Otunba Subomi Balogun, the foremost banker and Olori Omo Oba of Ijebuland is someone who does not forget any good done to him by anybody, least of all a prominent person like Chief Alex Ekwueme, the former vice president of Nigeria who died recently. Otunba Subomi Balogun told a group of journalists recently how the late architect and politician who was his neighbour and friend before the start of the civil war helped him to establish the first indigenous bank in Nigeria and how that singular gesture by Alex Ekwueme had opened up the floodgates for Nigerians to be bank owners today.
What would you say informed your organising this annual prayer by Ijebu Christians?
I am organizing it because I am Asiwaju of Ijebu Christians. This is a tradition that I took over from the first Asiwaju of Ijebu Christians. Whereby Christians and even Muslims start the year with prayers in the house of the Awujale. After that, they will now come to the home of the Asiwaju. The significance of it is to give opportunity for the Asiwaju to join everybody in thanking God for what the good Lord has done for all us. I think that is significant not just for Christians but for all people. So, the essence is that I have invited all Christians and some Muslims too, to join me in thanking God for all He has done in protecting us and giving us good health. It is not just a religious thing, it is something that has become habitual . When God has done something good for you, naturally you will go back and give thanks. That is to encourage the good Lord to continue to help us.
By March 9 this year (2018), you will be 84. What would you say is the secret of your physical and mental alertness at this age?
That is the grace of God. That is why my favourite Christian’s song is ‘Nipa olufe igbala , ki yo si nkan ‘. I am a child of God and I believe fervently in it. One of the benefits is that at 84 I look like anyone of you here (general laughter). If you dare me to run 100-meters with you, I am sure many of will not beat me (another round of general laughter). That is not the only thing that has kept me agile at 84. I do a lot of walking and I also swim. In every home of mine, you will always find a swimming pool. I am particularly grateful to God that even at 84, I am not only very agile and active, cerebrally I am still with it. That is by the grace of God. I am as active in Ijebu as I am active in Lagos and all over Nigeria. I am not a Pharisee, I genuinely worship my God. In every one of my homes, I have a chapel and on my birthdays, I go there first to thank God for mercies received and pray for further mercies. The secret of it is that I throw myself into the hands of God and trust Him that He will do the best for me. The secret is actually the love of God which passeth all understanding.
What is your message to Nigerians in the New Year?
I am not a politician. I am a senior citizen. I have seen a bit of this world. I think will commend prayerfulness for all Nigerians. I will also commend steadfastness in our faith in God. With God behind us, nothing is impossible. So, the first thing I will say to Nigerians is to be conscientious in praying and having faith that in full time the good Lord will answer our prayers. There is a lot wrong with the country. My prayer is that the good Lord will guide everybody including our government to do their right thing. I don’t discuss politics but I believe that we need prayers. We the good face of almighty God to move us forward.
But sir, we’ve been praying for so many years and yet our situation has not changed.
Let me tell you, in God’s own good time our prayers would be answered. Don’t lose faith. Be persistent. The good Lord who is over there watching us is not forgetful about the desires of all his creations. Continue to pray. Be very steadfast and the good Lord will in good cause do what is best not only for you but for this country.
What exactly did Alhaji Otiti, the former Deputy Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria do to help you in establishing FCMB as you eulogized him during his 90th birthday recently?
I am a very appreciative person, when you do any good for me and I was happy to give that testimony publicly. I am doing also the same thing with Alex Ekwueme. What I did at that time was unheard of in this country. For an individual to singlehandedly say he wants to create a bank. In those days they wanted me to go and bring an Oyinbo (Caucasian) as a foreign technical partner. Beyond that, in the history of Nigeria banking industry, I think there was only one person who started something he named a bank. It was Agbonmagbe Bank started by the late Chief Okupe. He was only doing what we called money lenders enterprise. It is statue which allows somebody to lend money and other things, 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, this country has never seen it. I was inspired by my God.
Naturally, human beings feel nothing is impossible with God in control. It was Alhaji Otiti and the former Vice President, Alex Ekwueme that God used to assist me in doing what many people thought was impossible .
In the case of Otiti, he was a deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. Someone in the Central Bank had mentioned it to me earlier that I will not be given license because I don’t have a technical partner. You know my reply? I said God is my partner.
