Alhaji Umaru Abdul Mutallab is a retired banker, senior businessman who chaired many companies, including First Bank Plc, and founded the first Nigeria’s non-interest bank, Jaiz Bank. He was on two occasions Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Alhaji Umaru Mutallab was brought unwanted global media attention when his son, Umar Farouk, attempted bombing a Northwest Airlines flight over the US skies on December 25, 2009. In this interview with Trust TV monitored by Daily Trust on Sunday, the elder statesman reminisces about his life.
By Kabiru A. Yusuf
There is this confusion about your origin. Where actually are you from?
I was born at Kofar Sauri in Katsina, but my father being an employee of the Native Authority (NA) in the Works Department was posted from Katsina to Funtua and hence all my education started there, and now I claim to be a Funtua man.
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Since my father’s movement to Funtua, we have been living there. May God bless him; he died there and was buried there.
However, we have relatives and kith and back in Katsina; and we still keep on in touch with some of them.
After my elementary school in Funtua, I went to Middle School, Katsina. Then, after you finish elementary school you have to go to middle school. It was in Katsina that we took the examination for Barewa College, Zaria, then called Government College, Zaria. I was in Barewa for six years. My set was the last set to spend six years in secondary school. All the sets after us spent five years.
I intended to study engineering because my father was working in the NA works department, but I was very close to late Hamza Zayyad who was studying accountancy and he influenced my change of heart. We were in the same house in Barewa.
Were you classmates as well?
No. He was two, three years ahead of me, but we had a very good understanding, and as a matter of fact he was the one who started to study accountancy and he came to Lagos. During one of my holidays when I was still at Barewa, I came all the way from Funtua to Lagos, to meet him. He briefed me on the fact that Accountancy is a profession that is very useful. He said, “You can be in any part of government, private sector and what have you.”
So when I applied for scholarship, I applied to study Accountancy. And at that time there was no institution in Nigeria giving that kind of study; the only one which was available within West Africa was Achimota Administration and Business College in Ghana. So I was sent to Ghana under the Northern Nigeria Government scholarship scheme.
I and Mukhtari Bello were in Ghana for one full year during the peak of the rule of Dr Kwame Nkrumah, and after one year the government of Northern Nigeria decided that we should be moved from Ghana to the United Kingdom.
How was it living in Ghana for a young man from Nigeria?
Surprisingly, there were a lot of Nigerians in Ghana. As a matter of fact, one of the eldest sons of Ahmadu Kumasi was the Secretary General of CPP, the ruling party in Ghana at that time, and we managed to link up with him and he invited us to many parts of Ghana.
What was his name?
I can’t remember the name, but I know that he was the eldest son of Late Kumasi as he was already fairly an elderly person.
Older than Abidina?
Much older! He was, even at that time, fairly elderly person.
And he was the secretary of Nkrumah’s party?
Yes; he was the Secretary General of the ruling CPP and they had a conference and he invited us to visit Kumasi. I and Mukhtari Bello often visited him during the weekends, and from time to time he invited us to different parts of Ghana; just to see the country.
The general impression is that maybe because you came from a rich family so you studied Accounting in order to continue building the family wealth…
Honestly, I have to admit that the Late Hamza Zayyad, Wazirin Katsina was the one who convinced me that Accountancy is a good profession. That you can go to any sector or be on your own. So, that was how I studied Accountancy, not because of family business.
Did you inherit much wealth which you needed to take care of?
My father was a fairly wealthy person. Reasonably, I have inherited some income. We lived comfortably and did all the things that needed to be done; assisted relations and things like that.
Your career after school in England was mostly in Kaduna, at the beginning. Was it still under the mentorship of Alhaji Hamza Zayyad?
When I finished my Accountancy studies, I decided that I wanted to have a very practical experience. So I sought the assistance of the former Manager of the accounting firm, Pannell Kerr Foster. I got in touch with him, he was living in the UK; he was back from Nigeria at the time, and had a firm in London. He gave me the opportunity to be with them, to get practical experience, and I was in London for 30 months to gain further experience.
