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‘It will be unpatriotic to have FCMB and not use it to help my people’

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Otunba Subomi Balogun

If you are a regular at the yearly Ojude Oba Cultural Festival in Ijebu Ode, then you must have observed that aside from the Awujale of Ijebuland, Oba Sikiru Kayode Adetona, who usually sits on the throne, identifying dignitaries at the VIP section of the arena is usually a daunting task.

But if there’s one man, who is routinely visible in crowded VIP section during the festival, it’s the Chairman/Founder of First City Monument Bank (FCMB), Otunba Subomi Balogun; you can’t miss his dashing white agbada and long beads, with stylish shades to match. Otunba is in love with white; that’s a known fact. From his houses, cars, outfits…white is it for Baba.

Meanwhile, it seems he has colonised that corner of the VIP section to himself alone; he was on that spot this year as well. Well, as the Olori Omo-oba (Head of Princes and Princesses) and the Olori Ebi (Head of the Family) of one of the largest ruling houses in Ijebuland, it’s likely that Otunba’s sitting position during the cultural feast is not by accident.

At 84, Otunba Balogun remains a very active participant in the festival that promotes the rich Ijebu culture. Though, you won’t find him these days showcasing his horsemanship or leading his Balogun (family) in the main arena as he did during his heydays, Otunba’s financial support to the festival through FCMB and his ever presence at the event, indeed, shows his level of commitment to this project in particular and the Ijebu land in general. He’s a true son of the soil.

Usually, at the end of the festival, Otunba would still find time to have a chat with the media; it has become a routine. However, this year, it seems old age is gradually setting in, as Baba was too tired to give interviews after long hours in the arena.

“With my pedigree, from my background and my association, and what the Good Lord has endowed me with, it will be regarded as unpatriotic if I don’t play the front role in this most important cultural event of the Ijebus. So, I’m very much involved in it. I can tell you, if this event was taking place and I’m not around, many people will ask questions; whether I’m unwell, which can’t be. Whether I’m disagreeing with my royal father, which can’t be. So, I’ve always been in the forefront in the celebration,” Otunba said in a chat with The Guardian.

No doubt, his traditional responsibilities in Ijebu automatically saddle him with responsibilities during the festival.

“First, I’m a loyal distinguished son of our monarch, the Awujale of Ijebu Land; I happen to be the Olori Omo-oba (Head of Princes and Princesses). Providence has placed me in a situation in which everybody would expect me to be close to Awujale and be supportive of whatever he’s doing, by way of our culture and tradition.”

Otunba Balogun comes from one of the prominent Balogun families in Ijebu, the Balogun Odunuga. Though he no longer joins in the procession like Olorogun Sonny Kuku, who led the ever-vibrant Kuku Family this year, Otunba is usually excited whenever Balogun Odunuga storms the arena; you could feel the ecstatic, as he beams with smiles in admiration.

“One is getting a bit old now, normally, when they come in like that, I danced with them; I’m like a sort of head of family there. So, definitely, I will always be interested in Ojude Oba Festival, as it highlights quite a lot of the Ijebu ethos and tradition,” he enthused.

Relishing his fond memories of the festival, the astute banker said, “When I was young, I used to be on a horse. Even before then, while my father was alive, I would join them in heralding my grandfather, singing and dancing. If you see my young cousin Sonny Kuku, he wasn’t on horse; he was dancing just to add colours to the Balogun Kuku Family. Incidentally, the Balogun Kuku and Balogun Odunuga are cousins; we all descended from Borogu family. So, all the Kukus are my cousins,” he noted.

Though a practicing Christian, Subonmi Balogun is in love with the tradition and culture of the Ijebus. In fact, he’s among the few that could be described as the living encyclopedia of Ojude Oba festival, which actually started as a Muslim celebration.

“I think it was about 1892, when my own ancestor Oba Adesumbo Tunwase, who actually signed the treaty of relationship with the British Queen, and who was far seeing enough, gave land to the Muslims to establish their Central Mosque. At the same time, he agreed with the British missionaries to preach Christianity in Ijebu Land and even went further to allow some of his children to be baptized. To cap it all, he gave the land on which the first church in Ijebu Land was built, St Saviours Italupe.”

He continued: “When Ojude Oba started, it was the Muslims, who used it as an occasion to pay homage and give their appreciation to the reigning monarch for all these beneficent he’s giving them. But the entire Ijebus now look upon it as an occasion to pay homage to the reigning monarch. We are lucky to have an affectionate monarch, who is totally committed to the upliftment of our tradition and culture; he has actually widened the scope of the whole place. You heard of Regberegbe in dresses doing dances, it involves both Muslims and Christians. You heard of awards given to people and you noticed that FCMB plays a role in the festival. I’m a Christian and I’m very much involved in it; it’s no longer a Muslim event,” he declared.

