One time Minister of Economic Development and Minister of Cooperatives and Supplies in 1975 and 1976 respectively, former Executive vice-chairman, managing director, and CEO of UBA, former chairman First Bank of Nigeria and Chairman of Jaiz Bank International Plc and having served in various capacities in the public and the private sectors in Nigeria, Alhaji Umaru Abdul Mutallab is one Nigerian that has made an impact in Nigeria’s social and economic growth. In this interview, the octogenarian opens up on his lowest moment in life, his days in Barewa College, his love for the game of fives, his views on the current state of civil service and many more.
You are a source of inspiration to millions of Nigerians; how was growing up in the old northern region of the country when majority of the citizens were reluctant to embrace the western education?
Growing up in the northern region was quite interesting and phenomenal. It was really a time when everything was available, including education.
I was born in Katsina but I later left because my family was transferred to Funtua. When I got to Funtua, I started elementary school. I attended school during the old educational system where you started from elementary school and spent four years there. From there you would go to a middle school, where you would spend three years. During the following year I was one of the people who took the exam to enter Government College, Zaria, now called Barewa College.
We were the last set to do the normal college, which was from form one to six. During that period, I met a lot of people from different parts of the country. The college was a representative of the current 19 Northern states. There were representatives from all the major communities in the North. They gave us the opportunity to interact and understand the cultures and different religions of so many people. After my set, the subsequent students spent five years in school, which was from form one to five.
When I finished secondary school, they gave us school certificates. It was called Cambridge Certificate. I was successful in the exams.
I started as a clerk in one of the firms of chartered accountants in Kaduna. It was called PKF. It was an international firm. We spent one year, and from there we were asked to proceed to Achimota College of Business Administration. It was like a business school. It wasn’t a secondary school because most of the subjects taught there were business in nature. We spent only one year there when the then government of Northern Nigeria asked that those of us from the North should come back and proceed to the United Kingdom (UK) to further our education. The reason was that Ghana had socialist tendencies. Kwame Nkrumah of blessed memory was a very talented and dynamic leader for Ghana and for Africa. We had the opportunity to be there for one full year, before coming home.
My colleagues and I proceeded to the South-West College of London. We spent three years there for our Accountancy training and passed. I was one of the few who wanted to garner some experiences before coming back to Nigeria. I was engaged in a firm, Fuller Jenks Beecroft & Company, in the city of London. I worked there for 18 months. I got some experiences in accounting, taxation and different aspects of management.
It was from there that I got recruited by the then Defence Industries Corporation of Nigeria (DICON), which was an arm of the Ministry of Defence. They offered us letters of appointments and we started working. I headed the finance department back then.
The DICON of those days was meant to produce all the weaponry for the military. You may recall that the civil war had started by then. So, there was embargo on supply of military weapons to Nigeria. It was through that that we were able to obtain materials to produce weaponry, such as machine guns, ammunition and a lot of other things. Being an employee of the DICON gave me a lot of insight on the military government. Because our chairman was then Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence, we had to defend the budget a lot of times. He was the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Defence. I stayed there for about three years before I was recruited by the Northern Nigerian Development Corporation (NNDC). It was an investment company meant to attract investors into the country.
Like other children in the North, did you go through the typical Islamiyya school?
Yes, I did. I went to an Islamiyya school after my elementary school. It was not hard because in elementary school we were taught a little Arabic. In the afternoons we would go for the Zaura (Hall) while in the evenings we would go for the studies in an open space round a bonfire.
Some people expected you to become a Sheikh; was it your late father’s background as a public servant that informed your decision to embrace western education?
Of course, my father felt I should attend the western school. So he was a great influence. As I said earlier, I picked up elements of Arabic in my elementary school and continued in that line. I did the recitations, starting from Surah Fatihah to the different levels of the chapters of the Quran. In those days, there were Islamic and Arabic tutorials.
At that time, a lot of people were interested in becoming teachers and joining the military.What influenced your decision to become an accountant?
Because my father was a public servant, my choice was to be an engineer. When I was in Government College, Zaria, my intention was to be an engineer, but I had a mentor and friend who was two years ahead of me. That was the late Hamza Zayyad. He convinced me to go for accountancy because of how wide it was. He was already working in Lagos in the PKF firm. I went to stay with him for a week or two. That was my first week in Lagos. That gave me the clarity that accountancy was a profession one should pursue. So, I abandoned engineering and pursued accountancy instead. And I have no regret that I went into that profession because there is so much to learn. We have business management, taxation, company loan and all the aspects of management you can think of. It is all encompassing. I am glad I studied that profession because I later found it to be useful when I joined banks. I was able to interact with a lot of organisations because you were practically talking the same language and terms.
