IT was only a couple of hours after returning from Accra, Ghana, where Joseph Olusegun Ajanlekoko had been a guest at the 50th anniversary celebrations of Nigeria’s favourite neighbour, but already, the stack of outstanding files on his desk had been fully cleared.
Precisely a week earlier, his firm, Construction Economists Partnership, had feted guests to a night-out to celebrate its 20 years sojourn in quantity surveying practice. Relaxed but business-like, with an array of plaques and certificates forming a backdrop to his desk in the modest Surulere, Lagos office, the principal partner looked anything but a man who had surmounted the very peak of the conservative profession in the space of just two short but eventful decades. In this conversation, the professional looked back over the years, assessed the challenges facing the construction sector and hazarded a gaze into the hazy future of Africa’s embattled building industry. Excerpts:
“I ACTUALLY have roots that are grounded in my early years as a ‘Breweries child,’ declared Joseph Segun Ajanlekoko, past President of the Nigerian Institute of Quantity Surveyors (NIQS), current President of the African Association of Quantity Surveyors and convenor of Nigeria’s fledgling Construction Development Bank.
Looking appreciably younger than his 56 years of age, it was easy to see why curiosity played as much a part as the gilt edged invitation cards that drew guests to the venue of a reception held recently to celebrate 20 years of his consultancy firm, Construction Economists Partnership (CEP).
“It requires doggedness, determination, visionary perseverance and patience to survive this terrain for so long. The greatest problem one has had to overcome was the non-availability of astute and well brought up professionals,” he says, looking back over the years.
If the climb to the top has been relatively swift, it is probably aptly reflected in the short distance between his Tafawa Balewa Crescent office and the Nigeria Breweries premises at Iganmu, where he spent most of his growing up years.
But then, accomplishments are apparently not strange to Segun Ajanlekoko’s pedigree. The city of Ijebu Ode, in Ogun State, from where he hails, is famous for its incredibly enterprising but prudent business personalities. Thus, when the prestigious Ogbeni Oja chieftancy title – awarded to honour a Primus interpares, or ‘businessman among businessmen,’ – was created, the first recipient was one Chief Gabriel Ogundipe, a renowned produce merchant. Next in line was the late business guru, Chief Adeola Odutola, while the incumbent is Chief Bayo Kuku.
It was to commemorate this honour that Chief Ogundipe took on was felt to be a befitting appellation ‘Ajanlekoko,’ which in Yoruba is interpreted to mean ‘the dog bold enough to chase a hyena.’ Somehow, this was the name that stuck, and his son Samuel Olatunji Ajanlekoko, rode with the tag. It was a decision which apparently also served him well, as he rose in the true likeness of his father, to become in his own career the first African Sales Manager of Nigeria Breweries Limited.
“We always lived close to the breweries at Iganmu, and my father, as the Sales Manager, which was then like an Executive Director for sales, more or less ran the show for the breweries then. So, he controlled the network between the breweries and government and therefore, had all these high profile friends like Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and so on.
“In fact, when the Queen came in 1956, I remember vividly where I was perching on this Nigerian Breweries truck, waiting for the Queen, and so on. It was very exciting, and in those days you would just go to the breweries and at the bar you order for whatever you wanted. Then, the bar man would ask you, ‘can you say you also want beer and order that for me also?’ just so he could have a drink.
There were two defining moments, however, that defined aspects of his later years.
“The first occurred in 1957. I was just six years old when I had a near fatal accident close to our home. I was hit by a breweries expatriate manager who was apparently drunk at the time. He was eventually sent out of the country and I spent about one year at the General Hospital, Marina. In fact, I spent Christmas there with a broken leg, which had to be hung up for over six months. I still have some of the scars and not many people even realise that I walk with a slight limp.
“My education was therefore stalled for one year, but it was at that tie I think I started to appreciate the worth of medical personnel. It was my uncle, Dr. Adebonojo and Dr. Asekun who treated me then and I always admired them any time they came around with their white overalls and stethoscopes. So I grew up thinking I must be a doctor.”
But fate had other plans laid out. A beneficiary of the yearly pair of scholarships awarded by Nigeria Breweries to the top two secondary school and university students emerging from a special aptitude test, Segun Ajanlekoko’s performance at St Finbarr’s College, Lagos was driven by a mortal fear of the legendary school head, Rev Father Dennis Slattery.
