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Monday, 1 August 2016

How the civil war robbed me of becoming a pilot-Ex-Ikoyi Club chair Bolaji Adeniji

When Harrison Bolaji Adeniji turned 70 penultimate week, friends and well-wishers flocked around him for a thanks giving service at the Trinity Methodist Church, Tinubu, Lagos. It was a roll call of who is who in high society. And the day was further more made memorable with a stylish party at the Yoruba Tennis Club, Onikan, Lagos, where ‘Abonje the doyen of society’, as his friends fondly call him, also publicly presented a book titled, A Rhythm of possibilities. But what does turning 70 mean to Harrison Adeniji? He laughs, gesticulates dramatically as he relaxes back on a sofa in the spacious sitting room, in his country home at Ikorodu. “When I was 50, people told me I didn’t look it! When I was 60, I was told the same thing. I give all the glory to God; it is not my doing. I believe that there are certain qualities that can help somebody to be agile at 70.” We couldn’t have asked for more, as he took us through the 'rhythm of possibilities' of his life, in this interview with PAUL UKPABIO

Is there any special reason for choosing that title for the book?


I chose that title for a purpose because in life there are opportunities, some people will take them, others will miss them. But in my case, I tried to chronicle the opportunities that came my way all through my childhood, my student days through the time I was abroad and through my working days in Nigeria.

What was early life like for you?

It was interesting because I was born into a fairly comfortable family where everything went smoothly for me. My father was a senior customs officer at the time and my mother was a successful, prosperous trader. We had our own houses in Lagos Island in the 40s, 50s, 60s and so on. So you see, you can call me a real ‘Lagos Boy’ because that is what I was as a child.

What was Lagos like then?

It was fantastic before the independence. Obviously, in terms of population, we were not that many. We had everything good going for us. You could count the number of cars on the roads. There were lots of open spaces to play. Even at that time, we used to go and play with paper boats in gutters that were very clean. There were public officials who came round to inspect the gutters daily to ensure good sanitation conditions of living environment. We called them ‘Wo le wo le.’ And they were there to deal with people whose environment felt short of being hygienic. They even came round to fumigate the gutters, houses and compounds. Things were good for us then. We even went on window shopping to Kingsway Stores and other such stores in the evenings. The store windows did not have burglary proof irons; we could see the wares, clothes and products which were usually well displayed to enable window shoppers to view from outside conveniently, especially at Christmas, Easter and Muslim holidays. That was because some parents might not have had free time during the day to take the children looking round, so in the evenings when they were back from work, we went on window shopping. Even at night we went around to do normal things like it was daytime.  

What can you say about today Lagos?

Oh, I’m happy with what the present governor of Lagos is during at the moment, trying to light up Lagos State. In those days in Lagos, we were not experiencing light outage. We had the Electric Corporation of Nigeria also called ECN that provided electricity for our use.  Most places in Lagos were well lighted. Of course that contributed to the peace we had then and I can now understand properly why we didn’t have the soaring crime rate then like we have now. Everywhere was well lighted. We could see everybody. Most crimes are perpetuated under the cover of darkness. Lagos was a mini-London in the 40s and in the 50s and even in the 60s.
With daughter
 Coming from the home where your dad was a senior customs officer, did that mean education was compulsory for you?

Yes, but I also loved education and desired it. During that period, we were paying fees. Of course, Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s free education came much later. So we were paying fees. I attended Oriwu Private College. It was Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s party that later also came up with the Western Broadcasting Station that later made us enjoy radio and television. Nigeria was moving with great aspiration. It is a pity to see today the sad turn of events regarding the country, due to bad leadership.

At Nigeria independence, you were already fast assuming youthfulness?

That’s right.

So how did you celebrate independence?

(Laughs) I was determined that by Independence Day I must be in secondary school. That was because in primary school, we were restricted to khaki shorts. But in secondary school, the boys wore trousers. That got into my head. I was determined to wear trousers by being in secondary school. Though I was younger in age, one of my teachers encouraged me to take entrance examination to King’s College. I passed the examination. But at the interview, they discovered that I was in Standard 4. Though I did well, the head interviewer said they didn’t want to create a bad precedent, that I was too young, that I should wait and go through the other class. I felt disappointed. The next opportunity I had was at Oriwu College. The examination came, I passed very well and I was admitted. So, the independence year meant so much to me because that was the year I entered secondary school. And I celebrated it in a big way.  We had to march at the Tafawa Balewa Square; I had on my school trousers, shirt and blazer and I was moving like a King Kong around the area. It was a nice day, a nice period for me. And we had royalty presence from the Queen of England. The ceremony was impressive.

