ARTICULATE and sociable, Chief Molade Okoya-Thomas is a well-known businessman and socialite many adore. And at 70, he’s still his ebullient self – but takes things easy, attending less social events, and working less hours. The life of the Asoju Oba of Lagos is a stunning portrait we at ENCOMIUM Magazine can’t take our eyes off …
HOW does it feel to be 70 in a country where the average life span is said to be 45years?
I feel very well, I feel contended and I am on top of the world. I have no regrets. I am happy with my life and I realized that quite a lot of people love me. I have received several messages from the very top to whatever level you can think of. That gives me a lot of satisfaction.
Sir, they say age is in the mind. Do you feel 70?
Frankly, I don’t feel 70. But now and again you will feel some aches in one part of your body and you just have to look after yourself. I don’t feel 70.
There are so many things that I can still do, I will rather answer it that way. I love playing tennis but for the fracture I have on my right hand in Paris some months ago you will still find me on the tennis court at the Lagos Lawn Tennis Court where I used to play tennis at least three times in a week. I play tennis with Dr. Olusola Saraki (showed us a portrait of the two of them in lawn tennis sport outfit). We like to oppose each other in doubles. He will take one very young, very good player, and I will take one other person also. Very, very good players. Those boys whose names you hear like Igbonovia. It’s like a war when we are on the tennis court. I enjoy playing tennis.
That probably explains you looking young. Could that be the reason why you have not retired from CFAO even at theageof70?
I have retired from CFAO. I retired in 1987.
But you are still the chairman, sir?
Yes, non-executive. I am no longer working for anybody. I am chairman to several other boards and I am also director on many boards.
What is that you know now that you did not know when you were 50 or 60?
Many things. Many, many things. Really, I did not know what life was. I was living a life of a young man, staying late at clubs. I was never a hard drinker. I have never consumed alcohol excessively. I did smoke many years ago but socially. I was never a hard smoker. But a lot of things at that time you may not understand as you now come to understand at the age of 70 or between 60 and 70. You tend to tell yourself to slow down if you have the sense. Because being 50 is different from being 60, and being 60 is different from being 70. In the year past those who attained the age of 70 were already old people, very old people. Even 60. I can give you instances, if you remember the late Ernest Ikoli, J. K. Randle, all these people died about the ages of 42, 43, 44. Bode Thomas died at the age of 32 or thereabout, and those were referred to as old people at that time. But medicine has improved a lot of things. If you have a good doctor who looks after you, and if you are careful about your life, you will be around for quite a long time.
You have lived a very illustrious life. What are you going to do in the next 10 to 20 years if God permits?
I have started that. I have started that many years ago actually because of my interest in tennis. Every year I go out to watch tennis games, all the grand slams except Australia.
Because of the distance?
Yes, because of the distance. I go to Rolandvanis, I go to Wimbledon, I go to U.S Open …
And you were at the just concluded French Open?
Yes, I was there. I enjoy watching tennis. And when I am out (out of the country), I don’t play tennis but I walk. I walk long distance. If you know London sometimes I walk from the city to West End where I live in London. That is a long distance. And I can do that every day. That is also a very good exercise. Swimming is also very good, I used to swim a lot but I stopped swimming because I was swimming in a public swimming pool. I haven’t got a swimming pool at home.
I don’t think I will ever put a swimming pool at home because of my grandchildren, to avoid accident. I used to swim a lot in public swimming pool but I realized the water in most of these swimming pools are never clean. That is why I stopped swiming. But when I am out of the country, especially when I visit Las Vegas, where I have a very, very good friend who owns one. Like Hotel Casinos in Las Vegas, if I stay there for a week, I will swim every day of that week.
What memories of childhood do you still have?
I have wonderful memories of my childhood because I was brought up by parents who loved me so much.
Were you the only child?
No, no. I was the only child of my mother but I wasn’t the only child of my father. Right now I still have a living sister and brother. But I was spoilt because it took a long time before I came. After the marriage I think it took maybe nearly 10 years.
So, you were the first child?
No, I wasn’t the first child. The first child died several years ago. One of my sisters was married to Akarigbo of Remoland, Oba Awolesi and one of my brothers was an engineer. Brother Tunji, who went to Kings College. I am the first child but I was not only the child of my parents, I was the child of the whole Olowogbowo area (Lagos Island). Because my father spoilt me so much and gave me everything. When I was growing up my father built three tennis tables for me and it was in front of our house for my friends and myself. He also bought about four bicycles for me. The moment I ride and it has a small scratch somewhere, I will tell him I don’t like this again go and buy another one. He really spoilt me. I was known at that time as akebaje (a spoilt child).
