Immediate past governor of Oyo State, Senator Abiola Ajimobi, tuned 70 on December 16, 2019. At 70, he believed he had every reason to be joyous and praise God for all He did in his life. In this interview, he talked about his meteoric rise from the cradle, his life as a family man, dreams for the state, among other issues. KUNLE ODEREMI the excerpts:
HOW do you feel at 70 and when you are growing up, did you have any inkling that you will be 70 in life?
First and foremost, let me give the glory to the God Almighty for sparing my life in good health and with happiness. I also want to thank all of you that are here today to have a chat with me, particularly what I call a personal chat and not a political chat. So, I thank you for coming. In order to answer your question, I feel a lot of gratitude to the Almighty for sparing my life to live this long, particularly from my own paternal side; nobody has ever lived to be 70; all male children, including my father and his own father, his brothers. I believe it is something to be grateful to God for and I must express my profound gratitude to God Almighty for sparing my life this far because I feel very healthy and in happiness and joy. I feel very elated. On the other question, I have an inkling I will be 96 up till now. So, I have always believed I will live to be 96.
Where is such optimism coming from, the optimism of living for 96 years?
It is because virtually everything I’ve always dreamt of has always come to pass and I dreamt I lived to 96.
Do you still have such optimism, given prevalent varying degrees of stress occasioned by the harsh economic climate in Nigeria?
Many Nigerians lived to be 96 and even 100; they go through stress. I believe I will live to be that age. It is just my belief; there is no hard fact about it and what you believe in usually happens.
How has what you eat and your lifestyle generally been contributing to your long life?
Your way of life, what you eat and your DNA will contribute to your longevity. Your DNA is number one: your lifestyle, what you eat, what you think and how you think. You talk of stress, I don’t have stress. I believe life is full of challenges, you just face them.
Growing up in Oja’aba in the city of Ibadan, the Oyo State capital in those days, what fond memories do you have?
We had a lot of fun. Right from when I was little, we trekked to school from Oja’aba to Aperin, and Aperin is quite a stretch from Oja’aba. We’ll buy puff puff, bean cakes and in between we will be cracking joke; we will be playing. So, right from primary school, I had a lot of fun. I went to public schools throughout, even in my university days, public schools, so I think I did all the things that young people would normally do; play pranks, truancy sometimes, I think I had a very good time.
Being a comfortable person, does attaining the age of 70 look to you like life races through speedily or does it look like it takes too long a time for you to attain 70?
Honestly, I felt like it was yesterday that I did my 40th birthday when I did the opening ceremony of my house (the other building). It was like yesterday and my wife at that time, I remembered vividly she put something down and displayed an inscription tagged, ‘Look who is 40.’ Initially, I was always telling myself that 70 is okay but looking at it, it was like yesterday, so I have shifted it to 96. I don’t know if after 96, I will shift it.
You must have had some childhood dreams. Were there some of such dreams you were able to implement when you served as the governor of the state?
Yes, there are. First and foremost, I wanted Ibadan to be beautiful, to be like Lagos, like any other modern city. I told myself each time I was going round the city, I would say the first thing I wanted to do was to clean Ibadan. It’s always been a dirty place and I thought I would like to see it clean. I believed at that time we should have good road networks and other modern infrastructure. Above all, I just thought Ibadan should be a modern city. They used to call it a native city. But, I felt it should be a modern city. It was very important to me, the modernisation of Ibadan city. I limited myself to Ibadan at that time but by extension, Oyo State. I wanted Oyo State and all the major cities in the state to be modern cities. It’s always been my dream.
How much of this were you able to do when you had the opportunity to serve as governor of the state for eight consecutive years?
I would say I am very happy with myself that I was even able to do what I did because knowing the history of Ibadan, you couldn’t have done that. I will say personally, did I do every road? No! But, for what I have done, I am very pleased with myself.
What are some of the pranks you indulged in while growing up and how did the pranks affect your academic performance?
I wouldn’t call them pranks; I will call them youthful adventures. For instance, we would sneak out from the boarding school to the cinema house to watch Indian movies. In the primary school days, we took rams during Eid-el-Kabir to go and fight; we would hire bicycles and the owners would tell you that you had 30 minutes for the service but we would use 40 minutes and when the man is coming, we would throw the bicycle and run away. Those were the pranks that we played. We were not into discos and parties during our own time. You just must be very studious and serious. Your parents, family and indeed, everybody would emphasise the message. Even when I was playing soccer in the secondary school, my father would call me: ‘I didn’t send you to school to go and play football; you are to read.’ He said so because I was always a sport man when I was in school. Those were the pranks, nothing special.
What are those early influences in your life that shaped you into who you are?
