Chief Bimbo Roberts Folayan is the Chairman, Central Association of Nigerians in the United Kingdom (CANUK). The former People’s Bank chief turned civil rights activist was one of the prominent Nigerians in the clamour for the restoration of the presidential mandate of the late business mogul, Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola after the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election. With the then head of state, Gen. Sani Abacha growing more and more intolerant of the clamour for Abiola’s mandate, Bimbo, as he is fondly called, had to flee the country like other pro-democracy activists, escaping to Europe through a route now popularly called the NADECO route. He continued his activism in London thereafter and later became CANUK’s chairman. In this interview with PAUL UKPABIO, she shares his experience living abroad for more than two decades, the widening gap between Nigerians at home and abroad, and why the People’s Bank in Nigeria collapsed, among other issues.
YOU have lived outside Nigeria for more than two decades now. Are you in some kind of exile?
Yes, it is more like being in exile. But then, it is a two-way thing. First of all, east or west, home is usually the best. But somehow, I found myself abroad because of the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election which was won by MKO Abiola. I was an activist, and that was what took me abroad.
You were comfortable as a banker. Why go into activism?
I had a good job. I was working as a senior manager in a finance mortgage bank. But when that election was annulled, some of us formed the June 12 movement and we campaigned against the military. I was arrested and detained a couple of times. My wife was pregnant with our first son and we just got married. I decided to travel abroad to hide in exile just for a few months.
The thing with abroad is that once your wife starts to have children, you have to make a decision whether to stay with your children or come back home. When Abacha died, I decided to stay with my children. But I am home in Nigeria these days three times a year. I am not the typical Nigerian who lives abroad. My heart is always in Nigeria.
In those days that you were at the People’s Bank in Lagos, what was it like working with the legendary Tai Solarin and the late Mrs Maria Sokenu?
It was brilliant. I was one of the foundation members of People’s Bank and the programe officer that set up most of the branches from Badagry up to Ojo. We were setting up the centres up to Alaba to the little towns in Agbara and all the border towns. We recruited all the staff there. It was wonderful working with a man like Tai Solarin the Chairman, who was known for integrity, Mrs Maria Sokenu too.
Incidentally, when I came home several years later, I met Mrs Sokenu at the Abuja airport and she was joking, ‘Bimbo, you are no longer fine, you are very fat now.’ I told her I came home because I brought a Diasporan who wanted to run for governorship in Bayelsa State. The man lived in Brighton in England and was not used to Nigeria. Mrs Sokenu said, ‘You know what, I came to see Obasanjo (who was the president at the time)’. She asked me when I would be returning to England and I told her the third day. She said if I could bring my friend back in three weeks’ time, she would personally take us to Obasanjo so he could support his aspiration. She wrote her address and told me to come to an event she was to have at the Central Bank of Nigeria.
Did you go back?
Guess what happened, I got to England and told my friend that we should buy our tickets and go back to Nigeria to meet Mrs Sokenu. My friend said he would only buy his own ticket and that I should go and buy mine. I was upset. I told him I was the one taking him there and had the connection. He said he could not afford it, so I said I wasn’t going. That was what saved my life! I was to meet Mrs Sokenu in Lagos and we were to fly together with her in that ill-fated flight with my friend. She died in that flight. I hope one day, I will meet the children and show them that diary and the appointment we made that she wrote on my diary, the date she put there. She had met Obasanjo who gave her another appointment in three weeks. She was to take us with her on that appointment. It was a great shock to me. So sad!
What was your perception of the People’s Bank then? Did it really meet the objectives for which it was set up? What problem would you say the bank had the most?
I think we had teething problems. But it was a fantastic concept, because when you look at Nigeria, the economy is powered by micro and small businesses. I travelled round Nigeria and that was what I saw. And that was what People’s Bank was set up to do: finance micro/small businesses and empower the people with loans. In those days, it used to be small money but it used to be impactful on them.
The problem we had was that of collection. A lot of people were not credit worthy in terms of paying back. We had a collection team that used to go out as a team and seize their equipment. But it was powerful. I think government should have improved on that. They came to us as cooperatives and it was effective. Government needs to revisit it to help businesses grow and take people off the job market.
