INTERVIEW: How I sold Firewood to survive – Former MD Crsusader Insurance Plc

Mr. Abidoye Oyelami, former Managing Director of Crusader Insurance Plc, shares his life experiences in this interview with Eric Dumo

As a child, what type of life did you have?

I was born into a modest and humble family. I am from Inisa in Osun State but I was born in Ghana. While I was young, I was brought to Nigeria by my mother while my father was always in Ghana. It was over there that I started primary school even though I later completed it in my hometown of Inisa. At that period, it was those who were fortunate to have come from a relatively comfortable family that could proceed to secondary school.  As a matter of fact, after I finished primary school, I had to stay at home for one year because there was no money to sponsor my secondary education. My parents were in Ghana then and it was when Kwame Nkrumah was in power. It wasn’t easy to move money from Ghana to Nigeria at the time even though my parents didn’t have much. Nkrumah had a policy then which I think Obafemi Awolowo later adopted. He said to foreigners, ‘don’t move money; bring your children to Ghana to study for free once you are a taxpayer.’ He made it possible for aliens to be entitled to certain privileges indigenes enjoyed as long as they paid taxes. Education was free up to the university level. Only those in the boarding house in secondary school paid a little amount, otherwise everyone else went to school free of charge.

But because there was no money after I finished primary school, I had to go to modern school which was lower than secondary school. Later I travelled to Ghana to meet my parents and my father insisted that I must remain because he could not afford sending money to me in Nigeria. That was how I ended up attending secondary school in Ghana.

For the one year you stayed at home after primary school, who did you live with?

I stayed with my maternal grandmother at the time because there was no one else I could live with. The suffering at that time was indescribable. I had to engage in all sorts of tedious activities like fetching and selling firewood just to survive. After gaining admission into a secondary school in Ghana, my father was relieved because he didn’t have to worry so much even though he still had to pay for my boarding fees. Life was very tough at the time.

In Ghana, they had a policy that the best three students in a class in the first term would receive scholarships. So, from Class Two till I finished secondary school, I was on scholarship. This made life easier for my father.

I wish my mother were alive today to enjoy a bit of the efforts she put in to ensure that I had good education. There was a particular incident when I had to go back to school and my father said there was no money. My mother was into so many petty businesses including selling of kolanuts. There was a particular year when people told her to delay for two weeks before selling off her kolanuts in anticipation of higher price. It was around the time that I was to go back to school but there was no money, eventually my mother had to sell the kolanuts to ensure I went back for my studies. It wasn’t even up to two weeks after that period that the prices of the item soared considerably. People mocked her for not listening but she didn’t care because to her, my education was more important than any profit she could have made. That very moment, I made a vow to her that she would reap what she had sowed. I thank God that within the limits of my resources, I made sure she ‘enjoyed me’ before God took her away in 2002.

When I was in final year in secondary school, the president of Ghana at the time, Brigadier Akwasi Afrifa, ordered all aliens to leave the country. I had already registered for the West Africa Examination Council at the time. I went to school to pack my things in preparation for the journey to Nigeria. After staying in Nigeria for a while, I followed a brother-in-law who was a transporter back to Ghana and God so good, I sat for the exam that same year. While in Nigeria, I wrote to the school principal and explained the whole issue to him. He replied and said if I could find my way to Ghana, I should come. That was how I managed to sit for that exam and the result was later posted to me here in Nigeria.

After the Ghanaian leader gave the directive that all aliens should leave their country, how were Nigerians over there treated?

Nigerians dominated almost every sector in Ghana at the time. There is a market called Mokola, it is the biggest market in Ghana, it was ruled by Nigerians. It was after Afrifa made the pronouncement that Ghanaians started seeing Nigerians as threat. As a result, many of our people left that country while only a few remained.

When it was time for me to go to the university, there was nobody to sponsor me. The University of Lagos was running an NCE programme at the time, it wasn’t free unlike in other places. I was there for three years studying Mathematics and Physics. In my very first semester at the school, I almost dropped out as a result of lack of money but luckily, the Rivers State Government came to our rescue by sponsoring those of us who had no financial support under the arrangement that we would come to teach over there when we finished. I wrote about four letters to them after we finished because I really wanted to teach but they didn’t respond. That was how I taught for one year in Lagos before going back to Unilag for a degree in Actuarial Science. Interestingly, the former Chairman of PUNCH, Chief Ajibola Ogunshola, taught me for three years while at the institution.

Was it always your dream to pass through the lane you took, like becoming a teacher, studying a course which was relatively unknown in your days when you simply could have opted to become a doctor, lawyer or even an engineer like many young people?

