It was not like any of the interviews he had granted in the past. For two hours he held a select group of editors spellbound and reeling in laughter as he spoke about his hatred for school, love for soccer and the cinema until his father whipped him into line with a threat to make him a mechanic’s apprentice.
Let’s go down memory lane with Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola as he clocks 50 years in another 18 days.
We will start by saying congratulations” because in a number of days, you will be 50. So,what are your reflections at 50?
Nobody knows what day he was born; so I am going to take the question on reflection from perhaps the time some consciousness began to form in my mind about the future. In that sense, the kind of country I had so much faith in really has not materialized. So, it’s an anniversary of mixed blessings for me. If you like, it’s positive in the sense that there is life.
Also, in many respects, some of the things I wanted personally for myself, maybe in terms of career, have largely materialized, although like in my profession, I still believe that there is an unfinished business there. But, when I look back, I’ll say there were some decisions I took as a young person, the opportunity to study abroad that I rejected because I felt that I could never be all I could be in a land where I was not a citizen. That was one reason.
I look at the decisions that presented themselves when I left the university and close to half of my colleagues that we graduated, left Nigeria out of frustration. I was one of the few who said, “No, I think that the problems of this nation will be solved and this is where my best opportunities lie.” In that sense again, that opportunity has not materialized. I see so much that we can do but are still undone. So, it’s a season of mixed blessings for me. Personally, I can’t say that is the kind of fulfillment that I desired.
You warned everybody off a loud birthday celebration, what explains that decision?
Well, my birthday has always been a private thing. But in the last few months, there has been, for want of a better expression, building excitement; people planning all sorts of things, committees being set up and I said, “No, you don’t do this to me, not this time.” For me, I think my best birthday was at 10. I remember it was the last birthday that my mum organized. I celebrated every birthday, cut a cake and I still think I can find some old pictures. I remember I wore a French suit.
From there, I think she focused more on my younger ones because I was already in secondary school. So, the transition was complete. No more children’s birthdays for me from then on.
So, in that sense, the next birthday that I remember was when I was 18 and I did that myself. I saved money for about six months and I went partying with my friends and I really enjoyed myself. The next one I remember was 21 and I was in the university then. It was my friends and I on campus and as difficult as it was then, because there was no telephone, my mum made it a sense of duty to ensure that I got a birthday card. I still keep it till today. It was a very touching birthday card and after that, there were really no birthdays in that sense.
When I got married, on my birthdays I get home early. If it’s a working day, we don’t cook, we order food, people come in – my parents, siblings come – each one at his own time and really by 7 or 8 pm, I leave them in the house with my wife and I am gone; maybe to go and play snooker or tennis at the club. So, there was no ceremony around it. I am not a ceremony person. I don’t like those formalities and I remember that when I was Chief of Staff, I turned 40 and my friends said, “No it’s a lie; we are going to have a party” and I said, “No, if you do it I am going to run away.” Someone suggested Sunny Ade because they know I like him. They said they were going to bring him and I said, that’s the one that would make me run away; but in the event, I remember that we actually printed an invitation card. How they got me to do it, I can’t quite say. What I remember was that I had to wake up very early and I said, “this shouldn’t be; this is my birthday, I should be sleeping.”
But as early as 7am, we’d started prayers and from there, it was breakfast though I must confess that it was a day that I enjoyed. I had so many people around me; the governor, the Chief Judge and the Speaker came; everybody was there. But the party went on beyond my birthday because at 3am the following day, we were still there. So, I was living in another person’s day and I said, “No, this is not how it is supposed to be.” I remember that in the course of shaking everybody’s hands, you know, going from table to table, I think somebody had conjunctivitis and I picked it. When I woke up in the morning, I couldn’t open my eyes. But, I think the fun I had the day before, more than compensated for the discomfort. I had to send for my optometrist because it was very painful. This time, with all the plans going on, I said, ‘no’, that if this is my day, then those who really love me should allow me to do it my way. It didn’t cost me that much also to receive my visitors. I funded my 40th birthday by myself. I am not quite sure I can’t do the same now.
How do you mean?
