People move to Nigeria for three reasons – Love, lots of money or just regular money. I am here for the latter. Life outside of those three realms is pretty uneventful and requires that you make a real effort to peel off the layers of life. This is what I think the situation is when you live in Abuja. Maybe life in Lagos is different. Once you start peeling those outer layers, you can truly find interesting happenings. When you get deeper to the core, you realise that the society is caught up in Victorian times where there are unwritten rules on how to behave and act and with that comes the huge social pressure to conform. This seems to be more so, here in Nigeria than in any of other twelve countries that I have lived in. Over the last six months I have been going out and around Abuja with hope of peeling off those layers to get a real feel for life here. What I have learnt is that there are many people who think they are important, so that makes it hard to get past that layer of ‘importance’. Once you do, you just want to cry! On the other hand, there are some genuine people who are pretty cool and I just met one of them.
I walked into the spacious, split-level living room. On my left was grey faux- brick wall with square insets for framed family photos, many framed family photos featuring the man himself. Just in front of me was a large mahogany type dining table. The lower level was decorated with a grey, brown animal fur rug and classic style beige sofas, all very tastefully put together. This was the home of Tony E. He and his wife Adeola warmly welcomed us for coffee on Saturday afternoon. I was with my friend D who had told me about Tony.
You see, I had been in Nigeria for nine months and had not been inspired to write at all. Nothing. So when I heard about Tony, a self- made entrepreneur in the furniture business, I got excited and asked if I could hear his story, so here I was with my good friend D, who had been friends with the family for decades.
Once we got past the pleasantries and questions about Jamaica, I began to ask him about his business and his life. He had just finished eating his Nigerian lunch, which was served by his short, male ‘domestic’.
Tony started, “I was born in Edo State, Southern Nigeria in 1958 and grew up in Kaduna, which is about 2 hours from Abuja. I graduated from the Ahmadou Bello University in 1982, with a degree in Mathematics.”
I was indeed pleased to hear that I was in the company of a mathematician, being one myself.
“From a young age, I enjoyed repairing, arranging and making things. After seeing my father work as a civil servant with Post and Telecommunications and seeing his years of struggling on a low salary, I decided that there was no way I would be a civil servant”, he continued as if he had told the story many times before using those very words.
“After graduating, I explored many ideas and dabbled in petrochemicals, import and export and even owned a barbershop. Four years after leaving university, I became a contractor and was involved in a variety of projects dealing with building the new city of Abuja, the present capital of Nigeria.”
These were significant years for Tony. He managed hundreds of workers and construction projects and gained valuable experience and insight into doing business in Abuja.
We talked about the early years in the late 80s. ‘There were about 47 men and 137 women living Abuja, every one else lived in Suleja, a nearby satellite town, about 50km north of today’s Abuja”, he added.
I was surprised that he so accurately remembered exactly how many people lived in Abuja at that time! Remarkable memory.
Later on in 1991, he met Adeola and soon after the city of Abuja officially became Nigeria’s capital. His construction project finished and in 1996, and ITEX (short for Interior Experts) was born. In 1996, he and his family relocated to Abuja.
Tony struck me as someone who is passionate about making things, especially Nigerian things. He seemed to have always had the desire to improve himself.
In 1998, I put some money together and spent a year in Italy, Spain and Germany getting formal training in working with glass, leather, metal and wood. I brought back a couple pieces and set up a shop in my house. The showroom was downstairs, the garage the factory and I had one employee – my wife”, he laughed.
The year he had left for Europe, Nigeria was under military rule and by the end of the year it was a civilian government under the leadership of Obasanjo.
His return to Nigeria was well timed. The Director General of the Bureau of Public Enterprise (BPE), the present governor of Kaduna state invited him to tender on a bid for furnishing the BPE.
“He put me to the test and asked me to make up a model showing exactly how I would furnish the Bureau. They were impressed with my style, professionalism and creativity. I won the bid”, Tony recounted with a smile.
This was the beginning of great things.
Obasanjo was impressed with him and gave him another challenge. He wanted his farmhouse in Ota refurbished. He wanted it done well enough so that his kids would enjoy going back there for holidays and short visits.
“The place was run down, they were farm animals living inside the house. I could not believe that the president of Nigeria could have such a place,” he recounted jokingly.
“Obasanjo said to me, ‘I will be coming in a couple weeks to see my mansion in a couple days. I hope you don’t embarrass me!’ ”
A couple weeks later Obasanjo was back with POTUS at the time. It was a real historic event in Nigeria’s history as it was the second visit by a US president to Nigeria. It is also believed to have been a high point of US relations with Nigeria.
“ They took a tour of the house. No one spoke. I really didn’t know what to think,” he revealed.
Tony had made a glass table for the center of the living room. It had different farm animals carved into it representing the various animals he had found in the farmhouse when he had seen it for the first time. While he was proud of the table, he wasn’t sure how Obasanjo would react.
“What happened after showed that Obasanjo appreciated my work and my creativity. I got to do the furniture and the interior design of the Central Bank of Nigeria- all twelve floors and four wings. I also designed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense in Sao Tome and Principe,” he stated humbly.
“That’s amazing. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start their own business here in Nigeria?” I asked
“ Whatever you choose to do, you have to put your heart into it and also make sure you are the master of your game.” he replied.
“What are your plans for the future?” I asked.
“I want to be the IKEA of Africa. Make good furniture more accessible to Nigerians.”
What I appreciated about Tony was his simplicity, his forward thinking, his openness- as someone who should have been wrapped in many layers of ‘importance’, like an onion, instead he was like a simple mango – refreshing.