Asiwaju Bola Tinubu: Inspiring Story of A Rugged Fighter!35 min read
Bola Ahmed Tinubu is a man of many parts. He came into the Nigerian politics, saw and at the end of the day, conquered. The entire amazing story of the Asiwaju of Lagos and Jagaban Borgu could not be written, not even by the legendary Williams Shakespeare or our own Chinua Achebe. Bola Tinubu, the APC national leader came into the Nigerian political limelight when he was elected as a senator to represent Lagos West Senatorial District in 1993, though he was there for a few months before the military junta led by General Sanni Abacha took over power. Bola Tinubu, an alumni of St. John’s Primary School, Aroloya, Lagos and Children’s Home School, Ibadan proceeded to the United States in 1975 where he studied at Richard J. Daley College in Illinois and then at Chicago State University. Tinubu graduated in 1978 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting. The Jagaban Borgu worked at Arthur Andersen, Deloitte, Haskins & Sells and also at GTE Corporation all based in the United States of America. Bola Ahmed Tinubu returned to Nigeria and worked for Mobil Oil Company as a senior accountant. The young Tinubu saw the need to work for his people and reduce the poverty level of Lagosians in particular and Nigerians in general, hence, his foray into politics. He teamed up with like minds and formed the Action Congress (AC), a party he branded nationally and internationally. The AC later metamorphosed into the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN). The ACN shook the country to its roots when the party clinched the south western states of Oyo, Ogun, Osun, Ekiti and Edo from the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). As if that was not enough, Bola Ahmed Tinubu saw the need for his party to hijack the entire leadership of the country from the PDP and pronto, the Jagaban went to business. He teamed up this time around with former Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), and the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP) etc to form a mega party known today as APC.
Right now, the dream of Bola Tinubu has come true. His party will, henceforth be in charge of the affairs of Nigeria. What a way to describe a man as a rugged fighter indeed. In this interview, the Asiwaju of Lagos talks about himself and many other things you don’t know about him. Excerpts:
Given the way you have turned out to be a fearless politician, I hope it is not unreasonable to assume that you were not a compliant child while growing up. What were those pranks you played and how were you dealt with when caught?
I admit that I played some pranks and got spanked while growing up. Yes, I indulged in some pranks, like trespassing into other people’s gardens to pluck oranges, despite warnings not to do so. I would spend my allowance on bicycle renting. I told a couple of lies. For example, I would collect money from big uncles for the purchase of five books – Dic, Tion, Na, Ry –) instead of one dictionary! It was only one that I needed. I did that so as to have enough money to play around, rent bicycles and buy sneakers. I would play football, go and play at the lagoon, and turning out very dirty and rough in the evenings. There were so many of such pranks.
I would seize football from my mates and take it home. The boys would come to the house, asking for the football and my parents would spank me and order that I return the ball to its owners. There was a time I asked my uncle, the late Kafaru Tinubu’s dispatch rider to lend me his motorbike to ride. One day, he gave the motorbike to me to ride. As I got back home, my uncle, who had travelled and was not expected back at the time, had arrived. He caught us and ordered that we be locked up. It took a while before he released us, and I was severely flogged.
There were instances in which I and few of my friends would sneak into the truck of musicians, like the late Adeolu Akinsanya and Roy Chicago, without knowing where they were travelling to for musical performances. We would hide ourselves in their instrument trucks. There was a particular day when we did that and found ourselves in Ado-Ekiti, somewhere I had never been before. We did not know that he was going to perform at Christ’s School, Ado Ekiti. We had no money to return to Lagos and were stranded there. We couldn’t follow them back to Lagos because they were headed for another location, where they had a show. We managed to get to Lagos by jumping on a cocoa truck that was coming to Lagos.
Can you tell us those your friends with whom you played pranks?
Tunde Badejo, Bolaji Agaba, Rasheed Abina, Tunde Adeyemo, the late Sola Popoola… We really had a good time. There was a particular time 11 of us packed ourselves in a Volkswagen Beetle and headed to the University of Ibadan through Majidun/Ikorodu Road for the Havana Nite. As we were going through Majidun, one of the car’s tyres burst and we had a serious accident. I thank God that I am alive today.
In the midst of these, when did it strike you to travel out of the country?
I was lucky. Even though I was ambitous about travelling out of the country, particularly as my friends like Folabi Salami and Tokunbo Maxwell had just travelled to Germany, I would say that I was just lucky.
