were already stretched thin. One such facility was electricity. The government company, Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, (ECN) set up in 1951 was receiving requests that it had no resources to meet.

Electrical wiring
It was thus clear to me that electricity generation and distribution would be a reliable sector to enter. My approach was to use my little savings and go into apprenticeship as an electrician. I joined Nigerlec as an apprentice and began to learn the working of wires.

The increase in the demand for electricity gave me limitless opportunities for practical work and I was actively involved in this business. One of the projects I participated in was the electrification of the Aro Specialist Hospital, Abeokuta. I got wind of the project and moved to Abeokuta to work for the company. We stayed in Ibara area and moved to site in trucks every morning.

Not knowing what to expect I didn’t tell anyone about the trip so as not to raise unnecessary expectations.  A few days after settling down in Abeokuta, I sent word to my mother about my location and mission. The aim was just to calm her, since she would be expectedly worried by my sudden disappearance, more so, when she was nursing my first child, Niyi, at the time.

A few days after I sent the message, we were on site when my boss, who had gone to town to pick some things, called for me. I surfaced, to meet my mother, my child strapped to her back. As I predicted, she said everyone was worried by my sudden absence and when she got my letter, she hurried down to see how I was faring. I thanked her. A few days later, she returned to Lagos.

It was the second occasion when my mother would display her undying love for me. A few months earlier, I had gotten into some dalliance with pretty Miss Ibiwunmi Branco of the famous Bamgbose Street, Lagos which resulted in putting her in the family way. Ultimately, my family got to know and since I did not deny the paternity, I accepted her into my life.

My mum, apparently determined to create the environment conducive for me to nurture lasting marital values, rented an apartment at Hawley Street for us. Unfortunately, the relationship did not last but it produced my first son, Niyi, on April 25, 1960.

Becoming a printer
By September 1960, I began to acquire yet another skill as an apprentice printer. I was trained on the Heidelberg machine alongside my uncle called Kehinde at Ogunpa near the motor park. What attracted me was the phenomenal increase in the use of printing materials such as stationery, newspapers, books, pamphlets and posters.

The point to note is that acquisition of skills is important to success. Scientists have held that since the human brain has infinitesimal capacity for memory, there is no reason why we should allow all that memory to lie idle. Besides, mankind has realised that food will not drop from heaven and that survival necessarily involves using labour to add value to nature.

That is why in the olden days, there were farmers, carpenters, hunters, priests, and herbalists. Just as no society can renew itself without investing in skill acquisition, no individual can be relevant in the society if he has no special skill.

This is even more so in today’s industrial society where skills not only define the person but are becoming more specialised everyday.


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.