Prof. Chris Onalo is the founding Registrar/Chief Executive, Institute of Credit Administration (ICA), the umbrella body for credit management professionals in the country. Onalo, who clocked 61 this month, recounts the story of his life growing up in the backstreet of Elele-Ibaji, Kogi State vis-à-vis his career trajectory, vision for a new Nigeria and sundry issues. He spoke with Ibrahim Apekhade Yusuf. Excerpts:
Do you feel accomplished at 60 plus?
Before I reflect on life at over 60, I would like to take you back to how it all started. I must say that I have not been privileged like most people to have grown up from a royal family or family of influence, substance and noble. I grew up from a wretched, poor family background. I think the first and the last education that my parents gave to me is primary school. After my primary school education, I had to literally take my own destiny in my hands. Of course, because of the backwardness of education that was the problem facing my community back in Elele-Ibaji, in Kogi State, it was tough proceeding with my education. Even at the time I commenced my primary school education, I was already passed primary school age. When I finished primary school, I headed out to the wider world to look out for myself. I ended up working at Olisa Textile Mill in Anambra State. I stayed there for some time. And it dawned on me a poor boy from a typical village looking at life in the urban centre I had very strong passion to be like other people I saw in the city speaking good English, dressing properly and all that, so I had to make friends with people I was working with. Through one Simeon Abu, who was attending a commercial school in Onitsha, not very far from Asaba in present Delta State, he took me to the principal of the National Institute of Commerce, Asaba. That was how my story changed. After my short stint in Asaba, I moved to Lagos and started working as an accounts clerk at a firm. Thankfully with the help my elder brother, I met a Dutch, through whom I had the opportunity of travelling to The Netherlands to study. That’s where I first learnt about credit management. My interest was further ignited when I travelled to the United Kingdom and the United States, where I saw firsthand how those countries were able to develop their economies on the wings of credit. And that’s how I took up the advocacy of spreading the word about credit. But the idea unfortunately did not caught on well with people around here. I was a lone ranger. Nobody gave us a chance. But looking back, I can say without any fear of contradiction that God has been good to me. Today, I’m regarded as the doyen of credit management not for any reason, but the fact that I was able to put Nigerian on the world map. At least today, Nigeria is ranked third after USA and UK, among countries where credit management is gaining traction. So back to your question, I feel fulfilled at 61, but I know I still have a lot to offer humanity by way of service.
As you said, you pioneered efforts in credit management in the country. Can you expatiate?
At the risk of being immodest, I can say I pioneered efforts in the sector. It all began in the early 80s. I sold the idea to successive governments even before the administration of Shehu Shagari. I sent position papers to Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Olusegun Obasanjo and Sani Abacha. It’s only the administration of Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar that did not receive my proposal. I kept insisting that the country should set up a national credit guarantee commission to drive the process through which we can advance credit to either individuals or medium scale entrepreneurs. Because when you talk of small and medium scale enterprises, you are talking about Nigerian families. So if you are able to put up a policy instrument that is paramount to the economic life of SMEs, of course, a lot of things would give as far as the economic base is concerned. Rather than being encouraged, I was turned back from every office I went. But I refused and to the glory of God that proposal is a reality today.
Who were your greatest influences?
I don’t have any influence or a role model as the case may be. I didn’t have anyone that influenced me, so to speak. I can rightly say I’m a self-made man. But one day, in early year 2000 or so, I read the story about Afe Babalola of how he singlehandedly achieved the much he did. His story inspired me and I felt that I have a fellow compatriot, who before me has passed through what I was passing through and that one can actually become great, if you choose to become great. For me, that was very inspiring in some ways.
What books did you read?
I read a lot of books on credit management from different authors, especially from the United Kingdom then which opened my eyes to the world of credit. There is no book on credit management published in the United States and the United Kingdom that I don’t have. At least, these are the two countries that have done extensive work on the subject thus far. I can rightly say that some of my greatest influences have come from reading books, especially credit management. And I have since realised that credit management is the mother of all other professions. I realised that the credit profession places you in a position to judge character, assess reputation and integrity of other people. So that makes credit management a sort of mother to other professions because whether you are an engineer or politician, whatever you call yourself, you come and sit down before credit manager to answer his questions. The information he gets from you can help him rate your integrity, whether you are the one that can stand by your word or not. So it’s so unique that you are the one to assess reputation of individual businesses and all that. Of course, in credit management, you learn about Business Communications, Accounting, Psychology, Marketing, Strategy and a whole lot more.
You once mooted the idea of a University of Credit Management. Could you expatiate on that?
Yes, I think the idea of a University of Credit Management is even long overdue, not only in Nigeria but all over the world. This is because of the growth spectrum of credit management. It is something we should work hard at.
What would you describe as the highpoint of your career?
Let me begin with my career. As a career person, I’m happy that a lot has passed through my hands. To the glory of God, I established credit management profession in Nigeria. Akintola Williams has done a lot for the accounting profession in Nigeria. In the same vein, I will also say I am instrumental in bringing about the credit management profession in Nigeria as well as the rest of the globe. What has happened is that Nigeria is now seen as a tiger from the East to swallow others. What I mean by that is that the world is now jittery about us because from a relatively obscure position, Nigeria is now occupying the third position as far as credit management is concerned in the world. There is so much force coming from Nigeria to the other part of the world as we speak today. And it gladdens my heart that after US and United Kingdom, the next country where credit management flourishes so much is Nigeria. Secondly, we have the Postgraduate School of Credit and Financial Management. You can search around, you can’t see credit management higher learning institutions in any other country except in the US, UK and Nigeria. So it’s a huge milestone, not just for my family but for the country as a whole. If I die today, my name will reign forever not only in Nigeria but globally. So I feel highly fulfilled. Through credit management, some people are in the Central Bank of Nigeria now. Many people may not be fully aware but CBN at the time of Joseph Sanusi downward, will recall that Chris Onalo brought greater focus and landmark to the bureau and the system that support credit system. I can also recall that Financial Institution Training Centre, Lagos, invited me to come and lecture bankers there on the use of credit bureaus and how it could be used to help curtail the incidence of credit fraud. I presented the paper and from that moment our credit bureau has improved. Thankfully, when CBN was set up the existing credit bureaus, my institution ICA was invited as a critical stakeholder. So I can say I’m part of the effort that brought about licensing operation for credit bureaus today.
Still on the career path, I have developed curriculum for credit management for teaching in some of the universities abroad, including the UK, America and Panama. So I feel really satisfied that as a Nigerian involved significantly in the development of credit management curriculum globally. And for the first time in the history of this country through my career activities, we have lots of PhD holders in credit management. And today Nigerian universities are beginning to reach out to these PhD holders in credit management to come and begin the process of setting up of faculty for credit management. So wherever those PhD holders are, whatever they are engaged in, my image is there because I facilitated the process. To me, it’s a huge achievement.
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