“Father Slaterry was a ‘terrorist,’ so to speak. I mean, you see him and you get frightened to your pants. I was a very quiet one because in those days it was a hard struggle to be at the forefront of your academics with your peers. I always tell my children now that that was the training ground for my reading habits; I can’t do without reading every day because of that.
“I mean, after school there were no socials. You go home and it was straight to the British Council library and you are there every day of the week trying to catch up with the syllabus, trying to keep ahead of your colleagues. Some of them are Dr. Segun Ogundimu (John Ken Hospital, Akoka); Prof. Wole Adedeji (a neurosurgeon currently in Saudi Arabia); Dr. Emmanuel Oshiyoye (a lawyer and medical doctor in the United States); and Emilio John, then a brilliant football player (now also a medical doctor in the US). A lot of them opted for medicine because in those days you must be good, but we did not have all round outstanding individuals, because if you come tops in one subject, it is unlikely you will take the first position in the other, and that drove everyone of us. So, by the time we were completing secondary school, we had the best results in Lagos State with about 32 Grade One passes.”
Higher school at Igbobi College, Lagos and later at Adeola Odutola Grammer School Ijebu Ode opened up the ordinarily taciturn young man to a different side of life in boarding house. And, the boy who would not go near a football field at St Finbarr’s became not only a House Captain but also skipper of the school’s soccer team.
But the end of higher school also brought another decision-making landmark. With results that offered an option of studying biochemistry for three years before heading for medical school, a respected uncle introduced Segun Ajanlekoko to the idea of a career in the then novel field of quantity surveying.
“After discussing with my uncle, Senior Apostle Oduntan who was a chattered quantity surveyor, I ended up giving up my admission to study Accountancy at Yaba College of Technology for a shot at Quantity Surveying. It sounded different and challenging then and it was somewhat like accountancy. So about 15 of us went into Yabatech and that was where I met Emeka Offoreh (immediate past President of the Nigerian Institute of Quantity Surveying, NIQS).
“As I completed my programme at Yabatech I knew I had to go for further studies in a more organised environment. There was this special scholarship for building and quantity surveying students by Taylor Woodrow (a consultancy firm) and both of us came out best in the selection exam. As I was preparing to go abroad, another Federal Government scholarship came my way.
“So, I’ve always had this success story about having education without making my parents sweat for it, and they had a lot of money to spend on other children.”
But it was inevitable that stresses would develop from time to time between the impulsive son – an adherent of The Grail Messsage – and his conservative father, Samuel Olatunji Ajanlekoko, a ‘Superior Evangelist,’ who was Grand Patron and doyen of the Celestial Church of Christ worldwide, a mission which he helped register in Nigeria. Along with the first leader, Prophet S.B.J. Oshoffa and Reverend Bada who the senior Ajanlekoko introduced to the church, the trio had formed the early leadership of the faith.
“We used to talk a lot, my father and I, and when he moved to the Celestial Church from the Catholic Church I was the first person to go with him. I was always the one partnering with him. Yes, he used to be a really strong Catholic and was among the people who built up the church then at Oyingbo. So, all of us were born and bred in the Catholic Church from Day One.
“But after my A-Levels I just moved on. It was nearly a crisis. But he was a very tolerant and very understanding father. I reminded him that he also left the religion of his father, he just thought that ‘Chief Lawson has captured my son, and they were competitors.”
The move incidentally, was a rather unlikely step to take at that time. “You see, I am a very inquisitive person and this has shown in all my life. I don’t like being bogged down, I like doing things my way, to explore new ways, to listen to my own mind and be challenged by issues.”
True to that same spirit, upon assuming the NIQS Presidenc, one of his first tasks was to challenge the insular concepts of professional practice which was the status quo among the building professions. I brought down the barrier of professional practice by saying it must be ‘Limited.’ Until then all we had were partnerships but I argued that this was the new way of doing business abroad, that we could not simply remain within our closets.”
“So, I just left the church. I had seen how people perched on to the leadership as the be-it-all. But I needed a more disciplined approach to spiritual matters.”
On the professional side however, Ajanlekoko describes his 20 years experience as an entrepreneur as “fulfilling.”
“When I was leaving England, I was lucky to be the only black to be admitted into **** E. C. HARRIS was like an institution, it was like going to Buckingham Palace, it was an institution that represents what the British stand for. As I got in there, I new it was a challenge in which I must excel. There were only four other blacks on the course with me, among them another Nigerian – Afolabi Banjoko – who went on to become Property Manager at National Oil and Chemicals Company (NOLCHEM).
