My life as street boy after my father’s death at 33 – Ex-CBN Deputy Governor Adelabu

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By BISI OLADELE

Former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and governorship candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Oyo State in the last election, Chief Adebayo Adelabu, recently clocked 50. Although he lost his father at a tender age, that did not deter him from realising his dream of becoming one of Nigeria’s most notable bankers, having previously functioned as an executive director in First Bank. He recalls his humble beginnings in this interview with Southwest Bureau Chief BISI OLADELE.

How do you feel turning 50?
What a question! I don’t feel old! I just feel a bit grown up, a little bit more mature in wisdom and my perspective to life and aspiration of how I intend to live the rest of my life. I am particularly thankful to God. There is something I try to avoid mentioning but circumstances often compel me to mention it. Even though I pray to Almighty God that after I must have spent 120 years on the surface of the earth the Lord can call me to come and rest, it is worthy of mention that my grandfather on whose platform we are all riding today, the late Alhaji Adegoke Gbadamosi Adelabu, popularly known as Penkelemesi, with all the popularity, achievements, all the ground breaking activities that could be associated to him while he was alive, achieved all these within a space of 43 years. He lived between September 3, 1915 and March 25, 1958.
He lived for just 43 years, and that goes to tell you that it is not how far but how well you spend the little time God has privileged you to spend on earth. I want to go a bit spiritual because Jesus Christ, our Lord who those who profess Christianity believe in, completed his mission on earth at 33 years. That is to also state the fact that it is not how far but how well, and close to half of the world population today still glorify His name and follow Him as His worshippers.
From that, my dad too happened to be the first son of Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu (Penkelemesi) and he died at 33 years. He was a bank manager. He also achieved on his own because I am also part of his achievements. He lived for 33 years. So, if I say 50 years is significant to me, I know what I am talking about. I know what I am talking about because my grandfather and my dad never lived up to 50 years before they died. So, if spent a fortune celebrating this, it is worth it. But that is not much to God. What means a lot to me is just to be thankful to God for sparing my life, for making it possible that within that short period, I am worthy of emulation by others and my achievements till date though not fully satisfied, are still commendable. If I have to end my story, I feel thankful to God and I believe that sincerely all that I asked God to do for me before I reach 50, He has done them. I mean all.
While you were in the banking sector, your colleagues called you Oyo State governor in waiting. You also resigned at the peak of your career as the Deputy Governor of CBN to have a shot at the Oyo State governorship seat but lost the election while you were still 48. If you had achieved that, you would have said today that you are fulfilled. Any regret?
Yes, looking at it from the surface, you are right. I may not be very religious, but to an extent, I am spiritual. I believe in God controlling our activities on earth. I believe that it is only one God that is in charge of the earth and I also have my sympathy for both religions. I am a Muslim and my Muslim name is AbdulWaheed. My wife is a Christian and my mum is a Christian. So, I have sympathy for both religions.
I will say that I have no regrets because physically I have not clinched the position of the Oyo State governor which I aspired to, which was even the main reason why I left my job then. But let me tell you that I will see myself as someone with foresight and I know what I want. I am quite proactive. I don’t react to situations and circumstances. I plan what I want to achieve ahead. If I am doing something now, it is not for the immediate but for what I plan to achieve in future.
I laid down three requests before God, years back. While we were growing up and I was in secondary school, I assessed myself and I knew where my strengths were in terms of academics. My former school mates can testify to this. I wanted to become an accountant, a banker, an economist, and that was what I had in mind. But from class three, I was the best in almost all the science subjects. You know they would now group you into classes: full science class, social science class, commercial and arts. I was number one in full science with Further Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology because I was always leading in all these.
I knew my strength and I knew my weaknesses. My strength was in Mathematics and Economics. Any subject that I cannot hold just a single textbook and read and pass, I will never venture into it, because I was a very serious student. I had a lot of extra-curricular activities when I was in school. I was never coming to class all the time because I was a social animal then. I was a break dancer. I loved dancing and partying so much that I could compromise going to class. I was representing my school in literary and debates society, winning many medals.
So, I knew myself that any other subject that would take me out of reading a textbook, I would not do it, but they required laboratory work to do sciences. Even classes, I have not attended let alone going to laboratories to mix chemicals. And in Biology, they say bring a rat tomorrow, open it, this and that. I didn’t have the temperament, the patience for all that. I knew that if I pick Economics textbook, O.A. Lawal, Iyirere or Teriba (approved popular authors at the time) within two hours, I could read up all the 12 topics. Overnight, I could prepare for all my exams and I knew I would get nothing less than 80 or 85 per cent. The same thing with Mathematics, Literature – you just need to pick Weep Not Child by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Lion and the Jewel by Wole Soyinka this and that and you finish and go and write exams.