How easy was it to adapt to the lifestyle abroad on arrival? Did what you met on ground meet your expectations?
No. A lot of us, when we travel, think that we could pick money on the streets; that life is easy. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. Living abroad was completely different. The culture shock, particularly in a conservative culture like the UK, was a complete off-balance to me. Most Nigerians are American-centric in the flashy way we do things and so on. But the UK is a different society. Te principle is based more on fairness to everybody. I think one can relocate and adapt, but it is more difficult in the UK. I have tasted both worlds, so I can say.
How long did you stay abroad before you started visiting Nigeria?
I was abroad for five years. I didn’t have the means of coming back to Nigeria. I didn’t have enough documentation to enable me travel home. I left in 1994 and came home in 1999 for the first time.
After staying abroad for so many years, have the conditions you left Nigeria in changed?
I think it has changed in some regards, because now you have the social media, and with that there has been a lot of awareness in Nigeria. It has become a global village. I have made a lot of friends that I never had in Nigeria, who are very conscious and on the same page with people across the world. Now you see people on the streets in Nigeria who are more aware. That is a major change that I have seen. But physically, I don’t think there has been too much of improvement in infrastructure. Recently I went to Agbara and on the road I saw little improvement. In the Lekki axis though, there hasbeen new development.
At what point did you become interested in involvement with the Nigerian community in the UK?
As soon as I landed, I identified the activists in the UK and there we had the Nigerian Democratic Movement, and then the Nigerian Forum, and NADECO was there as well, and we continued with carrying placards to the Nigerian High Commission. I saw people that I had interacted with in Nigeria as an activist; people like (former) Governor John Oyegun, his deputy Obadan, Bola Tinubu, Gen. Akinrinade, Hon. Wole Oshun, Dele Momodu and Wura Abiola. They were already there. I think Dele Momodu met us much later. There was also Tokunbo Afikuyomi. All of us were campaigning and going to the High Commission almost on a daily basis.
When (Ken) Saro-Wiwa was to be killed, we flew to Scotland to protest. Eventually, he was killed and I was part of those who fought against the military. But after some time, the Nigerian High Commission decided to put together an umbrella body for all Nigerians in the UK. But prior to that time, there were so many organisations that claimed to be speaking for Nigerians in the Diaspora, and they were all behaving like the typical Nigerian politicians, fighting one another and even going to court to be the authentic representative until Christopher Kolade and the head of the chancery at the time came together and put a body together that could speak for all Nigerians. That was how they set up CANUK (Central Association of Nigerians in the UK).
I was invited by some of my friends who said, ‘Bimbo, we noticed you have leadership qualities, why don’t you come and run for an elective office as chairman of the community?’ I was the second chairman of the Nigerian Community in the UK. Four years down the line, they all invited me to run for a second term but I had to decline. I was not interested, but virtually all the professional bodies were rooting for me and all the state’s associations and unions were calling on me. So I contested again and won.
What were some of the challenges you faced leading the Nigerian community in the UK?
One of the challenges I faced was that a lot of the Nigerians abroad still carried their ‘Nigerian-ess’ abroad. And it is always difficult for them to remove. I was a volunteer and not paid by government. Some thought I was being paid, so I was getting invitations and was also being criticised by a few people for works that I had not done. They thought it was the federal government that put me in that position to be looking after them. Meanwhile, there were no funds or budget. I was actually using my money. They put too much pressure on me and expected so much from me. Another challenge was that many Nigerians abroad always want to come back home.
How did you handle the issue of illegal Nigerian immigrants in the UK?
We have Nigerian professionals, barristers, who always help out on good cases and understand the immigration process. They are called Nigerian-British Law Forum. Sometimes people are picked up through random visits to houses and taken to detention centres. As soon as we are called, we go there to look it over and sometimes take care of their loads or belongings. There was a time that my apartment was filled with all manner of properties of people who were trying to sort out their immigration issues.
What do you consider the burden of African immigrants in the United Kingdom?
