My parents beat me silly, day I went swimming —Ruwase
Incumbent President, Lagos Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Mr Babatunde Ruwase (FCA), shares his life experience, family background and career with SEGUN KASALI.
CAN you briefly tell us about yourself and your background?
I was born in Lagos, on the Island. I attended Holy Cross School, Igbosere, a missionary school. I grew up in Igbosere, Glover and Bamgbose, all on the Island. My mum was a prophetess, while my father was a minister at the Christ Apostolic Church of Nigeria. So, I started life as a church and prayer person. This is because you have to go to church before you go to school as early as 5:30 am and in the evening, you go to church. That’s why I tell people that I am lucky because of my background. In Lagos, you need to be focused. You need to have a very strong background. A lot of things happened then. In those days, people went to Campos to fight. There was a cemetery there. A lot of things happened there back then and even now. If you know Campos very well, it was one of the tough areas then. My school and my house were very close to that place. We used to go to Racecourse to play football and also to swim at Onikan. That was the background I had.
You must have a lot to say about school.
I keep telling people that if education was this expensive in our days, I wouldn’t have gone to school. I mean, you had everything. You didn’t need money, but it was difficult to enroll in a school like most good schools around then. People had to sleep overnight then to enter the school. They had to queue overnight so that a child could be admitted into that school. This was because there were few schools that time and so many people wanted to go to school. It got to the extent that parents, in their struggles, had to put their children on the neck to get their children there. But then, education was subsidised to a great extent. Of course, it was a missionary school, but you also had grants from the government. This was a school where, upon gaining admission, you were given grants, to the extent that toilet rolls were being given to students, as well as exercise books, pens and so on. The missionaries were putting lots of money, just as the government was. It was very hard then not to find schools that were grant-aided, unlike now that you have to still pay regardless. Books were also available free, unless you wanted your children to have their personal copies. After all the hurdles to gain entrance and be admitted into the school, I was very excited because growing up, we had seen our seniors going to school in their white and white uniforms. I got into the school at 5. One spent 8 years in secondary school in those days, but one could spend 7 years if one is lucky. I left in standard 5 for a school in Ibadan. As an all boys school, we had few places to go. We could go to the cemetery at Campos or to Racecourse. It was at racecourse that people come to see horse racing. Further down, we had the swimming pool, where we now have Onikan Stadium. You have the stadium, the tennis court, a swimming pool and love garden (That’s where people, including young boys and girls, go and rest). If you go there to play football then, you were taking a risk. Our parents were very strict. They were all about us focusing on our studies. They would beat the hell out of you if they knew. So, when we finished school or lesson, we went out to play football. If you went to the swimming pool and they got hold of you, you were in trouble.
Were you ever caught?
Yes of course. I went to the pool one day. A lot of us went. After I was caught, they beat the hell out of me. My father and my mother beat me. The belief was that you could die if you went to swim. It was not unusual for us as boys to go and tie leaves. We tied leaves so that they won’t know that we had been out of the house for long. Even when we went to play football at Racecourse then, the sign we looked for, because wristwatch wasn’t common then, was the flag because it comes down at 6 o’clock. So, when they started to bring it down, you would know it was 6 o’clock and you would start running home. I went to the swimming pool one day and I got caught by my parents because I made the mistake of wearing my pants. Usually when you go to the swimming pool, you don’t wear your pant. You would hang it to dry up and find a way of smuggling it out, but I made the mistake of wearing my pants because my short was soaked. Then, somebody saw me and exclaimed ‘what!
They looked at my eyes and it was red. You know your eyes would be red and those days, you made sure you didn’t look into their eyes so that they won’t know you had gone out to swim. When they knew, my father and my mother beat me together. Their thoughts were that whoever went to swim attempted to commit suicide because once or twice, we lost students from the same school in that pool. We had cases where someone who couldn’t swim, jumped into the shallow end of the pool. But then, that was how I learned how to swim. I was also member of the Lagos City Swimming Club. I also had a little time with Ejanla Swimming Club, which was pioneered by Dr. Alakija. So, the benefit of that story was that I was able to swim and I was not afraid of water like an average person.
How often did you go to the love garden?
I go to the stadium because love garden was just by the side of the stadium. I wasn’t a love garden person. Boyfriend and girlfriend relationships were for the big boys and big girls then.
How was African Church Grammar School then?