I succeeded in it probably because I didn’t enjoy so much of a parental care. I was just four years old when my dad died. My mum was 23 years old. The first wife was 28 years old, my mum was 23 and their husband died at 33. So, he had two girls he left behind as widows. Will you ask them not to go and remarry? They had their lives to live. So, the seven of us, they just packed us to our grandmother’s place. They went to remarry about two or three years after. We were with an old woman that was just a petty trader, selling pepper, onions and all that. How would you expect such a woman to fully take care of us? So, I was always on the street.
The motherly love was still there; at least the woman would see us come home to sleep and she would know our whereabouts. But then, there was no full control of my activities because I grew up with an old woman. If I didn’t go to school, nobody would know. If I went, nobody would know. So, I had that freedom of choice and I want to thank God that it worked for me. If little children have that kind of opportunity, eight out of 10 of them would derail. I was able to choose what I wanted and today, are there no regrets.
So, I told God that I wanted three things before the age of 50. Sincerely, the number one, which I have been able to fully achieve, is that I don’t want to continue working for anybody at 50; that at 50, I wanted to be my own boss and be able to employ people. As for me, I don’t want to work until age 60 or 65 before retirement. Why can’t I be in that position of employing people and also paying their salary? It gives a kind of fulfillment as one will be contributing to the economy of a particular place where one finds oneself. In fact, before I was appointed Central Bank’s deputy governor, the majority of the people close to me knew I was going to retire from First Bank at the age of 45 or 46 after my six years as an Executive Director (ED).
I became an ED at 39 or 40. I said at 45 or 46, I was going to retire as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of First Bank. But just a year before then, when they were discussing the possibility of me becoming the Managing Director of First Bank with me when my boss then, Mr Bisi Onasanya, was to retire, my appointment as CBN deputy governor came in 2014. And it was a call to national service, so I could not resist it. It was also an upward progression in my chosen career. I was looking at the MD of First Bank, but I became Central Bank’s deputy governor.
How close were you to becoming the MD of First Bank? Were you very close or it was just a thought among board members?
Two things: nobody was sure of anything, but I was close. Number one, I was the CFO, very close to the MD who happened to be one of my mentors. When he was the Financial Controller, I was the Deputy Financial Controller. It was because of him that when he became the MD of First Bank he insisted that I must be recalled from Standard Chartered Bank where I was the General Manager. I was a First Bank staff member until a particular period and I left for Standard Chartered Bank. After three years in Standard Chartered Bank, he said that for him to succeed as the MD, he wanted Bayo as an Executive Director and Chief Financial Officer.
Number two, I was so close to the major shareholders of First Bank and on merit basis, everybody knew that I was running the bank. Everything was working in my favour. But until something happens, you can’t say you are 100 per cent certain. But to vindicate what I am saying, the person that replaced me as the CFO, Sola Adeduntan, later became the MD and he is also an Ibadan man,. He was the CFO of African Finance Commission. When I left, he was called to replace me, and a year after, he took over from Onasanya. So, it could be said that probably if I had not left, everyone would have felt comfortable with me taking over from Onasanya. But I saw my appointment as a national assignment.
My first assignment as the deputy governor then was the financial system stability, which has to do with supervision of all banks. So, I was calling the meetings of all the banks. It was a bigger role – a more national role. It was my first venture into public service. And today, God has answered that prayer of retiring successfully before 50.
My second prayer to God was that before 50, I also wanted to see myself producing myself in terms of the children God has blessed me with. I wanted to be sure that if I am so busy in a particular state assignment, I could make reference to one or two of my children that could also step into my shoes, and that with time, they can run the affairs from where I am leaving it. And I want to thank God that today, that is possible because I have a graduate, my son, who finished his master’s in 2019. Tunde, my first son, has his first degree in Mechanical Engineering from Liverpool University and a second degree in Construction and Real Estate in London College, United Kingdom. He just finished his foundation exam in Certified Financial Analyst (CFA) exams. My second child will soon be graduating too; he is in his final year. He should have graduated a year ago, but he did a year internship, full work, with IBM in London. He is studying Accounting and Finance at the University of Lancaster, UK, and he is taking after me. By next year, he is going to finish. It is a privilege that I can actually point at children, before 50, who I can tell to go and represent me somewhere without fear of failure.
But the most controversial is my third prayer. I told God that after retiring from private sector, all I wanted to do was my personal business and devotion to public service. I spent 23 years working in Lagos (1991 to 2014), then I moved to Abuja and worked for another four and a half years. I left Abuja in June, 2018. That’s a total of almost 27 years outside of Ibadan, and I knew the kind of infrastructural development in Lagos and Abuja. One thing I am tempted to do was to stay back in Lagos or Abuja to be able to enjoy all these social infrastructures and others. And I asked, “Why must it be just Lagos? Why must it be just Abuja?” People made Lagos and Abuja what they are today. In the 1940s to 50s, the pre-independence era, Ibadan was more prominent than Lagos. In fact, then, there was no Abuja. So, how come within the period of 50 to 60 years, this thing has reversed?
