ABG @80: Happy Birthday to a National Icon

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By Akin Olukiran

On 18th February 2022, Alhaji Bawa Garba (ABG) officially becomes an Octogenarian, joining the league of my mentor and hero, Dr Newton Jibunoh, OON, who turned 84 on 1st January 2022.  The article I wrote in January to celebrate Dr Jibunoh’s birthday attracted such wide readership that I received personal emails from as far a place as California by an American Executive who had been in Nigeria for a couple of years in the early 90s and remembers Dr Jibunoh.  ABG and the desert warrior share similar attributes that are worthy of praise: they are both self-made men, from humble beginnings; both are successful and have never been in politics; they are both close to power, yet so humble and approachable; both are visionaries, innovative and tread uncharted paths – one across the Sahara, the other in business; both are detribalised Nigerians; and finally, both are philanthropists. 

To really appreciate the import of this milestone, one should look at it in the context of our dear country where the average life expectancy is a depressing 55 years!(Source: https://data.worldbank.org). ABG, the man I fondly call Chairman (whom I will refer to interchangeably as Chairman or ABG henceforth) is a household name in Nigeria, and most especially, in Northern Nigeria where his name is synonymous with communications.  A man of many parts, Chairman is a visionary, an industrialist, an entrepreneur par excellence and most important of all, a tireless philanthropist.

One would be forgiven for thinking that ABG should be much older than 80 years, because he’s been around and been a part of our national life for so long – since the 1960s.This indefatigable business mogul simply called, ABG, was just in his early twenties when he established the first literary and entrepreneurial school called Arewa Advancement Classes in Kaduna in 1967where he trained hundreds of Northern Nigerians in secretarial services during the Nigerian civil war, thereby filling a huge gap and keeping a lot of businesses afloat during the war effort (Government ministries, Newspaper houses etc.).  His intrepid leadership, boundless energy and entrepreneurial spirit have been an inspiration to millions of Nigerians throughout the past six decades.

ABG, in common withhis older compatriot from across the country in the South (the Desert Warrior),is a man of great vision and big dreams, who has consistently encouraged innovation and boldness in both business and social development.  Born in Garkida, a border town in Gombi Local Government, Adamawa State, ABG had a very humble beginning as he started out as a cattle rearer and would travel on donkeys with his father from a tender age of seven.  He did not allow his humble background to hold him down!He personally organised the 1st International trade fair in Nigeria in 1979 – the Kaduna International Trade Fair.  Through this ambitious undertaking, he succeeded in opening up the Nigerian market to the international community and created opportunities for Nigerians to expand their businesses.  The multiplier effects of the Trade Fair (which had since come to stay) were the benefits Nigerian consumers had, through access to an increased range of better-value goods and services and the creation of jobs and prosperity.

To the uninitiated, Alhaji Bawa Garba started the use of Satellite television in Sub Sahara Africa for home use.  In his usual way of creating employment opportunities for thousands of Nigerians through value creation, he established foundries in Kaduna and Lagos, where Satellite dishes were locally produced in 1987.  He also started Cable satellite transmission in Nigeria, thereby being the first private Broadcasting company in Sub Sahara Africa – predating the creation of the regulators, National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC).  To his credit, international television stations like CNN, CSPAN, BBC World Service, Sky TV, Discovery Channel and a few others were first brought to Nigeria by Alhaji Bawa Garba.  It is, therefore, no exaggeration to assert that any history of the enrichment of television channels and content that Nigerians enjoy today without the mention of ABG will not only be incomplete but misleading.

A serial entrepreneur, it is not surprising that he is also the first to venture into Urban Mass Transportation in Nigeria, partnering with the innovative and dynamic El-Rufai-led FCT government to start City-based mass transportation with 150 High-capacity buses in 2006.  A couple of years later, he also introduced an electronic ticketing system on the buses, again pioneering Nigeria’s Cashless transportation system.

ABG’s life and world view are worthy of emulation and should be an inspiration to us all.  A truly detribalised Nigerian patriot, he allowed his children to be and placed a high premium on education.  He gave all his children, education, without any gender preference.  It is therefore heartrending to read that in 2022, some parents are still refusing their female children education.  To underscore his detribalised Nigerian credentials, ABG didn’t think much of it when he gave one of his darling daughters’ hands in marriage to a Yoruba man who could not even speak a word of Hausa.  To anyone remotely close to ABG and the whole Bawa family, you will agree with me that he has succeeded in transferring the same attributes to all his children – genuine and deep friendship across the country without any religious or ethnic biases.

Despite his enormous success and his many firsts, he remains refreshingly approachable and continues to maintain his affable nature.  Chairman has an uncharacteristic open-door policy, gleefully welcoming people into his home and there is no boundary.  In almost four decades of my close association with his family, he never treated anyone of any station with anything other than respect and kindness.  As his sons’ friend, he took me under his wings, and my Yoruba or Christian faith was never an issue in all our dealings and encounters. Ever so willing to assist, he was ever ready to offer his enormous goodwill on my personal issues.  A supremely patriotic Nigerian, I remember discussing a project with him and his final question after my submission was “how many thousands of jobs will it help to create?”.  Always concerned with adding value and creating employment for the Nigerian youth, he was neversatisfied with importing finished goods into the country.This drive informed his partnership with Blaupunkt (BOSCH) in the ‘80s to start the assembly of Car radios, Television and Video Cassette Recorders, thereby employing thousands of Nigerians.

ABG is a philanthropist with a very large heart, who has supported and continues to give to different projects and individuals.  A self-made man who, through a dint of hard work, determination and vision of a better Nigeria, overcame many challenges to build the ABG brand and group.  Not satisfied with the business aspect of things only, he sought to enrich the social and community life of his people by establishing a football club – ABG Babes, which he funded for many years and which brought joy, sporting exposure, employment and recreational opportunities to thousands of Nigerians across the country.  The club, with a large fan base, rose to National league division 2 before its eventual disbandment.

Despite his many firsts and after almost six decades of impacting lives, ABG is not in any hurry to slow down and is still as thirsty for employment-generating ideas, as he was in his thirties.  Blessed with a bright mind as he continues to reinvent himself, he is very much at home with his children and grandchildren, as he is, with his great-grandchildren – even as he celebrates the ripe old age of 80.

As I join the Bawa family and other well-meaning Nigerians to celebrate the Chairman, it gives me great joy to say how incredibly proud I am to have known this great Nigerian through his seeds.  To ABG, you are an icon, a hero, and everything that millions of Nigerians aspire to be. I pray that the good Lord will continue to cause His face to shine on you and renew your youth like the eagles. Happy 80th Birthday, Alhaji BawaGarba (ABG)!!

Akin Olukiran (Akin writes from London, UK and can be contacted on olukiran@gmail.com )

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