Alhaji Bawa Garba, popularly known as ABG, pioneered satellite broadcast in Nigeria. Indeed, he said it was the challenge his foray into the business created that made the government to set up the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission (NBC) in 1992. The man behind the creation of Abacha Television in the 1990s revealed how he came up with the idea, the interest it generated and how far it went.
How did you go into business?
l started business at the age of nine without capital. My father, Garba was a businessman from Garkida. My mother, Jero, was from Song Local Government Area. She was Fulani while my father was Babur. At the age of nine l was following my father on a donkey to carry white chalk (farin kasa in Hausa) to Garkida.
My father supplied missionaries with the white chalk, and we used to dig to get it. You see, Garkida has been popular. Those days, people from Kano and Cameroon came to the place. As far back as 1935 or something like that, the missionaries came to Garkida and expanded the secondary school and water system in Biu. There was a bridge which served as the boundary. In 1935, Garkida was under Borno, but we later came under Yola.
When my father went with his donkey, l followed him and we brought the white chalk to supply the missionaries there and other areas. l was in an Islamic school. They sent me to the same Islamic school in Biu with the current emir, Mai Mustapha. l was very stubborn as a boy. l couldn’t sit down to read, so l ran back to Garkida. The late Lamido Adamawa, Alhaji Usman Borkono and my uncle, who was a member of the parliament, as well as the missionaries, were in one part of Garkida. We stayed at Ungwan Fulani.
Our parents did not want to put us in modern schools because they were scared that the missionaries may convert us. But the relationship between my father and them, which grew through the sale of white chalk, made him to be convinced that l could not sit down to read in the Islamic school, so he put me in the missionary school with one other lady, who is now late. She was the wife of the former secretary to the government, Maccido Dalhat, who is also late. When it was time for religion, I and the lady would be asked to go out because only two of us were Muslims; other people in the class were Christians. That was how we started in 1952.
One year after, they said they wanted to establish schools to convince the Fulani and Hausa to take their children to school. We were not paying anything; instead we were even given money.
l started business with less than N1,000. l was selling provisions in Garkida. I would go to primary school, come back and sell my goods, and l was still following my father. That was how l became an entrepreneur and was making some money. By 1959 they said we should leave for Yola. I was doing very well. I won a lot of things in sports, including football.
I was moved from the school I was attending in 1959 to Girei Local Government, few kilometers to Yola. That was the beginning of the senior primary school. l started another business activity there. We fetched water for our housekeepers. Government was giving them 30 shillings per month. Government also paid us and gave us uniforms. They also fed us.
When we were to go on holidays l chartered a lorry. And I would stop on the way to see my maternal grandfather. Because we were children, when we travelled we would refuse to bath for two days so that the dust would remain on my body to prove that l was in a big lorry. The roads were not tarred. In the lorry, l would stay in front and start collecting money from others. I would collect commission from each of them, including my schoolmates and the lorry driver. Some of my mates were Professor Gidado, who was in-charge of UBEC.
During holidays l had what we called ‘the view master.’ It was like a camera; when you pressed it it showed you Saudi Arabia and other places. When l was in Yola with my uncle, he used to tour some areas within the then Gongola State and we would go together. When he was engaged in political talks with the district head, I used his vehicle to show the view master at Guni, where at least 90per cent of the people were Muslims. I would show them different parts of Saudi. l communicated with them in Fulfulde and they paid me.
I also did the same thing at Yungur, which is in the present Taraba State. Due to lack of civilisation, the women were half clothed. It looked funny. l showed them some dances on the view master and interpreted to them in Fulfulde. They kept their money (coins) by tying it around their necks. After watching, they would remove the money and put in the vehicle. It was a big van, which was not common. The kids would start dancing and I told them they would have rain. There was freedom that time.
When l was at Girei I continued my provision business. I started selling cigarettes to my teachers, including headmasters that smoked. They paid me when they received salaries, so sometimes they didn’t discipline me because if they did l would refuse to give them on credit.
l was very good in football. In those days, it was not how you dribbled the ball; it was how high you could kick it. So, during a football match, the district head would bring his seat and the people would come from the town in the evening to watch. When l kicked, they called me BG, meaning, Bawa Garkida, not Bawa Garba. It was something good when l dribbled somebody and he fell down. It was a lot of fun.
On market days l would go to the viewing master and make some money. That was how I continued in business.
What were you doing with the money you were making?
I was always comfortable because when l went out every day l would come back with some rice and yam, which was not common in that area. I would give it to my uncle’s wife.
Who was helping you to keep your money since there were no banks?
l kept the money. It was not that much but it had great value.
At a time, they came to recruit people for the police at the senior primary school at Girei. They tested us and found me to be good. That was how they said they were bringing us to Kaduna. My father’s good friend, Ibrahim Biu, who was a minister during Sardauna’s administration, lived in Kaduna, so my father said I should go to him. I was able to trace him and I was given a job in Nortex as a production clerk. The company sent us for training.
You did not enlist in the police?
I was attracted to Nortex, that’s why I did not join the police. I was supervising production, so I was given a Volkswagen car that always took me home. As a bachelor l would wake up as early as 5am daily to cook. Then the civil war started.
