Abiola Ajimobi: A Portrait 

Abiola Ajimobi: A Portrait 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019 4:22 pm

The book on Ajimobi

Kunle Ajibade

This biography, Abiola Ajimobi: Architect and Builder of Modern Oyo State, is not just a story of how Governor Ajimobi has presided over the affairs of Oyo State for two consecutive terms of eight years and the legacy he is leaving behind, the book, written by Sam Omatseye, the columnist and Chairman Editorial Board of The Nation newspaper, is also an impressive account of Ajimobi’s years of childhood in Ibadan, his student days in the United States of America, his meteoric rise to the pinnacle of the corporate ladder in Nigeria, his years in the Senate and his remarkable emotional intelligence as a caring family man. As he moved from one phase of his life to the other, the book shows that, courage nurtured by conviction, has been one useful constant–courage with which he took calculated risks. The other constant is his sharp and stinging tongue of sweet and defiant excesses. This is the story of a man who has always refused to surrender to fear and intimidation. The book captures the flow of his ideas and imagination, his wit, his passion and insights. Loaded with many original and interesting stories, the book strikes a good balance between anecdotes and their historical contexts.

Let me quickly share with you one of these memorable stories that Alhaja Ganiyat Obileye, the younger sister of the governor, shared with the author. One day, her younger brother and their mother, were travelling outside of Ibadan to sell her merchandise of gold and trinkets. The young Abiola who was not living with them in the family house at that time was on holiday. He was then living with his aunt, Wulemat Ayilara in Oke Padre. Hungry for holiday bonding with her first born, the mother asked Abiola to come with her. Unfortunately, they had a near – fatal accident on their way from which the young man sustained some minor injuries. It was at the scene of that accident that one man, obviously possessed of a saintly vision, said in Yoruba to the mother, in the presence of other passengers: “Take good care of this child. He is going to be a great person in this land,” Embedded in this prophesy is a huge promise and a call to duty. How great has Abiola Ajimobi become? In what ways has he demonstrated this greatness?

The book answers these questions and many more. Born in Oja Oba, Ibadan, on 16 December 1949 to Ganiyu and Sikiratu Ajimobi, he is the first of 23 children. His father, a tailor and later a politician, married five wives. Extremely neat and fashion conscious, he made clothes for Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Ladoke Akintola and other notable men in Ibadan. He was essentially a man of modest means. In the First Republic, the father was an active member of the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe while his brother from the same mother, Lasisi Adeyemi alias Okoro, was in Action Group (AG) led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Uncle Lasisi became a Minister of Works and Housing and the first Parliamentary Secretary in the Western Region. It was when his brother died that Pa Ganiyu moved over to the Action Group, not just as a tribute to his brother but because he was then convinced of the ideas and ideals that AG espoused. He was a very loyal member of the party, respected by Chief Awolowo and trusted by our own Chief Bola Ige. He won his House of Assembly election in the Second Republic under the platform of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN).

Relying on the memories and remembrances of relations, friends and associates, Omatseye describes in detail the sprawling compound where the future governor was born. He attended St. Patrick’s School, Abebi, Seventh-Day Adventist Primary School, Oke Bola, and he finished off at Ibadan City Council Primary School, in Aperin. He excelled in academics and sports, playing lawn tennis, table tennis and football. He was also an excellent sprinter. But his favourite was football. Because of his dexterity as a player, he was nicknamed Super Galanata, Orisco and Archipelago. This grass-root popularity automatically turned him into a leader of his age-mates. He was one of the neatest and stylist in his set. He played all the rascally pranks like other kids of his time. Some of these pranks are recounted in this book. During one of Id-el-Kabir seasons, for instance, he and Tajudeen, his cousin, set up two of the family rams for fights. One of the rams died but the fathers simply forgave the two rascally boys in the spirit of the festival. He attended Quranic School briefly at this time. He then moved to Oke Padre to live with his aunt, Wulemat Ayilara when Uncle Lasisi, the Minister with whom he was living, died. Silifat, the only daughter of his aunt, would later marry Alhaji Kola Animasaun, the veteran journalist and notable columnist with The Vanguard newspaper.

