I was supposedly born as a special child, which symbol in line with Yoruba tradition manifests in my relatively long given names – Shakiru Olabosipo Olajimi Adebisi; so, if only for convenience, I simply go by Jimi Adebisi Lawal. Mum and dad were both from Ijebu Ode, my city of birth and early childhood.
We were not born with the proverbial silver spoon or pampered, but we were a comfortable middle class family. Dad was an educationist, a teacher, lecturer and part of the post-colonial first Grade Two teachers, who also went to the University of Ibadan and became a principal of many colleges. These included the Teachers Training College, Ota and Ago-Iwoye Secondary School.
It was a very strict family upbringing. Dad believed that knowledge is power and so the best thing you could do was to sit down and read your books. He was also not one to spare the rod and spoil the child.
Growing up, I was called “Omo teacher’ or ‘Omo 36’. The origin of the 36 reference was very simple; when you committed an infraction and were brought before Dad, you would almost be sure to receive 36 strokes of the cane in one go from him. And this he would usually do from one spot, and almost without blinking! So, most of the people that Dad taught in the South-West knew him very well; as it was practically impossible to pass through such a disciplinarian and forget about him.
We were also quite a mobile family. As a principal and later an education inspector, Dad would be posted from Oyo to Ogun this week and the other week to Lagos; all being part of the then Western Region. That was the structure of the school system at that time and that was how I grew up.
We were a family of 11 and Dad had 3 wives which was normal with most well-to-do homes then. And as I was later told, I was supposed to have been the first born child, of my parents. My mother was the first wife and she is eighty-three years now. As the story went, their first son died. And this was in the same day that the second son – my brother, Remi – was born. Dad was very sad over the loss. He was consoled with a dream that the dead son would be replaced with a better one in the near future; which he believed and took to heart.
Eighteen months down the road, I was born. And in line with his belief, I had to be named Olabosipo Olajimi. Abbreviated, some called me Jimi while others preferred Bosipo. I also had nicknames from my classmates – Champion Bosi or Professor. My name has a traditional meaning. It means, “back to prime position”, and I was literally named to compensate for the loss of the first son. So growing up, so much was being expected from me. This explains the toga of being a special child.
There also exists a second memorable complication in that I was born with asthma. Being asthmatic in those days was like living with a death sentence and it used to cost so much money then to raise an asthmatic child. In those days, when the attack came, it would feel like I was going to die.
Even the memory of it now still haunts me but I have really been lucky and blessed in life. I had since stopped coughing and I’m now a nature therapist, with no medication whatsoever in over four decades. When I am tired I just go to sleep. I don’t take any medicine whatsoever, be it Aspirin or Panadol. I just sleep and wake up and eat and there is no way I would not go to the gym within every two to three days.
But my ease with asthma now is a far-cry from my days growing up. Each time I see those with asthma today having attacks, I therefore empathise with them in a deeper sense, because I had been there.
Looking back, my disability turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Unlike other children, I had to keep to myself and take things easy to reduce the chances of having attacks that would significantly affect me. Out of boredom then, I took to reading and read constantly. So, my being a life-long bookworm is as a result of the fact that I have had no choice other than to read. Till date the habit has struck and I almost cannot do without reading. If you go to my bedroom now, you will find out that there will be at least two books that I am reading at the same time. It is really the source of who I am today.
The same situation was applicable to my Islamic education. The way Quranic learning was carried out was by memorizing and it is more difficult than reading. I was trained in English and I understand the language but nobody y really taught us the Arabic language. We just memorized all the verses of the Quran. Till date, I can remember by heart several of the verses of the Quran because I learnt them. With this background, I find that I can repeat most of what I read as they stay in my memory. For me, it is like opening a page without seeing the page.
My early education was not typical. When I outgrew asthma and had to go to school, a special arrangement had to be put in place for me. Largely then, I was home taught by my teacher-father in my infancy and given the attention he gave to it, I caught up quite fast to the extent that Remi and I took common entrance jointly and on passing, were admitted to start From 1 together at Muslim College, Ijebu-Ode.
In our Form 4, Dad had a near fatal accident and was bedridden for months without salary, such that he could not pay our school fees and we were asked to withdraw from school. However, on account of my outstanding academic records, I was allowed to take my school Certificate Examination from Class 4, which luckily I passed. The same consideration was unfortunately not extended to Remi, even though he was also brilliant; so I left my elder brother in secondary school.
BANKING FINDS ME
Whilst growing up I had a single-minded ambition of being a banker. You know when a new wife is married into a family in Yorubaland; she is not allowed to call the younger ones in the family by name and uses pet names. It was in this way that the wife of my Uncle nicknamed me ‘Doctor’. But I refused, and told her back then, at age ten, that I was not going to be a doctor, but a bank manager. So, she calls me bank manager until tomorrow.
She asked me why I wanted to be a banker. I then told her about how I had come to like banking through the activities of my trader-grandmother, Mama Ode, who was the leader of the market women and fishermen in the community and would usually take me along with her to the bank to make her deposits. I was attracted to the profession by the tie and neat appearance of bank managers.
