A class reporter, former Ogun State governor, Chief Olusegun Osoba, has never ceased to be one. About the only journalist, who had managed three major national dailies at different times in his career – Herald, Sketch and Daily Times – Osoba would rather the credibility that comes with his name as a reporter of note than the fame that precedes him as Osoba-the-politician. Although he holds strongly on both grounds, something in him would choose to be back in this world as a journalist if given the opportunity of another life, even though the one he currently lives is not ending anytime soon. The appointment for this interview was more or less forced on him as a reporter, who would always accord his colleagues their respect, no matter the circumstance. A majority of the people who know him can tell, even from a distance, that the former governor had refrained from speaking for a while now, and deliberately. Constantly leveraging a good grasp of his profession, Osoba recognises the fact that too much media exposure could be counterproductive. This, interestingly, has remained his guiding principle. He was reluctant to grant this interview for obvious political reasons and if he had his way, he would have avoided it completely. But he caved in to pressure because he could not say no to his colleagues. Initially meant to hold last Wednesday evening, and certain that he would have cleared other engagements by noon, the sudden demise of General Adeyinka Adebayo, a former governor of the old Western Region, completely altered his schedule. He had to juggle his itinerary to re-accommodate this appointment for late evening of the same day, having gone to pay a condolence visit to the scion of the Adebayo family, Otunba Niyi Adebayo, also a former governor of Ekiti State. It was going to be a long interview as the ‘pre-session interaction’ had suggested. And as a reporter that he gladly calls himself, Osoba first did a briefing of his life after power off-the-record, by laying a template that would later guide the THISDAY team on relevant questions. As he went on to interact with the duo of Olawale Olaleye and Anayo Okolie, his hypodermic needle model was at its finest throughout the period of the interview as Osoba opened up on how and why his life in and out of office has remained one without crisis. A man of distinctive style and great taste for quality, he also spoke extensively about family, politics and governance then and now as well as his general approach to life. Excerpts:
|Fourteen years after office, how has life been treating you?|
Beautifully well because my philosophy to life is that whatever I cannot personally afford and whatever I cannot personally sustain, I’ll never get used to it. Second, before I became governor, I had the opportunity of seeing it all in terms of exposure, contact, hobnobbing with the high and mighty as a reporter. I didn’t see anything, therefore, special to me in my life as governor. I made sure I did not live any flamboyant life, which after living office I would not be able to sustain. I lived a life that was not different from what I am living today.
As governor, I was staying in this same house in Lagos, I never for one day slept at the governor’s lodge in Victoria Island. In Abeokuta, I built one of the best Government Houses that took advantage of the topography of the land. I completed it within two and half years before I left office, and I didn’t sleep there for one day. I lived throughout in my personal house. I have other things to say about my life time as a governor which rubbed on with my personal life.
We were just coming to that. What was life like as a governor?
First of all, I went to the office of governor conscious that it was a tenured position. I therefore did not take even a messenger with me into the office of the governor. I made use of civil servants. What they call Chief of Staff was what I called Permanent Secretary Government House. My secretary was a civil servant, who served me in 1992, and because he was still in service, he continued to serve me when I came back in 1999. Retired head of service, Adeyemi, who had just retired from service, was my principal private secretary.
I made use of civil servants. I made sure I built my own house. You will not believe it, I made my own bed. My bed was what I counted as the most comfortable thing in my life. I buy my bed sheets myself. I buy what they call hotel collections and I buy them anytime I go to the US. They were the best and the cheapest in the US. I buy usually fitted bed sheets, so making my bed was no problem till today. I just throw my sheet on the bed, put it in and it’s fitted. My duvet was very easy for me to do, because my training in school as a scout was to be self-sufficient.
I lived a very modest life as governor. I never chartered a plane, what I used mostly at that time was Albarka Airline. I never for one day travelled with anybody abroad. When I go abroad, I carry my bags myself. Segun Babatope is a living witness. We travelled together in the year 2000 for a major international conference and he was shocked to see me load my luggage and that of my wife on a trolley from a cab, took it to the check-in counter and checked myself in. He was so uncomfortable that he asked me why I didn’t bring people that will handle the bags, but I told him that the day I cease to be governor, will I be able to afford an extra ticket for someone just to carry my bags? So that is my philosophy.
