Otunba Olu Adenodi is the Chief Executive Officer, BHS International Limited, a multimillion- naira investment company operating the Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS), Lagos. In this interview with Femi Ogbonnikan, Adenodi, a lawyer, relives the experience of bidding for the national monument along with 15 other firms when the Federal Government privatised some of its assets.
Tell us about your background.
My name is Olu Adenodi. In the course of growing up, I acquired a title of ‘Otunba’, after I became a lawyer. I studied Law at the University of Ife, (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Ife, Osun State. Actually, I was a Science student, and when I got to Ife, a lot of things changed, and I changed to Law. I was the only student that changed from Science to Law that year. And having studied Law, I have been practising since 1988. I have been in and out of courts, and I have been making noise, shouting and trying to interpret the law of this country against recalcitrant clients, and prosecuting a lot of people, going from one police station to another, including EFCC and all other places I visited in the course of my practice. We were making good progress in terms of impacts and we decided to take a second look at our practice, and we resolved to look at the areas of what we call, ‘investment practice’; investment law. So, we changed our practice and, then focused on investment, and we decided to practise as investment attorneys. We changed to investment law when the Federal government resolved to privatise some of its enterprises, this provided an enabling environment for us to go into the business. We took advantage of that, along with some of our clients, and we took a shot at a number of enterprises. We won the NICON Luxury, but later lost it, because we could not pay on time. But, by and large, the one that we successfully bided for and won is this Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos, which is the one we have been trying to pursue all these years. It has come with a lot of challenges, but God has been on our side, and we have been able to surmount these challenges, as they come. They have always been coming, but with the determination of our amiable and an indefatigable pioneer chairman, Fred Achibong (now late), and because we had a shared vision for the TBS, it was easy for me to carry on where he stopped. God has been helping us. The current chairman of our company is a former chairman, of the defunct constitutional conference, Justice Adolphus Karibi-Whyte, a man of integrity, a pillar and one of those who want this country to succeed. We have so many other people, who have assisted us to realise this objective.
How did you decide to become a concessionaire?
Having practised law in Nigeria for these number of years, and we have come across a lot of opportunities between and among clients, who were trying to come up with investments or projects. And we have practised as legal advisers on their projects, and in the course of advising them, we have realised that most of these clients have good intentions, but they didn’t know how to execute them. We have always been in business, to see Nigeria develop, and we try to do so, anytime we have the opportunity of encouraging a lot of them, especially those who are staying abroad, because some Nigerians have stayed abroad and they want to come home and invest. Usually, our chamber used to be their first port of call. They want to seek advice on how to set up a company, on how to incorporate a company in Nigeria and what are the next steps to take. So, we have been assisting them in that regard. It was in the course of trying to advise our clients that we came across Chief Fred Achibong. He sought our advice as lawyers and we became friends. We became very close and we were doing things together. We went for meetings. We would look at projects. We would look at ideas. And in the course of sharing our ideas and visions, he was very aggressive too and well determined, very focused and we took advantage of the privatisation policy of the Federal government, like I told you, and we came up with BHS International. And we set it aside for infrastructural development, because we know the high level of deficit Nigeria has in infrastructural development. So, we tried to see what we could do to close the gaps. We discovered that there were so many abandoned projects across different parts of Nigeria, which past and present governments have abandoned. Some of these projects are abandoned or not optimally or fully utilised. So, we set up this company to cater for these abandoned monuments. We have foreign partners and technical partners that are working or have expressed their interest to work with us in this vision. To close the gap in infrastructure deficits in this country, we set up the company and we looked at enterprises or abandoned projects, buying or taking over and bringing them back to life. We have generated many employment opportunities for people, generating incomes, helped increase the economic base of the country through revenues, because we discovered that the government is losing more revenues and that if they put money there, they don’t get anything back. So, this company was formed to cure these defects.
Where did you get funds to run the investments?
When you have a good project, don’t forget that the owner of an idea rules the world. If you don’t have an idea, then you don’t know what to do, and then you are in trouble. If you have a very good idea, there will always be people that will give you money. And don’t forget that, all over the world, financial institutions are set up to assist brilliant ideas. Nigerian banks are not left behind, even though they are complicated, but once you have an idea, no matter how terrible it may be, and if you are a man of integrity, they are ready to work with you. So, all these things work for us. When we won the concession, and we approached them, they looked at the personalities, and they decided to support. We got the support of N150 million, which we paid as entry fees, and another N100 million from First Bank. By the grace of God, these funds have been repaid, accentuating the integrity issue that I mentioned earlier.
You went through competitions in the process of winning the bid for TBS; how did your bid win the concession?
Don’t forget that the Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE) that was set up by the federal government; that gives the guidelines, have their requirements. They have their conditions; we were able to meet these conditions, and we were not the only ones; 16 companies bided for the TBS. But when you look at the idea, the concept, our own style and who we believe in, we came top among the 16 companies.
