Alhaji Ismaila Aderemi Bello, FCA, has a life story that enchants and enthralls. A typical example of a zero-turned-hero, you can’t listen or read how he began his life journey without appreciating the grace of God upon his life. Currently the District Governor, Rotary International, District 9110 Nigeria, prior to that, he had served meritoriously as the President, Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry. A philanthropist par excellence, ever meticulous and methodical, a caring and contented businessman, he granted his first ever interview as DG to YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-ini-Chief, AZUH ARINZE. This was on Friday, July 2, 2021. And as would be expected, he talked about his plans as the Numero Uno Rotarian in the District, pitfalls every serious businessman must avoid, how to excel in the accounting profession, which is his forte, and more. Come with us…
Congratulations on your assumption of office as the 41st District Governor of Rotary International, District 9110 Nigeria. How does it feel to be a DG?
Thank you very much, my AG Azuh! It’s exciting to be a District Governor. I’m highly excited and I look forward to seeing how we run the year, to serve to change lives. It’s the peak in the Rotary world and at the district level, to attain the District Governor status. It takes His grace to be a District Governor. To an average Rotarian, it’s always a lifetime ambition.
Officially, you assumed office on Thursday, July 1, 2021. What was the first thing you did when you woke up on that first day as DG?
Thank you very much again. There wasn’t much difference from my normal way of life. When I wake up, first thing in the morning, is to call on my God, and on this occasion, being a special day, being a day I had been looking forward to, in the last three years – you know election or nomination into the district governorship of Rotary and even the assumption of office takes you an average of three years. You first of all get nominated as District Governor Nominee-Designate, before you become the following year, District Governor-Nominee, then District Governor-Elect and finally the District Governor itself. So, on the 1st of July when I woke up, I said wow, the day is finally here! The first thing I had to do was to go back to my praying mat, as usual, and put everything in the care of the Most High, the giver and taker of everything we have. That’s what I did.
As the DG, what is going to change about you, both as a person and as a Rotarian?
Yes, as a DG, like you know, we are called the Change Maker DG; we are having a change maker year and in the last two years or thereabout, this COVID-19 pandemic really hit us. But as you know, Rotary is an organization that continues to evolve day by day. So, Rotary International had come up with a strategic plan – four-pronged strategic objectives. I want to touch on the last one – which is that we shall increase our ability to adapt. We’ve always been having physical meetings, physical fellowship, project execution. All of a sudden, we couldn’t have fellowship again. We had to go online, we had to go virtual. That’s part of our ability to adapt. You just adapt to the situation. So, we’ve adapted now. What we now have to do is see how to continue to bring change to people’s lives. We are actually serving to change people’s lives. So, the change we are bringing is in various areas – you know Rotary is about vocation and community? But most especially the communities. How are we going to come up with impactful service projects and let the communities know that we are people that are doing good? We pride ourselves as people doing good in the world. So, what we are going to embark on is to continue to serve our communities more than we’ve ever been doing. Like our Rotary International President, Shekhar Mehta challenged us; he said we should do more, grow more. What are we to do more? Do more of service projects, do more of community-related activities and what do we need to grow? We need to grow our membership. When we grow our membership, we have more men to do the job. That’s what we are going to embark on. That’s the change we are bringing.
As the DG, what will be your star project or major focus as far as this Rotary year is concerned?
Like you know, I’m a District Governor, I’m not a Rotary President. I’m not a club president. So, let’s understand the role of a District Governor and the role of a Rotary Club president. You know that our District, 9110, has about, as at the last count, 124 Rotary clubs, which are under the jurisdiction of the District Governor. The District Governor is to supervise. These are independent clubs that are to be supervised by the District Governor to ascertain their health, their status. It’s not for the District to embark on legacy projects, but to support the Rotary clubs to execute life-touching projects in their communities. It is the clubs that are in the communities, so it is the clubs that will be doing projects. But despite that, the District is ready to support the clubs. However, the legacy project we are having this year is not to be executed directly by the District, but by the clubs. We have come up with what we call Adopt-A-School project. Adopt-a-school project is going to concentrate or centre around what we call WASH – one of our seven areas of focus. We have what we call the seven areas of focus in Rotary.