I knew some people in Central Bank then. Ola Vincent, Alhaji Otiti and a few others. Something just happened to me, I told my driver to drive me straight to Otiti’s house. When I got to Otiti’s house, the house help told me that Otiti had gone to the Governor’s (of CBN) home to break his fast. Straight we went to the Governor’s house. As I was about to come out of my car, I became emotional and I started shedding tears. Those at the gate rushed inside to inform Otiti and the governor. They came out and met me and I said, big brother, these people want to scuttle my ambition. They said because I don’t have a technical partner, I will not be given a licence to run a bank. I said so many emotional things. Otiti calmly said Subomi, don’t worry, the governor and I will arrange something provisionally, which will enable you to run that bank and later on you can look for the foreign technical partner. I didn’t think it was possible because another Central Bank official had said, no way. Otiti was the first person to put my mind at rest.
But Otiti and the Central Bank at that time were not given the licence. I had a friend, Alex Ekwueme. We had been friends before the war and he came back. So, in the church, in the Cathedral, my wife and I planned that when Alex, is being led out that I will hold his dress and my wife will grab the dress of his wife. When we made the move as planned, the security people felt something was wrong with us. But Alex looked back and said Subomi , Bimbola what is happening ? Do you know what I said to him? You will read the story in what I am writing about Alex.
I said Mr Vice President, why are you not giving me a licence. My wife went to his wife and said, Bee, my husband wants something, only your husband can give him. If you read my book it is there. Alex said I should come and see him. He assured me that the following Thursday, I will get my licence. By 3 pm on that Thursday, a minister telephoned me and said, Egbon, congratulations, the vice president said your licence has been approved. That was how the floodgate of Nigerians owning commercial banks started. When I had my licence people were amazed. Some people even said, if you have a licence, it means I am a multi-millionaire or their father will go to jail. But I am a person who is always grateful to my God and appreciative of whatever you be done for me. What Otiti did for me was to give me hope. But Alex ( Ekwueme ) rammed it in and gave me the licence.
Now that Alex Ekwueme has died what are you doing to immortalize him going by what he did for you and your company?
I am sure my institution will be doing something during his funeral. I am personally in touch with his family. You just be patient till when the burial starts. I will give you the whole story. What I did to him, he didn’t forget. I can tell you. During the war, many of our friends from the East just abandoned everything they have and ran away. The war was so hot that many people didn’t think there was any hope of staying in Lagos.
The first house I built in my life was No 4 Bombay Crescent , Apapa. Alex’s house was No 6. As soon as the war started, pool stakers seized his house and were playing pools there. They will be there till 12 midnight or near morning. I wanted to protect my own house. I don’t want people to jump into my own house from Alex place and bungle my house or rob me.
The first thing I did was to arrange with the police to evacuate them to protect myself. I did not want to leave the house lying fallow. So, I renovated the house and rented it out to a lady who came from the East, Uloma Nwachukwu and I was collecting rent.
When the war ended, Alex returned to Lagos and he came to see me and said, Alex, I am pleased to see you. I went into my room and I brought out a big envelope with raw cash and I gave to Alex. I told him, I renovated your house and I rented it and this is the rent we collected from it. Alex couldn’t believe it. All he said was Mike, I am grateful. That was how the friendship started.
He now said, for what you did for me let us do something together for the returnees from the war zone. 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 Renaissance Builders Merchant. Renaissance because it is the East. We were buying plywood and all sorts of building materials. Alex’s brother, Lawrence was the salesman. We were making raw money.
Every week, we will do the balancing of our account. Every Sunday, after service, I will go with an envelope, Alex, this is your share of the profit we made. We were making some money then.
That friendship was so close that when I first went to open my first branch in his country home, the people gathered and broke kola nut. I made sure I established the branch of the bank in a property owned by him.
It was a Christianly or godly relationship.
So, God used Alex for me and God also used me for Alex. It is a lesson for Nigerians.
All your children are males, do you miss not having a female child?
It is the gift of God. I do have six granddaughters and ten grandsons. I think it is my genes to have more males. But the wives of my children have played the roles of daughters to me. I have been doubly blessed by God.
- TOLANI ABATTI