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The World in Your Head : How Aboderin, Diette-Spiff, Lekwot, others helped Onibudo

Still on skills
In fact, there are very few things you do today without skills. Getting employment requires skills as you could confirm if you go through the advertisements in the newspapers. The companies ask for engineers, accountants, lawyers, secretaries, public relations practitioners, managers, administrators, drivers etc.

The implication is that without skills, your chance of survival is drastically reduced and your prospect of becoming successful is nil. Thus, while vision is good, while intelligence is commendable, while you must create the kind of world you seek to realise, you can’t implement these if you don’t acquire skills. My experience has shown me that skills can be acquired in formal and informal circumstances and I would advise the reader to keep an open mind, towards opportunities for acquiring skills. Nothing learnt is ever useless.

When I was growing up, the basic skills you needed to survive were: reading, writing and arithmetic. Today, it is generally accepted that ability to manipulate the computer is the most basic skill. A new world has emerged, the information age, the era of electronic information, which has shortened vast distances and collapsed the world into a global village. At the touch of a keyboard, events in diverse parts of the world are accessed as they happen.

lOnibudo: Two faces of a self-made man who was variously a vendor, electrician, printer, transport driver, yam seller and ultimately a big player in the economy, owning companies that employ hundreds
lOnibudo: Two faces of a self-made man who was variously a vendor, electrician, printer, transport driver, yam seller and ultimately a big player in the economy, owning companies that employ hundreds

Old chores of mailing letters by post are becoming outdated, save for business correspondence as emails have taken over. In Lagos, we can send messages to our friend on electronic mail and receive reply immediately. Video-conferencing has made it possible for three people in different continents to hold a meeting, live. Desktop publishing has changed the face of printing and newspaper production. The world can no longer be the same again.

If you seek a place in this new world, you just have to be computer-literate and be versed in information technology. Anything less will turn you into a technological illiterate, with little chance of survival in today’s world. So do not waster time, learn to use a computer today. You shall not regret it.

The basic skill of the computer will enhance whatever special skill you acquire. By simply helping you to organise your thoughts, your daily operations, the PC, the internet are sure to change the ways you think and expand your vision. So acquire a special skill today. And what is a special skill? It is one that is likely to be in hot demand. Certainly, there are skills, and there are skills and the industrial society has valued them appropriately, in terms of its priorities. Take you choice.

I was ready to acquire as many skills as possible because I believe they were relevant then and would always be relevant. Even if I had chosen to stick to the electricity sector, the experience of the past 40 years has shown that it is a vibrant sector. With the on-going plans to deregulate the distribution of electricity, it continues to be a good haven for investments. Printing is equally resilient and profitable as the annual accounts of printing companies show. As someone who sees life as a school, learning skills has become a part of me. Thus by the time I was 22, I was already a trader, vendor, electrician, printer, all rolled into one. How did these skills shape my life?

The printer becomes yam seller
While working as a printer at Ibadan I also had my eyes on business. One of the profitable businesses which I dabbled into was the sale of yams. Often, I travelled to Onitsha, in present day Anambra State, to buy yams and sell them in Ibadan. The mode of transportation was the Mercedes Benz 911 lorry with a wooden body, known as Gbongboro. I also dabbled into the pools business. Shortly after the Action Group crisis began in 1962, I shifted base again to Port Harcourt where I had schooled between 1951 and 1953.

Just like in Ibadan, the pools business in Port Harcourt was in the firm grip of the Lebanese. Because of my partial experience in it, I drifted to this sector to look for work. Thus, I became a pools agent/clerk with a Lebanese called Ibrahim. It was a wise decision. The business was lucrative. By 1966, I had saved enough money to buy a car. But it was more than a luxury ride for me. That enabled me to enter another segment of Port Harcourt business: transportation. While I kept my work with the Lebanese pools company, I employed a driver to commute the routes. The business was profitable. Gradually, I began to do various petty trading.

But this boom did not last because of negative developments in the country. On January 15, 1966, a group of ambitious soldiers of the Nigerian Army attempted to seize power. The coup succeeded only in the Northern Region and recorded many casualties. Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, the premier of the Northern Region, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister, Chief S. L. Akintola, Premier of Western Region and Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, a federal minister, perished in the coup.

The army also recorded its victims. They include Col. Yakubu Pam and Brigadier Ademulegun.

The outcome of the coups gave the impression that it was organised by Ibo officers. In July, Northern army officers launched a counter-coup in which the nation lost more men.  The Head of State, General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, was killed along with his host, Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, while visiting Ibadan, the capital of Western Region. The Northern officers appointed Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon as the Head of State, which Col. Odumegu Ojukwu, son of Igbo business mogul, Sir Louis Phillip Ojukwu, and the commander of the eastern sector, declined to recognise.

