Otunba Michael Olasubomi Balogun, Group Chairman, First City Group Limited, and the Olori Omo-Oba of Ijebu among other numerous accolades, clocked 85 last Saturday. Born on March 9, 1934, Otunba Balogun, an accomplished personality in various areas of life, especially the banking industry, in Nigeria and across the globe, needs no introduction as his prowess in the finance world, exploits in community leadership and philanthropy as well as his love and commitment to God, stand him out among his contemporaries.
In this exclusive interview with Saturday Sun in commemoration of his 85th birthday, Otunba Balogun speaks on God’s amazing grace upon his life, business, philanthropic works and challenges, among others.
How would you assess your journey in life so far?
I think assessment is in the hand of divine authority, our God. All I’ll say is that I’m extremely grateful to my maker for making me still very agile, meticulous, articulate, still behaving like someone of about 60 years old. I want to thank my maker for his awesome benevolence to humble me. The whole essence of my celebration is to give thanks to my maker and I would ask him to endow me with the wherewithal to continue to be appreciative of all He has done for me in my life.
Physically you don’t look 85. What’s responsible for your mental strength even at this age?
I’m at peace with my God. I marvel at every occasion – why has he been so kind to me? I don’t carry airs; I’m simply myself, Subomi. And it’s the amazing grace of God. Even at the climax of anything I may have achieved, I attribute everything to the awesomeness of God, His love for little me. I spend most of my time talking about God. It’s a measure of my appreciation and attributing anything that has happened to me to the amazing grace of the almighty God. That is what is responsible. I do see my contemporaries, those who have achieved ever before I was born, those who I regard as my mentors, but at every given occasion I’m amazed; why has my God been so kind to me? So I’ll spend the rest of my life just thanking Him.
Was there anything in your background that prepared you for what you achieved in life?
I’m a creation of the almighty God. Like any young boy, I was born in Ijebu-Ode. Well, I can’t deny that I come from a notable family in Ijebu. I’m from the illustrious Borogun family. But beyond that, I happen to be a primus inter pares among royalties. I’m a direct descendant of the Awujale who had the courtesy of receiving in 1892 representatives of the British Queen and he allowed them to preach Christianity, which was unheard of before then. If you tried to preach Christianity before 1892, they will pursue you with Oro(local deity.) But my own progenitor allowed that to be done. He even allowed some of his children to be christened. Then he gave them the site where the first church in Ijebuland was built. But he wasn’t partial; he also gave the muslims the site on which the first mosque in Ijebuland was built. It was in commemoration of going to thank the Awujale that the idea of Ojude-Oba started. They were all going to the Oba’s palace to show appreciation for what he has done.
Now, these are things of the past. That doesn’t immediately make me what I am today. But maybe my parents had the opportunity of putting me on the right track. I had good education; I went to one of the most illustrious secondary schools in Nigeria, Igbobi College. I came out with a very good grade, Grade 1, then I went to Britain and studied Law. In those days you were either a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer but I qualified at a very young age; I qualified at 25 plus, about one of the youngest lawyers in my part of the country – the Western Region. Then I tried to be very close to my God, always seeking his guidance. And it is the answer to such prayers that brought me to where I am today.
Many people knew that in 1959 I was called to the English Bar; many people knew that the then Western Region government trained me as the first parliamentary draughtsman. When the British were passing the Nigeria Independence Act, I was the first black face to be seen in the official box. Well, these are the only background I have but I can be very precocious. If I see you doing something very good, I’ll rather emulate you than criticise you. Like I know some people only wear white. At a point in life I said the purest thing I want to be close to my God is white and God has helped me to continue to be doing all that, which I think is a privilege.
How is your daily life and what encounter have you had in life that is always making you refer to God?
