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How my tailor became a slave in South Africa – Dele Momodu

In this interview with PAUL UKPABIO, Publisher of Ovation International Magazine, Chief Dele Momodu, speaks on why he stopped living a flamboyant lifestyle, his passion for youths, life abroad, and many more

You have lived abroad for some years, when you see Nigerian youths overseas lamenting about their harrowing conditions what comes to your mind?

I have vehemently opposed illegal immigration. I have been a part of Seyonda, an NGO, an organisation that is trying to discourage the youth from wasting their lives abroad for many reasons. I tell many people I have what it takes to live anywhere in the world, but home is best. I left Nigeria under duress in 1995 during the regime of General Sani Abacha. But as soon as General Sani Abacha and Abiola, Chief MKO died, I came back to Nigeria and I have lived more in Africa. I travel but I have papers for me to live permanently in the United Kingdom if I want to.

Things are difficult in Africa but things are more difficult abroad if you are illegal. If you have your papers, it is easy. If you are going abroad to study, you have paid your fees after securing admission into a school there, and of course, you have secured accommodation with enough resources to feed yourself, along with enough money for transportation, then I don’t have any problem with you. But if you are going abroad with the usual assumption that ‘let me get there first,’ you may never return alive and if you return alive, you may end up in prison.

I can tell you that less than 10 percent of those who go abroad illegally, always come back with something, then there are examples of those who went illegally and made it but trust me, to make it, you must have some outstanding talent that God has given you, some skills that are required in those countries.

Would you advise anyone to resign his appointment as a bank manager and opt for a life abroad?
It is possible to make it abroad, but for someone who is a bank manager here, to say he is tired of this country, then wakes up one morning and says he is off with his wife and children to live abroad just because he has a visa and he says they are going abroad forever, I will say that one is risky. One leg out one leg in, don’t resign from your job no matter how unprofitable it is and say you want to go and live abroad, you will just suffer for nothing. We know our country is tough, our continent is tough, but trust me this is still where the action is. If you have N1 million to buy a visa and ticket you are a big man!

That is still more than $2000 to $3000 if you live abroad for two years, I don’t think you can save up to $2000. But I hardly discourage people again because they don’t listen, you know there is a saying that the dog that will get lost will never listen to the hunter’s whistle. So that is the problem we have with our Nigerian youth. They have seen people who have gone abroad, who made it while there.

Perhaps when those people got there, they were engaged in illegal things like smuggling and credit card fraud. And those kinds of people became their role models. But I can confidently tell you if you plan to go abroad illegally, think twice you might not come back alive.

But do you have a ready example, someone you knew?
Let me give you an example of my tailor, a very brilliant boy we used to call ‘Alhaji.’ He said he wanted to run away to live abroad. I told him you are making money here. He said no, he is not making money. I asked him, what kind of money do you want to go and make abroad?

He said ‘when I get there, I can be sewing clothes for your friends,’ that I should help him out. I told him that I cannot get a visa for anyone. I don’t do it. If you ask me to go to the embassy, I will not know what to say there. He insisted. So I stopped him from coming to see me. For about a year, I didn’t see him again. Afterward, he called to say that I abandoned him, that he wants to come and see me. I thought he wanted to say something serious; instead, he was still on the issue of me getting him a visa. That thing was like a curse! I asked him, what is the latest in his life? He said he has got a visa to South Africa. I asked him, who told you South Africa is better than Nigeria? He said he just wants to go out because he is tired of being in Nigeria. Of course, I couldn’t hold him back. I didn’t know when he traveled out then one day I saw a South Africa number calling my phone. He said, ‘chief, my daddy this is Alhaji. I said you are now in South Africa?

