The Travails of Chief Harry Akande By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, what you are about to read is the story of man’s inhumanity to man. But before we go into the meat of this extraordinary tale, kindly permit me to paint a little description of the principal actor in the middle of this melodrama. He is no less a personage than the flamboyant businessman cum politician, and showbiz impresario, Chief Harry Ayoade Akande, the famous Agbaoye of Ibadanland. In a nation where history is not very popular as a subject in the school curriculum, it is pertinent to take some of our young readers, in particular, down this memory lane.
The myth surrounding the wealth of Chief Akande was long established. I was captivated by his uncommon panache right from the time I was in school and encountered the hagiographic folktales surrounding this Ibadan Chief. Even if no one knew his real and actual net-worth, he was one of the first Nigerians I knew, after Ambassador Chief Antonio Deinde Fernandez (the diplomat plenipotentiary), to have been described in superlatives as a billionaire. That was long before the arrival of FORBES’ Rich List or Fortune 100 on our shores. His manner of dressing stood him out in any crowd. He wore his big shirts with a muffler even in our tropicalized weather and carried himself with the gait of a Royal. His personal lifestyle was a stuff of Hollywood movie.
To be certain, Chief, as most people call him, met many American celebs and acted like one. Even if he owned one of the most exotic homes in Hyde Park Gardens, London, and partnered with several British companies on major projects in Nigeria, Chief Akande was more Americanised than English. One of the things I vividly recollect was his jet-set life as a globe-trotter. He owned a private jet when it was not yet in vogue. Chief was a trendsetter who made money and knew how to put it to good use. He was loved by his people through his philanthropic gestures. He helped many of his friends to travel to America. And his home was always a beehive with families and friends dashing in and out. I once experienced this side of him in his Chicago home over a decade ago when he treated General Abdulsalami Abubakar to a grand house reception. Chief turned out to be a superb host with attention to detail.
It is important to note that unlike most moneyed men in Nigeria, Chief Akande had demonstrated his academic prowess earlier in life before displaying his business acumen. He had bagged his BSc in Accounts & Finance at Hampton University USA, as far back as 1967. But his spectacular stardom sparkled brilliantly at America’s top notch business school, the famous J L Kellogg School of Management where he earned his MBA.
The confident and bubbly Akande soon returned home to join the onerous task of nation-building. By 1970, he was ready to put the skills acquired abroad to practical and efficacious use at home. He wasted no time in getting a good offer as Financial Consultant with KPMG as well as Standard Oil of USA. The restless man would soon establish his own company, Akande International Corporation, in 1971. He later headed a representative company for General Electric in Nigeria and handled major gas turbine projects in Ughelli and Ijora.
AIC created an Engineering division in 1976 through joint ventures Company with UK Balfour Betty Engineering. It was named Engineering & Power Development Nigeria Limited. Akande was able to secure and execute several projects. One of the most notable contracts was that of irrigation studies which spanned about 47,000 hectares of land in Bauchi. He worked on the construction of Birnin Kebbi Army Barracks; hydro-electric power construction and installation at Oyan Dam (joint project of AIC and Wimpey Construction of UK); designed and supervised Balanga Dam and Irrigation Scheme; the Osogbo-Ede Water Scheme (one of the largest in Africa at the time) and others.
AIC arranged an African Development Bank funding of the Bauchi Township project to the tune of $70million; $120million ADB finance for Benin City & Warri Effurum 35mgd water supply project; as well as the $166million funding for the Keffi/Akwanga & Doma Water Supply Scheme, and so on. The story of Chief Akande’s exploits would make up several books. I’ve only scratched the surface to establish one simple fact. He was not one of those indolent people who wished to make it mega-rich without lifting a finger. Not just that, he was too passionate about transforming Nigeria (he even aspired to be the President and Commander-in-Chief) and I think that was the source of the ordeal I’m about to describe.
As a cosmopolitan man, Chief Akande had dreamt of turning the Murtala Mohammed International Airport into a mini-paradise very similar to the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. He had flown through the Lagos airport too many times and was not impressed with the state of things. Rather than grumble and do nothing, he came up with the idea of building a first class hotel, a shopping arcade and recreational facilities around the airport. He planned to build tunnels linking the hotel to the airport. The designs looked impeccable, at least on paper. He was so elated about handing over this worthy legacy to the next generations of Nigerians and was determined to prove that Nigerians were not monkeys.