It was never my ambition to pass through these routes you have mentioned; it was circumstance that changed the journey of my life even though I have no regrets today. My dream while growing up was to become an engineer and I even had offers to study engineering at different universities. Actuarial Science was new at the time; it was a friend that told me of its introduction at the Faculty of Business Administration in Unilag. He told me one of the major criteria for admission was Mathematics because he knew I had decided not to go for any course that would not give me the chance to always experiment with the subject. I applied for the course and I was admitted. We were the first set at the undergraduate level because before we came, the course was only offered on post-graduate level. The department was Actuarial Science and Insurance. I graduated in 1978 and did my National Youth Service in Imo State.

While I was undergoing my NYSC programme, the Head of Department of Actuarial Science at Unilag sent a message to me that after service, I should not go and look for a job because there were offers for me. He said if I chose not to go and work with one of our lecturers who had gone into the insurance industry and who wanted me, I should let him know so that they could send me for post-graduate studies abroad in preparation for taking up a lecturing role at the department. I informed one of my cousins who advised me against it because of the poverty in the family. It was that statement that prevented me from becoming a lecturer because I needed a good paying job to support the family. If not for the fear of poverty as a result of the level of deprivation I experienced as a growing child, I would have remained in academics. The need to urgently support the family financially made me to go into the professional industry rather than remaining in the university system. I have no regrets today anyway.

Considering your type of family background, how easy was it for you to convince your parents that you were going to the university to study actuarial science when they could have expected you to go for other more established courses?

My parents were illiterates; they knew nothing about all of these things, so I was at liberty to decide my own destiny. On returning from Ghana, they went back to the village, there was no other place for us. At the time, there was nowhere to go to spend holidays. That experience shaped my character. Sometimes one needs to go through hard times to learn certain lessons in life, but then not to a breaking point.

So, I joined my lecturer at Crusader Insurance as a superintendent. For the fact that we were the first set of actuarial science and insurance graduates from the university, we were not really accepted in the industry because many of the people there didn’t attend any university. All they had were professional qualifications which they regarded so much. Those of us who attended university were viewed as nonentities; they believed we didn’t know anything. Their perception about us was what pushed me to pursue and get all the professional certification in the insurance industry. It took me six years to get a fellowship of the Chartered Insurance Institute, London, which is the highest certification in the industry. Respect came afterwards even from those who had initially rejected me.

You were an employee of Crusader Insurance all your working life, how easy or maybe tough was it for you rising through the rank over the 32 years that you were with the company?

Sometimes I wonder if there are still people who can have the type of patience I had in all of my 32 years with Crusader Insurance. I joined the company from the lowest level, two years after, I was made a Senior Superintendent. There was a guy who later joined the company two years after me, he studied finance at the university and was brought in to head the finance department. He was employed as a manager. When I was to be considered as a Senior Superintendent, he sat on the panel, a person whose assignments I was doing at times.

One week after that time, I went to my boss and told him I wanted to resign and go to the university to lecture. It took nine years before that guy and I could be at the same level. We were made comptrollers on the same day, he wasn’t too happy about it. One interesting thing that happened before he left the company was that I was made an assistant general manager before him. Maybe he couldn’t handle it and left.

However, there was a time my brother tried to get another job for me because he felt something strange was holding me down at Crusader but I refused. I told him I had prepared myself academically and professionally and that it was only God’s blessing that was remaining. To the glory of God, I rose to become the managing director of the company through hard work and dedication to duty. There were a lot of obstacles along the way but God made everything right in His time. Every position that I occupied and achievement that I recorded along this journey, God made them possible. Against what many people thought and expected, I never lobbied anybody to become the MD of Crusader. I believed that there was nothing any man could not achieve if he holds on to God and exercise patience.

On the day you first joined the company, did you ever think that you were going to rise to the highest level within the organisation?

I was not overambitious even though I told God to guide, protect and make me develop myself to the level that I could say that I have what it takes to be at the highest level in the insurance industry. That was how I felt that first day and God made it possible for me. I am grateful for His grace upon me.

So, was it also your plan to work in one organisation for 32 years?

No, it was never my plan. I believe it was destiny that made things turn out the way they did. When I joined Crusader, I thought I would just work for a few years and leave. After the person who brought me became the MD of the company, I felt I needed to stay to contribute towards his success. I felt I needed to repay his loyalty and trust in me at that time even though people tried to make me change my mind. Till this day, my relationship with him is still solid; in fact, my family and I spend every January 1 in his house. He is somebody that has had a positive influence over my life.

The perception people have about insurance companies is that they come up with all sorts of tricks and excuses when it’s time to pay claims. As MD of Crusader Insurance, what efforts did you put in to address this issue?

When I retired, the National Insurance Commission, the regulatory body for the industry, wrote me a letter of commendation for my openness and service to the industry. You see, those people who make such claims have no basis for saying that. Some never file any claim or even have a policy with the insurance company they are talking about, yet they would say the firm is hiding from paying them compensation.

