Politician and Chairman of Oilworld Limited, Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim, is a charming personality. He is not physically, intellectually and spiritually encumbered. Whereas, spiritually, his rodomontade is in his personal relationship with the Almighty God, which bond, according to him, is an essential summation of his high point in life. Sufuyan Ojeifo captures the atmospherics of his modest residence in the serene Life Camp district of Abuja and the nuances of his responses to questions that bordered on his birth, his formative years, and the social-economic conditions that contoured his philosophical voyage through student unionism; politics and business
Judging by the circumstances of his birth and the number of times he cheated death in his childhood, it would not have been too difficult for even the undiscerning mind to foretell that Mr. Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim was destined to be great in life. We pumped hands as he welcomed me into his living room and ushered me to a seat. I could see that he was eager to get down to brass tacks. But he would first reinforce the human interest focus of the interview to be sure of the kind of questions to expect. So, it was made clear from the outset that it was not an interview bordering on politics for which he is currently preparing to engage in the 2019 presidential enterprise.
With a somewhat emotion-laden voice, he intoned that were it not for the caring hand of the Almighty of God, he would not be sitting with me for the interaction that was intended to mediate the distance between his past and his present or, in other words, reconnect his present with his past for some historical narrative. At ages four and seven, he had cheated death in some inexplicable circumstances.
According to him, “The caring hand of God has always been there for me. I have had very tough experience like when, as a four-year kid, I was drowning in River Niger. It was only the hand of God that saved me. I could have passed on. After I was rescued, they pressed my stomach and water was coming out from my nose, my mouth, from everywhere.”
Three years after that incident, he was involved in an auto accident and when he was in his final class in the secondary school, his life was again threatened. He said: “I had an accident as a seven-year old kid. I fell off a speeding Volkswagen combi bus and I spent months in the hospital. That was a close shave. In the secondary school, every six weeks, I was on hospital admission. In the secondary school, I wrote my final year WASC examinations on the hospital bed. But when the result came out, I cleared all my papers at first sitting. So, I have had tough moments; I won’t say low points, yes tough moments, but God has always been there for me to provide strength.”
Life as a lonely kid
His formative years were characterised by solitude because he grew up with the family of his stepfather and intimate attention was not given to him: “I was a lonely kid in the sense that sometimes I was in the boarding house and on the visiting day, parents were coming and everybody was being called that she/he had visitors and I was not called, I would start crying.” To aggravate that, his best intentions were sometimes not appreciated and, as he put it: “I found out that those things that I held dearly were even turned against me to define me wrongly. It could be very painful. When you are in such a circumstance, it is only God that can give you the strength to continue. But in all these, the caring hand of God has always been there for me.”
Interestingly, Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim, who was known and addressed by his associates as Gbenga Olawepo until some few years ago, explained the sudden manifestation of Hashim that is now compounded with Olawepo, perhaps, was to douse whatever satanic suspicions that are possibly being nurtured and harboured by some disingenuous minds.
His account was succinct: “I was born in Yelwa, Yauri in Kebbi State, and precisely in 1969, on June 28 at 6 am on a Saturday, at the Methodist Clinic in Yauri because my mother was then a hospital assistant and my father was a cadet in the police. He just finished his cadet course as a young police officer at the time I was born. My father was Alhaji Hashim Abdullahi who died as police commissioner and commandant of the Police College in Kaduna. But I grew up with the family of my stepfather, Mr. Julius Bamidele Olawepo, who worked as works manager in Kainji Lake Research Centre.” Although there was the problem of distance initially between him and his biological father, that distance was mediated in 1996 long before he passed on in 2006.
Overcoming psychological pressure
Surviving the socio-economic condition of the time and the attendant pressures was critical in the life of the young Olawepo-Hashim despite being raised by a relatively prosperous family. That relative prosperity was toned down by personal issues that essentially piled on him some psychological pressure because, “as a child, I was not raised in the same way my step brothers and sisters were raised. We went to different schools; and as a child that had a way of giving me some kind of psychological pressure.”
But that experience did not turn out negative for him. He quipped: “I would say that it helped me more than it affected me because I grew up not having a sense of entitlement. I was raised to depend a lot on myself. So, in that sense, I did not become a spoilt kid. Whatever God had brought my way, I have had to work for them; and, when I was going to secondary school, for instance, there was nothing that showed that I came from a middle class home. In school, maybe I had a small tin of pronto and garri and you would find the children of drivers coming with cartons of geisha and all that and I just depended on whatever I was given.”
While in school, Olawepo-Hashim was exposed to the good, the bad and the ugly sides of life. One of the ugly sides would later define his essence: “I was interested in the handball team and I was playing number six and because of the quality of my games wears, there was this assistant coach that was very nasty and who was always telling me to file out of the team and leave the court because my games wears were not very nice enough. But the senior coach was more caring and understanding. It did not matter to him the quality of my games wears; but, anytime this very mean assistant coach was at the court, he would just look at me and yell at me to get out of the handball team; and, I would go by the side and cry. But that did not hurt me psychologically.