Didn’t this affect your education then?
It did at the early stage. I had everything you can think of. There are people in this country, especially in Lagos and those whose heritage is from Olowogbowo area who will testify to this. On June 8 every year my father will arrange something like empire game (sports competition in those days). The empire games comes up on May 24, and immediately after that the major sports competition was in front of our house at Olowogbowo, where boys will come from Lafiaji, Campos to vie for prizes in my honour. This was the way I was brought up. When I started to grow up, my father instructed his driver to teach me how to drive. And at the young age of about 16 I was able to drive myself to school, Baptist Academy in Morris Oxford.
Baptist Academy was definitely not at Obanikoro then?
It wasn’t, it was at Broad Street.
The name Chief Molade Okoya-Thomas is synonymous with a popular abbreviation CFAO. When did that association between you and that name start?
Between myself and CFAO it started in 1959. But between my father and CFAO, it started in 1902. CFAO was established in 1902. It was two French men and my father that started CFAO in this country. My father worked with CFAO for 52 years and I worked in CFAO for 26 years. I later retired to become a non-executive director of the company. I have enjoyed my association with the company. Those who were at the helms of things in CFAO when I joined in 1959, especially a gentleman called Monsieur George Lantern also worked with my father. Those who were in Paris like Mr. Mourilorn and Mr. Moule also worked with my father in Nigeria. They also took me as a child of CFAO even though I was grown up and qualified in accounting. In fact, the latter part of my education in England was sponsored by CFAO. After I qualified I went to CFAO in Liverpool to understand the system of accounting in CFAO. Because it was different then. It was French system. And since then there has been no problem. I have enjoyed my association with CFAO, I go to CFAO in Paris once a year.
What is the full meaning of that abbreviation, CFAO?
The full meaning is Companie Franciase O’Afrique Occidental.
Can’t it be translated to English?
It simply means French West African Company.
Just like UAC?
Exactly. A conglomerate. UAC was the first to come and then CFAO. In those years they were dealing mostly in produce. They were exporting produce – cocoa, groundnut and things like that in this country. Some of them had small shops like Suprets which was a distributing point. But then they grew, they grew into doing a lot of other things. In CFAO, there are several divisions. We have general imports, we have Poltex which they sold. We have Structec. You will see some names today that you may not associate with CFAO. They have also gone into industry. They manufacture big pen, Maltex and one or two other companies. It’s a conglomerate today as you said like UAC.
Your association with CFAO probably explained your relationship with France and French people to the extent that you were given one of the highest national awards …
It was the beginning. My interactions with French friends in Nigeria also helped me to establish myself amongst people in this country. I was chairman of Franco- Nigeria Chamber of Commerce at one time. I have four different honours from France. I have D’aize Letter, which is Arts and Letters. I have Nationale De merit. I have the Legen D’Honoure and the highest one which is Commandeer D’ … is the one that I got from President Chirac himself, when he visited Nigeria.
You inherited CFAO from your daddy …
(Cuts in) I didn’t inherit the whole of CFAO from my daddy. It was the wish of daddy. My daddy was still living when I travelled to England and it was his wish that I come back and work in CFAO. He told me that specifically.
Is it also your own wish that one or two of your children will continue from where you will stop in CFAO?
The time has changed. Two of my children are in banking and one of them is a businessman. He started as a banker and then decided he would go into business. And one of them is in politics as well.
We know that one, Honourable Jumoke Okoya-Thomas.
What will you say is the secret of your success as a businessman?
I don’t know how to measure success in life. I am a contented person. I don’t step on people’s toes. I believe I have been hard working in my life and I have been honest to the best of my ability. I do not like to rob anybody of his own property, and I don’t like to take what does not belong to me. I worked very hard. I really worked very hard. Even now that I should be resting – usually I come into the office by 9 o’clock and sometimes I don’t leave here until 6 o’clock or 7 o’clock. I still work very hard. Some of my friends tell me I should slow down – but working hard is a form of exercise because when you think you use your brain. Physically, I am still fit and so there is no reason I should be sleeping in the house the whole of the day right now. When I start to walk with walking stick then I will realize that I am old. Then I will change my lifestyle.
In essence, you are saying the secret of your success is hard work?
Yes. Hard work, honesty. Honesty is very important.
You will recommend these to up and coming young men?
Oh yes, I do recommend them. I am happy to see a lot of young men today working so hard in the manner that I did when I was young. If you notice, especially in the banking sector, there are quite a lot of young men who have done so well. They have achieved their own success through dint of hard work. There is no other way. People that have used other ways in this country are known. For me, I have little respect for such people.