We bided highest. Out of 16 companies that bided for it, we came out top, successfully. So, it was not as if they gave us on a platter of gold, no! It was keenly contested for, but our company won it, because our bid was the highest and we presented the most competent, believable bid, technically and financially.
You might have had tall ideas to turn around TBS when you took over, but why has the monument remained a shadow of itself?
I think you can see, when we took over this place, it used to be harbinger of area boys. Virtually all the area boys used to sleep here. Do you see them now? That was the first battle that we won. We fixed some of them as part of our corporate social responsibilities. We trained them and then employed them as security guards. When we came in, most of the offices were dilapidated. They didn’t merit the status of our national monument, and we have been able to turn it around to a place where the President could now visit or where the biggest event in Nigeria could take place or, where International Trade Fair has taken place and it is still taking place. Remember that the first automated parking system in Nigeria, if not Africa, debuts here at the TBS and it is due for commissioning very soon. This year’s International Trade Fair will take place here, and they have written to us. So, that is what we have been able to do for now. As I said, we have been able to maintain the place, keep it clean and keep it safe, keep it secure for people to do their businesses. We expect things to get better when the Lagos State Government has a rethink, especially now that there is political reunification of Abuja, the centre of power and Lagos- I believe the problem would be resolved soon. All those eight years of PDP and ACN/APC feud were not good for investments in Nigeria.
The investment that has been wasted here is over $2 billion and the people, who would have been taken off the employment market, would have been over 10,000 Lagosians. And that was being stalled, but hopefully and anytime from now, things would be resolved and, then we would move on.
The rationale behind concessions is to prevent wastage and fraud, and how have you been able to stay afloat
Before we came here, the federal government was subsidising it. And those who were managing here could not make enough to pay their own salaries. Most of the people that are here, as tenants, see this place as an opportunity to partake in the national cake. They would not pay their rents and if you ask them, they would say, “at least, this is our common wealth.” Why should we pay for these things? But now, this place has listed for full commercialisation, we let them know that it was no longer in the control of the government and that they will have to pay their rent. And right now, as it is, government is not putting money into this place, instead they are making money, because every year the agreement is to pay N100 million to the federal government. Even though that agreement never envisaged all these challenges; ownership title with the Lagos State Government, and some of these tenants have even gone to courts, and they are insisting, we can’t increase our rent. The situation, before we took over was that there was no water, but we put it in place also, there was no light and security, and we fixed everything. Having put these things in place, we decided to increase our rent from what it used to be, to what is obtainable in the market. Up till now, they are still paying N7,000 as rent, based on per square meter and when we tried to increase it, they went to court. The matter is still in court now. And that is the frustration now, as a concessionaire in Nigeria. I have done a lot of books on the frustration of a concessionaire in Nigeria. But because we are determined, and if not because we are lawyers, we don’t know what would have happened. If we have not been lawyers, one would have been frustrated; if our focus was money alone, then we would have abandoned the cause. When people look at the structures, they would say, “This is money – spinning.” When they look at the size and the complex, they would think money will start dropping. It does not happen like that. We are ok, and we are doing very well. We have been paying our obligations to the federal government, although not fully, because we are not enjoying the support of the banks. We are not enjoying the support of investors, because they have all backed out. What we make here is what we judiciously and prudently utilise to honour our obligations; to pay salaries, to maintain this place, to pay LAWMA, electricity bills, taxes etc. Where some state governments cannot pay salaries, we pay salaries and our workers are collecting their salaries as and when due, before the end of the month. We are doing what other state governments cannot do.
With your experience, are privatisation and commercialisation best options for Nigeria?
Yes, but depending on the enterprise. For the kind of enterprise we have here, commercialisation is the best. If I have my way, I will privatise Nigeria, because you don’t get things done with the government. I think, you are aware some state governments cannot pay their staff salaries, and serious private companies don’t have this kind of challenge. With or without, you will still look for ways to raise funds. So, the consciousness of privately owned enterprise that we know, you either succeed or go down with it. I don’t want to head an enterprise that will fail. Your enterprise is your baby, you are the chief executive officer, and I am accountable for it. If it fails, it is going to fall on my head and I don’t want to fail. As a lawyer, I don’t want to fail. I see it as a brief, I want to perfect. When you say, you want to perfect a brief, it means, you want to be successful. You don’t want to lose it. I have never lost a case, and this is one of the cases we don’t intend to lose. We want to change the face of everything, but not that we will be criticising the government every time. Now, this is an opportunity before you, what do you do with it? So, we want to prove to the whole world that this is doable; that it is what we can do with determination and focus. It can be done with necessary vision backed by a very good team that shares your vision, and if you are able to get them to toe your line, then the sky is the limit.