Tuesday, May 28, 2019 2:34 pm
Tomorrow, 29 May, 2019, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode of Lagos will hand over power to his successor, Mr Babajide Sanwo-Olu. He narrates the story of his life this medium. The history of Lagos cannot be written without mentioning him. He was born on 14 June 1963. After a 27-year stint at the Lagos civil service after which he was a financial consultant, he ran for public office as Governor in April 2015 and won. Since he was sworn in on 29 May 2015, he hit the ground running. Ambode spoke with Ademola Adegbamigbe, David Odey, Lanre Babalola, Funsho Balogun and Kazeem Ugbodaga on his life and plans for Lagos State. Photos: Idowu Ogunleye
You attended the Federal Government College, Warri. How did that impact on your life directly?
I actually started my primary education at St. Judes Primary School, Ebute Metta between 1969 and 1974, and I went from there at the age of 11 to the Federal Government College, FGC, Warri. I left my parents at that tender age to go to the then Bendel State and I had a very good opportunity of meeting with other students from every part of Nigeria. You know the way the Unity Schools are set up, with students coming in from every state of the country. We had at least 10 people from each state across the nation. I had the opportunity of meeting Igbos, Hausas, Efik, Edos, Yorubas and the rest at that tender age of 11 and I spent seven years in that school. I did my O’ Levels and A’ Levels in Federal Government College, FGC Warri and came back to Lagos in 1981 to gain admission into the University of Lagos. But whatever it is that I am today, had been shaped in those formative years. You actually form the totality of your being in your teen years. I grew up knowing that I was a true Nigerian, and that there was no difference between me and a Hausa man for instance. We lived together. Concerning my nationalist outlook, I will say it was borne out of the fact that I spent several years at the Federal Government College, Warri. That has influenced me till today because I see myself as a Nigerian first by birth and a Yoruba man by tribe.
Can you tell us about your parents?
I was born into the family of the late Festus Akinwale Ambode who was a teacher and to Mrs Christiana Ambode, Nee Oresanya. I was born in Epe and my parents were also from Epe. My father died at the age of 57 in Ebute Metta in Lagos State and was buried at Atan Cemetery in 1981. My mother is still alive and she is 81 years old. She comes from the stock of the Ijebu Epes. I am the sixth of 10 children. I have five brothers and four sisters.
Can you tell us the influence your teacher, Philip Davies had on you while you were at the Government College, Warri?
I was fortunate to have met Pa Philip Davies who was then the Principal of the school. He was a retired military officer in the British army before coming to Nigeria as a teacher and principal. He began his career at Kings College, Lagos before being transferred to FGC Warri. So, the whole lot of us at FGC Warri between the years of 1970 and 1981 had the singular honour of meeting a disciplinarian; you know what it means for a man to be a military officer and at the same time an educationist. He had a particular influence on school children. My character and that of majority of the people who went to the school at that time was shaped by Pa. Davies of blessed memory. I can attest to the fact that the majority of the students who passed through Philip Davies became well rounded personalities.
•Akinwumi Ambode. Photo: Idowu Ogunleye
It is being rumoured that you are not an indigene of Lagos State, how do you react to this?
I am a full blooded Lagosian, born in Epe some 51 years ago. As I told you earlier, I started my primary education at St. Judes Primary School Ebute-Metta, before I left for Federal Government College, Warri, then returned to the University of Lagos, Unilag for my first and second degrees.
I started my career with the Waste Management Board before I got transferred to the Local Government where I spent thirteen years. I was later transferred to the mainstream where I worked for another fourteen years, making a total of twenty-seven years of meritorious service.
My father was a teacher at Ebute-Meta where prominent people like Chief Lanre Razaq and many other notable individuals passed through his tutelage.
Don’t forget that the Lagos State House of Assembly cleared me as an indigene when I was nominated as Auditor General of the State.
So this rumour is not only false, it is also a political gimmick.
Beyond that, the constitution of Nigeria is clear on how to stand for election in the country. One must be a citizen, be above 18, not indicted and must belong to a political party. In all, I am well qualified.
