Fola Tinubu, Chief Executive Officer, Lagos elite transport service, Primero, shares life experiences with SEGUN KASALI.
HOW was the Surulere of your younger years?
(Laughs). That was about 40 years ago. Surulere was strictly residential unlike now where there are shops all over. And we all knew one another. Lagos was relatively peaceful then. It was not as crowded as it is now. Lagos of then is different from that of now. If you did something wrong, grown-ups would scold you and tell you ‘I am coming to your dad’s house to report you’. This was basically because everyone knew everyone. It was fun growing up in Surulere. I can recall we all enjoyed playing football after school. We chased each other all over the streets. We had fun with ourselves. We came up with games, and there was peer pressure for you to do well at school.
What do you mean “peer pressure”?
Look, peer pressure can make you go either way. Show me your friend and I will show you the kind of person you are. If your friends are going to school and they are doing well, you will be the odd one out if you don’t buckle up. But, if your friends are into drugs or something like that, you will probably be doing same thing also. Of course, we all went to different schools. But, at the end of it, we all would meet at the afternoon lessons we were going to and compare notes and all that kind of stuff. And you just had to do well because you would not want your friends to laugh at you. So, there was always that pressure there and it motivated us. Of course, it was part of the things that made me excel at school. But also, there was pressure at home just like the Yoruba would say, “ranti omo eni ti iwo n se” (remember the child of who you are). Look! You have to raise the bar. If you lower the bar for any kid, they will not strive. But, if you raise the bar, they will try to reach it because you are trying to impress your parents, siblings and friends. So, you strive. But, if your parents and your friends don’t care, the result may not be good.
Do you remember some of your friends then?
Of course, my brother Dr. Tinubu is the one in charge of the critical care unit at LASUTH. Most of them are into their different businesses. Quite a few of them are now household names, but we are still close. Actually, [former Governor Raji] Fashola was on the other side of Surulere. We were on the Randle Avenue side of it. So, we were not close. Remember that Surulere was a middle-class area then. Most of our parents were civil servants and business people. The standard was high and everybody was expected to do well. If you lived in Surulere in the 70’s and 80’s, there were no private schools. Everyone was going to public schools. A permanent secretary’s son could sit beside a mechanic’s son. The standard was very high then and there was competition to get to all the top schools.
Was that why it was home to big boys?
Then, the emphasis was not on money but in excelling. Now, the emphasis is on money, not in excellence. Even at prize-giving day, your parents would not be happy if you didn’t get a prize. So, the focus has changed. The most destructive thing that has happened to this country is that we allowed the public education system to be destroyed. Now, we are sending kids to Ghana and Republic of Benin. Then, everybody used to come to Nigeria. I can remember I read somewhere that the Saudi king was flown from Egypt to UCH, Ibadan to receive treatment. That means people all over the world regarded Nigeria. But now, nobody reckons with us anymore because we have allowed it to be destroyed. And now, we are turning out kids that cannot even put good sentences together. And there are kids that are not even going to school and I see them on the side of the road and I am wondering what would be these kids’ future twenty years from now. But, I can assure you that the educational system was better off now. We had fun and we played with each other, not forgetting the fact that we had to excel in our studies.
Your nickname was and still is “Contour’.
(Laughs). You want the whole world to know why I was dubbed that? Okay. (Laughs). That is a long story. Hmmm! then, we worked hard but we also played hard. And if you came to school with a shaven head, I was going to find a way to tap that head without minding whoever followed you (laughs). One day, a friend and I decided to go watch a movie at Super Cinema at Surulere. So, I went to my mum and said “Can I get money to barb my hair?” And she gave me the money, but we used the money to go and watch the movie. So, I couldn’t go home without the hair barbed because they would ask what I did with the money. A certain friend then decided to barb my hair for me. When he started, he didn’t do a good job anyway; he shaved half of it and left the other half (laughs). So, we decided that he should shave everything since he had shaved half of the hair. So, he shaved everything, and when I got home, I told my parents I just decided to have a clean shave (laughs). It was on a Saturday. So, the next day, Sunday, we all got together with my brothers, because we were living together and I told them, ‘guys, I can’t go to school like this. If I go to the school with a clean shave, it would be an opportunity for everybody in the school to revenge’. So, one of the three came up with the idea that they would put a bandage around my head and they did (laughs) and added iodine. So when I got to school, they asked what happened? I told them we were involved in an accident (laughs). So, everyone including the teachers started caring for me and before I would go to school every day, I would put the iodine and bandage on the head and remove when I returned from school. So, after a few weeks, the hair started growing and I decided to take it off. My friends expected to see a scar on the head since it was an accident and that was when they started saying ‘he has contour on his head’. It was the time they were showing ‘Roots’ on NTA and Kunta Kinte was very popular. So, they turned it to ‘Contour Contour’. So, that was how I got the nickname ‘Contour’ and it stays till now. Most of my old friends call me that.