The major influence on me was my grandmother. I grew up around her. I think at the age of five, I went to live with my aunty at Oke Padre (in Ibadan) and the husband. So, I lived among pastors and reverend fathers because I went to St. Patrick School for my primary school. Therefore, I was influenced by what I call the religious environment, where you don’t tell lies. You tell it as it is; you learn to forgive; you learn to pray. So, I had a very religious background quite early in life, but it was more of Christian background, so to speak. After leaving my aunt’s place, my grandmother took over more or less, and she would tell me about life, how she struggled, how she became one of the few women who owned vehicles, who built houses from the background. Her own family was very affluent, so she influenced me. Later on, by reading so many books, magazines, I started developing the idea of listening to radio. My uncle also influenced me. He was the minister in the Ministry of Works and Transport in the then Western region. Politically, he influenced me because I saw how people came around; he was helping people; he was so nice giving jobs to people. I also wanted to be in a position like that; to give people jobs. He gave people things and I also wanted to be the rallying point of the people in the local environment. So, in the early stages, I was influenced by those people, first by reverend fathers because I was also an Altar boy at a stage. Therefore, I was influenced by religion, later by my grandmother and then my father’s brother.
When it comes to professional life, I was influenced by one Mr Moshood Akanbi. He was the first Nigerian managing director of National Oil. I didn’t know him when I joined the company. I was first at Nestle Foods. At that time, it was called Food Specialties. I was working there but before meeting him, I had an uncle; he was an engineer, Jare Alade, he was the brother to my mother. He was a very brilliant. I lived with him for some time and I saw how if you were well educated, you could easily get to the top and this guy was very hardworking and educated. So, the professional exposure he first gave me when I finished school certificate, I went to stay with him for a couple of days. Then, the second person, an uncle-in-law, a journalist, may his soul rest in peace, Alhaji Kola Animashaun, he worked with the Vanguard newspapers, before then he worked with the Ministry of Information. I learnt simplicity from him; he was very simple and godly. I also picked humility from him.
Most people don’t know me well. When they see me, they’ll say ‘he is arrogant.’ No, it is only because I don’t take nonsense; that is what people take to mean arrogance. If you have met AlhajiAnimashaun, he thought me that whatever you have is all vanity. He showed me what vanity meant. When I was going to the United States for the first time as a student, he just bought a suit and he wore it only once and he gave me to wear because I didn’t have any suit to wear when I was travelling. So, I learnt humility, hard work and intellectual development from my second uncle. So, different people influenced me. And then Mr Akanbi taught me how to be elegant. When you dress, you dress neatly, though I picked that one (virtue) from my father. Anytime you are dressed roughly, he would say ‘no, that is not how to dress, this one must match this, and this one must match this.’ I could say different people influenced me.
Why didn’t you take after your father as a tailor?
Did you take after your father as a journalist? But it is a good question. I felt I didn’t like tailoring because I felt it was meant for those people who didn’t have university degrees and I wanted a university degree. I wanted to be a medical doctor. I left school doing science subjects but when I got to the United States, I was admitted for PREMED. The premed is just two years because you have to graduate first before you go to medical school in America. I was influenced by Christiaan Bernard of South Africa; he was the first South African heart surgeon. I was always reading books and magazines about him and I said I would be a heart surgeon. But when I got to the US, my second year in the university, they took us to visit hospitals. As we were going round, they showed hospital environment, and everybody we met, were in the age range of 60 and their offices were small, you found stethoscope and two chairs in each office. When we finished, they took us to the head of the hospital and he was a young man, 42 years old, his office was massive, they said we should ask questions and I said, ‘Look, all the people we met were in their 60s and 70s and have small offices, how come your own office is big?’ He said he was the administrator. I said, ‘Ah, what did you study?’ He said he had a Master’s degree in Business Administration with concentration on hospital management. Immediately, I told my advisor, that is the course I am going to read because I didn’t like the small offices and I didn’t want to grow so old working in that office. I said I like to be an administrator and believe me, I changed. I started learning accounting and economics. That was what changed me. So, first I wanted to be a doctor; I didn’t want to be a tailor but on getting there, I discovered I am better of as an administrator. Even my advisor kept telling me you are so eloquent that you should be doing public speaking; you should be doing public administration; you should be managing people; you are so organised; you are always wanting two plus two to be four that you should be a manager.
You served as a senator and later became governor. You also worked in the private sector, where emphasis is always on productivity and results. With the benefit of hindsight as a former governor, why do you think the situation is a bit different in the political environment in terms of results?
