OGD at 65: About 70 per cent of high-rise buildings in Marina had my company’s input

Otunba Gbenga Daniel, former governor of Ogun State (2003-2011), clocks 65 years old today. He shares his life experiences in this interview by WOLE EFUNNUGA, FEMI ADEBANJO and TUNJI AKISANYA.

HOW do you feel attaining age 65 in a country where researchers have pegged the lifespan of an average Nigerian at around 50 years? 

At 65, one must be extremely grateful and thankful to God. The last few years, especially the last few months, have been very traumatic because of COVID 19 pandemic coupled with the security challenges we have in the country. When researchers put the lifespan of an average Nigerian at 65, I think they have enough reasons to say so. At 65, I am grateful. I feel much younger. I am happy and thankful to God for good health and for the modest achievements so far recorded, as I look forward to many, many more years in good health. 

In your younger years, you must have set a target for yourself that at age 65 you must have accomplished certain goals. Have you actually accomplished your set goals or you still have some left? 

Talking about aspirations, if you understand human behavior, you will agree with me that the goal post will continue to change. When you were young, at the secondary school level, you would be thinking of going to the university and graduating at a particular age. After that, you would wish to attain some other goals. This goal post keeps changing. I want to sincerely thank God because He has enabled me to achieve virtually all the things I have set for myself as goals, even more. Some people set goals to become multi billionaire. This does not deliver happiness. It now depends on what gives a man satisfaction. I can tell you that after all considered, I am satisfied. 

You have such an easy going personality; you are soft-spoken with immense charisma. How did you survive the political terrain to the extent that till today, nobody can wish you away both at the local and national level? 

If you read my book “Daniel In The Lion’s Den”, I started by saying that the political environment is like somebody entering the forest with a thousand demons, which was the title of the Yoruba novel by the late D.O. Fagunwa. Let me say that while coming into public service, I was quite prepared to meet the good, the bad and the ugly. I also defined my responsibilities to the good, the bad and the ugly. For the good, I made up my mind that I must continue to encourage people to do better, to strive harder, to work better and to achieve whatever they set for themselves. For the rich, I must help them to become richer. For the businessmen, I must facilitate businesses for them to become better businessmen. Now, for the bad, my responsibility is to make them better by creating employment opportunities for them so that they can go from bad to better. For the ugly, I also have a responsibility to help them get out of their bad ways. Once you have all these at the back of your mind, you now become a real public servant. Recently, I received a text message from somebody that I did not know. He said ‘OGD, I am a yam seller in a market. All I need from you is ten thousand naira to continue my business.’ He has my number and he has sent a text to me. I have received his message. If I have ten thousand naira, I will send to him. 

Somebody else will say I want to start a business, I need five million naira. I will say ‘Am I a bank’? If there is anything I have for that kind of person, I will do and move forward. That exactly was what I did in the public service. And I think more than anything else, coming to government, I cannot really claim to have any serious experience but I thought of the golden rule which says ‘Do unto others as you have them do unto you’. But I coined a golden rule which was the rule that I followed in my public sector activities. The rule is very simple. It is that anything you want to append your signature on, ask yourself if it can stand the test of public scrutiny. Once I pick my red pen to sign any document, I always ask myself that golden question. If the answer is yes, then it goes. But if the answer is no, it may end up as ‘Keep In View or Re-present’. 

That has been my golden rule and I want to recommend it to all the people who get involved in public service. Before they take any decision, they should ask themselves that golden question. 

How have you been able to cope as a politician who is also a businessman, an engineer and a philanthropist? 

I guess that they are not mutually exclusive. If you call me a businessman, I will accept but I want to say first and foremost that I enjoy being a professional, rendering professional services than being called a businessman because the term businessman, in our environment, is not particularly positive to the extent that their perception is that businessmen are out there to cheat and play a fast game. 

I studied engineering and first and foremost I consider myself an engineer. And in my chosen field which is engineering , I thank God that before I came to public office, I had risen to the pinnacle of that career and I have a reputation as a professional of no mean standing. I thank God that in that chosen career of mine, which laymen call lift/elevator, it is rarely impossible that a project of any magnitude will happen in this country without me being consulted. I thank God that my company, Kresta Laurel has reached a pinnacle that I can describe as one of the best in the industry. Even if you don’t like the company or the people behind it, if you want to do that job, you will ask them first what their opinions/views are. You may now take their views and still don’t give them that job, it doesn’t matter. The thing is that wherever we are, we get asked. 

