His case could accurately be described as a story of grass to grace and the description would perfectly fit in. Through dint of hard work and commitment to the fears of God, Alhaji Abiola Azeez, Chief Executive Officer of Azeez Abiola & Sons Nigeria Ltd, has climbed the ladder of business success. He is currently the Zone C’ Chairman, Tricycle Owners and Operators Association of Nigeria, TOOAN as well as a member Lagos NURTW Board of Trustees. In this interview, Alhaji Azeez, fondly known as ISTIJABAH, explains the frantic efforts he is making to remain a role model to the emerging generation
Tell us how it started?
The journey started about 30 years ago. It started when I was in Secondary School. In those days, as a student of Baptist Secondary School, LABASCO, Orile-Agege, Lagos, I used to work as a bus conductor, with Volkswagen Kombi bus. Our route used to be Alagba in Iyana-Ipaja to Agege. This was usually after school.
After school, I learnt mechanical engineering for almost six years. I further acquired driving skills in the process. Thereafter, I went into the business and got a Bedford Molue bus on hired-purchase from Alhaji Shakiru. I was diligent enough to complete the payment and the man was impressed with my performance and later agreed to give me another bus, on same term.
My first Molue bus was, AG 452 MUS, and the second was AP 74 MUS. This later opened up my venture into purchase of buses as a dealer, which I give out on hired-purchase.
Al-Isjijabah has become household name in the transportation sector, why the choice of name?
The brand, Al- Istijabah, is registered under Abiola Azeez & Sons Nigeria Ltd. The name is an Arabic name which affirms God as the start and end of everything. The name means, Prayers Answered. I am the type of person who allows Almighty Allah to guide his actions. He is first for others things.
How do you manage thousands of men working for you?
I earned all I have got through the support of Almighty Allah. Having so many people working under me and making living through my business network is a function of discipline, focus and perseverance.
I lend money to people for business without interest. I only make profit based on Islamic tenets. I give people opportunity to grow but not as a shylock.
How profitable is the transport business?
The transport sector is a risky job. I learnt everything about the business from the scratch. Thanks to the mentorship of my first benefactor, Alhaji Shakiru Adanitan, who sold my first commercial bus to me. He is my mentor and role model in the business of transportation. He employed me as a manager, having tested me with so many things including money.
It is inspiring to be empowered by a mentor. I have gone ahead to empower people in that same manner by giving out buses and other vehicles through hire-purchase.
What attracted you into NURTW having achieved much as a car dealer?
Car dealership and ownership is a branch of NURTW. So my involvement in the NURTW activities is another great experience for me. I joined as a Unit Chairman and moved through the ladder as Branch Chairman, Zonal Chairman of TOOAN and now a member of the NURTW Lagos Board of Trustees, BoT.”
I have joined my leaders both past and present to reform the status of the union. MC Oluomo, who is now Lagos NURTW Chairman has made me part of the team to upgrade the status of the union. This is why we have more University graduates coming into the business.
How much influence has your religious belief had on your activity as a Union man?
I am a serious Muslim. The Almighty Allah is the supreme. I observe all my prayers daily. I make my daily decision based on fear of God.
How do you deal and manage different characters exhibited by your boys?
I have so many men with funny characters among those working for me. I am determined to change them into responsible and honourable men. As Muslims and Christians, I have introduced mechanism that would help apply fear of God in them. The idea of instilling the fear of God in them is to guide their actions at work, community and home.
I always have private sessions with all of them to ensure that they are changed and influenced. I have been receiving good feedback from people about some of them and it a delight being a great influence on them.
I have, at different occasions, taken time to plan lives of errant staff and stubborn people around me. I have been a great influence on them and this has brought joy to me.
What is your staff strength?
It is difficult estimating the numbers of men and women working under my transportation business. In the tricycle department, I have over 1000 tricycles managed by Istijabah Transport Company, plying different routes across the entire Zone C.
I have hundreds of Volkswagen LT buses. You can imagine having like 6 people working on each bus, then multiply that with over 200 buses. That is just about 120 people working on shifting basis in that department and it goes beyond that if I have to do accurate estimation.
The trucks and haulage department also has so many workers. Apart from the transport sector, I have so many staff working in the Bakery and Gas Station. There are so other companies registered under the Azeez Abiola & Sons Nigeria Ltd.