Chief Akande worked assiduously on his documents before approaching FAAN, the regulatory body at the airport. No reasonable person would have failed to appreciate the magnitude of vision that went into such a modern development. FAAN entered into an agreement and allotted the site needed to AIC. Excitedly, Chief approached the Management of Hilton Hotels & Resorts, and invited them to work on the project with him. The whole airport was agog the day Chief Akande and his powerful entourage arrived to start the project in a very simple but classy ceremony. The media was awash with stories of this new King Midas who was poised to turn the misfortune of that jinxed airport into prosperity. Everything looked set for this miracle to happen. But it seemed Chief Akande failed to take the Nigerian principalities into consideration. He would have known that nothing was absolutely certain in a country where pettiness and incurable jealousy reigned supreme.
Chief Akande was stunned and stupefied beyond words when out of the blues came a revocation order of the earlier agreement that gave him the land. What made it more shocking to him was that this unfortunate saga happened when his fellow Yoruba man, General Olusegun Matthew Okikiolakan Aremu Obasanjo was the President of Nigeria. His misery was very similar to that of Chief Moshood Abiola’s Summit Oil International and the daunting challenges faced by Dr Mike Adenuga’s Globalcom to secure its telecoms license. No serious nation would ever kick its energetic investors around like football the way we do in Nigeria. Just imagine that this is happening in a country that is in dire need of employment for most of our youths who have become desperate and disillusioned.
If Chief Akande thought the matter was only a bad dream, he soon woke up from his nightmare. He was able to see clearly that the forces at play were more than ready to frustrate the daylight out of him. What would a man in such a tight spot do? Chief Akande headed to the court to seek justice in a country where justice was not only expensive but uncertain. Since the year 2000, when the land was literally confiscated, the case is yet to reach a conclusive stage. Chief Akande has been running hither-and-thither trying to secure what is rightly a wonderful project that would benefit Nigerians and foreigners alike. But he has not been lucky to get a respite.
Before our very eyes, that airport has gone from bad to worse. Subsequent Ministers of Aviation have turned the place into their personal fiefdoms, hiring and firing concessionaires with reckless abandon. Attempts have even been made to go through the backdoor to completely sideline Chief Akande’s company and allocate the place to others who wish to build hotels. Chief Akande had to go physically to prevent the place being handed to some Chinese.
The matter has since degenerated into a free-for-all fight. It remains a mystery why the powers-that-be hate the guts of such pathfinders. I’m not willing to go into who is wrong and who is right. I just believe, and wish to ensure, that a man of Chief Akande’s status would be better treated with all the respect he deserves. Nigeria has nothing to lose; in fact we have more to gain, by allowing AIC to go ahead with its original plans. Those who shot down that dream of three decades have not even provided us with better alternatives. Is it not the height of wickedness that we would rather ruin our fellow citizens in the name of whatever-prejudice? Chief Akande is not alone in this debacle. The entire airport is swimming in all manner of man-made problems and unscrupulous insider deals. This should not be the case. An airport is too important to be left to the whims and caprices of hard-core politicians.
While tearing ourselves apart, many things have been left undone. I see no reason why the former car park that was demolished on the frontage of Murtala Mohammed International Airport should remain the way it is right now. The Aviation authorities should make up their minds on what they want to do with that ugly monster. Some parts of it are overgrown with weeds. It is also prone to security risks as hoodlums can easily seek cover and launch nefarious attacks from that jungle. I’m surprised that the horde of security agencies swarming all over the place has done nothing to demolish the place or allow the owners to build whatever they originally planned on it. This is the monumental shame that welcomes every visitor to Nigeria.
The same can be said of the abandoned hotel building at MM2. Why do we seem to take delight in littering everywhere with white elephant projects! That particular hotel would have started serving both local and international passengers by now. There should be a method to our madness.
I dream of a day our airports will look like what we see elsewhere and not ones that tell us we must appreciate whatever we get and thank our stars for getting anything. The solution, very frankly, lies in government deregulating the Aviation sector. The preponderance of government bureaucracy would never bring about the urgently-needed progress.
Even if the present administration succeeds in renovating and revamping our airports, it won’t take a long time before they return again to the dogs. We can prevent this by selling them off now and urgently. The relatively serene environment of MM2 has convinced me that this is the only way to go.
A truly patriotic leadership would place the country above self, friendship, family and party patronage.
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