Nasser Abubakar Ahmed: I Want to Build a Million Homes Before I Die

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Nasser Abubakar Ahmed 1

At 15, he dreamt of owning a bank, the biggest hotel in northern Nigeria and an airline. At 57, his influence straddles the nation’s economy – from the legal to hospitality sector and real estate. Yet, Naseer Abubakar Ahmed is not slowing down. With a heart heaving with dreams and ideas, he speaks with Adedayo Adejobi on his drive to serve among other things

Naseer Abubakar was born in Kano, on the 29th of March 1961, he schooled in Kano. His secondary school education was at Federal Government College in Kano, after which he studied Law at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and graduated in 1982. He was called to the Nigerian Bar in August 1983, he immediately worked with J. B. Majiyagbe & Co., a frontline legal firm from 1983 till 1988.

In January, 1989, he was made Technical Legal Solicitor/ Advisor in the new Technical Committee on Privatization and Commercialization (TCPC) of the Presidency from January 1989 to September 1992.  Thereafter, he moved to National Insurance Corporation of Nigeria (NICON) as the Deputy Corporation Secretary. He eventually became full Legal Adviser/ Corporation. He served in that position for 13 years. He still holds the record of the longest serving Secretary and retired in 2005 December after reaching the position of General Manager.

He joined the team of developers and using his entrepreneurial drive led them to join the Protea Hotel Group. Having signed with Protea Abuja saw its first Protea Hotel at Apo.  In his words, ‘‘We started the Protea Hotel Apo Apartments in Abuja in 2006 and the within 14 months, we won the bid for Central Hotel, the oldest hotel in Northern Nigeria. Based on the Share Purchase Agreement a total redevelopment was achieved with local and international partners; amongst them Nexim Bank and Afrexim Bank Cairo.

The Hotel was initially a Holiday Inn( IHG) then to a Protea then eventually under full local Management with a versatile Briton Mr David Cook as the Chief Operating Officer of the brand now called Grand Central Hotels. Key to its success is the franchises being signed with both Best Western(International) and BON (West Africa). We would soon launch our brand into Lagos, Benin, Ghana, and eventually Egypt. Thereafter the sky would be the limit. Discussions are ongoing with other local brands like Azalai Hotels that have tremendous reach in the francophone areas of West Africa.

From an ancestral passion to a futuristic mission

With his late Great Grandfather as the first Chief Imam of Lokoja sent there by the Etsu  from Bida as Lokoja was just being made the first capital of a modern Nigeria and a safe haven for freed slaves. His family history is full of Islamic Law Jurisprudence and it has continued to this day.

Subsequently by 1903 about 13 northern Emirs were deposed by the British, imprisoned in Lokoja and died and buried thereat. Each deposed Emir came with his large family some from Kano, Zaria, Gwandu, Katsina, Bauchi and Bida.

‘As the Dan Darma of Lokoja, it is my responsibility to restore and realign with our family history old and the new, far and the near to bring progress peace and modern development worthy of the first capital of a modern Nigeria. I am humbled by the vision of the Lokoja Emirates Council, for their wisdom and prudence to give me this princely title. My father who is still alive and in his late 80’s , is the Sarkin Yaki of Lokoja, Meaning  “the protector of Lokoja’’

He narrates further: “When my great-grandfather was brought to Lokoja in 1903, he came with his own team of mallams. That is how he became the Chief Imam of Lokoja. Taking on the mantle as Dandarman Lokoja, is a responsibility to restore and realign with our family history – that is why I believe the Lokoja Emirates found it in their wisdom to give me a title.‘’

Continuing, he notes: “The unique essence of my title is to be the developer and driver of progress of the city. One of my plans is to create a new wonderful Lokoja town. My most immediate task is to restore the respect due to the grave sites of the emirs and famous warriors who stood up against colonial rule. I’m also in discussion with development banks to have a rail line from Lokoja to Abuja. I also intend to create an annual durbar in which representatives of all the emirates that have their emirs buried there will participate. Hopefully it will be another reason for Lokoja to have tourism as its a gateway.”

A childhood in Kano

Ahmed recalls the Kano of his youth with nostalgia: “Kano is one of the most beautiful cities one was lucky to be at because that was one of the centres of commerce and integration. Until politics became very heavy, most people did not even know they were not from Kano. Kano was a big cosmopolitan city. Lots of my friends who are today captains of industry and banks grew up in Kano. I can remember three owners of banks they were all born in Kano. Kano is still one of the largest cities in Nigeria. I got my commerce and entrepreneurial instincts from Kano.”

Challenge of knowledge transfer gap

To Ahmed, Nigeria faces an enormous situation as regards its economy and technology. He points that out saying: “Unfortunately, the biggest challenge is not only entrepreneurial skills; our children, we and our parents didn’t go to the same school. This is what happens overseas where you find six generations go to the same school. Where my dad, myself, my kids attend different schools, it’s almost impossible to transfer certain skills.”

Ahmed thinks youths do not have conducive environments to develop in. “Children develop in a more hostile environment where you have kidnapping, cultism and robbery. In the 1970s, you could put a 12-year-old heading to school in a train from Calabar to Kano and go to sleep that the child is safe. But now, it’s different and kids have become cocooned.”

For the shrewd entrepreneur, life as a youth was enchanting. As a child, he was driven by logic. “So when I was filling my JAMB form, I didn’t know whether to fill law or medicine. I had to fill two forms, one for law and another for medicine. I read nine subjects to ensure I had the requisite in science and arts. It’s the last moment I turned one of the forms going for law instead of medicine. Until my final year, I was going to medical classes until I almost failed in my second year so I had to stop attending medical classes because I was still a bit confused. I thought medicine was better for me but later I faced law,” he recalls.

