In this interview, Chief Gabriel Osawaru Igbinedion, the Esama of Benin Kingdom, the first Nigerian to own an airline, establish a private university, among other things, shared his experiences in life, including how he started from a humble beginning to carve a niche for himself and build his business empire. He also spoke on what led to the establishment of private universities in Nigeria, and other interesting issues.
How would you describe your early days in life?
First and foremost, I have no regret in life. My parents were from Okada, Ovia South Local Government Area of Edo State. I was born in 1934 and my father died in 1944, and in 1945, I came to Benin City, where I attended Ezomo Benin Baptist School. I also went to Oregbeni Baptist School and the one in Mission Road. That was the three arms of Baptist schools as at that time.
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After primary school, I tried to attend Eko Boys’ High School, but my father died. So I came back to my mother to struggle for myself to make ends meet. My first job was in the Adult Educational Department of the Benin Regional Council. From there, luck shone on me and I left the job to join the Nigeria Police Force. I did very well in the police. From there, I got employment in Leventis Motors. From Leventis Motors, I started my own business, and since then, I never looked back; I have kept moving forward.
When I started my own motor company, there were only 15 of such companies in Nigeria, all owned by expatriates, so I was the only Nigerian and black person among them. That was the first impact I ever had in my life. If you go to company registry, my motor company is the number 16 and the oldest motor company registered in Nigeria.
Can you share your experience during your primary school days?
My primary school experience was very entertaining and interesting. Primary education is the best moulding method of human beings anywhere in the world – you make friends, keep some and leave some. Due to my background, everybody in the school knew me as “mama’s son.” I enjoyed those days with my peers because you would play all through and never think of anything bad.
We used to cut grass in school; and I did that happily for years until I became the class monitor and was supervising others.
How did you join the police?
It was a miracle because I wasn’t expecting it. During the annual Igue festival, which is new year day in Benin, I was attractive to the then inspector-general of police and one other person. Both of them admired me. While the other person promised to offer me cash, the police officer said he would help me into the police. I was confused, so I went home and discussed with my closest friend, who was a driver. He advised me to accept the offer of becoming a police officer instead of the money. He said two of his brothers were policemen and were doing well. So I took the offer.
How would you describe the police during your time, compared to what obtains now?
I don’t dabble into constitutional matters, so I would not like to comment because you will realise that when you were growing up, this is not the same country we had and this is not the same police force you met. I don’t want to make further comments on that.
You are a very successful businessman, what is the secret?
As I said, my past overwhelmed my failure, so I give myself a pass mark. But the Nigeria of today is not where we expected to be. We started this country well. Anybody born before 1960 is older than Nigeria, but unfortunately, sadness is the little way to explain what is happening in the country today. It is a bad orientation for the younger ones.
Today, nobody wants to count in kobo, everybody wants to count in pounds or millions. In our time, we counted the kobo before pursuing shillings, then pounds, but today, everybody wants to count in millions overnight.
You were the first person to establish a private university and television station in Nigeria, how did you come about it?
I told you that when I left school I started my own company. I was the first Nigerian to start an assembly plant. I was also the first person to start an airline in the country; and how it started was funny.
How did it start?
I was at the airport with other passengers in Lagos to board a plane to Benin. We waited from 8am to 7pm, and if we had gone by road we would have reached Benin and come back the same time, but since we were already at the airport, we had no option but to wait. Eventually, we boarded a flight to Benin, but before we could depart, one Shaba entered the plane and asked everyone to disembark, saying the flight had been cancelled. You can imagine wasting your money and time and the flight was eventually cancelled. And it was cancelled because of six persons.
He told us that Ibrahim Waziri and six other people were going to Jos, Plateau State, so the flight was cancelled to accommodate them. I was shocked and just shook my head. I stood up and said to the crowed that I would buy my own plane.
As I got to Benin, I worked towards it and achieved it. Till now, I am the only Nigerian, African and black person in the world, not even government, to have bought two Boeing 7247. I am still outstanding with that achievement. But politics didn’t allow them to fly. They were on ground for two years and never allowed to fly. That was how Okada Air came about.
What about the university and the television station?
For the university, a former military head of state, General Ibrahim Babangida called me to spend time with him at the Aso Rock, so I took my private plane and went to visit him. When I got there, everybody had gone to church because it was on a Sunday. He was alone with his wife, Maryam. His wife had a special way of preparing fresh fish, and nobody knew the secret. We were cracking jokes and about to eat it when Babangida’s telephone rang. He was in a light mood, but it changed as soon as he picked up the phone. He said, “Oh my God, ASUU again!” After receiving the call, he put the phone down and was not smiling. I asked what happened and he said university lecturers were on strike. Out of curiosity, I said why not allow private universities to operate in the country so as to dwarf the lecturers.
Immediately, he called the Minister of Education, Professor Baba Fafunwa and asked him to see me in Benin the following day. Before 11am, Fafunwa had already arrived Benin from Lagos on the bad road. On getting to my house, he looked disturbed and asked why I reported him to IBB. I told him that I didn’t report him to anyone but he was still ranting, so I allowed him to calm down before telling him what happened.