I sat for the entrance exam in Standard 5 and I passed. I gained admission into Anglican Church Grammar School, but because I was not settled when I got there due to the fact that I had stayed in Lagos all of my life, I couldn’t settle in an environment like that. It affected my concentration. I did not perform as well as I normally would have. I was an average student in primary school. Then, I fell below average. I had to read with lantern. I was too young and was not mentally and psychologically prepared for such an environment. It was the first time I would leave my parents. I didn’t concentrate and then, I had to live in a boarding house, something I was also not used to. Then, I found myself in Ibadan. It would be my first time of traveling out of Lagos and in Ibadan, I had to carry lantern everywhere in the night. To read in the evening, you had to use a lantern. Among my seniors, nobody was from Lagos. They were from the hinterland and also from Ibadan. I did not have anybody to look up to. I had to come back to Lagos to complete my secondary school. My grandfather had always believed that I should have something to do with Commerce. He was a Stenographer at United Africa Company (UAC). He had a friend who told him that there was a school in Apapa, United Christian that was managed by missionaries, Baptists, Anglicans and Methodists. The school was a commercial secondary school. Most of the teachers then were from overseas. So, I sat for the entrance examination, I passed and was admitted into United Christian Secondary School, where I discovered I had interest in book-keeping.
Did you settle well there?
Oh! It was okay. It was a day school. I had to take ferry to Apapa because I was used to water. The ferries never capsised, although there were times we ran into turbulences. I was not afraid of water because I believed I would come out it even I fell into it. I learned how to keep my head above water. If I had not learnt how to swim, I wouldn’t be taking ferry. I had school mates who were not used to riding on ferries and they were afraid of waters. They would rather go by road. The school was filled with expatriate teachers. It wasn’t a traditional school where you had the junior/senior dichotomy. The school had a Grammar School. It was not free though because we paid £20, with books, for the first term and £15 for the subsequent terms. So, you don’t call anyone senior. The Europeans called you by your surname. The beauty of that is that till today, some people who were in Form 5 while I was in Form 1, are still friends. We relate like friends till today. I received the RSA School Certificate while still in Form 4. That was an examination you write overseas. They write and mark it there. You would gain admission overseas then. You must do well in five subjects before you could earn the certificate. The school also had a Language Lab, which was the low side for me. The Lab was where they taught us French Language. I was not at home with French and Shorthand, so I didn’t attempt to study them. In retrospect, these would have turned out to be good skills for me. Eventually, I found myself working in a Swiss company and you know in Swiss companies, they speak French, English and German. It was a big problem between me and my principal then. The Principal said I must learn the language if I wanted to remain in the school. He used to give us one book called Memo. I had never seen a man’s photograph there, except of ladies, so, that got me not to be interested in Shorthand and Typing. And I didn’t want to be a secretary in my life, so I made up my mind that I would rather be an accountant than a secretary. When I think of it now, it was a bit like being rascally. Then I believed it was not the job for a man. The school was actually established to provide manpower for Apapa and you were supposed to move it up to a polytechnic level. Some of my female mates who were good in French, Shorthand and typing, became bilingual secretaries.
Were you given any nickname?
Yeah. I had this French teacher who called me Konkah Paul. In that Language Lab, we always had a tutor there who could speak very little English. They were mostly from French-speaking countries. They also called me Paulooo.
Did you have a girlfriend in school?
During our time, when you talk of boyfriend/girlfriend, what we used to do was to write love letters. You didn’t have the kind of freedom that you have now.
Did you write any?
I wasn’t much of a lover-boy probably because I grew up among girls. I was the only boy in the family. I had two sisters. I was the second child. We had other people living with us and they were mostly girls. I was a too serious-minded person. You know, for you to operate at that level, you must be patient and tolerant.
Memories from secondary school
I enjoyed the school because I had very good friends. I was always looking forward to be in school and anytime we went on vacation, we always felt sad. Well, I am still with some of them. But I have lost one or two of them. In fact, amongst my friends, I was the only one that did not travel out of Nigeria. My good friend is in Canada now. His name is Kasali. We were like twins in secondary school. I have Onikoyi, who is in the United States, Joseph Taiwo, Babatunde Muda and so many others. It’s good to have good friends.
Guess you left with a fulfilling result.
I did well enough to have a First Division, but Science did me in. You know that you must have one Science subject, Math and English. I was in the second set in my school to sit for the West African School Certificate. Before, we used to sit for London GCE because WAEC was not prepared to test commercial subjects. I also did not take Health Science seriously and I got a P. So, that shot me down to Division 2.
Why didn’t you travel abroad like others?