He said yes o, but then, he started crying, he said you told me! That was when he began to narrate his story. He said ‘when I was going the person taking me said I will work for two years but now he has changed it to five years, it’s slavery.’ I didn’t know the kind of work they asked him to do, it could have even drug! If it is a woman it would likely be sex trafficking. He said he wants to run away but doesn’t know where to stay! I told him I am sorry, that I don’t know anybody there in another man’s country, who will put a grown-up man like you in his house. You abandoned your wife and children in Nigeria to go and be a slave in South Africa. I also had another person with a situation like that.

This one was a relative of mine who called me and said I have never helped him. The only help he needs from me is for me to just give him money because he has a visa to travel to America. He blackmailed me so much that I had to go and find the money to give him. After a few months, I was expecting this man that went to America at least to say he had arrived there. But nothing! Then one day, I saw a foreign number calling me, but it was a number from an African country. When I picked the call, the caller said, ‘e mi aburo yi ni.’ I said Oga where are you? He replied that he is in Abidjan. I asked, what are you doing there? He said the people that sold the visa to him said he has to pass through Abidjan. I said to him, you said you were going to America and someone told you to go to Abidjan are you okay? And he had even been arrested and put in prison! So once it’s illegal I will never support it.

Does that mean youths should not travel again?
If you have a genuine reason to travel then you are good to go. Even Americans come to our country for business. I live partly in Ghana but it is not illegal.

I have something I am doing there. I am not a burden to the countries I travel to. I have travelled to over 60 countries in the world, and all continents but I don’t go there to take. Most times I go there to give so if you are giving, mind you, giving is not money all the time, it could be your talent, people invite me to give lectures, speeches and so on, so my advice to the youths is, even if you have N1m or N100,000, you can still do much with it in Nigeria.

This is the only country that you can say you are broke and somebody will give you N10, 000. If you go abroad, nobody can give you 50 pounds. Will somebody that has sweated for two days give you £50, no? But people don’t believe it, they go and see it but it’s always too late before they realize it.

But do you have examples of youths you advised and who took your advice?
Yes, and a ready example is Banky W, the singer. I met him in Toronto, Canada around 2006/2007 he was performing at a club. I didn’t know him. I had not seen him before but I saw the way the girls were screaming, so I knew he was a big star. After his performance I asked the people around, they said he is Banky W. I asked where he was living. I was told he resided in America.

I said they should call him for me. A very respectful guy till today, a very sensible guy, he came and prostrated. I said, ‘you this aje-butter, where do you live?’ He answered America. I told him that his likes are making it in Nigeria. Anyway, I told him to come back to Nigeria. He said he would think about it, that it is not an easy one. So I said to him, when you are ready, call me.

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I gave him my number. And one day, he called and said, ‘Egbon, I am coming home.’ I said fantastic. I told him I would be hosting the first Ovation Red Carol that December, so if he didn’t mind, we will put him on the biggest stage. We did and today, Banky W has become an icon in Africa. Same with Don Jazzy who was living in the UK, he was there at my 10th wedding anniversary in London with his band and he came back to Nigeria after we talked and today he is one of the big guys in the Nigerian music industry.

With the downward trend in the economy and the post effect of covid-19, is it possible for a young man to start any business or trade in Nigeria?
Trust me I was not born with a silver spoon. I lost my father when I was 14 years and my mom was a stark illiterate. She never went to any school; all she did was petty trading. I was an errand boy in a bookshop. I later became a library attendant. I was also a village teacher; so don’t give up. I can tell you, things have not been easy or rosy all my life. The first thing our youths should seek is education. If you look behind me it’s all books, I have some books here that are over 40 years old. I was a voracious reader because I knew, that is the only thing that will liberate me from poverty. That’s the power of education.

A lot of people go to school they don’t read, they are not attentive to the lectures. Such a person will start by not being employable. How can you be employable when all you were doing in school was cultism and other nonsense! How can you be employed when you studied philosophy and you go for an interview and they ask you a few questions about philosophers and you don’t know! So, I tell people there is a process in life. There is what is called, a method to the madness, in building a house, there must be the foundation. And the foundation will determine how many floors you will build.