The Rotary Foundation – that is the foundation of our organization has stipulated, has identified what we should pursue. So, WASH – Water, Sanitation and Hygiene is very central. Therefore, we have taken that aspect of the seven areas of focus; we are taking it to schools and what we are doing is within the District. Our clubs are therefore encouraged to go back to their communities, identify public primary schools that are having the challenges of good toilet facilities, drinking water and some level of renovation work. So, what the District is going to do is to support about 30 primary schools through the clubs. That is our star project for the year. In addition to that, we have what we call DEEP – District Economic Empowerment Project. It’s also a kind of project. Before now, we’ve always been having scholarships, year in, year out, through our local foundation, which we call DEWEF. DEWEF is District 9110 Education and Welfare Endowment Fund. DEWEF has granted 153 scholarships to indigent but bright students from our District. What I’m saying is that we’ve been taking care of indigent, but bright students. What of those indigent students, who are not too bright? Whose parents are willing to sponsor, but because they are not empowered, because of the economic challenges they are facing, they are not in a position to do that. So, we are now coming up with a programme we call DEEP. It’s another kind of empowerment, whereby parents that would have ordinarily sponsored their pupils or children to school, but are not able to, we give them a free-interest loan of maximum of N100,000; it’s a revolving loan. We are going to build the fund like we have done for DEWEF. DEWEF is a fund that we put money into, year in, year out, by the Rotary Clubs. So, the same thing we want to do with DEEP. It’s like we are talking of a coin. The first side of that coin – indigent but bright; the second side of the coin is indigent but not too bright. Indigent and bright to be sponsored by DEWEF scholarship, indigent but not too bright to be sponsored by the empowered parents who would have benefitted from the DEEP loan arrangement. That is the second one we are pursuing as a legacy project. We are also looking at education by adopting to improve the environment, to make the environment more conducive for further learning.
Briefly, tell us exactly what Rotary is all about? Especially for non-Rotarians who may be interested in coming onboard…
Rotary is that global network of 1.2 million neighbours, friends, leaders and problem solvers – they see problems and they try to solve them; who see a world where people unite and take action. Get it right – where people unite and take action, to create a lasting change in our world, across the globe, in our communities and even among ourselves. Rotary has always been at the forefront of peace, pursuing peace globally. Probably, when Rotary was founded, you will recollect, it was founded in 1905, the world was full of crisis. The turmoil in the world was so unbecoming. You will recollect again that the First World War was in 1914. It couldn’t have been 1914 that they just started the hostility. The hostility must have been building up before the World War in 1914. So, Rotary has always been a harbinger of peace, pursuing peace and the same way that it was pursuing peace till 1944, 1945, when the Second World War came up. That’s why Rotary was the only NGO that was part of the founding fathers of the United Nations and in 1970, the fifth president of Rotary International, Arch Klump, came up with this idea of Rotary Foundation, an endowment fund through which we’ve been doing a lot of good.
What makes a good Rotarian and who is a good Rotarian?
Yes, a good Rotarian is a service-minded individual. It’s all about service; service to humanity and as a matter of fact, even by the scriptures, we are expected to embrace servitude and like somebody will say, serving humanity is the hallmark of service to God. So, a good Rotarian is that somebody who has the mind of service. The moment you have a mind of service, all those things that you cherish – and what are those things? We call them 4T’s in Rotary. You will be ready to sacrifice them. That’s your treasure, your thoughts, your time, your talent. That’s a good Rotarian; anyone who’s ready to serve without counting cost. That’s how I will define a good Rotarian.
Now, what got you interested in Rotary in the first instance?
Yes, like I said, I’ve always been a service-oriented person, right from my youthful days. I believe in service. I am ready to go to any length to assist, to help. That’s what brought me into Rotary and again I saw it as an organization where my love for service could be realized. It’s a well structured and a well-run orgnization. So, that’s what attracted me to Rotary.
Your journey so far in Rotary, how would you describe it?