BARCLAYS BANK DAYS
My journey to getting into my dream career happened just like that. I had taken my visiting Uncle to the 40 Marina, Lagos head office of Barclays Bank for him to write an employment test and shortly after we got there, one of the invigilators suddenly asked all the candidates to get seated to begin the test. At this point, I made to go out, but he stopped me and after confirming that I had sat for the school certificate exams stated that if I did not mind, I could also sit in and write the test; that there was no harm in trying! I did and when then scripts were graded, I had emerged as one of the top three best performers! It was such a dramatic turn of events that I remember being taken before the British staff Manager, Ron Dietritch, who quizzed me some more, and upon his being satisfied, asked that I return on Monday for my letter. I had been offered a job!
On getting home, my Dad asked me if all had gone well with my escort duties and I answered in the affirmative, adding that I had also gotten a job from the bank in the process. He laughed and thought I was joking. But when it later transpired that I was not, he still would not approve for me to take up the job as I was required to further my studies. So, I had to beg and cry for days before Dad relented.
My subsequent career rise was also meteoric as I was the regular beneficiary of promotions, bonuses and salary increases. But having my sights on something more, I knew I had to get a higher education. When I told Dietritch, who had also become my branch manager of my further education plans, he seemed upset and he asked me to go and bring my Dad. When Dad came with me, I was shocked by the tone their exchange. “That’s a very prized son you have there; please do everything to help him fulfill all of his goals. I will also be available to helpout as much as I can.” Rather than a rebuke, I was getting a commendation and expressions of even further support he had pledged.
On completion of my preliminary studies and the professional examinations at the City Banking College and the South West College, Dietritch sent me word that Union Bank, the successor to Barclays Bank in Nigeria after the 1977 indigenization processes, was coming to set up shop in London and encouraged me to apply. I did and began work there as one of the pioneer staff of the Union Bank, London Branch.
ONE GOOD TURN…
One of my more remarkable reminiscences of my day with Union Bank, London was on the day I met the then Colonel Ibrahim Babangida in 1983. He had walked into the branch to process a draft but was not being paid because the foreign exchange cover had not been received from Nigeria where the transaction was originated.
When the issue was brought to my notice, I reviewed the facts of the matter and concluded that he should be paid. When he found out how the headache had been cleared, he requested to see me. He asked why I had taken the decision to pay him and I explained that I was professionally satisfied. Besides, it was also, I told him, not very likely that an officer of his rank and standing, who was still in the service of the Nigerian Army, would travel all of those miles to come and play games in London. He was impressed and reached out to give me some money but I turned it down. He then gave me his card with a blanket invitation to call upon him anytime I was in Nigeria.
A couple of years later in 1985, I read from our regular supply of Nigerian newspapers that there had been a coup in Nigeria and the new military President was the same Ibrahim Babangida that had given me that invitation. So, I renewed the acquaintance by sending him a letter of congratulations; to which he responded promptly with a renewed invitation.
On getting to Dodan Barracks, my name was at the security gate and I was ushered in to see the President. Babangida welcomed me warmly and after pleasantries asked about my future plans. I told him I was interested in getting a banking license. He responded, “From what I already know about you, you will surely do well in banking. Go and talk to my Finance Minister.” President Babangida was truly charming.
I met Dr. Chu Okongwu who was the Minister of Finance then; we talked and the process was underway.
SETTING UP ALPHA MERCHANT BANK
While President Ibrahim Babangida had given his blanket support for the project, there were however nuts and bolts issues to work out. One of these had to do with getting reputable shareholders, at least twenty, given the restriction of five percent per investor and then raising the statutory minimum share capital of N5 Million – about five million US dollars. We then had to file a formal application with the Central Bank and fulfill all the stipulated conditions.
I went to all the people I could reach to interest them in the project. Obasanjo gave his word to come on board and did in fact effected payment of the initial deposit of N50,000 each for himself and Dr. Soleye. Babangida would not consent to being involved at this time because of his position.
A prominent businessman, Lord Chief Ifegwu was a most generous supporter and there was also another investor, Chief Micheal Omisade, who I was favourably disposed at this time, to his serving as Chairman; but on hearing this, Obasanjo backed off and requested his money back. He was adamant and all my appeals and those of my father-in-law who facilitated the introduction fell on deaf ears. It was him or Omisade. Even Chief Omisade offered to apologise for having wronged him in the past but Obasanjo bluntly refused. So, I had to choose and decided to go on the basis of first-come, first-served. Of course, I was upset over this development but with the benefit of hindsight, I ought to have thought more deeply about it then.
At the subsequent, meeting of shareholders, we were however still having something like a 20 percent equity shortfall to be raised; which made the loss of ten percent from Obasanjo and Soleye even more frustrating. But I had to stick to principle. At this point, the protem Chairman, Chief Omisade requested for a private audience with Ifegwu. He requested Ifegwu to loan him personally the sum required to pay for the outstanding shares, pledging his house in Victoria Island – the venue of the meeting as collateral.
Rather than agree to this arrangement, Ifegwu returned to the meeting, agreed to give an advance for the shortfall for those that had not paid but then turned to me, requesting that I give him there and then a written undertaking that I, as the chief promoter and originator of the project would pay him back the said sum in future or in the event of a default, the shares would then revert to his nominees in lieu. Everyone was grateful and I was particularly touched and humbled, but Omisade expressed disappointment that Ifegwu turned him down for me.