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The Abiola Ajimobi I Knew | Adeolu Akande

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Senator Abiola Ajimobi went the way of all mortals on Thursday 25 June, 2020. I had the privilege of serving as his Chief of Staff for the first two and half years of his eight year tenure as governor of Oyo State. As a student of politics, I feel obliged to pen my impression of him. I am doing this for posterity and development of mankind. I parted ways politically with Governor Ajimobi in September 2013 but as a student of politics, I know that in his accomplishments as a politician and administrator evince are certain qualities that aspiring politicians and administrators should learn from. Like all mortals, Ajimobi had his weaknesses and flaws which now threaten to blur many of his positive attributes. As a society, we run the risk of throwing the baby away with the bath water if we fail to track his instructive attributes for posterity.

Meeting Ajimobi…

My first encounter with Senator Ajimobi was in 2006. I was involved in a project to develop a blueprint for the development of Nigeria and I was detailed to invite Senator Ajimobi who was then the Chairman of Senate Committee on Environment to speak on the subject. He accepted the invitation and was at his best at the presentation. We related again shortly after at the formation of the Advanced Congress of Democrat’s (ACD) later in the year before he eventually opted to contest the 2007 gubernatorial election on the ticket of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP). But it was about 2009 that we started a close relationship. He was involved in efforts at reclaiming the mantle of leadership in Oyo State on the strength of the 2007 gubernatorial election in which he was announced as runner-up but which he insisted he won. We met virtually every night in Abuja and threw our contacts into the efforts to reclaim the mandate. As expected, some of the meetings strayed into discussion about the path to the development of Oyo State and there was no doubt that he was prepared to give the state a different paradigm of leadership. The quest for the mandate also brought out the innate qualities in him as an organiser, believer in the rule of law and most importantly his values. I recall a particular experience. One of the contacts in the effort at reclaiming the mandate had introduced Senator Ajimobi to a prominent Nigerian. At the meeting held in the Asokoro residence of the businessman, he left no one in doubt about his capacity to deliver on the project as he made telephone calls to some individuals who were to play critical role in the determination of the matter. But this was to be at a cost. Ajimobi was to sign an Irrevocable Standing Order for the deduction of N1.5Billion from the monthly federal allocation to the state for one year as fee for the service. Even in the almost certain assurance that he would become the governor, he declined. As we drove out of the Asokoro residence of the highly connected businessman, one of those at the backseat of the car provocatively wondered aloud “is this man (Ajimobi) okay?. It was later that I realised that Ajimobi heard the offensive comment but chose to ignore the complaint. ”Is this how they govern Nigeria?, he asked repeatedly as he told the contact who took us to the businessman that he would never sign off the money of the state to become the governor. “To hell with the office”, he yelled in the hot exchanges at the review of the meeting where some of his supporters counselled that he had to shift on his morals if truly he wanted to be governor. Ajimobi had earlier thread this path when he was one of the very few senators who declined the N50Million billion offered them to amend the constitution to remove the term limit on the president in 2006.

It was judgement day in 2009. We crowded at the abode of Senator Teslim Folarin to listen to the television broadcast of the judgement of the Court of Appeal which was the final court in gubernatorial disputes at the time. There was a power upsurge and we hurriedly headed to the residence of Hon. Kamil Akinlabi, another of Ajimobi’s supporters, in the other side of Abuja. Within five minutes of the commencement of the judgement, it was evident that we had lost the case. It was an unsightly sight watching the mesmerising mouth of adults as they cried and hoofed at the reality dawning on all of us. Down the drain were the ambitions and aspirations of many of us who were already occupying positions in the imaginary government. The only person that remained calm was Ajimobi as he made jests out of the shape of the crying mouths of adults. He cheered the weeping adults up with jokes and assurances that we lost because it was not yet God’s time for him to be governor.

At the next meeting of the group, he came with his diary and his notes on why he thought we lost the case. He gave his ideas on what we needed to begin to do in earnest if we were going to win in the next election. I recall that the most important of the factors were choice of political party and funds for political engagement. He argued that if he had contested on the platform of either of the biggest parties of the time, the PDP and AC, he would have either won at the polls or successfully reclaimed his mandate in the court. He went to work immediately and got himself on the ticket of the Action Congress (AC) for the 2011 gubernatorial election. He never looked at the side of the Peoples Democratic Party(PDP) in his political career because he said his father, as a progressive, will never forgive him if he joined the PDP which he regarded as a conservative party.