Meanwhile, towards the end of my studies I was approached by a consultancy firm that they would like to recruit a chief accountant for the Defence Industries Corporation (DIC) in Kaduna.
I attended the interview and I was successful. I think Late Gen Hassan Katsina was the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) while Yusufu Gobir was a permanent secretary. They all welcomed the idea that a Nigerian should be appointed to that position.
It was a factory mainly managed by Germans; the general manager was German, the chief engineer and so on. I was there for about two years.
It was during my stay in the DIC that again Alhaji Hamza Zayyad came in. He convinced me that there were lots of opportunities in New Nigeria Development Company (NNDC). So I was interviewed for the chief accountant of NNDC. The Managing Director at that time was Mallam Musa Bello. I was successful and was offered the job and I stayed there up to the time when I became the General Manager (GM). Mallam Musa Bello was still the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). The GM was the number two position in the organization.
It was at that stage that the Gowon coup happened, when he was toppled. I was approached by Late Shehu Yaradua, that he has discussed with General Murtala Muhammed and that they would like me to be a member of the cabinet.
Were you surprised when you were called to serve as a minister?
I saw it as an opportunity to serve the nation. I wholly welcomed the idea and was pleased with the appointment. Of course, the unfortunate incident of February 76 happened and after him came Obasanjo.
It seems you were removed as minister and then reappointed in a different ministry.
I was not removed; I was reassigned. I was appointed Minister of Economic Development and Reconstruction because that was the time the country had just finished the Civil War and there was a ministry specially designed to look at the reconstruction of the country. Prof Adebayo Adedeji, of former AfDB was the minister. So, I took over that role from him.
And it was after the coming of Obasanjo that I was reassigned to the Ministry of Cooperative and Supply. It was literally like the Ministry of Trade because most of the issues being dealt with by that ministry were more of domestic trade. There was also the added advantage that we wanted to drive a cooperative movement and we have done quite a lot throughout states of the federation.
Were you happy to leave government or was it that you found it challenging to be in the private sector?
I was very happy to be in the government. I resigned when I felt I had served enough. So one afternoon I decided to see the Head of State, Gen Obasanjo, and I confided in him that I would like to leave.
He said he would not allow me to leave. So I went round to his very close colleagues and convinced them that I had worked enough in Lagos and I would like to leave.
Why did you want to leave, you wanted to get back to Kaduna?
I had stayed for close to 10 years in Lagos. Initially as Minister of Economic Development and Reconstruction and later as Minister of Cooperative and Supply. It was from there that the Chairman of UBA, Victor Ndalugi, invited me that I should come and be the Executive Vice Chairman of UBA.
Did the offer come before you left the ministerial position or…?
Yes; before I left the ministerial position.
So was this one of the reasons you wanted to leave government?
Yes; because I had an offer and it was a good one. I was invited to Paris and we met with the top executives of the bank and they all agreed that I should be considered for the job. So when I came back I was appointed initially as executive vice chairman, but almost immediately after, I was appointed the substantive managing director.
You stayed for 10 years in UBA which stretched into the period of Gen Ibrahim Babaginda before you retired. Tell me about your effort to start a new bank; after your experiences with UBA and with First Bank as chairman, you started Jaiz Bank which is unique as Islamic oriented bank; what were the challenges?
Actually it all started when the late Gen Sani Abacha was the appointed Amirul Hajj for Nigeria for that year. I happened to be part of the delegation that went to Jedda and God so kind we were invited to a ceremony of the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), where they hosted many countries around the world. So I seized the opportunity to table the idea.
So you were with the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), you met the officials then?
We met the officials and they told us how the bank operates and I was fascinated that it is a non-interest bank; it is in accordance with Sharia. When I came back I developed interest in that institution. I made many contacts with the officials there, the then president of IDB, Dr Mohammed Ali, was very cooperative. He also had a very senior Nigerian working at that time in the person of Prof Adebi, and through him we began to get a lot of information of what needed to be done to set up that kind of bank.
One of the things that we tried was to convince Nigeria to be a member of the IDB. Although we were members of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), we were the only country at that time which was not a member of the IDB, so we were not getting all the benefits that other countries were getting.
