21 November 2009

Nigeria: "It Was a Painful Decision to Come Back Home"


Lagos — Chief Ademola Seriki, the Otun Aare of Lagos and the ebullient Minister of State for Interior is the rallying point of many heart warming ideas. And he surrounds himself with some of the brightest minds of this generation who also see him as a prototype of excellence.

Versed in the art of grassroots politicking, and blessed with an uncanny gift to see kilometers ahead of his peers and opponents, the fair-skinned man of means never shies away from saying it as it is. Ademola is never tired of supporting good governance. With a disposition that borders on reticence, one can not but wonder what this genial gentleman is doing in politics; a vocation perceived by many as being replete with intrigues, conspiracy, back stabbing and so on. Blessed with a rich occidental drawl - a spin off of his background, education, exposure and progressiveness - Chief Seriki has a temperament that is both refracted and subdued, depending on what issue he is discussing. Beneath his luxuriant accent however, lies a smoldering fire potent enough to consume the prevailing gerontocracy, and lethal enough to retire itinerant political jobbers traversing the political landscape.

Youthful, but focused on his political future, Demola believes that the future of Nigeria is in its youth. On November 30th is day set aside by this affable gentleman and self-effacing achiever to appreciate the impact he has made in the lives of many Nigerians. As some of the privileged many that have benefitted in no small measure from the benevolence of his heart and sipped from the fountain of his experience would express gratitude and rain eulogy on their unflinching benefactor. In this interview with LANRE ALFRED, he spoke about life at 50 and other sundry issues.

In Asokoro, the more opulent part of Abuja, Nigeria's Federal Capital Territory, where the flora is green and well manicured; where the cars in the driveways are posh and eye-popping; where there are no loiters and loafers, a beautiful, cream duplex stands out amidst a row of equally well-appointed structures. With an exterior that spews elegance without any obscenity, the duplex welcomed a different kind of guest on Wednesday November 4. Inside, expensive incandescent bulbs brightly illuminated the architectural delight. A cool breeze wafted in from the gate we came through. But its natural coolness was nowhere near what buffeted me as I made my way into the building proper. Everywhere was spick-and-span, pristine and burnished, emphasizing without much effort the sheer tastefulness of the owner. Welcome to the home of Ademola Seriki, Minister of State for Interior.

The time was around 8pm. While still prepping myself in readiness for the interview that brought me to Abuja, my host, who had changed into a fitting polo top and jeans that belie his 50 years, invited me over for dinner. Momentarily stunned at his affability and complete absence of the affectations associated with power brokers, I recovered quickly and fell into step beside him as he led me to a table that had been invaded by a sumptuous array of delicacies. We ate in silence but not without occasionally glancing at this man who seemed to be at peace with himself and the people around him. In a few days, the effortlessly good-looking honourable minister would turn 50, I thought to myself, yet he looks fitter than many thirtyish men. "I am at peace with myself. I don't have any health issue to worry about. At 50, I feel fulfilled and accomplished. I am a grandfather courtesy of my daughter that just put to bed in America. My other children are doing fantastically well. Politically, I am on the rise. What more can a man ask for,"? He said as he dug into his meal.

Born in Lagos Island on November 30, 1959, Seriki recalls having an eventful childhood under the watchful eyes of his grandmother who nurtured him to adulthood and actually prepared him for leadership roles. With a faraway look in his eyes, and with his meal temporarily dispensed with, Seriki delved into the story of his childhood; "My mother was about 17 when she gave birth to me and because of her love for education, she had to go back to school. I was left in the care of my grandmother, Alhaja Safurat Keshinro. It was that woman who taught me a lot of the things I know today. I remember that she used to take me to the High Court in Igbosere where she would want me to see lawyers in action because she thought I would make a good lawyer. We were very close; we went everywhere together. I was hardly out of her sight except for when I was in school. Until her death, she was my role model. She was a polyglot, she spoke seven languages. Growing up in Lagos Island was quite interesting and wonderful in those days, I really enjoyed my childhood."

