By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, my serialised tributes to the business colossus and The Parakoyi of Ibadanland, Chief Bode Akindele, must come to an end today, after several continuations. It is impossible to cover the full gamut of the extraordinary life of this uncommon prodigy, unless one wishes to write a voluminous biography of his own. There is so much to write about a man who lived several lifetimes in just one. Today, I shall endeavour to barely scratch the surface of his different adventures in the world of business and pleasure.
If I can just take you on a tour de force of some of the remarkable achievements of this business titan for whom I have great respect and admiration I would have done reasonable justice to the life and times of one of the most responsible and honourable Africans that ever lived. I hope and pray his family will reproduce his autobiography, titled I DID IT GOD’S WAY, first published in 2003, and circulate it massively. As someone told me last week, he’s not sure Nigerians knew this man well enough, and if they did, he was not given the recognition and the celebration he richly deserved in his lifetime. I agree. Baba was one of our unsung heroes. I thank God for the Ovation Media Group that found time to unveil and present some of his activities and exploits to the world.
Chief Moshood Abiola once told me something I will never forget: “To be a polygamist, a man must be a competent polygamist.” Chief Akindele was a veritable example of that proverbial “competent polygamist.” He had two wives, Bisi and Atema, at the time of his death and he really worked hard to carry both along very well, without outsiders ever noticing cracks, if there were any. He acknowledged both in his book and thanked them: “My wives, Bisi and Atema, deserve a special place in God’s heart for the level of tolerance with which they are endowed. That they have been able to put up with my busy life and unique tastes for over forty years is a tribute to their devotion.”
Chief Akindele’s sense of humour was something else. For example, he wrote in his book:
“I may not be blessed, as others are, with good looks, or charisma, or athletic prowess. But I am blessed with loving and devoted women who have been instrumental to my success. My mother features throughout this book for her sterling qualities and positive influence on my life and chosen career.”
Do you know that Chief Bode Akindele and Professor Wole Soyinka were very close? The truth is that they were and the story of how they first met is an illuminating one. Soyinka wrote the forward to Chief’s autobiography and his account of their introduction is detailed in Soyinka’s usual powerful, pungent and poignant prose. Now, please, read from Africa’s first Nobel Laureate for Literature:
“I have occasionally asked myself: where does one place Chief Bode Akindele, the Parakoyi of Ibadan? One guesses that he is no Bill Gates, but such is the scope of his many enterprises and international connections that it would be unwise to place him in the facile category. To tell the truth, he never did strike me as a ‘businessman’, not at our first meeting, which took place at the instance of my late friend, Femi Johnson, another businessman of outstanding refinement. Our encounter came about because I was looking for a quiet retreat where I could compete some writing in peace, away from the usual pressures and distractions. OBJ as Femi Johnson was more commonly known, mentioned a little village called Vinaros, owned by a Nigerian businessman. The name struck an instant chord Vinaros? Didn’t that have something to do with Ernest Hemmingway, one of my eminent predecessors in the writing trade? I looked up the reference, yes indeed, I was right. Vinaros was one of the Hemmingway’s favourite watering holes whenever he found himself away from Havana. The next question was, what on earth was a Nigerian businessman in search of, that he would end up in an obscure part of Catalan, Spain?
“I was suspicious, deeply suspicious. Was this one of those flamboyant businessmen whose idea of ‘arrival’ was to buy a mansion on some exotic coastline populated by rich tourists? Nigerian businessmen are not known for their reticent lifestyle and I was not looking forward to thrusting myself in the midst of a shoal of vacationing tycoons who like to make their presence felt. Still, I decided to test the waters, very gingerly, by ‘dropping by’ in Femi Johnson’s company. What I found was a very self-effacing, highly respected Nigerian presence in the person of this reluctant seigneur, whose nation-pride was so much in evidence that he had named his house ‘Nigerian House’ and employed Nigerian colours for decor. It was anything but overly conspicuous or garish. Mind you, his artistic taste left much to be desired – I immediately offered to throw out his paintings and introduced him to some Nigerian artists but he remained unimpressed – even today. That flaw was however more than compensated for by the owner’s sensible choice of architectural style – and materials – a perfect integration into the village and the general Catalan landscape. Nothing marked the house as any different from the hundreds of houses in Vinaros. This little town, Vinaros, indeed combined the virtues of a seasonal vacationing place whose corrida – or bullfighting arena – drew in thousands of aficionados, followed by several quiet months of the year. It was easy to sense immediately on entering Bode’s environment that this was one businessman who protected his privacy, shielded away from noise, vulgarity or ostentation.