As governor? No. I am not even sure that I want to spend that kind of money on a party. If we can’t eat small rice and chicken in the house and I don’t even know if I want to dress up in a formal sense. I just want to feel free, see the people I want to see and if there is something going on, on television, I want to watch, instead of, ‘Oh, come and say hello to this person or that person.’ I am sure I am not mentally prepared for that and I don’t want to offend people. The idea that probably, I will have a birthday at taxpayers’ expense is something that doesn’t sit quite well with me and it’s only for 24 hours anyway.
So, what exactly is your plan for this birthday?
A very quiet and simple day.
It will be nice to have my friends around and they know themselves. So, if they get here, they know how to get me but I don’t think that I want to cling to things that are not real. I try as much as possible to keep my feet firmly on the ground because there are two people here – there is Tunde Fashola, and there is the Governor of Lagos State. There are many people who want to celebrate the birthday of the Governor of Lagos, and next year and in 2015, I will be left to carry on with my birthday. So, let me get used to that now. That’s what I have tried to do since I took office. The other argument may sound strange but really, we are as it were, inheritors of the joy we did not experience and on the day a child is born, he doesn’t know what is going on. The only people who celebrate that day are the parents. Then, they invest in the anniversary of the day and it becomes a cross for life.
The way you are talking, you don’t seem to like to celebrate anything.
No, you see, the idea is, I celebrate every day I am alive. Every morning when I wake up, I pray. I sing to God every morning but even sometimes, people who live in the house really don’t know that I sing. I sing inside me, in happiness. For me, every day that you live is a celebration; so, it can’t be one day.
Let’s hear what you want to sing
Ah! (general laughter), I said that I commune with my maker. I will tell you about that later. You want to break into that? That’s the sanctum santorium , the inner inner.
We can’t talk about the present without talking about the past. Let’s go down memory lane. What was childhood like for Babatunde Fashola?
Sure, a lot of fun. I grew up in Surulere. I lived in Surulere all my life. The first time I am living on the island was when I moved in here. So, it was fun; I did everything that young people do. My grandmother used to trade at Oyingbo market. I remember that every Tuesday was the market day; so, I would wake up with her at 5am, help her tie the pots and pans with my tiny hands. She used to sell Tower Aluminum pots and pans. She believed that my six digits were signs of prosperity; so, she would tell me to put my hands on them. At the end of the market day when she came back, I would be the one to count her money. She was not very literate but she could count her money in pound. When we migrated to naira, it became a problem; so I had to do the multiplication of the number of pounds to get the naira for her, but I always got a reward. I got bags of chocolate and Nicco biscuits. Of course, it meant that on Wednesday morning, I would be a hero in class, sharing my biscuits.
Those were great memories. We flew kites; on Sundays, we went to church, St Jude’s Church in Ebutte-Metta, and after church, we looked forward to Uncle Ben’s rice and chicken. Of course, those of you who lived in that era will remember the perpetual fight over Fanta; who was going to get the bottle. We had to share a bottle; maybe, two or three of you and there was a feeling that the person who had the bottle had more content. So, that was it – I did all the regular things, played street soccer.
I played truant in school a lot and I didn’t like school because there were too many interesting things to do –play football and go to the cinema. My mum used to take us to cinema; that was when cinema was popular. The one at Onipanu, on Ikorodu Road, Metro Cinema was where I first saw James Bond’s Gold Finger. She took us to the cinema on the last Sunday of every month. That was the kind of childhood I had and we lived in regular middle class home. My mum is a nurse and my dad a journalist. I also remember that my affinity for Juju music came from my grand-parents because my grandfather used to buy Sunny Ade’s records. We had a Grundig player and that was where I learnt all Sunny Ade’s music.
It was always blaring and I learnt how to change the records. I still draw a lot of inspiration from the deep philosophy in those songs. There is a lot of rich philosophy if you bother to listen to the lyrics rather than the music. You will see their stories of tribulations and success and if you look at them now and listen to their songs, you will see that every success story is founded on adversity. They faced their own adversities. Obey was once accused of carrying drugs. They had their bitter rivalries. He was accused of supporting criminals when he sang for a notorious armed robber and he quickly had to do ‘E maf’oju buruku wo onileesi….’ and all of those things. Of course, there were supposed feuds, that helped to bring more converts and those were the building blocks of my childhood.
