With keen vision, an immense depth of intellect and sheer astuteness of being a lawyer, politician and businessman, Kenneth Imansuangbon is an embodiment of humanity. Rich in thoughts and material possessions, the founder of Pacesetters Group of Schools, among other business concerns, is an extraordinary Nigerian who has beaten many odds. Triumphant in magnanimity and humility, his life’s various episodes is a study in passion and perseverance, little wonder he understands life’s frills, shrills and thrills. Funke Olaode who interviewed him recently writes about Imansuangbon’s moments of hopes and hopelessness
His heart fluttered on that cold, lonely night as he stared blankly at the empty bowls in the open-air kitchen. His stomach raged as his fragile tiny legs quaked. His gaunt frame signposted a poverty-riddled life – an episode of privations – but undaunted by hunger and poverty, he went into the sleepless night dreaming of a better, flourishing tomorrow. Kenneth Imansuangbon is no more a dreamer of hopes. Today, he embodies remarkable achievements – hard-earned wealth and thriving ventures that cut across social, economic, political, and humanitarian spheres.
With immense wealth and wits, the lawyer, who once struggled to acquire education, is telling a different story of how penury can be turned into opulence.
Born on May 4, 1966, he attended at St. John’s Catholic School, Ijebu-Ode in Ogun State. Thereafter, he attended Ago-Iwoye Secondary School, Ogun State. Brilliant and brimming with ambitions, following his excellent final-year results, young Imansuangbon’s hope was dashed as his family was too poor to send him to the university. He was forced to settle for the role of a technical assistant at the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA), Abuja. In that moment of his life, there emerged a sliver of revival in his life.
”I went to Abuja where I worked for about five years. We built the Lower Usman Dam. When the then President Shehu Shagari came to Abuja in 1982 – that was where he stayed. I was inspired by this humble (now elder statesman) whom we saw as a rallying point for the country. I still remember him – very slim, tall, handsome man with a long cap and agbada. When he came, I walked up to him, touched him and he smiled at me. I said one day I was going to be president. He looked at me and we shook hands. I felt (his) anointing was being transferred (to me). So, that encounter actually invigorated me,” Imansuangbon narrated.
It was not long after that ‘presidential’ encounter – while still at FCDA – that he gained admission to study law at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) Ile-Ife. Rather than choose engineering as a course, young Imansuangbon went in the opposite direction – but his reasons for doing so were simple but deep.
The philanthropist, also known as the Rice Man, explained: “The late Gani Fawehinmi influenced me to study law. He was a great role model. I loved his courage and how he fought for the poor. I remember when I was an undergraduate at Ife: we awarded him the SAM (Senior Advocate of the Masses). I laid on the floor that he should walk over me – that I wanted to be the red carpet for him to walk on – because he was unique. He was everything to me. He inspired me each time he talked with his tiny voice. Again, my father had also hoped that I should read law. To honour him, I decided to read law: the dream of my father must not die. And finally, I felt law was a tool for social change – a social engineering instrument. I wanted to practise law to fight for humanity, defend the poor and to use law to bring about change.”
If Imansuangbon is intellectually endowed, he is also business savvy because shortly after he began to practise law, setting up a law firm – Imansuangbon and Co – he ventured into the business of education.
The Edo State-born lawyer and business mogul has a penchant for development; a desire to impact on his country. He believes firmly that education is the bedrock of any nation’s development. Nothing was going to stop him from providing a platform for the future generation to excel – not his law firm. A man of many parts and a frequent traveller across the globe decided to act on his impulse which culminated into Pacesetters Group of Schools.
“I visited the United States over 20 years ago and saw the huge development that had taken place there. I asked the first white man I spoke with why Africa was not as developed as Europe and America? He said the gap was in education; that developed people are people that are highly read; people that take their education serious. So, I made up my mind that I was going to open schools. I sat with my wife and told her there’s the need for us to make a change and the way to start the change is to educate the minds of Nigerians. That was what gave birth to Pacesetters Group of Schools. I am proud to say that with the great support of my wife, Kate, we have been able to make that change in the education sector in Abuja – and even in Nigeria.”
If he loves law, believes in education, Imansuangbon lives on philanthropy. Over the years, he has offered scholarships to children whose parents as the nation’s security agents (in the police, army, navy, air force, etc) lost their lives while serving Nigeria. In his quest to promote grass-roots sports and youth education, Imansuangbon organise sports and essay-writing competition for secondary schools across the country.
Commenting on the socio-economic and security challenge in Nigeria, the astute businessman noted: “What is causing security challenge? It is inability of government to design the way forward. Employment is not the government’s business alone. The private sector has a lot of role to play. Unfortunately, we don’t have the educational intellectual ability to do it. A well-educated man won’t loot his country’s treasure because he knows the consequences. When you take N200 billion from the national treasury you are destroying the educational system, health care system of the country – the water, the security, and the rail. Even N1 million is a lot. As far as I am concerned, all hands must be on the deck – from the government to the private sector, and every citizen – to properly educate the upcoming generation.”