Others, like Nurudeen Olowopopo, of blessed memory, and Sola Popoola headed for the United States and it remained Tunde Badejo, Bolaji Agaba and myself. So, the three of us were determined that we must get out of Nigeria, too. I went to Ikenne, with my late sister, for a big ceremony. We had gone to pick bottles of Coca-Cola from the cold room and wanted to quickly return to the St. Saviour’s Church, where my sister was. There was a sudden rain of bullets and had we not been rushing to the church to ensure that we didn’t miss what was going on there, I would have died. The young man that was standing with me was hit. He slumped and died.
Based on the sad incident and how I had narrowly missed death, my family said to me: ‘This boy, you have always said that you wanted to travel out of the country, it is time to do so.’ So, my mother gathered some money, sold her trinkets to make up for the remaining part of my allowances and joined it with proceeds from the sale of the Volkswagen Beetle given to me by my uncle, the late Ganiyu Tinubu, who used to work at Simpson Street, Ebutte-Metta. He had a Beetle car he bought from a Canadian and had it converted into a convertible, which I used to drive. Nobody taught me how to drive. He asked that I sell it and add the proceeds to the money I needed for my trip. That was what I did.
Bolaji Agaba and I left the same day for the United States, while Badejo left some months later. We got our visas through my family connections. Bolaji’s own had almost expired before we left. On our arrival in the US, we thought we would stay in New York. But Nurudeen Olowopopo said we should not. So we put some money together for Bolaji’s ticket and headed for Washington D.C. I stayed with the late Sola Popoola at Washington before we started finding our way. We were running out of funds then.
He helped us secure a one-room apartment in Alexandria, Virgina. We got an unregistered used car (they left the licence open) commonly called Gypsy, which we ran as a taxi. We operated at the airport, where we picked passengers, and not anywhere else, like the hotel because it was forbidden for unlicensed cab drivers to do so. We did that for a while to raise some money. Bolaji went to Tennessee, while I headed for Chicago.
Was it through cab driving that you were able to survive?
It was aimed at getting additional money to what I had. I always liked to have a life of comfort. Tunde Badejo and Olowopopo told me that Chicago was very cold, so I told myself that I must have a car. I was supposed to have started schooling in April. I deferred it till September in order to have more money. Immediately I got to Chicago, I went straight to Richard Daley College. It was very interesting. I was able to pay for my apartment and tuition fees at the Chicago State University. I supplemented that by doing different menial jobs like door guard and security man.
Can you tell us some unpleasant moments that you had then?
One experience I will not forget was when I over-charged a naval officer, who was returning to the country. It was not intentional. Apparently, I didn’t know the direction; there was no GPRS in those days to locate directions. So, he gave me the direction to his house in a Virginia suburb. I gave him the price and the man responded with a slap to my face. He said I should know the correct fare to charge to the location he mentioned. He slapped me and gave me the money.
Another experience was when I took a guy whom I didn’t know was drunk. When I drove to his house, he pointed a gun at me instead of paying the fare. He took my leather jacket and said: ‘Get into your car and get lost.’ He did not pay. Another interesting one was when I was taking the third Accounting class and equally working as a security guard at a construction site. They were very serious with their kind of security. You just had to do that job. There were about six points with six clocks at the site, which the security man must wind every hour and with a dog in hand. So, there was never a chance of trying to catch a nap. As I was doing my accounting assignment, I fell asleep. I was dead asleep! The inspector came to the site and found me sleeping, with my head on my books. He simply pulled the register and wrote: ‘I have been here. You were sound asleep. So, see me tomorrow.’ When I woke up, I found that Skiddo (the dog’s name) was gone, and then the register. I just went to a corner, cleaned my face and concentrated on my assignment because I knew the job was already gone. You can’t lose two things. I ensured that I read well for my test and passed the next day. I opted to post their uniform and the cap to them, but suddenly ran into the man and he handed me my cheque and said the job was gone. I told him I knew and we said goodbye to each other! I had to start looking for another job.
Were you tempted to stay back in the US after your studies?
To be honest with you, yes.
I was lucky when I got to Chicago State University. I entered the university with honours from the Richard Daley College, because I got credit in majority of the Accounting courses.
After the first term, I was one of the candidates on the Dean’s list and my professor, Joe Jesse, commended me for my hard work, class participation and brilliance. He said that I would be lucky if I could keep my activities and brilliant results up till the end of the term. He didn’t say more or in what form the luck would manifest.