It’s amazing. I’ve never hidden the fact that my parents were muslims and I recall that when I was young, I wanted to worship their own way but as soon as I got to my secondary school, I appreciate Christ. And in a modest way, I was happy to be a chapel monitor. Progressively, I became close to my God; progressively, I was able to develop a special and personal relationship with my God. Now you’re asking me about my daily life; when I wake up first thing in the morning, my wife comes in and we have a family prayer. I open up to my God as if I’m communicating to my earthly father. I would pour out my mind; I would first of all pray for my wife and I; I would pray for my children; I would pray for my family and friends, I would pray for the people who work with me; I would pray for my neighbours. I will do the same thing the last thing in the evening when I go to bed. Unless there is something extraordinary, by 9.30pm I’m in my bed. After praying I don’t communicate with anyone else. If you phone me and I’m already in bed, I don’t pick it. In the morning, if I feel I should respond, I’ll call back. But talking of humility, I think that is an endowment the good Lord gave me, an amazing grace. I know my parents, even though they were affluent, had a common touch. If you see the way my domestic staff talk to me, you’ll be wondering, why is there so much familiarity. I get involved in their personal lives. But that is a gift of God.
About 26 years ago we have a tradition in Ijebu that the Christian fold will select someone they call the head of the Christians. First of all, I was born as muslim. I only converted at 13. But then I don’t carry airs about me in town. The only two things I like and I have weakness for are my white dress and my white cap then I attend church regularly, every Sunday. If I’m not in church I’ll probably be spending the time attending service somewhere else or worshipping. So I was just an ordinary young Christian boy in Ijebu-Ode and I grew up through that but I’m always very appreciative of what the good Lord has done for me. Other people noticed it. I never thought I was doing anything extraordinary. The Ijebus have the tradition of picking someone as the head of all the Christians, both the regular churches and apostolic churches, and one day I had a cause to ring my bishop in Ijebu and I said sir, I have to return to Lagos. And the bishop responded, ‘sir, you can’t go o; you can’t go yet. All the heads of churches and bishops want to see you’ and I said, ‘ah, please don’t kill the ketekete (don’t kill the horse) because I thought they were coming to ask for something. It was not the bishop but the provost of my church, the next person to the bishop. Then I said I would wait till the evening. Then he said, ‘would you be coming to the service’ and I said yes. After the service, my wife and I drove back home. About 30 minutes or an hour later, a phone call came from the gate and they said a crowd of people – bishops, pastors, evangelists and others. They came and to my surprise, one of them, fairly senior, actually a big brother of mine, someone about 30 or 40 years older than myself, knelt down and I was wondering what happened. I remained calm. He gave me a letter. Then some of the other pastors and bishops knelt down and I said what’s happening. I don’t have Parkinson’s disease but my hands were shaking. Then I opened the letter and they said all the Christians in Ijebu have gathered together and have picked you as the next person to lead the Christians. Then I said how long have you people been thinking of this? And instead of answering my question, they said let us pray. We prayed. I took my phone and called my royal father, the Awujale and said the position of Asiwaju of Ijebu Christians which the late legend of Ijebu, Papa Odutola, had; I have some people here who said I should come and succeed him. Instead of Kabiyesi listening, he said who signed the letter? And I told him, and he said accept it. I was still not myself; I took the phone and called a mama we call the mother of Anglican Diocese whose children were my friends and contemporaries, and I said mama, some of your people are here and they have asked me to succeed Papa Odutola. She said yes, my cousin was Moses, you are Joshua. Another very close elderly friend was in Ijebu so I phoned him. I said brother, were you aware that at some Christian meetings I’ve been selected and he said yes, we have been telling them and they said they were going to vote. We told them you don’t need to vote, he’s the obvious person. He said do you know that Papa Odutola, the one you are succeeding, had the title at 63 and your 63 is coming, so I was a bit taken aback. In the meantime, I managed to sit down, my wife was standing by me and you can’t believe it, I just did not think I was good enough, fit and proper to succeed that legend. He was a mega personality not only in Yorubaland but the whole of Nigeria. And they said we intend to present you to all the Christians in Ijebuland during the prayers at Awujale’s house. So when ultimately they presented me at Awujale’s palace, my hand was held up, I was in tears and some people said tears of joy but I said no, how could small me come and replace Odutola, the mega legend we had in Ijebu. That was a measure of not just my amazement but the humility the almighty God gave me not knowing that further laurels were still coming my way.
