FG Got my Firm into N11bn National Identity Card Project’s Debt
Founder, Chams Plc, Demola Aladekomo, speaks to JOY MARCUS about the struggles he has faced in business and other issues
What has been your experience since graduating from the university?
It has been very interesting and exciting. It has also been challenging, innovative and pioneering but most importantly, it has been with a lot of blessings. There were lots of challenges along the line, and opportunities too. When we came into the industry, there was a need for computers to be maintained and there was no company maintaining computers in those days. Fortunately, I was part of the first set of computer engineers to start doing that. I graduated from the Obafemi Awolowo University in 1982; so, I had the skills, and the market needed the skills but nobody was offering it. As soon as I finished from the university, I started practising and after my compulsory one year national youth service, I went for MBA. After my MBA, I saw that the need was still there; so, immediately, I started a company called Computer Hardware Maintenance Services to tackle that need in the market. From there, computers started becoming more popular, so there was a need to put them together to rival what the mainframe computers were doing. So, we acquired the skills because there was a need and pioneered networking computers. The younger generation may not know what networking is because everyone is connected through a phone. But in those days, you needed a computer and a cable to connect to another computer. So, because it was a virgin environment, we had many opportunities to pioneer a lot of technologies. Aside from pioneering maintenance and networking, we also pioneered identity management, so all these identification cards, PVC, ATM, SMART card and other payment cards all came from Chams. We pioneered the technology in Nigeria. The first company that started the smart card was called Smart Card Nigeria Limited at that time, it came out of Chams. They later became value card but today, they are called Unified Payment Systemhttps://punchng.com/fg-got-my-firm-into-n11bn-national-identity-card-projects-debt/amp/
Today, we still lead in a lot of areas. We have subsidiaries like Card Centre which is the second largest card producing company in Nigeria. We also have Chams Switch and Chams Mobile. Just like we pioneered a lot of technologies and businesses, we also had challenges. My people have a saying that when you do what nobody has done before, you would also see the challenges that nobody has seen before. So, we have had our challenges as the pioneer, but it has been exciting. We have had good days and bad days; but in all, we have been blessed.
How did the name Chams come about?
Over the years, when the company started making good footprints, it became difficult to call a company Computer Hardware and Maintenance Services. It was an enterprise that was registered as a limited liability company but you can’t have a limited liability company and call it Computer Hardware and Maintenance Services Limited. So, we decided to take only the acronyms which gave us CHAMS Limited. It was CHAMS Nigeria Limited in those days but today, it is Chams Plc listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange.
How do you feel that Chams is listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange?
We were not the first indigenous IT firm on the stock exchange. Before us, there were companies that were specialised in mainframe computers but we were the first to specialise in microcomputers. We did not create the company because it is only God that creates something. I find it very interesting when people say they created something or they are founders. It is only God that can create or be the founder of something. However, God can use one to facilitate. God used me as a facilitator for Chams. I was always excited even in the turbulent days, and Chams has been through turbulent periods in our lifetime. Even in those days, I felt fulfilled and blessed. When I was facing a major challenge like the last one, when we had a crisis of billions of naira and the government was ready to shut us down, I felt blessed because it is not everyone who has multi-billionaire problems. That I even have that problem is a blessing. I have been blessed just by being part of the company from day one. You can imagine how blessed I feel if I feel blessed when I have problems.
You spoke about turbulent times. Can you shed more light on that?
The last problem we had was with the national identity card project. I told you that Chams pioneered the identity management solution in Nigeria. It took us a couple of years to come up with a technology that could manufacture ID cards and print them on PVC because we used to print ID cards on paper, then laminate. After we designed it, the government invited us, knowing that we pioneered the technology and the first time the project succeeded was in 1999. The National ID Card programme started in 1996 but didn’t succeed until Chams got involved in 1998, and by April 1999, we printed the first one million ID cards without collecting a dime from the government. It was after we finished it that the Obasanjo government came in 1999. They probed it and discovered that we didn’t collect any money but we delivered. We got commended by the Christopher Kolade Panel, the Senate and other institutions. They wondered the kind of company that could do a job without collecting money, especially because the National ID card project had been a means for people to siphon the country’s money. After we were commended, they paid us without adding the rest of the money. They said they would have to go to the tender’s board. They went there and we won but they gave it to a different company which came fifth. Unfortunately, it was a national saga that was all over the Internet. They took our money and didn’t produce anything. Then in 2006, the government called us back to come for a tender which we did, but we told them that we wanted the project to be privately funded, and they accepted all our terms and conditions. We joined them, did the tender and won. After winning, it took them a while because it was a huge project. It was the last project Obasanjo signed on before he handed over in 2007. And he made us a promise that in 2009, the project would be ready. Based on that promise, we went to the Nigerian Stock Exchange to raise about N11bn to do the National ID card project. By that time, there was a new government and there was a new commission, which was one of the things we asked for. Because we already had their word, we promised the government that by 2009, most Nigerians would have their National ID cards. We raised the money and started the implementation, but the government didn’t give us the necessary approval needed to implement that project. The private sector person that was supposed to head the National Identity Commission became more Catholic than the pope. He denied us approval before eventually giving it to us 2010. And in that period, he stopped us from going to the field. In 2012, he allowed us to go to the field but he asked us to tell him what we wanted to do and by that night, he went to meet all our technical partners and staff to buy them over. The government of Nigeria stole our technical partners, our design, intellectual property and staff. After stealing from me, they started implementing it themselves and they forgot that I went to the Nigerian Stock Exchange to raise the funds. The irony of it was that I was invited by Goodluck Jonathan’s government to come and see the launch of my technical partners and the Federal Government launching my intellectual property. However, it was not the government but the DG, National Identity Management Commission, that did it and this got the Chams Group into massive turbulence because we borrowed the money. By 2012, we practically became bankrupt and it was only by the grace of God that we were able to survive.
The government should rather boost businesses and not crash them