Subomi Balogun: The Bicycle Boy Who Built An Empire


A sea of humanity bid Otunba Michael Olasubomi Balogun, founder of First City Monument Bank (FCMB), farewell last week in Ijebu-Ode. It was grand, the kind of occasion that befitted his sense of grandeur and his love of drama.

The high priests of the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) were there in large numbers for Balogun was an influential and much valued member. He was also the leader of Ijebu Christians and he cherished his church title, Asiwaju Onigbagbo greatly.

Balogun made money, tons of it, but his focus was humanity. When he had made money, he built and equipped the paediatric ward for the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan. He built another one for the General Hospital, Ijebu-Ode.

In later years, he built the National Paediatric Hospital in Ijebu Ode, on several acres of land with modern equipment and well-trained personnel. He donated the hospital to the UCH.

Central to Balogun’s relentless philanthropy was his Christian belief. He was born into a staunch Muslim family and both his parents were well-known Muslim leaders.

His father, Pa Ashiru Odutola Balogun, was man of modest Western education and he, like many Ijebus of that generation, had sought education for their children.

He sent the young Subomi to Igbobi College, Lagos. It was there that Subomi encountered a charismatic teacher, Festus Segun, who later rose to become the Bishop of Lagos. It was Segun who led him to his new Christian faith and he never looked back.

In his younger days, he was a member of the Guild of Stewards at the Cathedral Church of Christ, Marina, Lagos, once the Episcopal seat of the legendary Bishop Ajayi Crowther, the man who translated the Bible into Yoruba, Igbo and several other African languages.

As a young lawyer and accountant in the 1960s he had made good money and good friends. He built his house in Apapa where he was living with his young family.

One of his neighbours was a prosperous Igbo architect who was also raising his family. When the Nigerian crisis broke out and the Civil War eventually came in 1967, the young Igbo man fled. When he returned after the war in 1970, he was surprised to see that his house was intact and well-kept. A tenant was living there. Like other parts of Yorubaland, the Igboman was able to repossess his house without any hassle.

Balogun had put a tenant there and he returned the full rent paid by the tenant to the Igbo architect. That was the genesis of the life-long friendship between Otunba Balogun and Dr. Alex Ekwueme, the first elected Vice-President of Nigeria.

Balogun’s career had been truly colourful and rewarding. After his return from the United Kingdom in 1960, he was employed by the government of the defunct Western Region as a legal draftsman in the Ministry of Justice, Ibadan.

Balogun moved from Ibadan to Lagos and got employed by the Nigerian Industrial Development Bank, NIDB where he rose to become the Company Secretary.

When NIDB brokered the establishment of ICON Merchant Bank, Balogun thought he should be the Managing Director of the new outfit. He approached his friend, Olorogun Michael Ibru, an industrialist who owned a brewery.

Balogun wanted to be a beer distributor, however, his friend had a different idea.

“Anyone can sell beer,” Ibru told him. “You are a trained lawyer and accountant, why don’t you start something along the line of your expertise?”

It was a challenge that Balogun took up seriously. He started an issuing house, City Securities and plunged into stockbrokerage and other financial services.

In 1979, his friend, Alex Ekwueme, became the Vice-President. Balogun too was thinking of starting his own bank. It was a tall dream. Only few Nigerians had dared to think that way; notably Chief Adekoya Okupe, who started the Agbonmagbe Bank, which eventually morphed into Wema Bank when the government of the defunct Western Region bought controlling shares of Agbomagbe Bank.

Wema Bank, after so many transformations and plastic surgeries, has survived till today.

Now it was the Second Republic and Balogun wanted to set up a financial institution and needed licence from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). He had submitted all necessary documents to the Apex Bank.

One Sunday, he was at the Christ Church Cathedral, Marina, when Vice-President Ekwueme also came to worship.

He accosted the powerful man after the service and the latter gave him an appointment for the next day.

That was the beginning of the First City Group, including the phenomenal First City Merchant Bank, which later became First City Monument Bank (FCMB).

I got to know Otunba Balogun through Chief Bola Ige, the first elected Governor of old Oyo State (including the present Osun State).

Chief Ige had special regards for both Balogun and his life-long friend, Chief Kola Daisi, both of whom were successful lawyers and money-makers.

We became closer during the crisis that rocked the FCMB over the accusation that the bank was involved in round-tripping with foreign currencies.

The CBN stepped in and it almost led to a run on the bank. Balogun rode the storm and when the Tsunami came during the Charles Soludo era at the CBN, the FCMB was fully prepared.

Despite his stupendous wealth and vast influence, Otunba Balogun was an engaging and accessible fellow. He was at my 50th birthday thanksgiving service, which was held on a Monday morning at the Archbishop Vining Memorial Church Cathedral, Ikeja.

This brought me closer to him. I visited him in his office on Lagos Island, where I was always well received by Mrs. Busola Adekusibe, Balogun’s long time office manager.

I also visited him in his Victoria Island home (which is now a branch of the FCMB called the Founder’s Place) and his new palace in Ikoyi.

But it was in Ijebu-Ode, his country home that Balogun truly love to hold court. There he lived like a real royal with his personal chef, Kofi, always at his beck and call. There, his beloved wife, Olori Abimbola Adetutu, has turned into a real haven.

It was in this sprawling palace that Balogun use to hold his annual New Year thanksgiving service every January. This year was no exception.

Resplendent in a white agbada, with an embroidered walking stick to match, he danced before his creator during the Thanksgiving service this January. Someone recorded this happy moment and posted it on the social media. It soon went viral with different captions and narrations. I called to congratulate him.

“It was not my birthday,” he said. “I was dancing and giving thanks to almighty God for his benevolence towards me.”

He said his 90th birthday would be coming up next year and it would be good if we update the book Gaskia Media Ltd did to celebrate his 80th birthday. He said we have to work on it, but he would have to travel first. He had been having problems with his health lately. He knew the darkness of mortality was beckoning to him when he would be admitted into the marvelous and eternal light of Christ. He has led a good life.

When you enter his palace at Milverton Street, Ikoyi, you will see a giant picture on the wall. I think it was taken when Baba celebrated his 80th birthday.

In that picture, you will see Balogun, Olori, their four boys and their wives and the grandchildren. That picture summarises the life and times of Michael Olasubomi Balogun, the great patriarch.

My condolences to Mama, Olori Abimbola Balogun and the family, especially Balogun’s only surviving sister, Olaronke. In truth, he lived a good and fruitful life. He started as a bicycle-riding school-boy and ended up as an empire builder. He was larger than life.

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