In 1981, you had the second best WAEC result in West Africa, how were you able to achieve this?
In 1981, we did Higher School Certificate, HSC, examination and like every other student I sat for three papers. I did History, Economics and Geography. And I happened to have been the person with the second best result of ‘A’ in Economics, ‘B’ in History and ‘B’ in Geography, which is ABB. The best result then was AAB, scored by one of the students from the same FGC, Warri, Fidelis Odita, now a Professor. We both went ahead to the Universiy of Lagos. And he was actually made a Queen’s Counsel before the age of 40. I think God just gave me natural talents. I may not be the best of students that you would like to have as a teacher, but somehow, I strive to do my best, and that happened to be one of those things I achieved.
How were you able to cope when you lost your dad at a tender age?
If there is any singular event that actually shaped my life more than anything else, I think it was the death of my father. It was a turning point in my life. It was supposed to have deprived me of my future, but it brought out that leadership instinct in me and that personality we are all sharing today. I lost my father two weeks after I finished my examination, and it was quite a hard time becaue my mother was a housewife and I had other siblings. The ones who were my senior were in school and I just finished HSC. So, I had to choose between searching for work or struggling to go to school. God helped me, and I made the right choice. I decided that I was not going to live the life of my father and that I was going to challenge myself and be as hardworking as possible to be successful in life. That was how I decided that I would do everything possible to succeed as an accountant. At the age of 11, I had an encounter with one of my father’s friends and he challenged me and said ‘you, can you ever be an accountant?’ He was an accountant in one company. That hit me real hard. That was when I decided that when in secondary school, I would take the subject, Principles of Accounts. And I did that in form 3. That was why I also went ahead and got the points I scored in my HSC. I remained focused and told myself that I wanted to succeed in life and to be an outstanding accountant and I went ahead at the age 21 to be a graduate of accounting, had a masters in accounting at the age of 23, and became chartered at the age of 24. But all that journey was a culmination of that event that happened at the age of 11 when my father died.
When you are in a very hard or bad situation and you remain focused and hardworking, you will achieve the unusual. I became a leader to my other siblings, and also played the role of a leader in the house to my mother because my other siblings were outside Lagos and I happened to be in Lagos. In short, I became a father figure as a young man at the age of 19. So, the whole idea of the drive to excel was inculcated in me at a very early age and I had a combination of good friends around me that were also supportive.
With your qualification, you could have chosen a career in the private sector, but you opted for the public sector. What informed this?
I actually did not choose a career in the public sector. At the period in 1984 or 85, what was in vogue was to work in a finance house or a bank. And even before I left the university, my dream was to be a banker. I was fortunate enough that when I went for the National Youth Service, I served at the Central Bank Of Nigeria, CBN, in Sokoto. But when I came back, I stayed at home for three months and couldn’t get a job. The dream of working in a bank became elusive, but I tried not to lose my mind. The job that came to me was the job at the Lagos State Waste Disposal Board as an accountant in 1985. I can say that beyond my wishes, I found myself going into the civil service. With all my qualifications and attempts, the finance houses and the banks kept refusing to take me. I made several attempts, but fate or destiny said I was designed for the civil service and led me there. If you look at the kind of qualifications I have and the background I was coming from, I should naturally have gone to work in a bank, but I found myself at the Waste Disposal Board. And when I needed a bigger job, it happened to be at the Local Government, and not the private sector. At the end of the day, I worked for 27 years in the public service. I am excited that I was able to give to humanity what the God-endowed gift allowed me and I am also happy for who I am today.
How was your career in the civil service?