“I was lucky to secure a job immediately there. The older generation who worked abroad got trained in the local governments, in the ministries and not in professional practice firms. That was where I was luckier. In the firm where I worked there was this caveat that if there was a Briton that qualified, you must put him on. So, I was on work permit after my school and after three years the authorities wrote that ‘you are looking for a work permit for this guy, haven’t you found a Briton who can do the job? The partners made the mistake of showing me this and I made up my mind to leave.”
The year was 1982, and as he prepared to depart Britain in October, a partner in the firm, Brian Harris called Ajanlekoko aside and handed him the tree-point mantra that has guided his professional experience.
His words, Ajanlekoko recalls, were to the effect that ‘You have a bright future, but three things you must not do. First, don’t go into the civil service; that will be professional suicide. Second, don’t go into a big practice your potential will not come out quickly, so go into a small firm where your potential will be quickly recognised. Third, you must pick your time; in three to four years you must exit yourself to run your own practice. And I followed that simple advice all the way through, so by the time I spent three to four years in Pro-Q Associates, a small firm, in October 1986 I set up my practice.”
Today, looking back over the years as President of NIQS and the African Association of Quantity Surveyors, what would he say he has achieved?
“Well, I think the thing I set out to do for the professional world, because I saw there was no codified way of doing things in the country and I saw how, from my experience in Britain they have this Construction Industry Board. I championed the idea that we must have a Construction Industry Board. It was as a result of the lapses, the indiscipline, and the unregulated approach, which we have adopted in doing business in the construction industry.
“My view is that if we have such a board that warehouses every professional, all consultants, all contractors, all specialists and even the clients – both government and private – we can then have a forum where we can decide on best practices, mode of practice and how to go about it. That was because this helped Britain to move from a relatively non-performing construction industry to a high-performing construction industry. Everybody was able to put his or her voices into one forum. And besides, we must challenge ourselves, create best practices and a codified form.
So, this was a precursor to the National Building Code. That was what I thought help bring about the building code, that I thought could start the registration of consultants and help to bring about what I can call a more formal approach to various specialist sub-contractors. It would establish a forum for them, so you know that you can control the intake and the output. Once you have that type of thing then there will be rules for whoever goes in to be registered.
Having said this, the Building Code is a major step forward, a major milestone for the industry and for the nation. This is because if pursued vigorously and implemented, it will help to create a very healthy, vibrant industry, where incidences of quackery and non-usage of professional will become a thing of the past and we can find an industry that will serve that nation better.
How does this affect collapsed buildings? We have suggested that government should set up a private sector monitoring team through professionals. If they want they can pay maintenance for those people, like external assessors. If they can set up a core professional group that will help in monitoring what is being done, perhaps we will have a more responsive accounting process for this issue of approved plans and collapsed buildings. The solution may be to invite the professional bodies and let them pick people to do the jobs. Again, it may come down to having a Construction Board.
We did mention this to the President when we first visited him on the Construction Development Bank issue, but would rather have something that did not involve fresh legislation. But its something that may well be needed for us to have a disciplined approach to carrying out construction business and other related activities. NAFDAC is doing it in the pharmaceutical world, whereby they have put in place control measures. We can do it in construction, because the professional bodies cannot just go on individual basis and say they want to control the suppliers.
“The level of fragmentation in the industry cannot help professionals to succeed. And that was also the essence of the Construction Development Bank, which became a good pedestal to reach out to other colleagues. I wrote to them that we must now come and salvage our industry and one way to do that and to create employment and jobs for us is to pursue this construction bank and they all bought into it and that started off the process for that.
So, we are now in the second phase of this (Construction Development Bank) project. The first phase did not meet the Central Bank’s benchmark. The first phase was to get all the professionals to subscribe and meet the CBN’s requirements. We couldn’t, and so the second phase has started and that is raising a lot of money now, by inviting interested stakeholders and we are using Wema Securities to do that. That is now extending the frontiers to other stakeholders and we want to end that subscription by April. We want to be able to tell the CBN that we have reached the N25 billion threshold by April. We are at the same time sourcing for funds externally. During my last trip to the United States some financial institutions in Florida have promised to raise N200 million for us.
But was the failure to meet the benchmark due to lack of commitment or resources? Ajanlekoko believes it was due to the lack of resources, “I told my colleagues that we can now see how poor professionals in the building sector really are, because we were able to raise during the first phase, which was restrictive, just about one billion Naira”
Would this state of affairs in the sector reflect the impact of government’s reform agenda, which was a major platform upon which the outgoing Federal administration came to power?
