Sometime in 1988, I received a call from a good friend, Mr Akin Akintoye, about an interesting investment opportunity with a few colleagues. After a series of meetings, it became very clear to me that we were about to embark on an audacious but incredibly special journey, and I was excited about the prospect of being a part of such a project.
For almost 2 years, I worked alongside the likes of Akin Akintoye, Fola Adeola, Tayo Aderinokun (of blessed memory), Gbolly Osibodu, Bode Agusto and a few others on this investment project. As of 1988 when we began the journey, Fola was 34, Tayo was 33, Gbolly was 33, Bode was 33, Akin was 35 and I was 33. The objective: To own a BANK.
It was a bold objective considering our respective ages at the time, but certainly not an impossible task in our eyes. So we began to hold countless meetings at Fola’s residence in 1988 until we eventually shifted base to Tayo’s First Marina Trust office in Victoria Island. By late 1989, we were ready to put in our bank application at CBN, along with the required minimum capital. This effort was spearheaded by Fola and Tayo (the two brains behind the entire operation), and supported by about 40 persons (including myself), most of whom were in their early 30s and working for different organizations at the time.
The end product? We formed arguably one of the finest financial institutions Nigeria has ever seen- Guaranty Trust Bank (known as GT Bank today). The bank was licensed on the 1st of August, 1990 and we commenced banking operations later that year. A group of young boys in their early/mid-30s OWNED a bank! We simply dreamt big and turned this dream into reality.
I am taking the liberty to reflect on this chapter of my personal history against the backdrop of some of the criticism about the ages of some of President Muhammadu Buhari’s ministerial nominees. The argument being brandished about is that by nominating the likes of Chief Audu Ogbeh as ministers, our President is somehow blocking the destinies of younger Nigerians by preventing them from occupying such positions. People are quick to reference Yakubu Gowon and Murtala Mohammed as being relatively young when they ascended to power, and they argue that the same opportunities that young people had in the past are no longer available today. They also argue that around the same time we were forming GT Bank in the late eighties, there were also a number successful young entrepreneurs who distinguished themselves as well – Bola Tinubu (Treasurer at Mobil Oil), Gbade Ojora (ED Mobil Oil), Jim Ovia (Zenith Bank), Erastus Akingbola (Intercontinental), Dele Momodu (Publishing), Tony Elumelu (Standard Trust), Liyel Imoke (Politics), O’tega Emerhor (Standard Alliance Insurance), Aig Imoukhuede and Herbert Wigwe (Access) and Atedo Peterside (IBTC) are some of the noteworthy youngsters who made an impact in various fields in Nigeria at the time. But what some of the proponents of the argument against the older ministerial nominees fail to realize or remember is that even in my early thirties, we also had very established industrialists like MKO Abiola, Otunba Subomi Balogun, etc, who all operated during our time. We respected them, but neither felt overwhelmed by their success nor daunted by the prospects of climbing up the ladder. We simply forged ahead with our plans and damned the consequences. The point is that nobody cleared the way for us back then, so young Nigerians today should not expect that anyone would clear the way for them either.
Perhaps, at play is the venting of some on-going frustrations by the younger generation today, but it is important to put things into proper perspective. Since pre-independence, the Nigerian youth have played a pivotal role in nation-building and economic development. The vast majority of the founding fathers that led the struggle for our independence were relatively young. Chief Obafemi Awolowo was 37, Akintola was 36, Ahmadu Bello was 36, Balewa was 34 and Enahoro was 27 when they led the struggle for independence after the death of Sir Herbert Macaulay. Only Nnamdi Azikiwe was over 40 (he was about 42 at the time). Indeed, even the post-independence military hierarchy was fueled by the active participation of young persons in nation-building at critical periods of our nation’s history. The first coup in 1966 was led by a 29-year-old Nzeogwu and countered by the likes of T.Y. Danjuma, Shehu Musa Yar’adua and a few others, all in their 20s. The subsequent coup brought a 32-year-old Yakubu Gowon into power. Many of the military administrators who governed the states under successive military governments (including our current president, Muhammadu Buhari) were in their 30s. Similarly, the major beneficiaries of Nigerian indigenization policies in the early 70s were young private sector entrepreneurs. The likes of Subomi Balogun, Oladele Olasore, Sam Asabia blazed the trails in banking at relatively young ages, while super civil servants such as Allison Ayida, Phillips Asiodu, Ahmed Joda, Ime Ebong, Ibrahim Damcida etc held forth in public administration in their early 30s. This trend of young people playing active roles in nation building and economic activities continued well into my own generation in the 1980s and 90s, so it is not difficult to understand how we were able to muster the courage and determination to form a bank at the time.