At the end of the term, and still on the Dean’s list, Professor Jesse came around to inform me that he would employ me to manage the Accounting laboratory for the institution. He gave the letter of employment to the dean of the faculty. The following week, I was called upon to take up employment as a tutor because I was very good in Mathematics and Accounting. I met Tunde Badejo in the school; he was a year ahead of me. But I told him (we took a bet) that we would graduate the same year and he didn’t believe. Later, when I was given a scholarship to become a tutor, I took the letter to Tunde Badejo and said: ‘See, the school is paying my tuition.’ He was amazed. That was how I became a tutor, with my tuition being paid. Tunde Badejo majored in Mathematics, and having been challenged, his performance got better the following semester and he also became a Maths tutor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. I was challenged and severely under pressure to keep up the grade as each semester rolled by, because if my grades should drop I would lose the scholarship. It was quite challenging and in the end, I graduated top of my class and I was recruited as an Accounting major. There were big accounting firms then. Touche was number nine. I was recruited. And I still got other job offers. Then there were eight big accounting firms in the United States, including Arthur Andersen , Arthur Young, Ernst and Whinney, Peat Marwick and Mitchell, Deloitte and others. Out of the big eight, five of them offered me jobs and that was school recruitment–right on the campus.
I was on the Dean’s list; I was in line for the award for the overall best Accounting student as well as that of the university scholar’s award. With that, the big firms would continue to woo you. Despite the five job offers, I was equally offered employment by IBM and others. Professor Jesse called me and advised that I should not be arrogant. He asked that I remove my name from the career placement centre because, according to him, the more they saw my grades, the more I would be sought after. He said that might hinder other accounting graduates from being recruited and that the faculty wanted as many accounting graduates as possible to be recruited by the big companies. So I went and removed it. Usually, there was a benchmark for recruitments by the big professional accounting firms and they didn’t go beneath that. I got an offer of $20,000, with travelling allowances and all that. It was big money for me at the time.
But when Arthur Young saw the money I was offered, they offered an additional $3,000. My adviser told me to consider an offer that would make me function effectively in my country, particularly given that the country is blessed with crude oil. I wondered what I would be coming back to do. The career placement officer called me again and asked me what I wanted to do. I said they just spoke to me from my department.
Unlike what happens in our country, universities in America prepare the students for the future; how to dress, how to face job interviews. The third day after that, Deloitte, Haskins and Sells, now Deloitte and Touche Consulting Group, gave me another offer. They said they were not just going to hire me, but develop me. They asked me to take the salary I was being offered or forget about the job. I went back to Professor Jesse and said: ‘Look at what these people are offering, I would rather go to Arthur Andersen because they were offering to pay more’. But he said that I should not. He said he had always advised me that my career and professional development were more important. He said Deloitte had clients like General Motors, Procter and Gamble, National Oil and worked with Aramco Exxon, etc. He said I should consider that my country has crude oil and I might want to return someday. He said I should consider a firm with clients in manufacturing and oil sectors rather than Arthur Andersen, which only dealt with financial institutions and banks.
I took to his advice. I resumed work at Deloitte training school in June 1979. By April 1979, when I was graduating, I had gotten my future charted. And that was the greatest thing I achieved in America.
My friend, Tunde Badejo was still looking for a job. As a honours student, I was there at the high table with the Dean, President of the college and so on, while the rest of the graduands were on the lower platform. So, when they called my friend, Tunde Badejo’s name, he refused to get up because they mis-pronounced his name and called him ‘Tunde Badeho’. He refused to get up. I was laughing at him from the high table and was saying: ‘You see, I told you we would graduate at the same time.’ I later stood from where I was seated and whispered to the event handler that his name is Badejo and not Badeho. It was not until they called the name correctly that he stood up.
Why did you opt to study Accounting?
Sincerely, it was accidental. It was the university placement. I was good in Mathematics and business courses. In fact, if I were to choose a career for myself, I would have chosen marketing. I know Tunde was placed in the Mathematics department also by the university. I came in with A grades and I had nothing less than A+ in Accounting and Statistics.
How did you get into Mobil?
At Deloitte and Touche, I chose to travel more than 80 per cent of my working years there. And that is because if a staff chose to travel, he would make more money because he would get travel allowances. That got me into National Oil, which became the Joint Venture Partner of Aramco Oil in Saudi Arabia, which is like the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. We had gone there to set up their accounting and auditing system. It was while on that service that I got my financial break. When I returned to the United States, my employers gave me a huge bonus, which instantly turned me into a millionaire.
How much was that?
The bonus was $850,000, before taxes. My salaries were also being paid into the bank and I was not touching them. At the time, my salary deposits in the bank had risen to about $1.8 million.
You didn’t freak out?
No. This is because I had a strong grasp of financial matters. I was happy. I bought a house from the money and invested the rest in the US. I was living well. I was living in one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the south of Chicago.
Chicago had the notoriety of being a mafia city. How did you survive there?