What about other pranks you played sir?
Ahhh! (laughs). Most people now see me as a gentleman. Let us leave it that way (laughs). Maybe you should have an interview with my mum or dad (laughs). But, like all kids, you tried to get way with a lot of things. It is your parents that will set the guidelines that you cannot exceed. As boys, we would always find a way to want to play pranks. But, you should try to talk to my dad or my mum because they would probably want to tell you more (laughs). Luckily, both of them are alive.
You were supposed to spend two years but eventually spent 21 years in the US, why?
Ah! You have indeed done a lot of work [research] on me (laughs). When I left Nigeria, I was supposed to go to the Law school in the US. I did my first degree programme in England and I got a B.A in Economics and Politics. And I did my MBA in Scotland. When I came back to Nigeria, I did my youth service and I served at Allied Banking in Ita Eko, Abeokuta. When I finished, I initially wanted to stay and work but the only bank that offered me a job wanted me to go to Kaduna and I didn’t want to. So, I told my mum to allow me go for Law so that if I read Law, I would go to Law School and start practising. So, I left. I never went to Law School and I ended up spending 21 years.
(Laughs). Part of it was finance because my parents paid for me to go to school in England. I could not in good conscience ask them to pay for Law School again. I remember that when I started school in England, it was about N1.20k to a pound. I went to England in 1981. And by the time I finished in 1988, it was already about N20 to one pound. So, I could not ask my parents to pay again. So, when I got to America, I took a job. The first company was called Goodwill Industries and I was made the Assistant Manager. It was a retailing outlet retailing all second-hand clothes. I was there for about a year. And from there, I ended at ITT Financial Services. And one thing just led to the other and I found myself in the mortgage industry. And that was the end of Law School.
Any regrets not going to Law School?
Not at all. Honestly, if I had wanted to read Law I could have gone to Law School in England because we could apply directly. I never wanted to be a lawyer. I don’t think I would have been a good lawyer because you must pay attention to detail as a lawyer. You have to read everything and check up all the nuances. And that is not my forte.
What is your forte then?
Honestly, it is better for people to speak about you than you speaking about yourself because they see that part of you that you won’t see. This is because we are always seeing the good side of ourselves. So, I am now going to push you again to talk to people around me. I think I am a good manager. I think I am a people’s person. This helped me throughout my stay in the US.
How rosy was it for you in the US?
People only saw the middle and the end part of it when it was fine and okay. But the initial part was a bit rough. But luckily, my brother, Dr. Tinubu was there. He made it as easy as possible for me. Another good brother of mine, Fola Ogunleye was there. In fact, I will tell you a funny story about my American experience. When I decided to leave for America, I made some calls to my brother to let him know I would be coming. He was underdoing his housemanship then. So, sometimes, they would go for about two or three days and I was leaving messages. But I remember we were in England when answering machine just started then. So, it was new in America and there was no answering machine in Nigeria. So, I did not know when the answering machine picked up, you would wait for the beep before you could leave your message. So, as soon as the answering machine just got to that point, I quickly told him I was coming. I didn’t know that he did not drop my message. So, I jumped on the plane and got to Dallas Airport. And luckily for me, he was at home that day. I called him and he answered, ‘where are you calling from?’ I told him ‘I am in Dallas.’ He asked, ‘what are you doing in Dallas?’ I said ‘I dropped a message that I was coming.’ Just like I said, the first two years were rough. I never did manual job and thank God for that.
Your uncle, Senator Bola Tinubu was also supportive?
Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu was in Nigeria when we first got here. He came to America when the NADECO struggle started. It was when he came to America that we became very, very close. While we were growing up, he was in Chicago. When he moved out of Chicago to Maryland, we travelled out. He took me and my brother under his wings and has never looked back since then.
Your experience with him while in the US.
There are some things I would rather keep to myself (laughs). There is the family stuff that had better stay in the family (laughs). But, till the day I go to my grave, I will always be grateful to him. I am a US citizen today because of him. That is all I am going to say. He knows what I am talking about. And I am back in Nigeria today because of him. He was the one who encouraged me, saying ‘Fola, what are you doing in another man’s country? Come home. We need to build Lagos up. You may be comfortable but we have to build up our home.’ In fact, my brother and I are back in Nigeria today because of [Senator] Tinubu. And there are so many people like that — Muyiwa Gbadgesin of LAWMA, the commissioner for science and technology and so many people. Criticism comes with that position as a politician. But I can tell you that posterity will be kind to him. He has built up so many people, from the vice-president to Fashola, Wale Tinubu, myself, my brother, Wale Edun and so many others. Look, in life, it is the people you build that matters.