I think the difference between the private sector and the public sector is the fact that in the private sector, you are dealing more with established rooms, norms, practices and you deal more with material things, human beings and you have a congruence of objectives. In public space, we are dealing more with human beings with varied interest. In the corporate world, there is only one interest, it is the interest of that company: profitability of that company. In the political arena, you are dealing with millions of people with different varied interests. If you know about management, human beings are the most difficult element to manage and we don’t have the same objectives. You have come, you want to do roads; that man is telling you the roads he wants is his stomach. The other person wants to get a position. If you look around, in the private sector, you will be given N1 million or N10 million and you should make a profit of 20, 30, 40 per cent, depending on the industry you are operating in; those are the goals. In the public sector or the political arena, if you are given N100 million, an individual wants to be the one that will get that N100 million or many people will like to take that N100 million. As long as you give them and they pocket it, you have done well. But once they don’t get from it, you have not done well or if you give one of them N1 million and say let me give the other 99 people N1 million each, you have not done well, particularly in an environment where people have no jobs. You people now you are working, you have jobs. 99 percent of our people don’t have jobs; it is government. And in an environment where the culture of entitlement is so high and pervasive, it is difficult to manage and that was why the last time, I was very grateful to the people of Oyo State for allowing me to do eight years; they never allowed it because by the time you use one year, they start complaining and the complaints come from individual interests, which are not necessarily in tandem with the state interest. If you do roads from Oja’aba to Bode, it doesn’t concern some people, just do roads in front of their own house. But again, it is part of management; you have to manage it; those are the challenges of management but you manage them and tell me of a leader that you know, whether here in Nigeria or in America or Britain that has gone through his leadership period that was never castigated or blamed? Tell me one! Even people castigate God. Olorun, bawo loti wa se temibayi? (God, why did you make this my portion? So, if you are a leader, you must be ready for those castigations.
How has life been after seven months of leaving office?
It has been very peaceful for me; it is a lot of joy for me. I even wondered how I survived the eight years in office, not sleeping well. But now, I sleep very well, very happy with myself. When I drive around, I see the roads I have done. I’m very happy when I see some of the changes in the psyche of the people; when I see the people I have influenced; when I see people I have mentored; when I see my impact generally. You see, people talk about roads and infrastructure alone. What about the mental impact my administration had on the people? Go to the ministries and see the impact I have been able to make on work ethics, perseverance, commitment, public service, dress code and attitude because you discover that the number one problem of Nigerians is not intellectual but attitudinal. And I have been able to influence the attitude; the fact that if you are governor, you should work 24/7 for the state and ask many of the civil servants, I would be there (in the office) till 10 pm, 11 pm and 12 midnight. Sometimes, I would call ‘where are you’ and some will be begging that, ‘Oga, they will close our gate now in my area.’ I have changed all that and I have encouraged people to be intellectual; to dress well. I have changed the psyche of the people, especially those who had direct relationship with me.
Who among all your children gives you the greatest joy and what also is the main attraction in your wife that gives the greatest joy?
I think the thing that gives me the greatest joy among my children are all my children. There is none that has not given me joy. I love them All of them are my best friends, really. I don’t have a best friend than my children and my wife. As for my wife, what gives me joy about is that she is my wife; she is my best friend and she is very selfless; she is extremely selfless. God forbid, but she is ready to die for me. I know that; it is not because she says it; I have seen it in her ways. Any time I felt I was not feeling fine, and I say, ‘Honey, I am not feeling fine, between you and I, after about five minutes if I get up to go to the toilet, you see her in the toilet crying and you ask her’ what’s wrong, she will say you are not feeling fine, I’m afraid; if anything should happen to you. She has unlimited love; what gives me joy about her is the affection, the love she has for humanity. If you see her picking motherless children and the way she cares for them, you would not believe it. All the motherless children in the homes attend the same school with my children. One of the best schools in Ibadan today is the Lebanese school located in GRA. All of them attend that school. Go to the homes, all the children live in air-conditioned rooms, with access to all necessary facilities, there is no discrimination, without anybody prompting her; she is extremely caring; that’s one thing that makes me love her.
Have there been some moments in your life that you had to say, ‘why did I go into partisan politics?
Oh, it’s every day because there are many mischievous people in politics; very mischievous. You know you have somebody you have been nice to; you have been helping him; they would say I would die for you and in the next moment, they are abusing you. You are sometimes forced to say, Emi nieleyinbu? (So, this individual can be abusing?) Most of the people abusing me today are the people I have helped that if you saw their pictures when they met me and you saw their picture now, you would be surprised. They are the people abusing me today. Before I came into politics, you would not know me. My house was built already. I built my house almost 40 years ago; then, I will just drive down, nobody will see me. I came in and I left; nobody troubled me. But, politics is very demanding and in the end, it is a thankless job. If you say, two times two is four; four times two, eight, and three times two, six and if you now get somewhere and say, eight times eight, instead of saying 64, you say 63, that’s the one everyone will be talking about. Many people will come out and say do this or that when the trouble comes, nobody shows up. It is the price you must pay to change the environment; we cannot say because of such attitude leave it the way we met it. This is our country; we do not have any other country. That is why I have developed a thick skin for the insults. No one can create fear in me. But are you supposed to abuse me in the first instance? Is it proper for the young to abuse the elder?
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