By Gbolahan Alli-Balogun
He is reputed to be one of the wealthiest men of his days. Ninety years after his passing, his reputation still looms large.
Sheikh Alli Balogun, a renowned businessman, was born in 1830 by a Nupe Prince father of Tapa ancestry and an Awori woman from Isale Eko. He died in Lagos in 1933.
His name is synonymous with Lagos. So popular was his name that nearly a century after his passing, he remained iconic. Alli Balogun was a wealthy businessman, religious leader and politician in Lagos in the late 18th century. Alli Balogun, in his early life, was a deeply spiritual kid who had a deep knowledge of Islam and the Qur’an. He lost his dad as a kid, and his uncle had to take charge of his upbringing. But even that did not last, as his uncle also passed.
Right from his young age, he knew that he could no longer rely on his father’s business mentality, and that the business that his father established must be built upon and taken to the next level. He soon broke out on his own and took full control of his life.
His first effort at fully fending for himself was in trading in bits and ends, especially iron bands, known locally as oja agba. He started off brightly but things moved rather slowly. Very soon, he analysed his competition and his opportunities and came up with the idea that, all alone, he could not reach all of his intended targets without some form of assistance from deploying more human resources to his business. So, he employed a band of people to assist him trade extensively while he conducted the business from the top. Fortune soon smiled on him because by trading outside religious, ethnic and other sectional lines with his itinerant small timers, he was able to garner a critical mass of customers to satisfy on a daily basis. But, much more than his trading instincts, was his ability to keep his accounting books.
He was so adept at keeping his accounts, it was said, that he knew by rote all his transactions and those carried out by his subordinates. With time, he opened his own shops and he was no longer itinerant, even though his employees still were. Sensing his business acumen and his visible success, he was approached by a retinue of European companies to be their representative in Lagos and in the hinterland, trading in merchandise.
This was the beginning of the stupendous wealth of Alli Balogun. Having to trade with those in the hinterland, he figured out pretty quickly that he had to invest more in a transport system. He chose to massively invest in merchandise bearing canoes along the rivers, lagoons and creeks by which he could easily reach out to the hinterland. This was to markedly improve his fortune and earned him the sobriquet Alli Oloko (essentially because of his merchandise bearing trading canoes).
Like all forward-looking shrewd business people, he decided to diversify into another line of business that will challenge more his sharp intellect. Meanwhile, he had become so successful from merchandising and he was living large. He had imported a Rolls Royce car from the United Kingdom and after a few years, bought yet another Rolls Royce, making two, the second of which he rode during Muslim holidays and festivities.
Then came the idea of supporting entrepreneurs to engage in any line of business and be successful at it, especially those who lacked the financial muscles to attain a decent start or those who had run into financial rough weather in the process. Combining his book keeping skills and his money liquidity, he set up shop to be a financial potentate in what was then a loose financial regulatory environment. In a short while, he became adept at it, made so much money that he became a first point of call, an alternative and subsequently a competitor, to the risk management functions of the only bank in Nigeria at the time- the British Bank of West Africa (the precursor of today’s First Bank of Nigeria).
Clearly, the most financially successful man of his time, Alli Balogun was the largest depositor in the British Bank of West Africa in that era. Having conquered the business world, he expanded his empire. Alli Balogun decided to venture into real estate. While he invested in properties with his own proceeds, he also benefited from properties as a result of asset foreclosures and forfeitures from his risk management business.
He built a lavish property of his own on Victoria Street (now Nnamdi Azikiwe Street) and called it “Makanjuola House’, a name which also became one of his many aliases. At Muslim festivities, he had the habit of returning the title deeds of foreclosed properties to their former owners. This gesture was always anticipated and was met with joy and celebration every year. Still, by the time Alli Balogun died on July 13 1933, he had a total of 44 properties, mostly on Lagos Island, save for the one in Iddo; opposite the Railway Terminus.
One other noticeable interesting attitude of Alli Balogun was his non-belief in courtship between young people before marriage. He would simply give out his daughters in marriage to his friends and acolytes. Indeed, his first daughter was given out in marriage to the Chief Imam of Lagos, Imam Ibrahim. Subsequently, his other marriage-age daughters were betrothed to other noble Lagos families.