One day, I was driving through Marina. Our business is a business of high rise buildings. I was quite satisfied with the high rise buildings that I was seeing from the bridge. About seventy percent, if not more, had our input. Talk about the United Bank for Africa (UBA) headquarters, First Bank of Nigeria (FBN) headquarters, Union Bank of Nigeria (UBN) headquarters, Shell Petroleum headquarters, and so on. It gave me joy to know that I had done one thing or other in these buildings. Most of these were things that happened before I came into public office. That is not all. In the other works that we do, which have to do with cranes, most people do not know that we are more popular with industrial cranes than elevators. 

There is no big company in this country that we have not installed crane for. The West Africa Portland Cement which is now called Larfarge, the Dangote Group, Guinness, Nigerian Breweries, etc. It is not just installing the cranes. The fact of the case is that several years later, quite unlike what happens to most Nigerian companies, we still try to manage that position. This is actually one of the things I want to recommend to our people. In doing all these, making money was not the motivation. The motivation was that this is an environment that people believe is exclusive preserve of expatriates and white people. Psychologically, our people had no chance. We had to drive ourselves very hard to ensure that under no circumstances do we disappoint. We are currently participating in the Lagos/Ibadan railway project where we are installing elevators and escalators in each of the sub stations. The point I am making is that in whatever we do, we as Africans must first understand that technologically, nobody will give us a chance. Therefore, for you to make a mark, you have to bend backwards. Looking back, I feel very, very happy that in the last 25 to 30 years of that company, (Kresta Laurel) there has not been a single job where we failed to perform. We have excelled in an environment that Nigerians were not given any chance to excel. 

So, when you talk about being a businessman, what I bring to the table is professionalism. And professionalism is performance. That is exactly what gives me satisfaction. Again, being a philanthropist comes with one’s nature. I am a son of a clergyman. Part of what the Bible teaches us is that it is more difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to the kingdom of God. So, if you happen to have, you must bend backwards to support those who do not have. You must also understand that the fact that you have does not necessarily mean that you are the most brilliant. And it doesn’t mean that you are the most hardworking. Yes, you must be hard working, you have to be brilliant but there is still the grace of God. If you now have that grace, it is not because you know how to do it, God only added that grace to you. 

As a governor for eight years, you had a single telephone line. Ten years after office, you still use the same line where people send text messages and calls to you. 

First, I am not running away from anybody. Two, there is nothing I did in eight years that I cannot stand up to. Also, there is no question that I cannot answer as far as my tenure is concerned. Like I said, there is always the avalanche of requests. I don’t lose my sleep over it. The ones I can respond to positively, I respond to. The ones I feel that I am not in a position to do, I simply overlook. I just feel that it is part of one’s responsibilities as someone who had been in charge of the state to continuously respond to calls and requests. 

You have over 60 chieftaincy titles both religious and traditional across the country. How did you extend your tentacles to the extent of getting these recognitions? 

I thank God. About three years ago, the Owa Obokun of Ijesaland decided to honour me. I wondered how I deserved this honour. I later found out that the current Managing Director of my company is from Ilesha. He is somebody who has been working with me for about 25 years. I am happy that he has done very well for himself to the extent that his traditional ruler felt I deserve the honour. That is how it came. It has nothing to do with spending money or looking for anything. 

The most shocking was about two weeks ago when the Alakenne of Ikenne Remo, His Royal Highness, Oba Adeyinka Onakade came to me in Sagamu and expressed his desire to give me a title. I asked him why I deserved a title at this time and the name of the title. He said Losi of Ikenne. He asked if I knew who the last Losi of Ikenne was. I said I did not remember. It was then he said it was Chief Obafemi Awolowo. I then felt that this is one honour one cannot decline. That is how they came and are still coming. One of the titles that I enjoy and love most is Asiwaju of Remo Christians. 

When the Christian Council came together about 15 years ago and said they wanted to make me the Asiwaju of Remo Christians, I knew that the Asiwaju of Ijebu Christians is Otunba Subomi Balogun. When I enquired who the last Asiwaju of Remo Christians was, they said it was Chief Obafemi Awolowo. I felt highly honoured. That was one of the reasons I built a church for the Christian community in Remoland. In the cause of my ward to ward campaign, most of these titles come. Even from far away east, the then chairman of the Eastern State Traditional Council said he wanted to give me a title of Okosisi. They said Okosisi is like a big Araba tree. People have their reasons for giving me one title or the other. You mentioned about 60 chieftaincy titles, I can assure you that as at the last count, the titles were about one hundred. How did your relationship with Awolowo start? 

