Jimi Agbaje is renowned as an astute politician, a two-time gubernatorial candidate of the People’s Democratic Party in Lagos State. However, that is not all there is to Agbaje, who takes Bennett Oghifo down memory lane. He talks about his Isale Eko background, growing up in Apapa, how he married his teenage girlfriend and lover shortly after both graduated from the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University and much more
You are from Lagos State, where are your roots, exactly?
I’m from Isale Eko, Lagos Island, Lagos State, from the Orile Gbale Chieftaincy family, better known as Shokun family of Isale Eko. I also have roots on my paternal side in Ikorodu. My mum is from Ode Remo in Ogun State.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up initially on Lagos Island, Isale Eko. When I was born, at a very young age, my mother went abroad and I stayed with my grandmother for a while at Odoluwo Street at Isale Eko. Eventually, when my mother came back, we moved to Apapa. So, I’ve been an Apapa person for most of my life. However, as a young person in Isale Eko, I remember it was always a busy place, because it was always a trading community, but we had families. By the time I got to primary school, we had already moved to Apapa. I started my primary school at St. Mary’s Private School on Broad Street, where I did two years or so and then moved to Corona School in Apapa. I finished my Primary education here and went to secondary school, St. Gregory’s College, Obalende. Before going to the university, I did a brief stint at the then Federal School of Science, Victoria Island, which was converted to Federal School of Arts and Science and now an annex of Kings College. It was from there I went to the University of Ife
Tell us about your parents
My mother was a teacher and my father was into banking and public relations. I grew up being very close to my mum, as my father was a very busy person. He worked with the white people and, I think, looking back now, he was the disciplinarian, not that my mother wasn’t a disciplinarian, but I think she was more understanding of us than he was. So, you had a situation where there was ‘fear’ of my father; I could manage my mother, in the sense that she brought us up with the ‘soft hand’ and our father brought us up with the ‘strong hand’ but I think it was a very good combination. We were six children but we lost one not too long ago. I’m the second born but the first son.
Growing up, were there intrigues among the siblings?
There were no intrigues; I think the way I’ll put it is that we were brought up to be very independent. As I say all the time, we are very independent minded people, but we share the same values, because we were brought up with values. Even though we share almost the same values, but we are independent of each other. So, I’ll say that is the way to put it; it is not so much of intrigues; as much as there is respect for each other’s space and that is what those who are close to us will accept that, yes, we are independent people but we have common values.
At what age did you get married?
I married very young, well, relatively young. I met my wife at the University of Ife, I think in my second year. We were boyfriend and girlfriend of course, and we continued the relationship after graduation. So, I got married at the age of 25, because as I said, we had been going out for seven years; when you add from university to when I went for internship, because I studied Pharmacy, and she who studied Law, went to Law School and we went for Youth Service and we worked for a year or so before we got married. I got married at 25 years, faster than some of my mates, and we started having children at that time; we have three children, of course, they are all adults today in their own rights.
Were you ready to take on such responsibility at that age, you had parental support?
As a young person, I think it was slightly different, it wasn’t so much support. I think the way I’ll put it is this, we didn’t have anything so we started together from scratch. And, I think the difference, if you consider what happens today, is that we agreed to pool our resources to build or acquire what we have. When I look at the younger ones today, they are afraid to marry, because they want to have arrived at a certain level. And I tell them that when we got married, we didn’t have anything. Of course, now you buy readymade furniture, but at that time, you got the carpenter to make your furniture. I couldn’t afford a well-furnished apartment; so we had the dining table and four chairs, I remember, when we started. So, when my friends came, it is the same dining chairs we converted for guests, because that was it. I think when I got married, I had a bed, I had an air conditioner that was won at a raffle, so I slept comfortably. But outside that, when it was time to begin to buy things, furniture and all, we pool resources, I mean, my wife was working and I was working and I think it helped us, because today some people say I’m the owner of the fridge, you are the owner of the freezer, I’m the owner of the television, cable television decoder, etc. We didn’t have that, we owned it together and I think in a way, it helped in the bonding of the relationship. Sometimes you find out that when you’re the owner of this or the owner of that, it is like you’re preparing for the eventual separation, but when you’re tied together, it doesn’t even arise, because nobody leaves with anything. So, to that extent, we pool our resources to buy the things that we found to be essential; that was it. Again, because of the benefit of the long courtship, we already understood ourselves and it has helped us greatly going through life. I have never had occasion to take the case of my wife to anybody, neither has she had the course to take any case to anybody. We have learnt to resolve our issues between ourselves. These days, even the young ladies don’t want to marry anybody that has not arrived.