This was how the explosive ingredients of what became the Biafran civil war were assembled. With anti-Igbo sentiments in the North, it was not surprising that a clash between Northerners and Easterners would be deadly and many Easterners based in North, began to run home for safety. Although efforts were made to resolve the differences, they failed. In 1967, Col. Ojukwu declared the birth of a new state, the Republic of Biafra.

Attempts to make Ojukwu retrace his steps failed. A war, which was to last 30 months, broke out. Before Ojukwu declared Biafra Republic in 1967, he had ordered all non-indigenes to leave Eastern Nigeria by October 1966. I boarded a boat sent from Lagos to bring all non-Easterners in Port Harcourt home. On arrival, we were called the Biafran refugees.

I left many properties in Port Harcourt, particularly because I did not expect that the hostilities would persist for so long. My taxi cab and household items were entrusted to friends. But I also established a major landmark. I was able to enrol in evening classes which increased my educational standard, a matter which inadequate funds had made impossible.

I acquired one expanded lesson in Port Harcourt: it was the virtue of modesty.  I had also worked as a clerk in Port Harcourt with Justice Demola Adeoba. Justice Adeoba, an exemplary person, taught me the virtues of modesty. Although he was highly regarded, he led a simple, easy going life, without flamboyance.

Into transport
As soon as I settled down in Lagos, I started trading again. I rented a room at 94 Agege Motor Road, Mushin and registered my company, A. O. Onibudo & Sons. I began to sell scooters, with the brand name, Vespa. I was the sales agent of R.T. Briscoe, a British company, which imported vehicles and machines to sell in the country. Once again, trade began to boom. I was planning to expand the business and get more sales outlets. But, once again, political developments in the nation caused me to review my plan.

In August 1968, the federalist forces, under the leadership of Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle liberated Port Harcourt. With the re-establishment of federal control, and reports that the situation was getting calm, I decided to return to Port Harcourt in 1968. When I arrived in the city, I re-established contact with friends. But most of the properties I entrusted to them were gone.

With my savings from the scooter sales, I bought a Volkswagen Beetle in Lagos and shipped it to Port Harcourt. With the vehicle, I resumed my transport business. At that time, I was the only transporter in this city. I plied a strategic route. While it was easy to move around in Port Harcourt, soldiers usually stayed in the barracks which was quite a long distance to the town. I bridged this gap by running the route from town to the barracks. My vehicle was the only one on this route, so making money was easier. More importantly, the route made it possible to meet military officers and one of my very good friends was Col. Utuk, the Quarter Master General. He was later trapped in Owerri during a military operation of the Third Marine Commando.

Through my contacts, I began supplying foodstuffs to the military. The first order was large. In fact, I needed 5000 pounds sterling to execute it. I did not have the money. While ruminating on possible funding sources, it occurred to me that National Bank was just resuming its operation in the town. So I went to the manager, Mr. Olu Aboderin and humbly begged him to give me a loan.

Mr. Aboderin, who later set up Punch Newspapers, was very co-operative; he granted me the loan. I was able to deliver the order. As soon as I was paid, I liquidated the loan. It was the beginning of great things since I was able to open a regular source of credit for my commercial transactions. Mr. Aboderin, a sympathetic banker, was always ready to assist and I did not let him down by defaulting. I paid back promptly.

From the supply of foodstuffs, I extended my interest to cement. This was possible because, following the surrender of the Biafran forces, the Gowon administration declared the policy of rehabilitation and reconstruction. To speed up this process, large imports of cement were needed, the situation made it possible for me to get good orders and make good money. I operated as a businessman in Port Harcourt until 1979, when the country returned to civil rule and I was very close to the military governors, including Commander Alfred Diette-Spiff and Col. Zamani Lekwot. The return to civil rule ushered in a new leadership. The indigenous elite fully took over.

Real estate

In such a situation, business for a non-indigene was not likely to flourish as much as before, so I decided to return to Lagos, my home town, to continue my business. My involvement in the cement business gave me an insight into the construction industry. On my return to Lagos, I began to build houses through contractor finance. This meant that I would build the house and manage until I recouped my investment, then hand it over to the owners. Besides, I invested in other segments of real estate. One of my first projects was the block of 25 flats called Regency Suites which was built for Chief Olaitan. I also expanded to Abuja, where serious construction work was going on as part of plans toward preparing it for its new status of becoming the capital of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. My business was buying land, building on it and selling.

It was profitable for many reasons. Under the civilian regime of Second Republic President, Shehu Shagari, plans to build Abuja were pursued but since the nation’s capital was still in Lagos, the attention of many businessmen in the construction industry had not shifted to the new city. This made land very cheap. Obtaining loans to finance building was also easy because the interest rate was low. Construction inputs, including cement, were affordable. These factors made the cost of building low and ensured that businessmen could rake in reasonable profits in the apparently lucrative sector.

Hospitality business
My flourishing business enabled me to take off to travel to other countries and learn from what was happening there. The first Western country I visited was Spain and I learnt a lot there. One of the unforgettable lessons I took from Madrid was the business of relaxation.

