Oladele Olashore @ 75 – A Monarch For These Times

Time to eulogise the living, so they know what (horrible and not so horrible) things we think of them whilst they live. And if there was one Nigerian who so richly earns our honour as he turns 75, he is Oba Oladele Olashore.

My first knowledge of – then Mr. – Olashore was through the eyes of a crop of brilliant professionals – bankers and economists – that my company, Alfa Communications Ltd., had carefully assembled to form the formidable "Editorial Board" for its pioneering authoritative banking handbook, Nigeria Banking Annual (incorporating Who's Who in Banking). That was way back in 1985 (25 years ago). Included in the team, chaired by distinguished economist, Dr. (now Professor) Ademola Ariyo of the University of Ibadan, were Alex Bamgbola (then MD of Nigerian-American Merchant Bank), Isaac Aluko-Olokun (then of UBA before moving to UAC and later to become Minister and Ambassador), Ayo Olagundoye (then of IMB, later MD of Chartered Bank and National Bank), Kayode Ilesanmi (an old school-mate, economist and civil servant, later to retire as a federal Perm. Sec), Ugochukwu Okoroafor (a financial journalist of Punch newspapers, later senior banker at Afribank and now Deputy Director at CBN), with my friend and partner, Remi Akano and myself, from the ALFA instituting body. Others like Prof. J.A.T Ojo of Unilag and Dr. Boniface Chizea (then of UBA) were contributors.

How times have changed! In those days, these amazing gentlemen were only motivated by the intellectual challenge of a pioneering journal and the opportunity it offered them to pronounce on the banking industry to which most of them belonged. ALFA, barely a year old, had little of standing and even less of money. But they all still committed their time and effort, assiduously, towards a glorious project – Dr. Ariyo making the trip down to Lagos as often as called.

To further assert their self-appointed banking-pontiff role, the Editorial Board, in 1986, decided to institute a Banker of the Year Award. It was bold and novel over an industry that was (then) very, very shy. That was when Mr. Oladele Olashore, MD/CEO of First Bank of Nigeria Ltd. (FBN), was tabled and came to my closer study. With a singular voice that was not after repeated, everyone on the team voted for this Olashore, each person scoring his various professional and intellectual attributes which he brought to bear in making the First Bank truly first. Furthering the rigorous effort of the Board, questionnaires were sent out to poll the top cadre of the banking industry and of the banks' enlightened publics, giving a list of criteria upon which to score the CEOs of the available banks then. The result came only to confirm the unanimous voice of the Editorial Board: Mr. Oladele Olashore shone head and shoulder above his peers!

Then in an absurd twist of fate, after the media had run the outcome of our survey and before an investiture date was to be announced, came the shocking news on national media networks: Oladele Olashore has been sacked (with immediate effect and "automatic alacrity") from the exalted position as MD/CEO of FBN. The announcement came from Vice-Admiral Augustus Aikhomu, General Babangida's vice-president citing "irreconcilable differences" (between Olashore and the military government) over the government's fiscal and monetary policies!

The shock waves reverberated beyond the shores of Nigeria, as to be expected. It was almost unthinkable. There was no precedence. The most credible banker of the most leading bank in the country sacked overnight and, as the Hausa would say, haka kawai (just like that)?

We at ALFA were more than shocked. All of a sudden, media eyes were on us, now that our Banker of the Year-designate has been sacked, do we go ahead with his investiture or chicken out and, in the manner for hustlers and charlatans, throw the Award at someone else? Doing so would make "business sense" and also keep us out of any "confrontational" stance with the military government – one that could wipe us out, if it could so sack an Olashore. We resolved to go right ahead! But was Olashore ready to go ahead with a ceremony the military government may frown at?

I went and met Olashore in London where he had gone to lick his wound and re-strategise his life. It was a calm and at-peace-with-self man I met in his modest apartment on Marylebone Road, an upmarket area of West London. We had met once earlier – our first meeting ever – at his official residence in Ikoyi, Lagos a few days after his removal from office, when I went to commiserate with him.

"I've come to inform you, Sir, of my company's decision to still go ahead with the investiture regardless."

He eyed me cautiously and spoke in measured tone, "Are you guys sure of this? Why would you want to stick your necks out? It may be ill-advised."

I let him know that the choice was ours. The announcement of his winning the Award had been made public before his sack and we were obligated to go ahead; he won it on his own personal merit as a banker, on account of his banking activities in the preceding year, and has nothing to do with him still occupying the CEO seat or not. The government would be mean and petty to see the investiture as confrontational.