I will not say it’s been tortuous, but I will say it’s been interesting. Though it has taken me a longer time becoming a DG. But probably because of other activities. Not because I was not qualified to become one. You know I joined Rotary in year 2001, and at the club level, I served in various capacities before I became the president of the club in 2007, when I would want to say we had a landmark project – the donation of a public primary school (by Rotary Club of Ikeja South) to a community in Ifo (Ogun State). The community never had a primary school before. I used my personal money to buy two plots of land and donated same to the community and with the support of my club and my well-wishers during my 50th birthday, we were able to raise enough funds to build a public primary school, which is one of the schools being run by the Ogun State government today. Having done that, the following year, I was invited to the District to serve as the District Treasurer. It was a very eventful one. I served under the leadership of PDG Richard Giwa-Osagie. Very, very eventful year, like I said. Thereafter, I also served in some capacities at the District level. But not until 2014 when I was about to finish my presidency of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I now felt that I will have full time to attend to Rotary work. It was at that point I was appointed an Assistant Governor, which I did for three years. Thereafter, I was given the chairmanship of District Conference – you know the District Conference is a very big conference, it’s a big event in the Rotary world. We thank God we had a very successful district conference. Thereafter, I went in for the governorship and I won. That has been the journey. I will not want to say it’s tortuous or it’s stressful. I just think I went through it the way God wanted me to go though it.
At the end of your tenure as the District Governor, what would you want to be remembered for? What legacy would you want to leave behind when all this ends?
The legacy I always want to leave behind wherever I serve is… I’ve served at other places – like Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The legacy I always want to leave behind is when people remember that Remi Bello passed through this office, he touched lives. I am fulfilled. It’s not about the structures I built, but about the lives I am able to touch. And that, incidentally, is the theme for this Rotary year. I’m out to serve to change lives. I haven’t got anything to give this year, but I assure you of one thing – which I will not compromise – I will provide great leadership.
Prior to becoming the District Governor, you had served as President, Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry. How would you sum up your experience there?
My experience at Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry cannot be compared to a humanitarian organization like Rotary. You know that in the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, you are leading captains of industry, you are working with people that control the economy. In Rotary, you are leading volunteers. They are two different things. You need volunteers more than they need you. In the other one, they need you so much to push for them. The work at that other end, at the Lagos Chamber of Commerce, is advocacy. How much advocacy are you able to do with the powers that be, to be able to affect their business lives. So, they are two different things. At this end, at the Rotary end, it’s leading volunteers and when you lead volunteers, you need to motivate them, you need to encourage them to do more, because they have decided to do that, and you don’t have any reward for them. But at the other end, the reward is in their businesses, if the advocacy is right. The Petroleum Industry Bill that has just been passed by the National Assembly, I remember the number of times I had to go to the National Assembly to pursue the possibility of the bill being passed then. So, you see, they are not the same thing. They are two different things. The experience at this end, I want to believe, is more of personal satisfaction than any other thing while at the other end it’s about touching businesses of the people.
What would you describe as your greatest achievement as the President of Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry?
Huuuh! My greatest achievement at the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, I can say with all sense of humility, is the restructuring of the chamber. I did a lot restructuring which is paying off today. I did a lot of work, physical construction. But I don’t see that as the real thing. The real thing is the restructuring I did in terms of how the chamber should be run, how the chamber should be managed and I can say that after my leaving, that restructuring has started to pay off. That’s why the chamber is doing wonderfully well after my exit.
To excel in the business world and in the corporate world, like you have done, what must one do?
To excel in the business world, the No. 1 thing that you cannot compromise is your integrity. The moment you lose your integrity, you’ve lost everything. So, you must be a person of integrity, you must be somebody that they can trust. If they cannot trust you, people will not be willing to part with their money, because business is about value. When you are not in a position to be trusted with values, you are not likely to go far. You are not likely to succeed.
Yes, they may be seen like they are whiz kids, but at the end of the day, how do they end up? When you have as a legacy a business that has been running for over 50 years, going to 60 years, and I was able to be part of the organization, and it is still there till today, it means that it’s doing something that is right and what is that thing that we are doing right – it’s that our integrity is intact. We don’t play with it. When we promise you that we are going to give you this quality, we will not give you a lower quality. That is integrity. That is only what can keep you going.
To have a taste of success in life, what must one do?
Yes, if you want to succeed in life, the No. 1 thing, like I said, is that you must be sure that you keep your integrity intact. No two ways about it. Success is a relative language – you compare one thing with the other. You say one is a success, one is a failure. When they say you are successful, it means you’ve achieved. And like I said earlier on, you cannot do things alone. You need people. People that will trust you; if people don’t trust you, they don’t part with their money. And when you want to be successful, there are a few attributes you must have as an individual. I’ve talked about integrity; you must also be hardworking, you must not be lazy, but honesty is the climax of it – which is integrity.
