Mr. Yomi Edu has a calm and contented mien. His voice exudes confidence. He never seems to worry about anything, partly, courtesy of his noble birth for which he remains eternally grateful to God. But behind that laidback persona are the traits of a wonderful politician, who went into politics by default, but became one of the strongest pillars of government, and then exited with his integrity intact. Edu’s foray into politics was not without ordeals that tested his courage and seemed to confirm his fears about politics in the country.
But his 1991 governorship election experience was particularly astonishing. “That was my baptism into politics in Nigeria,” he says. The son of a prominent pre-independence politician, Shafi Lawal Edu, who died in 2002, was Minister of Special Duties in the former President Olusegun Obasanjo government. He turns 70 on May 12. Edu talks about his political experience and life generally, in this interview with Tokunbo Adedoja, Vincent Obia, and Demola Ojo. Excerpts:
You are 70 this month. How does it feel to be 70 in a country where life expectancy is 54?
I don’t feel 70. My children say 70 is the new 50. I don’t feel 70, except, of course, for the backaches and the knee aches that come with age. Sometimes I look back and I’m grateful to God for what He has given me. Because I was not the brightest student in class, I wasn’t the dullest either. I was always average as a student but when I say I have a lot to be thankful to God for, I can’t recollect when I was ever wanting for food or comfort. I’ve never suffered in life since I was born, so I’m very fortunate. It’s not my doing; it’s the Man up there.
I was born into a family that was well to do, and from the age of six, when I started primary school, I never had to walk to school, I never had to take a bus. I remember in those days, about 1952, I went to school with my brother and my sister, same school. And we were driven to school by a driver in a green Chevrolet LA 6262. I’ve never had to suffer in life. I really must thank God for that.
At age of 11/12, I left for England to start my secondary school at Kent College in Canterbury. From there, I went on to university in Buckingham to read Insurance and Law. Even then in England, I was not short of anything I wanted in life. My monthly allowance always came on time. While a lot of students were waiting for their grants from government, mine always came regularly. It’s not my doing, I’m grateful to God.
Would you say your pedigree contributed to the heights you attained in business and politics?
Partly, yes. Because you have a name that is known. That always helps in society. It opens doors. My dad being known since the First Republic, it was a name that once you say you’re Edu, it opens doors. So I would say, yes, pedigree has assisted in many ways. Education, too, and a lot of luck as well.
How would you assess the efforts of the older generation to build the dream country that the younger generation can live in and enjoy?
The Nigeria we knew, we had excellent leaders, first-class leaders. You could call them tribalists, you could call them whatever you want, but they loved their people. And everything they did in life was to enhance, to assist. Look at Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Michael Opara, Aminu Kano. These were leaders by any standards. They were not just political leaders but morally, they could be looked up to. They set standards, principles to look up to.
Nowadays, politicians are no longer the same. We don’t have such leaders anymore, which is unfortunate. The ones I mentioned chose their people first. That has changed.
I came into politics in 1989. And I always say I never really was a politician of the type you know in Nigeria. Because if you stand by some principles in Nigerian politics, and you stick by it and you don’t bend, you hardly win elections. There are certain things you have to do to get elected and unless you are ready to do those things you may never get elected.
I was drafted into politics in 1989 by the late Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, when he formed the Peoples Front. General Yar’Adua was a great politician. People thought he was in politics to become president or to glorify himself. He wasn’t. I knew him very well, he was my mentor. He felt the country was not going well, and he wanted to ensure the transition from military to civilian government was smooth. His main aim was to install a democracy that would be sustainable. Not personal ambition. His love for the country was beyond that.
When he came to see me in the house, he came with Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe. Before I met him properly, I had met him on and off when he was Chief of Staff. But the first time I actually sat down with him was when he came to my house with Kingibe, who is my very good friend till today. He said he was going into politics and he wanted to form an association that would transform into a political party. He made a list of people in all the states that he could use as his anchor-men. And he came to me and said he would like me to be his anchor-man for Lagos State. I laughed. I told him, “I’m not a politician. Why are you asking me?” He said that was exactly why he asked me. Because it’s a different type of politics we have to play. It must be clean, transparent, and rancour-free. He said I should think about it, that he was in the South-west for the week, making a tour of the other states and would come back to Lagos, I should consider.