Enter the lawyer

“As a lawyer, you must understand the reason for a rule. If you understand what the rule was for, you can apply it in any scenario. Over the years, I’ve noticed that unfortunately, the understanding is missing in a lot of practitioners and judges. So people argue endlessly about their perception of a rule. That’s why our trials and litigation drag on endlessly because somebody picks a rule and argues on. But if it is well understood, there’ll be speed, consistency and full disclosure and disputes would be quickly resolved, seeing clients or litigants best of it,” says Ahmed.

Between lawyers and liars

“If I blindfold five people and put them around an elephant and ask them to describe it, I believe you’ll get different results for the same animal. So what lawyers do, they see the view from their clients perspective because your duty is not to protect your client. Your duty is to disclose favourable information of your client because you’re an officer to the court not necessarily a servant of your client. Our duty to the court is to bring the best out of our client or hide the worst to shield him from his worst. That is why you see in some trials some accused people, their lawyers would ask them not to give evidences because if they do, they may say more than what they ought to have said,” the experienced adds.

Assessing Nigeria’s legal system

“The system definitely needs a lot of overhaul. We need to fast-track administration of justice. I have not been in active legal practice nor appeared in court for over 15 years. However, I’ve seen a lot of criminal administration act that are intended to fast track administration of justice. I think we still have a chance. One of the things we must reintroduce is tutelage and mentorship. Today, any graduate from a law school can open a law firm and if he’s lucky to make money and rent an office, his ignorance can be perpetrated for years and in ignorance feels his ways are the right ways. But if for years, he has worked under somebody for a minimum of three or four years, his knowledge base and horizon would be widened and expanded.

“Another issue to address is the creation of a dichotomy between barristers and solicitors so that those who have advocacy skills will advocate and those who have cerebral skills in writing, reading and researching would do theirs,” Ahmed explains.

The lawyer’s launch into business

Being on the board of the Hilton and hearing reports and turnover figures made great sense, but little did Ahmed know that running a hotel profitably was not a child’s play. He admits: “I thought hotel business was one of the easiest businesses in the world until I plunged into it. It is one of the most challenging businesses. It is so intensive. When a guest checks in at 12pm till the 24 hours, his cooling, cleanliness, TV channels, water, welfare, security and all that multiplied by 300 rooms in the hotel are a huge responsibility. With 320 workers in both hotels in the last 10 years the bigger reward is that we are giving comfort to visitors. The government needs to support in single-digit funding in hotels, otherwise they’ll see more and more properties collapsing.

Local versus international hotel brands

“The influx of big foreign hotels is not a threat. It is a business of observation. If an American brand treats their guest and are making more money than you, you need to adjust. The entry of the big foreign hotel brands is a wakeup call for all of us to know and they have been in it for decades. Marriot has about 6000 hotels; Best Western has about 3000 hotels, whilst Protea, an African brand has about 250 and a few in Europe,” Ahmed says amidst optimism.

Real estate and following the money

To Ahmed, there is money to be made dealing in properties. “Property business is capital-intensive. But it’s the single important step to breaking the poverty trap. If Lagos has all the roads, 24-hour electricity, water, security and everybody is poor, in 10 years, the government needs to raise a lot of money to clean those roads again and there will still be poverty. China in1980s found out that most of their people wanted to go to communism, so it was through housing made as low as $5,000. A man buys a property for three million. In 10 years, that property is about 40 million. So he retires out of that with a profit of about 27 million. If I’m going to Calabar to re-settle, I could buy a property in Calabar for nine million and I’ll still have about 15 million. The money has taken you out of the poverty gap,” he argues.

 Property market projections for 2019

The businessman adds: “Life is a continuum and life can be as easy and as difficult as you understand it. Some people don’t understand that a door will lead you out and a key would open the door. So if you don’t understand some of those basic dynamics. We’ve not had a holistic policy on how to make housing affordable. It must be a deliberate policy. The ripple effect is going to be so big that we’re going to have an economy on itself. That’s why I said housing would solve the poverty trap not infrastructure. I believe it can only get better especially after the elections would have been settled.

 A life on tripod of law, hotels and properties

“I think one complements the other. As an hotelier, I’m not involved in the day-to-day running. But my legal training and knowledge comes to play when we fall into deep financial bubbles,” Ahmed says ruefully. 

Ahmed’s passion, vision, recreation

“I’m always working. I meet with my friends from school because those are the best friends you can have and you know your back is covered so that’s how I unwind. I’ve been a golf member since 1995 even though I’ve never played one round of golf – maybe I’ll start that one. I’ll learn now,” he explains. “If my life were a book, it would have a lot to do with my dreams; my visions and whether I’ve achieved those dreams. At 15, I believed I was going to own central hotel but I didn’t know how. I knew at 17 that I was going to own a bank and by 20, I knew I was going to own an airline. But I did not know how. Some of my visions are frightening.

“Some I have succeeded in achieving while some I do not have the money or time to pursue. But what interests me is to ask why not?  If I see somebody owning virgin Atlantic, I say why can’t I own it and what does it take? So I think it will be whether those audacious visions have materialized. As long as I’m alive I want to build a million homes before I die. I’ve done about 120 but I want to do a million before I die. That’s my next vision and hopefully it comes through.”

Leaving a memorial

What will he like to be known for? Ahmed’s response is simple: “I want to be remembered as one who made things happen. I will like to be remembered as a catalyst that has brought change and financial wealth to people in a hopeless situation.”