Given his reach, wealth and influence in Lagos, it was a question of time before Alli Balogun played the politics of his time. The seed for his full involvement in Lagos politics was sown by the British Colonial Government in 1899 when the Colonial Governor, Sir William MacGregor appointed Alli Balogun a member of the General Sanitation Board. Mixing business with religion and politics, the business magnate succeeded.
And many years saw him calling the shot in Lagos politics. While he was dip in the politics of Lagos there were some policies in terms of levels and constitutional matters such as appointments that were resisted. He was involved in intrigues that led to the suspension of the then Oba Eshugbayi of Lagos, but reason prevailed, and Oba Eshugbayi was reinstated after he agreed to cancel his controversial appointments.
That Alli Balogun was a deeply religious man was an understatement. There was a fracas in the religious setting at that time where different factions emerged. It was in the midst of all these that Alli Balogun decided to build his own mosque, a stone’s throw from the Central Mosque, on Victoria Street, now Nnamdi Azikiwe Street. An architectural masterpiece, it had cost him £10,000 at its completion in 1925. His mosque would later serve as a Central Mosque where Jumat prayers were held. It was such a prophetic riposte. Six decades down the line in the 1980s when the old Central Mosque was pulled down for the building of a new one, the Alli Balogun mosque assumed the position of the Lagos Central Mosque, for the number of years it took for the new Central Mosque to be built.
A tall man with an imposing, stately stature, Alli Balogun was highly reputed for his philanthropy, particularly in his avowed and unflinching support to the cause of Islam. Indeed, it was asserted that Alli Balogun was formally introduced to Lagos Royalty by the King of Saudi Arabia in the 1800s because of his philanthropic activities. Not only did he build his own mosque, he also channelled his immense resources towards supporting the Jumat Central Mosque; accented and initiated by his name being the first of the eight signatories to the address read at the commissioning of the new Lagos Central Mosque in July 1913, at which Oba Eshugbayi Eleko was in attendance. Aside, he supported morally and financially in building several mosques in Lagos and Ejinrin. He equally provided resources for native institutions and funded many. These include the Glover Memorial Hall, the Industrial and Commercial Bank, the Nigerian Mercantile Bank, and the Young Ansar- Ud- Deen Society School, among many others.
Alli Balogun also took a firm stand in the direction of western education. Even though an ardent Muslim, he insisted that his children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, grand nephews and grandnieces should benefit from western education and provided resources to do so. But, more importantly, even the children of his relatives, those of his servants and their children who lived in the neighbourhood were all encouraged to go to school. To make their admission to school easier and to demonstrate who was in charge of footing the bill, quite a number of the non-family beneficiaries even registered their wards with the Alli Balogun surname.
Still, nothing supports Alli Balogun’s philanthropic disposition better than his last will and testament. The will had Alli Balogun’s friend, Henry Carr, O.B.E as Executor and Trustee. After bequeathing some of his huge possessions to the Central Mosque, his children and grand children, he directed that any of his children or grandchildren who showed an aptitude to study Medicine, Law or Civil Engineering should be sent to England for the programmes and the fees and upkeep should be funded from his Alli Balogun Residuary Trust Fund. After this, he applied his mind to his neighbourhood and gave out properties and monetary gifts to all and sundry. Alli Balogun, would bequeath his will to benefit even those living in his neighbourhood’ Variously nicknamed as Alli Oloko, essentially because of his fleet of trading canoes, some of which he had inherited from his illustrious father and built upon, he was also referred to as Baba L’oke, Kinihun Onibudo, Alli Dodondawa and Makanjuola but it was his chieftaincy title that stuck to his name, hence he became most popular as Alli Balogun.\ Neatly carved on the white marble tombstone, underneath where he was buried on Victoria Street (now Nnamdi Azikiwe Street)Lagos were the words ALLI BALOGUN 1830-1933(103 Years); and in the Yoruba , A LO MA NI GBAGBE (The Unforgettable.)
Following his death on Thursday, July 13, 1933, the Daily Times of Nigeria of July 14 1933, on its front page announced his passing as that of a Prince Merchant and a Philanthropist. On the lower right portion of the same Daily Times newspaper was the content of a telegram sent by the British Bank of West Africa to its Overseas Head Office, expressing concern about the death of the bank’s largest depositor. The telegram read: Alli Balogun is dead. What shall we do?
Such was the massive impact the life of service Alli Balogun had on Lagos, its people and its politics.