What is your success secret?
As a transporter who is now a Union leader, honesty and fear of God are my top secrets.
Is it true that you need to be a tout to become a Union leader?
My venture into the transportation business is not influenced by hooliganism. I have never participated in any form of gangstarism.I have never led thuggery or involved in vices in order to emerge as a Union leader.
I have achieved all I got through hardwork and focus. I don’t smoke, drink alcohol and I do things capable of bringing shame to my status. You don’t have to be a thug before becoming a Union leader.
How do you control your boys who smoke and drink?
I have disciplinary measures in place to checkmate their lifestyles and operational excesses. They can’t come to my office or event with hemp and alcohol. I don’t give them that chance. It is a rule that they have learnt to obey. No matter the size of the gathering. They understand my dos and don’ts. They pass this message among themselves.
Is it true that your boys remit millions of Naira to you per day?
This would be nice if it is true. But I am sorry to disappoint you, that it is not true. There is nothing like millions of Naira daily, rather the money we make daily is shared from the street to the National leaders. You can imagine the stages that the token collected from bus drivers are distributed. The collector takes a certain percentage to take care of his home and the sharing process goes through the finance officer at the Unit level, to the branch, Zonal, State Exco Chairman, Federal Exco and finally to the National President.
The money made daily is not owned by an individual. So I don’t have sole authority over it, because we make remittance to different levels, until it gets to the National level of NURTW.
Instead of paying unnecessary attention to the daily earnings the Union makes, we deserve some credits for creating jobs for millions of people.
NURTW is the largest employer of labour. This can be contested with facts. Review what happened during the lockdown and you would see the people who are affected. The level of hunger was as a result of the lockdown and the road transport workers were the people mostly affected.
If the NURTW is not that attractive why are people killing themselves to emerge as Union and park heads?
People struggle to own parks and head the Union because of that wrong perception. It is not true that there is so much money in the Union, most of us have been in business before emerging as Union leaders. There is nothing attractive about NURTW. I have businesses that I do beside this and other investments.
How do you protect your members and workers from undue harassment by law enforcement agencies. How are you coping with Government’s policy on ban of tricycle in some routes?
We have continued to hold continuous engagement with the government officials on how to put the interest of our people in context when developing policies and enforcing them. MC Oluomo as the Chairman of Lagos NURTW has earned respect from the government. This has influenced the way our members and their interest are protected. There will always be reforms , we just have to adjust and align with new development aimed at making our country better.
We have regular seminars and workshop with the law enforcement agencies on road safety and rules. These fora offer opportunity for us to have a good working relationship with law enforcement agencies.
How do you give back?
Families of workers ( drivers and conductors) who have lost their lives on the line of duties have continued to enjoy support from us. We reach out to theirs wives and children. Some are on scholarship while we have set up businesses for their wives.
We have a policy in place for our workers including soft loan without interest for repair of their buses and keke. Some of them have benefited from our hire-purchase scheme with friendly terms. Our terms of bus ownership are friendly and that is why many people are working under our company.
I have people who have been sponsored to Hajj and this is what we do every year. I have families who are benefiting from our food and housing support programmes.
What is your reaction to the way you are tagged in the street due to the excesses of your boys, and how do you manage this?
It difficult changing the perception people have towards you, especially if you have so many people depending on you. I have continued to enforce discipline among my boys. I am aware this is having impact on the way I am tagged but if you come near me you will see the reality. This hazard of leadership is not limited to the Union alone. This is how the law enforcement officers especially the police are tagged but it doesn’t mean there are no good ones amongst them.
As for the excesses of my boys, our office is always opened for members of public to report any errant staff. We have measures in place to checkmate them. Trust me, none of them would be willing to be reported.
What reforms are you planning to introduce now as the Zonal Chairman of TOOAN?
TOOAN of NURTW is about to witness uncommon leadership style and Zone C, is to be the leading zone in Lagos state due to our power-packed programmes that we have started to implement. We have programmes in place for every registered member. We have empowerment programmes for the members. My plan is to give out more than 100 tricycles annually to members who have preformed excellently well throughout the year. There also workshop and trainings that we would be running for all. These are aimed at completely changing the way we are addressed.
What would you like to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered for implementing remarkable feats during my tenure and this is the legacy I want to leave behind at the end of my administration.