Election and formation of Ajumose government…

The 2011 election was contested against the background of deep seated crisis in the PDP. Ajimobi exploited the crisis in the opposition party to the hilt. He won the election and went on to form his government. I worked with him closely in the weeks leading to the election. He was a man committed to endless meetings. He resumed at every meeting with his diary full of notes from interaction with politicians and power brokers in the state and as I later found out, his night reflections. He was never shy of revisiting issues and changing his position in the face of superior logic. He was good at defining problems and proffering solutions. “You can solve any problem you if you define it accurately. If need be, you only need to re-context the problem”, he would say.

He interviewed many people for the major offices in his government prominently those of Secretary to the Government, Chief of Staff, Head of Service, Commissioner for Finance, Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Commissioner for Works and Commissioner for Education, among others. I sat at some of the meetings as I played role of coordinator of the nascent Governor’s Office in his Oluyole residence. For each of the offices, he had defined the roles he would assign to them and the personal qualities he wanted in the appointees. For appointment of Commissioners, Special Advisers and Senior Special Assistants, he requested the party, at local government level, to make nominations into a pool from which he filled the offices. He ended up having over 1000 CVs to peruse to fill those offices. I recall that on the deadline he set for himself on the appointment of commissioners, we worked in the office up till 5.30 a.m. He made telephone calls to some nominees in those earie hours to make clarifications on their CVs. Many of the successful nominees made the list because the governor was impressed that they could make coherent clarifications in those hours of the day that many others neither picked their calls nor had switched off their phones completely. In one particular instance, he changed his choice for an office because someone who was unknown to him or the other two of us undertaking the task with him presented an incredibly intimidating CV. At about 3 a.m., he put a call to the nominee and the nominee unexpectedly picked his call. The governor introduced himself and sought clarification on some of the claims in the CV. Then he asked him why he was awake at that hour of the day and the nominee responded that he had a deadline to meet in another two days but preferred to complete his task ahead of time. He offered him the post immediately. When he was reminded that he had discountenanced some other nominees because he said he had made up his mind  on someone for that office that was truly critical for his priorities, he retorted “Kama paro fun ’rawa, CV eyan wa o da to eleyi, A wa nkan mi fun.(Don’t let us deceive ourselves; the CV of my preferred candidate is not as good as that of this person. We will give our candidate something else”.

He ended up with an outstanding cabinet and one of the most resourceful teams I have ever worked with. The cabinet meeting was a very engaging one and members had to work hard on their papers before coming up to the chambers for presentation. He introduced many members to Power Point presentation and the rudiments of high level presentation. He abhorred sloppy performance and incurred the wrath of some members by his blunt and brutal assessments. When the exigencies of politics made it ill-advised to remove some commissioners, he introduced the committee system to carry out some assignment which he felt one or two members of the cabinet could not successfully carry out. I was therefore intrigued when in later years of the administration there were allegations that Ajimobi would speak 99% of the time at meetings. My experience with him was one of meetings prolonged because he insisted on getting the views of all those present and eliminating options for decision by superior logic.

His priorities…

He came into government with a clear vision to return Oyo Status to her previous position as a major economic player in the Nigerian federation and his priorities to accomplish this was security, infrastructure development, functional free education and revitalisation of agriculture with emphasis on large scale commercial farming driven by the private sector. He set up a policy advisory council with members drawn from the academia and the private sector. He priotized the Ibadan Circular Road that was initiated by former Governor Rashidi Ladoja and sought to execute it in a modular form beginning from the Lagos Ibadan Express Road- Ibadan-Ife Road axis. It was to be executed by a private investor and the proceeds from the toll collection would be deployed to develop the remaining part of the project. He planned to open up the state through the dualization of entry- points to the state capital and major towns in the state. He placed the establishment of a technical university on the same pedestal and envisioned the resolution of the crisis between Osun and Oyo States on the ownership of Ladoke Akintola University. He was part of the initiative to make Asiwaju Bola Tinubu the Chancellor of the University believing that being the political leader of the incumbent governors of both states, he could authoritatively help resolve the crisis on the matter.