“In the last 30 or 40 years,” he recalled, “I’ve always been by the side of Awujale; I’ve always been involved in giving ideas. It’s a season of projection of the tradition and culture of Ijebu people; what we are having here is a world rated event. Those of us, who also in our young days used to go to Rio De Janeiro for the yearly carnival, that can’t compare with Ojude Oba; this is rich culture. Apart from the Regberegbes, who come in their fashionable dresses, you saw the way the Ijebus display with horses; you saw their horsemanship and they get the horses to rear their legs, dancing with it? This is definitely peculiar to Ijebus. We carry the horses with us and some of them have been so trained that they dance to the beat and rhythmically,” he said.

Today, both Ijebus and visitors look forward to the yearly Ojude Oba Festival, which provides them with the platform to pay homage to the Awujale.

In the last 15 to 20 years, Otunba Balogun and FCMB have been prominent in helping to promote the Ojude Oba Festival. And to the philanthropist, the gestures is a way of giving back to the society, as well as appreciate God for a successful career that gave birth to the first wholly Nigerian bank, the FCMB.

“People know me to be a very patriotic Ijebu indigene. Apart from my achievements and what the good Lord has done for me, I use it as an occasion to come back home and let my own community benefit from what the good Lord has done for me. It will be unpatriotic of me to have that outfit (FCMB) and not use it in developing the interest of my people. It’s the first wholly owned Nigerian bank set up wholly by a Nigerian,” he boasted.

Whenever Otunba tells the story of First City Monument Bank (FCMB), he gives give credit to two great Nigerians for their role in birthing the financial institution. First is Oladimeji Gbadamosi Otiti, who was the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) at the time, while the second is the late former Vice President Dr. Alex Ekwueme. As far as Balogun is concerned, God used the two to bring to life his long dream of becoming the first Nigerian to own a bank.

He once described Otiti as a distinguished doyen of the Nigerian banking industry and a legendary benefactor of people like him, who dared to be pioneers in the Nigerian financial sector. Then, he specially singled out the late Ekwueme, who he said pulled the last strings that saw the issuance of operational licence for FCMB.

“I’m a very appreciative person when you do any good to me. I was happy to give the testimony publicly during Otiti’s 90th birthday and I’m doing the same thing with the late Ekwueme. What I did at that time was unprecedented in this country for an individual to say he wants to single-handedly establish a bank,” he said.

Initially, when Otunba Balogun muted the idea of setting up a bank, the thinking was that, for him to actualise that dream, he would have to engage foreign technical partners. Besides, in the history of Nigeria banking industry at the time, there was only one person, Chief Okupe, who started something in the name of a bank, though he was only doing money-lending enterprise. There was a statute that allows somebody to be lending, but not a bank.

Balogun informed that for someone to set up a bank with branches all over the place without a foreign technical partner was not available in the country at the time, adding that he got the inspiration to set up FCMB through his nine-year old son.

“We were praying and the young man went to his mother and said, ‘when we were praying, I pitied daddy. Why doesn’t he go and start his own bank, instead of wanting to be the chief executive of somebody’s bank?’ When my wife told me, I thought she was becoming faithless that we were praying to God, why not leave things in His hands? Then I told my wife that God was speaking to a nine-year-old boy. I made up my mind that I will do it. Naturally, human beings feel nothing is impossible but with God, all is possible. All I was doing was pray, but God will not come personally, he will use other people,” he said.

For Balogun, God directly used Otiti and the late Ekwueme to assist him in doing what many people thought was impossible at the time.

“In the case of Otiti, he was CBN Deputy Governor and someone just said to me, ‘we cannot give you a license because you don’t have a technical partner. I said, ‘God is my partner.’ Having said this, I knew some people in the CBN, something just struck me and I told my driver to take me straight to Otiti’s house.”

As at the time Balogun arrived Otiti’s house, the elder statesman had gone to the then CBN Governor’s house to break his fast, as they were both Muslims.

“Again, I told my driver to go to the CBN Governor’s house. By the time we got there, I was already getting emotional and was shedding tears. I got to the gate and said, ‘I must see Otiti; I gather he is with the CBN governor.’ Seeing a big man crying, the people said they must help me. So, Otiti and the CBN governor rushed out and I said, ‘Big brothers, these people want to scuttle my ambition of owning a bank because they said I don’t have a foreign technical partner; that I cannot be given a license to run a bank.’ I also said other emotional things,” he recalled.

At that point, Otiti calmly said to him, “Subomi, don’t worry, the CBN governor and I would arrange something provisionally, which will enable you to run that bank and later on look for a foreign technical partner.”

Having earlier been told by CBN staff that he could not own a bank without foreign partners, Balogun was a bit skeptical about Otiti’s option.

