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Politics, economy and early Nigerian entrepreneurs

IN this season of anomies, this period of political mudslinging, intrigues and chicanery that has catapulted politics to the only viable business enterprise in Nigeria, there is the need to have a urgent re-think. The re-think is that Nigeria was not the product of the early statesmen, politicians and nationalists alone, but rather, that of the business sagacity, ingenuity, wizardry, selflessness, innovativeness and resourcefulness of Nigeria’s early entrepreneurs who made the country what it is today, before the descent of commerce.
Tributes must be paid to those who made Nigeria, right from its infancy in 1914. These men of commerce and enterprise, individual sense of industry need to be celebrated- the likes of Alhassan Dantata, Esan Da Rocha, Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Odutola Brothers (Adeola and Jimoh Odutola), Alhaji Salami Agbaje of Ayeye Ibadan, Chief Adebisi Giwa of Idi-Ikan Ibadan, Chief Mathias Ugochukwu, Mr Isaac Ajanaku, Sir Lawrence Omole, Madam Janet Alatede Aboderin, Alhaja Humoani Alaga, Chief (Mrs) HID Awolowo, Madam (Chief) Bisoye Tejuoso (late Iyalode of Egbaland), Chief Theophilus Oni (T.A Oni & sons), and a host of others.

Mr Da Rocha was a native of Ilesha and was a slave returnee from Brazil. He returned to Nigeria in 1870, from Salvador Brazil, and quickly built a small fortune plying the lucrative South Atlantic trade route. Da Rocha was arguably the first Nigerian millionaire. He was popularly known as BaBa Olomi and had his head office at Kakawa Street, Marina Lagos.
He became a testament to the industrial will, that led to the establishment of the Iju Water Works, that served the entire Lagos in the 1920’s before it was taken over by the colonial administration. Da Rocha laid pipes from Iju to Lagos Island, Yaba, Ebute-metta and other communities in Lagos where there were high demand for pipe borne water.
 He was selling to individualsuntil it was taken over by the Colonial Government, who was paying Da Rocha for the supply of water to Lagos and was thus a pioneer of private ownership of utilities in Nigeria. He was so wealthy, that it was the popular saying in Yoruba- that, if you lure someone into spending money, the person would resist your trap by saying “do you think I am Da Rocha”. A rich man’s wealth is always comparable to that of Da Rocha –“he is as rich as Da Rocha.” He was highly influential; his intervention during the scarcity of water in Lagos in the early 1920’s gave him the appellation of Baba Olomi.”

Sanusi Adebisi Giwa was Ibadan’s early wealthy man, who used his wealth to advance the cause of the common people by distributing largesse; he was rich, affable, amiable and accommodating. He was a buying agent for Miller Brothers and subsequently became a Produce buyer and began to amass wealth for himself. He was also a major distributor for the UAC and had a large cocoa plantation in Mamu. He was widely acknowledged by the Ibadan people, because of his conspicuous benefaction to the Ibadan community.

Adebisi’s mansion in Ibadan still stands today as an architectural masterpiece. He was the first Ibadan man to ride a Horse and later bought a car. Till he died in 1938, he was revered as one of the wealthiest men in Ibadan, few that could match him then were- Chief Salami Agbaje of Ayeye and Babarinde Akanbi ‘Molewa (Chief Adisa Akinloye’s father).

Chief Salami Agbaje was a very successful indigenous entrepreneur and was Ibadan richest citizen in his time. Even though he started as a tailor, he diversified to the business of a timber contractor and made a huge success. He was a major supplier of timber to the NigerianRailways and supplied all the timbers needed for the construction of the Ibadan-Lagos Railways between 1898-1903. His success in the timber business encouraged him to go into produce buying venture and he also diversified into transportation, import and export.

He imported cotton, building materials, umbrellas and sewing machines. He owned the first private motor garage in Ibadan and the first truly indigenous diversified company and was also the first to establish cinemas. He was the first Ibadan man to ridea car in 1915, and built a two storey building, with cement, but was unlike Adebisi Idi Ikan, less interested in the distribution of his wealth as largesse to the common folks, which earned him the irritation of the Ibadan masses. But he nevertheless,was known to have spent a great deal of his wealth in giving his children the best education. He produced the first Ibadan Medical Doctor- Dr Saka Anthony Agbaje; the first Ibadan Lawyer- Mojeed Agbaje and a retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria- Ganiyu Agbaje and also Yekeen Agbaje-a Lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

Even though he was known to be stingy and tight fisted, he advanced the cause of modern commerce in Ibadanland and western Region entirely. In his days, he had a lot of dealings with European companies, engaged in exportation of agricultural products. He was an illiterate, but without attending school, he learned to read,write and speak impeccable English and was until his death in 1953, the Balogun of Ibadan land.