For him, that is not all as Imansuangbon seems to carry a burden in his heart like someone seeking absolution, saying: “My generation has failed. But some of us are trying to make spirited efforts to ensure that our failure is not transferred to our younger generation. That is what we are doing at Pacesetters. I, the teachers, and the principals are passionately doing our best that we don’t leave the education system a failure. So that when we are gone they (younger generation) will say we tried our best in tutoring Nigerians to embrace the right values.”
With a chequered experience in the nation’s unstable political terrain, Imansuagbon understands the danger that lurks beneath the ‘siddon-look’ philosophy. Over the years, he had sought to have more positive impacts on his people by vying for the governorship position in Edo. That episode of his life spanned 14 years – and those were years of seeking solace in various political parties. In his less-than-successful attempts to be Edo’s governor, he had moved from the AD to the ADC; from the ADC to the APC; and from the APC to the PDP. Today, he says there are other ways to serve the people than through politics or politicking.
He explained further: “I dabbled into politics in 2004. In 2006, I stepped down for former Edo State Governor, Adams Oshiomhole. I remember in December 2006 in Benin City, Lucky Igbinedion, Ize Iyamu and Tom Ikimi told me that I should step down for Adams Oshiomhole in an election that I was leading. After that I moved to PDP. I later moved back to APC but Oshiomhole said it must be Obaseki anyway, anyhow in 2016. For me, politics in Nigeria is a bad game and is for the bad guys and not for good guys because when the good guys come they will show you the way out. It is unfortunate and that is why the country is not moving forward. I predict that change is coming to Nigeria and the time is now. And how that change will come is through serious revolution to be led by the ordinary people because we can’t continue in this mess where bad guys are the rulers of the good people.
“I have moved on beyond that now because serving and adding values to people must not be through politics alone. In a crooked and corrupt system like ours I have given politics a wide berth. I had spent over N8 billion – of hard-earned money: personal money, loan from banks, family and friends etc – in the last 15 years seeking political office. I have never had government (state or federal) contracts in the last 30 years. In 2016 alone, I spent over N2 billion. Since then nobody has ever asked me how I’m faring after that primary. I have moved on. It is our country and my desire is to make it function better. What is important to me is that we must not make a change through political process alone. I am making my contribution and inculcating values in young Nigerians through Pacesetters Group of Schools. One day, one of those students will rise and do the right thing.”
If his intellect and political acumen are enlightening, his passion for humanity is charming.
“My background must have shaped my philanthropic disposition. I came from a very poor home. When I was growing up, we scarcely had rice to eat especially during Christmas period. All that I have benefited was from my widowed mother and neighbours who supported us. So, I made up my mind that if God blessed me, I would give back to God and to humanity. To that extent, this is a mission and a path to be my brother’s keeper. I learnt a lot from the late MKO Abiola. When I was in Ife, we needed to raise money for the Law Faculty Week. The dean, Professor Fabunmi, called me and said we must go and raise the money. We got to MKO’s house at about 3pm. We learnt he went to see Gen. Ibrahim Babangida at Dodan Barracks. We waited until he came back at about 1am. What I observed was that even men in cassocks and other men in their turbans were also waiting. But when he came, he was told that students of the Faculty of Law, Ife, were waiting to see him.
“We were the first he saw. He asked us what we wanted – I was the lead speaker. I told him we needed N100,000 for our law faculty. He asked how much we had raised. I said we haven’t raised anything. ‘You’ve not raised anything. It’s MKO Abiola’s money you need to do everything?’ He chided me and laughed. At the end, he gave us N50,000. MKO Abiola was a giver par excellence. He loved everybody. He wasn’t discriminatory in his character, attitude, fellowship and fraternity with people. MKO Abiola was a great man. He’s undoubtedly one of the legends we have had in this country,” the famed Rice Man stated.
Losing the APC governorship ticket and his miraculous escape from an untimely death in an auto crash, Imansuangbon says life has taught him to take things easy.
“I almost lost my life in the cause of struggle to serve my country when I had an accident on Agbor-Benin Road – I was coming back from the burial of Deji Falaye in Akure, whom I happened to be his best man when he got married in 1999 – when a lorry rammed into my car. I had to be airlifted abroad. It was by the mercy of God and prayers of Nigerians that I was not consumed in that accident. It showed me that our existence is in God’s hands and no man can take another man’s life if God doesn’t approve it. This has strengthened my faith in God. People prayed for me and I am alive. I tried to govern my people for 14 years. But today, I have moved on. I have every cause to be grateful to my maker. I managed to go to school and today I am not a failure. Life has taught me that there is God and God is real,” Imansuangbon mused in a philosophical note.