He told me his vision for the country, what his plans were. I thought over it. When he came back, I told him I would accept to assist him in Lagos State but that I would need one or two people to be drafted; the first name was Chief Dapo Sarumi. Because I know him to be a tactical man, a man of strategy. He knows the grassroots in Lagos, he knows all the local government areas.
I told General Yar’Adua; “I’m entering politics for the reasons you gave us, but I don’t intend to play politics all my life. Once the mission of entrenching democracy has been accomplished, when it has been installed and actualised, then my mission has been accomplished,” and he said yes. That’s how I came into politics, not knowing I was going to stay the next 25 years.
You played a role in the making of the Fourth Republic…
When General Obasanjo came out of prison, I went to him in Abeokuta, myself and Late Umaru Yar’Adua (I was very close to the Yar’Adua family) to convince him and give him reasons why he should run. General Obasanjo asked if the PF was still on ground and if we could use it as a nucleus to start. We said yes.
The association was dormant, you know there was no politics allowed, but we knew all our people in the states and once we say let’s go, we’ll get organised within a month. He said, “You know I have no money, can you people find the funds to run a nationwide campaign?” We said we could.” He gave us the green light.
Of course, people like General TY Danjuma came on board, Aliyu Gusau, Aliyu Mohammed, and that was the beginning of what became the PDP.
I served for four years, but first with the campaign. I was then the financial controller for the campaign. All the money we generated came to me, and I was responsible for making sure all our people in all the states got funds. Not funds to spend carelessly but funds to rent offices, to buy vehicles, to print posters. Luckily, we won the election.
I remember even then, when we won the election, General Obasanjo asked me if I wanted to serve in government, I said “No sir, I’m not really a government man. I’m more of a private sector man.” Government never appealed to me. And I think he was surprised.
Then, after we won the election, we were going round the country on a thank you tour. We were in the stadium in Katsina. Obasanjo was then president-elect. Umaru Yar’Adua was governor elect of Katsina. They were sitting in front, I was behind them. General Obasanjo looked back and summoned me. He said, “Umaru, this your brother here, he doesn’t want go into government.” Yar’Adua said, “He must be joking, how can you go this far and walk away, after all we’ve done? It’s not possible, there’s a mission we have to accomplish and we have not even started yet.”
And that was how, again, I was in government as a minister.
How would you describe your experience as a minister in Obasanjo’s government?
A few years later, we were having a meeting in the Villa, a meeting of South-west leaders. There was trouble in the South-west and Obasanjo wanted to reconcile all the leaders. And you know General Obasanjo, when there’s something on his mind, he doesn’t hide, he says it publicly. Out of the blue – it was a huge table, all the leaders were there, Afolabi, Bola Ige, late Agagu, Dapo Sarumi. And he said, “If you want to go into government, you must be sure you want to do it, if you’re hesitant, you might not do a good job.”
He said I didn’t show enough enthusiasm or interest, to go into government. “But now that he is a minister, he is one of my best ministers.” I thanked him. He said, “You didn’t want to serve in government but you’re doing a good job.” So such memories always give me pleasure, they always give me satisfaction. About two or three examples when I was in government I could relate to. That was one that struck me.
Second one was we were having another meeting with some governors and ministers and I was in charge of the ecological fund and I think it was the largest fund in government at the time. I would go with the project, General Obasanjo would approve it and that’s it. Then it would go to council for ratification. I think over the four years I must have disbursed about N50 billion.
So one particular day, we were having a meeting, another of the ministers was saying that I was being biased, all the money was coming to Lagos State, and he’s not even sure if the money coming to Lagos State was for my benefit. I was so mad he was insinuating I was doing something with the funds.
I said, “Honourable Minister, you’re a Muslim, I’m also a Muslim. You know what swearing by the Koran means to a Muslim. I swear to you by this Koran, in the four years I’ve disbursed money round, if I ever took a kobo from anybody, may I not see paradise.” He was shocked. I said it three times. Do you know, after the meeting, the man came to apologise. I was satisfied to put it on record that it is not all the people that come into government that are thieves.