I had a rewarding career in the civil service. I joined Lagos State Civil Service at the age of 22. It was within the civil service that I became a chartered accountant and had my masters degree in accounting. It was also while working in the civil service that I got a Fulbright scholarship at Boston University; it was within the civil service that I became the youngest person to have ever attained the position of Auditor General at the age of 37. I must have put a whole lot in for Lagos State for me to have been able to achieve such positions at a young age without necessarily having to know anybody. For me, the work comes first. I love contributing to progress in this equally progressive government and touching the lives of people I came in contact with. I worked in six different Local Governments for 13 years, starting my local government career after leaving the Waste Management Board in 1988 as Assistant Treasurer in Badagry Local Government. I worked in this council between 1988 and 1991. I have worked in Somolu Local Government before as their council auditor and treasurer. I have worked in Mushin Local Government as their council treasurer. In Ajeromi Local Government, I was their council treasurer. In all those years, I was always in a position to improve on government’s delivery of service. This made it possible for me as a young man to have reached the peak of my career as a local government staff at the age of 29 when I became the council treasurer of Alimosho LG. All these places I have gone, I worked with lots of people who were older than me in various positions. Being able to manage and sustain sensitive positions at a young age from location to location without blemish speaks a lot about my competence and character. That is the experience I now want to bring into this next position that I am aiming for.
At what point did you decide that the next move is to become the governor of Lagos State?
Like I said earlier, I became aware of my leadership quality at that tender age when I lost my father. It was not easy for somebody coming from such a stressed situation. when I say stressed situation, I mean having family challenges about going to school, having a career, and setting up a family. Yet, one was able to combine such together in a way and manner that years after, you are able to reflect and say that this is how far you have come. I have always seen myself as somebody that has leadership attributes and I have used it maximally. I am a beneficiary of the Fulbright Scholarship which is a Hubert Houston Fellowship programme and I had this in 1998. The essence of that scholarship which is given by the US Government is for public leadership. This is a competition that takes about 112 participants from about 120 countries for a leadership training programme for 12 to 13 months with the government of the United States. Having the capacity to go through that programme means my leadership quality has always been there through the years, and it is not necessarily being brought to the fore because of the gubernatorial aspiration I have today. When you check my profile also, you will notice that I took calculated steps in the course of my career as I tried to display competence in managerial positions and while playing leadership roles. So, what you see today is the aggregation of all those activities deliberately planned to situate myself for leadership roles in my life. Today, I happen to be the gubernatorial candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC in Lagos, and it is not by accident; it is something I have always nurtured in my life as an avenue for giving back to humanity. The Fulbright Scholarship also inculcated in us that one person can make the difference. That same fellowship gave me the drive to come back to Nigeria and decide not to work in the local government system again but to challenge them at the state level.
I voluntarily left the local government service as the treasurer of Ajeromi Ifelodun LG. Ajeromi Ifelodun happened to be the biggest LG then in terms of revenue, but when I came back from the U.S., with all my training in public leadership, I said to myself that this place was too small for me to display my public leadership quality and voluntarily wrote that I wanted to join the mainstream. It was not as if I was deployed. Fortunately for me, the first role I had was to be the Auditor General for Local Government because I was able to challenge myself that I needed a larger space to operate my leadership role and I was able to take the risk and became the Auditor General at the age of 37. That means I left something that was certain for uncertainty. But because of that attribute that flowed around me, I was able to showcase the qualities which earned me that position. The task was for me to go round all the local governments and be in charge of all the auditing of their financial statements, and we made lots of progress. I was able to clear all the backlog they had in 2001 within 18 months. Through the accomplishment of such tasks, I proved the leadership and managerial qualities in me. I am a good driver, I drive people in a team to achieve results. Without trying to be boastful, my achievements then helped me to become Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance at the age of 42. And in January, 2006 I was made the Accountant General at the age of 43, Which I accepted with all my heart. I defended Lagos State Government on all issues, as was necessary in terms of the state building up revenue generation and needing a defence at the federal level. It was in a situation when we needed to stand up for the people of Lagos State, and I stood up and was counted. I was the Accountant General of Lagos State for three years. I am very proud of my contribution to Lagos State. Lagos State will be 48 years this year and I worked here for 27 years. I came in when I was quite young and left at 49 years. I am very proud of my contributions to Lagos State.
•Akinwumi Ambode. Photo: Idowu Ogunleye
What is your vision for Lagos?
I believe strongly in a clean, secure, and more prosperous Lagos State that is driven by service, equity and justice.
As former Accountant General of Lagos, how were you able to keep Lagos financially buoyant when Obasanjo seized Lagos statutory allocations in 2005?
