Flaming Flamingo: The life and times of Israel Adebajo
Israel died 50 years ago today in London, aged just 49, leaving behind 14 children and four wives. The fact that Adebajo achieved so much in such a short life was a credit to his innate entrepreneurial gifts and visionary sports administration skills.
Israel’s grandfather, Jeremiah, was a missionary who had brought Christianity to Imobi. He thus grew up in a Christian home, imbibing values such as the Protestant work ethic and the dignity of labour. His father died when he was 14, forcing him to assume family responsibilities at an early age. He traveled to Lagos from Epe by boat in 1939 at the age of 19 on the eve of the Second World War, with the colonial government has not invested much in Nigeria’s road infrastructure.
Israel slept on the floor of the home of his uncle, Pa Taiwo, who worked for the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC). He attended St. Peter’s Church School in Faji (having earlier studied at Epe Grammar School), and also undertook Secretarial Studies. He, however, never went to University, and was a self-made man.
Israel at Work: A Pioneering Entrepreneur
Israel became a typist with the Daily Times in 1942, banging away on an old typewriter in a dark room, while also working as a vendor. To earn extra income, he used relatives to sell paper and stationery at bus-stops in Nigeria’s bustling capital of Lagos.
While working for the newspaper, Israel noticed that the firm always needed stationary, and he set up a business to supply the Daily Times. His first employees were his first wife, Olabisi, and his perennially loyal cousin, Christopher Adelaja, popularly known as “Brother Teacher,” in whom Israel had complete trust.
As the business grew, Adebajo set up the Nigerian Office Stationery Supply (NOSS) Stores in 1944 in Willoughby Street on Lagos Island. The British colonial government had practiced social apartheid since the 1920s, with Europeans only allowed to live in the segregated suburb of Ikoyi, interacting with Nigerians largely in the commercial hub of Lagos Island.
By 1950, Israel had built his first house in Rotimi Street in the Lagos district of Surulere, moving from Odufege Street on Lagos Island. He was able to rent out the property in Rotimi Street to the British colonial army in a lucrative deal.
By 1956, he traveled to England to meet with his suppliers – such as Rexel – and became the sole agent for important stationery products and office equipment such as paper, pens, and writing pads, establishing a monopoly over carbon paper. He also set up the Nigeria Paper Converters Limited as a manufacturing arm. His biggest inspiration and role model was John Dickinson, the British stationer who – having supplied paper to the East India Company at the height of the industrial revolution -set up a company in 1804 to manufacture paper from the pulp in mills using a machine he had designed.
Dickinson’s new methods would help transform the printing and publishing industry, making text and exercise books much cheaper to produce. Israel also wanted to emulate Dickinson by establishing a manufacturing company in Apapa’s Creek Road to make envelopes: a dream that remained unrealised at the time of his death in 1969.
The British colonial government was also a large customer of NOSS Stores, and British crown agents worked closely with the company, paying for goods in bulk. By the time Adebajo returned from England in 1956, he had acquired three houses. He also built a country home in the village of Naforija near Epe. His grandfather, Jeremiah, had led the building of St. Michael’s Church in Imobi, where he lies buried. His brother, Alfred, later managed the church, which Israel helped to furnish. Israel himself was active in the St. Peter’s Church on Lagos Island (where he had gone to school), donating a marble baptistery in 1968.
Shortly after Nigeria’s independence in October 1960, Adebajo had the vision to build an office and factory in the Lagos district of Apapa which was then largely swamped land. His office on Warehouse road was the first building in the area, and the factory produced toilet roll and accounting books.
Israel had also built residences in North Avenue and Kofo Abayomi Street in Apapa by 1964, further investing in property in nearby Calcutta Crescent. He owned five houses on Martins Street in Yaba, an area that had previously been inhabited by swamp dwellers. Adebajo was a workaholic who was in a hurry to conquer new empires, almost as if he knew he did not have much time to live.
By this time, he had purchased two homes in London’s Brent Cross and Chiswick areas, and several of his children were attending private schools in England: his daughter, Adeola, was the first African to attend Headington, followed by her sister Yanju, while sons Kunle, Leke, and Niyi went to Skipper’s Hill and Dover College.
Religious Israel had expressed the hope that some of his children might one-day study at Jesus College at Cambridge University. Like many Nigerian fathers, he never really sat down with his children to talk to them about his life’s struggles and successes.
NOSS Stores – with branches across Nigeria – had paid-up capital in 1969 valued at over £100,000 British pounds (about £1.4 million in today’s money). Adebajowas now able to assuage his passion for cars by buying Jaguars, a Pontiac, and a Cadillac.
On his 40th birthday in January 1960, the high priest of highlife music, Victor Olaiya, entertained invited guests at his home on Rotimi Street. Israel was also wealthy enough to embark on a world cruise in 1962 that took in Egypt, Australia, and America, sending his children post-cards along the way. His generosity was legendary, gifting houses to family and friends, and even supporting strangers seeking financial assistance. He was widely praised for his intelligence, warmth, and humility, consistently refusing to take a chieftaincy title and be addressed as “Chief.”
Israel at Play: Super Stores
Israel Adebajo had always been a sports fanatic and was a member of the Island Club where he played tennis. He was also a founding member of Lagos’s Metropolitan Club. He visited the Racecourse on Lagos Island with his sons to watch horse-racing.
He befriended a First Republic (1960-1966) parliamentarian, Alfred Osula, who had been a journalist at the Daily Times, and, from him, he bought land in the Lagos district of Agege with which he built a soccer stadium. Israel would establish his own football club in 1958, having bought Oluwole Philips Football Club which he transformed into the stationery Stores Football Club (SSFC). He then plowed profits from the company into the new club. But the club was not just a pastime: it was skilfully used to market the company and its products.
At this time, it was mostly large companies like Leventis, the United Africa Company (UAC), the Nigerian Railway Corporation, and the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN) that could afford to own football clubs in Nigeria. It was, though, unusual for an individual to own such a major club, and have his name and company so closely associated with it as “The Adebajo Babes.”
To be continued tomorrow
Adebajo, director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.