So we were looking at it from two aspects: how to set up a bank which is fully supported by IDB and for Nigeria to be a member of the IDB. Nigeria is now the fifth or sixth largest shareholder in IDB.
So that was how the interest developed, it was a lot of effort, a lot of travelling, a lot discussions, a lot of work, a lot of things were done by myself and Mustapha Bintube, who was the first managing director. We went to all the nooks and corners of this country and also all the nooks and corners of Middle East, US and what have you, all looking for investors and people who can assist us setting up the bank.
I must say that I have heard many shareholders of Jaiz expressing disappointment at the slow progress of the bank; I don’t know whether you have heard this and what have you to say about it?
I have heard it! We were the first to come on board and we should have taken the first move (advantage), but I think there were certain things that couldn’t happen unfortunately. We had to change MDs because the first MD was from Bangladesh, because when we asked the IDB to give us reference who they would like to be our technical partners they recommended the Islamic Bank of Bangladesh, so the first MD was from Bangladesh.
So when he came, he didn’t know the situation, he didn’t know the condition of the country, after some years we had no alternative but to ask him to go and then we appointed a Nigerian. Really the start was not very smooth.
But Alhamdulillahi, now we are home and dry, we have started making profit, of course we are not declaring the kind of dividends that the major banks are doing, but at least it is something, the important thing is that once you can get some baraka (blessing) out of it, it will be sufficient.
You are 81 years but it seems you are still working; running your business. Most people in your age probably would have left the scene. What keeps you going, what is the motivation?
I feel that the more you keep being active the more you feel at least to be able to do a lot of things and God in His infinite mercy has given us the age and we will continue to work. I come to office, I come to do a lot of things, of course I have stopped making a lot of travelling.
So you don’t travel abroad now?
I do travel abroad. In fact, last three months we were at Uzbekistan to attend the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the IDB which is consisting of some 55 or 56 member countries. It is a very long way from here, but we were there. I am talking of local travelling. I travel to Katsina, I travel to Lagos but travelling by road is not what I do much.
Many lists of the Nigerian rich include your name. I have seen one that says you are the 11th richest man in the country; are you surprised by that?
Well, Alhamdulillahi, I am not a poor man; neither will I say I am one of the 11 richest persons in Nigeria.
But that is what the list is saying?
It is all their perception. I thank God for what he has given me and the way I deploy it and so forth and I am grateful to Him, but I will not consider myself among the 11 richest Nigerians, by any chance.
You are a banker and you know the market well…
I know that I am keeping myself above water. I pay my bills and so on and so forth and try to assist as much as I can; but to say I am one of the richest, I think this happens to have been during my son’s situation; that he is one of the richest men in Nigeria bla bla bla, but even at that time when I was the Chairman of First Bank, yes I had some shares in First Bank, but I am not one of the richest men; there are many more people much more richer than myself.
Do you enjoy making money; is it something that really gives you pleasure?
I do try to make money so that I can use it to assist relations, friends and what have you, but after all we came with nothing and we are going back with nothing. So that is the way I look at it. I make money just in order to keep myself in a good condition, my family, my relations and so on and so forth, but it is not to accumulate.
But you have assets?
O yes; I do.
Houses, estates and companies, I mean these are the kinds of things that go into valuation, not liquid
Most of these things; it is all a question of if you get a stock exchange to do a valuation then you equate yourself of how much proportion of that in company do you own and so on and so forth, but I don’t do that at all.
So your mind does not go into how much is your net worth?
I do it once in a year, to get the estimated compulsory 1/40 to the needy.
You alluded to the case of your son, Umar Farouk, are you in touch with him?
Yes; he phones us, sometimes two times, sometimes three times in a month. We cannot phone him but he is the one who can phone us. As a matter of fact his mother and one of his brothers and one of his sisters were with him just about two, three weeks ago; they visited him.
Is he allowed visitors?
Of course; under very strict prison guidelines, but we keep on praying to Almighty Allah that one day, maybe before my lifetime ends, we will see him back, but it is a situation whereby he has three lifetime sentences, plus 40 years, so it is a lot but only almighty Allah will bring us into a situation seeing him in this world with his siblings here in Nigeria.