“Otiti was the first person to put my mind at rest, but he and the CBN governor were not giving the license at that time,” he noted.

Determined to see his dreams come true, Balogun resolved to reach out to an old friend, Alex Ekwueme, who was the Vice President at the time.

“We had been friends before the war and he came back after the war. So, in the Cathedral, my wife and I planned that, when Alex is being led out, that I would grab his dress and my wife would grab that of his wife.”

Indeed, that was how Otunba and his wife succeeded in getting the attention of the late former Vice President, but not without resistance from his security aides.

“Alex looked back and said, ‘Subonmi, Bimbola, what is happening?’ Do you know what I told him? I told him, ‘Mr. Vice President, why are you not giving me a license?”

About the same time, Otunba’s wife went to Lady Ekwueme and said, “my husband wants something, only your husband can give him.”

With the mild drama, Ekwueme had no option but to intervene.

“He said we should come to see him and he assured me that the following Thursday, I would get my license. By 3pm of that Thursday, a Minister phoned me and he said, ‘Egbon, congratulations, the Vice President said that your license has been approved.’ That was how the floodgate of Nigerians owning banks started,” he noted.

The story of the relationship between the late Ekwueme and Otunba Balogun is a good example of one good turn deserves another.

“I can tell you that during the war, many of our friends from the east abandoned everything they had and went away. The war was so hot that many people did not think it was right to remain in Lagos. The first house I built in my life was in Apapa; Ekwueme had the next building to mine,” he said.

As soon as the war started, some pool players took over Ekwueme’s house and were playing pool there; they will be there until midnight. But in wanting to protect his own house from being burgled by those people, Otunba arranged for the police to evacuate them and having done that, he renovated the house and rented it out to a lady from the east and was collecting rent.

When the war ended and Alex Ekwueme returned to Lagos with his family, he went to visit Balogun, whom he had not seen throughout the war.

“After exchanging pleasantries, I went to my room and brought out a big envelope. In those days, we don’t use cheque much; it was all cash. So, I gave him the money. I told him I renovated your house, rented it out and this is the rent we collected. Ekwueme looked at me… A number of our friends from the East lost their houses. In fact, some so-called friends took over their houses and claimed the owners gave them. But for somebody, who was not familiar with him to take care of the house, rented it out and came to hand over the rent collected to him, Alex couldn’t believe it. All he could mutter was, ‘I’m grateful.’ That was how our friendship started,” he narrated.

Impressed with Balogun’s kindness, the late Ekwueme resolved to go into a business partnership with him.

“He said, ‘with what you have done for me, let us do something to help the returnees from the war zone,” and I said, ‘what can we do?’ He said we should be selling building materials to rebuild the war-torn areas; it is in my book,” he noted.

Both men eventually started a company called the Renaissance Builders Merchant and were dealing on plywood and other building materials.

“Alex’s brother, Lawrence, was the salesman and we were making raw money. Every weekend, we would balance our accounts.
After service, I would go with an envelope to Alex with his share of the profit, not knowing that God was going to use him to do something in my life and that of Nigeria.”

The friendship between Ekwueme and Balogun was very close that the first time he (Balogun) visited Oko, the late VP’s hometown, the people gathered to break kolanut to thank him for his kindness.

“I made sure I opened a branch of the bank in his hometown and a property owned by him. It was a Godly relationship between us, as God used Alex for me and also used me for him; it is a lesson for Nigeria,” he said.

In return, Otunba has given his life to the service of his community, fellow human beings and to the service of my God. He spends more of the time relaxing, resting and doing the work of God.

“You don’t need to be a cleric before you can do the work of God; I do use any opportunity that I have to be an evangelist. I’m the Asiwaju of Ijebu Christians and when I was made that, it was after a legendary person, Chief Adeola Odutola, who was incidentally my own father’s classmate. I wasn’t born a Christian, but the Christian community found some attributes in me that could make me perform the leadership role. So, I spend my time a lot doing charitable things; philanthropy as you call it. Having concern for my fellow human beings as a way of atoning my God for the marvelous things the good Lord has done for me,” he said.

Though he’s involved in a lot of charities, Otunba Balogun has special focus on healthcare, which informed his decision to build and donate the National Pediatric Centre to the University of Ibadan.

“The good lord has enabled me to build one of the largest in Africa, purposefully built children’s hospital, which I’ve now given to the University of Ibadan; it has been converted to a Medical College affiliated to the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan. If you walk in there, you will find quite a lot of equipment that you don’t find everywhere,” he said.

Born to Muslim parents, Otunba Balogun converted to Christianity while in secondary school. After his secondary education at the Igbobi College, Lagos, he proceeded to the London School of Economics where he studied Law.


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