We all got employed immediately we left school. That was the beauty of going to a Commercial school. I was an Accounts Clerk with the Nigerian National Shipping Line (NNSL). We had skills and by the time we graduated, we were hotcakes. Some of us also went into banking. I was paid £25 at NNSL. They even offered to retain me. We called it a Government Corporation. Those who were in the Ministry were paid £18. I didn’t like to suffer. I knew that if one travelled abroad, you had to work extra to be rich, but my parents were not rich, while I was not ready for the adventure. I read stories that most of them had to do odd jobs, including working in mortuaries. At NNSL, I registered for my ACCA because I had all the requirements as a commercial student. They were going to send me to Liverpool too, so that was the only condition that would have taken me out of Nigeria. The company usually sent people to its office in Liverpool. So, they promised to send me abroad if I stayed for some time. But I didn’t want to live on hope. I started my ACCA at the Yaba College of Technology but left them. Although, it turned out to be good because shortly after, NNSL ran into troubled waters. Some of those who had gone were called back. I was lucky to have passed my sections one and two in my first year. I also had an admission in Scotland, but I decided to do this because life was good. By the time you were done with ACCA section 3, you would be on level 8 if you worked with the government. I spent three years in Yabatech. By the time I finished the section 3 of the professional examination, the next vacation job I did was with Akintola Williams. I thought I had enough money to go overseas and finish my ACCA, but that never happened. I was with Akintola Williams for some months. I worked with Nigerian Catering Services. The interesting thing was that I was just getting the job. I got appointments that I did not take up in so many companies – Volkswagen Nigeria, Peugeot Nigeria and many other companies. They gave me appointment because I had the skills, but I decided that I needed to have professional experience, so, I joined D.O. Dafinone & Co. as a semi-senior because I already had my section 3. That was where I was all through until I qualified around 30. I will be 66 this year. I was born 2nd of August.
Any striking experience at Yabatech?
I was into unionism.
You don’t look like a unionist
People like us that were always in the kitchen. It is people like us you should be afraid of more. When you talk, people can read you. But when you are calm, they don’t know where you are coming from. I was into unionism and I was detained in Kaduna.
Why were you detained?
At Yaba College of Tech, this question of parity had always been there, particularly for Science students, but we didn’t have problem because job was waiting for accountants. This was because there were very few accountants. I was the Treasurer of the Students’ Union. The Polytechnics had embarked on a nationwide strike, fighting for parity. About the same time, there was the problem with the National Youths Service Corps (NYSC), where Polytechnic graduates were excluded from participating. Kaduna was shut down. By the time we decided to come back, the Kaduna authorities said they were not going to allow their students back. Of course they allowed us to come back because we were the ones that said we were going and that they would look into our issues. Then, Colonel Ali was the Minister of Education. Ibadan, Yabatech, MIT Enugu, Auchi Poly allowed their students to return to the campuses, but Kaduna Poly did not allow her students to resume. Instead, they arrested all the union leaders and detained them. There was this decree then that you just needed a Colonel to sign your warrant before they could detain you. So, they put them in cow detention, while we said it would be unfair to continue to study when our colleagues were in detention.
That was the fair thing to do.
Well, we decided to appeal to the authorities on their behalf. I was the only one that was ready to go because the others were afraid. I joined the President of Ibadan Polytechnic Student Union. I think our President was chicken-hearted. At that time, we had Greyhound in Nigeria and we had Bendel line. I left Lagos for Ibadan. My parents never knew. They thought I was in Yaba. It was on our way to Kaduna that we heard that they had arrested them. So, we decided that there must be a third student who would go with us, but would not be very close to us so that he could observe whatever happened to us. We got to Kaduna the following morning, having taken a night bus. Some of the union members were waiting for us at the garage. They took us to their house to freshen up. We took our letter and our third guy from Owo. You must be one of them to understand the language of Owo people. He was not your typical Yoruba guy. There were no mobile phones then. Anytime he had to communicate, someone at the other end had to come from Owo. It was like they knew we had a premonition. When we got to the gate of Kaduna Poly, the other guys were in another car. When we alighted, we saw people gathering at the gate. We saw the police and other security agents. I told them we were from Lagos and wanted to see the Rector. Why? Do you have a message for him, they asked. I think the officer got in touch with the Rector and said we should wait. He later said Rector asked us to come in, but we should please hold on for some time. Whilst we were there, we saw someone drove in. He was the Head of NSO. He pretended to have come to see the Rector. The Rector decided to see us and asked for our mission. We told him we had come to appeal that the school be opened because we were in the struggle together and we had all gone back to school. We gave him the letter and he said, you have a letter for me? Ehen! What we have done is never done in the North. When the big man is annoyed in the North, you don’t help your case. Trying to appeal is infuriating, he raked. We said we were sorry. As we were leaving, a security man said: “you are the set of persons we have been looking for. You are under arrest’. He took us in his car to the NSO’s office. They interrogated us and as we were there, they said Lagos was on fire. Students had barricaded everywhere. They said we came to incite students. Ibadan too was on fire. They said we should tell them who sent us and we said no one. They now said they wanted to check our documents. That was where I learnt not to keep diary in my life. They took our diary. I was the Financial Secretary and that time we normally went for long vacations overseas. If you were lucky, you would work during those summer holidays and come back to school. We were processing passports then and I was the in charge. I had written the names of those who had paid to me and those of them doing Lab Tech, I wrote their courses in front of their names. I wrote LT for some.