Chicago was a very dangerous place then, if you didn’t know where to go and how to move. I wouldn’t want to mention some people I knew, whose careers were ruined and got lost in the process. I could still remember some of my colleagues, who did very well. One of them is Kunle Adedayo, whose wife, Pamela, operates the Tastee Fried Chicken. We were there together.
Pamela had been a good cook since then. She used to cook for us.
My school, Richard Daley College, was located in an area noted for racism. Though there were other colleges I could go, I was determined to go there and succeed. The school was academically rigorous and maintained high discipline. Of course, the story has been told severally of the area where Martin Luther King was chased out and shot at. Blacks dreaded the area. Chicago was a windy, cold place. I was able to capitalise on it for academic success and achievement. Though the minimum requirement was 12 credits, I registered for extra course work. I was not getting a dime from Nigeria any longer because my tuition fee was already paid for, and whatever money I realised was meant to cushion the effect of my house rent. Winter time was the busiest time for me and Tunde Badejo, who I was sharing an apartment with.
Since I lost the earlier job at the construction site, I didn’t like security or doorman jobs anymore. I was a very neat guy and was always well-dressed at the place where I was working as a dishwasher in a Holiday Inn. I also got a job for Bolaji Agaba there. In the hotel, I was able to keep warm. And I was later given a room service job because I was very diligent in my previous work. That was acknowledged by those who would come to check on us where we washed the dishes.
Room service is very good; you get nice tips! I did all of that and didn’t take a penny from anybody in Nigeria to go to school in Chicago. Not a dime! I was a self-educated person and I achieved the best in that respect.
Who were the white and African-Americans you interacted with at school and after?
Danny Kay Davies, now a Congressman; Jesse Jackson, Costello Joe, one of the most successful financial consultants; Richard Daley III, a stockbroker who became the mayor of Chicago and whose father the school was named after; Louis Farrakhan, Muhammad Ali, etc. There were too many of them.
How did you get into Mobil?
At the National Oil, where we set up the accounting system and at Aramco, I was head of an assignment to liquidate the Chicago Savings and Loans Bank. The assignment was meant to take me to different places, so as to gain exposure to financial services. It is usually a hostile environment when a company is under receivership and is going into liquidation. But I managed the assignment very well. A member of Deloitte’s management, who was a principal partner on the assignment, was very happy.
At the end of that assignment, I was recalled to the National Oil, which had a joint venture with other oil companies. The United States government had a 300-page new leasing legislation at the time. This is one moment of my life I will never forget. The leasing regulation was a subject of tax implication and analysis, and as an auditing firm, we had to interpret the new leasing legislation for compliance. And that was necessary before the client could sign the balance sheet.
It was a tough debate. The managers would sit; we had to make presentations and contributions. My colleagues and I did two aspects of the lease and I happened to be right. When the partners and all of them came and they did the computation, it gave the company an additional opportunity to wiggle and improve its bottom line. So one of National Oil’s assistant controllers left there to work at Mobil. On getting there, he began to persuade me to come over to Mobil.
The period coincided with my vacation in Nigeria and during that time, the late Bade Ojora and other people I knew were in Mobil. They saw me in Lagos and we discussed generally. At the time, I met someone who was in the finance department at my uncle’s place and the man thought I was a wizard when we discussed.
I later went to Ibadan to see an uncle of mine. But before then, my return ticket had been stolen in Lagos. I had a credit card. I was lamenting the loss, when Uncle Bade said he would help in getting me a passport. Then he asked if I would work for Mobil, but I said I was not ready to stay in Nigeria because I was very successful and earning a good salary. He asked me to leave my telephone number so he could get in touch with me afterwards.
The professional career placement centres, which we called head hunters, had placed my curriculum vitae in other companies. They would continue to pursue you, asking whether you wanted to change your job. I was invited by General Telephone and Electronics, GTE, Corporation and they offered a salary that was 32 per cent higher than what I was earning at Deloitte. I went there and was made an assistant manager, but MacGross didn’t leave me alone, asking why I elected to work for a telephone and electronics company. He said: ‘You will be discriminated against there; I know that firm.’ But I didn’t listen to him. I was chasing the title of manager. My career was blossoming. It was great to have a complimentary card carrying the title, manager. When the time came for a review, they promoted someone whom I trained to the position of manager, while I was left the way I was. I resigned that very day. That was when I decided that one day, I would return to my country.
What year was that?
That was in 1985/1986. I was determined to return to Nigeria someday. I contemplated returning to Deloitte and at the same time coming back to Nigeria. I was discriminated against. I quit GTE. I decided to go back to Deloitte. While I was still contemplating, Deloitte was relocating from New York and I looked forward to how I would be given extra allowances and bonuses.