Insurance is a straightforward business but the intention of some people is that it is gambling, they are only interested in duping the company by making fictitious claims. Once you pay your premium, keep to the terms of the policy, no insurance company that is worth its salt would renege on its promise. As a matter of fact, claims settlement is the highest marketing strategy you can use to get more customers. But it is those who make fraudulent claims who accuse insurance companies of coming up with excuses when it is time to pay compensation. There is no way one or two bad eggs won’t exist in any industry but on the whole, what people say about insurance companies is not true.

While being the MD of Crusader, you must have had access to so much cash; weren’t you tempted to help yourself with it?

I am very happy you asked this question. There was a time that a lady that I brought into the company went to tell my brother that if I should say I didn’t have money, that I should blame myself. She said when people paid premium and it was time for us to invest with those funds, I could have easily put some in my account for it to yield interest and then I return the original amount back into the company’s coffers. My brother came to ask me and I told him to say if our father ever trained us that way. Even though our parents were poor, they still taught us good morals and instilled values in us. That is what has guided my actions till this day.

I won’t lie to you, people indirectly brought all sorts of ideas forward but they dared not approach me openly on anything that had to do with using my position to enrich myself. As a matter of policy, I never dealt with any cash directly throughout my time as head of the organisation. There was an investment committee which decided how the funds collected should be invested.

I left Crusader Insurance after 32 years and without blemish, I am very proud of this. Those who take what does not belong to them only create more problems for themselves. If I wanted to mess up with cash, I could have done that neatly without anybody accusing me of stealing but I wasn’t trained that way. That is why today, I sleep and wake up a happy man. Some people stole money and later they used same to cure sickness. I never wanted this for myself, so the thought of enriching myself through dubious means never occurred to me. To be honest with you, one needs to be filled with the fear of God to head an insurance company in Nigeria. As MD of the company, I told those working with me to wait and see me steal before they attempted such. I told them if they ever did without seeing me indulge in such, they would be thoroughly dealt with. That was the guiding principle and those caught were sent away.

Your straight nature must have also earned you a lot of enemies along the line during your time as head of the organisation?

Of course it did but later, some people knew and accepted that it was my principle. The experience I had and the training I received from my parents while growing up taught me a lot of lessons in life. God in his infinite mercies fought poverty for me. Though I am not rich, I live a simple and comfortable life with my family.

Throughout my stay in the company, I never flew Business Class while going on international trips even though I was entitled to it. A lot of people wondered how I could be doing this but I had to because I could not steal what did not belong to me.

In the midst of your tight work schedule, did you have time to relax or spend with your family?

I was a member of Ikoyi Club but I doubt if I ever visited the place more than three times. The company was just paying the membership fee, I had no time to go there, it was work and work for me.

Some weekends, I stayed at home to rest; I never went to parties because it didn’t freak me. Even cinemas, I am not sure I can mention where anyone is within the city. I lead a quiet life and I am contented with it.

As a retiree today, I walk around the neighbourhood where I live in the evenings just to exercise myself. I watch the news on television and also read newspaper. For me, it is a way of keeping myself active.

With the level of deprivation you faced while growing up, at what point did you first have a relationship with a lady and how did you eventually meet your wife?

When it comes to women, I am a shy person. Interestingly at an early age I wanted to be a reverend father but my elder sister stopped me because I was the first son of our mother. However, I wasn’t a person who showed any interest in women. In fact, if anybody joked by pointing at a girl and say she was mine, that person would have ignited anger in me. I grew up that way.

Before I met my wife, I had a relationship even though it wasn’t very serious because the lady wasn’t academically inclined and I feared that it could disrupt my future plans. My wife was at Oshogbo, Osun State and she lived on same street with my cousin whom I used to visit each time I came home from the youth service. After I concluded service, I told him that I wanted a wife and that he should look for a decent lady for me. He was the one who talked to her on my behalf and finalised the whole arrangement. So, one day I visited him and asked if he had found me a wife, he said yes. I met her soon and that was how our love story started. We got married in October 1981 and have been blessed with four lovely children, including two son-in-laws.

What was the feeling like on the day you first met her?

It was a great day. When I met her, the first thing that struck me was not her beauty even though she was and is still very pretty. My spirit told me she was my wife immediately I saw her. I was not really ready to surrender my heart to her at the time because a lady once jilted me in my final year at the college of education. I gave everything to that lady but she jilted me, I thought the world had ended. So, when I met my wife, I made her to understand that I wanted to marry her and that I was not there for boyfriend, girlfriend thing. She accepted me straightaway. I am happy for ever finding her because she has brought so much beauty and peace into my life.

Looking back at your journey, do you have any major regret in life?

Apart from the sufferings I experienced which I believed happened to shape my character, there has been no major regret along this journey.

You have experienced life from different angles, what important lessons have you learnt along the way?

I have come to realise that certain things will happen to you in life but they are all preparing you for something better in the future. Whatever happens to one in life, he or she must take it as part of the design of God for their lives. God does not do evil; His plans for us are for good. Life has taught me a lot.

 

Source: Punch