His opulent mansion along Milverton Road, Ikoyi is an architectural jewel shaped like the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, where American presidents officially reside, with its Grecian porticos and colonnades replicated here in Nigeria.
Even if it is not an exact replica, you could at least sense a deliberate architectural ambition to copy the White House or be inspired by it. Here is where my namesake, the old man. Otunba Michael Olasubomi Balogun, the founder of First City Monument Bank (FCMB) lives in the splendour and majesty of retirement, after working so hard in his sunshine years, and successfully engineering a succession plan whereby all his four sons, well-trained and well-educated, have strategically taken over their father’s corporate empire, running it with digital, clocklike efficiency.
The last time we met Otunba Subomi was roughly ten years ago or thereabouts when I and my late friend, Dimgba Igwe visited him in his top-floor Marina office, a skyscraper with a breathtaking distant view of Apapa Port, ships moored and fast boats surfing to and fro the lagoon from which Lagos derived its Portuguese name. Smartly dressed and looking corporate in his suit, he walked on nimble feet like Johnny Walker. He was then in his late seventies and still active. Today, at 87 and in the winter season of his life, his steps are slow and cautious, an old man of fortune needing a little help to avoid tripping as he walked towards me in his royally furnished home.
At 87, most men would have suffered memory lapse, dementia or certain old age deficiencies, but Otunba is still mentally alert, his memory so razor sharp. Ask him just one question and his answer will cover the wide gamut of questions that you intended to ask. He has the memory of a griot, those West African custodians of oral history who through songs and poetry will trace your genealogy like walking encyclopaedias. Otunba Subomi belongs to that tribe of people with a strong power of recall, the ability to vividly remember the past. Check the meaning of hyperthymesia!
“Eighty-seven is not a young age again but my faculties are still intact,” the old man tells me. “One of the things I thank God for is that I am 87 now but I don’t feel it. I still chat with my children about what is happening.”
Of late, I have been going round looking for Nigerian old men and women of distinction, hearing their stories and recording them to inspire the younger generation. Ambassador Blessing E. Clark, 91, is another such old man I recently sat down with to share his life story and reminiscences. In his chair where he sat, Clark spoke about the importance of every great man or woman needing to leave behind a biography, an autobiography or a memoir. With a background in Classics, Ambassador Clark, the elder brother of the late poet J.P. Clark was a contemporary of the late Gamaliel Onosode at the University of Ibadan. He was Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations at New York and served Nigeria as a diplomat in Europe, America and Africa. On the importance of writing biographies, Clark tapped from his knowledge of Classics to say: “Tacitus, one of the greatest Roman historians said that the deeds of great men have to be recorded to serve as a guide for future generations.”
Otunba Subomi agrees with Clark, saying: “It’s godly for leaders to share their stories or have their stories told so that others can read and learn lessons from their lives. Yoruba people have a saying that you don’t eat alone.”
I have read Subomi Balogun’s autobiography entitled “The Cross, the Triumph and the Crown.” From my questions, it was obvious to him that I had read his book.
“I can see you have read my book,” he said, as his eyes glowed with the pride and joy of finding someone who had read his book and quoting from it. Even in old age, Otunba tells me: “I still try to write. I have written a few things. Books and lectures. But I spend the rest of my time now in glorifying God and serving mankind.”
Of all his lifetime achievements, the one that gives Subomi Balogun the most satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment is the strategic investment he made long ago to send his four young kids abroad to school. It was a clairvoyant move that has paid off for the future of his business.
He recalls: “At a very young age, I started succeeding. So I just closed my eyes and told my wife: ‘Take all of them to go and be schooling in Britain.’ By that time, my eldest son was about twelve. The next one was nine. Ladi, the boss, was only seven. And Gboyega the other boss running the London office was five. So I told my wife: ‘As we are succeeding, we should take the wind when it serves our sail. Pack all these boys, you go with them, I will be praying for you, and I would be working hard.’ So they were in Britain at those ages. And I was working. Anytime I am able to, I would go to London. Whenever they are on holidays, my wife would bring them. So when they were still in prep school, my wife was virtually living with them. I think God prepared it for us.
“When they were then in a position to move to public schools, I got involved. I had heard of Eton, Harrow, Papplewick and others. So I took advice from my friends. So we decided on Charterhouse which is one of the best public schools in the UK. I sent the first three there. The youngest one went to another school. Then they all went to universities. I didn’t impose anything on them. I was just advising them on how to choose courses. Three of them read Economics and had MBA. One is a lawyer who also has an MBA. But it’s of God’s doing. I think so much of family life. With all these, I take them to Ijebu to know where I come from. I have four sons, their four wives, 16 grandchildren. To God be the glory. I don’t have a girl child but my grandchildren are ten boys, six girls.”
Somewhere on the wall is a massive framed group family picture which Otunba Subomi Balogun wanted me and my wife to see. It’s the group picture of three generations of the Subomi Balogun family consisting of the man himself and his beautiful wife surrounded by his four sons, their four wives and 16 grandchildren. It is a picture of a man blessed indeed by God in every aspect of his life. A man whose tree has yielded branches and fruits bountifully. A man who is counting his blessings in old age and saying: “See what the Lord has done for me. It’s God’s doing and it’s marvellous. But for God, I won’t be who I am. At my age now, I want to give God the glory. I want to thank God. I don’t have any skeleton. And I have gone through the mill.”
Here indeed is a man for all seasons, a man in his twilight years, a man from the Book of Psalms: “I have been young, and now I am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.”