Olatunji Kolade Belo: An Icon @ 80
Words By – Yemisi Suleiman
At a time when life expectancy is pegged at 50, it is a thing of utmost joy for anyone to clock 80 and still remain fit as a fiddle. This is the story of Deacon Olatunji Kolade Belo, Chairman and Chief Executive of Bela Vista Group of Companies, which includes Bela Vista Property Development Limited, Bela Vista Dredging Company Limited, Bela Vista Plant Hire Services Limited and Bela Vista Construction Company Limited.
Born at Massey Street Children Hospital (Ita-Eleye) in Central Lagos on 15th December, 1942, Kolade is the fourth child and second son of Deacon Thomas Kolawe Belo and the late Mrs. Olayemi Abeke Belo. His parents were devout Christians of the Baptist denomination, who dedicated themselves to bringing up young Olatunji and his siblings in the way of the Lord.
Kolade began his early education at Araromi Baptist School along Moloney Street in Lafiaji area of Lagos State, where he showed early promise in his academic pursuit. One of the first to recognise this potential was the headmistress of his school, late Mrs. Marinho, who encouraged him to excel in his studies. Having attended Baptist Academy, Broad Street, Lagos (which was later relocated to Obanikoro), for his secondary education, Kolade proceeded to Baptist Boys High School, Olivet Heights, Oyo, as a member of the first set of Higher School Certificate (HSC) classes.
Although Deacon Kolade studied Aeronautic Engineering, his capitalist adventure began as an investment banker. He was instrumental to the setting-up of an exquisite boutique hotel in Parkview Estate, Ikoyi Pearl Court Residence & Hotels Limited. The hotel is reputed as the most preferred point of stay and dining for discerning guests both locally and overseas.
Kolade has also begun, in the last few years, to reawaken his longstanding interest in becoming a large-scale farmer by establishing Olabel Farms Limited in Ogun State. The farm is into poultry and fisheries, with plans to venture into piggery and snailry.
In public service, Kolade has made contributions in politics; albeit in an advisory capacity. He served as Chairman of the Transportation Work Group of Governor Bola Tinubu’s Transition Team. He is also an active member of Good News Baptist Church, Surulere, Lagos, and served on the Church’s Diaconate from 1996 to 2001. He was re-elected into the Diaconate in 2008 for another five-year term. The octogenarian is currently the chairman of the Building Committee, a position he has occupied since 1994. He has served in various positions in the church, including the chairmanship of the current Constitution Review Committee.
Kolade is blessed with a beautiful and loving wife, Henrietta Eyewumi Tunji-Belo (nee Ogiale), a niece of the late Chief Hope Harriman, in whose home the love blossomed with his blessing. The marriage is blessed with children, namely Olatunbosun, Olatoro, Olayinka and Oluwayemisi.
As Kolade turned 80 years on Thursday 15th December, 2022, an elaborate thanksgiving service and birthday celebration was held for him at Baptist Church Surulere and Harbour Point, Lagos, respectively.
In this interview, the octogenarian talks about life at 80 and takes a holistic look at the future of Nigeria amongst other issues.
Congratulations on your 80th birthday, sir. How does it feel to be 80?
It is good to experience this kind of blessing. I can only say it is a blessing to be able to live long and still be active, because sometimes you can live long and the vagaries of life can make it not so enjoyable. I thank God that in my case, I’ve enjoyed good health and I thank God for it because it is God who made it possible; I appreciate what it means to have the opportunity.
So, how do you keep fit and stay healthy at 80?
I have been an active sports person and that I’ve carried on throughout my life. I play lawn tennis, but I’m trying to improve my ability in the lawn tennis court. I have some young experts who come to play tennis with me at least two or three times a week. I’ve always loved tennis. My swimming is not so good; but since there’s a swimming pool, I also try to go into the swimming pool and do a few rounds.
I want to thank God for my son, Yemisi, who studied Sports Science at the university in England. He is a very active young man and he keeps me on my toes because he’s my gym coach. Every time we go into the gym, he always tries to make me do more, and I like to show him what I can do (laughs).
Apart from sports, what other things do you like to do for fun?