Akinpelu Obisesan was a Nigerian Diarist and business man. Akinpelu’s record in his Diaries from 1920-1960’s became an archival material for the elite activities. After a brief spell with the Nigerian Railways, he returned to Ibadan in 1913, worked with PZ and later became a produce buyer. For 30 years, he was President of Ibadan Cooperative Produce Marketing Societies (ICPMS) and Pioneer Chairman of Cooperative Bank, to serve the needs of Cooperative societies. At the time Sanusi Giwa (Adebisi idi-kan) and Salami Agbaje weremaking waves in Ibadan, Sir Tadeniawo Adesoji Aderemi was equally making waves in Ife land, as a business titan.

After he had retired as Station Manager with the Nigerian Railways Corporation in 1921, he established a produce buying and transport business and became one of the wealthiest men, until he ascended the throne of his forefathers as the Ooni of Ife in 1930, where he reigned for 50 years, until his death in 1980. His business ingenuity gave birth to the establishment of Oduduwa

College,through his efforts in 1932 and was also credited with the introduction of public amenities, such as Telephones in 1930, Pipe borne water in 1946 and Electricity in 1955 to Ile Ife. He built a magnificent mansion, the – ATOBATELE LODGE, before he ascended the throne of Ooni in 1930.
Sir Olateru Olagbegi, Olowo of Owo (1941-1966) and later 1993-1998, was father to over 140 children, of which over 121 are University graduates. He was also a business colossus and lover of Lawn Tennis. Sir Ladipo Ademola, Alake of Egbaland (1920-1962), was an educated Oba, with a deep sense of business. His son, Justice Adetokunbo Ademola, became the first indigenous Chief Justice of Nigeria, in 1960.

Alhassan Dantata, was born in 1877. He was a Northern Nigerian Kolanut trader and perhaps the richest man in West Africa at the time of his death in 1955. As a young man, Alhassan built his wealth from the scratch selling Kolanuts, Groundnuts and Beads. Alhassan started business with the Europeans in 1912 and by 1918, he was already a produce buying agent for the Royal Niger Company. He dominated the groundnut purchasing business and by 1922, he became the wealthiest business man in Kano. He was prominent in Gold Coast (Ghana) and Nigeria as a notable business man.
 He later also became the Chief produce buyer for UAC in the entire Northern Nigeria and became a licensed exporter in 1914, just like UAC. He traded in cattle, groundnut, kola, beads and other precious things. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca via boat in early 1920 and had a stopover in England and also financed the pilgrimages of other Muslims.

In 1929, when the Bank of British West Africa, opened a branch in Kano, Dantata placed 20 Carmels loads of silver coins in it (for religious reasons, his money collected no interest). He died in Kano on the 17th August 1955, having exhorted his children not to let his company, Alhassan Dantata & Sons, be broken up.

His achievement is tied to the evolution and strengthening of the groundnut trade in the North and across Nigeria, as epitomised by the popular groundnut pyramid in Kano, which is now extinct. Dantata’s story is that of a determined individual who hold himself up by the shoe string of his own efforts. The Dantata empire has been able to survive through the ages and Dangote arguably, Nigeria’s richest man today, is from the family and was in fact set up in business by his maternal grandfather- Sanusi Dantata.

Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, was a Nigerian business man born in 1909 and was until his death in 1966 reputed also to be the wealthiest man in Black Africa. He started business when he left John Holt as a Tyre Sales Clerk, to establish the Multi-Million Pounds, Ojukwu Transport Company in order to improve the trading environment for Nigerian traders. He was a tireless worker and was meticulous in his business dealings.

He invested in the Real Estate sector of the Nigerian Economy. His transport company was the first major one to move people to Lagos from Asaba end of River Niger, through his popular “Mammy Wagons”. As a result of foresight, patriotism, and shrewd business sense and a disciplined business work ethic, Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu dominated the Nigerian business space like a colossus.