Let’s do some sort of comparative analysis between yourself and the governors that we have now. Recently, a former governor, Mr. Peter Obi spoke on the kind of waste that goes on in government quarters and tried to stand himself out as one governor who led a decent life. Coming from your background, would you like to draw some kind of comparison between the kind of governors Nigeria had in people like you and the kind of governors being paraded today?
Peter Obi will tell you that I had cause to tell him publicly when we travelled together and I saw him carrying a stroller and I said: “Peter, you must keep it up to be yourself”. I made him understand that I had a lifestyle and that I did better than him. Take for example, my security vote was only N250,000 a month. For modern day governors, we talk of billions, and I did better security work. Security vote is supposed to be out-of-pocket expenses; it is not supposed to be pocketed. I didn’t get used to having free money.
In my time, I was more conscious of ensuring that I ran a government the way I was used to running a private company, therefore, my style of dealing with corruption and wastages was that no file stayed overnight on my table. I created efficiency, so God help you if I sent a file to you and don’t immediately treat it; and when a file is on your table that had come from a director, a Perm Sec or a commissioner, I will query the dates on the movement of the files to know at what point the movement of the file was delayed. Through that, I create reasonable efficiency.
Two, I did not approve any payment that the money was not available. Once I approved payment, a contractor could take it to the bank as collateral, God help that civil servant, who would defer my approval. There was no need for you to be nice to anyone to collect a payment from Ogun State government, because the money was there waiting. As you present and it is approved, payment is made immediately.
Civil servants in my time were paid salaries not later than 25th of the month not 30th. We were paying them days before the end of the month. In my time, at every festival, I made sure they were paid their salaries far ahead of time, to make sure that they had something in their pockets to spend for the period.
For example, at Christmas, salaries were paid latest December 20th. Therefore, the civil servants themselves knew that they were reasonably comfortable. The idea of having so many aides in my time did not exist as you now have. There was no special assistant for this and that. My life style was such that I didn’t need to adjust after leaving office.
For example, there was a day I drove to Hilton hotel then in Abuja, and both Fola Adeola and Baba Isale of Egba, Chief Shonekan were at the entrance of the hotel. They saw me coming out of a Honda Accord and they were wondered and said: “Why? Is this car not too small for you?” I told them that the distance between the governor’s lodge and wherever I wanted to go to in Abuja was not more than two to three miles, so I didn’t need any big car or convoy.
For example, he (Obi) was saying that he downsized the staff in the lodge, I didn’t have any staff. I used to take the cook serving the presidential lodge to Abuja. The lady would have gone ahead, bought all the things that I needed in Abuja and would cook whatever I wanted to eat. I can tell you, ask Aliko Dangote and Adams Oshiomhole, they dined with me then. This was my own way of managing wastages. So, I wonder of what efficiency is the need for creating many aides?
Soon, it will be 15 years since you left office and your name is still as relevant. What is the secret?
My name is relevant because I am living on the name as a reporter and not as a governor. I did not bother myself about friends that I made as governor; I place more emphasis on those friends that I have had over the years, who remain close to me. Take for example, as governor, Sam Amuka remained my friend. He had been before I became governor and he is still my friend and brother till today.
The thing is, I emphasised more on those friends I had as a reporter and today I am still leaning on that name. I am not leaning on the people I met while I was governor; I am still living my life as a journalist, all those around me are those that I have known for years. When my daughter got married, the whole country was there. Those who were there were people I had known in my professional career.
I thank God that at the age of 77, God still makes me relevant. Many of my peers have been forgotten. How many people have been governors in this country? People will not even recognise meeting them on the way, but I thank God because I am still enjoying that image in and out of Nigeria. When I get anywhere in UK and Nigerians meet me at different desk, they immediately recognise me, they say “ah baba Daily Times”.
There was a day I was with my ophthalmologist and some people just saw me and the English man could not believe when he saw them prostrating. But the culture of Yoruba permits that. He said “Are you such a big man that people are prostrating?” And I said no, these are people that I knew me as a journalist. I thank God that the reputation that I made as a reporter, as a journalist and as a newspaper manager is still living with me till today.
