In life one comes across different kinds of people: some grow and rise in fame, others dwindle in fortunes and name. Barrister Jimoh Ibrahim, known widely as the Billionaire from the moon but who the section of the media calls the Mystery Investor, belongs to the former category. He is an enigma that even some old friends and family members cannot cease wondering about his rocket speed and astronomical increase in wealth.
Having been close to him as a friend for more than a decade, I am extremely reluctant to disclose my association with him which is borne out of the fact that many would think I am in his class of opulence, ignoring the fact that I am a public worker and still proud to mind my business in the service. Like my boss uses to say every person has a destiny in life, one should strive on personal gift from God to excel instead of depending heavily on others for prosperity. He may be funny, not a fool, but smart to know what is going on around him.
As people debate on his sources of wealth, some of the facts I would give here may interest many on Jimoh Ibrahim who just clocks 40 years old on February 24, 2007. I didn’t intend to drop name, but the fact may not be clear in chronicling his past as a friend. As he is proud to be born into a family of a bricklayer father and a fish-selling mother, he started making millions in his mid 20s. How indeed could this have been possible?
I was introduced to Jimoh by former Finance Minister of State, Alhaji Abu Gidado, the man known in the ministry as incorruptible and highly principled (upto date) whom I had served as Personal Assistant. Jimoh was like an adopted child to Alhaji Gidado’s uncle, the former Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Mohammed Bello.
When people talk about Jimoh Ibrahim as a whiz kid out of the blues, I wonder if it is not the same person who was the Chief Launcher at my book launch ten years ago. Precisely on October 10, 1997 at Sheraton Hotel, Abuja, he came to the venue in a convoy of Jeeps (four runners) which was not in vogue then and signed a blank cheque asking me to fill in any amount not exceeding six digits. Alhaji Gidado rejected the idea, insisting that the donation should be clearly written by him and also should not be outrageously higher than that of the Hon. Minister of Finance, Chief Anthony Ani who was the Chairman of the occasion. But for Alh Gidado, I could have scribbled down N999, 999! The ceremony had in attendance top functionaries including the present Principal Private Secretary to the President, Mr. Stephen Orosanye, a humble personality who was also supportive of my recent book last year.
Before then Jimoh Ibrahim was in the habit of inviting us to some of his training workshops for top public functionaries at all tiers of government. It was through one of those seminars that I suspected he learnt about the huge amount of revenue Nigeria lost to withholding tax by big oil companies. His further research made him to submit his findings in form of a proposal that he could recover the funds as a consultant to the federal government but with a specific percentage as his commission. After diligent consideration by the ministry and approval of his submission, within a short period of time he was remitting billions of Naira to the account of the federal government. If Nuhu Ribadu of EFCC were a consultant and legitimacy entitled to some commission from the billions he recovers from fraudsters he could have become richer too. That is one of the major differences between working as public officers who earn salary and private consultants who receive commissions.
On close examination, Jimoh Ibrahim is an aggressive businessman who pursues his desires passionately, no matter what it takes. Every time one sits with him, ideas on how to make real money come to mind in torrents. To him business is business and leisure is leisure. He doesn’t mix the two. I was with him on several occasions, when he pays and receives receipt for fuel from his filling stations, even sometimes as little as N200. On another occasion, we were at the bar of one of his hotels in Lagos, where the then MD Trade Bank, Mr. Tunji Adeniyi and others came on a mission for Jimoh to salvage the bank from liquidation through investment. After the business discussion that reached far into middle of the night, everybody paid a bill on consumption from the bar, except me because I couldn’t pretend to be a businessman.
One thing I learnt from his business acumen, is how one uses money to make more money through financial instruments. I had cause to accompany him to a very powerful and respected woman banker in her modest and simply furnished office. The bank which is one of the major financiers of his companies has full confidence in the young businessman because he always meets the stringent financial requirements and deadlines. Obviously, that is the reason he hardly spends his wealth on frivolities or invests in business that would not yield returns, though he has special endowments like a foundation that provides scholarship for thousand of indigent students annually.
He is open to take to genuine and critical advice even if it is against his position. I once advised against buying a telecommunication company which price I believed was incredibly high after he had signed the agreement. I also advised him against suing a media house that published a libelous material against his company (NICON) after he had contacted his lawyers. My reason was that nobody, no matter how powerful or rich, can fight the media and win easily in a law court in Nigeria. Though we do sometimes disagree, a true friend, I believe, is the person that states the obvious boldly through constructive criticism, with a clear conscience.
Ibrahim may be prudent in managing resources, but when it comes to competition, he could be daring to a fault. In his desire to ameliorate the suffering of his people, he contested for the governorship of Ondo State under the platform of ANPP in 2003. Apart from having invested in the local communities and donating to worthy causes in all the local government councils, he bought dozens of brand new luxury cars (Bora) and buses which he shared out for his campaign. Yet he lost to Chief Agagu of the PDP. He always laughs over the experience afterwards. But the fortune lost in that expedition was enormous.
I think what scares him stiff is death. An incident happened when he was Special Adviser to the first Military Administrator of Bayelsa State. He was about to take a flight to Lagos one evening from the Port-Harcourt International Airport when he aborted the trip after a call from his boss that there was a message he had to take along. As he returned to the airport the following morning, he learnt that the plane he had bought its ticket a night before had crashed into a lagoon. The tremor from that experience forced him to stop flying local airlines for several years and rather travelled around the country in his jeeps.
Many people may not know that he was a member of the exclusive Federation Account Allocation Committee and was Chairman of FAAC News, the first monthly magazine that published the activities of that Committee. He was Special Adviser to the First Military Administrator of Bayelsa State; Principal Partner of Law and Justice chambers; Executive Secretary, African Center for Policy Studies; Consultant to various bodies and multilateral institutions and Chairman Global Fleet Companies before his foray into acquisitions of privatized companies that makes his name stand out lately as a maverick entrepreneur. Some of the companies he acquired or invested heavily on cut across those in the public and private sectors of the economy. They are mostly in the insurance, hospitality industry, airline, real estates, oil sectors, banking, etc.
An author and publisher, he attended public schools up to the University of Ife, before he attended Harvard University where he came out as a distinguished graduate and expert in international tax law. A Nigerian by all standards, his parents are devout Muslims while he and his wife are Christians. For his three children, they have a free choice. That is the Jimoh Ibrahim I know.
This article by Yushau A. Shuaib was originally published in Leadership February 25, 2007