Whatever it was, the investiture went ahead as planned, even though without the elaborate official First Bank backing (or bankrolling) that would have attended it otherwise. General Babangida probably had weighed in to ensure his security goons spared the occasion as his own Pontius-Pilate absolution from the messy sack which had come to be seen in informed circles as Aikhomu's own personal grudge against a perceived haughtiness of the banking guru.

The occasion could hardly have been grander. The media went to town on the "dare". The event held at the then most prestigious NIIA venue in Victoria Island, Lagos, with the crème de la crème of the business and diplomatic circles in attendance. It was Olashore's crowning glory, his own spit-in-your-face hurray. The celebration carried on till night at a private party he threw at his hurriedly finished Victoria Island personal residence.

It was a glorious re-entry for him – with his head held high, unbowed.

Then began my intense personal knowledge of and relationship with this great Nigerian.

It wasn't long before I discovered that he was, in the Nigerian (particularly, Yoruba) sense my "in-law" – he, with contemporary (if not ancestral) homestead in Ijebu-Jesha, Osun State, and, by certain connection, a cousin of my direct and immediate in-law, Chief John Fademi, then the General Manager of the Broadcasting Service of Oyo State, whose wife is Adeola, my immediate younger sister. But when I thought such extrapolated relationship resolved how I was to ‘address' Mr. Olashore by calling him "ana" or in-law, he promptly and sternly remonstrated against it. He does not like the "in-law" business! Well then, "egbon" would serve.

I found this "egbon" to be an enigma of rare and sublime qualities. I was drawn to him even more as a subject of study, a puzzle to be resolved. He seemed, conversely, to have found me some object of interest or curiosity and allowed me uncommon access into his privacy, home or work. The bond got stronger.

But there can't be anyone more difficult than my egbon. That he was brutally frank and upfront I admired even if, at times, with some discomfort. And he must have found my openness and carefree disposition somewhat amusing. Not one to encourage or indulge indolence, he measured everyone harshly by his own high standards of workaholism and discipline, and was quick and ready to dispense with persons or things that, in his consideration, added no value to his life or could be a distraction to his straight and narrow focus.

"What do people think of me?" he once asked me.

"That you are a proud man," I said, "too proud."

"Good," Olashore replied, "there's nothing bad in being ‘proud'. Yes, I am proud, but not arrogant. I think being proud is a positive thing, being arrogant is empty and negative."

He knew and liked that of me, that straight-to-your-face-ness. In a country of rampant bootlicking and sycophancy, there were not many around him he could trust to tell him the truth.

But he is bloody-minded, if ever anyone was. Set in his own ways and convinced in his own inviolability and astuteness, he never turns back once he set his hands on the bow; he ploughs through uncharted course like a Trojan and deploys everything at his command to achieve his set goals.

Often, those goals are lofty and noble, and for a man not given to philanthropy, singularly elevating if not entirely altruistic. He turned the ashes of his peremptory sack as MD/CEO of First Bank into gold by steadily and systematically founding his own bank, Lead Merchant Bank, which quickly rose to formidable height under his expertise. But even that pales into insignificance in comparison to the citadel of learning he single-handedly founded and nurtured to national pre-eminence – Oladele Olashore International School (OIS), Iloko-Ijesha.

In both instances, I had the singular honour of being unobtrusively there from the scratch: the bank when a name and logo was being conceived for it and government license eagerly awaited; and the school, when it was but a forest to be cleared, and then the structures steadily emerging, and even in the search and recruitment of its first principal, an expatriate.

While it is a shock that his bank, Lead Merchant Bank, floundered and collapsed (of course after he retired and ceased to be the CEO) under the Central Bank regulation of mandatory recapitalisation, the school, OIS, has grown to become one of the top-five private secondary schools in Nigeria, rivalling the best anywhere in the world, and bringing fame and acclaim, not only to Olashore, but more to the remote and unknown Iloko.

Not only has OIS put Iloko on the map of not just Osun State but Nigeria as a whole, it has turned the hitherto shanty hamlet of Ijebu-Jesha into probably the fastest growing community in Nigeria bringing attendant dramatic social and economic growth to Iloko. Oladele Olashore can take full credit for that; and it could be said that he is the father of today's Iloko of which he is the Oba with the title Ajagbusi-ekun, Owaloko of Iloko-Ijesha.

But all of that title and appellation are largely new contrivance as is even how the, now, town is referred to. And here, the bone of contention and source of controversy, even animosity, against Oba Olashore loom.