Nigeria has reached a stage now that once you’re in government, you must be a thief, which is unfortunate. There are people that want to serve, but are afraid to go into government not to get their name soiled. There’s nothing more important than a good name. That’s how we were brought up. Be content with what you have and be humble in life. Because if you come from a big family and you join a government and you soil your name, it’s not just you, it’s your whole family.
I went into government, served four years, came out of government with my integrity still intact, no blemish. I’ve never been called to account for anything.
You have talked about the leaders of old, how they were leaders unlike the politicians of today. At what point did we make that unfortunate transition from having leaders to having demagogues?
I can’t pinpoint the time honestly. But I can hazard a guess. I suspect that it was during the political transition of Babangida’s government that things started to go wrong. We had elections, cancellations, elections, primaries, cancellations. People lost interest. Some people walked away. It was too long, it was deceitful. And then all kinds of characters started coming into politics. And people you would not normally employ as your driver started running for office because they had money in their pocket. And I think that was when we lost it.
General Obasanjo had the opportunity to put us back on track. The first four years, he did pretty well. Second term, I think he got distracted politically. He could have put things right so that we’ll have the right people in government, but I think he missed it. Personally I think he was a good leader so please take nothing away from Obasanjo. An impeccable one.
The debts of billions of dollars, which we owed to the Paris Club and other creditors, through negotiations he got written off, he got some paid. It was no small achievement. He did many things.
In the banking sector, we had banks that were more like Bureau de Change. Not banks. He sanitised that sector. Telecommunications. I think we had less than 500,000 fixed lines across the country till the early 2000s. I remember I used to go to Falomo to call London. I had to go and queue at the NITEL office to call London. Now we’re talking about a hundred million plus mobile phones. There was transformation during his government.
Even corruption. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission were set up under Obasanjo. But unfortunately, he got involved politically, he got distracted. Now when you mention Obasanjo, people say third term. That’s what people remember, which is unfortunate. Obasanjo had the opportunity to nurture good leaders but he didn’t focus well. Those people I mentioned; the Awolowos, the Azikwes the Ahmadu Bellos, those were leaders.
Do you think there is hope for the younger generation to emulate these leaders?
There’s always hope.
What are the things that need to be put in place for that hope to materialise?
I think, first, we must change the perception that politics is a dirty game meant for thieves. In the US, people from good homes are politicians. The Kennedys, the Bushes, the Clintons, I can name many of them. But here we are afraid to go into the arena because we’re afraid you would be remembered as a thief. That has to change so we don’t drive people away from politics. There are many people in this country that can do a good job. Many people. But they’re all afraid for their reputation.
If you go and see on the day of election, take note of the people on the lines. Maybe 80 per cent are the cooks, the drivers, the guards. They are the ones electing our leaders. People like you and I are busy watching CNN. It is our duty to go and vote. To be in government is a public service. I am thankful to God that out of 180 million people I was chosen minister. It is a great honour. And it’s trust you must not misuse or abuse.
You’re an associate of both Obasanjo and then Vice President Atiku Abubakar. How were you able to balance your relationship with them, especially, at the time of the rift between the two leaders?
It wasn’t difficult. Obasanjo saw me as Atiku’s friend from Day One. He knew about our association. Myself, Atiku and late Shehu YarÁdua. So I think he accepted that but he also knew I would not do anything against him, or disobey him because of Atiku. So I think he was able to separate Yomi Edu as Atiku’s friend and Yomi Edu as minister. My duty was to serve the country, not anybody else. If I felt I was being compromised or I couldn’t do the job very well, I should have resigned.
One day, during the crisis, Obasanjo said I should follow him to his office after a council meeting. He told me to sit down and after he made a few phone calls, he came to sit with me. He said, “Honourable Minister, I know you and Atiku are friends. But let me tell you that I didn’t know Atiku that well. After I won the nomination for our party, there was pressure from people to put Abubakar Rimi, or Iyorchia Ayu as Vice President. And I chewed over it and decided to go with Atiku because of what he had done through the Yar’Adua’s connection.”