A precocious kid, the young Seriki blazed through primary and secondary schools in flying colours before heading for the Herbert Lehman College of the City University of New York where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in Accounting and Management in 1984. While studying for his masters' degree in Accounting as major, with a minor in Finance and Management, the sociable young man was licensed to teach accounting and business mathematics by the New York City Board of Education. He combined his role of a teacher with that of counselor at the prestigious JFK Memorial High School and Walton High School, both in New York. He recalls that prior to the take-off of his teaching career, he worked at the Dollar Dry Dock Bank, New York City as a customer representative cum assistant manager where "I trained various groups on diverse operations process procedures and controls. I also developed and updated procedures manuals on disbursement controls and procedures while equally helping to reconcile bank ledgers for end of day closing." In 1986, after his eventful teaching career, Seriki was headhunted by Koskolowsky and Co. which he eventually joined as its assistant manager, audit. Here, he was saddled with the responsibility of auditing all financial statements of clients; identifying errors and miscalculations of interest schedules and amortization, analysis of short and long-term projects including securities like stocks and bonds.

For every gypsy, no matter the predilection to wander far away, there is always that point when the lure to return home becomes overpowering and unyielding. Seriki got to that point too and he decided to return home after less than a year at Koskolowsky and Co. Now seated in his expansive, elegantly-appointed sitting room, Seriki recalled how painful the decision was to return home. "In fact, it was the singular, most difficult decision I ever took in my life. Many of my friends could not believe that I could leave the certainty of America for the uncertainty of Nigeria. So hard was the decision that my friends who organized a send-forth party in my honour told me that if I found Nigeria unbearable, I was always welcome back to America but I was determined never to go back without making a success of my return to Nigeria. It was a tough decision but I was happy I took it at that time," he said.

The clock chimed 8.30pm but the man of style did not seem to be in much of a hurry. And then he trailed off in reminiscence. On his return to Nigeria, the starry-eyed young man did not meet the Nigeria of his dreams but he was adamant on his resolve not to return to America. Thus, he joined Equity and Trust Finance Company with offices in Marina, Lagos as business manager. He says, "I was in charge of marketing of services and products to present and prospective customers, preparation of call-programmes and development of marketing strategies, preparing customer analysis daily while helping to also implement company's investment goals for long and short term projects among other functions." He was here for five years but his flair for politics had begun to manifest so much that he was visible in political gatherings of the time. It therefore did not come as a surprise when he was appointed chairman of the Lagos State Sports Council in 1992. He was in his early thirties. However, the kind of leadership he brought to bear on the council is still a reference point for successive chairmen. When he signified interest to contest for a senatorial seat, the leadership of the defunct National Republican Convention, NRC, heartily welcomed him and he was made the party's flag bearer for Lagos Central Senatorial district. Though he lost, the experience would prepare him for his political future.

Two years after, Perpetual Associates international (USA) Inc, an international consulting firm to multinational oil and aviation companies based in Rosedale, New York, headhunted the dashing young man to Nigeria and despite putting them off for months, he was prevailed upon to return to America as the company's vice president, investment and operations. The appointment was a different ball game entirely, he confessed, because he had to serve as the company's interface with its European and African clients, two continents he covered extensively on business strategies and initiatives. Unbeknownst to him, the portfolio would become so tasking that he would end up spending another five years shuttling between Nigeria and America. Politically, Seriki did not miss much because those years were the most volatile in the history of the country. In 1998, he contested and won the Lagos Island seat in the Federal House of Representatives under the platform of the defunct UNCP.

However, the sudden death of late General Sani Abacha who midwife the whole electoral process truncated Seriki's dream of being a federal legislator. As a man of diverse parts, he said that he decided to focus his attention on PIFCO Nigeria limited where he was executive director, business development and marketing. Though not completely far away from political circles, Seriki was at PIFCO between 1999 and 2007.

Significantly, there are many days in the life of a man that remain epochal and symbolic throughout their lifetime, October 24, 1990 was one for Seriki. That was the day his 48-year-old mother, Alhaja Ramota Aduke Seriki died and it burrowed a hole that has refused to heal in his heart. On October 24, 2007, he was appointed Minister of State, Agriculture and Water Resources. Precisely a year later, he was redeployed to the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development as supervising minister before being moved to the Ministry of Defence where he shone luminously. On his late mother's birthday, May 23rd, she was made the Otun Aare of Lagos by the well-venerated Oba Rilwan Akiolu. What a coincidence! What are the attributes that have sustained him as a politician? Looking at his expensive timepiece perhaps because the chitchat had taken longer than he envisaged, he looked up with a narrow look in his eyes and said, "For me it is patience and resilience. More importantly, never look down on anybody. This is one virtue that has sustained me over the years and it is worth emulating because the person you are looking down on today might end up being the one that would help you tomorrow." At 50 and with so much to thank God for, Seriki said the down side of his golden jubilee is that he can no longer exert himself at some activities the way he used to but he confessed that he has become a better family man and a better human being. On his plans for the future, he said, "Only God would decide."

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