You trained as an accountant. In fact, currently, you are a fellow of the chartered accountants. Anybody who wants to succeed in accounting or as an accountant, what must the person do?
Yes, if you are to succeed in accounting, you must not be a lazy person. You must be somebody who is very hardworking and you must have, I want to say, a mind for thoroughness. You mustn’t give up easily, because in the course of your work, you may have some differences. You know in accounting, we talk of balance. If your book does not balance, you will have to balance it, you don’t sweep it under the carpet, because you will always meet it there. So, you must be very hardworking and you must be thorough if you are to succeed as an accountant.
Why did you choose accounting of all the professions?
That’s a very good question. Not that I just chose accounting or that I even knew anything about accounting from the onset. It was just as a small boy – a small boy that was going with his dad to the mosque to pray in the morning, in the afternoon and we had one uncle who came on a visit. He happened to be an accountant and they were discussing money, as they were talking, he was giving them the answer and after the man left my dad was now telling me that he’s a chartered accountant. What do they do? They now started telling me – they are the people working in banks, they are the ones that work in offices, counting money. They were seeing accountants then as cashiers. So, I said if that’s his job, I will also want to be an accountant. That’s how, I think, I found myself in accounting class – right from my secondary school days. It wasn’t at the university I started accounting. I started reading accounting and book keeping books right from secondary school, class 2. So, that’s how I came into accounting and since then I have been doing it and I don’t have any regrets.
I went through your story and discovered that you have an amazing and inspiring grass-to-grace story. Other than God, what else will you attribute your success to?
Other than God, I can say that I’m a very hardworking person, very industrious. There is no doubt about that. While I was in school, I was working part time with my former employer. So, the moment I finished classes, I will go to work. It was a full time programme, but my boss allowed me. So, I can say I have penchant for hard work. That is the thing that has kept me going.
For years, you ran successfully Crittall Hope Aluminium Company, even becoming the MD until you eventually stepped aside. Now, from experience and with the benefit of hindsight, what would you say is the biggest mistake that most business people make?
Yes, I’ve stepped aside as the MD of the company. The greatest mistake I know that most people make in business is not to know the business you are into. Knowledge of the business is very important. Without knowing the business you are going into, you will eventually end up a failure. Like the scripture says, my people fail for lack of knowledge. So, you need knowledge for whatever business you are going into. That is one. Two, any business you don’t have time for, better don’t go into it. You need time for the business. A part-time business owner may not succeed. It’s not a curse. You need to be there, you need to give the business attention. So, that’s what I feel.
What would you say has been the greatest lesson that life has taught you?
Oh, the greatest lesson that life has taught me is, don’t put trust in any human being. Sorry to say it. Only have hope in God. God is the omnipotent God, He can do and undo. So, don’t trust people. You should just continue begging Him to favour you in all your activities. So, the greatest lesson life has taught me is not to trust human beings. But you can have hope in them.
Talking more about God. He has, no doubt, been so nice to you. What more do you want from Him?
What I want from God? (laughs). I want alaafia in Arabic – completeness of everything. When I say completeness of everything, contentment. I pray for contentment. To be contented.
Tell us one person who has made the greatest impact on your life and why?
That’s an interesting question. One person that has made the greatest impact in my life is my dad…
What did he do? Why did you single him out?
In everything I am today; when I was a nobody, he stood by me. Because our mother was not there. But for him I wouldn’t have been what I am today. From where I came from, myself and my elder brother are the only ones that had the privilege of western education. Other friends from the area I came from, they never went to school, they either learnt one trade or the other or ended up being alfa, being in Arabic schools.
I want to bring you back to Rotary. What is your response to those who have the erroneous impression that Rotary is a cult, a secret society?
Yes, my response to that is he who asserts needs to prove. I will advise those people to come into Rotary and see whether what we do in Rotary is secretive or not. Everything is done in the open and we have a code of ethics that says you don’t do to a non-Rotarian what you will do to a Rotarian. So, how are we a secret society?
There’s also another set of people who believe that Rotary is only for the rich. Is it true?
That may be partially true – he who wants to empower others must have been empowered himself or herself. Except you want to become a project for Rotary. We are in Rotary to serve and one of the T’s we demand of you is your treasure. Yes, you may have the time, you may have the talent, but you also need treasure. There’s no short cut about it – but I will not say it’s only for those who have money.