At that time also, Mobil was recruiting for its Corporate Audit Department in the United Kingdom office. I went there and I got the offer. The rest is history.
Was Bade Ojora in Mobil at that time?
He was still in Mobil. I don’t want to go through what I did when I was in the Corporate Office in London. I was a corporate auditor, but I was a whiz-kid, an assertive one, highly professional. I was always in suspenders and all that. I came on assignment to audit Mobil Nigeria.
Were you recruited abroad and sent here?
No. I was recruited in the UK. That was Mobil Foreign; it is completely different from Nigerian operation. They have the audit right, the corporate audit regulation to audit Nigeria. I came and they said they needed an auditor in Nigeria. I went through the process.
Solomon Oladunni was the manager in charge of administration. He, Bade Ojora and Adesanya persuaded me to take the job. The title I was looking for was audit manager. They said I did not have any experience in Nigeria. I faced another level of discrimination. I was given an offer they knew I would reject, but I was determined to stay. The financial controller, a white man, called me to his office to say :”the people there didn’t want you; your own countrymen!’ He added: ‘Whatever they give you, take it, I’m here.’ I was shocked.
At the time, there was a kind of connection between the director of finance and one guy. They were both from Shagamu. And as it played out, I was only made an auditor because they said I didn’t have a Nigerian experience.
But you rose to become the treasurer…
I rose to become the general auditor there.
The audit manager, an Australian, was about leaving for his country and he told me that I was badly needed, particularly because I am a Nigerian. He said: “With this resume, you are so rich, you have experience. I know what Alphonso Olusanya, the financial controller, was trying to do.” He added that the other person they wanted to bring in has only local experience (I don’t want to mention his name because he is my friend).
And the money was not bad, but only the title…
The money was not bad. I took the offer to work in Mobil because I was tired of the discrimination I suffered overseas and had made up my mind that I would not work for any other company but an American company. I was encouraged to join their team and I met Oladunni, Pius Akinyelure, all of them. The white man told me to just come over and prove myself and that I would “get there”. He had been the supervisor of the guy blocking me overseas. And when the white man came to Nigeria, they did not give him the title, too. He said: ‘Here, I am financial adviser; I don’t care what title they give me, I am getting my salary and I have my responsibilities to New York. Don’t worry.”
Apart from this initial discrimination that you confronted, what other challenges did you face?
The system was poor. I met a very disorganized work environment here. I really did a lot to prove myself. I faced a lot of challenges, but my training and my background from the United States helped my career. I wrote so many audit queries and reports.
We learnt that you wrote one that caused an earthquake!
There were so many of them. I wrote one on Bob Eriksson, who was the Chairman/Managing Director. He was weak in his corporate control of the finances of Mobil and I boldly wrote the report based on that. And here was the Chairman/Managing Director, who was affected by the report. Everybody raised an eyebrow. But I emphasized that I was an independent auditor. I said: ‘This is my report, this is my resignation letter.’ I sent a copy of the report to the head office in New York. I wanted to strengthen my independence and professionalism.
The third day, a signal came from New York. The managing director was to be recalled and the corporate audit manager was on his way to check the report. When he came, I had my audit file. All the findings in the report and my recommendations were accepted. They recalled the MD/Chairman and he was demoted. The company rejected my letter of resignation and promoted me general auditor.
How long did it take you to become general auditor?
It was less than two years. I don’t want to brag about these things, but I ended up bossing the man who interviewed me. The man they brought in to block me was sent to Houston. Luckily, I was doing very well. We were at the Bookshop House on Broad Street then. My career was blossoming.
I wrote another audit report, Financial Management and the Treasury Activities. I think Ibrahim Babangida was in power then. Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, was on then and things were very difficult. I wrote and explained what we should do to strenghten the financial base and treasury activities of the company. It was a 28-page report. Akinyelure is still alive to attest to what I am saying.
They brought in another Managing Director, called Mr. Bob Parker. Parker arrived Nigeria to replace Erickson. Parker walked into my office one day and said: ‘Bola, Mr. Auditor, I am not here to fight you, but to work. Please let me know whatever you find about the corporation.’
The most significant part of that episode was the 28-page report of the financial situation, the weaknesses and what I believed should be done. They looked at the report and there was another earthquake. For one week, they were going back and forth. The treasury people and the treasurer and everyone else that mattered called me to the boardroom. They said they had looked at the audit report and the recommendations therein, and that they could not find anyone else within the establishment to implement the report except me. They said they were moving me from auditor to the post of treasurer, so that I could implement the report. They said they could not but accept the recommendations.