His work ethics…

He was a slave driver. He expected everyone to work at his speed and with the same attention to details. He works late at night. He comes to the office about 10 a.m. and hardly leaves before midnight to consult critical stakeholders in the state on issues under consideration or resume his daily night meetings at the Government House. What many regarded as one of his weaknesses early in the administration was his preference for endless meetings. Ajimobi would schedule meetings with different groups on the same matter even when commissioners felt the matters were not as complex as to warrant so many meetings. He was always arguing that the essence of such meetings was not only to arrive at consensus but to make the people know that government decisions were taken after due consultation with them. This is in conflict with the public perception of a man who was arrogant in decision making. What went wrong?

One of his strongest points was his life exposure particularly his experience at the Shell Petroleum company. Ajimobi, like a dutiful student of Socrates, knew something about everything and everything about something. He could discuss and argue on any subject. He would engage civil servants in any ministry on projects in their ministry and would discuss engineering designs to buttress his point. When top civil servants concede that he was right, he would not let go of them, arguing that they were submitting to his office and not his superior argument. In some hilarious encounters, he would intentionally distort his presentation with claims of expert knowledge and when the top civil servant submits to such arguments he would conclude that he was either not on top of his game or was insincere.

He was deep, intelligent and an avid reader. His experience in Shell exposed him to many specialities and he complemented the knowledge by reading wide. He would take his time to read on any subject under the consideration of government and was never shy of asking for the guidance of those he believed were knowledgeable in the field. Even before commissioners at cabinet meetings, he would place calls to governors in other states who had tackled problems before the state and ask them how they handled such situations. In many instances, he dispatched his commissioners and top officials to other states to understudy how certain programmes were executed. He himself led delegations to some states on working visit to learn how such states achieved outstanding results in certain areas. I recall when we attended the launch of Opon Imoproject in Osun State. He expressed his displeasure and agony sitting through such a laudable programme while he would have preferred other to host the other states as initiator of such project. ”Anyway, if you cannot initiate such programme, at least you should be able to replicate it in the state. At least let us know we are paying you for something”, he charged openly in the Coaster bus taking members of the cabinet back to Ibadan from the Osun State capital. He sent his commissioner and top officials to Lagos State to understudy town planning and housing estate development. He led a delegation to Rivers and Imo States to understudy certain programmes of the states. He asked his commissioners to replicate and improve upon the initiate on the management of the Certificate of Occupancy in Ogun State among many others. Beyond the governors, he was always in constant touch with critical stakeholders in decision making. He never shied away from contacting people with requisite academic and professional experience to guide his thoughts on any matter he was contemplating. One of such people that he was always in contact with was the late Alhaji Arisekola Alao. We visited his Oluwo Nla residence regularly where the governor had scheduled meetings with prominent traditional rulers and indigenes of the state on contentious issues before the government.

His generousity…

Governor Abiola Ajimobi succeeded Governor Adebayo Alao-Akala who has a legendary reputation for his generosity. One of Ajimobi’s earliest challenges was that many in the grand coalition that defeated Governor Akala were associates who benefitted immensely from his generosity and they had dreamt of Ajimobi continuing in the same tradition. It was a rude shock to them when Ajimobi counselled that he would not disburse government money in that manner. His standard gift  to visitors to Government House that he considered worthy of such privilege was N250,000. News went round quickly that was the amount he gives VIP visitors so much that many visitors would inform the governor what sum Governor Akala gave them when last they visited him in Government House, a revelation he would wave aside and give his standard N250,000. There were instances of many recipients of his gift who sent emissaries to confirm from the governor if truly that was what he sent to them “Will you count to crosscheck if you collect money from ATM? He would bluntly respond. Where he felt obliged to go beyond the N250,000, he would volunteer to give additional funds from his personal account. Many times when complaint against the N250,000 standard gift became pervasive, he would wonder aloud if government was meant only for the benefit of the Nigerian elite. Such frustration in the face of realities of Nigerian politics was commonplace with him. I recall a day the governor was returning to Ibadan from an engagement outside the state and the whole of the Lagos –Ibadan Express road was blocked. The convoy was diverted into an inner road where the bare lack of any government presence was palpable. The roads were undulating rocky paths. The houses were dilapidated. The electrical poles looked like century-old trees. The governor scratched his head and asked cabinet members; “Where do we begin in the development of this area? He showed so much concern and was very worried on how to ensure dividends of democracy reach every nooks and corners of his dear state.