What else do you do beside work and business; do you have any other activity that keep you busy?
I have a lot of reading to do; the Holy Quran and a lot of various Islamic books and so on and the lives of prophets.
Do you exercise, any hobby?
I do attend doctor’s appointment, because at our age, you know the bones are quite weak, the cartilage would have been worn out; so from time to time I do go to… In fact, I think it is twice a week and also twice a month, I do visit a doctor who would give me some treatment just so that I am not completely invalid, sort of ability to walk and do a lot of other exercises and so forth.
One remarkable thing about your career is that like other Nigerians who are successful in business, you have avoided politics. How do you do it sort of underground without our noticing?
I don’t do politics. My father was a politician, I know how he did it, but I decided to forget politics all together.
I am sure it would be a better game in the future, but right now it is really a game that the players can be very dirty. If you want to be, they will tear you to pieces. But I am sure in the future it would be a better arrangement.
Have you been approached by politicians to get involved, maybe financing and other things?
Of course there are lots of that, all one can do is to do the little one can do, but to go to should I say meetings or the grounds to speak; I don’t do that.
Are you worried about this country, of course everybody must be but some people have a longer perspective of things; they have seen the past and they have seen how things have developed. Do you feel we are making progress?
Really one is very worried about the current situation, although the government is trying to do its best, but it looks as if banditry and so on are really trying to overpower the authorities.
In the good old days people travelled to different parts of the country in the night because it was very cool and everything was calm, but now even in the day time, I mean there is no road that is very free because anything can happen at any time.
We only hope and pray that the authorities will do more, they are doing a lot already but they could do more to arrest the situation and we pray to the almighty Allah to really to bring to the, should I say those who are doing these things to really stop these sorts of things. It is really unbelievable that one could think these sorts of things could happen in Nigeria.
We have heard of it in some parts of the world but it has become the in-thing, unfortunately even between neighbours. If a neighbour wants to get some money he will arrange for one of his people to be kidnapped and ask for ransom, it is very worrying, it is very disturbing but god in his infinite mercy there is nothing that he cannot stop before all things break out of hand.
But as an elder, have you had the chance to make your input to the government, you and your group of elders; have you been consulted?
Yes; we do have a small group of about five or six of us who do have an opportunity to go and make a presentation but we have not been doing this now for the past maybe one year or so, because the thing is happening so repeatedly, you hear of this and the next one is this; it is really very frightening. But we hope and pray that God in His infinite mercy will put a stop to all these because there is nothing beyond Him.
You have a large family, what lessons have you learnt from family life?
I have two wives and we have 13 children: six boys and seven girls, and we have given them the best education we can. Most of them are graduates and some of them with masters’ degrees and so on. That is the best you can give to your child, education, because if you educate a person, you have given him the opportunity to develop himself.
I must say that we have quite a number of them working in institutions in Nigeria, including one working in IDB in Jeddah and one of them in the Government of Katsina State and so on. So we look forward to them developing themselves to be on their own because we have been giving them a lot of support, but I think the time has now come for them to give us support as well.
Do you see yourself at some point, maybe completely retiring from business and handing over to the younger ones to run?
I am trying to do that right now because out of our very many companies which we either wholly own or partly own, we try to involve them. But you know business is very tough; so that is why we have to interfere.
If you look back at your life, long life, accomplished life, will there be things that you would say you would have done differently?
One thing is that before you go into business with anybody you should be very careful because it is a way of soldering a lot of friendships, but also a way of breaking up relationships.
So I think quite honestly, from what one has experienced over the years, one has to be very careful. I am not saying that you should do all things yourself, you should own a company 100 per cent, no, but before you bring people on board, you should really have a very thorough understanding of their backgrounds and so on so that if something goes wrong at least there is somebody you can go back to and say look, this is what is happening, can you talk to A, B or C.
So this is what I have from going through many different businesses and companies and organisations and some of them are very successfully operating and so on. But at the same time, there are some that you wish that you had not associated yourself with; that sort of thing.