I asked for 48 hours to review the report and get back to them. I went to Bob Parker and Akinyelure, and I asked that I should be given a free hand to implement whatever I felt would be right with the corporation’s personnel and audit. They granted my request. They sent in a corporate auditor from London, who looked at the report and encouraged me to implement it in my new capacity as the treasurer. I started work on the report and sacked everybody in the Treasury department, except the stenographer. I brought in new hands, from the audit department – people who had worked with me. I brought in a brilliant guy called Adigun from Columbia University and others I felt I could work with.
That was how I started running the treasury of Mobil, which then was located at the CMS Bookshop House on Broad Street.
The Bookshop House was degenerating and was no longer suitable for our operations. So, Akinyelure and I collaborated to do financial redeployment for the purpose of having a new office complex. I began work on the financial restructuring in Mobil, so as to accommodate the new challenges of SAP. There was a BCCI (Bank of Credit, Commerce and Industry) then – the bank that went under – and I was the only treasurer that didn’t lose money. I was a whiz-kid and I am proud of that.
Mobil usually depended on rent, but I was determined that Mobil must have an asset fixed in Nigeria. And that was the beginning of the revolution of real estate in Lagos. Capital Merchant Bank was there then. I retooled the Mobil balance sheet, working with Akinyelure, who was a good guy to work with – he is accommodating and he understands the financials. Mobil didn’t want to sink so much money into it and we had to put our creativity into what I was doing. Ahmed Abubakar was the permanent secretary in the Federal Ministry of Finance. We were so much together to ensure that the present Mobil House was built. Gbolahan Mudashiru was the governor [of Lagos State] then. He gave us the approval. It was like using a pair of pliers to remove your own tooth to get the NNPC to go along with us.
The interesting thing about the project was that devaluation was coming and it was going to affect the budget for the building. We took the bill of quantities and gave the best financial projection that was possible, pre-purchased all the items that were needed to build. Nearly 40 per cent of that building was financed when the exchange rate was one Naira to one Dollar. We purchased additional materials, including steel and cement. Whatever I tell you was in the bill of quantities. It started at N4 to $1, if you looked at foreign exchange then. It would not have been possible. Then, at the next fortnightly bidding, the exchange rate shot up to N6 to $1 and that could have adversely affected the project. In fact, if we did not pre-purchase the building materials, it would not have been possible. The NNPC building got stagnated. We finished the building on time without as much as two per cent variation, and that was how we got so much credit for financial engineering.
Since you were having a good time in Mobil, why did you leave all that to join politics?
It was when I was arranging these finances. There were a lot of things that I don’t need to talk about now that got me in contact with Ahmadu Abubakar and Ibrahim Babangida. Such things got my name around socially. Then, my cousin, Alhaji Kola Oseni, and Dapo Sarumi, who was US-trained, told me their group wanted to contest for governorship. They had started their politics, but I didn’t participate. I was only raising funds for them. They said they wanted quality service delivery for Lagos State. I saw the Lagos State governorship as a department that needed a good manager. We were looking at civilization, quality control. If you went to some housing estates then, they were like this, like that. There must be good quality, standard. And the person who must fix these things must be civilized.
We decided to support Dapo Sarumi.
Gradually, I moved from raising funds to getting involved. I brought some money to Nigeria out of my dividends. I was comfortable because my investments in America and London were already yielding dividends. Then came the crisis leading to the ban of Professor Femi Agbalajobi and Chief Dapo Sarumi. I threw my weight behind Yomi Edu. He lost the election and our group was devastated. I went to Ahmadu Abubakar and IBB. I wrote a report and I was strongly against the Structural Adjustment Programme introduced by the military government. The idea of the new generation banks came from those reports. Abubakar, from being a permanent secretary, became Minister of Finance.
IBB saw the significance of the advice as well as the short, medium and long term vision that was in the report. That man was a good listener. You could think with him. He is still alive. This probe of NNPC dates back to those periods. You can give the NNPC a bank draft for 120 days and you will still be using that money!
They started touting the idea that intelligent, brilliant and dynamic people like me should be in the Senate and must change Nigeria. The idea gradually started coming into my head. People like Kola Oseni, Alhaji Hamzat, Busurat Alebiosu, Demola Adeniji-Adele, Prince Olusi, who were members of the Primrose Group at that time, started persuading me to go to the Senate. The Primrose Group was piling so much pressure on Alhaji Kola Oseni to persuade me.
The MD of Mobil, Bob Parker, thought I was crazy when I told him I wanted to join politics. I also told the Finance Director, Akinyelure, that I wanted to join politics and use my brain for my country and that I couldn’t continue to be an armchair critic. The two of them could not believe what I said. They said, given my career path in Mobil, if there was any chance of anybody becoming something there, then I would be the one. I stood my ground and said I would give it a try.
