- •I opened the floodgates for other Nigerians to own banks•
- •The secret of my healthy life at 84
By Jimoh Babatunde
As the Asiwaju of the Ijebu Christians Association and the Olori Omo-Oba of Ijebuland, Otunba Michael Olasubomi Balogun, the Founder of FCMB Group, holds an annual New Year Prayer in his country home in Ijebu. This year’s prayer, held during the week, had in attendance notable Ijebu sons and daughters.
- After the prayers, he took time out to chat with journalists where he talked about his relationship with God and how one time Deputy Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, Alhaji Amusa Oladimeji Gbadamosi Otiti, and former Vice President of Nigeria, late Dr Alex Ekwueme were instrumental in realising the dream of First City Monument Bank (FCMB).
How did your ambition to own a bank become a reality?
I am a very appreciative person when you do any good to me. I was happy to give the testimony publicly during the 90th birthday of Alhaji Otiti and I am doing the same thing with late Dr Alex Ekwueme. What I did at that time was unheard of in this country, for one individual single-handedly to say he wanted to establish a bank.
They wanted you to get a white technical partner. Beyond that, in the history of Nigerian banking industry, I think there was only one person who started something in the name of a bank, late Chief Okupe. He was only doing what was called money lender enterprise, there was a statue that allows somebody to be lending, but nothing more. But to say that you want to set up a bank providing financial services and have branches all over the place without a foreign technical partner was not available in this country.
But I was inspired by my God through the mouth of a 9-year-old son of mine. We were praying and the young boy went to his mother and said “when we were praying I just pity daddy. Why can’t he go and start his own bank, instead of wanting to be the Chief executive of somebody’s bank?”
When my wife told me, I thought she was becoming faithless that we were praying to God, and saying why not leave things in His hands. Then I told my wife that God was speaking to a 9-year-old boy. The young man is 47 years old now. And I made up my mind that I would do it. Naturally, human beings feel not everything is possible but with God all things are possible. All I was doing was praying, but God will not come personally, He will use other people.
So, it was Alhaji Otiti and the former Vice President, Alex Ekweme, who were used directly by God to assist me in doing what many people thought was impossible. In the case of Otiti, he was CBN deputy governor and someone in the Central Bank just mentioned it to me that “we can not give you a license because you don’t have a technical partner”. You know my reply? I said “God is my partner”.
Having said this, I knew some people in the Central Bank and something just struck me and I told my driver, take me straight to Alhaji Otiti’s house.
When I got to his house, the house help said he had gone to the CBN governor’s house to break his fast as they were both Muslims. Again, I told my driver to go to the CBN governor’s house. By the time we got there, I was already emotional and was shedding tears. I got to the gate and said I must see Alhaji Otiti, I learnt that he is with the CBN governor.
I thought those people seeing a big man crying said we must help this man. So Otiti and the CBN governor rushed out and I said big brothers, these people want to scuttle my ambition of owning a bank because they said I don’t have a foreign technical partner. So, I can’t be given a license to run a bank, I also said other emotional things. Alhaji Otiti calmly said, “Subomi don’t worry, the CBN governor and I would arrange something provisionally which will enable you to run that bank and later on look for a foreign technical partner.
I did not think it was possible when another CBN official had said no way, go, you can’t own a bank on your own. Alhaji Otiti was the first person to put my mind at rest, but Otiti and the CBN governor at that time were not giving the license. I had a friend, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, who was the Vice President. We had been friends before the war and after he came back after the war.
So, at the Cathedral Church, my wife and I planned that when Alex was being led out that I would grab the dress and my wife would grab that of his wife. When we made the moves, the security people with them thought something was wrong with us, but Alex looked back and said “Subomi, Bimbola, what is happening?
Do you know what I told him? I said “Mr. Vice President, why are you not giving me a license?” My wife went to his wife and said “my husband wants something, only your husband can give him”. If you read my book it is there.
So, Alex said we should come to see him and he assured me that the following Thursday I would get my license. By 3 pm of that Thursday, a minister phoned me and he said “Egbon (Big Brother), congratulations, the Vice President said that your license has been approved”. That was how the floodgate of Nigerians owning banks started. When I had my license, people were amazed.
I am a person who is always grateful to my God and appreciative of whatever you do for me. If you give me just tea to drink, I will thank you, it is my life. What Otiti did for me was to give me hope, but Alex wrapped it up and gave me the licence.
How did your relationship with late Alex Ekwueme start?
I gave the whole story of what I did for him and he did not forget. During the civil war many of our friends from the East abandoned everything they had and went away. The war was so hot that many people did not think it was right to remain in Lagos. The first house I built in my life in Apapa, Alex had the next building to mine. As soon as the war started, some pool players took over the house and were playing pools there.
They would be there until midnight, but in wanting to protect my own house from being burgled by those people, I arranged for the police to evacuate them and having done that, I renovated the house and rented it out to a lady from the East and I was collecting rent. When the war ended, Alex Ekwueme returned to Lagos and came to see me. After the exchange of pleasantries, I went to my room and brought out a big envelope.
In those days, we didn’t use cheque much, it was all cash. So, I gave him the money. I told him “I renovated your house, rented it out and this is the rent we collected”. Dr Alex Ekwueme looked at me.
A number of our friends from the East lost their houses. Some so-called friends took over their houses and claimed they were given. But for somebody who was not familiar with him to take care of the house, rented it out and came to hand over the rent collected to him, Alex could not believe it. All he could mutter was “Mike, I am grateful.
- That was how the friendship between us started. You know the next thing he did? He said “with what you have done for me let us do something to help the returnees from the war zone” and I said what can we do? He said we should be selling building materials to rebuild the war-torn areas. It is in my book. So, we started a company, which we called the Renaissance Builders Merchant. We were buying plywood and all sorts of building materials.
