Whether by genetic design or by the work of Providence, each passing day sees the managing director of the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation, Folorunsho Coker, showing the admirable qualities of his father, writes Vanessa Obioha.
Anyone who has met the late Folarin Coker, upon meeting his son, Folorunsho, would likely conclude that he is a piece of the old block. It’s a compliment that is often given to young Coker, and every time he hears those words he feels overwhelmed.
Coker’s life is like a page borrowed from his father’s book of life in more ways than one. Like his father, he has also been in the public service for over two decades. The late Coker was a civil servant who retired as permanent secretary in the Department of Information and Tourism before his death last year. Young Coker works in the same industry. Currently, he oversees the affairs of the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation (NTDC), an office he has held since 2017. Prior to being appointed director general of the agency, he was Commissioner of Tourism, Arts and Culture of Lagos State.
Whether by genetic design or by the work of Providence, with each passing day Coker exhibits the admirable qualities that his father possessed.
The Lagos Motor Boat Club, Awolowo Road in Ikoyi, is a favorite gratification spot for him. This is where a lot of her fantasies come together. Even though he can’t speed by boat to a picturesque seaside resort, he has the satisfaction of watching the traffic on the water come and go. This particular Sunday morning, all the mixes that favor water sports were present; a bright, sunny day and happy groups of scantily clad people chatting as they prepared to walk away.
Since resuming work in Abuja, he looks forward to those occasional visits to Lagos and the opportunity to get up close to a natural body of water. His move to Abuja did not weaken his love for water recreation, cultivated over 30 years ago when he owned his first beach house and became a member of the Lagos Motor Boat Club.
It was not uncommon for old friends to interrupt his conversation with this reporter to exchange jokes with him. One commented on his long absence from the club. The two laughed heartily as they advanced the mundane excuse of COVID-19 restrictions and protocols, which have redefined human interactions everywhere. They banged each other on the elbow before apologizing – in the new way of greeting – for returning to their individual commitment. Of course, the interruptions – either by a phone call or by a brief stop and hello – to our conversation continued with unchoreographed frequency throughout my stay.
He shared the memory of his late father, who was sociable and wore many traditional garlands during his lifetime, including the Baba Eto of Lagos and Yorubaland.
âI feel fulfilled when people say I’m a piece of the old block. It is a source of pride. I happen to be also professionally in the public service and in the same industry as him. I think I’m very lucky to have had him for so long, to have had his lawyer for so long. The prayer is that our children do more than we do. And this is the prayer I live with, âhe said.
From the emotional tone of his voice, it was obvious that Coker shared a special bond with his father. He didn’t try to hide his grief over the loss of his father. It was punctuated in every word he spoke of himself.
âI have fond memories of him. If you are the child of a former colonial-era civil servant, you will know what I’m talking about. My father had strong values. He was a lawyer by profession. He was the main secretary of the Sultan of Sokoto, so he speaks Hausa to some extent. My father was one of the most detribalized Nigerians I have ever known, and I always tried to emulate that side of him. He was deeply religious. Some describe him as a socialite, âhe paused for a moment.
“I miss him,” he continued. âI miss the words of wisdom, the advice, the historical content of a 97 year old man who goes away in one day, something that I, at 56 years oldâ¦ I have known him for 56 years. It’s something that I manage every day. I remember him everyday, and I think I will for the rest of my life.
Coker will be 56 in July and has an avuncular charm. He’s the kind of uncle you’d want to date all the time, not only because of his kindness but also because of his wisdom.
At his age, he has far surpassed some of his contemporaries. Born and raised in Ikoyi, he is a former student of Corona School, Ikoyi, where he obtained his first graduation certificate. He attended St. Gregory College for his high school education. He attended St Bees School, Cumbria, UK, in 1982 and holds a BA in Combined Studies, Economics and Geography from the University of Manchester. Coker also holds a postgraduate degree in Diplomacy, International Business and Finance from the University of Westminster, where he completed with Distinction.
Coker was among the first employees of the current democratic regime in Lagos State. In 1999, the former Governor of Lagos State and national leader of the All Progressive Congress (APC) Bola Ahmed Tinubu appointed him his personal assistant, and in 2003 he was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff of the Lagos government . He would later become the managing director of the state’s Number Plate Production Authority for 10 years. In 2014, he was appointed Special Advisor for Lagos Central Business District to Raji Babatunde Fashola (SAN), then Governor of Lagos State.
Despite the different capacities he has held in government, the industry that has always kept him in the public eye is tourism. He lives and breathes tourism. He is so passionate about it that he did not miss a beat when discussing the issues plaguing the industry. He presented ideas on how the industry can grow beyond its current state, emphasizing investment in specific tourism infrastructure and promoting domestic tourism.
âIt’s about the structure, the foundation. Without a foundation, nothing will happen. For tourism, it is the legislation that governs it. Without legislation, the oil industry, the telecommunications industry and the banking industry would not have developed. The legal framework is the foundation that allows people to invest, to grow, to change the industry to now have a more commercial perspective than people can see. Tourism is a business and it is a business worth investing in. It is the development of human capital. It’s the development of mental capital, âhe explained.
âWe have to reinvent our events, so much in terms of natural assets that we have to invest even in small things like a toilet in a place where people have a festival to keep them from defecating on the ground. If there is no electricity, you can give them solar power. There is no water ; give them that. At least give people some semblance of comfort that will get them in there.
âWe don’t know how long this pandemic will last, but life is changing. It doesn’t stop. We need to reinvent the way we want to do the normal things we do in life, focusing on our survival. We need to reinvent the way we organize our events. Our festivals, such as Ofala festival, Ojude Oba festival, Calabar festival, need to be redesigned for the sake of social distancing. Every penny spent on the water waves, the rails is an investment in tourism. There are some things specific to tourism that need to be done.
âFor example, from our embassies, the approach of the foreign traveler must be a good experience, to the visa policy, to the airport experience, to the community of objectives between customs, immigration, police, etc. is local or international. Then you have to look at our hotels. We need to standardize our hotels. We need to classify our hotels. A hotel in Lagos and a hotel in Zamfara cannot charge the same price and occupy the same rate. I am not denigrating the community. I’m just saying we need to have some standardization of scoring so people can get a feel for value for money. Funding is also fundamental. You need to invest in certain infrastructure specific to tourism.
It is not news that the tourism industry has been affected by the pandemic. In Coker’s view, the most marketable tourism product to emerge from the pandemic will be domestic tourism. More and more people will be skeptical of spending more money on travel and quarantine hassles before they can get around their business.
One aspect of tourism that the public servant is passionate about is food. Calling himself a foodie, he spoke with relish about Nigerian cuisine and flavors. Having organized food festivals in Lagos and Abuja, his enthusiasm is understandable. Coker has been intrigued by the influences on Nigerian food over the years by the flavors of other countries such as China, India, Europe, and other West African countries. He saw how professional chefs provide in-home services and gourmet restaurants beyond just a place in a hotel to eat. He was amazed by the marriage of these flavors to create an incredible dining experience. And like our film, our art and our music, he believes that food can promote tourism.
However, his understanding of the Nigerian flavor was instructive. He added: âThe Nigerian flavor is not just the food. This is how you dress. It’s how you worship, how you drink, what you wear, all of those things. When I look at the food, I see it as a means of transport to convey the flavors of Nigeria more to people. “
Although he has experience in restaurant management, he raised the possibility of retiring as a consultant for a seafood restaurant in Lagos.