I didn’t see the civil war in but my memories of the war have summed up in a word, ‘Moto gagara.’ I will tell you the story of Moto gagara. I must have been around four years old when the war broke out and our brothers from the east were moving back home and in big trucks. For a four-year-old, the sound of those trucks was frightening. So, any time I saw them, I always wanted to go out and play and my grandmother would say, “Stay indoors.” So, the only thing that kept me in was the sound of those trucks; I would rush back into the house. So, any time I wanted to go out, she would say, ‘don’t go out, Moto gagara …,’ and I would scamper. Post war was the reconstruction of Lagos and many parts of Nigeria; so riding through the streets of Surulere, seeing the stadium being built, National Theatre – the sand filling that took place from Iponri; we rode bicycles through all those places; through Badagry Expressway.
I remember Yinka Folawiyo was the main supplier of cement to the site then and all of these, l did riding bicycle. I remember going with my grandmother to her house in Oshodi to collect her rent. She had a lawyer who managed her property in Oshodi and I recall that after every visit, she always complained that the lawyer had cheated her and the final word always was my promise to her that I would be a lawyer so that I would manage the property for her for free. And unfortunately, that happened only after she died. Of course, I took over the property; then my younger brother who is also a lawyer took it over from me and we still manage it. We are trying to renovate it now but that gave me a very strong knowledge of Oshodi because we used to walk through all those places and I knew how it was as a child then. It gave me a good knowledge. My aunt lived in Bariga, so I would take a bus from Oshodi to Bariga and then from Bariga to Akoka.
Your mother was a nurse, your dad a journalist, how did you end being a lawyer, instead of in the sciences or in journalism?
Well, I think that our parents are the mirror through which we see life. So, maybe somewhere down the line, my grandmother’s exhortation struck a chord but more importantly was the fact that I was very horrible with mathematics. Or perhaps not horrible; let me explain it. The primary school I went to used to do arithmetic; then in 1972 or 1973, Nigeria turned decimal. So, some schools started doing mathematics. We remained with arithmetic because we were then getting ready for common entrance and I think the school thought that it would be difficult to change us. So, I think they got the National Common Entrance body then to set two sets of questions. In the front was mathematics and then there was a footnote that if you did arithmetic in school, turn to the next page. But even at that, I just managed to score about 50 or 60 to pass arithmetic. So, by the time I got to form one, it was straight mathematics.
I remember it was an American who taught us mathematics and I just couldn’t hear what he said in class. First, because of the accent, secondly all the signs on the board were new. So, I just stopped going to mathematics class. I didn’t stop initially, I just sat down there; I just found something else to distract myself until he left the class. But my Physics, Biology and Chemistry were quite good. I was taught by two Indians, Mr & Mrs Matthews. Mr Matthews taught Physics and Chemistry; Mrs Matthews taught us Biology and I desired at that time to be a doctor. I wanted to be a surgeon and I was very good in Biology. I am still conversant with it. I am just enamoured by nature but in form three, going into form four, we were going to choose subjects and they called my parents and said, look, this man’s Biology is good, in chemistry, he doesn’t solve any equation, he just answers the theory questions and leaves the rest blank and that he has to withdraw from the science class and move to the arts class. I said well, I was ready to do that; there was no point arguing but that they would allow me to keep my Biology and they agreed. Then, I focused more on history, bible knowledge, literature, geography and by the time, it was all done, the only professional course I could do without mathematics was law. So, that’s it but it’s not something I didn’t want to do. In a sense, there was a little bit of a mix. I enjoyed every day I spent in the law class. And I think that I am better for it because in the course of my practice, it has enabled me to know a lot more about other disciplines because you are a client to doctors, to patients who sue doctors, to engineers and to people claiming compensation for building damage. So, you have to know quantity survey, engineering. There are areas of life that you never read about but you have to learn by force once a client comes in, otherwise, you give up the brief and the money.
Tell us again the story of how you missed travelling abroad with your siblings because your school grades didn’t meet your father’s expectation.
At that time, around 1976/77, my father decided apparently that part of the education of his children was to travel abroad. For us, it was fun; for him, it was education. We didn’t know that and we used to think he was a rich man. It was much later that we realised that he borrowed money to send us on those trips but the qualification always was that you must be in the top five in your class. I was always the one who didn’t make it. So, they dropped me twice. For me, school was too much of a problem. There was football to be played and I didn’t learn how to study until I was in A’ Levels class. Sometimes, I didn’t go to class and just two days before exams, I would come in and ask; what did you people do? And I would look at somebody’s note and read to just get the minimum pass.