The cornerstone of that achievement was driven by the effective financial management of those resources that we have. It is not as if the resources were just everywhere, but there was the application of the efficiency of usage. Don’t forget where this whole story started, money was seized, with no inflow coming in at all. And you can try to imagine when a child is not fed for one month. Even before that one month, the child will die. Now, also try and imagine when a government is not fed with its own natural resources or allocation for months. That government is designed to die. But rather than dying, with the little resources coming to the state’s coffers, we redesigned a template that allowed the local governments to survive by making sure they were able to pay salaries, maintain their environment and keep life going, without necessarily delving into capital expenditure, by way of rearrangement. We kept government going by taking the little resources in the state’s coffer and bringing life into all those local governments and Local Council Development Areas, LCDAs, without anybody knowing we were squeezing ourselves. There was a balancing act, that we refer to in financial parlance as a bridging that allows every element in the whole state to have a life. We knew that it was just a matter of time. And when we had extra resources at the state level, we gave it to the local governments to execute capital expenditure at the point. Three and a half years later, when their money came back, they were able to execute the capital projects they kept waiting. Now, it is all history. Rather than having 20, we now have 57 councils. You can imagine what that means to development and growth, and in terms of job creation; there is a multiplier effect on productivity, and more families that are feeding from those structures by now having 57 councils. It is a thing of pride that one is able to sustain those structures with financial acumen, and that is what we are craving for now. As we speak, Nigeria is going down the drain because resources are falling below expectation. As we speak, the price of crude oil has gone below $50, yet the budget for 2015 is being estimated at $78. We have never had the kind of crude oil revenue we had in the last five years in the history of the country, when crude oil was trading for over $120. So, it is not as if the money wasn’t there in the last few years. It is about what we just spoke about now, which is the effective management of financial resources in an equitable and fair manner, so that all citizens will have a share in it. What we are experiencing now is the squandering of all those resources that came in. The resources should have been useful to us now. What we need to do is to put people who can manage our natural resources more effectively in places of authority. That is what this next election is about.
People have been saying that you are simply a stooge to Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, how will you react to this?
A lot of people have been asking me this same thing. You have gone through my profile and we have been through this interview thus far. I am a competent person on my own and I have the capacity to be the governor of Lagos State. I have the character to be the governor of Lagos State. I have served Lagos State and the people for close to 30 years now and I have not known anything than serving people. So, if it is in terms of having a strong leader as the governor of Lagos State, I am qualified to be that person. Let us leave that aside, there is no issue about a stooge. We must give credit to whom credit is due and we need to talk about it here. A true test of a good leader is when he is able to choose a good successor. He must be able to make the sacrifice by saying that rather than being there, I will always find good successors to carry on with the vision of making Nigeria a prosperous country.
So, if we find in Asiwaju Bola Tinubu that leadership quality that is so scarce in the political landscape, of being able to choose people, stand by them and support them, we must give him that credit. In 2007, against all odds, when he decided to stand by Governor Raji Fashola against other aspirants, we all cried out, asking why he wanted to do that. But he stood his ground because he knew what he saw. Eight years down the road, we are the same set of people who said Fashola was Tinubu’s stooge and we are all crying and shouting that Fashola is the best thing that has ever happened to Nigeria. This same man stood behind Aregbesola in Osun State and Osun State is the better for it. He stood by Oshiomhole, and Edo State is the better for it. He stood by Amosun, and Ogun State is the better for it. He has the knack for always choosing good achievers and he is ready to sacrifice himself. He is standing by Buhari and Osinbajo now, and Nigerians are excited that this is an alternative to Jonathan. Let us give such leaders their due credit, but beyond that, I have that vision and leadership quality to take Lagos State to the next level. We are nobody’s stooge.
There is this notion in some quarters that you were forced out of the government of Babatunde Fashola, how true is this?
