A former Lagos State Commissioner for Commerce, Mrs. Teju Phillips, is the first child of the late billionaire, Deinde Anthonio Fernandez. She talks about the her father, reports theelitesng.com.
Where were you when you received the news of the death of your father, Chief Deinde Fernandez, and how did you receive the news?
I was here in Nigeria; I just got back from seeing him in the hospital. That was about three weeks ago in Europe. I saw him in bed and you know when you have a loved one who is old, you don’t really want to see their death. I just saw sickness and I knew my father, who was a strong man, would get over whatever was there. When I came back, I was getting news of the progress of his health, but two or three days before he died, I had been really sad; even before I got the news, I was already crying. So, when it came, I was wailing in the house. I thank God that I had a few days of beautiful memories with him.
Did he have a premonition of his death?
No, he did not. I had a happy moment with him the last time I saw him. It was a memorable time when I visited him. He was still bubbly in his voice and very sound; I just thought everything would be alright one day.
What were your fondest memories of him?
There are so many. Do I want to talk about the time he took me abroad to school or the time he would take me to the jewellers or the time he would bash me to tears?
Why did he beat you, were you very naughty while growing up?
Even as an adult, I am talking about two or three months before he died, he still spoke to me like a little girl. To him, I am still his daughter. But he prepared me very well for life. For the fond memories, it was packed full of so many things. Nobody would know the extent of the love he had for me in those tough days. I guess most of us, his kids, we are like him, tough too.
What were the lessons and values he imparted in you while growing up?
The discipline is that, you must appreciate the value of money; you must learn to spend and keep money. And he was quite tough; you don’t get everything you want, no. But he had his own way of spoiling us.
How was that?
Like he would just decide if a thing is good for you, he would give you more than you expect. For example, if I say I want to do a project and he believes you are going to succeed in that project, he would support you more than you ever expected and if he believed there is no end to that thing you want to do, forget it, he was not going to give you a kobo.
So, he was your business mentor?
He was a mentor on so many things — behaviour in life, choice of so many things that you will do in life and even when it is hard, he turned to you and said no. He had his moments and we all appreciated that and I guess his peculiarities are him. He lived life the way he wanted it and God made it possible for him.
He was very prominent on the African scene, he was the Permanent Representative of the Democratic Republic of Congo to the United Nations, and he was advisor to the President of Mozambique and Special Adviser to the President of Angola. But he never did anything for Nigeria?
He was a man of the people who knew how to manage people. He endeared himself to them and they appreciated him. He represented so many countries in the world, but previous governments never gave him any opportunity to serve. He was not honoured in Nigeria. They didn’t give him the opportunity to serve them, it is sad.
But did he try to?
He tried, several governments, they appreciated him abroad. In his own way, his people in Nigeria, he touched lives and they really loved him for that. He believed in Africa a lot and believed that it should be a united Africa and his sermon all the time was that it is best when we are united.
What are the things you will miss most about him?
His phone calls, those phone calls are educative. We spoke for three, four or five hours. In fact, we had done eight hours on the phone, from night till morning time.
He kept in touch anywhere he was?
Anywhere and anywhere I am. I am going to miss his calls. I knew I have a genuine, natural relationship with him. He fought with me but he also loved me.
How was it growing up as his child?
It was normal. I didn’t school in Lagos but in Ibadan after which I travelled to England.
Was he a strict father?
Yes, in terms of morals, of what you wore and how you wore them—conservative shoes, glasses, clothes, etc.
Was he particular about the career choices of his kids?
He was the one who chose and ensured that I read Accountancy and not Business Studies that I wanted to study initially. I didn’t regret doing that. He had time for his kids.
Some people saw him as elusive?
My father was not elusive. He was a man of the people and loved having people around. He didn’t believe you must have a certain amount of wealth before he related with you. Though he was a bit reserved in his way, he believed in a peculiar lifestyle. He did things his own way. He didn’t care about what others thought about him but what he did for himself and kids mattered to him.
Some people have described him as a recluse, who was always hiding all over the world. How does that make you feel reading that?
Excuse me! You are free to form your own impression but I know he was not like that.
Did he whip an erring child?
