By Kunle Ajibade
The world’s greatest dramatist, William Shakespeare, writes in one of his plays, Twelfth Night: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Taiwo Taiwo’s meaningful life, recollected thoughtfully in My Mother’s Daughter, is a rare combination of the three Shakespearean categories of greatness: she was lucky to have been born great, she has achieved greatness through hard work and boldness, and she has had greatness thrust upon her because of her talent, leadership qualities and unwavering devotion to ideals that are bigger than herself. We encounter in this book a champion who fights a good fight, a businesswoman and an entrepreneur who is ready to learn from professionals in fields other than her own. We encounter a willing collaborator in any project that will make her community and her country grow steadily. We encounter a woman who, in the face of malice, conspiracy and envy and palpable distressing moments, caused by deaths in her family, simply renewed her energy and kept marching on triumphantly in part because she regards life itself as a daily act of will, a place in which you must rise like Phoenix when you stumble or fall, and in part because she appears incapable of keeping grudges. We encounter in My Mother’s Daughter a high-minded woman who has an undying passion for reading, knowing that great books inspire, reveal and teach. We encounter a well-travelled free spirit with a remarkable power of observation, who knows how to enjoy her life to the full with a prodigious sense of humour. We encounter Taiwo Taiwo who constantly refuses to pretend. On the pages of this direct, explicit and easily readable memoir, Taiwo Taiwo shows that faith, hope and love are important. She, to whom so much love was given by her parents, most especially her mother, now loves other people back.
Born into the family of Samuel Olatunbosun and Alice Olaperi Shonibare on 16 February 1951, Taiwo Taiwo, of all the eight children of her mother, showed very early that she inherited the highest percentile of the business talent of both her parents. She recalls, with pride, how her business savvy father bought from the Onigbongbo family for five thousand pounds, a lot of money in those days, large expanse of land which many people considered a bad investment because the place was regarded as a mere jungle. He had raised the money from Barclays Bank of London, not just for this investment, but for other investments such as shipping, timber, trading and mobile films which his company, Shonny Investments and Properties Limited, handled. He would soon build on that land thirteen bungalows, eight blocks of fully furnished two-bedroom flats and six duplexes, calling them Maryland Estate, now called Shonibare Estate. Before he died in a London hospital in 1964 at 44 of high blood pressure, he was already a towering figure as a businessman after a meritorious stint as one of the most senior managers in the United Africa Company (UAC). He was also the Managing Director of The Daily Express and the Amalgamated Press, a notable politician, and respected community leader and a well-loved philanthropist.
Those who have read Awo: The Autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo; Awujale: The Autobigraphy of Oba Sikiru Kayode Adetona; and Peju Akande and Toni Kan’s S.O. Shonibare: The Legend of All Time must be familiar with how Shonibare emerged as the Federal Publicity Secretary of the Action Group in Owo in 1951; how, along with S.O. Gbadamosi, Alfred Rewane and Akinola Maja, he was the financial backbone of the party; how he helped to set up the National Investment and Properties Company (NIPC) for the Western Region under the leadership of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. It was the National Investment and Properties Company that built Cocoa House in Ibadan, Investment House, Unity House, LEPAL House, Bristol Hotel, Western House, among other income-yielding real estate investments. Apart from real estate, NIPC was also into publishing, agriculture, agro-allied industries, hospitality business, financial services, food and beverages, etc., etc. S.O. Shonibare remained loyal to Awolowo to the very end during the political crisis in the Western Region. Taiwo Taiwo observes in My Mother’s Daughter that it was because of this crisis, which led to imprisonment of many party leaders, deaths and, subsequently, the Nigeria-Biafra war and the banditry of military juntas, that the Shonibare children were warned never to go into politics. Taiwo Taiwo has adhered strictly to this injunction even though she loves politics and international relations. We are told that, without being a member of the council of kingmakers in Ijebu-Ode, his hometown, S.O. Shonibare practically made Oba Sikiru Kayode Adetona the king of Ijebu-Ode by convincing Awolowo, the then Premier of Western Region, to overturn the choice of the kingmakers who had chosen an illiterate man. Oba Adetona was then a young accountant-in- training in England. As soon as he was crowned, the young and educated Oba, in turn, paid back that kindness by making Shonibare the first Asiwaju of Ijebu-Ode. In a chorus of glowing tributes, many people in Nigeria and abroad who knew Shonibare intimately believed that he was a good man.
