Eulogies

Tribute To Otunba Michael Olasubomi Balogun, CON - By Victor Odozi

It is with a heavy heart but gratitude that I pay this tribute to a departed true friend of mine, Otunba Michael Olasubomi Balogun. Heavy heart because it is a traumatic event to lose a good friend, no matter the age, and gratitude to the Almighty Father for granting him a long, distinguished, successful and fulfilling life, a life that was filled with rich maturing experiencing.

His great reputation as the iconic promoter of a highly successful stockbroking and issuing house in the late 1970’s preceded him as I did not get to meet him personally until a decade later when he held sway at First City Merchant Bank (FCMB). Indeed, Otunba ‘Subomi played a prominent role in the implementation of the second phase of the Nigerian indigenisation programme of the late 1970's to early 1980's through his firm, City Securities Limited (CSL), which was the exclusive stockbroker and issuing house for most of the blue-chip oil companies that were offering their shares to the Nigerian public for the first time. Whether by sheer luck or reward for entrepreneurship, this early phase of CSL's existence brought both fame and fortune to the Otunba and must have provided the solid foundation for his subsequent venturing into merchant banking in the early 1980s. I eventually interacted with him in 1989, following the liquidity crisis that ensued after the withdrawal of public-sector deposits from banks by the Federal Government. That episodic measure was informed by the need to consolidate public funds by keeping them in the CBN and thereby ensure greater transparency and efficiency in their management. First City Merchant Bank (FCMB), owned by Otunba Balogun, was one of the 10 banks or so that applied for and received liquidity support under the so-called ‘Nicon Facility’ put in place by the CBN and the NDIC to cushion the shock generated by that measure. The liquidity lifeboat resulted in the recovery of a few of the beneficiary banks but most of the illiquid banks failed to recover despite the bailout scheme. The terminally distressed banks inevitably became candidates for revocation of bank licences which was carried out when 26 banks had their licences revoked by the CBNon a single day, 16th January, 1998. It is to the eternal credit of Otunba Balogun that FCMB was one of the few merchant banks that survived and remains in operation till this day. It should also be noted that, despite their appeal and glamour as the innovators and pace-setters in banking, Nigerian merchant banks of the 1980s and 1990s were, in reality, an endangered species, largely because of the regulatory restrictions and competitive inequities placed on merchant banks vis-à-vis commercial banks. Thus, many merchant banks failed and were liquidated while those that survived did so because they had converted to commercial banking or were saved when the CBN introduced the universal banking system in 2001, thereby removing the dichotomy between commercial and merchant banking.

At this juncture, it is worth recalling how Otunba Balogun achieved the feat of obtaining a banking licence in the early 1980s. This was a time when there were high barriers to entry, including stringent regulatory requirements such as: wide geographic spread of shareholders; a ceiling of 10% on individual shareholding; the availability of foreign technical partners together with a formal technical agreement; feasibility report and business plan; etc. Despite meeting most of the above requirements, except having a foreign technical partner, Otunba Balogun’s prospect of securing a banking licence was rather dim. Then, by his own account, he devised an ingenious plan of ‘waylaying’ the then Vice-President of Nigeria, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, at the Cathedral Church of Christ, Lagos, as he came down the aisle after service. The plan worked and he got his banking licence shortly after that happy encounter. It would appear that in helping out, Dr. Ekwueme was merely returning a favour done to him by Otunba Balogun who had taken the initiative of looking after the former’s Apapa house which he had abandoned during the Nigerian Civil War years. The Otunba handed over the rents he had collected on behalf of Dr. Ekwueme to him on his return to Lagos after the Civil War. Let it be stated that securing a banking licence was well deserved as the promoter led the bank to become a unique and enduring financial services firm that weathered very challenging times, including the 2004/2005 recapitalisation exercise. It may be recalled that the 2005 programme resulted in the drastic reduction in the number of banks from 89 mostly small banksto 24 megabanks, through mergers and acquisitions and the revocation of the licences of some banks that failed to meet the new minimum regulatory capital requirement. FCMB was one of the new megabanks, having acquired 6 other banks. Over the years, FCMB attracted many young talents who rose to the top of that bank or were poached by other banks. Thus, it has the distinction of being the breeding ground for future bank leaders. The list is legion and I will content myself by naming a handful of such alumni of FCMB: Wole Oduyemi, former Deputy Governor of CBN; Adebisi Shonubi, CBN Deputy Governor since 2018; Nath Ude, MD/CEO, Nova Merchant Bank; Bukola Smith, MD/CEO, FSDH Merchant Bank; Femi Bakre, MD/CEO, Parallex Bank; Bayo Rotimi, MD/CEO, Greenwich Merchant Bank; Hamid Joda, MD/CEO, Taj Bank; and Demola Odeyemi, MD/CEO, Optimus Bank.