I have spent a lot of time mentoring, observing and interacting with young Nigerians. Today’s youth are no different from those of my generation about 30 years ago. They are faced with the same pressures, frustrations, uncertainties and life vicissitudes that we faced in our late twenties and early thirties. However, the marked difference is how young Nigerians apply themselves today. Most of us who made an impact in our early thirties came from modest means. We were not rich, and we did not have any noteworthy inheritance. Nobody did us any favours, and the older generation did not give us a pass or a nudge in the right direction. In fact, the military administration at the time made it extremely difficult for us to participate optimally in business, governance and politics. We did not have social media, and there was no technology to aid our goals. We were simply big dreamers determined to make a difference. We were highly enlightened and career-oriented, so we were able to force our way through the door by working extremely hard.
So what exactly needs to change amongst young Nigerians today?
First, young Nigerians have to humble themselves. You have to be willing to learn the ropes and hone your craft. Around the age of 27, I left the relative comfort of a steady career at CBN to learn under the tutelage of Otunba Subomi Balogun, the visionary and pioneer behind FCMB. Working as Otunba Subomi Balogun’s executive assistant was an experience of a lifetime. He was (and still is) a well-organized and thorough individual. He strongly promoted excellence and perfection and did not condone indolence, laziness or poor quality work. He was also an impeccable dresser, always elegantly attired in all-white traditional wear or perfectly tailored suits. I picked up these virtues and adopted his style of leadership and management in my future endeavours. I was opportune to travel with him to attend corporate and other board meetings. I gained valuable and practical experiences in corporate board management and boardroom politics, which became useful tools later in my career.
Secondly, you must know your worth. Do not settle for less, and do not allow yourselves to be used by selfish political interests. Challenge the status-quo. Challenge the establishment. The youth make up a sizeable portion of the Nigerian populace. By extension, they have the loudest voices and the biggest potential. Alan Moore, a prominent British author opined that “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people”. This is especially true with regards to young Nigerians. You are more powerful than you give yourselves credit for. Our current president was victorious in large part due to the votes cast by young Nigerians, and you must continue to remind yourselves of this fact because 2019 is already fast approaching.
Thirdly, and crucially, young Nigerians have to eliminate distractions. Do not get carried away by the allure of good living, bling, fame and fortune. Stay on the straight-and-narrow path. Distractions are the proverbial pot-holes; they slow you down from reaching your destination and damage your wheels in the process. By all accounts, social media is obviously the biggest distraction. It is a powerful tool, but can also derail you from focusing on the bigger picture. The most discerning amongst you will know how to navigate social media without hindering your ability to make significant inroads in the economic and political fabric of Nigeria. I have been impressed with what the likes of Linda Ikeji, Bellanaija, Don Jazzy, TY Bello, Jimi Mohammed, Banke Meshida-Lawal and other young Nigerians have been able to accomplish at such a young age, and it should serve as an inspiration to other young Nigerians in various fields as well.
Finally, take advantage of opportunities, no matter how small or inconsequential they may be at the time. Expect no helping hands. And when these opportunities present themselves, grab what you can. During our cabinet meetings, my boss and mentor, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu always quipped that “Power is never served a-la-carte”. This is indeed true in the context of where young Nigerians currently are, and where they need to be.
Our nation is at a critical crossroads. The age bracket between 18-35 years constitutes the majority of our working population group, and naturally, they should be the most productive and active segment of our country’s economic activity and nation-building efforts. Unfortunately, the youth of today are indolent, unemployed and generally incapacitated. Some are unable to make ends meet, and have not shown any sustained interest in holding leadership positions. They abstain from holding governance positions at the local, state and national levels. Ironically and confusingly, they allow themselves to be used as street (and very recently, internet/online) thugs, miscreants and protesters to pursue the selfish agendas of older politicians.
Despite all of this, I have a lot of faith in the youth of today, but young Nigerians need to start having faith in themselves as well. You need to wake up from your slumber and pilot the much-needed change process urgently. You must be willing to side-step all the pit-fall distractions and refocus your collective mindsets. You have to be guided by a desire to excel, and you must continue to push yourselves to grow in a tough, competitive and cut-throat environment that still exists today. Who knows? With a bit of conviction, commitment and guile, you may be able to produce a young, vibrant and dynamic Nigerian as our President much sooner than you think!
Former Lagos State Deputy Governor