In all these accounts, the story of Mrs Alice Olaperi Shonibare has not been given the attention it deserves. Yet she was an extraordinary person and gifted businesswoman in her own right, for while she supported her husband’s ventures, she also traded in oil and gas, textile materials and other things in between. A scion of two ruling houses in Odogbolu, her father, Samuel Ademola Olukoya, was a manager in UAC who worked in Akure, Owo and Ilesha before settling down in Ijebu-Ode where he became a successful businessman in retirement. Indeed, Samuel Olatunbosun Shonibare worked under him as a clerk in the UAC. He loved the young man so much for his diligence and hardwork that he gave his only beloved daughter to him in marriage, believing that if Shonibare trusted and took care of her, if he believed in her, both of them would not perish; that they would have an everlasting life. Shonibare, whose muslim name was Sulaiman, agreed to convert to Christianity because of Alice the apple of his eye. By the time Mrs Alice Olaperi Shonibare died in 2006 at 83, she had not only grew the wealth of her family in leaps and bounds, she had also succeeded in passing on the baton of enterprise to one of her eight children, Taiwo Taiwo. In My Mother’s Daughter, the author smoothly braids the stories of mother-and-daughter together because, as her mentor, her mother remains a very significant part of her success story. With uncanny intuition, the mother spotted in Taiwo, very early, a gift for business. Each time she sent her and Kehinde to collect debt for her, Taiwo would not return home until she collected the money in full. Kehinde, who is a medical doctor now, did not have the tact and tenacity for debt collecting.
If her mother was very caring and loving at home, ministering to Taiwo’s persistence, and inquisitiveness, Mrs Harrison the Headmistress of Reagan Memorial Baptist Nursery and Primary School at Sabo, Yaba, in Lagos, could not tolerate a girl who was very assertive and found the school boring. Taiwo was made to repeat nursery one. One day Mrs Harrison, on seeing her playing with Kehinde during break time, scolded her loudly for being in class one while her twin sister was in class two. When she saw her again the next day as she was about to enter her class room, Mrs Harrison, obviously lacking in emotional intelligence, contemptuously said: “The problem with you children with rich parents is that you think you can do whatever you like. Well, I can tell you right now, your rich daddy can take you to school anywhere in the world, but it will never make a difference; a dunce you are and a dunce you always will be.” It was a very unkind out. Mrs Harrison thus made the kind of mistake that Winston Churchill’s teacher made when he described him as one of the dunces and stupidest boys in class because, as Churchill writes in My Early Life, he preferred English Literature to Latin and Greek grammar at St James’s Preparatory School where flogging was a feature of the curricular and kindness and sympathy was conspicuously lacking. Churchill, as you all know, did not only become the Prime Minister of Britain, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” Happily, contrary to the low expectations of her by Mrs Harrison, Taiwo Taiwo has proved many times over that she is not a dunce. She has also confounded the harsh judgement that a dunce she “always will be.”
Her immediate reaction to Mrs Harrison was the kind of melodrama which, as you will find in this memoir, she is still capable of playing when the need arises. The then pupil Taiwo Shonibare simply left the school, trekking from Yaba to Maryland Estate, the new home of the Shonibares since the family had left Spencer Street in Yaba at that time. Only God knows what would have happened to her if the family driver had not, by chance, seen her on Ikorodu Road and then took her home. Of course, her angry father went to the school and gave the Headmistress a piece of his mind, threatening that he would use his paper, The Daily Express, to tell the world what the school had done to her daughter. The Daily Express was a very popular newspaper that time and S.O.Shonibare wrote elegantly in it using a pseudonym even though he was not a university graduate. But he did not write about the incident in his paper. What he did was more drastic, if not desperate: he withdrew all his eight children from Nigerian schools and sent them to England for British education, not necessarily because of that incident. According to Taiwo Taiwo: “he foresaw that the bickering and power struggle between the leaders of the Action Group that broke out almost immediately after Nigeria obtained its independence in 1960 would ultimately become a full-blown war.” He had bought a big apartment located at 21 Kensington Court Garden in London. T.S. Eliot the great poet lived in the neighbourhood. Although this apartment was full of love, but in her school Taiwo experienced overt racism. She illustrates this with one apt example. During a Christmas Carol service in her school, she was made to recite a poem titled “The Little Black Boy” in which the black boy curses his destiny for being black. After reciting the poem, Taiwo, who was comfortable in her own skin (her favorite colour during her school days in England was black), wept profusely. This was in 1961 when she was barely ten years old. She kept asking herself: what was wrong with being black? They wanted to make her insecure, but with the assurances of her mother, she remained confident within herself. She chose to be reasonably authentic but sassy in the roaring and groovy England of the sixties.