He said he chose Atiku believing Atiku was the same as Yar’Adua. He said Yar’Adua was loyal to him to the core. But he said Atiku was not loyal. I was stunned. I was about to say something but he said I should keep quiet. You know Obasanjo now. I was shaken. I didn’t know where he was going to with the conversation. He then said, “I made Atiku the most powerful Vice President ever. I left him to rum the economy since I was always travelling around the world. I’m training him to takeover when I leave this office.”
He said, “I personally see it as a failure if I leave this office and I can’t install my Vice President to continue our policies.” To him, continuation was very important. He said, “But Atiku is not loyal and he will never become president under my watch.”
I knew things were pretty bad between the president and vice president, but I didn’t know how bad it was. And the president of the country is very powerful. He can make or break you. On reflection, maybe we didn’t do enough, friends of Atiku and Obasanjo. Loyalists, if you like. Maybe we didn’t do enough.
Of course, the time for the second term election, you know the fiasco. People were urging Atiku to run against the president. And I was glad he didn’t do it. Because I believed going against an incumbent president within your party was wrong. It’s not done. Of course, some governors were urging Atiku to run against the president.
I’m quite sure he would have defeated Obasanjo. I have no doubt in my mind. Obasanjo also knew that because he had done his homework. Somehow he managed to appease Atiku for him to back down.
An ex-soldier, I won’t mention names, who also served in government with us, said later that you people were foolish. That you don’t pick up a gun and point to a soldier without shooting, that you’re dead. You must fire that gun.
Would you say it was that crisis that led to the third term saga, because Obasanjo had no succession plan?
I had left government at that time. So I was not really sure of the inner workings. When you’re in government you know what is going on but I had left government four years earlier. But I was against it. It’s not right. It’s against the law. I was totally against it. But you know, I’m not sure. If I knew what I now know, maybe I would have said let him continue. See what has happened since he left office. I’m being honest with you.
Maybe now, with Buhari in power, things will get back on track. It may be slow but it will get back on track eventually. Because Buhari and Obasanjo are not so different. They’re both stubborn, focused and very patriotic. And they’re not really money men. They don’t acquire wealth for the sake of acquiring wealth. Obasanjo is a simple man. As a human being, you might not like him but as a leader, he was effective. And I think history will be kind to him.
What is your take on the killings by herdsmen over cattle grazing?
I’ll be honest, I haven’t followed it enough. I haven’t paid enough attention to it to make a good judgment. But what I know of General Buhari, security is one of his strong points. So I think, eventually, he’ll win the war.
You talked about your role as the finance manager for Obasanjo and the PDP presidential campaign. Are you alarmed by the current revelations about how campaign funds were sourced and distributed during the last general election?
As for the distribution of funds, nothing surprises me. It is done worldwide.
If you raise money legitimately from private donors, it is allowed. Both parties did it. Otherwise, how do you campaign? But taking money from government to fund your campaign, that is illegal. When I read that the office of so-and-so disbursed money to fund the campaign of a party, that’s against the law. It’s totally wrong. Maybe they are allegations but that’s totally against the law. Because it is our money. It is the people’s money. You have to separate the government from the party. It is not the same thing. Because you are in government does not mean PDP is the government. Government belongs to all of us. You cannot use our money to fund campaigns.
Would the revelations and prosecutions change the attitude of Nigerians to campaign funds?
I certainly hope so. Once you deal with the culprits, you jail them and they are punished for it, the foolish man who does it again knows the consequence. That is why I think Buhari is very serious. If there is one thing I think he has achieved so far, it is that the level of corruption has gone down tremendously. People will say it is because there is no money in the system to steal, but no.
You know the man at the top has the authority –morally – to lead this crusade. We know his lifestyle. He is not in government to make money. He never has been. He was Minister of Petroleum, he was governor of Borno and he is known for being prudent, for being focused, and certainly corrupt-free all his life. And once you have such a leader leading a country, eventually, it permeates down.
