by Tunde Fagbenle
A couple of weeks ago, precisely on September 30, newspapers carried the story of two giant legal luminaries (at least they are both SANs) engaging in what to me was an ugly verbal brawl within the premises of the Federal High Court in Lagos. One was Mr. Olisa Agbakoba and the other Dr. Wale Babalakin.
Both Agbakoba and Babalakin are hugely successful in their legal profession as well as in business. They are also both scions of prominent legal parents. Olisa’s father was the honourable Chief Justice Godfrey Agbakoba, whilst Wale is the son of honourable Justice Bolarinwa Babalakin, a retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria who is still alive. Both fathers were not men of material wealth, but what they lacked in lucre they more than made up for in fearsome reputation of honesty, dignity and integrity. These are values they made effort to pass on to these two eminent sons of theirs who each now commands such stupendous wealth enough to knock the fathers dizzy.
Now to the brawl, or, first to the issues that brought the brawl:
Dr. Wale Babalakin is an entrepreneur with a keen nose for the unusual and a healthy capacity to undertake great risks for great gains. He is young, he is brilliant, and he can see possibilities far beyond the ordinary eye. His profile rose when, almost from the blue, during President Olusegun Obasanjo years, his company Bi-Courtney Ltd got the concession to rebuild and operate the Murtala Muhammed Airport 2 (MMA2). The product was a masterpiece that brought freshness and quality of international standard to the airport.
Next, we heard Babalakin, through another company of his, Stabilini Visinoni Ltd, had bought over the abandoned sprawling Federal Secretariat in highbrow Ikoyi, Lagos with its huge edifices that would dwarf most property estates in Africa. The Secretariat, in the way of our sad country’s profligacy and wastage, had, upon the movement to Abuja as the new federal capital, been emptied and abandoned to rot away. Babalakin raised the money to buy it with an eye to turning it into yet another masterpiece of estates, probably in the hospitality or highbrow residential business.
Next, we heard Babalakin had formed a new company, Bi-Courtney highways Ltd, and secured the concession to take over the nauseating Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and reconstruct it into a modern Highway of something like 6-lanes either way to the best international standard and enduring quality; and then, of course, toll and operate it for as many years as could be imagined may be needed to recoup the vast investment many times over, in the way of capitalists!
Babalakin was meant to belong to the group of the privileged few entrepreneurs, like Dangote, Adenuga, Otedola, Ovia, etc, businessmen Obasanjo had to showcase as his administration’s encouragement of private enterprise. This is a big league. Babalakin was dreaming big, with each of those businesses gulping money in the billions. They are borrowed funds but the businesses had great possibilities, all things being equal (ceteris paribus, as economists would say), of yielding huge returns in multiple folds and make everybody — the banks, the investors, Babalakin, the “enablers” in government, everybody — happy, otherwise he wouldn’t have attracted the funds in the first place.
But with Wale Babalakin, “all things have not been equal” in those his businesses. And that is the problem. No sooner had MM2, which ordinary minds gave no chance, looked like succeeding hugely, than opposition and rivalry came from different quarters. The Federal Secretariat dream turned sour even before he could scrape the first mould as Governor Tinubu’s Lagos State government refused to play ball and grant him permission to redefine the town planning uses for that zone. Lagos-Ibadan Expressway could not take off for all manner of reasons. Even this columnist was unsparing in his criticism of the protracted delay and the mounting deaths on that road.
So what exactly could Dr. Wale Babalakin be doing wrong to be amassing so much opposition, nay, enmity, probably beyond the ordinary, in a country where pulling down is stock in trade? Is he, being a brilliant lawyer also being too clever for his own good? Or is the world just being nasty to someone with a great, creative mind and value-adding entrepreneurial skills that Nigeria badly needed to make the country great?
In comes AMCON — Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria — that Federal Government created ailing business intervention agent that has turned itself into a dreaded acquisitionist monster — mean and lacking in “milk of human kindness,” as many ailing businesses charge; quick to want to reap where it has not sown, and snatch away businesses built with “sweat and blood” of Nigerians who have dared to do business in Nigeria’s hostile business environment, when the likes of AMCON folk were snoozing, afraid to dare.
The whole story is windy and complex, and I cannot get my simple mind round it. It’s about billions in naira, if not in dollars, owed the banks by Babalakin and his many businesses; billions that he has been paying in repayments and yet of even more billions mounting in interests. It is about smart deals gone awry, and smart guys meeting smarter ones. It’s about AMCON wanting to strip Babalakin of virtually all his assets at values fair and unfair, to “repay” banks owed and not owed. It’s about who owes whom what and yet owes nothing but is himself owed! If you can’t understand it, neither can I.
Now back to the brawl. A Federal High Court in Lagos passed judgement (in what is looking like an unending judgement and counter-judgement ding-dong affair in several courts) this time round, restraining AMCON from appointing a receiver/manager and or taking over Babalakin’s companies and assets. Olisa Agbakoba, as lawyer to AMCON and the expected receiver/manager for Babalakin’s companies, was understandably not happy with the judgement that now vacated one granted earlier by another judge that empowered AMCON and benefited Agbakoba.
From the newspaper reports, Agbakoba, on sighting Babalakin on the court premises after the judgement shouted: “Wale, give me my money. I will collect my money from you and that’s final.” To which an astounded Babalakin replied: “Why do you want to ruin me? You want to kill my businesses, I will never allow you.” At which point Agbakoba angrily retorted: “You this small lawyer, when did you start practising sef? I am 40 years at the bar, and so you are too small for me.” According to ThisDay newspaper report of that day, “the altercation almost degenerated into fisticuffs between the two senior lawyers.”
Rather unbecoming statement from Olisa, if you ask me, considering that he was born in 1956 and Wale in 1960 and so only four years apart. And, moreover, they are both senior advocates (SAN). In all “material particular” of same age group and professional equals.
More importantly, Agbakoba’s outburst and action appear to me suggestive of interest beyond the ordinary professional calling of legal representation of his client, AMCON, to that emblematic of the characterisation of AMCON afore described.
Whatever Wale Babalakin may do or not do, have done or may not have done, nothing can take away from the fact that this young Nigerian has dared where many could not. His errors, and they must be many, which have resulted in the many troubles his businesses now face have to be viewed with the sympathy desired for all entrepreneurs in this our challenging clime. The desire must not be to kill the Babalakins of this world but to encourage and enable them to foster and prosper for the overall greatness of Nigeria.
Whatever we may say about President Obasanjo, his bold and dynamic policies helped and encouraged many businesses to thrive. President Goodluck Jonathan has suggested an equal desire to encourage massive private sector participation that would bring sustainable development to our economy. He needs to take a closer look at the Babalakin/AMCON imbroglio to see what can still be done to help the businesses that should get a new lease of life. AMCON must wear a more positive outlook.
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.