At what point did you change this attitude of hating school?
When I failed School Certificate (general laughter). I wrote school certificate when I was 14 and half. So, I just didn’t understand what the big deal about this WAEC exam was. Why is everybody reading when we should be playing? I found out that all my playmates had left me behind and I didn’t even know what to read. So, I just went into the exams, wrote what I knew, passed biology and the rest were P7, P8 and of course mathematics stood out, F9. When the result came; my dad and I went to the school and the teachers were congratulating my dad. They said, this boy didn’t come to school. My dad said he was no longer paying for exams again. He told me that he had booked an apprenticeship for me with his mechanic, so I broke down in tears. He said I should go and think about it, discuss with my mum and come back to him to decide what I was going to do. One week after, I went to see him and said well, I still want to go to school. And he said the mechanic was waiting. I think it was that shock treatment that changed my attitude. I went on to write the exam again and I passed. Then, I got into A’ Levels class and it was very good in the first year and everybody. My dad said that it must have been because I hadn’t discovered the football field there. In a sense, it was true; by the end of first year, I got into the football team in Igbobi College and the grades just started dropping.
I tell everybody who cares to listen; I am a product of many chances and that’s why I give a second, third and fourth chances to everybody who is serious; those are the messages for me. I also acknowledge observably that my parents own the credit for what I have become; they just didn’t give up. I don’t think that any parent should give up on any child. By the time I entered the university, all of the freedom I wanted was an anticlimax. There was nobody to tell me to go and study. By the first week in the university, I was the one waking others up to go and study. I don’t know how that consolation came and I was able, through the university, to still combine football and tennis with my academic work. What I simply did was that by 6am, I was up to do my exercise. I used to jog in the morning. By 8am, I would be in class till 4pm and by 4pm, I was in the sports complex till 7pm. By 7pm, I was cleaning up; 8pm, I ate dinner and between 8pm and 9pm, I studied. I studied one hour every day till I left the university and it worked. So, I was always ready for exams long before it came. It was the same thing I did in the law school. I played tennis throughout law school exams everyday and it didn’t affect my grade. Well, maybe it could have been better but I left the school with a 2:2 and I left the law school with a 2.2. I think that is enough effort really. My dad wanted me to do masters but those were his plans. My own plans had become different and I was not going to argue with him. He collected the form, I filled it and I submitted it late. Yes, I was tired of school; I had become a lawyer. I didn’t need masters; I wanted to practice. I didn’t want to be a company secretary where I would need a higher degree to get promotion. I knew what kind of law I wanted, to be in the courtroom. I didn’t need a masters degree to do that.
At what point did you really develop interest in public service?
Public service is just perhaps another stepping stone in my life’s journey. There was no desire for that. I didn’t like public service, make no mistake about it. I was posted to the Ministry of Justice in the University of Benin as a corps member. I was posted to the Office of the Solicitor-General. She was away appearing in some other sittings outside Benin and for three days, nobody could attend to me and I told myself, this is not the place you want to work. By the time the Solicitor-General came on the third day, I just went to her and said: Ma, I have been waiting for you, I don’t want to work here. Please just transfer me. And she said: How can I transfer you without even trying you? And I told her that I would not work there. She was a very nice woman, Mrs Omorude. She later became a judge of the High Court in Edo State. She asked me if I didn’t have a wig and gown and I did. Yes, She asked: Why don’t you want to work here? I said: Well, I was here for three days; you were not around and nobody seemed willing to take responsibilities. The impression I get is that I wouldn’t do anything unless you approve of it. So, if you are not around, we won’t work and I don’t want to be in an environment where I can’t think on my own and take decisions. She said: No, it’s not like that. I said: Well the evidence I have is like that. And I remember her words; she said: Young man, your mind seems to be made up and I’m not going to stand in your way.