In one hilarious encounter on the Ibadan Polytechnic dual carriage road, the governor had chosen to drive round the state capital to assess the impact of the environmental cleaning initiative on a Saturday afternoon. With him at the wheels, we approached Eleyele from the Sango end and the governor saw a woman cooking and selling corn by the road side. He pulled over by the side to make enquiries but the middle-aged woman approached the governor with her bowl of corn. “Why are you selling corn by the roadside?” the governor asked. But the woman, apparently primarily eager to sell her ware, asked; how much do you want?. The lone security escort on the trail of the governor had approached the governor’s vehicle and intervened,: “Governor lon ba yin soro (It is the governor who is talking to you. The woman then asked back, “Talon je gognor?” (Who is called the “gognor”?). The governor shook his head and drove away. “Deolu, do you see the problem we are have? The woman does not even know who is called the governor! That was Ajimobi, he drove around often to check sanitation exercise.

Ajimobi and traditional rulers…

One of the issues that signpost the Ajimobi administration was the controversy on chieftaincy matters particularly the reform of the chieftaincy system in Ibadan and other major towns. One of the major crisis Ajimobi inherited in 2011 when the issue of Chairmanship of the Oyo State Council of Obas. In the second or third week of the administration, the Governor called a meeting of the Council of Obas and Chiefs and this opened a Pandora for letters from law chambers reminding the governor of numerous cases in court on the composition and leadership of the council. He held several meetings and it was resolved that the meeting should hold. It ended in a fiasco. Obas and chiefs who had previously worked together to ensure that Senator Ajimobi defeated the incumbent Governor Adebayo Alao-Akala suddenly became hostile to one another and had hot exchanges that alarmed the governor. It was an eye opener and said if he was to maintain his aspiration to succeed in the state, he had to stay completely away chieftaincy controversies. He resorted to seeking counsel of traditional rulers individually and not in the Council of Obas and sustained cordial relationship with all the Obas. When weighty issues that he could not discuss on the phone with the Obas, he travelled to their respective palaces to seek their opinion and without disclosing to the other that he was consulting all of them, he would build consensus on knotty issues and the Obas individually commended what they admitted was his wisdom in dealing with them. The intrigues were so deep that as much as the governor tried to conceal it, the prominent Obas always got wind of his discussion with the other Obas. The controversy that trailed the chieftaincy reforms in Ibadan was apparently because the governor moved away from this resolve.

His capacity to say “No”…

One strength of Ajimobi was his ability to look at many prominent people in the face and say “No” to their requests. His argument was always that he would be short changing the people of the state if he acceded to many of such requests which he considered self-serving. At the height of his frustration on many of those occasions, he would instruct his officials not to even honour invitation of such leaders. ”Leave them to me, I will handle them”, as he would go into tirades and express frustrations with some of the elites whom he accused of only seeking to take advantage of the government and people of Oyo State. I recall when some elders visited him in the Governor’s Office with what they called an “urgent and important message”. The message was that Ibadan people were not happy with his government over certain issues which they outlined. “Who are the Ibadan people that are angry?” he asked them in Yoruba language and before they could answer, he continued,” I am an Ibadan man and I am an not angry with the government”. He dismissed their requests which he said were disguised in the garb of Ibadan interest whereas they were purely personal. On one other occasion in the aftermath of the sacking of some civil servants who were indicted for falsifying their academic and birth certificates, some elders came to complain that majority of those who were sacked from Ibadan. He looked at them for a moment and replied: “Baba, you know that majority of the civil servants are from Ibadan and by law of proportion they will form a larger percentage of those we are sacking especially if the same proportion is reflected in the number of those who committed the offence. Besides, am sorry to ask baba, did they tell you before they falsified the certificate? It was not usual witnessing the governor prostrating midway for elders and affirming his rejection of other request. “E ma binu sir. Ko sese sir”(Don’t be angry sir, I cannot accede to your request sir), he would say as he would repeatedly prostrate midway for the elders.