It may take a long time because in a country where people are poor, people are desperate. The policeman who stands in the sun 14 hours a day, rain beats him. No raincoat no umbrella. He is standing in the hot sun. At the end of the month, he and his wife, sometimes he has two or three wives, you give him a hundred thousand naira. How do you want him to survive? I am not justifying it, I am just giving you reasons why there is corruption in this country. That man is not taking money because he is greedy, it is because of necessity. But if you and I, that God has blessed and what we need we already have, and you still steal the money, that is greed.
A minister who is being looked after – accommodation, all the estacodes, all the vehicles he needs –if he still finds the need to take money as bribes, he is being greedy.
Some people have alleged that the anti-corruption campaign of the government is biased against the opposition. Do you share this view?
No. I don’t share that view. I think it is an excuse to try and get sympathy on your side. I do not think it is against any particular section of the country or a party. I think with this administration, even if you are Buhari’s brother, he will jail you. If you are his son he will jail you. It may be more against the opposition because the last government was a PDP government. They had access to the funds so it is likely that those accused were those in government. The last government was in control of all the funds, they were the ones dishing out all the money and awarding the contracts, that is the obvious catchment area when you start to probe. Simple.
It is common knowledge that Nigeria is richly blessed in terms of the potential for development. But the country is struggling to survive. What do you think is the problem: leadership or followership?
Both. We’ve been unfortunate with bad leaders. But the followership also have a lot of responsibility. Because every country in the world holds their leaders to account. When they do something that is wrong, they go out on the street and march against it. But never in Nigeria. Every country I know that progresses, their leaders are accountable. But here, once you are a leader, there are sycophants around you. Nobody will tell you what you are doing is wrong. Rather they will say, “may you live forever. You’re God send.” We don’t have the guts to tell our leaders the truth.
In Liberia, rice is their main staple. There was a time when the price of rice was increased by 20 per cent or 30 per cent. There was a riot in the streets. People marched and brought government to its knees. But in Nigeria, we will say it was God’s wish and move on.
When I was campaigning for office in 1990 as governor of Lagos, I used to go to all the villages and tell them, “I will bring you boreholes, I will bring you education,” and so on. Many times they will say “Oga, just drop the money and go, we will vote for you.” These are the followers. We are all to blame, not just the leaders.
Going back to Obasanjo, he had TY Danjuma, Adamu Ciroma, Bola Ige, Sunday Afolabi, Atiku Abubakar. They were people in government that will say, “Mr President, this is not correct.” And that, a leader needs.
During the 1991 governorship election in Lagos State, which you contested as the Social Democratic Party candidate, your party seemed to be in a favourable position but, surprisingly, the National Republican Convention won the election. Can you throw more light on what transpired?
If I start to tell that story, it will fill four pages of the newspaper. SDP was fully in control of Lagos State. Femi Agbalajobi and Dapo Sarumi were the frontrunners. They entered the race way before me. I came into the race about eight months after them. All the cars and campaign tools had been distributed to those two camps. I had to start from the beginning. At the first primaries, the first three were Agbalajobi, Sarumi and myself. Between Sarumi and Agbalajobi, there were 110,000 votes each. I got about 70,000, so I was behind in third place. Because the election primaries caused such rancour between Sarumi and Agbalajobi, General Babangida stepped in and said those two should be taken out. So they were banned. The next person was me. I became the nominee.
In fact, after the election, I had left the country to go abroad, to get some rest because I was so tired. Lai Mohammed, who is now Minister for Information, was my chief of staff during that campaign. He was my partner in Edu & Mohammed law firm. He called me to come back, that the primaries had been annulled and Agbalajobi and Sarumi had been banned. I said I was not coming back, after all I had been through and all I had spent. But he said, “You have to come back, there is no choice.” Ebenezer Babatope was also on my campaign team, he called me also. Shehu Yar’Adua also called. So I came back and became the candidate for SDP.
It was now a battle between me and Otedola, Femi’s father. He was of the NRC. In the election against the NRC, we tried to talk to Baruwa, who was the chairman of the party. Jakande was the kingmaker of the party. He was not there but he was the kingmaker. We tried to persuade him, appease him, and explain why we must stick together for the new battle against the NRC. But we were just being dribbled.