Ibadan was the centre of everything – the centre of manufacturing, arts, entertainment, education, health care. The University College Hospital (UCH) is the first teaching hospital. The University of Ibadan was the premier university, research centres, first television station (WNBC), radio station, first stadium – centre of everything. How come these things just reversed? I see that as a failure of our own generation. There is no prominent person in this country today that does not have a house in Ibadan – from Professor Wole Soyinka to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, to Chief Odutola and many more. Everybody was in Ibadan, but when the creation of states came, everybody started going back. But even at that, it still did not affect the status of Ibadan.
So, I said if you wait for the world to correct this anomaly, you will wait forever. But if you can take a bold step on your own, and do your own, other people will see you and emulate you and do their own. Before you know it, little drops of water make an ocean. As for me, I want to retire back in Ibadan where I have my families, friends, where I have everything. I feel more comfortable in Ibadan. So, the only gap we have now is establishing all those comfort amenities that we have in Lagos and Abuja. Why can’t we establish them in Ibadan? At least, it was not the government that did everything in Lagos. They are private sector-driven. But why is it that our people don’t really do anything in Ibadan?
So, I started investing in Ibadan. All my businesses, especially the operational businesses, are in Ibadan. If it is to take rent and all that, I can invest in real estate in Lagos. Is it not to rent? But any business that requires me going there every day, it has to be in Ibadan and I will employ people and contribute to the economic development of my state. I know the impact of my investment in Ibadan, the impact it has made on others. Some people are joining us in trickles.
For years, there was no franchise of branded hotels in Ibadan. I built Best Western, which is the first one. I now said if I could do these things and others are following, what about when I am now in government and government is able to invite and put official structures in place that will attract indigenes of Oyo State, not just Ibadan, to come back to Oyo State and do investments? What impact will that have on the level of employment, economic activities and prosperity of the residents of the state? All that we need for a state to exist, we have it. We have the best of road infrastructure, and when it comes to food, we have the cheapest food. In Ibadan, we are surrounded by agrarian communities that can supply food directly into Ibadan.
I was impressed with the steps that Governor Abiola Ajimobi took when he became governor in 2011. Within a period of four to five years, we saw changes. This is what we are talking about. That is what prompted me to pour more of my funds into the state. And you see the boom that we experienced in tourism. Ajimobi came and changed and I felt that the man was already laying the foundation for what I was talking about. And I picked up and found out that in education, in health, economy, infrastructure and everything, it will be good at this time. And he also brought decency to politics; politics of the intellectuals, not politics of thuggery and all that. So, that was what encouraged me and I said let me see if one can actually succeed this man so that after laying the foundation, we can just come and build upon that foundation, because laying the foundation was turbulent, it was dangerous because you need to step on so many toes which Ajimobi did, and he achieved that foundation of peace and security for infrastructural development, urban renewal and quality policies in education and health.
The schools governing board which I was part of would have been the best for us to move all our schools up. I was in a very good position to succeed Godwin Emefiele, because they have been clamouring for a Yoruba man as CBN governor all this while so this young man will be best fit, and the network was there. I didn’t allow that to erase my vision. I just wanted to move. If I had talked to people, 99 out of 100 would have discouraged me that politics is not like that.
How did you, former deputy governor of Lagos State Femi Pedro, the current governor Jide Sanwo-Olu and others become so close?
We were together in bank, and when Femi Pedro was to join our leader, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu as Deputy Governor in 2003, there were two of us that were very close to taking over: Jide Sanwo-Olu and myself. Jide, as a Lagosian followed him, and he made Jide Special Assistant on Economy and Opeyemi Bamidele was Special Assistant on Politics. He asked whether I was following him too but I told him that I wasn’t ready for politics and that even when I was ready for politics, I would go to Ibadan. If you say Adelabu in Lagos, it is only one street that was named after my grandfather. I am not from Lagos. I will rather go back to Ibadan.
Immediately Aare heard that Femi Pedro had left the bank, he told me to return to First Bank. He spoke to Oba Otudeko and they agreed they had to put their own there, and that’s how I joined First Bank in 2003 as the Deputy Financial Controller to Mr Bisi Onasanya, who was the Financial Controller then. In 2007, I became the Assistant General Manager (AGM). But the day I wanted to leave too, I deferred before I told Aare and Oba Otudeko. That’s how I do my things – if I am convinced about a thing, and if it turns out well, fine. If it turns out bad, I take the blame.

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