Now, when you talk of each day in my life, a director on one or two of my boards said uncle, when you talk, before you utter three words God will be there. I said that is my creator. I think that epitomises my life and even at 85, I’m amazed. There are many close friends at 85 they have one problem or the other. Yesterday (last week), I went with my wife on my boat and we went as far as Ilase, one of these coastal communities. People were wondering how I could still be walking around the boat in slacks. I don’t know what I have done for the almighty God to deserve this. I’m still very meticulous about remembering things. I’ve just written a tribute. I knew graphically the date I employed an expatriate staff forty-something years ago. I knew all the circumstances. It’s a rare gift from God. I then concluded that God has a reason; he wanted to use me. So in my amazement, what I tell my wife about my God is, I’m thine forever God of love – the whole of my morning, the afternoon and the evening – thine forever.
When I started the bank, I wanted it to have a solid character, permanent, respected and assuring, so I went with columns. So if you are going anywhere, as soon as you see the four columns, you will recognise FCMB. I believe God has His reasons for doing what He is doing in my life and it’s marvellous in my eyes. So all these make me to spend my life and everything I have in thanking my God. I am humbled by what God has done for me. I have classmates and contemporaries, I don’t carry my nose in the air. I still do things people won’t expect me to do. I still go in shorts and go into the swimming pool. This is the grace of God. So rather than being flamboyant, I just feel that I should carry my cross and appreciate Him more and more. Every now and then, I talk about the awesome God because I can’t believe how God picked me. It is the awesomeness of what God has done in my life that humbles me.
As a pathfinder in the banking industry, have the dreams that blossomed years ago come to pass fullly?
I’m a child of God. It will be wrong of me to conclude that God has completed His work in me. I’m throwing myself as a free agent to God to use me till the very end. And I’m also praying for something very interesting. By the time I’m 90, I’ll be praying for 100 and I would still want to be articulate, maintain my cerebral gifts. So I’m always thinking there is something more. Part of my name says Olaotan, meaning wealth has no end. Believe me, I don’t let anything carry me away. I’m just throwing myself in the hands of God to make me what He wants and I’m enjoying it. I always want the best but I’m not arrogant with it, rather I’m consumed with my appreciation to my God.
Being an Ijebu man, the name Otunba Balogun ticks in Nigeria today. So what is the secret behind the name?
It’s a gift of God. Let me tell you a joke. My mother died at 87 and because I’m Otunba Tunwase and it was through her, I decided to bring her body from Lagos to Ijebu. We had a motorcade of over 100 vehicles. My royal father agreed that all Obas in Ijebu to send their staff to receive my mother. Do you know the prayers people were praying? They were praying, ‘oh God, let me have a child like Subomi.’ I was only honouring my mother. Secondly, anybody in Ijebu would approach me and say, I want this. Even though I’m not father Christmas I would at least do something; I won’t send anybody away. Let me tell you another story. The Ijebus were doing one of these registrations they asked us to do and my wife and I went to Ijebu-Ode Grammar School to register ourselves. I came out in my simple dress and people were queuing and I took my position in the queue; I did not go forward. And I did not announce who I was. All of a sudden, the man who was conducting the registration got up and said, ‘please, please, allow the Otunba Tunwase to come and register.’ I asked my wife if we should go and she said if he wants you to come we can go. So I was greeting everybody on the queue as I was going. I registered. I was amazed. Then I turned to the young man and said, ‘sir, who are you that you’re making me jump the queue?’ He said ‘you made me, sir.’ And I said how? He said ‘I used your scholarship through secondary school; you gave me university education, how can I forget?’ So I said, what is your name, what do you do? Then he said he had made a first class degree in the university but he was still looking for a job. And I said ok. I called one of my staff and took one of my cards and I sent him with my card to FCMB. The young man was recruited by FCMB. Today, he is one of the senior managers in FCMB. I didn’t know him from Adam. He is still one of the senior staff in Ijebu FCMB.