Evidently you are a family man. One will want to know how you were able to juggle between the responsibility of your office and demands of your home.
Unfortunately, I mismanaged that area. In my early life, I concentrated too much on my career. I therefore didn’t have enough time as I would have loved to devote to my family. As governor, neither my wife nor my children lived with me in Abeokuta, reason being that I didn’t want to expose them to the ordeals or expensive life style of the children of a governor. It’s not me as governor that will spoil them; people who are looking for favours will be giving them things that will be out of this world – expensive shoes and the likes.
Even my wife, during my first term as governor, devoted her time to preparing herself for her master’s degree at UNILAG and for a professional certificate examination in education. She said she would prefer to be a better family than go for better life, thus she went on to do her post graduate in education. She’s always had passion for education. She was starting a school.
I thank God that I still have the energy. I am now devoting more time for my grandchildren, the time I didn’t give my children. My mismanagement of family because of the pressure of newspaper life, the 24hour life I lived as governor; I am now more relaxed and I enjoy the company of my family as I give them more time.
Have you any regrets?
None at all! I praise God. My children made the best of everything; went to the best universities in the world; two of them went to London school of Economics to do their master’s. My first daughter did her master’s degree at Warwick University, one of the best universities in the UK while my last son went to Birmingham University. What I made sure is that the foundation of their education was grounded in Nigeria. The first two children, I made sure they had their university education in Nigeria.
I went to University of Lagos for my diploma course, so all my children went to the University of Lagos. After their first degrees, they could go and do their master’s in any other place abroad. They have done very well. It’s not easy to get into London school of Economics. I therefore do not have any regrets. My only regret is that I did not devote enough time to them because of my personal philosophy of efficiency, doing the best in anything I want to do. I devoted everything totally to my professional career.
Out of interest is one reason, and when I was serving as governor, it was a 24-hour thing to do. Overnight I will treat files. For example, when I became governor I found out that almost 5000 certificates of occupancy were awaiting the governor’s signature and when I called the officers in the land department and told them that I wanted to clear the 5000 certificates of occupancy, I didn’t know that they were laughing at me. They taunted me and sent the first ten files and they got it back within one hour, then they increased it to about 50 and they got it back the following day. They increased it to hundred, one my way that day to Abuja, I signed all the C/O between Abeokuta and the Lagos airport.
They eventually got tired of taunting me, and within the first 1month I cleared the 5000. Why? Because I believed that even with the C/O in your hands you can go to the bank, get a loan and develop a property. That also affected my influence in deciding to allocate land to the people I trusted would deliver, and I am happy today that I have examples of people that I allocated land to and eventually delivered.
Can we have examples of such people?
Take for example, The Punch Newspapers. If you go to Punch in Magboro today, I allocated it to them. At a time when Punch was hostile and antagonistic, and I put it in the file when it got to me. I said “I’m approving this land in spite of the hostility of Punch to this government”. It was leaked to the management of Punch, so the chairman and management requested an appointment. When they came I told them that the way they were treating my government with all kinds of scandals that never existed, that I even took them to court.
They eventually had to apologise in the paper. I settled out of court and I gave them the land. Today, I can boldly say that the Punch newspaper is now a source of pride to me. When you look at the Journalist Village in Arepo, it was my idea. I am happy so many of my colleagues are now building their own houses in that estate.
I am happy Ibese Cement Factory had been on the drawing board for over 30 to 40years, and when President Obasanjo spoke to me to assist in giving land to Aliko Dangote, it was in Barbados on a State tour and I said I had approved it. I later found out that I had actually approved the land for over a year but the civil servants didn’t transmit my approval to Dangote. I had no regret that I gave so much land to Aliko Dangote because the factory in Ogun State is one of the largest in Africa. Aliko delivered.
Only last weekend, President Obasanjo acknowledged that I gave him 22 hectres of land. He paid but he admitted that it was with generous concession. I did it not because of him, but because I wanted development in Abeokuta. Abeokuta has the reputation for being first in virtually all professions including journalism. The first newspaper was produced in Abeokuta and I am proud to be an Egba man, who kept that reputation of being the only journalist, who managed three major newspapers successfully – The Herald, The Sketch and Daily Times.