How much of him do you know sir?
He is one of the most generous, kind-hearted persons I have seen in my life. He is a very forgiving fellow. He cares about people. He cares about Nigeria. People talk about Asiwaju without knowing what this thing has cost him. Remember, Nigerian politicians don’t do opposition. The moment the party loses, everyone moves to the new party. He single-handedly held an opposition party and it became the ruling party. Honestly, I doff my hat for him. I have learnt a lot from him and I love him.
What are the lessons?
Hard work, hard work and hard work. Ask people that are close to him. He will start from about 12pm in the afternoon to about 4am in the morning non-stop. He would get about three to four hours sleep and he starts all over again.
Doing what from 12pm to 4am?
Meeting people. Solving problems. Hard work. He works hard.
People believe your uncle is positioning you to become the state governor.
(Laughs). I don’t know anything about that o. I am a bus conductor. There are always rumours and speculations. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? On the other hand, you keep doing your best wherever you find yourself. Leave tomorrow to God. We always try to play God speculating what will happen. But, let me ask you a question, have you ever seen any of Asiwaju’s family in politics? I rest my case. He is not a nepotistic person. He looks for the best and supports the best, not because the Tinubus are not intelligent, but because he is not nepotistic.
Tell us about the Tinubus.
The Tinubu family is a very big family and it has been around for a long time. The family house is in Kakawa. It is a renowned family in Lagos. We have contributed our quota and we will continue to contribute to Lagos because we are Lagosians, we live in Lagos and we have Lagos in our blood. We will continue to do everything on our part for the development of Lagos.
You met your wife in Lagos?
No, I met my wife in America. Actually, I met my wife before my struggling experience in the US. We were introduced by mutual friends and the rest is history.
What attracted to you?
Don’t get me into trouble (laughs). Actually, she is a very pretty lady. She is very kind. She has been a very good wife and a good mother to my kids.
Do you disagree?
Of course. We resolve issues by talking to each other. We work it out. Of course, I have offended her so many times and she has offended me so many times too. That is life.
And your unforgettable moments?
There have been quite a few. I have been lucky. That I can never forget. Ahhh! I honestly don’t remember. It was just a normal life. Nothing extraordinary happened.
What about regrets?
Regrets? A lot. That I wish I can go back and turn the hand of the clock. But, that is life. We all have things that you wish you would have done or said. I wish I can go back but you cannot.
Can you share any of those moments sir?
Ah! No, no, no. There have been quite a few. So, I would leave that to myself.
What gives you so much joy?
What drives me is trying to leave something for posterity. And I keep telling people that when I am dead or gone, I would like people to say ‘Fola Tinubu started this and that.’ I hope posterity will also be nice to me. I hope so. You can only hope because you won’t be around then. I hope they can say good things about me and Primero will be here 50 years from now.
What were the challenges setting up Primero?
A lot of challenges. Part of it was the way we financed the business from the beginning. It was wrong. We took a dollar exposure and when we did, a dollar was 160 or 170 to the naira. And then, when it was time for repayment, dollar was going up to 360 or more. It nearly pushed the company under. In fact, in any business you do, the first you should do is the finance. How is the business going to be financed? That plays a big role in the success or failure of that company. If you don’t critically assess the financing scheme very well, you are in a big wahala.
How did you come out?
(Laughs). We are not 100 percent out of it (laughs). For the last four years we have been working hard to get it right. By God›s grace, it is getting better. My goal is to see Primero all over Nigeria. I pray that Primero will have 2,000 buses picking up one million people daily. I want Primero to affect every Lagosian’s life. I may not pick you up but pick your gardener, your cook, receptionist and all.
What is your life philosophy?
My philosophy about life is that life is very short. Help as many people as you can. Treat people as you would like to be treated. Just try to be a good person. You cannot solve everybody’s problems. It is only God that can do that. You cannot play God. I will not go out of my way to deliberately hurt anybody because I know one day I will go to meet my maker and would have to give account to my maker.
How sociable are you, sir?
With my friends, I am social. I hardly go to owanbes. But, with my friends, I hang out.
What is the can’t-do-without in your wardrobe?
Nothing. This is because you are not going with anything the day you die. God forbid your house gets burnt, what are you going to do?
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