Interestingly, the Queen of England- Queen Elizabeth II, on her maiden visit to Nigeria, in 1956, was driven by Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu’s personal driver in Ojukwu’s Roy’sRoyce, the most expensive vehicle at that time. It was also observed, that, Da Rocha’s daughter, presented the Queen with a bouquet of flowers, perhaps to appreciate these entrepreneurial patriarchs.

In the women folks were the likes of late Chief Mrs. Bisoye Tejuoso, a prominent Nigerian business woman from Abeokuta who started trading from Zaria,was born in1918 and started trading at the age of 18. She joined her husband then working with the Nigerian railways in the Northern Nigeria and relocated back to Lagos in the early 1950s to become an agent of the UAC and Vono industry and later set up a Teju industry, a firm specialized in foam manufacturing. She was the mother of Osile Oke-Ona of Egbaland, Oba (Dr) Adedapo Tejuoso.

Alhaja Humoani Alaga and Madam Janet Alatede Aboderin- (mother of Moyosore, Olu Aboderin and Ajibola Ogunsola), Alhaja Rabiatu Adedigba Akindele- (mother of Chief Bode Akindele) and the first Ibadan woman to go on holy pilgrimage, were also great Ibadan women of great business acumen in the early days.
Mama Chief HID Awolowo, was also prominent in the textile business and her textile store in Gbagi, Ibadan, known as “Awolowo corner”, was very prominent.

The succeeding generations of Adebsi, Agbaje, Odutolas, were the likes of Henry Fajemirokun, Chief Michael Ibru, Chief Bode Akindele, Chief Bode Amoo, Chief S.B Bakare, Chief Isaac Ajanaku, Sir Lawrence Omole, Prince Samuel Ogundele Adedoyin- a business mogul, who started business as an itinerant trader,Wahab Iyanda Folawiyo, Jimoh Ibrahim Inaolaji of Ikire, Adekambi Amao- aka “Ti Oluwa ni ‘yoose A.Amao”- of Ibadan, Reverend Fagboyegun in Owo,’ Chief Iromini in Iwo, Alhaji Adetoro Lawal in Ede, Amuda Obelawo in Ejigbo, Chief Lawson in Abeokuta and AgbaraEstate, Chief Ayinla Olatunde Abudu in Abeokuta- a lawyer, industrialist and philanthropist, Chief Adeyemi Lawson- chairman of West African Breweries ,Abeokuta, maker of the then popular Top beer, Jimoh Oyewumi Ajagungbade, who later became the Soun of Ogbomoso Land, made his money from Jos, in the early 1950s.He was a business giant; Chief S.O. Bakare (Oluwa lo gbon Motors), an astute business genius and Iyalode Wulemotu Aduke Kehinde- Late Iyalode of Gbongan Land.

However, the most unfortunate and sad angle to this unfortunate success story of a sold and dynamic entrepreneurial spirit of the olden days of Nigeria, is the lack of an inter-generational succession plan, that could serve as a continuity of bold business success stories, that would live from generation to generation. Rather, our streets are replete with the story of men of yesterday’s money, popularly called by the Yoruba as “olowoana” or “Elesin ana”

Unlike in the advanced societies, where we have living and surviving business empires in Arthur Guinness since 1777, the Vanderbilt family who made their fortune in the rail-road industry and became a wealthy popular family in the USA- in the last 200 years, the Macmillan Family(Macmillan publishers) in the publishing industry, founded by Daniel and Alexandra Macmillan since 1843, the Evans family (Evans publishers), etc. Arthur Guinness signature is still copied on every label of bottled Guinness. Harold Macmillan was a British Prime-Minister between1957-1963. He he was born of the popular Macmillan family and retired back to the publishing family business after leaving office as Prime Minister of Britain in 1964 and was in the publishing business until he died in 1986.

However, a lot of business empires have crumbled or collapsed in Nigeria, because there is no continuity on the part of the descendants and their fortunes, have gone with their founders and declining dynasties. It is therefore imperative, that we re-echo the same point that a nation can only grow, through the industry and indefatigable efforts of its men of commerce. Politics, however alluring, should not subjugate commerce, enterprise and industry, otherwise; the Nigerian Tiger would find it difficult to display its Tigertrude in the committee of advanced societies.

(Culled from

January 6, 2015

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