Obasanjo built the first Presidential library in Africa, in Abeokuta. For once, in spite of my disagreement with him and in spite of our differences which are many, he stated it publicly that I contributed in making that library a reality. I am a part of that story and I am proud. My philosophy was to bring in industrialists even if they wanted land free of charge, I was ready.
Why? Because the colonialists, who came into Africa and developed Ikoyi, which is still a showcase estate in the whole of Nigeria would develop all the government residential areas in Ibadan for example; Onireke, Iyaganku and Agodi, didn’t take them away to the UK. So, my belief is, any industrialist, who invests in Ogun State will still leave those developments on our land. Aliko can’t take Ibese to Kano; the Aboderin family can’t take Punch to Ibadan. So, that is my philosophy.
Speaking about the Obasanjo invite, a lot of people were really surprised that you there, what happened?
Well, he wrote me a personal letter, and the title of that letter was “Appreciation”. So, I felt that if President Obasanjo could use the word appreciation, then, I should honour the invitation. He himself never expected me, but he said he had written it in his speech that ‘I don’t think Chief Oshoba is here’. For what motivated me: one, he wrote me personally to invite me. Two, I can’t help in conceiving and delivering a baby and the baby now made first class in the university, even if along the line I have not been in touch with the baby, I should be happy that what I was a part of came to life in my own life time.
There is no debating the fact that you made your name as a journalist, it also cannot be disputed that Olusegun Osoba, the politician is a household name and this is why a lot of people still feel the real story of how you lost the election of 2003 has not been told. What really happened?
The full story of that 2003 election is in my book that I have completed and I am launching it this year by the grace of God. I didn’t lose any election at all. The evidence is there in my book. Waziri Adio was the first to even raise the alarm, where the Presidential candidate scored 1.3 million votes and the totality of all the votes for all the gubernatorial candidates was 600,000, and what was allocated to me and Daniel had been published in the Tribune and other newspapers as opinion survey.
So, the votes tallied line by line, figure by figure with what was published in the paper by the Daniel group. So, they now went ahead to write the figure that they had done as survey. The presidential poll topped in a massive way what they had written for the presidential election originally, so at the end of the day, nobody could account for over 600,000 votes.
Waziri Adio raised it: what happened to 600,000 votes? When they asked President Obasanjo, he said, “Even one blind woman said just put my finger on Obasanjo’s vote”. Two ballot papers were given to every voter, 600,000 were not voided for the governors, neither were they returned as unused, how come the presidential election made a totality of 1.3million votes while that of the governors was just 600,000? The details of it are in my book. I didn’t lose any election.
So, why didn’t you challenge the result?
Many reasons! Sam Amuka and I had an argument some days ago about that election. I said, look Sam, the governors of South-west who didn’t lose election resolved that the mood of the nation then was to give Obasanjo a second term, because people had faith that he was going to perform magic. We decided not to challenge. It was Lam Adeshina, who said “nemesis will catch up” and that if we had blocked Obasanjo from getting second term and returned as governor, the story would have been different. People would say if Obsanjo had gone for a second term Nigeria would have been Eldorado. He had the second term and attempts were made to have the third term. History will judge whether the second term was the magical term that people thought.
I have no regret, I left office, I’m happy and I am still able to keep my reputation. In my days as a reporter, I was one of those who fought against brown enveloping. So, when the language of politics changes into garrison command, do or die, we did not want to be part of it, so all of us decided not to challenge the results of the election. We wanted to serve, so if they didn’t want us to serve, so be it.
Today, I am still proud of those things that I did. I focused on rural electrification, road network, qualitative education, infrastructure development including regular water supply. In my time, there was no major town or city that did not have regular water supply. There was no local government that I didn’t do electrification. I was the one who introduced payment of WAEC fees.
Rather than students carrying desks, I built desks for all the government primary and secondary schools in Ogun State. I created regular payment of salaries in the state. I did a programme that cleared 9 months and 6 months salaries owed teachers and civil servants respectively in the state when I became governor.
