Allure Cover: Azeez Oladapo Yusuf – A Proud Nigerian Export
By Yemisi Suleiman
Azeez Oladapo Yusuf, is a serial entrepreneur and lawyer from Nigeria, but resides in the Gambia. He is the CEO of SHAIDA and Sons International; a consortium of companies involved in hospitality, oil and gas, real estate, entertainment amongst others.
Born in Lagos and armed with a determination to succeed, Aziz moved to the Gambia at a very young age, where he started off as a refrigerator salesman. Today, he has excelled in running a number of businesses successfully, including Big Apple Executive Lounge, the foremost centre of luxurious fine dining and relaxation spot in the Gambia.
The dedicated businessman, husband and father, who clocked 50 this month, talks to Allure about life as an international entrepreneur, his business ideology, success story, foray into politics and marriage amongst others. Enjoy.
Congratulations on turning 50. How does it feel to be 50?
There is a special feeling joining the league of the half millennials. One is grateful for life. What this is telling you is that you have crossed the Rubicon sort of.
What would you say you have learned over the years?
A lot of lessons. You can imagine someone starting from a year old to fifty years; you must have gone through huddles, ups and downs.
When did you leave Nigeria for the Gambia and what informed the choice to study law?
I left Nigeria in 1999/2000. I was in school studying Computer Science but I left without concluding the course then, because it wasn’t really what I wanted. I was also into the refrigerator business which was lucrative at that time. When I got to Gambia, the call to study Law came from a particular problem. Apparently, there was an issue with my son that had to do with the Law. That was when I had the calling to study Law to defend myself and help people.
Today, I have a chamber here in Nigeria called YUSUF AND YUSUF CHAMBERS. The first YUSUF is my name and the second is my son who is also a lawyer. I am currently working on something big in Gambia in that regard too.
As someone who has experienced both Nigeria and Gambia, what is the ease of doing business in both countries?
It’s a big challenge, especially in Nigeria. The Gambia is peaceful for me. For more than 20 years that I have been in the Gambia, I’ve not witnessed a single gunshot; you won’t see anyone in the Gambia hungry. They are very cheerful and so loving. The system is working even though the earnings can’t be compared to Nigeria. Thank God, we are not only in the Gambia, we spread across other nations like Dubai, Turkey, England and looking to go into Amsterdam as well. The Gambia is conducive for business; there is peace, no riots or academic strikes.
What would you say about leadership between the two countries?
Generally, we have leadership problems in Africa. The problem is that the old goons must have to take the backseat for the youths to come with innovative ideas and take Nigeria forward. We can’t keep doing what we have been doing in the 60s and expect to get new results. The Gambia has been in a dictatorship for 22 years and just got their democracy; but they respect all UN treaties and charters of freedom of expression—especially if you are saying the right thing.
How were you able to cope or integrate into the society as a young foreigner in Gambia?
The relationship between Nigeria and Gambia has come a long way, far back pre-independence. My father was a diplomat and was in Gambia in the late 60’s to 70’s; so it was not new to me. I have a brother of the same parent who can’t speak Yoruba because he has been there since 1976. Gambia is a friendly country, fondly called the Smiling Coast, and they are hospitable. It’s easy for a business to thrive if you have a good business plan and you know what you are doing because people there are not so innovative, but when they see you doing something they will do it too.
I remember years back when I started dealing in solar equipment from the US; I sold it in the Gambia. I was well known, and then a lot of people started doing it. That was when I took a break to go back to school to get more knowledge and leverage over certain things.
Your wife is also from Gambia, how did you meet her?
She is Mariam Morenike Yusuf. My dad named her Morenike. She was my employee who came to work with me after high school. Our relationship was purely professional until she left for England for her studies. After I got divorced, I was looking for a woman to marry and I remembered her as a young, hardworking school girl then. So when we met on Facebook again, during her MBA days, I proposed to her. That was how it all started and it has been from grace to grace. She is the pillar and Managing Director of all my companies both in Nigeria and Gambia.
How often do you visit Nigeria?