At Lagelu Grammar School (LGS) to which he had gained admission in 1962, he quickly made a lot of friends. One of his favourite teachers in the school was Mr. Lam Adesina who taught History, English and Literature. The man would later play a significant role in Abiola Ajimobi’s political enterprise. In LGS he excelled in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and other subjects, even as he blossomed in sports. He was also a powerful debater and a very good actor. Indeed, he played Romeo in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. He was one of the prefects of the school. Extremely popular in Lagelu Grammar School, and this popularity spread like wildfire to Yejide Girls High School, St Anne’s and Queen’s College, because he knew how to be nice to women. Yet he took his studies seriously, making Grade 2 in his West Africa School Certificate Examinations after which he worked for three years at the Lagos Municipal Transport Service before he proceeded in 1970 to the State University of New York at Buffalo, Upstate New York, where he studied Business Administration and Finance. Professor Adebayo Adedeji, who later became Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa from 1975 to 1991, was one of his professors in the university. Sam Omatseye describes with empathy the difficulties that the 20 year old Abiola Ajimobi experienced as he tried to settle down in the US. Since he was not on scholarship and had no rich parents to pay the expensive tuition fees of the university, to pay for accommodation, feeding and other essentials, he had to work multiple jobs to make the money. At a point, he worked in the mortuary, washing dead bodies because it was very lucrative to do so.

The man suffered, sometimes living like a vagrant, but he was very determined to succeed. He finished his studies in 1974, and shortly got a job at Equitable Life Assurance in Buffalo. The following year, after passing state examinations, he became the first certified Nigerian Insurance underwriter in that city. It was after his master’s degree in 1976 at the Governor’s State University in Chicago that he returned to Nigeria. The drama of his social life in America and that of his homecoming are captured in the book. Now in Nigeria, armed with his certificates, it did not take him a long time before he got a job with Elm consulting firm as a consultant and then another job as the Finance and Administrative Manager at Modular, a company owned by Architect Layi Balogun. After six months in Modular, he moved to Nestle as Operations Controller. In 1979/80, National Oil, which was then 40 per cent Shell and 60 per cent Nigerian, was expanding its Credit Department and the future governor was head-hunted by the then General Manager, Mr Moshood Akanbi. In two years, he rose rapidly from Credit Manager to Consumer and Product Manager. Abiola, the boisterous, highly fashionable, best dressed man in National Oil had found his groove.

We are told in this book that as a turnaround manager, he radiated confidence which some people mistook for arrogance. In 1986, National Oil restructured; it created eight major districts for effective performance: Lagos, Ibadan, Kano, Kaduna, Ilorin, Jos, Enugu and Port Harcourt. Abiola Ajimobi was made the first District Manager in Ibadan. Like other District Managers, he was fully empowered to expand the market which he did creditably. Mr. Wahab Abiodun, one of his mentees, who worked with him in National Oil, tells the story eloquently of how Abiola Ajimobi turned himself into a high-flyer of the corporate Nigeria. In no time, he was made Lubricants Manager, a much bigger position that generated 40 per cent of the company’s profits. Because he did so well as Lubricants Manager, he was made Aviation Manager. By virtue of these positions, he travelled extensively around Nigeria. At that time, National Oil was controlling 70 per cent of the market share in the oil and gas sector. The company then added eight retail operations to its expansion portfolio. Ajimobi was later made the manager of all the eight districts and retail regions.

Not long after that, he was made an Executive Director Operations and posted as a representative of the National Oil in Shell Togo. The rising star was not only happy  at that time with the favour of his career in the oil industry, he was also happy with the uncommon blessing of the love of his life, the woman he had met one day in January 1980 at the Union Bank, 40 Marina, Lagos. The woman, now Chief Florence Ajimobi, has remained his solid pillar of support ever since. She has been his stress reliever and joy giver all these years, helping her husband to keep peace with his soul. Their children: Abisola, Abimbola, Ajibola, Abolaji and Ajijola, plus Fatima, their daughter-in -law pay glowing tribute to their parents in this book. By the time their father was asked to wind up in Togo and return to Nigeria, the privatization process of the National Oil was in full swing. So was its Boardroom politics. Ultimately, Dr Mike Adenuga Jr. bought over the National Oil and gave it his own name: Conoil. After a keen competition, Abiola Ajimobi was made the Managing Director of Conoil. But he was only able to tolerate Dr Adenuga for two years. All the conflicts, all the disagreements that led to the final big clash between Ajimobi and Adenuga are told painstakingly in this book. We do not, however, have the Adenuga side of the story. Ajimobi had to get a court judgment against Adenuga before his severance benefits were partially settled.