When they talk about taxation, company loans and all sorts of things, I am quite familiar with them. Accountancy can be in public service, private sector and even the military because of the training you get from studying such a course. It is such a fascinating course because even when you are not an economist, you have studied economics in accountancy. That is how I came into the profession and I have never regretted that decision.
You are 80 years old; how do you feel?
I thank the Almighty Allah for sparing my life and letting me see this golden age of 80. I hope and pray that God would help me explore other aspects of life. I feel very great. I have done my bit in this world, so to speak.
At 80 you are still very active. Although you have retired from public service, you still engage in so many activities. At your age, how do you manage such activities?
It is good to be active because inactivity has its own problems. It is good to be active so that the mind and body would be working all the time. However, I am not as active as I used to be. When I was younger I would leave for work by 7:30am, but now I don’t do that.
Do you do any kind of exercise? What is your diet like?
During my days as a young boy I used to engage in sports. I was a very keen footballer. I was the captain of my team. I also played fives, but that is no longer in vogue. Even you do not know what fives is. It is a very energetic game that involved two players. I also did high jump. Right now, I try my best to walk round my compound, which is big. I do that three to five times after my morning prayers. I usually stop walking round when the sun starts to come out. I go back for my walha (prayer), take my breakfast and go back to bed.
Did you remove anything from your diet?
I have been fasting for quiet sometime now. I usually fast on Mondays and Thursdays. I also fast on the 13, 14 and 15th of every lunar month. So there are days I don’t eat. Also, I avoid red meat as much as possible, even though I get tempted sometimes. But I eat normal food.
During your career in the public service, what did you do differently that attracted the attention which lifted you from the NNDC to become a minister?
The NNDC was a very interesting organisation, where we had lots of projects and discussions. It was the head of all states in the North. The then head of state, General Murtala Mohammed, attended the same college as me, so he knew me.
One day, I was called and informed about the plan to make me a minister. I asked for time to talk to my family, which I got. I also informed my employers and they were happy since it was a good thing. At the time of my appointment I was planning to go to Harvard. All my papers were ready, tuition paid, but I couldn’t go. My name is still at Harvard because I had registered and fulfilled all righteousness. The late Abba Kyari, who later became the administrator of the now defunct North-Central State, went to Harvard in my place. All these played a role in my appointment as a minister.
How did you receive the news of the assassination of General Murtala Mohammed?
It was very saddening. I was in Ikoyi, Lagos to see a house I was supposed to move into. It was early in the morning and everyone could hear the gunshots. No one knew what happened at the time. It was later that we heard he was gunned down on his way to work. They broke the windscreen and shot him with his ADC. I was very devastated. The news was very shocking, and I was dejected when I heard. He didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. They took his body to Kano while investigations were going on.
We stayed for three days without a government before Olusegun Obasanjo was appointed chief of staff. I was initially in charge of economic development, but when power changed hands, I was moved to cooperatives and supply.
Why was the change necessary?
They made a few changes. They also wanted to promote cooperatives, and a lot was done to promote it. We had cooperative banks, commodity boards and so many other institutions. I was there till 1978 when I was approached by the then chairman of the United Bank for Africa (UBA), the late Victor Dalubi. He was part of the directors of the United Africa Company (UAC). He said the position of executive chairman was open and they wanted me to fill it. That was how I came into the banking sector.
Was this after or before the handover to the late former president, Shehu Shagari?
It was before the handover to Shagari.
So you left as a minister and became a vice chairman?
I left a year before the handover. I left in 1978 and the handover was in 1979. I had the opportunity of running a bank that was not well known at the time. But we tried our best to promote and establish it in different states of the federation.
Are you still in touch with the former ministers you served with?
I must say that most of them are dead. Lieutenant Alani Akinrinade is the only one alive that I can remember. Some of them, both civilians and military personnel, are no longer alive.
You served in two military regimes. Can you share your experiences?
They said it was a continuation of the same administration, but of course, they were different. General Murtala Mohammed was a very meticulous person. Even though I was a minister of economic development, he still sent me on errands. I travelled to many African countries. At that time, Nigeria was becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). It started as Nairobian and Casablanca power before becoming the OAU. Nigeria was trying to make sure that the issue of disunity was resolved. So, a lot of us were sent to resolve the matter at Addis Ababa. The late Garba was very active and was of great help to the cause. We did the best we could at that time. I must say that when I was leaving, Obasanjo gave me a send-off dinner party. It was a good thing because it was an avenue for us to do a lot of networking and connecting with people we didn’t know.
The process of establishing Jaiz Bank was very rough. Looking at your background in the banking sector, why did you push hard to establish this bank?
After working in the commercial banking sector for a while, I felt the need to do something else for the sector. And this is what I came up with. I was part of the delegation sent to Saudi Arabia, where we were invited to an evening event by the Islamic Development Bank. I saw what they did there and that is what I am trying to do with Jaiz Bank.