The policeman checked my dairy and asked: “who are these Lieutenants? I told him they were not Lieutenants but students. He said “don’t be stupid my friend. Who are these Lieutenants that you have in your diary? I told him they were not Lieutenants but students. He said okay you would say the truth when the time comes. You know I write their names- Kasali LT meaning Laboratory Technology Department. AC means Accounting and many like that, but the officer took them to mean Lieutenants (Laughs).
How did you secure your freedom?
They kept us in a room. When this one interrogated you, you would not see him again. All of a sudden, somebody else would come in. This scenario did not last for more than five days before they took us in a vehicle, drove us around and started looking for somebody to sign our warrant. I think Gowon was becoming unpopular then. A lot of officers were just doing it reluctantly. Everybody was fed up with the status quo. Some officers were not happy with the way they were treating those ones that were there. They couldn’t see anybody to sign our detention document because the decree said it couldn’t be done by any officer below Lieutenant Colonel or so. But there was a decree under which they could detain you. They needed all these because they couldn’t take you to detention camp unless there was a detention warrant. So, that day, they drove us round but nobody was willing to sign. They took us back to their office where we slept. In the morning, they finally found someone to sign the document and took us to the detention camp. It was a cow detention where they detained military men. It had no bed, no toilet. When we got there, they instructed the officers to keep us away from the other students. They kept us together. There was only one girl who was in one room. Then, they kept all the boys in one room. We slept on the floor. There was no place to sleep, but the other students were happy when they saw me and the other man from Ibadan that we did not abandon them. They didn’t give us food. They said they wanted to break us. Eventually, we were getting food. Though they were not giving us food on their own, but those who detained us would take us out to a place where food was sold. Those Military students, however, were very helpful. They were smuggling food for us, even though they had been warned not to give us food. So, we decided that if they were going to kill us, they should kill us. When the Oga came for inspection, we began to make a noise, accusing them of wanting to kill us because we could not go to toilet. Then, the man said they should start giving us food. But my people in Lagos had started their wahala because the third boy went to the airport there and made calls that we had been detained. If not for that network to blow the thing open, they would have just said we were missing. In fact, our people planned to abduct some big people in Yaba and they had already made plans on where to keep them. The College appealed to them and went to see the Minister of Education. They sent one of our lecturers to Kaduna for our release. They just said where is the man from Lagos and the one from Ibadan? We came out to see our lecturer. They released us and we flew back to Lagos. My parents did not know. If they had known, it would have been devastating. They took us to Ali because he said they must release us and bring us. He said ‘my friend, how are you?’ He said they were supposed to torture us mad and drill us. Since then, I had no fear for policemen.
How did you meet your wife?
I was already working when I met her. Actually, I had a lady before I married, but she had passed on. She had my first son. But this one is a friend to my aunty. I am older than her, but she’s my aunty. I think she was 20 something then.
How did you meet your first wife?
I met my first wife at 25. Life was pleasant at that time. Even as an Audit trainee, I had a car. I was living very well. My late wife and I used to go attend the same church. When I told her I wanted to get married to her, she responded positively. She was a student at Yaba Tech also. She studied Quantity Survey. We knew that we were looking at a bright future. She was a very nice lady and she had my first son who is now in America working as an Engineer with Microsoft.
Your breakthrough at work
Yeah, that was at D.O. Dafinone & Co., because Senator Dafinone had the reputation of producing the most accountants. It is in the Guinness Book of Records. He was a Chartered Accountant. His three boys were Chartered Accountants and his two girls, Chartered Accountants too. So, they were six Chartered Accountants. Guinness book of records actually celebrated the man. Akintola Williams too had some impact on me. He is an embodiment of transparency and honesty. He was the one who singlehandedly constructed the MUSON Centre, and out of his goodwill, handed it over. That is the way he does his things. He does things, hand it over and moves on. When I say I don’t want to be a Chief, I am actually taking a cue from Mr Akintola Williams, whom, all he does, is to progress humanity, create opportunities and move on without taking credit for it. That is his belief. He is a man who believes in working with other persons to promote good life.