My closest friends then were Kingibe and Shehu Yar Adua. So to some in the other factions, Babangida banning those two (Sarumi and Agbalajobi) was because the North wanted to have a friendly governor in Lagos State, someone they could control, and I was the obvious choice. That was how the campaign started that Yomi Edu was a northern stooge, that he must not be elected, that there was no way for a Hausa to be governor of Lagos State. It was all politics.
A few weeks to the election, they called me to Jakande’s house. Sarumi and myself, all of us, we went together. And chairman Baruwa was there. We were trying to make peace. So they agreed to peace but on one condition. They said in my cabinet, they wanted six commissioners. Commissioner for Finance, Commissioner for Local Government, Secretary to the Government, Head of Service … I said, “You want to run my government, just take it over.”
So Dapo Sarumi said, “Sir, can you give us a few minutes?” So we had our own small caucus meeting. I was advised to accept the conditions and I could change my mind later. I said over my dead body.
We were also told that if we accepted, even though we were all Christians and Muslims, but we had a way of doing things – Orisha. That we must swear on it. I said I would not accept. So they said okay, we will see you on the field.
Election Day came. Drama. SDP had won all the LGAs. Twelve of them. But two hours later, when it was time to vote for the governorship candidate, half of the people on our side moved to NRC and voted for Otedola. That was my baptism into politics in Nigeria.
Do you have any regrets about your decision then?
Not really. That government did not last long. The governor was very kind to me. Otedola. He was always calling to ask how I was doing. Very kind man. We come from the same place, Epe.
With the new developments planned for the Lekki-Epe axis of Lagos, where you come from, are you buying into the Lekki-Epe future?
Our house is there, the family house. We also have the Epe Resort. We are in talks with the state government to develop the marina, with hotels, restaurants and the like. So we are doing our own part.
You look good at 70; do you have any tips on how to keep head above water in this tough country?
In one word, contentment. Like I said, I have been born lucky, so I’m thankful to God I’ve never had a hard life. That’s the truth. It’s not my doing, it’s just the way God wants it. That helps for sure. I went to school in England and I spent 20 to 30 years out of the country. I came back, started a business, it flourished, so my life has been pretty comfortable. When you’re comfortable, it’s easy to keep well. You know stress can kill. But I’ve never had that problem all my life. And I’m always thankful to God.
And I’m always content. I don’t care what the next person is doing, whether you’re flying in a private jet; I hate private jets. I’m afraid of them anyway. I don’t like those small planes. I like the big 747s. I think to myself, 400 of us in this plane, God will not bring this one down, too many of us to kill.
I don’t envy anybody. I have lots of friends that are very wealthy. Aliko Dangote, Femi Otedola, Mike Adenuga… they’re all my friends, for a very long time. They call me Egbon, big brother. But I don’t envy anybody. What you have, you worked hard for it, you made it legitimately, good luck to you, may God bless you and your children. What I need, God has always given to me. So I’ve learnt how to be content.
I will give you an example. My younger brother was complaining the other day. He said, “Egbon, I’m tired of this country.” He said everyday he got phone calls. Now he doesn’t pick the phone unless he knows the name. Now he doesn’t answer the doorbell unless you told him you’re coming. He says everybody needs something. They need help for school fees, rent, somebody is pregnant, the roof is leaking… different problems day in, day out.
After he had finished, I looked at him and told him; you’re a lucky man, thank God. You thank God that they’re coming to you for money, not you going to someone to ask for money. But do what you can to help them. The one you cannot do, say, “sorry O!” Don’t be harsh to them; just tell them you’re tight. If they ask you for a hundred thousand and you don’t have it, say sorry you don’t have, but here’s some money for your transport.
Don’t be too tight, because God is against that. Don’t be too generous too. Because if you’re too generous and you give all your money away, your family will suffer, and your first responsibility is your wife and your children. After that, your extended family. Your brothers, sister, uncles. You can assist them. After that come your friends.