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 in a land where I was not a citizen. That was one reason.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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. So, those were the things that still help me in decision making.
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.
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