In the wake of the boardroom acrimony in Conoil, Ajimobi threw his hat in the ring of the politics of Oyo State. His politician- father had always wanted him to play politics. Although he was interested, his passion was elsewhere. Now he was ready in 2001. He left behind a comforting familiarity to embrace an incredibly fickle, very stressful, very rough and, sometimes dangerous but important world of politics. He studied the books of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the well-beloved first Premier of the Western Region who worked so hard and took himself seriously as a political leader; he studied the books of Winston Churchill, British statesman and a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; and he studied the books of Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice-president and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and ruler of the Emirate of Dubai, more closely for ideas and practical inspiration. As he found himself a new cause, as he found himself a new mission, as he found himself a new purpose rooted in serving more people, he, who loved to wear nice shirts and trousers, who loved to wear bespoke suits, gradually learnt to clad himself in caps and flowing gowns learnt to wear enormous smiles and learnt to get used to many long nights of political meetings instead of long hours of night clubbing which he used to enjoy in Lagos and Ibadan.

He consulted widely before he joined the Alliance for Democracy and sought and got the support of the elders in the party like Alhaji Lam Adesina for his bid for the Senate. The contest for the ticket was very keen but he won. In the Senate he managed to pull his weight though his party was one of the parties in the minority. He sponsored seven bills. Far more significantly, he did not support the Third Term bid proposed by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. While Obasanjo in his memoir, My Watch, spent eleven pages to deny that he ever nursed the idea of Third Term in office, Abiola Ajimobi, in this book spends about four short sentences to puncture the balloon of our former president’s lies. He says in this book: “Obasanjo himself called me that I should support what they were doing and I said he must talk to my elders in Ibadan, that I would not support Third Term unless my elders in Ibadan told me to do so. Later, some people brought money and I turned it down. They brought N50 million and I said no. I don’t want to start mentioning names.”

After one term as Senator, Ajimobi wanted to be governor but he did not get the nod of his party. Chief Bisi Akande, in his foreword to this book, tells us why: “I told him that I was going to preside over the meeting but I warned him not to be forward but to be calm and tolerant in such a manner that he should not resent some of the possible insinuations that might even appear rubbing on or blurring his ego. I told him the names of the oligarchs who would be at the meeting, and that the meeting would be arranged for Abuja. At a pre-meeting of the oligarchs, we had prevailed on Alhaji Lam Adesina to cooperate with our decision to adopt Biola Ajimobi as governorship candidate for Oyo State and convinced him that Biola would be totally submissive to the party’s political tradition. Biola was thereafter invited to the meeting. I was amazed when he came and was accompanied by a crowd of his supporters that included Dr Adebisi, Hon Bayo Shittu and some others. As Chief Segun Osoba was trying to introduce the purpose of the meeting and to talk on credibility of the leaders, Abiola Ajimobi cantankerously flared up to ask, “What do you mean by credibility? Who then is not credible? Am I and my associates here too not credible?” and on and on and on! Led by Senator Bola Tinubu, the party leaders angrily walked out of the meeting and the boy and his crowd of supporters too filed out of the venue.” Senator Abiola Ajimobi eventually dumped the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) for the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) in 2007 to contest for governorship. We are told that he lost that election to massive rigging. When he tried again in 2011 he won, and won for the second term in 2015. The state he met, figuratively, needed blood transfusions; it needed a broad spectrum of medications to be on the mend, to be healthy. Like a medical doctor that he had the ambition in Legelu Grammar School of becoming he applied the scalpel and prescribed the drugs.

In the past eight years that he has been in the saddle, this book tells us, the Ajimobi administration modernization agenda has been propelled by three questions: how do we restore the past glory of our state? How do we transform it? And how do we reposition it for greater glory? All his modernization programmes are elaborately discussed in this book backed with facts and figures. But have these facts and figures translated into better life for the majority of the citizens of Oyo State? Governor Abiola Ajimobi believes very strongly that his experiences in the corporate world have helped him and his team to conceive and build a comparatively modern Oyo State. Finally, the strength of this book is also his weakness. Sam Omatseye holds himself hostage almost completely to many of the facts supplied by the government. He did not venture out to speak to any of the political adversaries of the governor whose perspectives might have helped to challenge the governor’s claims to modernity.

  Mr.  Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor/Director of  TheNEWS and PM NEWS read this review at the Civic Centre, Idi-Ape, Ibadan on 25 May 2019 at the presentation of Abiola Ajimobi: Architect and Builder of Modern Oyo State.

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