Iyiola Omisore leads the way to his study, a small room in his cosy Ikoyi, Lagos, residence with a generous display of his family photographs. He has tried to shield his family from the fierce storms that have rocked his political life in recent years and threatened to eclipse an excellent professional record he has set for himself. Omisore wants to put things in their correct position. Vincent Obia writes
Dressed in a simple striped cream short-sleeved shirt, with his eye-catching grey hair, Senator Iyiola Omisore is a picture of geniality. The 59-year-old engineer, businessman, and politician looks perfectly composed and calm, and every bit the accomplished, fulfilled technocrat.
But it is his deep insights and powerful anecdotes that betray his political shrewdness and practical knowledge of his environment. They are the product of decades of engineering career, a rich traditional background, and a stint in politics spanning about 15 years.
Omisore, born September 15, 1957, was Deputy Governor of Osun State from 1999 to 2003. He served as senator for Osun East senatorial district from 2003 to 2009. He was educated at St. John Grammar School, Ile Ife, Osun State; Federal Polytechnic, Owo, in Ondo State; and the Technology College, Reading, UK.
Omisore holds two engineering degrees and a postgraduate certificate from Brunel University, Uxbridge, UK, and a Ph.D. in Infrastructure Finance from the International School of Management, Paris, France. He is currently undergoing his DBA programme at the same institution. He is a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, England and Wales, among many other professional fellowships.
Omisore speaks glowingly of the influence of his Catholic background on his life and work. He says as an altar boy in his childhood days, it never occurred to him that he would be an engineer.
“Initially, I wanted to be a Reverend Father, having been exposed in early life to Catholicism,” he says. “But when I was in the secondary school, my principal then, Reverend Father Fabian Cloutier, a Canadian, now late, and I used to go to Mass every morning at 6am in a neighbouring girls school. I didn’t know any other life than Catholicism and missionary work.
“When I was growing up and tilting towards the seminary, my mother advised against that and said I should to go and study. At that time, I was a basic science student. Then you were either doing sciences or arts, there was no social sciences. I was a pure science student. The only course I could pick was medicine or engineering. I decided to opt for electrical engineering. I felt with electrical and mechanical engineering, there is so much work to be done, and the impact can be felt everywhere.”
To him, “There is no aspect of my life that has not been influenced by my Catholic background, which is honesty, integrity, and hard work.”
Omisore started his professional life in 1983 with Drake and Gordham in the UK and rose to top management positions. He came to Nigeria as an expatriate in 1984 to fill a vacancy in Nigeria from the UK office of the company. It was at the firm’s Nigerian division, Drake and Scull (Nig) Ltd, that Omisore honed his project management skills.
He says his work with the over 130-year-old multinational firm “exposed me to engineering practice across the land.”
While with Drake and Scull Nig. Ltd, Omisore supervised the construction of 19 airfields, including the Makurdi Air Force Base, and other projects, like the Sokoto and Makurdi Rice Mills, Taraku Oil Mill, Sokoto University Teaching Hospital, Onitsha Flour Mills, Bank of The North (now Unity Bank) Building, World Bank Assisted Health Projects for Plateau, Benue and Nasarawa states, and the Imiringi Rural Electrification project in Bayelsa State.
When he left Drakes and Scull Nig. Ltd, he started his own practice with Mechelec Consultants, an engineering consultancy and international funding agency, and Chrisore Eng Ltd, an electrical engineering firm.
“Before the return to democracy in 1999, there was hardly any money taken outside Nigeria, either by bilateral or multilateral agencies, that I was not involved in,” Omisore reveals, stressing, “Politics is just an aside in my life. I made my mark basically in engineering before I went into consultancy.”
But it is politics that would present the fiercest storm in the life of Omisore and threaten to sweep away his brilliant career. His ordeal began when he was accused of involvement in the murder of then Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Chief Bola Ige, in December 2001. Omisore was impeached as deputy governor in December 2002 over the matter. But he has been discharged and acquitted in the case.
He says the saddest moment of his political career is, “When we were framed up that we killed Bola Ige, because we thought it was a joke. How can somebody be in Ife and kill somebody in Ibadan? It was later they confessed that it was for politics. That was why I sued Oyo State government for N2 billion over malicious prosecution.
“We are still in court. They are dodging and begging me now. The judgement was very clear that we had no business in court at all.”
He says he was one of the founders of the Alliance for Democracy in 1998.