The Sunday Times featured me on its pages, describing me as one who did a job a northerner could not do. That was because I also went into newspaper distribution in Kaduna South. When the New Nigerian Newspapers started, I was selling it there, early in the morning. I would call vendors and give them their papers, and the same vehicle would take me to work.
After cooking my breakfast and distributing the newspapers, I would assume duties as a post office man because there was no northerner to do the job and southeasterners were running to go back to their places. While that was going on, I came to Golko Street, now Benin Road in Kaduna and met Ambassador Magaji Muhammed. He was the district officer and they were looking for northerners to come up and do something. I was running the post office in Kaduna South and I was given an abandoned property at Benue Road, where I started Arewa Advancement Classes, a commercial institution to get northerners trained as typists so that they could be sent to the warfront. Later, it became the main business I was engaged in, so I would wake up in the morning, distribute papers to vendors, do post office work and come down again to town to supervise the classrooms.
The school expanded and people who were interested to learn kept trooping in. That was what initially exposed me to the society; there were so many opportunities. Another company, Arewa Construction Company asked me to leave Nortex to join them as clerk. They said they would give me more money in terms of salary. That time I lived in a small room, and my wife was brought to me by my father.
How were you able to get students and teachers for those classes; did you advertise?
No, once you start something, information goes round. For the teachers, I had people like Daramola and the rest. Government was aware of the classes and they gave me approval under section 10 of the northern education law when Ahmed Pategi was the minister for information.
Did it take you time to get the approval to run the classes?
No, it did not. I went to my friend, Magaji, because they were looking for people like me who could run businesses..
Ahmadu Coomassie, the father of the late Inspector-General of Police, was giving out brand new Volkswagen cars without collateral to young people to pay at any time. But I already had a vehicle, so I didn’t need the vehicle. Coomassie said they needed northerners that were enterprising to open accounts, so I went and opened an account in Standard Bank. The manager of the bank, who was a British man, would escort me to my new office at Gombe Road.
Before I got the vehicle that was taking me home, I had a motorcycle; and I was going round all these areas on it. It was when I went to Nortex that I got a car. But Arewa Construction Company gave me a Volkswagen car and a driver. That was between 1967 and 1968. Then I was a pay master, I would go to the construction company and pay them their salaries and balance the money. I liked the job because once I finished paying I had a free day to run around. By then I was no more a bachelor because I got married in 1965. My first son was
Anytime you mention ABG, the first thing that comes to mind is cable television, how did you venture into that business?
I told you I pioneered many things. When I saw the trade fair going very well I invited my late mother and she presented a television set to Shagari (I still have the picture). That day was a day she never forgot. She was so overwhelmed. The television business was going on well; and changing the brand to ABG helped me a lot. But then, I started thinking of what to do to sustain my business and the idea of satellite came in. I went to Washington DC with my son, Musa, then to Atlanta, the CNN centre and told them that I needed a franchise to popularise CNN in Nigeria. They gave me franchise. Ordinarily, you would pay money, but they gave it to me free of charge. When I came back, I started
producing dishes, and suddenly, the Sadam war started. That was the boom. I produced big dishes in my factory in Kaduna South. Then I used to go to every international fair worldwide. One day, I came across the small dish, which cost N14, 000, and that’s how we put ABG everywhere. I brought the dish, launched it in Lagos and people were curious about how the small dish could be that effective.
The Igbo were putting eyes on that and people started rushing to buy the product. They were surprised that a northerner could do this. The easterners found a way to buy from where I was getting my antenna. They imported and undercut me in Aba market. Then my son, the engineer, said we should go to the next fair in Stuttgart so that I could use anything they showed electronically to beat these people coming to undercut me. In Germany, we were told about a scrambler. I bought the scrambling system and installed, but I did not have the decoder, so I started publicising for people to buy directly from us, telling them that if they did not, we would scramble their network. They were wondering how we could do that. We got the exclusivity for the satellite television and started to scramble our channels and people saw that what we were saying was true; then they started rushing for decoder. I started making profit and buying more decoders. But let me tell you the challenge with Nigerians – they found ways to break that technology again after some years. I started thinking of what to do while looking for the one they could not break. I was on that before the government started to talk about license for cable operators. Before I started the satellite business, I went to Babangida for permission. He wrote a letter to Akinyele, who was then minister, to give me a licence. It was because of what I was doing, that the NBC came into being. The NBC said we had to get approval from the NTA, then Muhammad Ibrahim, who is now a district head, was the director-general. He called me, asking what type of content I wanted to show on my satellite. I assured him that it would make NTA more popular. After I convinced him, he wrote back to government to say he had no objection. That’s how the license was granted to me free of charge; the same license I was to pay N10million in five years to operate in Lagos, Abuja, Kaduna and all over the country. What defeated me was that if I came up with a technology they would break it. Places like my state, Adamawa and so many others were not paying, so we were running at a loss.