Alex’s brother, Lawrence was the salesman and we were making raw money. Every weekend we would balance our accounts. After service, I would go with an envelope to Alex with his share of the profit. I never knew that God was going to use him to do something in my life and that of Nigeria, so that friendship was so close that when I first went to Oko, his home town, the people gathered to break kola nut to thank me.
I made sure I opened a branch of the bank in his hometown and a property owned by him. It was a godly relationship between us, as God used Alex for me and also used me for Alex. It is a lesson for Nigeria.
What inspired you to dedicate yourself to giving to your people?
God made me what I am and in return for what He has done for me, I am doing all these. There are many Ijebus and if God singled me out and made me what I am, who am I? It is in appreciation of the unique endowment the good Lord made to me that I do whatever I do.
I am not the only Ijebu to be a lawyer, I am not the only Ijebu to be a banker, I am not the only Ijebu to be made Otunba, I am not the only Ijebu to be anything. There are all sorts of birds flying in the air, but the Eagle is the king of all birds. So, when we pray as Christians, we say God should renew our energy like that of the Eagle. The motivation is that God has been so kind to me.
He made me what I am and in return, I am doing what I am doing. I am happy my royal father appreciates what I am doing that after being given the title of Otunba, he decided to make me Olori Omo Oba (the head of all the king’s children).
It is God who has been doing this that I was also made the Asiwaju of Ijebu Christians even when my mother was the Iyasuna of Muslims in Ijebu. So, it is in appreciation of what God has done for me and so I have thrown myself into the service of the people. I am always joyous to do good and to have people around me. And the good Lord has always been faithful to me.
The leadership of Christian Association of Nigeria in Ijebu land requested you to rally round others to develop the town, what informed this request?
They made the appeal because I am an Ijebu patriot and one of the senior citizens in Ijebu. While in the palace they made similar request and God being in our support we will do whatever lies in our path. But what they wanted to be done about the Otunba Tunwase Paediatric centre is a work in progress.
Four years ago, I transferred the institution to the University of Ibadan, it takes a bit of doing, but from what I know they are doing their best. When we were running it, it was typically children and nursing mothers hospital, but I told them when I was I was giving it to them during my 80th birthday that beyond what it is doing now, this is an opportunity to give general medical service and only to specialize in children and anything that has to do with nursing mother. That is why I said it is work in progress.
They are already doing something and it takes a bit of time. We started as a specialist children hospital, the health care, welfare and management of children’s health. I said they should increase their activities but not to change the name and also the institution will still be Otunba Tuwase National Paediatric Centre. The enlargement of their activities is work in progress.
What is the significance of the annual prayer in your country home?
I am organising it because I am the Asiwaju of Ijebu Christians. The tradition I met when I took over from the first Asiwaju of Ijebu Christians was that annually Christians and even Muslims would kick-start the new year by going to offer prayers in the house of the Awujale and after that they would come to the house of the Asiwaju.
The significance is to give an opportunity for the Asiwaju to join everybody in thanking God for what the good Lord has done for all of us in the year before and asking him to continue to guard and take care of us for the new year. I think that its significance is not just for Christians but for all people. The Yoruba says if you give thanks for the favour done in the past that you will receive more favours.
So, the essence is that I have invited all Christians and friends, there were some Muslims too, to join me in thanking God for protecting us, providing us with everything and in giving us good health. We can now expect that the same good Lord will continue to be with us for the new year. So, it is not just a religious thing, it is something that has become habitual. When God has done something for us, we should go back and give thanks and that will encourage the Good Lord to continue to help us.
What has kept you going at 84?
It is the grace God. You probably will notice that whenever I am in a gathering, the musician will start playing the tune “Nipa ife Olugbala ki yo si nkankan”, ( which means by the love of the Saviour, there shall be no evil). I believe it is the good Lord that is protecting and guarding me and as such, I am always glad to sing that song.
But it is more than that, I am a child of God and I believe fervently in it, so I have turned all my needs to the good Lord. One of the benefits is that at 84 I looked like anyone of you. If you get me to run 100 meters with you, I am not sure many of you will beat me. I do a lot of walking and I also swim.
In every home of mine, you will find a swimming pool. I am particularly grateful to God that even at 84, I am not only agile and active cerebrally I still have it. All this is the grace of God because I know what is happening among us. I am as active in Ijebu as I am active in Lagos and all over Nigeria. Within the Christian circles, I am well known.
I genuinely worship my God. In every home of mine, I have a chapel and different chapels and on my birthday, I go there first to thank God for mercy received and to pray for further mercy. The secret of it is that I throw myself into the hands of God and trusting that He will do the best for me. The secret is the love of God which passes all understanding.
What is your message to Nigerians at this particular period?
One of my colleagues said I am not a politician, but I am a senior citizen and I have seen a bit of this world. I think I will recommend prayerfulness for all Nigerians, I will also recommend steadfastness in our faith in God, with Him behind us nothing is impossible. The first thing I will say to Nigerians is to be conscientious in praying and having faith that having prayed that the good Lord will answer our prayers.
There is a lot that is wrong with the country and my prayer is that the good lord will guard everybody including our government, that everybody will do the right thing. Between friends, family and universally, we should put God first and seek His face and everything else will be right. I don’t discuss politics, but I believe that we need prayers and the good face of the almighty God to move us forward. In God’s own good time our prayers will be heard in this country.
How do you feel with all your children being male?
It is the gift of God, but I have six granddaughters and ten grandsons. I think it is in my genes. Anyway, my children’s wives are playing the roles of my daughters.