At 85, what would you say is your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement is that with all that I’ve done in life, I don’t carry airs. I don’t see anything as exceptional. I’m still the same simple Subomi Balogun. That is the greatest thing. I would still want to see my former classmates, my former friends, even if they are crawling on the ground, lame and can’t walk, I will still want to go near and recognise them and say it’s Subomi saying hello to you. That is my greatest achievement.
Your community leadership and philanthropy in Ijebu are exceptional. Is there any other thing you have in store for them?
I’m doing a lot which I don’t like people to know. Let me tell you a personal story. The road leading to Otunba Tuwase Inn in Ijebu is abysmally bad. On two occasions, I’ve personally financed repairs on this road. I then asked some people to give me an estimate of the cost of doing the road. I asked them to mention it to whoever was in charge that I would contribute something. I called the chairman of Ijebu-Ode Local Government over the issue. He couldn’t believe what I was saying. I said I don’t have the money but if God wants me to do it, He will provide. I’m ready to assist in doing this. He was amazed. And I said when God gave me this endowment, He did not want me to be spending it myself alone. He wanted me to use it for the upliftment of my neighbours and my neighbours are not just my family or my domestic staff but everyone is my neighbour. I would pass through this world but once. Any good that I can do, I will do it now and not later. So that’s the thing that drives me.
Many people come throw letters at the entrance of my house saying they have this or that challenge of disease, etc. I will always send a token. At times I feel deflated if someone virtually crawling will come and stay at my entrance when I’m coming. I will usually ask them to stop the car and I will come out and do whatever I can. God has asked me to be doing what I’m doing. I have what they call a common touch. I don’t want to be seen with only my peers. Sometimes people misunderstand this. It annoys some people that you are doing some things. If you listen to such people you won’t do the work of God. It’s not easy for somebody who is successful not to be criticised. The mere fact that you succeeded in life, some people don’t like it. It’s the world so you just go humbly, do what you have to do and leave the rest to God. And it appears that God sees the mind and He will continue to provide for you to enable you to do what you are doing toward God’s cause.
What was your major challenge growing FCMB and how did you overcome it?
When I have challenges, I pity the people who are doing something to me. There was a particular event in the history of FCMB. One young girl called Comfort Inyang, they said she was going to Alaba market where we have our people from the East trading. I never met her. You can’t expect me as the chairman/chief executive to know what Diran is doing. They said the woman said all the money she collected from the traders in Alaba market she put it in FCMB and they knew I was out of Lagos. They got some people to carry banners, “FCMB give us our money”. A colleague of mine just died, Jonathan Long, an expatriate I brought to the country forty-something years ago; he phoned me and said, Mike, Ladi, myself and the head of treasury will come and see you. There is a story going around that City Securities, not the bank, had a customer who collected money from them and put it in FCMB. We want to come and talk and they came. My younger sister was the chairperson of City Securities, my eldest son, Bolaji, was the head of stockbroking. I didn’t know anything about it. We went to Kano, these people brought placards, “FCMB pay us our money;” “Chief Balogun let us have our money”. I didn’t know anything about it. Do you know that somebody asked Central Bank; I saw the scruffy letter; it was given to me by the then director of Stock Exchange. They said they should drive me, my first son and my sister away and that we should never smell the finance industry again. A young man, Bismarck Rilwane, called and said, have you seen the note going around? Ndidi said I should give you one. I just smiled. I phoned a few friends, we went to the chapel and just prayed. Two or three days later, I saw a magazine, The News, with a picture of mine in a smart suit with my hands raised up and they said a banker has fallen. I was about sixty-something then; 85 I’m not fallen. The man who did it happens to be, one Onanuga. If he sees me today he will be scared. I didn’t know anything. There was a lot of news – oh Obasanjo was going to remove me and all that. I stayed there till 70. And I’m still very much part of the place. I still go to the office. It is the grace of God not my power. I think that is the major challenge I’ve ever had. People have duped us, people have claimed to be my friends and they used my name. I’m not Jesus but I have such a consuming appreciation of what God has done for me. I’m unruffled. So it’s the grace of God that is carrying me. If you could get to a stage where people will say, remove him, he has stayed too long in his job; in the job you have, in the home you built; people can go to any length. This thing happened at sixty-something, I’m 85 now. I just hold unto my God. They are ways of showing me that my God is always with me. And he will see me through. I’m not boasting. I’m a child of God.