I think the main burden is culture shock, particularly Nigerian immigrants who come to western countries with African mindset and that makes it difficult for them to survive. In Nigeria, for example, people will buy houses and pay cash. In Britain, it does not work like that. In Nigeria people pay millions of naira to buy cars at once. The vast majority of people in the UK don’t do that. It is a credit driven society and that is what keeps the society going. You pay in installments as you get your income. So people come here, because they are not used to the credit system, collect credit and do not pay back. And when you don’t pay back, they score your credit low until you can’t get credit to make progress in life. In UK, things are not too flowery or colorful like it is in Nigeria or the USA. It is conservative and a lot of Nigerians can’t blend.
Some Nigerians believe that the streets of Europe are paved with gold and even illegal migrants can survive and quickly find success within months…
It used to be so. Immigration used to be relaxed then because you could work underground for a long time if you were an illegal immigrant. But now, immigration has been tightened and employers are now fined and landlords are not allowed to give you accommodation if you don’t have a legal status. It has now become very difficult. It is not very advisable for anyone to come into Europe without perfecting their documentations before leaving their home country.
How can Nigerians at home benefit from the wealth of exposure that Nigerians in the Diaspora are exposed to in terms of development?
I think Nigerians are already benefiting. I am patron to 22 organisations, and most of these organisations have their inputs in Nigeria, maybe through medical missions to Nigeria or others who come to Nigeria to give trainings for free. We even have organisations in the UK who come to Nigeria during Christmas or Ileya (Sallah) to cook food for people to eat. I know them and they relate to Nigeria well. I know some who come to Nigeria for three weeks to provide free eye glasses and treat eye problems. There is one that looks after aged people in Nigeria. Then there are women organisations and so also youth organisations, which provide lots of support to Nigeria.
With covid-19 scourge still ongoing in some parts of Europe and some other places around the globe, what advice will you give to those considering migration, lega or illega?
My advice would be that if you want to relocate to a country like the UK, please get a lawyer who will assist you with the legal route. Please follow the legal route because it is a lot easier. It saves you a lot of headache and heart aches. If you are a medical doctor or engineer, there are one or two examinations that you have to do. Please find out. If you come in illegally, you will be hiding and hiding and you will get jobs just to survive until you are caught and deported.
Are you looking at coming back home to settle in the near future?
Definitely, though I am not fully settled in Nigeria. But home is home. I have a house there and now the world is a global village and London is just six hours away. So, one can shuttle between Nigeria and the UK.
When you are in the UK, what do you miss most about Nigeria?
I miss the weather in Nigeria. If you grow up in Nigeria, you will know that Nigerians are loud. You go anywhere, people that you don’t know talk to you. But in the UK, people keep to themselves. So this is how we grow up, meeting people in the street and talking to them. ‘Hello brother, your cap is about falling off!’ But in the UK, if you like, wear your cap on your leg; nobody is going to say a word to you! It’s so funny.
Another thing I miss is the attachment. On my passport is written Bimbo Robert Folayan. When I got to the airport here, an immigration officer called my name, Abimbola! They tell me most often that my name is Abimbola not just Bimbo, and even go ahead to call me Afolayan! And that makes us interact further. So this is what you can never get abroad! Nigeria is friendlier, but UK people are nicer. They are very decent people who allow us to live in their country, especially when you do the right thing. In the UK, you don’t need to know anybody. Just drop your CV and you will be called if you merit the job. But in Nigeria, even if you merit the job, you need to know people. I guess when God created these countries, He gave them different qualities.
Nigerians in Diaspora seem to just stay in foreign lands and criticise the Nigerian government. When are we going to have Nigerians in Diaspora return home to contest elections?
Many of them have been returning and participating. I can count many names. We have the branch offices of most Nigerian popular parties in the UK. So we have those who just criticise but we also have those who return to participate. Now there has been a clamour for Diaspora voting, but it is still work in progress. Now that we have NIDCOM and people are clamouring for it to make Nigerians abroad be able to vote, when that happens, perhaps that will motivate more people abroad into Nigerian politics.
The truth is that we abroad struggle to get into Nigerian political parties. In fact, most Nigerians abroad are treated like second class citizens in those Nigerian political parties. I attempted it too. I joined the Nigerian political party. I spent so much money and realised that I was just used. And there are so many similar experiences like that with Nigerians in the UK.