By Emefu Ibe, Abuja
The assertion that Nigeria is a blessed nation, is a truism of monumental dimensions.
And in spite of the disparaging acts of a few charlatans across disciplines in the geo-polity, there still abounds in the land, men of character and value, the thought of whose principles and actions ignite hope.
These symbols of greatness have by their deeds across time, reverently and consistently lifted the banners of genuine brotherhood, business integrity, dexterity, true statesmanship, exemplary industry, perseverance, and every other value of importance. And by a mixture of sheer grit and hard work, while steering their business brands, they have become creators of employment, bastions of treasured values, crusaders of sustainability and worthy legacies, incubators of financial substances, as well as society’s solid standard references for success and notable history makers.
In this pack is the cerebral entrepreneur, a rare gem with panache, Christian with infectious value system, and the possessor of many positively inspiring titles – Otunba Michael Olasubomi Balogun. Call him a symbol of the true Nigerian dream, and you would be stating the obvious. That dream encapsulates warm relationship with and accommodation for people of other ethnicities, religions and cultural values, patriotism and visioning, – vital ingredient in the founding and nurturing of enterprises, as well as the spirit of altruism and help for others in need. In all these, the beloved Otunba has an impressive record.
Many stories of him in the public space are tonics for motivation, for embedded in them are the lessons of dexterity, doggedness and commitment. A typical example is the story of the quest to obtain a banking license for the First City Monument Bank (FCMB), which today has become a premium banking brand. “What I did at that time was unheard of in this country, for one individual to say he single-handedly wanted to establish a bank”, as against the statutory requirement for the bank promoter to have a foreign partner, which Otunba Balogun did not have.
“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, ‘I just pity Daddy. Why can’t he go and start his own bank, instead of wanting to be the Chief Executive of somebody else’s bank?”
In obeying that submission however, Otunba Balogun came face to face with hurdles, which without vision, commitment and the help of God, would have overwhelmed him.
In retrospect, he said: “it was Alhaji Otiti and the former Vice President, late Dr 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 cannot give you a license because you don’t have a technical partner’. You know my reply? I said, “God is my partner”. Though Otiti had reassured him by saying, “Subomi don’t worry, the CBN governor and I would arrange something provisionally, which will enable you run that bank and later, look for a foreign technical partner”, it did not happen exactly that way.
Here again, you cannot but agree that divinity was at work for him, ensuring the opening of another door upon the closing of one. Rather than Otiti, it was former Vice President, now late Chief Alex Ekwueme, who had been a friend well before the civil war, that God positioned for him and used. Balogun and his wife just resolved to ‘waylay’ Ekwueme in church.
Hear the world class banker “At the Cathedral Church, my wife and I planned that when Alex was being led out that I would grab his cloth 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?’ 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 your license has been approved’. True friendship, across ethnic lines had spoken, a friendship that had taken strong roots long before Otunba’s moment of need.
It was a clear case of one good turn deserving another, which lessons would become more obvious. Recalled from the point of view of Otunba Balogun himself:
“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 receiving the 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.”
Otunba Balogun narrated: “In those days, we didn’t use cheques much, it was all cash. So, I gave him the money. I told him I renovated his house, rented it out and this is the rent I collected. Dr Alex Ekwueme looked at me, he could not believe it. All he could mutter was “Mike, I am grateful”. It is the kind of reciprocity that only men of integrity are made of. It can be imagined what could have happened, if Otunba had not before then, shown himself trustworthy. Perhaps, his aspiration to birth a bank would have remained a pipe dream. On the other hand, having been tested, he became trusted, and at the point he needed help, to establish his own bank, the help came readily and easily.
Today, several other companies have sprouted from the brand, and they include: FCMB Group Plc, subsidiaries such as First City Monument Bank (FCMB), CSL Stockbrokers, FCMB Capital Markets, First City Asset Management Limited (FCAM), FCMB Microfinance Bank and FCMB UK. There are also, FCMB Pensions Limited and FCMB Trustees Limited.
There is more to the life of this man to demonstrate his ever willingness to be of service. For example, in a situation where many still tend to cause divisions, using religious inclination, Otunba Balogun, has by his philanthropy, not only blurred the line, but obliterated it.
He gives to the Jew as much as he does to the Gentile. So much, he had taken it upon himself to invest in the spiritual growth of Christians in his hometown, through an annual retreat and many more. Interestingly, this retreat also accommodates Muslims. What is the essence? The objective is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, worship the Almighty God, touch, and impact humanity. Why not, when he was made the Asiwaju of Ijebu Christians, even when his mother was the Iyasuna of Muslims there, and he has continued to enjoy the prayers and well wishes of all and sundry.
“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”, Baba, as he is fondly called by many around him, enthused.
He is Otunba, and further, they decided also to make him the Olori Omo Oba (the head of all the king’s children) and yet, the Asiwaju of Ijebu Christians as well as the Olori Ebi of the Arojojoye Ruling House in Ijebu Ode, of Ogun State. That town is also host of the multi-billion Naira Otunba Tunwase Paediatric Centre which he recently gave out as a total gift, to the University of Ibadan and the University College Hospital (UCH), both in Ibadan. This is aside regular donations and lending support to worthy courses far and wide which altogether, continually proclaim the kindheartedness of this true symbol of a classic Nigerian brand.
“I am always joyous to do good and to have people around me, wherever you come from. And the good Lord has always been faithful to me”. Otunba Balogun also proves that people do not always hit it big early in their careers but should see each modest stage in life as a step to something greater in the future. His immediate job before jetting out of the country for the proverbial golden fleece was as a classroom teacher. And even when he was done with schooling in the United Kingdom, he did not allow the flash lifestyle there, tie him down.
Many other jobs he landed had enough pecks to keep him hooked, but he was persuaded enough to give to each, only what was necessary. Such included the engagement at the Western Region’s Ministry of Justice, where he was a Crown Counsel and later, a Parliamentary Counsel, at the Nigerian Industrial Development Bank, a dream workplace, for many young Nigerians then and also at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), the famous World Bank, and its subsidiary, -the International Finance Corporation (IFC) both in Washington DC.
Armed with a bigger vision of himself and tomorrow, he promptly returned to the country, and began to explore business ownership options. His rewards and recognitions have come in quantum– profit for investments, commendation for good works, good name around town, and fulfilment in life.
But the icing is the joining the class of distinguished Nigerians, bestowed with the prestigious national honour of Commander of the Officer of the Niger (CON). For being a true symbol of the Nigerian dream, Otunba Michael Olasubomi Balogun deserves all the accolades he is getting across globe. All men of goodwill obviously doff their hats today, for this rare gift of a man and chorus for him, the prayer of many more days in the land of the living, in good health of body, of mind and of the soul. Nothing less can suffice as birthday gift for the billionaire with panache, as this architect of history, Otunba Balogun, turns 88 this month.