His gift of the garb…

Ajimobi is widely reputed for his gift of the garb. This was one of his strongest strengths. He could disarm anybody with the eloquence and that gift was deployed, always, to his advantage.  As Chief of Staff, it was my responsibility to prepare his Talking Points ahead of any major public appearance where we reckoned that a formal speech was not necessary or when he so directed. I did this in concert with the relevant ministry or government agency and the duo of the Special Adviser (Media and Publicity), Dr Festus Adedayo and Senior Special Assistant (Public Affairs), Mr Toye Arulogun. The governor goes through such notes shortly before he steps out of his office for the event if within the Government Secretariat or in his car as he drives to the event. At every occasion, he would leave us wondering whether he had previous knowledge of the event and had done extensive reading about the subject. He would recall relevant life experiences, throw in relevant jokes and pass innuendos about some of the important dignitaries present and then delve into the subject with the depth and dexterity of an expert in the field. To adopt the words of Socrates in parody, he “knows something about everything and everything about something”.

His jokes…

He was a very lively man. He enjoyed jokes and was always having good hearty laugh at nice jokes. He equally liked a good life after a hectic day. ”Let us share a bottle of wine”, he would begin a process that could lead to hours of debates, controversies and brainstorming. His favourite was Champagne. He would have a very good laugh when a guest or a cabinet member didn’t know which cup to use for which drink. ”This is because you worked with  B and Sons (he would put the name of an indigenous company in Ibadan until the owner, a prominent Ibadan elder complained to fellow elders and the governor’s attention was drawn to it,  then he resorted to use of fictitious companies as reference). He would throw pawns at guests who became loose-tongue after cups of wine. He will stand a guest up and teach him what cutlery to use for which food, revealing how he had to learn all of this while he worked with Shell Petroleum.” I didn’t work with B and Sons..”, and he would be reminded that the elder owner of the indigenous company had complained about the use of his company for such references and the governor will burst into hilarious laughter. He is good at putting people at ease. He would throw banters at the dress sense of guests and officials, helping them to adorn the dress appropriately, regaling his audience how Mr Akanbi, his boss at National Oil, taught  him the same lesson. His sparring partner in many of his jokes was his wife whom he adoringly called Florie.

In the early weeks of the administration, he returned home and surged forward to give his wife who had come to the doorstep to receive him a kiss. She walked away as if embarrassed with the gesture and the governor retorted, “you mean you wanted to reject an executive kiss?: How many women have the privilege of being kissed by a governor”. The wife said he was right and officials who were in the governor’s tow also looked away not knowing whether the kiss took place or not…

He had too favourite jokes. The first was about his wife setting up a motherless babies home. He always recalled that while he appreciated the philanthropy behind the gesture, he had advised the wife to let him procreate the babies while she took care of them.

His other favourite joke was about an armed robbery operation. The robbers entered the residence of the victim and the leader of the gang took notice of an expensive necklace on the lady in the house. When they finished the operation, the gang leader took an inventory of what they have taken but did not see the expensive necklace. He confronted the lady who wore the necklace who revealed that one of the gang had yanked the necklace off her neck. The culprit was searched and the necklace was found on him. In anger the gang leader charged at him: “Awa wa sise, iwo wa jale!” (What impudence! We came here to work and you are stealing!)

Looking back…

As a student of politics, there is a lot to study in the politics and administration of Ajimobi and tease out salient lessons. Ajimobi was driven to be governor of Oyo State by the urge to deploy his talent for the development of the state. The commentary after his passage has been a mixed bag. As someone conversant with many sacrifices he made including declining to sign off the resources of the state for the promise of office which he so much craved, I shrink at many of the uncomplimentary remarks about him. Given my knowledge of his vision and personal sacrifice, students of history have a duty to understand what obstructs the correlation of vision, performance and due acknowledgement in our society.

May God admits the soul of Governor Abiola Ajimobi to eternal rest and  grant his family the fortitude to bear the irreparable loss.  

Professor Akande was Chief of Staff to Governor Abiola  Ajimobi between June 2011 and September 2013.

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