“What it did for me was that early in life, I taught myself that material things would not define me. So, I was a very good kid in class and some of the positions that I had right from secondary school were basically about my academic performances rather than how I looked or my games wears. When I was appointed prefect and that was after our class four promotion exams, it was based on the best students in arts and sciences. They were made prefect, basically.
“My very good teacher, Tope Aluko, was one of the first people who ever inspired me and really showed me that I am important rather than the treatment that I got on the handball court. Aluko called me one afternoon; and, of course, I had always participated in his class very well; even in the year four exam, I had distinction in Government; and, he said, look, Gbenga, we had a meeting in the staff room today and I nominated you as a prefect and I hope you won’t let me down. I promised that I would not let him down. We used to have fantastic debates in class that time about the nationalist struggle of Zik and all that; and, then the curriculum of that era was very rich. So people like Tope Aluko already imprinted in me the self-confidence to have a self-worth beyond being defined by material things.”
Whatever the magnitude of his intellectual prowess today, Olawepo-Hashim claimed that the foundations were laid at the secondary school and the School of Basic Studies. According to him, “Every other thing, even in the University of Lagos or in my masters’ class was just like icing on the cake. I was just developing or consolidating along the line, but the foundations were laid in the secondary school and the School of Basic Studies. The curriculum in the School of Basic Studies in Ilorin was excellent. I was a responsible student of Duro Onimola who taught us Introduction to Political Science. You could not be an idiot if you were a good student of Duro Onimola and you know the curriculum in the School of Basic Studies was a mixture of GCE A’ Level London and the IJMB by ABU Zaria. So, people like Duro Onimola and co. did a lot to also sharpen me intellectually.”
The ultimate role model
But picking role models in politics, Olawepo-Hashim very easily settled for the late human rights activist, Alao Aka Bashorun, whom he described as democrat extraordinaire, a very brilliant mind and successful lawyer. According to him, “Aka Bashorun was very humble even with all his attainments. He would handle cases for us, student union leaders in those days, pro bono, and even though we were not paying him and the age difference was much, he could even be older than my father but he related to us like colleagues and we were free to talk to him anyhow and he would still be very calm and just smile.
“He inspired me in the way he was humble, in the way he was true, in the way he was real without looking for any accolade. Then you talk about people like the Chief Solomon Lar and Alhaji Abubakar Rimi. Alhaji Rimi inspired me particularly because of his courage and stubbornness. He was very courageous and stubborn about his principles. The leaders of those eras who inspired us-people like the late Adamu Ciroma, the late Sunday Awoniyi, were disciplined in their lifestyles. This made them role models to some of us in politics.”
Set for political and business leadership
His decision to proceed to the University of Buckingham in the United Kingdom, where he studied and obtained a Masters degree in Global Affairs, was motivated by the multi-disciplinary nature of the course: “After a lot of politicking, I took a break and I wanted a multi-disciplinary course that could be useful both for me in my business and my future public career and global affairs was just perfect then because it was a multi-disciplinary course- a lot of international finance and I had very good lecturers like Professor Jeffrey Woods, one of the leading advisors to Central Banks all over the world, who taught me international finance.”
He continued: “And then there was international economics, and economics has always been my first love. So it did offer me that opportunity and there was the other module-the history of international systems that was taught by the secretary of the governing council then; there was international trade law, global security one and two and environmental politics and all that. That course gave me an opportunity for an intellectual platform to have a certification in the knowledge of the modern international political system and the norms and conventions, practices and theories that govern it….
“I think, to be quite honest, you cannot be an effective president of a country or an effective leader of a global corporation without an elementary knowledge of how the international political and economic system operates now. And just having advisors would not be enough because most deals in the economic and investment realm are brokered – when you are one-on-one, either with your colleague president or with your colleague head of corporation, without your aides and assistants in a dinner; or in a one-to-one talk, playing games and relaxing. That is where the crux of the matter and the ice is broken, where you do not have the cameras and where you do not have the aides. So, in making those deals, you must have at your fingertips the grasp of exactly what you are gunning for.
“Indeed, when memos are passed to you and you do not even have quality advisors, you would not know when you put your signature to genocide, when you order some troop deployments and there could be consequences; and, that is why you see that for most successful countries of the world, right now and countries that matter in the global economic realm, you see some mastery of economic and global governance issues by those who lead them. The truth of it is that there is no significant country in the world that can be led right now by people who do not possess some minimum levels of education.”
Rich but simple lifestyle
Having been defined early in life as not given to material things, his immense wealth has not been able to get into his head. In his riposte to a poser in this regard, he declared: “I do not put too much premium on material things. I have a modest lifestyle and, therefore, material things have not defined me. When I was in the University of Lagos, I did not have more than two pairs of sandals and it did not make any difference to me. You could count the number of clothes that I had then and it did not make any difference to me; and, as I grow up, I see people who probably do not have one over hundred of what God has blessed me with driving expensive cars, wearing expensive wrist watches and it does not matter to me because that is what gives them happiness and that is probably what defines them. However, it does not mean that I do not have my own social life. The thing that gives me pleasure is to see how we can solve problems for people. That gives me pleasure more than any other thing.”