I am resident in Gambia where my family is. I still have a home in Nigeria; I am in Nigeria almost every two months except for the pandemic. I bank in Nigeria; I have businesses and partners in Nigeria. I was also a Chairman of a political party here in Nigeria some years back; which was when I tested Nigerian politics. It was not easy as a newcomer but now, I’m a card carrier of a very popular and biggest party in Africa. We are working towards 2023; I have a candidate in mind.
Are you interested in an elective position?
Honestly, I don’t know for now. I have no ambition. I just want to be behind the scene following the person that has the same ideology as mine and be supportive.
How would you describe your first experience in politics?
Well, politics in Nigeria is very expensive. It is a business where they have to sell their properties just to contest and when they win, they take their money back without helping the masses. I think politics should not be made attractive; we should go back to the old times of our ancestors, education and a good name should be the hallmark of politics. There should be a threshold of wealth/money to get before you can join politics that will discourage money mongers. I’m not rich but okay. I’m not enticed by wealth, I want a good name and to help my constituency; not to enrich myself as most politicians do when they get there. We have hooliganism in Nigeria, such is not found in Gambia, so I don’t think it’s safe for now.
If you are going to take a political shot, where will it be, Ilorin or Lagos?
Lagos has been home to me for 50 years; so if I’m going to contest, it will definitely to represent Lagos Island or Alimosho Local Government where I lived most of my life, or Ikeja. But also, I can’t rule out my fatherland. I am a son of the soil in Kwara. I might take my shot from there too.
What is your belief about life?
My belief about life is to do good and get good.
What would you like to be remembered for?
The humane side of me and my humility.
Tell us about your passion for humanity?
I don’t have a registered charity organisation yet; I have chosen to remain anonymous for now. Because of my mother, I want to look into single old women because in the Gambia, it’s the single women who make the economy work. They are involved in small-scale businesses and I was raised single-handedly by a struggling mother.
For now, I have made seven lawyers through the scholarship grant-in-aid; I still have some others now at the University of Gambia studying Law. We also help a lot of people with medical assistance abroad.
Tell us a bit about your family and educational background?
My father, Alhaji Shafii Yusuf hailed from Ilorin, Kwara State. My mum was from Lagos Island. My parents had four children together; I’m the last of my mother. I was born and bred in Lagos Island. I don’t know much about Ilorin. My mother was from the Amodu family from Ofin area of Lagos Island. She was the best mother ever.
I am the grand patron of the Yoruba Community in The Gambia. Most of my businesses are in The Gambia. I schooled and married from The Gambia. I studied Law at the Gambia premier University beforeI proceeded to the Nigerian Law School where I got called to the Bar. After my LLB, I proceeded to the Florida States University where I studied International Human Rights. I also did a lot of small courses in Energy and so on. I’m married with kids and a grandson; I’m a grandfather (laughs).
What inspires you in life generally?
People! When I see people like Rochas Okorocha doing great things, I am inspired. I was with him during the last Christmas Holidays and I was opportuned to visit his foundation, where he has over two thousand students under his care, under his roof, where he feeds, clothes and gives them education for free. These children are not related to him, not from his tribe or religion, it goes beyond our shores, to different parts of Africa. For one man to take this responsibility upon himself, what can inspire me more than that?
Is Sen. Rochas your mentor?
Yes, he is.
What are your hobbies?
I love playing golf, I love playing with animals and going to the beach.
What has been your winning factor in life?
There is this watchword I don’t joke with, “that you should be resilient, steadfast, and believe in whatever you are doing.” You should not do things to impress people, but do something that makes you feel good. I believe as you grow, your zeal to achieve your goals, if you’re the determined type increases with time. For me, being persistent has helped me to grow.
How do you relax?
I love to spend time with my wife or at my lounge (Big Apple) in Gambia; I like to be there to watch the services rendered by the employees and correct what needs to be corrected. I love meeting people too.
We know you’re such a fashion connoisseur?
That’s true, I’m particular about fashion. My brands are Stefano Ricci, Kurti, Gianni, Louis Vuitton. I am trendy and don’t joke about fashion. I’m more of a casual person though, but I’m learning how to wear more of traditional attires now.
Your advice to young aspiring entrepreneurs, who look up to you?
Whatever you are doing be persistent, don’t let anyone tell you that you cannot do it, just believe in yourself and keep doing it.