Ever since Asiwaju Bola Tinubu told me he would want me to write his biography after finishing the biography of his “son” the then Lagos State governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola whose biography I had come to interview him for, I started gathering all kinds of materials on Tinubu, not knowing he would one day be the President of Nigeria. Today’s piece on Bola Tinubu’s life as a cabbie in America is from a revealing 60th birthday interview granted the editors of TheNEWS.
We got an unregistered used car commonly called Gypsy, which we ran as a taxi. We operated at the airport where we picked passengers, and not anywhere else, like the hotel because it was forbidden for unlicensed cab drivers to do so. We did that for a while to raise some money. Bolaji went to Tennessee, while I headed for Chicago. Driving Gypsy cab was aimed at getting additional money to what I had. Tunde Badejo and Olowopopo told me Chicago was very cold, so I told myself I must have a car. I was supposed to have started schooling in April. I deferred it till September in order to have more money. Immediately I got to Chicago, I went straight to Richard Daley College. It was very interesting. I was able to pay for my apartment and tuition fees at Chicago State University. I supplemented that by doing different menial jobs like door guard and security man.
As a cab driver, one experience I will never forget was when I over-charged a naval officer who was returning to the country. It was not intentional. Apparently, I didn’t know the direction. There was no GPRS in those days to locate directions. So, he gave me the direction to his house in a Virginia suburb. I gave him the price and the man responded with a slap to my face. He said I should know the correct price to charge to the location he mentioned. He slapped me and gave me the money. Another experience was when I took a guy whom I didn’t know was drunk. When I drove to his house, he pointed a gun at me instead of paying the fare. He took my leather jacket and said: ‘Get into your car and get lost.’ He did not pay. Another interesting one was when I was taking the third Accounting class and equally working as a security guard at a construction site. They were very serious with their kind of security. You just had to do that job. There were about six points with six clocks at the site, which the security man must wind every hour and with a dog in hand. So, there was never a chance of trying to catch a nap. As I was doing my Accounting assignment, I fell asleep. I was dead asleep! The inspector came to the site and found me sleeping, with my head on my books. He simply pulled the register and wrote: ‘I have been here. You were sound asleep. So, see me tomorrow.’ When I woke up, I found that Skiddo (the dog’s name) was gone, and then the register. I just went to a corner, cleaned my face and concentrated on my assignment because I knew the job was already gone. You can’t lose two things. I ensured that I read well for my test and passed the next day. I opted to post their uniform and the cap to them, but suddenly ran into the man and he handed me my cheque and said the job was gone. I told him I knew and we said goodbye to each other! I had to start looking for another job.
I was lucky when I got to Chicago State University. I entered the university with honours from the Richard Daley College, because I got credit in majority of the accounting courses. After the first term, I was one of the candidates on the Dean’s list and my professor, Joe Jesse, commended me for my hard work, class participation and brilliance. He said I would be lucky if I could keep my activities and brilliant results up till the end of the term. He didn’t say more or in what form the luck would manifest.
At the end of the term, and still on the Dean’s list, Professor Jesse came around to inform me that he would employ me to manage the Accounting Laboratory for the institution. He gave the letter of employment to the Dean of the faculty. The following week, I was called upon to take up employment as a tutor because I was very good in Mathematics and Accounting. I met Tunde Badejo in the school; he was a year ahead of me. But I told him (we took a bet) that we would graduate the same year and he didn’t believe. Later, when I was given scholarship to become a tutor, I took the letter to Tunde Badejo and said: ‘See, the school is paying my tuition.’ He was amazed. That was how I became a tutor, with my tuition being paid. Tunde Badejo majored in Mathematics, and having been challenged, his performance got better the following semester and he also became a Maths tutor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. I was challenged and severely under pressure to keep up the grade as each semester rolled by, because if my grades should drop I would lose the scholarship. It was quite challenging and in the end, I graduated top of my class and I was recruited as an Accounting major. There were big accounting firms then. Touche was number nine. I was recruited. And I still got other job offers. Then there were big eight accounting firms in the United States, including Arthur Andersen, Arthur Young, Ernst and Whinney, Peat Marwick and Mitchell, Deloitte and others. Out of the big eight, five of them offered me jobs and that was school recruitment—right on the campus.
I was on the Dean’s list; I was in line for the award for the overall best Accounting student as well as that of the university scholar award. With that, the big firms would continue to woo you. Despite the five job offers, I was equally offered employment by IBM and others. Professor Jesse called me and advised that I should not be arrogant. He asked that I remove my name from the career placement centre because, according to him, the more they saw my grades, the more I would be sought after. He said that might hinder other accounting graduates from being recruited and that the faculty wanted as many accounting graduates as possible to be recruited by the big companies. So I went and removed it. Usually, there was a benchmark for recruitments by the big professional accounting firms and they didn’t go beneath that. I got an offer of $20,000 with travelling allowances and all that. It was big money at that time.
But when Arthur Young saw the money I was offered, they offered an additional $3,000. My adviser told me to consider an offer that would make me function effectively in my country, particularly given that the country is blessed with crude oil.
Unlike what happens in our country, universities in America prepare the students for the future: how to dress, how to face job interviews. The third day after that, Deloitte, Haskins and Sells, now Deloitte and Touche Consulting Group, gave me another offer. They said they were not just going to hire me, but develop me. They asked me to take the salary I was being offered or forget about the job. I went back to Professor Jesse and he said I should consider a firm with clients in manufacturing and oil sectors rather than Arthur Andersen, which only dealt with financial institutions and banks. I took to his advice, I resumed work at Deloitte training school in June 1979. By April 1979 when I was graduating, I had gotten my future charted. And that was the greatest thing I achieved in America.