In 1964, their father came to London terribly ill. It was too late for his doctor to safe him. His death devastated his family, friends and business associates in Nigeria and England, especially Lord Roy Thomson of Fleet Street the owner of the Mirror chain of newspapers who was a consultant to the Amalgamated Press, publisher of The Daily Service. But Mrs Alice Olaperi Shonibare, the intrepid mother, rose solidly to the challenge of taking care of the children, paying the expensive fees for eight children in Independent Schools in London. After eight years in England, Taiwo, together with her siblings, returned to Nigeria in 1969 for her university education. She attended the University of Lagos where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in History, Political Science and French. It did not take her too long to mix well with the girls who clubbed together because they were classmates in some of the elite secondary schools in Nigeria. In Unilag she made friends with Eniola Bode-Thomas with who at 19, she sold gold rings to fellow students. Her mother’s friends also bought from her. She was the President of the French Society which facilitated her interaction with the French Community in Lagos. She served as interpreter for the Nigerian government during visits by Francophone leaders. Because of her vivacious nature, even though she did not live on campus, she was popular with those who lived there. She enjoyed the parties. She met in Unilag Ladi Taiwo, now a reputable lawyer in Lagos, whom she married on 6 September 1974.
After her graduation from the University of Lagos in 1973 and her National Youth Corps service year, her mother decided that Taiwo, in her late 20s, was matured enough to run a substantial part of the family business: Maryland Hotel. Although her dream was to join the Foreign Service, but she accepted the offer from a mother to whom she was very close. Maryland Hotel had fifty double rooms and ten single rooms. The author describes the magnificent nightclub called The Beachcomber and the restaurant named La Parisienne attached to it, designed by Architect Lai Balogun. She wisely decided to go to a college in Geneva in Switzerland for a special training in Hotel management. With the help of Mr Morakinyo Bajomo who had worked in UAC and who was the Executive Secretary and the right-hand man of her father as the General Manager of Maryland Hotel, the job was made easier. Another manager, Mrs Animashaun, a Jamaican, also helped a lot, teaching her the rudiments of record keeping and the skill of book balancing. She kept herself up to date with new information on how to achieve highest standards in hotel management. Together with her colleagues, she ran a successful hospitality business. She praises her colleagues in this book, most especially Vincent who now works for Marriot Group in New York. When she ran Maryland Hotel, Lagos only had Maryland Hotel, Federal Palace Hotel, Bristol Hotel, Mainland Hotel, Airport Hotel and Niger Palace Hotel and some guest houses.
The success she achieved in the hospitality business encouraged the mother to saddle her with the Elephant House project. In 1970, Mrs Alice Olaperi Shonibare had acquired a building called Elephant House on Broad Street from the Pearce family and she bought three more plots for the purpose of building an ultra-modern high rise in the heart of Lagos for commercial purposes. It took ten years to get approval to put up the structure. As soon as her mother got the approval she mandated Taiwo Taiwo not only to raise funds to build the high rise but to make sure that it was not run at a loss. Again, the mother would work with her in the background. At 29, it was a test of her will. But she was determined not to disappoint her mother. Again, she quickly availed herself of any useful information on building project. She describes in the book the daunting tasks of meeting after meeting, sourcing for funds. In the end, Elephant House, an eighteen-storey high rise on Broad Street, became a reality. She describes how the loan to build it was raised, how the loan was paid back. She was pregnant with her second son, Leye, when she was walking up and down the eighteen storey high rise, without an elevator.
She writes about the excitement she felt at the completion of the project: “I did it! How on earth did I find a way over what had seemed an insurmountable mountain? Through sheer grit and the awesome blessing and grace of God, I had successfully leased out virtually all the vacant space in this enormous building, before completion, to four prestigious banks: Commercial Bank Credit Lyonnais, Allied Bank, United Bank for Africa, and First Bank. I managed this completely on my own; not a penny was paid to any leasing agent for letting fees.” On 17 January, 1984, the 20th anniversary of her father’s death, the Elephant House was officially opened. And, sadly, she also writes: “None of my siblings congratulated me or, at the very least, acknowledged my role in accomplishing this great feat. But it didn’t matter; I was proud of all I had overcome to get to this day, proud that, at long last, Elephant House was officially open.” She describes other instances of sibling rivalries in her family without any hint of animosity. She just took them in her strides. What about the envy of the less privileged on Broad Street? All she did in response was to ask one of her staff, Popo, to let them know that Elephant House, the source of their envy, was all built with huge loan, and that they should all pray for her to be able to pay back the loan. She then started to relate to the petty traders, particularly to the one who sold groundnuts and roast plantain which she liked eating a lot.