Where do you want to go to? Do you have another place? I told her yes but I didn’t. I just wanted to get out of the place, so she let me go and I started pounding the streets of Benin, looking for my seniors in the university who were already lawyers and looking for a place where somebody could accommodate me. By night fall, I had gotten a place and that was where I did my youth service. That was my impression of government. Coming back home, I saw that if you wanted to get anything done in any department of government, it could go on for weeks and weeks and I said no, this is not for me. I used to be very critical of government in my own small corner. But one day, Governor Tinubu sent for me and said: Tunde, Lai is going to Ilorin; he wants to be governor, I need help. You were part of the people who supported my campaign, you can’t leave me to do the work alone; so come and join me. That was on a Wednesday. Well, he scheduled the meeting for 4pm on Wednesday but I didn’t get to see him until 1:00am on Thursday morning. We were all there in his office. I got home around 2am or so and went to my office in Igbosere. Later in the day, I think the GSM had come then, I got a call from the Head of Service asking for my address and before the end of the day, I got a letter asking me to resume in Alausa the following day, which was Friday August 16, 2002. I called my partner and said: I won’t see you tomorrow; I am gone.
That’s all because the way we ran the chambers, everybody knew what the other person was doing. I was head of the chambers, I was managing it. All the cases we tried, we prepared them in a conference type environment. So, it was easy for them. I told them I would be one phone call away if they needed any help. After that, they found their feet. So, I didn’t plan to be in government. I went into government also with some air of arrogance which was quickly deflated. I must say this; I thought that those of us outside knew more than those inside and I was proved wrong. There are a lot of talents in government; not just in Lagos State and the power of government is so awesome that we do ourselves a great disservice. I joined at 39 and I thought it was too late and we must encourage many more people to join very early. And there is no use for us to just continuously criticize the government; that’s the easiest thing to do. But getting things done; getting people to agree, it’s like having a party for 10 people. It is easy to serve them but when the party becomes a thousand people, some people will come and not eat. For some people, the food would have become cold. So, when the people you now have to serve multiply to 21 million people, you see how difficult it is to please everybody.
What would you say prepared you for public office as governor of Lagos state?
Well, my knowledge of Lagos and things that I picked up from my childhood days. I played football across virtually the whole state. Where I didn’t play football, I went to swim and I lived in many parts of Surulere.
I lived at Sam Shonibare,Aina Street off Lawanson, behind Idi-Araba and I lived at Ijeshatedo. I also lived at Aguda as a bachelor. But as a child, I remember we used to go from Aina Street through the canal to go and cut bamboo to make cages to trap birds. So, I knew the flood, the canal in Idi-Araba. It helped me ultimately to address the flooding problem that solved the River LUTH. And I knew Oshodi as I told you, apart from going with my grandmother. When we started living in Ijesha, I used to take a bus to Oshodi bus-stop and from Oshodi, we would trek to Airport Hotel because we were going to swim. And we would save the money for transportation on our way back because we would be hungry after swimming. I used to go and rent bicycle at Bank Olemoh.; We used to go and play soccer at SOS children’s village in Isolo, play soccer at Akerele junction at Alhaji Masha because it used to be a big open field. We played table tennis at Sholeye Crescent, Rowe Park and the only place you could get good bats was in a store (I have forgotten its name) in Apapa. We would come to Marina, take the ferry or a canoe across to go and work behind flour mill to be able to get the bat.
Then in my home, there was freedom, love and fear of God. Stealing was unforgiveable; you couldn’t forget your classmate’s biro in your bag because you would receive the anger of my parents. And you will never forget it. We couldn’t go to a neighbour’s house to eat even if were hungry; my mother would be staring at you. She would ask: are you hungry? And you would quickly say no. You may say that they were very strict but many of my generation went through it. It curtailed greed, built discipline and it reinforced self- denial. So, no matter how sweet that food was and you remember the one at home, if they ask you outside whether you were hungry, you would say, no, I have eaten. I remember once my younger brother and I were walking through a footpath and we found an old three pence in the sand and we cleaned it up. Of course, we couldn’t take it home. We saw these Nupe/Kanuri women selling roasted peanuts. We just gave her the three pence to give us peanuts and it literally bought everything she was carrying.