Within three days he brought the form to me. At that time, 63 of us collected the forms, but because the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) wanted to hold the government to ransom all the time, they didn’t want private universities to come on board. So they said all those seeking to establish private universities should bring N200 million as guarantee fund. My bank issued the draft guarantee.
Out of that number that collected the form, I was the only one that returned it with the N200m guarantee fund. So, after about six months or one year, they wrote to me that only four banks could give the guarantee in the country. At that time, I knew I was the target. But I like challenges and was also ready for whatever would come my way. I gathered all the money and asked the Union Bank to issue the guarantee. On seeing that I was able to meet the condition, after few months, they wrote back to me that the money should be deposited at the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). At that time, the interest rate was 36 per cent and the CBN was only paying us 19 per cent. But I had no option but to withdraw the money and take to the apex bank. At the end, after nine years and three months of firework, a former military head of state, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, made it a reality by granting the licence.
Is there any hope to resuscitate Okada Air?
At my age I don’t want to go into that.
Can you share your business experiences for the younger generation to learn?
Nigeria is a difficult terrain for business to thrive. First and foremost, you have to make allowances for 20 per cent for pilfering. The banks are the ones that do not allow people and businesses to progress in the country. There has never been a time when interest rate is less than 22 per cent. And if you borrow money at 22 per cent interest rate, before you settle down, no matter the business, it can be less than two or three years; and by then, 60 per cent of what you borrowed is already with the bank and you struggle to pay. And when will you get the interest rate to pay with the 20 per cent for pilfering. It is very difficult to make ends meet in managing business in Nigeria.
You were not from a very wealthy family. How were you able to achieve this feat?
To some extent and standard, it is the work of God and nobody else. I listen to God’s message and follow his direction. This has led me to the success I have achieved today.
Your son, Lucky, was the governor of Edo State; what was it like being a governor’s father?
I see all my children the same way, so being a governor doesn’t make any difference to me. I treat them equally, but I felt proud being a governor’s father. It was an achievement. I was proud that I was able to bring up a son who was the chairman of Oredo Local Government and later became the governor of the state. Don’t forget that I also produced a member of the House of Representatives.
You are also a chief, how do you combine your traditional position and business?
I don’t believe there is a contrast because you give what belongs to Ceaser to him and what belongs to God to him. From the palace, I took my position, humbled myself and dumped whatever I had. When I came out it didn’t take whatever I had from me. That was the consideration and how I live my life.
You are one of the founding fathers of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), how would you describe your political life?
Among those of us that formed the PDP, only two are alive today – me and Alhaji Bamaga Turkur. Adamu Ciroma, Shinkafi and others are not alive. The party was formed in my house in Lagos; and today, the rest is history.
You are the biggest employer of labour in Edo State, apart from the state government. What is your take on this?
I am always satisfied with my life and happy with my God for the position he has placed me in life. I am always happy to see people benefit from me and my establishments.
As a retired police officer, are you still receiving pension?
No. I didn’t get to the pension age before I left the police force.
How did you exit?
I didn’t retire; I left voluntarily after five or six years. I left the police when Leventis made an offer to me. How I left was funny. I was in the station when Leventis came to report a case of theft of 100 Mercedes vehicles. I was assigned to the case and I investigated and recovered the vehicles. Thereafter, luck smiled on me as Leventis offered me the position of a sales manager in the company. When I got there, the manager told me that the inspector-general of police was not receiving the salary they were offering me. He showed me the offer, and when I saw it I had no option than to leave the police force. That incident and decision changed my life till today.
What is your advice to the younger generation who want to make wealth without hard work?
Nowadays, youths don’t want to do menial jobs. In my youth, I engaged in menial jobs – I hawked items in the streets, dug toilets for people in Benin, just to survive. My first job was tearing rubber to get money. I also sold snails. These days, nobody wants to do anything; they all want to be millionaires and billionaires overnight.
Any day I go to my university I laugh because parents are the ones spoiling their children. If you see the exotic cars they bring to school you will be surprised. The time they will spend there may be six years and N6m in money, but the cars they drive would be between N20m and 30m. Their parents give the cars to them, and it has become competition for them.
As my legacy, none of my children rode cars to school; they were in boarding school and I used to bring them home every month, and anyone who failed once would not come back home with his brothers and sisters till they finished. That was how I disciplined my children; and none of them got less than MBA. And that is mandatory in the family.
Since parents are the ones spoiling their children, what is your advice to them?
Parents should let their children know how to count kobo and not to start with millions, even if you are a millionaire, so that by the time they finish, they would have learnt manner from the beginning, that life is not that rosy. I wish Nigeria well.
What do you want to be remembered for?
I want the world to judge me. I have many legacies that God put me through. My pride is that I have built churches. Right now, I am building one at Okada. I believe in serving and appreciating God.
People will remember me for my university. I was the first person to start Montessori school in the country. Until I built the Igbinedion Education Centre, nobody had done that. There are so many things that people are copying from me. So I will be remembered for so many things, including empowering people.