Immediately I left the UBA, I felt the need to promote this type of banking, where due process is followed and everything is ethical. They don’t do gambling or anything unethical. I was in Scotland about three months ago and I attended an international conference about ethical practices. It wasn’t limited to Muslims only; it was for everybody. This particular conference was promoted by World Bank of Scotland and other organisations. And it is my own concept of Islamic banking, which eliminates anything unethical. We are trying to make sure that due process is followed in banking and everything is in order.
Raising the share capital for Jaiz Bank took some time; what happened? You could have bankrolled it.
We were the first institution in Nigeria that went to the Securities and Exchange Commission without any background business. And we got the permission to go to the public to seek for funds. We got the funds and even more than what we wanted because at that time the share capital we needed was N2 billion. We got more than that, so we had to return some money. We took this money to the Senate. It was in the process of getting the licence that Soludo increased the share capital to N25bn. We had to go back and source for fund all over again.
Do you agree with the belief in some quarters that the share capital was deliberately increased to stop you?
Of course, we knew it. If they wanted to do something like that they should have considered it later. They were just waiting for the licensing to be ready when they called the executive for a meeting and increased the share capital to N25bn. Of course, the naira was very strong then. We don’t want to say it was an attempt to stop Jaiz Bank, but it set us back. We had to go back to the drawing board, weighed our options, consulted and went round to source for fund. Of course, we could never have achieved the capitalisation of N25bn if not through the instrumentality of the former governor of the Central Bank, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, who introduced what we called specialised banks. So, we went for the original licence before we finally applied for national licence. It was SanusI that brought this innovative idea that helped Jaiz Bank become operational. He brought the idea of having different types of banks, such as commercial banks, central, merchant and other types. And that the banks, whether Islamised or not, can be used by all Nigerians, irrespective of their religions. All they need to do is profess to be ethical. We don’t do the sharia law and all these paper things and others.
Apart from Jaiz Foundation, do you have something private you are working on right now?
There is a system where the Central Bank will not let you own a bank. You must have some people with you. I have to go with other people, even if I am the owner. I have a foundation, although it has not been announced. We do a lot of work to help children and widows. There is a plan to donate some of my properties and wealth as Waqf (an endorsement by a Muslim) to these causes. You can only try to assist by scratching the surface, and that’s what we are doing. The government needs to have a better and bigger plan for these people in need.
A lot of people believe that the elite from the North need to address the almajiri system, where kids are wandering the streets. This has become a big eyesore for Muslims and Nigerians as a whole. What is your take on this?
I agree with you that we should do more. But right now, I am chairing a non-governmental organisation trying to address these issues. I met with them about three days ago to deliberate on how we can revive the almajiri system, where children would learn and still get the adequate care they are entitled to. So we are trying to address this issue the best way we can.
How have you been able to avoid various plans to give you chieftaincy titles?
I have been approached by a lot of people. I was also approached by the former Emir of Katsina, the late Alhaji Kabiru Usman, but I kept saying, ‘not now.’ He would take me to the villages and ask me to choose, but I would postpone it.
How did your relationship with late Arisekola Alao, your friend, blossomed over the years?
We have known each other since our student days, with one Oba Otundeko. We studied together in the UK. He studied accountancy as well. When we all came back, we started working in the Cooperative Bank of Nigeria. And I was the minister in charge of cooperatives. So, we lived together again during those days. He was very close to Aresola, and because of this, I also got to know Are.
During the privatisation period, the three of us were working very closely to identify how to invest. And we identified that even though I worked for the UBA, First Bank was the big elephant we needed to curtail. So we started to invest in First Bank. Because of our investments we got their attention and I was appointed the director. I later became the chairman of the bank. Later on, Oba Otundeko came on to become the director and Arisekola was a representative of the Board. That is how the relationship has been, mainly business relationships. My eldest son is married to one of Arisekola’s daughters.
Somehow, three of you have avoided politics. Have you not been approached to join?
We support and encourage politicians. None of us have gone into politics fully, but we have assisted, advised and supported politicians.
Is there a particular reason you don’t want to go into politics?
In those days, I saw politics as a very dirty game. I don’t know if it is still the same. And I don’t know how to pretend. You would hear people tell you they were going to the east when they were actually going to the west. There was a lot of double-speak which I didn’t want to be part of.
Can you share some of the good and the not-so-good in your Barewa days?
It is a very old school. It will be 100 years in 2021. I am also privileged to be the chairman of the planning committee. I was the president of the association for two terms. The longest service yet. I can’t even think of anything bad. The only thing was that pranks were played on new students. As a new student, when it was April 1 they would tell you that something really bad had happened, such as, ‘the principal is dead’ or something very tragic. But older students didn’t fall for it, of course. Aside that, there were good memories of Barewa College.