I really enjoy talking with people. I enjoy meeting up to challenges. God has given me opportunities to be involved in several projects. I enjoyed that it takes a lot of my time, but I enjoy doing that. I’ve been involved in a lot of projects in the church, like the auditorium; and now we are doing the permanent site for the school. We have been doing that together with my brothers and sisters on the building committee of the church. That takes a lot of my time and I enjoy it.
What were some of the fond memories you had growing up in Lagos back then compared to now?
Well, growing up in Lagos as a teenager was exciting. Lagos was not what it is today. It used to be a peaceful, orderly place where everything went well; but a lot has changed. The population of Lagos when we were growing up was not more than about 1 million. Now, I hear it’s about 20 or 23 million. That is a huge one. Now, I hear people travel for three or four hours to get to work and travel for four hours to go back home, or they leave home at four or five in the morning only to get back home at 11pm. That was not the kind of life we grew up in. I remember people used to ride bicycle more than cars in those days, and everybody was fit. Lagos was such a civilised and enjoyable place when we were growing up and we thank God for that. Now, the challenges are different; the population has exploded.
How did you get a start in your career? Tell me about your early years.
After my O’levels, I worked at the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) where I was employed as Registry Clerk for nine months while awaiting university admission. In those days, school years ended in December while universities opened in September, leaving a hiatus of nine months. My time at the CDC gave me some exposure to the world of finance that blossomed in my later career in banking. In due course, I got admission into the University of Ibadan with Shell scholarship to study Physics. I did not take the offer as I secured two foreign admissions to study Aeronautical Engineering at the prestigious Imperial College, London, and the Loughborough Institute of Technology. I decided to take up Engineering and one of my British bosses made it easy for me by calling someone in London who took charge of me. I went to Imperial College with a Federal Government scholarship in 1963 and graduated in Aeronautical Engineering in 1966.
On graduating from Imperial College, I was head-hunted by a world-renowned company, Boeing, in Seattle, Washington, as Associate Research Engineer. After a two-year stint, I felt I had had enough. I wanted to try new things. I resigned my appointment in order to do an MBA programme at School of Business Administration at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.
On graduating from the MBA programme, I was again recruited as a lecturer by a member of a team from Canada to start a new Department of Business Studies at the University of West Indies in Mona, Jamaica.
While in Jamaica, I was offered a position on the Young Professional Programme of World Bank Group in Washington D.C., an opportunity limited to 30 young professionals worldwide each year. That was how my journey into banking started. My career in the World Bank lasted five years during which I visited such countries as South Korea, Indonesia, Nepal, India and Bangladesh, on various investment appraisal missions.
You were doing very well at the World Bank? Why did you decide to return to Nigeria?
I was persuaded to return to Nigeria, in 1977, by my long-term friend and mentor, Deacon Gamaliel Onosode, to take up a position with the then Nigeria Acceptances Limited (later NAL Merchant Bank Limited). I resigned in 1983 to set up a consulting business, Multiplex Associates, specialising in investments.
As an investor, do you think the Nigerian environment is investor-friendly?
As an investor, I see the great potential in the Nigerian economy, but the challenges of doing business in Nigeria make the environment overall challenging. The hurdles to overcome to start a business, although improving, are nevertheless still formidable. More effort to streamline the procedure for doing business must be one of our greatest endeavours at this time. The cost of doing business is also an area that needs improvement. By this I mean the multiplicity of taxes and fees payable at various levels of government; federal, state and local. This needs to be re-examined thoroughly. For investors, the security in the environment also must be assured. Kidnappings, robberies and overall lawlessness need to be minimised, if not totally eradicated. If all these can be improved upon, it would make the environment within Nigeria to be more investor-friendly.
If you take a mental look at Nigeria, how would you access the country in the last 80 years; would you say our leaders have done well?
