My wife said if she knew I would be a politician, she would not have married me —Ajomale
Chief Henry Oladele Ajomale, lawyer, politician, diplomat and administrator, is the former chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Lagos State. He told his life story to TUNDE ADELEKE.
TELL us about your growing up
I was born in Lagos on October 4, 1944. I had my early education at St. Jude’s Primary School, Ebute Metta, it was one of the best primary schools in those days at Ebute Metta. Although I was born in Massey Hospital on Lagos Island, I was brought to Ebute Metta when I was around six years. I had my primary education at Ebute Metta and went to City College, Yaba, for my secondary education. I was not born with a silver spoon; my father was the head guard in Nigerian Railways – those who followed train to the North: Zaria, Kano, and Kaduna in those days. He also had Cambridge education in his years, but unfortunately, he could only take us to secondary school level. Everyone of us had to take opportunities to move on in life because he expected us to look for jobs. From there, we found our ways, like anybody, to Britain or wherever.
What happened to your academic journey from that point?
I made up my mind that I was not going to look for job. Fortunately, three of us – one is dead now, the other one is still alive, Dr. Odugbesan—used to go to the Scholarship Board in Lagos at the back of the old Senate Building. We would go there every day to look for scholarship wherever it may come from. It was our intention to go to Britain, but unfortunately, there were so many students whose fathers were influential. In our case, it was not our fathers who were going there, we did that by ourselves. Eventually, we settled for just any scholarship because it was our priority to be more educated. Fortunately, I was at home one day when they came and told me there was a vacancy and nobody wanted to go there. We decided that we would go. They said it was USSR, now Russia. At that time, it was a communist country and nobody wanted to go there. We applied and we were given the scholarship. But unfortunately, a minister’s name was announced. That was Jaja Nwachukwu. Some of us had our names removed and replaced with different names from a particular ethnic group. We protested and created trouble and (Prime Minister) Balewa removed him and put Akinjide in the position. It was Akinjide who reverted to the proper list. That was how some of us had the opportunity of going to Moscow. We left Nigeria in November 1964. When we got there, nobody envisaged that the weather was going to be terrible because none of us had ever left Nigeria before. It was our first journey to Europe. When we landed, it was on an open field. It was from the open field the bus would pick us. When they opened the door of the plane, some of us ran back to the end of the plane because of the cold. We had to adjust and went down in the cold without sweater, no top coat, nothing. It was terrible, but we entered the bus which took us to the arrival hall. From there, another bus took us to the town. When we got there, we were distributed into rooms – two in a room. It was the first time I would see a toilet where you sit down and then flush because our houses back home were ‘face me I face you’ and we had night soil men in those days who used to to carry our excreta.
When I got to Moscow, it was a surprise! You sit down, you flush, and the water goes somewhere. That was when I first saw that kind of thing. It was later that (former Lagos State governor, Alhaji Lateef) Jakande introduced it in all houses in 1979. I am talking of 1966. It was 1966 January, about two months after we got to Moscow that the first coup happened.
Where exactly were you at that time?
We were in class when one of our lecturers told us ‘there has been a coup in your country.”
What was your immediate reaction?
In a way we were happy because the corruption was so rife then. We believed it was a good omen that those people were overthrown. We did not even know that their own corruption was a child’s play compared to the one that went later through the military and others. The Minister of Finance then, Festus Okotie-Eboh, would be somewhere, his clothes would be flowing somewhere else. Although he was into fishery before he became minister, the man was an enigma; someone that was a household name in Nigeria then by virtue of his affluence, and they told us they had been overthrown. Well, many of us were happy because we were in a country where there was limited corruption. We thought Nigeria would embrace socialism or a better country, but unfortunately, it became worse even more than the First Republic. The First Republic was challenging because of the competition between the regions. When the military came, they thought unitary system was the best and everything became a one command chain. When the military left, they handed over the same unitary government to civilians. Nobody said anything then. It was in the Second Republic that they should have changed the unitary system, but nobody bothered. In those days, the Western Region was far ahead of France, South Africa and others and most of the positive talks about the Western Region’s Cocoa House, Liberty Stadium, television station, among others, were the first in Africa. In the area of education, it was super because some of us also enjoyed free education provided by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. It became interesting when we came back.
What did you study in Russia and how was coming back home?
I studied Law. When we came back to Nigeria just before 1970, I went to the Nigerian Law School and was called to the Bar in 1973. The first job I got was in the refinery. They had not started the National Youth Service Corps when I graduated, so, I did not participate in the national service. I was in the refinery as a legal liaison officer. I was posted to Lagos office before they later posted me to Port Harcourt. I spent one year in Port Harcourt before I was moved back to Lagos. I later joined the Federal Civil Service as an administrator and I was deployed to Ministry of Trade. During that period, I was posted as a diplomat to serve in some countries. I was in Geneva as Chancellor (Economic) while I was also serving in the United Nations in New York. Before then, I led Nigerian delegation to many countries too. In Geneva, we were also in ECOSOC and in charge of economy in the Permanent Mission to UN in Geneva. Later, I served in Japan and I was senior Chancellor (Economic). Also at the same time, we were concurrently accredited to South Korea. I was going to South Korea every month to look after the economic interests of Nigeria. I came back to Nigeria and worked also with the federal civil service before I decided to quit.
