Benefactors and Beneficiaries

Money Palaver

By George Eze Emeghara

A few years ago, the founder of First City Monument Bank, Otunba Micheal Subomi Balogun, who died recently, told the story of how he got the licence to start his bank.

The bank was the first privately owned bank since Nigeria became independent.

He disclosed that where he built his first house in Apapa, Lagos in the sixties, the next house to his belonged to a young Igbo architect, Alex Ekwueme.

At the beginning of the Civil War, most Igbos including his neighbour, went back to their home. Initially, he said, some squatters moved into the now-empty house, but he succeeded in evicting them.

Then, he renovated the house and rented it out.

Alex Ekwueme

After the Civil War, Ekwueme came around, probably to see if his house was still standing.

He not only saw the house standing and in good condition, but Otunba Balogun also gave him the money that had accrued on the property since he rented it out.

Otunba Balogun did not tell us how what the rent he collected amounted to. However, considering that Ekwueme had just emerged from a war zone and was trying to start life anew in the face of the obnoxious policy which gave every Igbo man the sum of twenty pounds, regardless of how much he had in his account, whatever sum Otunba Balogun gave him must have meant the world to him at the time.

What the Otunba Balogun did for his old friend was indeed immense, especially when you consider that in several parts of the country, Igbos who returned to claim their property were attacked, some were killed while many lost their property altogether.

About ten years later, Ekwueme had become a pre-eminent architect and Vice President of Nigeria while Otunba Balogun had become a major player in the financial sector who was attempting to set up a bank.

So far, according to him, his efforts had been frustrated by the powers that be. In like manner, his efforts to meet his old friend were also frustrated.

He said they eventually met after he and his wife ” ambushed” Ekwueme after a church service.

Otunba said he told Vice President Ekwueme that he had been trying to see him and told him what he wanted to see him about. His old friend listened and asked him to come and see him with the relevant documents a few days later.

Otunba Balogun revealed that the next day after this meeting, he got a call from the finance minister asking him to come and collect his banking licence.

That is how First City Merchant Bank came to be. It later became First City Monument Bank.

Otunba Balogun’s story is instructive in several ways. It tells us that we must try to do good always, especially to our friends. We must be as they say our brother’s keeper, as no one knows tomorrow.

Indeed, today’s helper may need help tomorrow.A benefactor could easily become a beneficiary.

That’s how life is.

When Otunba rented out Ekwueme’s house and gave him the money he collected, his friend was certainly not in a position to do anything for him.

At the time Otunba Balogun had no way of knowing whether his friend would even survive the war. But he went on and did what he did.

Ekwueme on his part did not forget the huge favour his friend did him at a difficult time in his life.

Following the bitterness and bad blood the last elections generated between Igbos and Yorubas, some people dug up and circulated this story, maybe in a bid to show that things had not always been so bad between the Igbos and Yorubas or whatever.

However, the big lesson in the story, for me, is the importance of connections or contacts.

If Otunba Balogun did not have a friend who became Vice President, he would not have got his banking licence. At least, not at the time he did.

He may have got it a few years later when the Babangida administration liberalised the banking sector. Then, his would have just been one of several bank licences.

With the way things worked out, he had a head start and was already entrenched by the time the banking liberalisation policy kicked in.

Who knows the number of beautiful, and probably viable, initiatives in various sectors of endeavour which have died or were still born because their promoters did not have the necessary connections, or contacts in high places? No doubt such links would have helped them actualise their dreams.

For instance, if the promoter of Tedem University, Dr Basil Nnanna Ukegbu had the right connections in government, his dream of setting up the first privately owned university in Nigeria in the early eighties would have been realized.

If he had belonged to the “right” party, the ruling NPN, instead of the opposition GNPP, of which he was a strong member, certainly, something could have been done for him.

Instead, the government of the day frustrated his efforts, with the courts hammering the final nail in the coffin of his dreams by declaring that the constitution of the country did not provide for private universities.

Today there are private universities all over the place.

If nothing else, Ukegbu’s university would have uplifted the community where it was to be sited.

It would have also done wonders for the economy of the area and the general well-being of the people.

If Nigeria is to make any progress, we must strive to build a country where people who have no connections, and no money to bribe anyone can bring their ideas and dreams to life.

The owners of some of the biggest companies in the world today such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook to mention a few, started with nothing. Their companies began in such odd places as garages and dormitories.

The owners, or founders, of these companies, just had ideas and dreams and a burning desire to make them come true.

Imagine what we all would have lost, or how the world would have been, if such ventures had been killed, or regulated out of existence, by corrupt and myopic government officials, regulations or policies?

It is not only fuel prices that need to be deregulated and revised in Nigeria. There are laws and regulations which stifle businesses and initiatives and create bottlenecks that must be reviewed or thrown out altogether.

George Eze Emeghara is a Nigerian journalist, writer and public affairs commentator based in the southeastern city of Owerri. Money Palaver is his weekly column for