What kind of youth were you?

I was an ambitious youth. By 1965, I was working in the Federal Ministry of Works and Surveys; I was in the air photography unit because I was very good in geography. There we were recruited specially to be trained and thereafter sent to Canada to learn more about the interpretation of aerial photographs taken from the aeroplane. We used the aid of compasses and other equipment, to analyse such photographs. We called it photogrammetry. So that the government could know where there were roads or where roads can be constructed, where there could be obstacles and so on. I found it interesting because initially I wanted to be a pilot. I loved their uniform, so smart and clean. I wanted to be a captain. I concentrated on that job and was very good in it. Unfortunately, the war which had been brewing, started. Even Canada was no more visible. Instead we were working for the army because the soldiers fighting in Biafra didn’t know the terrain. We were made to interpret the aerial photographs for them at our office. Left alone then, the soldiers would have been on a wild goose chase, not knowing where to go or where to avoid rivers and so on. We were a vital tool in achieving success during that war. We were so good that I became worried that I could be sent to the warfront, especially if the war did not end. I then decided to go abroad for further studies.

So, did you go abroad?

I eventually went to England in 1968. Actually I wanted to just stop briefly in England and then move to America but when I got to England, the aura of the place consumed me. So I told myself that this is ‘the London’. I felt really big on my arrival in London and I stormed everywhere. It was a great joy for me to be seen to be in England and seen at Travalgar Square. Fortunately for me, I met some of my friends and immediately enrolled at Norwood Technical College to read Business Studies.

Did you experience challenges abroad?

Yes, I did. Though my parents were rich and could afford to send money to me, but at that time, there were so many laws and prohibitions during the war, which made a lot of people not to be able to send money out of the country legally. So I was stuck with no other way but to start doing menial jobs. That one was easily available. We suspended our certificates and went to do jobs on a weekly wage. That was how we survived. But I knew within me, that I would have to resume full time studies.

How did you move out of that situation?

That was another rhythm of opportunity. Moving around with some of the boys there, I met those who said that they had been in England for 20 years. As if that was their land! That was a great achievement to them. I was not keen or carried away by that. I knew I was on a mission there and I had to achieve my set goal. We were regularly attending parties, went to bookmakers, where we made bets on horses. Though I was not used to gambling with them, one day I tried with half a crown and won about 600 pounds. I was like a sudden millionaire! That money gave me a leeway and fortunately a friend of mine that I had been looking for, I saw that particular day where I went to see another person. He had finished his education in Sheffield and was on his way to Bolton where he wanted to go and continue his education. He decided to stop first in London and that was how we met again.

So I told him I would follow him to Bolton. And with the kind of money I suddenly had, I was ready for anything. Immediately we got to Bolton, I went straight to Bolton Technical College to continue what I was doing back in Norwood Technical College. The school fee then was a 100 pound a year. I paid, rented a flat and was well settled. That took me away from the vagaries of London. I had started developing a distaste for the lifestyle that my friends and I were living in London. I knew that the way things were going, it would be difficult to get anywhere in life. That was part of the rhythm of opportunities which I seized straightaway.

You finished school, but at what point did you decide on marriage?

It didn’t come immediately. I had a National Diploma, so I applied to the University of Solfolk in Manchester. I applied to others but Bolton to Manchester was just nine miles, so I found it easy to go to Manchester because I had a flat in Bolton and was comfortable.