I told them that people do it in America and Bob Parker agreed. They said they would give me a leave of absence for four years, during which they would not fill my position. They later said that they would not stop me because it would rub off positively on them if I became successful in politics. They told me to come back and take my position if I found it uninteresting and unchallenging.
So I contested the Lagos West Senatorial district election.
Why not Lagos Central?
Lagos West was where our weakness was apparent. The political leaders in the Social Democratic Party just assigned Lagos West, which was the most challenging district, to me and said I had the money, personality and the wherewithal. Lagos Central was preparing for me and they wanted me.
In our group, we wanted to help Wahab Dosunmu to stay in Central, so I went to the West. It was a big battle, but I won the nomination for Lagos West. Wahab Dosunmu got nomination for Lagos Central, but they got him disqualified. The battle was then left to Shitta-Bey, Towry-Coker and Bucknor-Akerele. Whatever happened in the primaries is history. It was a crude primary election, but a most transparent one. That was how I got into politics, which nonetheless was an adventure for me.
What role did you play in the emergence of Michael Otedola of NRC?
I didn’t play any role. I was politically naïve, though a strategist in my own right. Those at the forefront weren’t paying attention and there were a lot of intrigues, which I had never seen before. We could have been flexible and compromised when Sarumi and the late Femi Agbalajobi were disqualified, leaving Yomi Edu. There were two groups then. Baba Kekere (Alhaji Lateef Jakande) would call them “Ase”. I recommended that we should have given them the deputy governorship slot. Democracy is about conflict and conflict resolution. Otedola would not have emerged if each side had yielded. We found out later that some people who didn’t mean well didn’t want Yomi Edu to get there. If they wanted, they would have allowed flexibility and compromise.
The late Prince Adeniyi tried so hard to resolve the impasse up till the night before the election. The impasse was unresolved and the party ended up giving Otedola a chance. I learnt a lot from that experience.
What role did you play in the presidential election of MKO Abiola?
It is a long story. We first of all worked hard for Yar’Adua. The SDP platform and the Yar’Adua machine were a phenomenon at that particular time. We had won the majority in the National Assembly. I wanted to become the Senate President because we secured all the seats in the West and we had 15 senators and Alhaji Kashim Ibrahim, a brilliant politician, mobilised some of the senators in the North; Chuba Okadigbo in the East and Albert Legogie in the so-called South-South. Iyorchia Ayu of the Middle-Belt was very active at that particular time. We had good leaders. Olu Falae was in contention, Biyi Durojaiye also. We had Olusegun Osoba and the rest of them as governors then. We didn’t pay attention to Lagos and didn’t miss anything. We were not looking at any governor to be politically involved. I was just running my vision. I put my talents into being a strategist and I had got the endorsement of 38 out of the 56 senators belonging to the SDP to become the Senate President. So when the leadership caucus of the party met, the problem of the late Yar’Adua and others had crystallised.
It was then believed that Falae or anyone else among the presidential contenders would be the party’s flag bearer after the disqualification of Yar’Adua. They banned the old politicians and asked that the new breed should come forward. Falae, Olabiyi Durojaiye and others were clamoring that the opportunity should be given to the West. Yar’Adua was very consistent about the South-West and the North-West working together. I was confronted in Abuja, because I was already prepared to be the Senate President. I had 15 senators with me and had gotten the endorsement of the majority of other senators. Senators Kanti Bello (he was my partner in the struggle), Kazaure, Kashim Ibrahim, Lawan Buba, Mogaji Abdullahi and a host of others had already formed a caucus that would work for my emergence as the Senate President. When we met at the leadership level, the late M.S Buhari asked us if we could honestly say that we must take the senate presidency? Okadigbo might be interested and would rather have the East produce the Senate President; the North, the Vice-President; and the presidency in the South-West because they had blocked Yar’Adua.
My position was that a bird in hand cannot fly away; you have to tie it properly. As if it was a prediction that I had seen, that thing was a banner headline on The Punch’s front page at that time. I was adamant.
Falae, Durojaiye and the rest of them came to me and said that the leadership of South-West would want the presidency and we could not take the two positions. We had to make a sacrifice. My position was then that if your child would go to the class and come first among 30 students, to whom do you give the best prize in the house?
At the stage, I said I wanted to become Senate President, they said I should review my ambition. I made them realise that out of our 15 senators, the North-Central contributed 12 senators, so I said there must be a reward system for the support and loyalty. I told them that if I were to give up the ambition, the position must go to the zone that contributed the highest number of senators to my support base.