Do you think it is the influence of the parents or of the society?
I don’t think it is the influence of the parents, but that of the society as a whole. Our value system has gone very materialistic, so it is not only in marriage, because when you go to churches, if you’re rich, you sit in the front pew, in the mosque, you’re recognised because of how much you donate to the faith. So, in the same way, everybody wants to have somebody that has arrived and that is when recognition comes. Nobody wants to suffer any longer, nobody wants to work towards anything any longer, and you know, it’s in every facet of our lives. It is no different from a rent economy, you know, rent living; you don’t want to work for anything, you want to arrive on day one. It was different when we go married.
How did you get to be a Pharmacist?
I was a science student, and I was stronger in the biological sciences than in the mathematical sciences and so the options for me then were Medicine, Pharmacy, Biochemistry and all that. So, when it was time to choose, there was a programme that used to be on television at that time, it was called Ben Carson, a foreign programme on television. You had this doctor who appeared to be a very good doctor who was comfortable and on TV you could see how comfortable he was; his home was beautiful and everything, he worked very hard. And at that time, I looked at the doctors in Nigeria that I knew, I saw them in these hospitals that were not as nice as the ones on TV. The environment wasn’t exactly really nice, I didn’t see them as having money, at that time we started having the doctors’ crisis. But then, there was this Pharmacist who had a practice near where we stayed and he looked very comfortable, I could see he wasn’t lean, he looked quite healthy, fresh and always smiling and his Pharmacy was nice. So, when the university form came, at that time we didn’t have JAMB so you filled forms for individual universities, we had medicine, we had pharmacy and I said God why will I want to be a doctor if I cannot be like this Dr. Ben Casey, but I don’t mind being like this Pharmacist, and then again Medicine was five years, whereas Pharmacy was three years. My parents had travelled when I got the form and I filled Pharmacy and, as they say, the rest is history.
What are the life lessons you learned, looking back?
Well, I’ve always had this policy of working hard and playing hard and that has always been me. I’ve worked hard and played hard ever since I graduated, and I’ve enjoyed doing that. I’ve learnt that it is very important that you’re yourself, because there is a lot of peer pressure, there is a lot of pressure from society, but you must be able to be your own person, and I’ve learned that. I’ve learnt to make friends, because I’m somebody that makes friends very easily, I’m very social. But, at any point in time, I’ve not expected myself to shift in terms of what I believe in. So, to that extent, I’ve learned that getting married and having children it’s important what you stand for; it’s important to bring up your family, especially my foray into politics has been important for me, because I’ve learnt from people who have gone ahead, especially people who you will call heroes of democracy, not just in Nigeria, but across the globe. Many of them have not had good family life, and so also I’ve learnt that it is important that you hold your family. So, in taking a decision to go into politics, it was important for me to carry my family along so that I do not have a situation where my family is pulling in one way and I am pulling in another. It was important to convince your immediate family about what you’re about to get into. And once we are in it together, we continue to share the experiences together, such that your family becomes your mirror and also guides you in life, and if there is temptation to do some things that you shouldn’t be doing, you will ask yourself how you are going to face your family. So, that has helped; it’s being yourself, being social, I’ve learnt to live with every kind of person, I’m a very accommodating person; I will deal with every person, but I know the line I will not cross. You will find that you’re not likely able to push me to do anything I don’t want to do; that is my person. I’m not an extremist in any way; if you asked me the kind of food I like best, I’ll probably not be able to tell you I have a best food; I dress to be comfortable, I’m not vain, I just want to be myself.
What advice do you have for the young ones today?
It’s important that people begin to look at what lasts in life, because today’s world is very materialistic, but like they say, money does not buy happiness, money does not even buy love and that is a reality. It is important for the younger ones to have a focus on life, to have a vision of what they want to be, and what they want to be should not be in terms of how much money they want to have because it is not necessarily going to give them happiness at the end of the day. If it is the amount of money they want to have, they are likely to run into trouble, because they will be looking for money by all means, criminal or otherwise, so at the end of the day, they will run into trouble. It is what will make them happy that is very important, like if they want to settle down to married life, then what are you looking for in a wife? You are looking for a wife that is going to be a friend, and a partner, because at the end of the day, money will come, because if you are comfortable, you’re happy, with God’s guidance, blessing, then you will have that money. Unfortunately, many of the younger ones are looking at money first other than happiness, and not realising early in life that money does not buy happiness.