So, legacy was more important to me than coming back for a second term. If one term was what God had designed, so be it. We all decided not to challenge it and live history to judge. We, the Yoruba governors, if we had been a stumbling block to the emergence of Obasanjo, and Nigeria is in this state today we would have been the ones to be blamed. It might have been said that if the godfather, Obasanjo had returned, maybe Nigeria will not be where she is. History will judge what happened.
Does this explain why you stood seriously against Obasanjo in his bid to get a third term?
Yes. I will confess to you, we were all in the gallery the day third term was killed. We sacrificed ourselves for a second term, and I must tell you that the way governors were treated after we left – we were a serious voice at the council of state meeting. I don’t want to bring judgment upon his second term, let Nigerians do that. I have had course to argue with you when you said he brought GSM and I called my valcanizer, who asked you whether it is GSM that would provide power for him to work with. We felt that we sacrificed ourselves for second term. We didn’t want what we suffered for, which is the entrenchment of democratic laws to be destroyed. It was not a personal issue between us and Obasanjo. When he was in prison, we fought to entrench democracy and we thought we should let the rule of law prevail.
Two terms should be two terms. Obama has done his two terms and he has gone, the same goes for Clinton and Bush, so he too must go so that there will be Nigeria. We, Yoruba in the South-west zone have had eight years of Obasanjo, by all means let somebody else come and take it up. Whether we like it or not, Trump is now the president of the US. I don’t like him but that is democracy at play. If that is what the Americans want, we have to deal with him for four years.
So, having spent his eight years, we believed that he should not perpetuate himself in office; we didn’t want to create a Mugabe, a Biya or a Museveni. Those are our reasons. We worked hard to make sure that third term did not succeed, not because we hated Obasanjo but because we loved the survival of this country. We are the sacrificial lamb for the second term.
We didn’t want it to sacrifice the “Omoluabi” of the Yoruba philosophy. Yoruba’s core philosophy is Omoluabi, self-esteem. If we are brought up to respect self-esteem, rule of law and the core values of the Yoruba and we now went and broke those core values, we would have been destroying our own Yoruba nation to the Ijebu of Yoruba and the rest of the country.
Looking at the state of the nation, would you have still done the same thing if the proposal was brought up again?
Forever and ever! General Adebayo, who died today, we formed NADECO in his house; Abiola sacrificed his life for the entrenchment of democracy, we didn’t want those sacrifices to be in vain. Tomorrow, if anybody makes the attempt again, no matter where he comes from, we will fight it with all the energy in us. Thank God at my age, I still have the energy. God has endowed me.
Lastly, at 77, you still look very good for your age. Outside politics, what other things do you that keep you going?
First, I don’t drink. I’ve never had alcohol in my life. I don’t even take a sip of wine. I don’t smoke. I do everything in moderation. I try not to bear grudges. If I am annoyed, I say it immediately and get it off my mind. I try not to envy people; imitation, wanting to have what other people have is not a part of my philosophy. I always say it; I don’t pray to buy a jet. If God says the money is in my house and that I should buy a jet, I will tell Him, let Olawale Olaleye buy the jet. As a young man, if he buys the jet and I ask him, he will take me anywhere I want to go to.
The grace of God is the central thing. God has been gracious, He has given me a reasonably good life and I can tell you, if you take greed out of your life, then, you will live a better life. That’s why in spite of the numerous efforts from so many sources to lure me when Jonathan was in government with massive fund, I never fell into the trap.
And those who blackmailed me that I was living on Jonathan’s money; I thank God today that everyone of them has come to bow to say: “We thank God, your name has not been soiled; you are not part of all that we have been hearing”. So, the onus of it all is that when God is there guiding you, He will always guide you even ahead of what you do not know and when what you don’t know comes into fruition, you will be vindicated, like I have been vindicated in the case of all these slush funds from all sources. My name has not been mentioned.
My name is relevant because I am living on the name as a reporter and not as a governor. I did not bother myself about friends that I made as governor; I place more emphasis on those friends that I have had over the years, who remain close to me. Take for example, as governor, Sam Amuka remained my friend. He had been before I became governor and he is still my friend and brother till today