Then the DSTV came into Nigeria to cooperate with me to work with them because I already had off-takers. But when we sat down, we disagreed over prices and I told them I could not take their prices to the North but only in Lagos. They insisted, but based on my past experience in the North, I refused to take it. So I signed the agreement with them, but only for Lagos. After sometime they expanded. If I had agreed, I would have been sleeping and everything would have just been coming.
I was given a doctorate degree after that. Many people at home wanted to give me award, but I refused. The one from Atlanta was the only one I accepted because I felt it was genuine. They went to the CNN, collected data about me and gave me a doctorate. I accepted because they got to know how CNN came into Nigeria. I brought Peter Arnet, one of the leading men in CNN to Nigeria during the Abacha administration. As First Lady she wanted exposure and publicity. The CNN wanted to know the connection that would give her the exposure, but they did not want to come to Nigeria because they were afraid of Abacha. So they arranged that Peter Arnet would come to Nigeria, but I had to go and receive him in Ghana. He came and interviewed Maryam Abacha on her activities. The tape would be sent to Kano to be flown to London and aired on the CNN and other media platforms in the world.
How did you come about a bus transportation scheme in Abuja known as Nationwide, which you pioneered?
I pioneered the transportation scheme in 2006. I brought 150 buses from Brazil at the sum of N1.8billion. I didn’t have N1.8billion, but I negotiated in Brazil. I told them that the government wanted to introduce city transportation in Abuja to decongest the city and they wanted somebody who could do public-private partnership. I asked the government to give me 25 per cent of the cost and the land for bus terminal. When they gave me that, I flew to Brazil and told them that I had this business, I started with 150 buses and told them to give me deferred payment, but they said that no African had ever done that. They went to Exim Bank of Brazil. One of the conditions was for me to get a first class bank to open the LC. I came to Nigeria, and after speaking with many banks, we finalised with Diamond Bank. The bank asked for collateral and I gave them my office in Abuja. They said all the money coming in would remain in their account, including the land, and I agreed because I wanted the job to be done. They were called El-Rufai buses. People were surprised to see buses coming into Nigeria. All the big people came to launch the project when they did not put one penny. All were business ideas I had. In 2007, they contacted me, saying they needed more buses because the 150 in 2005 were my own. I refused to give government. I said I would operate it myself and it would be very successful. The following year, government said they wanted the same. I asked for the same 25 per cent and land, I brought them and those are the Abuja Urban Mass Transport, the red buses. But they could not run it well.
What gave you the hope that such a thing could work in Nigeria?
I believed it would work, but I had a terrible experience. I was supposed to sign a fluctuation clause with the government, but I forgot to do that. At the time we signed the contract, the exchange rate was N120 to a dollar, but dollar rose up to N300 to a dollar and I was at a loss. I didn’t want to refuse to pay, so I accepted the responsibility because if I refused I would disappoint the people in Brazil. That is the only bad story in that business, but how did I recover? They wanted to buy the land at N700million and I refused to sell. Today, the land has no value, I want to sell it and people are pricing it N200 million.
I also floated ABG Communication. I pioneered the security aspect of ‘Operation Sweep.” General Buba Marwa is one of the best northerners. Once he identifies your performance he is willing to give you support. Marwa, is the only person who gave me a job of more than N100million in my life when he was the military administrator of Lagos. He called me to come; I did not even go to look for it. And I performed, supplied and did everything required. So he empowered me a lot. He is one of the most talented northerners when it comes to administration. He is an asset today. If given an opportunity he could have changed many things in favour of the APC government. Buhari would have done many things to his credit if he involved people like General Marwa in his government.
Do you still play golf?
I have interest in golf. I have all the boxes there, but I have not played in a long while. As I told you, I am 76 plus, but I still work from 10am to 10pm. I still have the energy, so if you ask me when I am retiring, I don’t have an answer because I cannot retire, I have told you that from the age of nine, the way my body was trained, I must be doing something every time and I take my religion very seriously. The idea is that if I stop working it will be something else.
How do you relax?
If I sit on this chair now without doing something, I will sleep off; my wife knows. Just few minutes of idleness and I will sleep because I don’t have anything to bother me. I am always looking for one form of business or another.
You love football very much, which is your favourite team?
I started from zero, up to National Division 11. I represented Kaduna in a march between Niger and Nigeria. The ABG Football Club was known because we had the television assembly. I had a bus to pick them. And if you were a good player you had a video and television in your house. I knew most of the prominent footballers in Kaduna because I was the chairman of the Kaduna Sports Council during the administration of the late Dabo Lere, I invested a lot in sports. You can’t make money in sports, but that is what I did to pay back. Golf is my hobby, I play it.
Which club do you support in the Premier League?
I’m not so much into that. It is my children that identify with that. I follow when Nigeria is playing. I support Nigeria whenever they are playing.
But in the 1980s, my team, ABG Football Club, did very well for Kaduna. I travelled out of the country a lot at that time, and immediately I got back, I would start asking my staff who won?
There was a time I travelled to Maradi in Niger to see a governor. I was with him when a match was going on and I didn’t know when I lifted his leg up because my team was winning and there were soldiers around. I said ‘I’m sorry, rankadede’ and he said ‘no problem.’
What is your favourite food?
I love pounded yam, but it is making me fat, so I have changed to semovita.