What prompted you to go into the banking industry and has your goal of creating a bank with character been achieved?
I was being given an award by the University of Ibadan, Chinua Achebe was given alongside with me. I was just going to turn 50 and while the others were already in their 60s and even later. When I was called to be given my own doctorate degree, when I came back, instead of smiling, I held my hand in the prayer mode, the prayerful hand. And Chinua said, Mike, what can we do? You are getting a doctorate degree at 50 while we are over 60. What is the secret? He recalled telling some people that instead of me answering the question I had my hands in the prayerful position. You see, it’s not me doing it. I myself, I’m amazed about stories of my life. At 85, I’m now looking back and thinking, what shall I do to render service to my God. The one thing that dawns on me is that at 85 I still retain my cerebral ability. I still do many things that you don’t expect me to do. I still go to my swimming pool to swim. It’s the amazing grace of God.
By the time we created FCMB, you could not set up a bank in this country without looking for foreigners to be your technical partners. But something was pushing me to do it. The reason was that I helped to set up another bank which is now dead and I thought I deserved being made the head. They didn’t want me. They said, you are only a lawyer. I prayed to my God. My nine year old boy who is now almost 50 went to his mother and said, why is daddy praying to be head of another person’s bank? Why doesn’t he start his own? I went to the young man and he confirmed it. I went back to my God in the chapel and prayed. Instead of feeling unhappy about my begging to be head of somebody else’s bank, I started saying, ‘you cannot fail, you cannot fail, because of Jesus you cannot fail.’ From my chapel I walked into my study, I prepared all the papers; a few days or weeks later, I set up what we call City Securities. Luckily for me, what they called indigenisation policy came during the military era which demanded that foreigners should sell their shares. I was the numero uno in this country then; if they wanted to sell shares they were coming to me to buy. I finished buying these shares and I said, why don’t I start my own bank? Someone said, you, you will be either be a multi billionaire or you go to jail. I told him his father will go to jail. I don’t know whether the person is still alive; he is from the Delta. I applied.
I didn’t have any foreign partner; my God was my only partner. They didn’t at first give me license. I went to church, I saw Alex Ekwueme, the then Vice President, and I asked my wife to grab his wife’s garment. And I said, Mr. Vice President, what is happening to my license? He spoke to me and asked me to come and see him. He assured me that the following Thursday, he would give me a license. That was how I got it. And no Nigerian before then had single handedly set up the type of bank but between me and you, rather than being arrogant, I’m humbled. It’s the way what God has done for me amazes me; it’s the amazing grace. That’s the answer I can give you.
Seeing all you have achieved, I’m sure you are concerned about the generation behind you. So if you are to advise young entrepreneurs, whether in finance or any other industry, what would it be?
They should have faith in their God and pray assiduously to their God. They should put all their objectives before God. But they should not just be doing this without making effort. In everything they do, they should be focused. Focused in doing what they should and not meandering but talk to your God regularly and have faith that through the love of God our saviour, all will be well.