We sat down on the corner of the bush and ate as much as we could, knowing that we couldn’t take it home. But as stupid as we were, we wanted to keep what was left. We dug the sand and buried it there so that we would go back for it later. Of course, when we went back, we could not find it but it was better to lose the peanuts than for my mother to find it with us. Then, the value of human lives; we didn’t see dead bodies on the street; there wasn’t that much violence; there was respect for the dead; there was a sense of sobriety, we were not this loud. And I think that is the critical missing chord. When we talk about students not passing WAEC, they didn’t pass in my time too. If all the students were passing at that time, why did we have FSS because there were remedial colleges? All the students in the UK too don’t pass but constantly, something was being done about it and new opportunities were being created. So, those were the things that still help me in decision making. There were extra classes and that’s why we decided, let’s do Saturday classes in our public schools. And we are seeing the results gradually but it is not enough to continue with the headline, ‘80 percent failed’.
Would you say that you an accidental governor?
I don’t think that I am quite accidental. An accident is something that you don’t have any control of in its entirety and that’s not quite my case. I didn’t plan to run for office but I still had a choice to say yes or to run away and from the day I made a decision to accept the offer. I knew that it came with consequences and the first thing was to begin to prepare myself to deal with those consequences as best as possible. So, in that sense, yes. I think there is nothing esoteric about government. I think if you find the right people, the right attitude, a clear understanding of why you are there, you can make it work. I don’t by that suggest that there is any expertise here but we have tried to do very simple things. We have tried to involve people. Let’s take something as simple as maintaining roads; I want to discuss government not in terms of only the people in public service. No they are a very small part of the population. I want us to discuss government especially in a democracy as something that all of us own and how much ownership we have shown. I didn’t understand. I don’t know then as much as I know now.
There are barometers, at least, in this part, for measuring how well a government is doing. For me, in the very beginning, the idea that a governor must visit a road before it is fixed was extremely outlandish. How many roads could I possibly visit? So, the way forward was, let us get a data of the roads, which we now have. We know all our roads now but we can’t visit all the roads – over 10,000 roads. So, we set up a public works organisation that is increasingly better equipped to deal with those problems. It has a help line that we have made public but are people using it? That’s not even to say that if you call today, they will come this night but they will have a log of the bad roads. When they are making their plan in a budget, then they can fix it in. Recently, I drove through Malu road, going to the Kirikiri Fire Service and I noticed that at the railway junction, we had to slow down significantly because the road had failed at the edge of the tracks and the first thing that came to my mind was, if at the off-peak period, we had to slow down this much, what will happen at rush hour? How much pains will our people go through? And the next thing I did was to call the public works and say, ‘this road must be fixed before this week is over.
Give me a report that you have done it and I am going to check. How many of such roads can I visit? But luckily, by the time I was coming from the June 12 meeting, I saw a text on my phone that the road had been repaired. It gives me a very good feeling that at least the discomfort of citizens in that area has been attended to but will there be a life without problems? No. There are so many other things I didn’t see yesterday. But, even if we now have solutions to all the problems, we don’t also have all the resources to fix them but I think that in the sense that people feel that if they ask, government will respond, then we are on the way. The most prosperous nations still have disgruntled and un-served citizens and that’s why I feel more comfortable with the concept of an action government than an action governor because government is institutional. You don’t need to know me, you don’t need to see me. Even if we can’t serve you, somebody can say to you, ‘we have received your complaints, we will come to it.’ And there is a feel-good factor there that somebody has spoken to me very politely and those are the things we try to continuously promote. But again, on our help lines, what do we get? Sometimes, they are used for purposes for which they are not designed. So, again there is need for all of us to restrain ourselves; to moderate our expectations .
When Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu invited you into his administration, did it ever occur to you that you will stay this long in government and public service?
No. In fact, I remember as I joined in 2002, the campaigns for the re-election were rife and after re-election, he was reconstituting his cabinet. Myself as Chief of Staff, the SSG and Head of Service were the only few people that remained after the end of the first term and there was a lot of horse trading about who and who was going to be in the new cabinet. I recall one night I was at the club and one of my friends just rushed in and said “You are just sitting down here; they are already constituting the new cabinet and your name is not on it.” And I said “So, what’s your problem?” He said “ but you just spent nine months.” I said that was a momentous privilege and that if the governor felt that he wanted to change his chief of staff, I would go and thank him for giving me the opportunity to serve for a few months and get on with my life. So, that was my attitude because being his chief of staff wasn’t fun. Before I was chief of staff, if it rained, I slept more but once I got into government, the rain meant a different thing to me.