We have been blessed by God. Nigeria is one of the richest countries in the world; but our leaders are so lazy. I am sorry to say that they are so lazy. They think of the least possible way to get out of situations. If only each of our leaders could go to their constituency, and do something with the resources around there— we have gold, we have oil, we have marble, we have granite. We have everything that we need to build our country, but rather than working together to make these things better, we have degenerated by trading our morality and integrity, because of laziness; I see this as laziness. If they develop what we have, there’ll be enough to go round everybody; and that is my beef with Nigeria. As I look back, I think that we’ve missed a lot of opportunities. The years I spent in the World Bank in Washington DC, as a staff member, opened my eyes to what other countries were doing to improve the state of the people’s welfare. We are not doing anything close to that. We continue to be popular for the wrong reasons. Today, it beats me that we are still talking about Nigerian passports. You go to some parts of the world, where once they see your passport, they begin to treat you badly, until you begin to protest. We all know not all Nigerians are bad. There are very good Nigerians, and that is a message that we all must take; not only by words that we say, but by our own character to represent Nigeria well. Nigeria needs good leadership. I pray God gives us the right leaders in the coming election because it looks like this election might be different. There are beavers. I hear it will be difficult for people to tamper with; I pray so because I spoke to one of the commissioners at a function, and asked him what they were doing to make this election fair and free so that people can have their votes counted. He told me about the beavers which have been used in many countries before and it has ensured free and fair elections. I pray that it will work for us. Though, Nigerians are noted for overcoming any law put in place; they look for ways to find loopholes in these laws. We can’t run a country like this. We must be law abiding citizens. That starts from the very top. If the head is not fair, and doesn’t have integrity, the whole body will be rotten. Now, if you go to a ministry, you must ‘settle’ from table to table. I think it’s no way to live your life. I can tell you stories of the dangers that we are really bringing upon ourselves.
My message to Nigeria is that our leaders need to sit up. It’s not too late for you to turn around. You have been doing things wrongly; try to do things right.
One other thing I’ve been saying for some time, and will say here again, is that our leaders don’t love us. They don’t like us.
Why do you say that?
A lot of reasons. For instance, they want to build a road, good idea, but they do not take precautions to see what are the alternative routes which people would take to get to where they’re going. They just get on the road and leave the citizens to their fate. Also, while building these roads, they put dust in the air, and people are living across from where they are building this route. They don’t care what happens to their health. Can you do that in England? Our leaders travel all over the world and they see how things are done; they don’t do it. They make us live a very hard life. It’s like we are in prison with hard labour. Our leaders must stop this. They all are going to give account of their stewardship before God and they better watch it now. Do the best you can and then let your reward come from God.
I want to wish Nigerians a much better environment in which they can live a life that is fruitful. I see young boys and young girls on the road selling Coca Cola. For some of those boys, if given the opportunity, they should be IT programmers. They should be doctor; but we have sentenced them to going on the street for very little or no profit, just to put food on their table.
So what would be your advice for presidential aspirants in the forthcoming election?
Those vying for positions have not even told us what they intend to do with the power. All that we are hearing is give me the power, when I get there, I will be better than the other two. That was what I heard yesterday. How are you better than the other man or your reputation better than their reputation? They should tell us the programme they have for us. For me, I don’t know how long God will keep me on this earth, but one thing I know is that as long as I’m alive, I want to live a life that will make a positive contribution to the welfare of Nigeria and Nigerians.
That’s the life our leaders should live. They should not just suck from the system and not put anything back except to claim all kinds of achievement that is not true. So, I pray that Nigeria will become a better place. We can improve from my own perspective, looking at my 80 years; and if I look back, I will say that we could have done a lot better. I’m praying that from 2023, whoever God gives us to lead us (and I know that God is interested in Nigeria), He will change even the worst of them. Our leaders in the past have not treated us well. Let us hope that the future will be much better.
What is your philosophy of life?
My philosophy of life is based on love for God and love for people. If you love God, you will first obey Him in all things and that includes loving people even though the latter might be challenging often times; but one must try.
You have been married to your wife for 39 years now, tell us the secret behind a successful marriage?
Wives respect your husbands. Husbands love your wife like Jesus loves the church. Jesus loves the church; He gave His life for the church. That is the template to make your relationship work. Wives should always go to God in every situation and leave the rest to Him.
At 80, would you say life has been fair to you? Would you say you have achieved your dreams?
Looking back on my life, I think God has been more than gracious to me as a human being. There are certain things I was thinking about in the last few days. There were incidents that happened that could have taken my life. I could have died many times. So, I appreciate that God has been specially watching to make sure that I don’t leave before the time He has set for me. I am very grateful. There are so many things I must thank God for.