Vanessa Obioha

You can hardly miss it; the sprawling structure at the junction of the ancient town of Gbongan in Osun State. It is the first thing to the right of the road as you descend the newly constructed overhead bridge that leads to the town. The cream-coloured edifice is the latest handwork of Wale Babalakin, a man kGiving Gbongan a Facelift
nown for his penchant for building world-class facilities. It is a metier that the legal practitioner and philanthropist excels in peerlessly going by the number of similar projects credited to him, notably the Murtala Mohammed Airport 2 in Lagos.

The new project – an auditorium – completed two months ago is no different.

Situated a few distance from his residence, the architectural beauty named after his father, Bola Babalakin, a retired Justice of Supreme Court of Nigeria sits majestically on a large expanse of land. On the ground floor is a 1200-capacity hall designed for meetings. Expansively built, this lower hall is dotted with 18 breakout session rooms and conveniences. A flight of stairs leads to a spacious auditorium that overwhelms a first time visitor.

Inside, Babalakin showcased his expertise with the intimidating design. The layout boasts of vast space with the way the seats are arranged, allowing ample room for manoeuvre. According to him, he deliberately allowed room for easy movement to eliminate the problem of participants bumping into each other when there is a need to leave the auditorium.

The walls painted in white exude elegance and blend easily with the rich rug on the floor. But the beauty of the hall lies in its serenity. Situated on the natural canal that separates it from the residential wing, the high windows provide a glimpse into the greenery of the countryside.

The facility was the preferred choice for the recent Joint Admission Matriculation Board (JAMB) annual policy meeting. In his inaugural speech, Babalakin revealed that he suffered sleepless nights from the very moment the Registrar of JAMB, Professor Ishaq Olarenwaju Oloyede, visited the site.

“We were embarking on this project at our pace until I made the honest mistake of inviting Professor Oloyede to visit the site. He was pleasantly surprised by what he saw. From then on, I lost my peace and my sleep. He started bullying me to complete the project on time. All along, I did not know he was planning to hold the JAMB annual summit in our modest premises,” he told the motley audience of university vice-chancellors, polytechnic rectors and principals of colleges of education. Also present were the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, Governor of Osun State, Rauf Aregbesola, the Olufi of Gbongan as well as his aged father.

It may be limiting to view the Babalakin complex as just an auditorium. For three days, that Babalakin who is also the Pro-Chancellor of University of Lagos played host to the executives of the education board, he lodged them at the comfortable suites of the residential wing of the complex. He said his plan is to build a hotel as well as other attractive features in the premises. In the evening, he hosted his guests to a dinner in his private abode. Like the new facility, his home is very tastefully furnished with spacious rooms and intriguing décor.

One may be forced to ask why the Osun-state born Senior Advocate of Nigeria has a knack for building such looming structures. Is it related to his towering physique/personality? He put it this way: Let’s thank God for giving us such a capacity. We are only trying to make our own contribution. Societies that develop rapidly are those that are supported by entrepreneurs with vision. It is very difficult to develop a vision, put it into a concept and then pursue it through actualisation. It is very easy to dream, but dreams are not visions. Visions are clearly thought about programmes and we have a vision for doing a lot of things in this country. We actually wish we are given the opportunity so to demonstrate it, but in our small sphere, we will continue to make efforts hoping that one day this great country will rise up and support those who are determined to improve it.”

Indeed, BOB as he is fondly called is a man of vision. Through his company, Bi-Courtney Limited, he completed the building of the Lagos Domestic Airport, Muritala Mohammed Airport 2, after the structure was razed by fire. The structure has been described as the best airport in Nigeria today and, definitely, the first airport terminal to be built in Africa with private funds without any support from the government.

The Chairman of Stabilini Visinoni Limited, a major construction company also won the bid for the reconstruction of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway until the concession was revoked under controversial circumstances by the Goodluck Jonathan government in 2012.

Babalakin was quick to point out that if the ill-advised move by the president hadn’t happened, “The road would have been completed on or before 2014. It would have been an eight-lane highway with seven overhead bridges and thought out facilities at a cost not exceeding N112 billion.”

Until recently when he was vindicated by the court of law, Babalakin’s hospitality company, Resort International Limited, was embroiled in a messy case with Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) over possession of former Federal Secretariat in Ikoyi, Lagos.

Describing the auditorium in the new Babalakin complex at Gbongan as a meeting ground for intellectuals in the country, he explained the drive behind the project.

“I was motivated to put up this structure to create a centre that will be a base for discussion, for engaging in serious intellectual dialogues on how we can reposition Nigeria. Motivation for this edifice was to design a platform for contributions from all members of the society towards the enhancement of societal goals.”

To be sure, it is not the first philanthropic contribution he is making to the education sector.

“I have always been fascinated by education. I strongly believe that this nation will only develop appropriately when it has a very good education system. We must ensure that the public service is populated by extremely educated, exposed and competent persons. When we achieve this then we will start getting great rewards for our efforts.”

He modestly rolled out some of his achievements during his tenure as Pro-Chancellor of University of Maiduguri.

According to him, “In UNIMAID, when we came in, we saw that there were infrastructural differences. So we decided to improve the infrastructure. I have always said that the only way to develop infrastructure is to empower people who have vision. When you just spend money generally without using people who have vision, you are wasting money. In Maiduguri, we completed nothing less than 42 projects, including a new College of Medicine, pharmacy, education in four years. We even went as far as to build a 57- bedroom hostel on a land allocated to the university since 1978 which nobody was able to do anything. And we did all of that just managing our very scarce resources. We did not borrow a dime.

“We also found an indigenous way of providing electricity to the campus for 20 hours a day. We will not reveal the tactics but we just intend to use it one day on the national platform. We don’t want to leak it so that it won’t be sabotaged. If you speak to the vice chancellors of UNIMAID, they will tell you that we came and served. It is also on record that we did not collect any sitting, travel or personal allowance. We did not participate in whatsoever commercial activity. We simply went there to provide service. It was charity work.”

The way forward for Nigeria’s development according to the philanthropist is to create quality education.

He says, “All the countries that developed rapidly have taken their education very seriously. Two examples easily come to mind. England has Oxford and Cambridge universities. These universities have been there since 10th or 11th century, and they have kept the standard. They have not weakened the universities rather they have kept the-Oxford and Cambridge the standard; and encourage other universities to aspire to be like them and in the process, some universities have emerged. Today, an engineering qualification from Imperial College London is comparable to a degree in Oxford and Cambridge, but that was achieved by making Oxford and Cambridge the standard and encouraging everybody to meet the standard. What we have done in Nigeria is that we have five universities. Rather, than tell the other universities to emulate this standard, what we did was reduce the standard of the universities so that everybody could now claim to have a university when really they were not contributing anything useful to the educational system.”

Interestingly, Osun State boasts quite a few private universities. There is the Kings University in Ode Omu owned by clergyman Matthew Ashimolowo and the Adeleke University as well.

The legal practitioner further emphasised that the new Bola Babalakin auditorium will not be used for fancy occasions. He stated that the edifice is basically for intellectual pursuits and of award scholarships. He, however, hinted that there have been suggestions by some to turn the sprawling structure into a university but Babalakin does not really buy into the idea.

“Anybody that has visited this place wants us to turn it into a university but from where I am coming from, I know what it is like to run a university. I have a very fair idea and I believe universities are improperly run here. If we decide to make this a university it will be because we believe we can make it a university. But for now, we are open to all options,” he says.