Asians coming here to make money shows Nigeria’s economy not hopeless – Ex-LCCI president, Runwase

Former President, Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Babatunde Runwase, tells TOBI AWORINDE about his background and career journey, among other things

Can you share some of your experiences as a child who grew up in Lagos State?

I was brought up in Lagos. I attended Holy Cross Primary School, Igbosere. Lagos was not this congested and we seemed to know each other. I grew up at Igbosere, Glover (Lagos Island) and it was fun. We could go from one end to the other end; there was no traffic jam. Public schools were really owned by the missionaries and you had a few primary and secondary schools owned by the government. The private schools were also grant-aided, supported by the government. The Tafawa Balewa Square of today was Race Course then – horse racing events were held there, and in the middle was where we, as little children, would go to play football. We used to sneak out to play football or go to the swimming pool near where you now have MUSON Centre. We also had the Campus Square. When we were growing up, the Campus Square, where you have the (Onikan) stadium today, was a cemetery. It was later that those dead bodies were exhumed and taken somewhere else. But we had the small area where we could play football at the Campus Square; it’s still there today. So, Lagos was good then and my school was about the biggest primary school in Lagos. We were all boys. The girls’ school was St. Mary Convent School. It was far away, and then we had Holy Cross Catholic Church.

What kind of people were your parents; were they strict?

I’ll be 68 this year. There was no one of us (in my generation) that didn’t have strict parents. Some of the things we went through in the hands of our parents then, if you do one per cent of that to a child now, they would call it child abuse. But it was part of the way they brought us up. If you did something wrong, even a neighbour in your compound could discipline you before your parents did. That was what made us what we are today. I grew up in Central Lagos and it’s a place where you could easily get out of line if you didn’t have very strict parents. You had the good, the bad and the ugly. But for those of us who were able to stay out of trouble, it was by the grace of God and how disciplined our parents were. All parents then were very strict, particularly fathers. When someone said they would report you to your father, you would start begging because fathers then were different from fathers of today. When your father comes, everybody takes off. Your mother would have a way of communicating to you with her eyes. There was a way they would hold your ear and twist it, or give you a slap on the back. We went through all these. One would say, yes, almost all our parents were disciplinarians.

How did you end up as an accountant?

I ended up going to secondary school in Apapa, although I spent a year out of Lagos at the African Church Grammar School, Abeokuta but I couldn’t settle down there properly, so I had to come back to Lagos. I then went to United Christian Secondary School, Apapa. I went to school at 5.30am most of the time because Apapa Road was under construction. So, we would take a ferry from Marina across to the other side of the lagoon, near Flour Mills. That was where I was for five years until when I finished. Because I had attended a commercial school, I got employed at the Nigerian National Shipping Line as an accounts clerk. The NNSL fell into a group called ‘Corporation’ then, because the employers in the Federal Government then were either ministries or corporations. These parastatals were called corporations. I was encouraged to do accounting while I was there and I got registered to do the Association of Chartered Certified Accountant (qualification). After nine months or so, I gained admission into Yaba College of Technology to do a diploma which was tailored along the line of ACCA. I was in YABATECH for about three years and I got as far as HND1. At some point, the syllabus was revised; I then decided to take up a job because I wanted to travel overseas to continue my Accountancy (programme). I got a job with Akintola Williams as an accounts clerk. I started there by doing a vacation job with them as an audit trainee. After spending some time there, I went to Nigerian Catering Services as an assistant accountant. Then I went to D.O. Dafinone & Co. and that was where I finished my professional exam. I worked for some time and rose to the level of audit supervisor, then I joined the University of Lagos as the Deputy Chief Accountant/Auditor. I was at UNILAG for about 16 months. At that time, I was thinking I wanted to work in the public sector and in an academic environment, but I didn’t want to have a career there, so I went to the private sector – Panalpina World Transport, as a chief accountant. I was in Panalpina for 23-24 years before the company closed down. I was lucky to have risen to the level of executive director. I then started my own practice.

You spoke about being encouraged to pursue Accounting. Who in particular motivated you?

My grandfather was the one that encouraged me to go to commercial school. And, when you went to a commercial school, you would go to the bank, do accountancy or secretarial studies. I went for accounting.

When you started your family, what were the values and principles you imbibed?

I am happily married and the kids are grown up now and doing very well. I have a very good family life and a supportive wife. From the observation of people around us, the children are well-behaved and are doing well for themselves.

How did becoming a father change you?

When you come from a good home, you have to follow in the steps of your parents. You know where to draw the line. You just have to improve on the standard that you met when growing up. I thank God for the grace to be a good father. We value education and it is the best legacy you can give any child, and we have tried to give our children that. Thank God for it.

The economy is in a troubling state with record employment and inflation rates as well as skyrocketing fuel price. What do you think is the solution?

It’s unfortunate that the politicians are not helping the system. The politicians, over the years, have not given the right leadership. What I mean is that they are not leading by example. We have a political system that places people on a very high pedestal. Because politics is where you make the money, politicians live well above the standard of the ordinary person, and the wealth doesn’t trickle down to the majority of us. The tendency to live above one’s means is very common. We want to be seen as being of a particular level. The politicians have a way of creating hopelessness within the populace. I remember when the idea of Abuja as the nation’s capital was brought up, the politicians from a particular section of Nigeria did everything to discourage people from going there. All we heard about Abuja were tales of woe – nothing would work there; it is not habitable by human beings; there is something that would make people go blind there. And a lot of people on this side of Nigeria refused to go to Abuja.

That is why today if you go to Abuja, you will easily see that the section of Nigeria who had the courage to go to Abuja are the ones taking the lead in Abuja today. It was all politicised. I’m not saying we don’t have problems, but unfortunately, we’ve not had the right leadership that can inculcate in us the spirit of patriotism. All the problems we have today are created by bad leadership. The government makes so much noise today, but it is the private sector that is driving this economy. When you look at our Gross Domestic Product, what the government is contributing is very negligible compared to the private sector’s contribution. You find that a lot of money from the government is being put there, but very little is being actualised, and people don’t have confidence in the system. When you talk about the national growth of our economy, it’s not just there. The government has not been able to deliver to a level that the average Nigerian would feel the impact. Governance in Nigeria is where you go to make money, not to serve. We have this mentality where, if somebody who is nobody today can find his way into politics, he would become a very rich person. And you need a lot of money to go into politics; that is why if you are honest and you don’t have the money, those who have the money are the ones who will be there to dictate and direct the affairs of the country.

And that is why you find somebody who is appointed as a local government chairman not ready to live among the people; he wants to go to another part of town, instead. Our economy cannot grow unless the government creates the enabling environment for businesses to thrive. Look at all those road projects the government has been trying to do over the years; several regimes will come in and so much money will be committed to them, but little or no result would be realised because people have taken most of this money for personal aggrandisement.

But our economy is not as hopeless as it looks because you still find a lot of people from other lands – Indians and (East) Asians coming into this country to make money. So, why is it difficult for us as a people to make the best out of this? Some people will come with a portfolio from foreign lands into Nigeria and they will become billionaires in the country. Whatever they have made is from our country. Why is it that the owners of the land have not been able to take advantage of this? I believe we really need to look at ourselves. We need to look at what is wrong with us. Just as I’ve said, it is either we are divided by tribe or on religious grounds. And there is no end to this.

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