Once in history, there was a man known as Genghis Khan (about 1162-1227). He was an astonishingly driven person who, from being sired by a mere clan chieftain, stretched his little hamlet, a haphazard patchwork of squabbling goatherds, into the vastest territory of his time and became the terrorising emperor of the Mongol Empire, an empire of unparalleled military strength, with a language, a constitution and an international postal service!

If Oladele Olashore knows of, or fancies himself as, Genghis Khan, I would not know. But that he is equally a driven man is in no doubt.

However, this is the 21st century and not the 12th century of Genghis Khan. The spectacular development and growth of Iloko has brought in its wake notions of grandeur and local superiority (if not expansionism) that worries neighbouring towns of the fiercely proud Ijesha people. In particular, the ‘parent' Ijebu-Jesha, from where Olashore sprung and that had always seen him proudly as their own, feel slapped and insulted by what they see as an arrogant and uncharitable arrogation by Oladele Olashore: Iloko is no longer to be described by its proximity and kinship to Ijebu-Jesha but the other way round! Even the obaship of Iloko, something that in the past would have derived only by the grace of the Oba of Ijebu-Jesha, now assumes a status of its own and on its own, buoyed by the intricacies and shenanigans of larger Yoruba ethnic rivalries. The neighbouring enmity once rose to such intensity that passage to Iloko from Ijebu-Jesha was a hazardous course for anyone, more so Oba Olashore.

But all that seem to be in the past. Whether Olashore was sufficiently disturbed by those challenges to lose sleep, I cannot tell for I had drawn away into the challenges of my own life and had seen less of him.

Of course, he had long seen himself as a prince for whom chieftaincy title from any source was an "infra dig". He remained simply Mr until he ascended the throne of Iloko.

When the thought of becoming the Oba of Iloko weighed heavily on his mind as something to retire to after his active banking days, he, as usual, sought my opinion. He was being prodded by some eminent monarchs in Yoruba land, either those who truly desired the enlightenment and influence his presence could bring to the increasingly debased traditional institution, or those completely taken in by the handouts they enjoyed from him, or those needing to add him to their corner in the unending royalty power games. I saw no reason why not, even if I feared that assuming such high traditional status may bring an end to the freedom and easy-nature he cherished.

Yes, freedom and easy nature! I remember when (even when) he was a Federal Secretary (Minister) of Finance in Babangida's Interim National Government contraption led by Ernest Shonekan, he came visiting the UK where I was. Mr. Olashore not only refused to lodge in any 5-star hotel at government expense, rather opting to stay in his modest flat in Maida Vale, West London, he carried on with his simple and private life with he and me going to the high street to shop for ingredients to make our soup and amala! Yes, my wife, or any of his own relation in London, could have been told to do the chore for us, but he preferred that opportunity to be himself that being in Nigeria had denied him!

But such closeness was not enough to sway Olashore against his judgment of what "guarding his integrity" entails, even if to my chagrin. As Federal Minister of Finance, I felt it was time that he would use his good office to make the Federal Government redeem what was owed my UK company from a PR contract which changes in government had turned problematic. And although Olashore had before assuming that office pleaded on my behalf in a note to his predecessor, he would not countenance the thought of settling my case. What, he asked, would people think of it? Would it not be interpreted as him having done it on account of our friendship? Would I want his integrity tainted?

There are just too many things we did and shared that space and circumstance would not allow now but would be a matter for a memoir in later years.

Iloko owes everything to Oba Olashore, but not many of his friends have stuck with him and his ways, for Oba Olashore is as difficult and unyielding as he is dodged and driven. Not one for saying "sorry" to anyone, even if he were in the wrong, he would rather grin and bear the loss. But he still enjoys the loyalty of a handful, with Mr. Akin Akinola, a protégé of his Ijesha kinship, and pioneer CEO of International Breweries, Ilesha, and Alhaji Sale Jambo (who is also an old friend and benefactor of mine), friend of his from way back in his younger days in Kano, remaining the fiercest. And, were my egbon, Chief Bola Ige, to be alive – as the "Baba Oba of the Owaloko" – he would have had to be counted.

On this 75th birthday of his, I remember and congratulate Oba Oladele Olashore with fondness and admiration. He is a monarch for these times: times of weak institutions and even weaker men; times of vanity and corruption; times when even the gods are to blame.

(Oba Oladele Olashore marks his 75th birthday on the 19th February at his palace in Iloko-Ijesha, and amongst those to receive chieftaincy titles from him to mark the occasion is my friend and amiable gentleman, Chief Tunji Alapini, the retired Assistant-General of Police. He becomes the Fiwajoye of Iloko-Ijesha).