One interesting thing is that I was coming from the court one day. My office used to be in Ebute Metta and I was living in Okota. On my way back from the office at Jibowu, they stopped me and some people jumped on the road. I didn’t know it was Shomolu Local Government staff members– these were the people who collected revenues for them. They entered my car and asked me to follow them to Shomolu Council. I got there and saw that everybody was addressed as ‘Honourable’. They said I should come and pay some money. I insisted I was not going to pay a kobo because I didn’t know what I had done. I was just coming from the court. My gown, wig and other things were in my car. I said I wanted to see the chairman. When the chairman came, he asked, “What can I do for you?” I told him some boys arrested me and I didn’t know what I had done. He said they should call them. They said I was driving recklessly. He asked them how could a person driving recklessly with a tie, without any other person in the car with him! He ordered them to give me my key. But by that time, they had wasted three hours of my time. I reasoned that if the illiterate could be allowed to promulgate a bye-law, it would be binding on those of us that are literate. I decided that if one did not join these people, they would create problems for one in future. That was how I decided to go into politics. There was a meeting they used to hold at Ebute Metta which I joined together with Wale Oshun, who also had an office where mine was. We were attending the meeting together.
When was that?
It was zero party then, before the advent of National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). When Chief MKO Abiola’s mandate was annulled, and the late General Sani Abacha created five parties, I did not join them because I could see that they were not transiting to anywhere. Head or tail, the five parties were going to come together to endorse Abacha. During the time of SDP, I participated fully because we had a group then; I was a member of a group called Primrose. There were two major groups in Lagos State then, Ase and Primrose. Ase had people like Muniru Baruwa, the late Professor Femi Agbalajobi and others, but the group was headed by Jakande, the first executive governor of Lagos State, while Dapo Sarumi led Primrose. We were working day and night then because we wanted Sarumi to become the governor of Lagos State and we tried our best before he decided to team up with Abacha. Some of us decided that it was not right to join them, so we formed the Justice Forum. Bola Tinubu was with us and some of us who were convinced left the Primrose for Dapo Sarumi and formed Justice Forum. It was from there we decided to discard the idea of NRC-SDP and decided to form another five political parties. Some of us in Justice Forum decided to join them. We thought about it and we resolved to send somebody to find which party the forum would join, By the time they came back, they were divided. So, some of us decided not to follow them. We saw how it all ended – Abacha got removed and we came back. By that time, they had arrested Tinubu because they had dissolved and disbanded the National Assembly. The struggle was so much that Tinubu was, after about nine months, released. The Justice Forum members were working underground and when he came out, rumours were rife that he wanted to bomb the Ejigbo Depot of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). At that juncture, he was advised to leave the country and he did.
In Isolo, you are very revered. What makes you so much loved?
It’s community activities. My church is located in Isolo here – All Saints Anglican Church. We started it not in the Anglican way, we were running it as an interdenominational group. There was no church here then and we were using one of the Jakande schools, an abandoned classroom. We started there, but today, we give God the glory, we have a church there now. When I got here, I wanted to learn more about political organisations, so I started from my zone here. It was there somebody told Sarumi that I was in Isolo. They started looking for me. In the evenings when I came back from the court, I would join them – bricklayers, carpenters, fish sellers, market people and others; I would come and sit among them. It was very interesting because I learnt a lot from them. From there, I moved to the ward, but I didn’t leave the zone. From the ward, they noticed me and somebody told them. They came to our meeting one day (at the zonal meeting) saying that they wanted to see me and that Sarumi said I should join them. I said I would join them, but that I was learning. So, I was attending the three levels – zone, ward and local government area. From there, I became exposed.
How do you spend your typical day?
I enjoy myself staying with my people. They come here, we talk, throw jibes at one another. Sometimes, I give advice on politics, on legal matters and other things. Sometimes, I go to parties – weddings or birthdays.
Who is Ajomale the father, husband and family man?
I thank God I have a good wife, a very special person to me; Adetoun Ajomale. We have five children and they are all doing fine; professionals in their own fields – a doctor, a lawyer and two engineers.
Any of them in politics?
Only one, the last born, who is a lawyer is the only one interested in politics. The rest won’t touch politics with a long pole because their mother is not politically-inclined. She is just tolerating me. She told me if she knew I was going to join politics, she wouldn’t have married me. And I said I thank God you have married me and there is nothing you can do.
How does she support you?
She is a wonderful woman, a prayer warrior. Like any woman who loves her family, she always puts the family first. She helps the children in prayer. Any woman who does that will help the husband achieve a lot.
Politicians are expected to be sociable.
I am sociable. I go to parties when I feel like, but it’s not every party that I attend. If I like you, I go to your party, if I don’t like you, I stay in my house. I have about 12 chieftaincy titles, even in Isolo here I am the Bobagunwa of Isolo kingdom. I have a chieftaincy title in Agege, another in Ipaja, one in Ayobo and even as far as Ekiti State where I was conferred with a title in Ilawe-Ekiti.
If you are not politicking, what do you do?
I promote football. I used to play football in those days, I still enjoy it when I watch the younger ones play. But I play table tennis more.
What would you say to younger people aspiring to be like you?
They must be prayerful first and foremost because nobody can achieve anything without that. If anybody is telling you there is no God, such a person must be a fool because I know there is somebody called God; where He is, I don’t know, but He is powerful and He is everywhere. Unless you hold tight to that, there is the probability of you not achieving anything. Second, they must be contented, contentment is one virtue one should learn. With the blessings you receive from God, things will be better.