“Gradually, I succumbed to increased curiosity about this person who was considered by his business associates, government officials, acquaintances – indeed virtually by anyone with whom he interacted with abroad – as a kind of unofficial but highly respected Ambassador for Nigeria. Subjected to scrutiny, I discovered a most disciplined individual who nevertheless enjoyed the fullness of life in all aspects Including one that immediately scored him high in my esteem – a rich sense of humour, and – yes, no denying it! – his love and knowledge of wine. More was to be revealed. Indeed, the pleasure of knowing the Parakoyi is the unpredictable revelation of his many – sidedness.
“One constant is the absolute independence of his business operations. Many, far too many, of the businessmen we know about are government contractors. Nothing wrong with that, basically, except that, for this category, government equates business. They depend on government patronage entirely and this of course creates a subservience that affects their politics, leaves them without a social conscience, since their very livelihood is based on the AGIP principle – Any Government in Power. They swear by the government, fawn on government, pray to government, prey on government, lie to and for government in all transactions and would be completely lost without government…”
Chief Akindele was indeed a phenomenal businessman. You can call him a cat with nine lives, if you wish, and you will not be wrong. He always managed to rise from any business mishaps, and these were few and far between, bigger, brighter and better. Doing business anywhere, not to mention internationally is always littered with landmines and boobytraps. Chief Akindele’s business partners tried endlessly, and relentlessly, to get rid of him but never succeeded. Let me give another interesting example of one of such experiences, in Chief Akindele’s own words, before we close this special tribute:
“One of the ways Karl Stenstron tried to blackmail me was to buy me, at company’s expense, a holiday resort apartment in Crans-Montana, near the Geneva mountain. At that time, one of my daughters was schooling very near that mountain and we used to go on holiday there. When Karl came up with his offer, it occurred to me that if he could do it for me at company expense, it was very likely that he was doing more for other people, also at company expense. So, I refused the offer.
“The last temptation he presented to me was also attractive. The group of match manufacturers in Latin America was going to have a seminar in California. It was to be a world-wide seminar. Karl proposed to me to deliver the keynote address at the opening plenary session of the meeting. I agreed, as the Chairman of what I considered one of the top match companies. All the others were minor manufacturers that we supplied with machinery and raw materials. Then he tried to sweeten the offer. He asked his secretary to contact my secretary in London with a view to issue tickets for my trip to California at the company’s expense. It was well known that I usually flew first class and his secretary asked me what my itinerary was. I told Karl to let his secretary get in touch with mine regarding the itinerary. I immediately called my secretary and told her that she should only give him the itinerary to California because I was going to some other places. For instance, after California, I planned to go on a cruise before returning to London. And Karl’s secretary called my secretary who forwarded him the itinerary. The ticket cost was about 17,000 pounds per person. Because my wife was accompanying me, we would require about 35,000 pounds for the tickets only. Not only that, Karl booked the Presidential suite in the hotel. However, I warned my Secretary that he should not allow Karl’s secretary to pay nor accept the ticket from her. So when Karl’s secretary told my secretary that she was sending the tickets, my secretary told her not to worry and when she insisted, he told her she could just order an electronic ticket so that I could collect at the airport. Apparently, Karl was confident that I had fallen into his trap.
“My secretary later obtained my ticket from my travel agent in London, and on my way to California, I bypassed the electronic ticket and used my own ticket. When we got there, I discovered that Karl had booked the hotel and told the manager at the front desk of the hotel that I was aware that the company had booked my lodging on company account, but I would not be staying in the hotel because my wife had booked a different hotel for me. Then he pleaded that the hotel would like to have my business and I told him that the condition for me to stay in the hotel was for him to accept a new booking on my credit card. He quickly cancelled the reservation made for me on the company’s account and gave me a room on my credit card…”
The whole idea was to set a trap for him, but the Ibadan man was too clever. He saw through the plot from the outset and set his own machinery in motion to evade the clutches of his adversary. The denouement came at their board meeting. Karl reported that a director had abused his position and concluded that if this proved to be the case, he would have to be removed. Karl was left shocked and embarrassed that his ploy had been rumbled and his puerile efforts at trapping a renowned and seasoned warrior son from Ibandanland, when during the crucial meeting, Chief disclosed what had transpired and escaped all charges.
There is so much to learn from Chief Bode Akindele’s life. I wish I could go on ad infinitum, but time and space won’t permit me. Definitely, history will be kind to this prodigious, talented and most extraordinary son of Ibadan and Nigeria.
I will forever miss The Parakoyi, who on a personal note, showered me with so much affection and love. The discreet manner he went about displaying his affection, generosity and philanthropy, means that there will be many like me that benefitted from his generosty, magnanimity and largesse, but who will be unable to tell their stories like I always do. May his kind and gracious soul Rest in Peace.