Another opportunity struck, while I was about to finish the OND; my senior brother, now a retired justice of the Lagos High Court Justice Adebayo Adeniji, sent a Daily Times cutting of an application for scholarship to me. I went to the Nigerian House in London to follow up. When I got there for the available 200 scholarship, there were about 2, 000 people waiting. Some of us couldn’t even get in, we were outside. Fortunately for me, while I was outside, one of the officials came out. He spotted me and asked, ‘Young man, are you Adeniji? Bayo Adeniji’s’ brother, the son of Pa Adeniji of the Nigerian Customs?’ I replied yes sir. That was it. When he went back in, I heard my name being announced next. I went in. He told the panel that I am the son of Pa Adeniji of the Nigerian Customs; they seemed to all know him, even my brother too. So I was interviewed and I got the scholarship. I graduated in Solfolk in 1974. 

That was when marriage issues came up, though I had been in and out of casual relationships. There was one particular English girl, Christina, that I loved and wanted to marry. My mother was against it. While I was abroad, she had been trying to arrange a woman for me. But I wasn’t keen on the arrangement. So I told her I had somebody that I loved. When she saw that I refused to see other ladies that she arranged, she told me to go and see my dad. And my dad being a well-travelled, liberal person asked me questions and was satisfied. He told me to go ahead, that if that, was what I wanted, then I should go ahead. So we all went to England for the marriage in 1976. We had two children. Eventually I brought her back here to a flat in Palmgrove Estate. But she couldn’t cope; the Nigeria I left in the 60s was not the Nigeria I returned to meet in mid 70s. The GDP was wealthy, but the place was not okay.  Ikorodu road was under construction, 3rd Mainland Bridge was still being talked about, it was in my presence that FESTAC was being built. The population had exploded, the roads were narrow,  so there was commotion, and she couldn’t cope. I wished to have gone back too but then it was a bit hard for me. Back there in Europe though I didn’t experience it, I saw discrimination. I was an African to the core. I didn’t believe in White supremacy. I was proud of my colour. I took them on in classes, in social gatherings, anywhere. Even in the university, my views were strong in favour of Africa. And those were the days of Mohammad Ali, James Brown and soul music. The West Indians were there too and we got together. I fought injustice meted out to other people. And that made me popular.

When you returned, what did you do?

I had been on scholarship, so when I finished, I had to serve. So I stayed back and started work. I served for two years. Then by chance again I got an employment into UBA where I worked for about 15 years. Through UBA I was able to know the whole of Nigeria. 

What were you doing in UBA?

For many years, I was in the Inspectorate Division, that was what gave me the opportunity to move around. In those days when they knew you were good, they pushed you to do more things, though some were envious, some even wanted to punish me by sending me up and down to the bush not knowing that the person they were sending was a natural adventurer. And some of the goodwill from all those journeys, I cannot quantify today. After a while, politics set in to affect promotions. In the 80s, there was proliferation of banks but some of us were worried that those banks would soon collapse. But some of them didn’t collapse and we saw boys who were under us climb up the ladder faster than us. These were boys that we trained. So I left in 1990 for Republic Bank where I became a Chief Inspector. The new bank I joined changed my fortune. I suddenly was earning three times the money I was collecting at UBA. I had a personal car as Chief Inspector and another car for my division. My expenses were low and my income was more. We had staff management canteen, free food with one of the best chefs. 
With friend
 So, you became the socialite that you had always wanted to be?

(Laughs heartily) Yes, I did. Being a banker in those days was a big deal. And then again, it was compulsory to be a member of these elite social clubs because of the marketing factor. The bank actually paid for that so that we could interact with captains of industry. In 1990 I was already the Social Secretary of Ikoyi Club 1938, I won an election. While in UBA I was a member of the Lagos University Civil Service Staff Club, then I was a manager in UBA University Lagos Branch. There were some people who thought I worked in the university rather than in the bank. They thought I was a lecturer. I was more popular in the campus than some lecturers. I joined Yoruba Tennis Club, Waka Club and Ikoyi Club actually opened doors for me. Between 1995 and 1997 I became the General Secretary of the club, where I was in charge of the administrative functions of the whole club. In 2003 I became the chairman where I contributed to the development of the place. Some rate the me as the best chairman that has been in Ikoyi Club. Two years later, I became an honorary member of the club which meant getting closer to the trustees of the club. It’s like being a member of the board where strategies for the club are discussed. Some other members are Chief Olusegun Obasanjo; the past prime minister of UK, Mr Edward Heath, is a member; Dr Dauda Jawara, the ex-president of Sierra Leone, ex-President Ibrahim Babangida and other top personalities.