Iyorchia Ayu was among the 38. Meanwhile, A.T Ahmed was on the other side. We had caucuses and out of 56 senators, 38 of us bonded together. A.T Ahmed and Okadigbo wanted to be senate president.
But it was being rumoured in the newspapers that Babangida wanted to remain in power and that Bola Tinubu – because of IBB’s closeness to our family – would be one of those that would be used for IBB to stay. They didn’t know what I stood for. I was laughing. We were saying the military must exit and we were angry because Yar’Adua had been disqualified. We didn’t even want IBB to stay.
While that was on, Abiola came onto the scene and showed interest in the presidency. Suddenly, I found him in my hotel room with Jubril Martins-Kuye. I realised he was an accountant like myself and I told him he had been abused for being anti-Awolowo. He said no, and that he would go to Ikenne. I told him that he should forget it if he was anti-Awolowo. When you talked to MKO about the country, you would see his vision and everything. If you were well educated and serious about the country, you would be convinced that he meant well. If you were to do an analysis about who was likely to be less corrupt and whose vision would be consistent for the nation, then you would agree with MKO. We made Ayu the Senate President. Yar’Adua and Atiku got along with us on the choice of Ayu, while Kingibe was very flexible on it. We warned them that we would concede it to the NRC if they refused to let us choose our candidate since they would not be there with us. That was how Ayu won and I became one of the most powerful and influential senators. I was the chairman of the Appropriation, Finance, Banking and two other committees in the Senate.
We started working for MKO to emerge as the candidate and we worked hard for him. My corporate experience and the strategic planning I had was brought to bear on what I was doing at the time.
Babangida wanted to use the Senate to stay. How did the Senate respond to that?
Ayu, myself and some others knew what the military was up to. The military is politically smart. Don’t underestimate any military officer when it comes to gathering information on any activity. We got wind of their plan and we took a very strong position that the military had to hand over. Equally, the pressure from the media against the continued stay of the military in power was strong. The wind of change was blowing in the direction of a civilian government. Babangida made several promises and even declared in a broadcast that the military would disengage from politics in August 1993 and would hand over to a democratically elected president.
So, we strategised and organised a successful joint session of the National Assembly to pass a resolution against military prolonged stay in power. It was very auspicious at the time, because no president had emerged. The NRC and the SDP agreed that they wanted the military to go. And with no apparent successor, the political situation was fluid. In a motion moved by a House of Representatives member and supported by a senator, at the joint session of the National Assembly, it was resolved that the military must hand over to a democratically elected civilian president by August.
The Senate President allowed robust contributions from members at the session, which was devoid of party sentiments and affiliations, and we all jointly agreed to the resolution. That was in 1992, before the presidential election in 1993. Both SDP and NRC were expecting victory. We just wanted a civilian government in place. The resolution was seriously binding because the Babangida administration would have no moral authority to stay, though there were talks about diarchy. It just had to go. So when eventually they brought no-go areas and restricted legislators from discussing certain issues, we went to court. We were determined that democracy must be instituted in the country and that it could not be headed by any military man.
To be honest with you, Ayu was a good leader. I believe I was the only person with computer literacy and I had a big Toshiba laptop and I was churning out all sort of media releases against the continuation of military administration. It was a challenging period for this country and the international community held on to that resolution.
Babangida came to address a joint session of the National Assembly. Was that resolution passed before or after that?
Babangida addressed us during the inauguration, where I spoke on behalf of the SDP. I frontally told him that he should not miss the opportunity to leave the legacy of handing over to a democratically elected government. My speech resonated with Babangida and after we finished the inauguration, he walked up to me and gave me a firm handshake. He said I exhibited courage; we had a chat and he left. I did not know what he said after that o! After that incident, I became a persona non grata to the military administration.
How did Abiola emerge as the SDP torch bearer?
We worked hard for the emergence of Abiola. Though there were lot of intrigues, we succeeded in seeing that he emerged as the candidate. I went to 22 states to campaign and the campaigns were very interesting. The election came and we were all celebrating because the election was free and fair. The electoral system was amended and the chairman of the electoral commission, Humphrey Nwosu, was very careful and sincere because of the method employed. The Option A4 was effective. So was the Open Secret Ballot System. It was well monitored. Voters were accredited, allowed to vote and votes counted right on the spot. There was no room for manipulation and the number of ballot papers could not be greater than the number of registered voters and vice versa. It could be lower because some people could get accredited and not vote. Everybody would vote at the same time. It was the Open Secret ballot system. The two-party system would have been the greatest legacy left behind by IBB. We had that election and Abiola won.