You can’t build a seven-storey building if you didn’t do a seven-storey foundation! A lot of people complain they don’t have jobs and they didn’t do the right foundation. Preparation is readiness after readiness is glory so if you are not ready don’t complain. I prepared myself. So if you like, run abroad, it is the same job you will get there for the next 50 years that is, washing plates, cars, dead bodies and it is in the cold, thunder, lightning and rain that you will be doing it.

How much can one have to start life and business in Nigeria?
If you have N300,000 you have a lot of business you can do. A lady called Bose sent me a mail, said, ‘big daddy, I want you to change my life so I responded: ‘baby, how can I change your life when I have not changed my own?’ Then she replied that she needed N5,000 to start akara frying business. So, I approved that my office should give her N10,000. A few months down the line, the lady wrote back and said: ‘daddy thank you, you have changed my life, I am now worth N50,000 from that N10,000.’

So the lesson I learnt is that in Nigeria, if you are a graduate you already see yourself as a big man some jobs are beneath you, but when you go abroad you are ready to take any job! One of the problems we have is that people can get jobs but are not ready to do it so you have to humble yourself and be prepared to start from scratch and grow slowly but steadily. There is so much a person can do like frying plantain chips and selling pure water do you think they are not making it? Use N300,000 to start a business, trust me you will do well. I used to be one of the judges for the Entrepreneur series on television.

On the set, we realized that N100,000 will change one’s life. Meanwhile, someone else will worry all his family members to get N400,000, and instead of him investing it in Nigeria, will go and buy a ticket to a country where he doesn’t even have money to feed himself! Don’t say there’s nothing here for you in Nigeria. There’s something here for you!

But is there something wrong with the country?
Yes, I used to lament like Jeremiah about this country, but I have reduced my lamentations. I realised that since I started lamenting in 1978 as a pioneer Jambite at the University of Ife now Obafemi Awolowo University, nothing has changed. The situation keeps getting worse. So I decided to create the Nigeria of my dreams in my private capacity. So we are in my home this morning, what do you see, I set up a mini studio in my house. I want the young ones to see this and see that this is where I am operating from.

In the past, to get a studio, I would have gone looking for a warehouse, creating light effects, and so on. But right here I have my studio and I’m reaching the world. So, the youths have to take advantage of technology. Right here in my home, I am the commander in chief so, in my little world, there is a lot I can do to add to the greatness of Nigeria. That’s how we should perceive ourselves.

Why have you not been travelling abroad lately as before?
I am not traveling as regularly as before. I am not under any pressure to do so unless I am going to make money there, I don’t travel. The little money I make I put it aside to help people especially young ones, students. That’s what I was doing throughout the peak of Covid-19. I have had to reduce my high-profile lifestyle so I can put money aside to render help to people.

You know and understand the entertainment industry, how can youths use the industry to move forward?
Leadership must provide an enabling environment for businesses to thrive. It is then that you will see that a lot of things will change. I have been to over 60 countries. I have seen how it works. Others have travelled and seen how it works. Professor Wole Soyinka is a global citizen. We have a lot of people like that but are we making use of them? The entertainment industry can thrive better here but the government only remembers it when elections are close by and they gather Nollywood actors and a few musicians together to hold a dinner. And after that, they won’t remember them until the next four years.

That was why I contested the presidential election in 2011. God knows if I had been the president, I would have given our youths a sense of belonging. I know how to galvanize them into serious action. I learnt from the best. Do you know the government doesn’t need to spend much money, all they need is to encourage the youths, inspire them, and arouse them from their sleep because they are tired! Give them courage, confidence, hope, Nigeria will change.

That is what happened in China, Singapore, they all went through trials and tribulations like ours but they had great leaders who had kind words for them who had words of inspiration but unfortunately, we don’t have, they only talk to us when the election is coming and they forget us as soon as the election is over!

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