At what point did you retire?

I resigned from Republic Bank after a while because the way things were going didn’t go down well with me. I couldn’t get the listening ears of the founder. It was a decision that was difficult for me to take. That was because I was not being sacked, neither did I have another job waiting for me. But I just knew I had to leave despite the fact that I was the main man directing operations there. For three months I had no job. I resigned because of my integrity. By the time I got a job, three arrived within three days. I returned from Urban Development Bank where I had gone to resume, only to get another letter at home from Eko International Bank and the next day, another one from Access Bank. As a ‘Lagos Boy,’ I decided to choose Eko International Bank. I worked there for another 15 years holding so many management positions before I retired in June 2005 as General Manager, Corporate Resources. It was few days before my birthday.

After you retired, did you continue at Ikoyi Club?

Yes, I did, still social, still involved. Now I am the Chairman of the Thursday Group at the Lagos Civil Service Club, the Elders’ Corner.

Can one say that all these social activities you have been involved, have kept you busy all these years and made you agile at 70?

(Laughs) I believe that must be the secret (Laughs). True, I have always been busy. I am also presently the Chairman of the foremost club in Ikorodu known as The Exclusive Club. I was Secretary and Vice Chairman. With my involvement in all these places, I have always been on my toes. I play hard and work hard. I strike a balance between the two. That was even why I was awarded a Ph.D from Bradley in the USA 2004; they wondered how I could manage Ikoyi Club successfully and still manage a bank as a General Manager.

But even then, you do not look your age?

(Laughs) You are not the first to say it. When I was 50, people told me I didn’t look it! When I was 60, I was told the same thing. I give all the glory to God, it is not by own doing. I believe that there are certain qualities that can help somebody to be agile at 70. One should learn to be contented early in life. You do not have to have everything others have; it’s not a relay race. Just do your own thing. Learn to have integrity. When you have that, people will respect you. I am contented. I am not a poor man by any standard. But at the same time I am not a super-rich man. I don’t even want to be. The little I have gives me peace of mind.

But you have been bubbling with high life and you have been a socialite since you were a youth, meaning you have been taking alcohol for over 55 years or so, funny enough, it doesn’t seem to have affected you negatively?

That’s correct, but I must tell you that, in everything we do, we must have our limits. When you tell some people that you are going to the club, they think that you are going there to get drunk. It is not so. We are social drinkers. We do not drink and allow it to harm our health. Excess of everything is bad. So one needs to moderate whatever one does. You can even go to the club every single day and not drink all of those days. I have days I drink, and days that I do not go near alcohol. I politely reject alcohol when the need arises. When I have big assignments, I do not go near alcohol. One should be able to separate play time from work time. Once you can get to that level of mastering yourself, you will be okay.

What sport are you into?

I was a real sports man, but with the nature of my job and duties, and more responsibilities as I grew up, I reduced concentration on sports. I was a good footballer and swimmer. I was good in athletics too. Now, I just watch (laughs). 

What type of exercises do you do now?

My major exercise these days is walk. When I go to the club I walk around, I hardly sit. I walk the 13 sections in a day deliberately. I do Carmel walk too, that is, strolling. 

What kind of food do you eat?

I eat less now than before. Sometimes I take breakfast and sometimes I don’t. When I don’t, I compensate with lunch. But I cannot skip dinner. I use my vitamin tablets daily. I eat local and international foods.

Tell us about your sense of fashion and style over the decades

In all modesty, I am a model when it comes to fashion. People follow. I lead in fashion circles. Whether in suit or native clothing or whatever, we bring what is latest and others copy. When it comes to style, I am highly rated.

What kind of colours do you prefer?

I like brown because of the colour of my skin. I also like blue, and as a colour, white appeals to me.

At 70, what advice do you have for society folks?

It is important that we see life as a continuum. We should try to be honest, and help others where we can. It is sad to hear that in our country, people are stealing billions of naira. What do they want to do with the money? Is it not this same life? Why do things that will not make you sleep with your two eyes closed? If everyone had played their parts well, Nigeria would have been a great place to be. It is a sad commentary to see the way we are now, considering the prospects that the country had in the days before independence.

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