The Spanish work ethics emphasised high productivity. It also taught the people that work without play undermines healthy living. The idea of eating out in restaurants, taking the family for short holidays in the countryside or resorts, was a remarkable feature of Spanish life. I noticed similar features in my visits to other Western countries and it dawned on me, that I, like other Africans determined to make it in life, should pay more attention to the art of slowing down.

My experiences shaped my decision to set up a first class restaurant, with additional facilities for concerts, and bar in 1986. I named it Jaws Restaurant and Peninsula Nite Club Limited. I also improved my knowledge of business by taking business courses under the auspices of the London Educational Association (LEA). I set up the club at a time when things were not very rosy.

Economic depression, which became noticeable in 1981, worsened in 1982, because of the gross mismanagement of the nation’s resources by the political elite. This made the Shagari administration unpopular as workers were being retrenched; self-employed businessmen were finding it difficult to survive, and cost of social services rose. While this situation persisted, the politicians lived in splendour, indicating that they were not affected by the nation’s rapid plunge into poverty.

The opportunity for change during the 1983 presidential elections was missed. The ruling National Party of Nigeria returned to power amidst allegations of rigging. On December 31, the army struck again, Major Gen. Muhammadu Buhari became the new Head of State. But Buhari was unable to revive the economy in 20 months. His anti-Western policies, opposition to the International Monetary Fund, among others did not help matters. Access to credit was stifled. Queues sprang up every where. People queued for water and fuel.

On August 27, 1985, a pro-Western regime, with former Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida at the helm, seized power in a palace coup. Babangida announced plans to talk with the IMF and the nation’s metropolitan creditors and eased the tension in the polity by releasing detainees and warming up to the press.

Farming and Peninsula Resort
1986 was thus a turning point since normalisation of relations with the West was bound to open up the economy and ensure in flow of funds. My reading of government policy on agriculture showed me that successive governments would emphasize large scale, mechanised faming. It was seriously believed that organising peasants to meet targets of agricultural production was cumbersome and the results were not encouraging.

Large scale, mechanised farming was considered a better co-ordinated, more result-oriented option in view of the country’s plan to diversify and export. Already, in 1979, former Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo retired to his large farm in Ota, Ogun State to practise this kind of agriculture followed by his deputy, Chief of Staff, late Gen. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua.

These new farmers had the clout to influence government opinion, so the prospect of the government embarking on policies that might frustrate their businesses was remote. I believe this assumption encouraged many businessmen, such as Aminu Dantata, Moshood Abiola, Wahab Folawiyo etc. to invest in this sector. My investment was through a new company, Budo Farms. But I had other reasons for the investment. First, I believed the entertainment industry, particularly hotels and restaurants, would always need constant supply of foodstuffs and fruits. Budo Farms was, therefore, designed to service this industry.

The decision was also made easy by several economic factors, particularly labour, which was very cheap in the rural environment of the project. However, I must confess that it is one project I regretted embarking on. I discovered that the maintenance of equipment and machinery was too costly and that stealing of the harvest was totally uncontrollable. For instance, in the pineapple orchard, most of the fruits were often removed. The little that was harvested got bad due to inadequate storage facilities and effort to export them by preserving and packaging them was very cumbersome.

I lost millions of naira in this project and this encouraged me to pay more attention to the more profitable side of my business such as Phoenix Oil Company Nigeria Limited; Greco International Limited which also operates in Paris, France; Neon Systems Limited and Palm Construction Limited. I also had substantial shares in the Caesars Palace Hotel Complex. The farm experiment, however, influenced the establishment of the Peninsula Resort.  I began to toy with the idea of a resort in 1989. Locating the resort on the outskirts of Lagos was imperative.

In the earlier decades, the population of Lagos had expanded towards the urban centres of Ikeja, Surulere, Badagry and Ikorodu, thanks to the efforts of such organisations as the Wemabod Estate, Lagos Executive Development Board, and Ibile Holdings.

The civilian administration of Governor Lateef Jakande, in particular, pursued the policy of expanding housing opportunities and encouraging movement to the suburbs. It was this administration that built the first expressway to link Lagos to Epe. It was clear to me that in subsequent years, movement along this route, especially by companies and the rich would make it a prime area.

I started the resort with three buildings comprising of twenty four rooms in 1993. Six years later, I had expanded it to 42 rooms. By 2007 it had grown to 160 rooms, made up of executive suites, superior, standard rooms and twin-bed rooms.  I financed the expansion with proceeds from the sale of some of my properties in Abuja and Port Harcourt and very limited bank loan.

Today, the resort consists of 24 bungalows and eight one-storey buildings, well furnished to give comfort.  The focus has been on providing a setting conducive to finding solutions to business, organisational or personal problems.  Through a creative blend of architecture with nature, the resort has earned its description as “an oasis in the city”, and “an ambient setting for reinvigorating peace and quiet”.  Its fresh, clean air is a delight to the head.


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