I now wish to highlight the following defining attributes of the late Subomi Balogun that enabled him to tick and thrive as an icon of the Nigerian financial services sector:

First, he was a man of great vision and sense of mission, reinforced by a can-do spirit and the courage of his convictions. A person of Muslim parentage who, at the tender age of 13, converted to Christianity while at Igbobi College, Otunba Balogun single-handedly established a privately- owned bank at a time when it was considered impossible for an individual to do so. He not only navigated the bank through several challenges which merchant banks faced as an endangered species in Nigeria but also built it up into a unique brand that has been defined by commitment to a culture of excellence and conservatism in banking. Let it be known that to be conservative in banking is to be in banking for a thousand years!

Second, he was not only a builder of great institutions and eminently successful in achieving his potential and raising accomplished children but also in enabling many others to achieve their own potential while impacting society positively. He was always delighted to note that FCMB was the training ground for many bankers who went on to become CEOs and EDs of other banks, and he reminded me about such FCMB alumni when I spoke to him on 9th March, 2023, on the occasion of his 89th birthday.

Third, Otunba Balogun was a flamboyant, colourful and vibrant man who had the zest for life. He might have looked imperious and ostentatious but, in reality, he was noble, warm and respectful and not arrogant or insufferable. His humanity was amply demonstrated by his unique sense of humour and consummate story-telling disposition. I recall how he decided to "waylay" former Vice President Alex Ekwueme to draw the latter's attention to his outstanding application for a banking licence! I also recall his story about what happened when he was to be appointed Executive Secretary of the Nigerian Industrial Development Bank in the late 1970s. According to him: "Someone said, 'Balogun can only become Secretary of NIDB over his dead body.' I was scared, but I continued praying. Do you know that that person died during the first coup and his appointee also died in an accident?" Not long after, the Otunba was re-interviewed and got the job.

Fourth, he always acknowledged the blessings of the Almighty Father at various junctures in his life. For instance, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, he declared: ‘’My journey to what you now see (Primrose Tower, the Headquarters of FCMB) had been divinely guided ...and I am happy and thankful. This block is dedicated to the glory of God as an embodiment of a young man’s faith in the unfailing support of the Almighty God and in his own destiny, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles.’’ Similarly, he was very charitable and filled with gratitude, always alert to every opportunity to acknowledge kind and helpful gestures he received from others at important stages of his life. Even when I spoke to him for the last time on 9th March, 2023, and he bemoaned that age was catching up with him, he was still his charitable self, reminding me of the various ways in which I had been helpful to him in the affairs of FCMB while I was in office. That was not the first time of such kind acknowledgements. I am, therefore, proud to say that the late Otunba was a true friend and not an official or positional friend and it is important for me to state the difference here. If you are successful or have held a high office, you would get to know, when your circumstances change, that there is a world of difference between, what Kent Keith calls 'personal' friends and 'positional' friends in his seminal work: The Paradoxical Commandments. While a personal friend stands by you through thick and thin and truly cares about you, a positional friend is your friend merely because of your position of power or influence and the benefits he could extract from you as long as it lasts. When you retire, the positional friends don’t return your calls anymore, they don't have any time for you anymore; their attention is now focused on your successor or new incumbent! Sounds familiar? Thus, you need to get to know your real friends and positional friends early enough, that is while you are still in office. Although I didn't know the difference then, I have since been taught by years of maturing experiencing in retirement. I reiterate that the late Otunba Subomi Balogun was a true friend of mine.

Fifth, his large-heartedness, philanthropy and charitable disposition are legendary; his activities in the sphere of touching lives and making society better are legion and require no elaboration here. On this note, let me share a quote to demonstrate the nature and quality of the late Otunba’s success:

"Success should not be measured by financial wealth or worldly acclaim, but by the degree to which you nurture, love and inspire those within your sphere of influence to be productive, honest, and God-fearing citizens, with an emphasis on giving rather than receiving, recognizing that life is fleeting and is to be lived rendering service to others." Joseph Robinson.

I wish to conclude this Tribute by saying that we would sorely miss Otunba Balogun, this prince of royal blood, this man of great courage and vision, this legendary philanthropist. However, we should take comfort in the knowledge that he was an eminently successful man who touched the lives of many in positive ways and served our Country and humanity well. Thus, he will live tangibly in his great attributes, good works and in our hearts. I therefore join his wife, Olori Yeye-Oba Abimbola Balogun, and the entire family in giving thanks to the Almighty Father for blessing Otunba Balogun with a long, accomplished and fulfilling life. May they be afforded the strength to accept the passing of their beloved one, with grace and solemnity. Above all, may his spirit be granted mercy and repose.

*Victor Odozi*
Deputy Governor, CBN (February 1988 – June 1999)

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