Because of the neglect of successive governments in Lagos, the Central Business District in Lagos Island, where the Elephant House is situated, started going down the drain in the mid-nineties: cows were roaming the streets, meat sellers and mountains of refuse took possession of the neighbourhood, fat rats and destitute roamed the place in broad day light. And the place stank. Area Boys, supported by some Area Fathers, caused incessant mayhem in the Central Business District. Taiwo Taiwo thought she and others must do something urgently to stop the drift. So she organized other companies like Shell, United Bank for Africa (UBA) First Bank of Nigeria, Union Bank, The United Africa Company (UAC), and International Bank for West Africa (IBWA) and others. On 8 January 1999 in the boardroom of Elephant House they all met and resolved to work together to restore Lagos Island to its former glory. Through public – private- partnerships, the NGO that was formed, Lagos Island Millennium Group on the Environment (LIMGE), worked tirelessly to solve the problems of traffic congestion, dilapidation of roads, street trading, lighting, sanitation etc. The mission of the group was “to make Lagos a viable, beautiful and tourist-friendly city where law and other reigns.” The group raised money, mounted campaigns and executed projects like the Ajele Fire Station.
The drama that attended the presentation ceremony of this modern Ajele Fire Station illustrates the contradiction in the type of federal system of government that we practice in Nigeria. The then Minister of Internal Affairs insisted that the Lagos State Governor must not be the one to launch the station because the ground on which it was built in Lagos belonged to the Federal Government! The issue was no longer about the modern fire station but about flexing political muscle. Yet before then, there was no functional fire station in the Central Business District in Lagos Island. From other programmes of this committed group, governors Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Babatunde Raji Fashola benefited a lot. It was also this group that saved many people living and doing business in Lagos from the outrageous land use charges imposed on them by the government of Lagos State. As she participated in all of this, Taiwo Taiwo was not afraid like a member of that group who refused to sign an advertorial critical of the Lagos State government’s neglect of the Central Business District which the group wanted to publish in Maiden Ibru’s The Guardian. To some extent, then, My Mother’s Daughter, published by Quramo Publishing Ltd, is not just an autobiography of Taiwo Taiwo, it is also a slice of Nigeriana.
Ten years before the formation of the Lagos Island Millennium Group on the Environment, Taiwo Taiwo had formally established in 1989 with nine other women— Chief (Mrs) M.M. Okunowo, Chief (Mrs) A.O. Bode-Thomas, Ms Olufunmilola I. Aboderin, Chief (Mrs) M. Allan, Dr (Mrs) K.O. Dina, Mrs E. Fadayomi, Mrs G.O. Fadayomi, Lady O.M. Smith and Mrs O. Towry-Coker— Atlantic Hall, a co-educational, full-boarding secondary school in Lagos. The story of how the school was established and the progress it has made so far is carefully told in My Mother’s Daughter. She also recounts the story of the Aart Foundation which she founded in honour of Abioye Aronke Taiwo, her daughter who was killed in Lagos in an auto-accident on 19 April 2002. She did not allow this tragedy of immense proportion to destroy her. Instead, she decided that one good way to memorialize her daughter was to help others to overcome trauma and related psychological problems. She and other directors of the foundation—Dr (Mrs) Stella Okoli, Mrs Joke Jacobs, Mrs Pamela Watson, Professor Bolanle Ola, Mr Ladipo Taiwo and Mr Leye Taiwo— have worked on these programmes in partnership with the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH). They also plan “to promote and advance the virtue of love, kindness, compassion, charity and beauty” among young Nigerians. For Taiwo Taiwo, necessity is the mother of invention. When she moved into her new home in Ikeja, GRA, her desire for unique curtains and blinds led her to start a business in interior designing called Troloppe. From three tailors, she grew the business to twenty tailors and other allied workers. She sold her products to rich clients in different parts of Nigeria. When she bought an apartment in England in September 1995, it was Trollope’s furniture and curtains she transported to the UK for her use. She tells us that the high quality designs would have caused her a fortune.
Let me conclude: In My Mother’s Daughter, Taiwo Taiwo argues that mentoring the next generation is important for any true transformation to take place in our country. And to bring about any positive change, she says that agonizing alone will not solve the country’s seemingly intractable problems. So, she encourages people to organize, organize, and organize again around causes that will make our world a better place to live in. If the goal of Taiwo Taiwo is to deliver a book that is compassionate and inspiring, she brilliantly achieves it, to a large extent, with My Mother’s Daughter.
-Mr Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor/Director of TheNEWS/PM NEWS, is the author of Jailed for Life: A Reporter’s Prison Notes and What A Country! He read this review at the presentation of My Mother’s Daughter in Lagos on 16 February 2021.