At the University of Lagos, every faculty has a floor at the library. If I remember well, Faculty of Engineering was on the third floor. Also in those days, we went through what was known as The Almighty June. After the exams in June, that is between June and December, was always a long holiday. During the long holiday, you can choose to do what you like such as doing vacation jobs or going to the library. One thing that I did from my secondary school days was to represent the schools in quiz competitions, literary and debating works and things like that. So, what I did during my vacation was to go to the library. During that long vacation, I took my time to read about so many other things that are not engineering. I enjoyed reading biographies and auto biographies. 

I met Chief Obafemi Awolowo through his books in the library. I read about Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa and a lot of others. When I then encountered Chief Awolowo in the library, I told myself that this is a unique personality especially his capacity to be painstaking in planning and research. The amount of energy he devoted to learning how to solve problems that relate to his people, Nigeria’s problems, Africa’s problems and problems of humanity. I felt that he was a great mind. Incidentally, the name of the quiz competition in those days was ‘mastermind’. There were so many people that I was attracted to. 

What is your take on some political leaders whose only means of survival is politics? 

The problem is that a large number of people who come to public service, come in as a last resort because everything has failed. It is even worse when people who had made some money via means that are not particularly transparent, taking advantage of poverty in our country, come around to distribute peanuts to our people and get them to vote for them as people who are going to run their affairs. Such process means that there are no ways of checkmating people who do not have any other address. 

Considering the rate at which political leaders move from one party to another as a result of what they termed political ideology, what party system do you think Nigeria deserves? 

I think the problem that we have is trying to copy what is working somewhere hook, line and sinker. It is my considered opinion that the American-based democracy that we are practicing here which appears to be working perfectly well in America needs some kind of modification to work here. The best democracy was the United States of America but during the last election, the system was almost collapsing. It means that there is something still fundamentally wrong with people who are educated, enlightened and practicing democracy in the ideal way. 

What is Russia practicing? Is it democracy? Yes, it is some kind of democracy. China was practicing communism. Today, they have democratised though it is a kind of guided democracy. What has it done to China? It has catapulted them to be among the biggest economies in the world. They are battling with the United States. The U.S. can no longer ignore them. I saw a graph recently and saw how, from number 12, in the last 15 years, China rose and stood neck to neck with the U. S in so many indices. It means that they have done something right. I think part of what they have done right is their democracy. 

When I look at what happened to Russia in the time of Gorbachev and everything that happened, everybody thought that USSR had collapsed. But they sat back and started working on their democracy. Today, they have gained their strength back. The man who is governing Russia has been there for how many years now? Close to two decades. I think there is something that is out there that most democracies have found out that we need more than a period of four years to do something meaningful. Usually, the first two years, you are trying to settle down. The third year, politics has started again, politics of re-election. You get distracted and start running helter-skelter so that you don’t get disgraced. By the second term, you say finally, I cannot get any other term so let me start thinking of my retirement. There is therefore, no rest of mind for political office holders to be able to do what they have to do. It is because it is not working that people are now talking of restructuring. 

In my opinion, I think that what we achieved when we were like a one party state in Ogun State was better than when it was evenly divided. You will say that is tending towards dictatorship but when you look at what is on ground, that is what you find. In Ogun State today, it is like we are going back to a one party state so that whatever needs to be resolved would be resolved inside the party. The party can then exercise control and ensure that only the best are presented for the general public to now exercise their franchise of deciding who to vote for. That will give room for internal crosschecking so that the not so good can be filtered to some extent before it becomes an all-comers affair. 

What is your take on the unabated herdsmen crisis? 

The issue of the herdsmen is a major challenge and like I said earlier, one of the challenges that we have is the challenge of correct information and education. Illiteracy is also a bane which has to be attacked. But when you look at other civilizations, you wonder why Nigeria is having this type of challenge when we are not even close to India and America, in terms of livestock statistics. It therefore means that there is something that is more than meet the eye. Are some people using this for some other reasons? 

I am saying this because seeing cows on the roads is not something new or strange. They just go their way. I have never seen them with guns before. All of a sudden, they are now carrying sophisticated weapons. They are not carrying the guns because somebody wants to steal their cows. We need to do some research to find out what is actually going on. But I am particularly happy with the new stance of the president when I heard that the president has now directed that people who carry such weapons should be dealt with. If that kind of signal had come ab initio, we wouldn’t have got to where we are. We thank God that the president is finally listening and responding. We hope that with that new disposition, some sanity will return to the land.


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