“We started AD. I was a major funder of AD in 1998. The party was formed in my suite at Nicon Hilton, Abuja. There is hardly any politician in the South-west that brought resources to politics than I did. I came into politics with my resources, wealth of experience, everything I had.”
But he stresses, “Omisore is more of a professional engineer, a technocrat. I have made more impact in engineering than any politician you can think of in this country today. I stand to be corrected. They want to kill that aspect of my life and play up politics.”
Omisore’s political adventure follows a tradition that goes back to his background. He says, “We are the main Afenifere. We go to Owo every month. I am a man of history. My grandfather was part of Egbe Omo Oduduwa in 1941. So I am a part of that history. We were traditionally UPN (Unity Party of Nigeria) in the family. When it came to the time of AD, we were the ones doing Afenifere and AD together. It was Kofo Bucknor Akerele and I that gave it AD.
“We left PDP, that we were not joining them, to register another party. By the time we got to the INEC office, they had taken all the AAs. We wanted to have AA, AB, or AC. We wanted our name in front on the ballot. We wanted to tell voters, ‘Vote for number one.’ That was the idea behind AD.
“Chief Bola Ige, Baba Adesanya, and others said we should go and collect form. By the time we got there, the names given to us had already been taken. We said, let us take AD then, and we brought it back to them.”
‘Family of Professionals’
Omisore has tried to keep his family away from his politics. He says, “My vision is to raise a family of professionals who are pursuing their careers devoid of politics.”
According to him, “I try to keep my family away from politics. And my children are too young to be involved in politics. Let them go to school and work, after they have gotten experience they can now come into politics, if they like.”
He adds, “I also don’t believe in people bringing their children into their businesses initially. Let them go and work elsewhere. Later in life, when they are older, they can come in. when you force your children to work for you, you are limiting their scope. If you are the owner of The Guardian, for instance, let your children go to THISDAY or The Sun.”
An expert in infrastructure finance with specialisation in public private partnership, Omisore blames Nigeria’s limited ability to attract international funding for its infrastructural projects on lack of trust in the system. “Before infrastructure can be financed, there must be trust in that infrastructure, its design and costing. But instead of doing more of the technical, we do more of politics. The funders always reason that they are giving you so much money, what are you going to generate?”
Omisore recommends public private partnership as a way out of the country’s infrastructure deficit.
“There is no government in the world that can fund infrastructure alone,” he says. “But if it is a private sector partnership with the government, the private investor knows his money must come back to him, and he would be diligent in what he is going to buy. He would look for durable materials. That is why the PPP option is what I have been canvassing. Apart from the fact that the fund is enormous, it brings integrity into the process. It guarantees durability and reduced cost.”
That was also the thrust of his presentation last month in Uyo, where he was guest speaker at the 2016 African Engineering Conference, organised by the Nigerian Society of Engineers. His address was titled, “Nigeria’s Infrastructure Deficit: Beyond the Limitation of Finance in Public Private Partnership and Project Procurement Options.”
Omisore says when he was in the senate he had tried to bring his ideas of infrastructure financing to bear on government business but was often frustrated. “I called inter-ministerial meetings to try to bring the ministers together, but they frustrated it. Because of the structure of government and the ego of our people, they find it difficult to work together.”
Omisore equally suggests ways out of the current financial crunch in the country. He says, “The Central Bank of Nigeria must come out with a standard exchange rate for everybody,” because, according to him, the current multiplicity of exchange rates for different purposes creates room for corruption. Secondly, he recommends the elimination of deficit budgeting, saying, “We have to find a way of financing our budgets.”
Omisore also talks about the difficulty in having a rallying figure for Yoruba politicians since the demise of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. He says, “Yoruba people are very free-minded, well educated, and well exposed. So due to civilisation and development, things are not as easy as during the Awolowo time. Now people ask questions, that is why it has been a bit difficult.
“But what I believe is that if a leader can come out with integrity and superior argument, not by threatening the people or buying their votes with money, and answer the people’s questions, they will go with him.”
Nonetheless, he believes, “The best for the Yoruba is to go the same way, if possible. But it can’t come as easily as the Awolowo time.”
At 59, Omisore is agile and active. His grey hair bespeaks graceful ageing. “When I was young, my dad was in the civil service. Anytime he saw grey hair he would use dye to blacken it, maybe, because he was a civil servant,” he says. “Now as I grew up and saw the grey hair, I just kept quiet. I don’t have time to start battling with dye, I’m not a civil servant, so what’s my own.”