For me, the college has been an inspiration because it teaches you a lot. Most of the teachers were expatriates. We had very few Nigerian teachers, but the few we had were very sound; and they helped us in numerous ways. I really enjoyed my days there because I met a lot of people from all parts of the country. All tribes and the two religions were there. It is a college that should be cherished. That is why I am at anything that concerns Barewa. It is a college that gave me a lot of opportunities. I may not have been appointed minister by Murtala Mohammed if I didn’t attend that college. Although I knew Yar’adua because we are from the village, who knows what would have happened? The college has produced five heads of state – Tafawa Balewa, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, Shehu Shagari, Musa Yar’adua and Gen. Murtala Mohammed. There are so many educated people from there, who are from different backgrounds. And God gave us the privilege to be in sensitive positions in the society.
In northern Nigeria, is it possible to do away with issues that create barriers of ethnicity and religion? If possible, how?
I look at this ethnicity issue and see how sensitive it is. If you are someone who wants to get education, you should be able to put these things aside and achieve your goal. It is left for you to keep your ambition to yourself or pursue it. You see, people are playing the card and saying, ‘It is because he is a Muslim that he is in that position.’ It shouldn’t be so because we serve the same God and He knows who is serving Him best. I wish that our government at all levels would support education at all levels. This is the only way we can get ourselves out of this blame game.
How do you feel when people describe you as one of the richest and influential people in Nigeria?
I don’t know where people got that from. I do not see myself as that. I am content with what I have. Contentment is one of the most important things in life. It is more important than wealth itself. You must be contented with whatever you have. And I don’t see the influence I have. I have no political influence. It is just that when you respect people and give them their dues, you get respect in return.
You said you had retired, but you are still very busy, how do you manage your schedule to create time for your family?
I wish I could do more for the family. I try my best to create time for them.
As the chairman of the Business Working Group of the Vision 2020 Committee in Nigeria, do you think that project has failed, bearing in mind that the year, 2020 is just few weeks away?
It didn’t fail. Unfortunately for us in Nigeria, we have an implementation problem. There are very beautiful proposals in all aspects you can think of in this country, but they are somewhere gathering dust. Back then, the UBA was the counter trade bank.
I said the best thing Nigeria could do would be to set up a body or organisation that can go through all the proposals that have accumulated over the years and report on the aspects that have not been touched. We can just take a small percentage of those proposals to see what we can do because we just go round in circles, many of which people don’t know about because they have gathered so much dust. I wish something like that could be organised so that we can at least take a percentage of those beautiful proposals we have not paid attention to over the years and see how we can implement them. We need to work on implementation.
You worked in the civil service, how would you compare the sector back then with what we have now?
Civil servants were dedicated. We had permanent secretaries who would serve there permanently, but it is not so now. Now, it is just a name because that office is not permanent anymore. It has been completely destroyed. Unfortunately, because they know it is no longer permanent, they now try to cater for themselves by looting funds. It is so because before they know it they are out of that office. So they try to amass wealth to enjoy the good life they used to enjoy when they were ‘permanent secretaries.’ The civil service, in my view, is no longer what it used to be.
Is there any time you can describe as your most trying moment?
I would say the Mallam Farouk incident was the most trying time of my life. I continue to pray for him. We visit him and he calls a couple of times. We cannot call him but he can call us. We know he is going through a very difficult time, so we pray for mercy on his behalf. We may one day see him after our lives because he was sentenced to three life term plus some years without parole… (long silence)
He might not be out again to see us. So maybe we will see in the afterlife. He prays for us and we pray for him. This is how we are dealing with the situation. Allah knows best. When I heard about the incident, I never believed it was him. I thought someone stole his passport and tried to do that. But I discovered two days later that he was the one.
Our groundnut pyramids and cotton industries in the North are gone. Do you think the NNDC lived up to expectation?
They tried their best. There were shareholders who promised to capitalise it, but without capital there was really nothing we could do about it. They tried their best, but the shareholders didn’t provide the capital.
What advice do you have for Nigerian leaders?
I think they should improve the state of affairs in the country. They have tried their best, but they have to do more on security, power and education. We have to put our priorities right. A country that is not educated is lost forever. Education is meant for everybody. So we have to invest heavily in education. We cannot spend a meager amount on education and expect a miracle.
We also have to do something about power. We call ourselves the biggest economy in Africa, but our power generation is about 6,000 megawatts, which is not up to the generation capacity in Mecca. Power is everything because without it we cannot do anything. This helps us to build education, agriculture and the rest. That is my advice to Nigerian leaders. They need to work on that.
How about followership, especially in northern Nigeria, where you see poverty wherever you go?
It is due to lack of education. You have to ensure that the right thing is done. A big country like Nigeria that used to defend a lot of African countries is now incapable of doing the right thing.