No, my dad had his way of instilling discipline. Instead of beating with the cane, he would scold you with words. The things he would say to you, you would never forget in your life. He checkmated us with a sense of value.
Were there lessons instilled in you while growing up?
He taught us to work hard, study hard and he had words of wisdom for everyone, including his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He always said, ‘you have what I have in me, go and climb your mountain.’ He taught us to be proud of who we are. I remember when someone was trying to mimic a white man and speak through his nose. Dad said, ‘When you speak loudly and authoritatively, you will be heard.’ He never had any form of pretensions around him.
As the children of a billionaire, people would assume that he threw money at his kids?
He would give you money but there was discipline around it. If the money was not spent judiciously, he would not give you another time. Being in boarding school, I had less to ask. But when you did well, he rewarded you. I remember when he bought me a wristwatch and took me to Tibet to buy bangles.
While growing up, which famous faces did you see at home or visited?
Dad took me to see Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Ambassador Ogbu, Chief Folarin Coker and a host of others that I cannot remember now.
He was a friend to the late Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and a host of others. What do you remember about his friendship with all these great men?
For those two people, he made them to speak to me in my house on the telephone. I spoke to Kofi Annan and I spoke to Mandela on the telephone. When he was with them, he would say, ‘talk to my daughter, she is in Nigeria.’
What was his philosophy of life?
He was keen on hard work—it cannot be substituted for anything in making profit. He always sermonised on laying a good foundation for everything you want to do in life. He would always tell you, ‘the best asset God gave you is your brain, use it and get out of any mess.’ I will always remember his counsels and the life values he imbibed in us. He loved God and always said, ‘your boss can be your lord but not your God. Nobody can take God’s place in your life, so fear him.’
Was he a church goer?
He was a one who believed in direct communication with his God. He did things and projects for churches. He built a small structure in a church in Lagos in memory of his mother.
Who was his mother, your grandmother?
She was Juliana Durojaiye Fernandez, nee Palomeras. She was caring, dedicated, a believer in marriage and gave all that it could take to bring up her kids. She was a very beautiful woman. His father, my grandfather, was Kanut Akinwande Fernandez. He hailed from Isale Eko. My grandfather was born Yesufu but converted to Kanut, a Brazilian name. I spent time with them and then, Papa would read stories to us, especially ‘Ali Baba and the 40 thieves.’
But there were times rumours went agog that Deinde Fernandez was not your father?
Those were the talks of illiterates. Look at his picture and then mine, I look exactly like him.
What were his thoughts on Nigeria, especially the new government of President Muhammadu Buhari?
He believed that we have got it right. But before now, he complained. That gave him a bit of peace before his death.
What food did he like to eat?
He loved good food— local and international— as long as it tasted right. He loved small, fresh fish. To him, he believed when the fish is small, it tasted nice. He was not a vegetarian and he ate chicken, pounded yam and he loved any well-cooked food.
He was reputed to fly Tuwo from Nigeria to New York….
Yes, he loved African foods, he enjoyed eating them. He was not pretentious in anyway. He would eat Western food in the most cultured way but he would come back to his level and appreciate the African cuisine.
How did you handle the image of being a Fernandez?
Like my father, I loved people around me and I don’t allow who he was to get into my head. I am simple, I don’t make noise and I remain who I am.
Would you describe him as a fashionable man?
Yes, he was very trendy. He set the pace in fashion. He was simple, but trendy.
Was he flamboyant?
Flamboyance is a relative term of your wherewithal. He lived a simple, sophisticated and civilised lifestyle.
But there was a picture of him dressed in animal skin with two tigers in front of him, yet you described him as a man who had no drama around him?
Yes, no drama. He was a genuine person, when I said drama, it means he had no pretensions. He was a real man, he was happy with himself; he said it as it is, no drama. It is either you like it or you don’t like it.
What were his hobbies?
Yes, he used to swim and loved horse-riding and probably went for horse races. Football? I never heard him talk about football.
What about him and the women in his life?
There was nothing extraordinary about his marriages. He lived a normal life maritally. He was never married to two women at the same time. Some people are lucky to have a good marriage and stick to their partners for a long time but some are not. When one is over, you move over to another one.