Well, housing is a very tortuous issue to discuss, because people can look at it from various standpoints. The reform agenda of government has helped to establish more property developers. They have given power to the Real Estate Developers Association of Nigeria (REDAN) and recognised developers as it were and have challenged them through a process of getting land to execute projects.
But the target markets are unfortunately, those who can afford to own houses, are those who probably have already owned their own houses. It has missed the key critical mass of the public, the average working class whose needs for housing are far more demanding than those that are being catered for now. You can see that a lot of housing development by real estate firms is taking place in Lagos and Abuja, but really, for whom? Who are the target beneficiaries You find that the are not really creating the ‘housing for all’ provides shelter for those who sweat day-in-day-out to earn a living and who deserve to have a roof over their heads.
So, that policy needs to be re-twigged. The idea of the construction bank was to create an avenue where funds could be made available for mass housing through low interest rates, so that the cost of building can come down to a level where an individual who earns a decent living can buy into a property.
We are also going to have a very good mortgage unit so that the essence of working and benefiting from the years of work can be realised from the working class. I think the working class has not been served totally through government’s reform program because of affordability. Those who are borrowing money to build from the commercial banks raise the funds at high interest rates, so its passed on to the cost of the project and becomes something that is beyond the reach of the average earning Nigerian wage earner. That must be tackled, that is the issue that is still a challenge to the Nigerian nation.
But these are all rooted in problems that lie outside the purview of construction professionals?
Yes, construction professionals can not do it, this is a wider economic issue. The instrumentality for that is to create this special market, a special bank, which is why we are clamouring for that special bank to be set up which will do operations business at single digit and can then provide long term funds that are needed for construction.
All these are already encapsulated in the objectives of the National Housing Fund scheme. How do you suppose this one will succeed where the NHF is still struggling?
The Housing Fund was set up by government and it will never work. The President has said anything government does, they have the hands of a leper, these were his words. This one is private sector driven, professionally driven. Over and above whatever we say, I believe Nigeria is still blessed with fantastic professionals who still have that core belief in ethics. I believe in the private sector, the private sector will not throw money out anyhow.
We are talking of a different scenario, a paradigm shift from government to private sector. Let’s see it in operation and I am sure it will succeed far better than anything we have now.
After all said, what do you see happening over the next 20 years in the building sector if we are to gaze through the lens of a ‘breweries boy’ who has already conquered both national and continental peaks?
I think we will have amore uniform quantity surveying world. My goal as president of the African association has been to harmonise standards, harmonise practise, harmonise education and harmonise cost information. I think that will unify the profession and create inroads for it in those unknown areas like the Francophone countries where a lot of construction is being done but a large number of our professionals are not being used, while in Europe they are well recognised.
In Africa, we are still not there, which is why we are pursuing the recognition by Observer status within the Africa Union. Once we receive the Observer Status it means we are recognised within AU. We can then move into the Francophone countries to push the practice of quantity surveying and establish a cost code that will help poorer African countries to grow at a faster rate that they are growing now. There is currently no unity or exchange of ideas, technology, educational standards, which is very important, in what we are doing. We have said we must establish ‘best practices,’ both for professional practice and for educational pursuit. I think that will come within the next 20 years. I believe the challenges are there and development prospects are enormous in Africa.
When we do that and we generate funds within Africa, then we can do a lot of work and push ourselves to those areas that need work to be done. Sudan is there, where they import consultants; Liberia and the war torn zones have a lot of reconstruction work to do. We have professionals, but because of the lack of uniform standards some are shortchanged and many cannot push beyond their constraints except in a few countries.
But do you also share the worries many have over the educational quality of the upcoming generation?
It is worrisome. And that is why through the African association, any professional group must try to look at how to tackle this problem of poor quality graduates that are being produced. I think the National universities Commission has take the first step here by looking at individual courses and I think they have de-accredited some universities of undertaken certain courses. I think that is good; there is so much proliferation of courses all over the country, all in the name f wanting to say I belong!
So, NUC has taken the right step by establishing the criteria to run courses. The next stage is to now see how we can empower the lecturers through exposure and generate more lecturers in quantity surveying and in most of the professions as well; yet, these courses are being run. When you empower the teaching staff I think you will start seeing a better quality education, but right now there is nothing to cheers about.