When I came into this gubernatorial race, I came in as an underdog. I was never given a chance but my competence and integrity spoke for me. They have nothing against me, that is why they came up with such allegations and rumours, but we need to respond to it. I have told you that I am the unusual civil servant. I joined the civil service at the age of 22 and reached the peak of my career at the age of 37 as the Auditor-General for Local Government. I became the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance at the age of 43, and I became the Accountant General of Lagos State at the age of 44. I had my Masters degree and ICAN at the age of 24. I was a graduate at the age of 21. I have lived a life of quiet achievements. Having been Accountant General for six years, I felt I needed to break another record and decided on my own to retire at the age of 50. Go and check the records in the civil service. I actually retired in 2008, it is in their record. I put forward my letter of retirement in January 2008 and I was already an Accountant General then. I needed to go back to school. I had an admission at the Massachussets Institute of Technology. I retired in 2008, and it is this same present governor who refused and asked me to stay back because of the kind of contribution I was making to the State Government. So, when I decided four years after that I needed to move on with my life, I had already achieved a lot and decided to give other people a chance. I wanted to become the first Permanent Secretary to hold such a sensitive position and retire voluntarily and I also wanted it to go into the records that somebody retired voluntarily at the age of 49 when he still had about 13 more years to go. That is why I retired. Let us put it straight. Could someone have done something wrong, maybe stole or did something else and then give them three months notice of voluntary retirement in May to be effective from 1 September? If you stole money, why would they allow you to still sign their money for three months? They will kick you out. So, they had three months’ notice; having even left, four months after, this same governor gave me a letter of commendation which I refer to as my ‘Gold medal’. That was the only thing given to me and I cherished it. They put it in there that I served them meritoriously, and that in my future endeavours, they will do anything to assist me because I served selflessly. And it was signed by the governor. If it was so secretive, would the 12 aspirants who contested against me not have brought out something against me? If I did not retire with clean hands they would have brought it out. But it is just a political game and I am happy that I am going back for more services to the people of Lagos.
Is there any cooperation going on between you and those who contested against you?
Immediately we won the primaries, even from the acceptance speech, we embraced all the aspirants and we went on to salute them and all Lagosians for winning that primary. It wasn’t won by Akin Ambode. This democracy is not about one person, it is about the future of Nigeria, Lagosians and those yet unborn. So, I have singlehandedly liaised with other aspirants that we must salvage democracy in Lagos State, and that we must create the enabling environment for our people to participate in government. As I speak, one of the aspirants is the divisional coordinator of my campaign. One of the aspirants has even collapsed his resources and structure for our purpose. All the aspirants have nominees in our campaign team and we are one family. Just today, I met with all the candidates for the House of Assembly and Representatives; Senator Ashafa and others. We are one team and we are going to change the face of politics in Nigeria. We will work as one family to effect positive change on all our citizens. This is what this project is. We want to make politics an enjoyable game for everyone. We are all members of the same party and we profess the same ideology and that is what this 2015 election is about.
People say some of the policies of the past administration did not go down well with Lagosians and that there was not much consultation with the people. Are you going to do things differently?
It is very clear inside the manifesto of the APC that we are giving governance back to the people, the community and the local government. The Community Development Associations, CDAs, and the Community Development Council, CDC, will be involved in everything we are doing at the local government and at the state level. We intend to run an open government and it is going to be a government of inclusion. The only way we can say we are practising good governance is to live by the tenets and principles of good governance. Everybody should have a voice. I am one of the people propagating the fact that government should not be against the people. The people are the ones deciding that one or a few of them should go and help them take care of the resources that belong to them, so we are not to have a situation where the government thinks it is the landlord and the people are tenants. The citizens are actually the landlords while we are the tenants. We are just going there as caretakers and tenants on their behalf and their voice is what we are going to propagate and this is the direction the APC is going in this election. And indeed, the next administration that is coming is going to give voice to the people and do whatever they want. Whether in our policies or budget preparation, we will be giving back to them. That is what we want to do.
From when you emerged as the governorship candidate of the APC in Lagos State, did you feel a burden of history?
I wouldn’t say there is any burden of history. The truth is that I have always been ready for challenges and leadership positions. And if you go through my profile and career, you will see that I have always been in positions of leadership. Winning the gubernatorial primary was just one of those challenges I saw myself going through.