A lot of Nigerians look up to you as a role model, who do you look up to as your own role model?
One of them is late now and that is Chief I. S. Adewale. He was a great man. Unfortunately in Nigeria once you are late most people don’t remember you anymore. But those who were associated with you will continue to remember you. It was Chief I. S. Adewale that prompted me to go into social life. In those years when Chief I. S. Adewale came back from England, I was a young man. He was a lawyer and living at Idita with his mother.
Where is that one?
Around Olowogbowo. Chief I. S. Adewale in the central part of Lagos will bring even the governors of those years to his place at Idita for parties. We used to stand behind the crowd to see how this man was living and enjoying himself. He was my major role model. He later became the chairman of Island Club, and I used to think then Chief Adewale was the chairman of Island, one day I would be the chairman of Island Club and I was. There are other role models?
You are an icon. What is the most difficult thing about being an icon?
Life is ups and downs. Everything cannot be rosy, you just have to take whatever comes in your stride. You just have to be careful that you don’t do things you will regret later. You must respect your elders. That is very important. I have respect for our traditions. I have chieftaincy titles now. I became the Asoju Oba of Lagos at the age of 32. That also was prompted by the relationship between my late father and late Oba Adeyinka Oyekan. At the age of 32, I became the Asoju Oba. I was the youngest chief and nobody below that age has ever been made a chief since then.
Being close to the late Akarigbo of Remoland, Oba Awolesi also prompted my second chieftaincy title.
What is it called?
Bobashuwa of Remo. Also being close to Ooni of Ife, I am Odofin of Ife. Oba Tejuosho is a very good friend, he also made me Asalu Oba Oke Ona of Egbaland. I have been offered other chieftaincy titles but those four are enough. If I have 11 chieftaincy titles, I will not be called Chief 11 times, it will only be once.
You are also a regular face at social gatherings – does it also explain your respect for tradition?
I have reduced that. The problem that I have is that once you are sociable and very well known and respected, you are bound to be invited to parties. And because of my style of life, because of my business involvement, because of many friends that I have and who love me, I find myself being invited to many parties. I have never in my life been to a party or place where I was not invited. But then in recent years I felt it was time to reduce my activities socially. For quite sometimes now, I have not been going to all the parties that I have been invited. I still get a lot of invitation cards. What I do these days is to ask somebody to go and represent me. That is why you won’t find my ugly face on the pages of newspapers anymore.
Sir, most times when you wear native dress it is always in white. What is so special about the colour?
I like the colour white. Yes, it is elegant. For me, it denotes your mind as well – a plain mind. I have other colours but you can say I prefer white to most other colours.
If you notice all the pictures here (the board room adjacent to his personal office where the interview took place) they are all in white.
We also observe that you wear more of native dress more than suits or English attires?
Yes. When I am in the country I wear native, and when I am outside this country I don’t put on our national dress except on one or two occasions. For example, when I went with the president to Paris. When I am in Europe I don’t put on national dress but when I am in national dress it is so comfortable. When I was working as an executive in CFAO, I never went to work in national dress but when I retired, I then started to feel that I am also an elder, especially at my age.
I have many friends and many of them are very close. So, I cannot tell you that this person is my closest friend. But the name that you know Chief Rasak Okoya, we are very close.
So the relationship between you and Chief Rasak Okoya is based on friendship and not blood relationship?
Yes, there is no blood relationship. We are very close as brothers and we do a lot of things together. He is a close friend but there are many others. I have never been disappointed by friends, and I believe I have never disappointed anyone.
Let us get a bit personal – where and when did you meet mummy?
I met my wife when she was in school at the Holy Child in 1955. I was in Baptist Academy.
You met as students then?
We were both students. It was the first time I toasted and things worked and we fell in love and it’s been 42 years now since we got married.
What was the attraction then?
She is a very decent lady. She comes from a very good family – the Moore family from Yaba. She’s been very helpful, she’s been very patient, especially in those years we go out as boys to the Island Club and come in late. She’s always been very patient with me. She has assisted me a lot in keeping my balance.
How many children has the marriage produced?
I do have children. We have very good children. They make me happy. And I have many grandchildren. I like to have my grandchildren in the house on Sundays.
Will you say at 70 you are fulfilled?
I think so. I think God has blessed the family. God has blessed me and I give thanks to God.
What is the greatest lesson that life has taught you?
One major lesson life has taught me is to respect our elders. If you respect your elders you are bound to be respected by those coming behind you. You must also respect yourself, and at any given time present yourself as a gentleman.
Chief Molade Okoya Thomas spoke to ENCOMIUM Special in 2005. Interview conducted by Tolani Abatti