By Ayodele Adio
He had just relinquished the ticket to the Lagos East APC senatorial seat in a controversial primary election that would have inched him closer to his quest for a third term in the senate. Yet, there he was, seated calmly on his favorite couch facing the television and wearing a smile that masked his true emotion as every news cycle led with the story of his unexpected electoral defeat.
We had run a brilliant issues-based campaign on a strong record of performance in the National Assembly, but it wasn’t enough – the people wanted a new face and it was a shocking reality for those of us who ran the campaign to accept. So, there we were, all assembled in his living room with long faces and brooding eyes to console our principal, Senator Gbenga Ashafa.
He opened the meeting with a profound statement he borrowed from Hilary Clinton’s concession speech in 2016. “This loss hurts, I know. But please, never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it. And so, I need you to keep up these fights now and for the rest of your lives.”
Born in Luther Street, Lagos Island, on 22 July 1955, Senator Ashafa was the first and only son of his mother, Alhaja Jeminat Elemoro, a famous gold and textile merchant at the Erepo gutter market. His father, Alhaji Lawal Kakanfo Ashafa, was also a successful merchant dealing in cocoa, palm kernel, and wood. His businesses were spread across the then western region with warehouses in Ibadan, Ile-Ife, and Ijebu-ode.
Senator Ashafa was, however, most fond of his grandmother, Alhaja Ojuolape Elemoro, who at the time was a major distributor for Vitafoam in Lagos. Alhaja Ojuolape also sold Portland cement at Adeniji Adele and made sure to always carry the young Gbenga Ashafa along on her many business trips.
He was enrolled in the Christ Church Cathedral primary school at Broad street, Lagos in 1961. His aptitude for leadership started manifesting early in life as he emerged class monitor from standard 1 to standard 6. He graduated with distinction at the Common Entrance examination in 1968 and went on to CMS Grammar School, Lagos.
At CMS Grammar School, he was also made the Class Captain from Form 2 to Form 5. Thereafter, he was admitted to Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland, where he graduated with a degree in Biology. He then furthered his education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville where he earned a post-graduate degree in Public Health Administration (major in environmental health and minor in food science). It took a strong persuasion from his mother to defer his Ph.D. admission in Tennessee to return to Nigeria and start a family of his own.
Upon completing his National Youth Service in 1980 at the Federal Ministry of Health, Ashafa commenced a career in public service as an Administrative Officer in the Lagos State Unified Local Government Service Commission. He rose to the position of the Area Officer in charge of the departmental Tenders Board and the Finance and General Purpose Committee.
By 1990, Ashafa had completed nine years of public service and decided to challenge himself by taking on some private sector ventures. He left the public sector for French-Calahan Ventures Limited, which held majority shares in a state-controlled cocoa processing plant. He worked as the Purchasing Manager at the processing plant for six years until 1996.
Knowledgeable and forward thinking, humble but tactful, loyal, yet decisive – Ashafa has built an illustrious and result-laden career in private and public service. When His Excellency Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu was first elected as the governor of Lagos state in 1999, Senator Ashafa was one of those who made up the transition committee and was saddled with the responsibility of leading the efforts on Local Government reforms in Lagos state.
Asiwaju not only adopted the recommendations of Ashafa, but he also went on to engage him as Director of Planning with the responsibility, among several others, of coordinating all local government chairmen activities and meetings.
Barely two years after serving as Director of Planning, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, impressed with his skills and achievements, elevated Ashafa and made him the Executive Secretary, Lands Bureau in Lagos state. It was during his time as Executive Secretary and, later, Permanent Secretary of Lands Bureau that Ashafa would demonstrate impressive administrative skills, foresight and the rare leadership trait of leaving his achievements to do all the talking.
Indeed, Asiwaju grew the revenue of Lagos state from N600 million to N6 billion within a few years, a tremendous success pivoted on a reinvigorated Lagos State Internal Revenue Service and major reforms in the Lands Bureau.
Some of the reforms initiated by Ashafa included the introduction of the Electronic Documentation Management System (EDMS), the 30-day issuance of the governor’s consent, the creation of the Department of Regularization and the issuance of electronic Certificate of Occupancy (C of O), helped to boost the state government’s revenue such that only the LIRS was out-performing the Lands Bureau in revenue generation. Soon, the Lagos State Lands Registry became a model of development such that the template was borrowed by several other state governments.
During his time as the permanent secretary which spanned into the administration of His Excellency Babatunde Raji Fashola SAN, Ashafa was successful in reducing land-related gang violence by running an open-door policy where anyone who sought an appointment or had an issue with his/her land was treated fairly and equitably.
And for those who had their land taken over by the state government through the Land Use Acquisition Law, Ashafa worked hard to ensure that they were duly compensated. He went further to initiate a process where residents who built on lands that had no title could regularize it with the state government through a seamless and transparent process. That policy empowered several title owners whose properties now commanded a much higher value.
After ten successful years of heading the Lands Bureau in Lagos state, under the leadership of Governors, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Babatunde Raji Fashola SAN, Gbenga Ashafa, charismatic and affable, had built a strong reputation and had grown in popularity such that he won by a landslide in the 2011 senatorial election to represent the people of Lagos East.
His former Senior Legislative Aide, Temitope Atiba describes the man himself as “a bridge builder, a brilliant parliamentarian and a dependable ally to his colleagues.” The records and numbers also do not lie. Gbenga Ashafa had eight impactful years (2011 – 2019) at the senate. During this time, his tasks were much different from what he had to do at the Lagos State Lands Bureau but his values remained intact and it was not surprising that he left an indelible mark when his second term ended.
Worthy of mention are Senator Gbenga Ashafa’s contributions as chairman of the Senate Committee on Land Transportation – a pivotal legislative role that endeared him to the presidency as an important partner in the rail revitalization plan of President Muhammadu Buhari.
He was so passionate about the progress of the rail projects across the country that he relentlessly defended the budgetary provisions for rail projects such that the National Assembly appropriated the funds needed for the counterpart funding in the federal government’s partnership with the Chinese EXIM Bank.
Little wonder he earned the nickname “The Rail Man” after he championed the passage of the Railway Bill which sought to lay the foundation for the infusion of private capital in Nigeria’s railway sector. The bill represents a radical departure from the norm by effectively separating the components of the railway sector into two independent features; regulatory and operational in line with international best practices, thereby creating a level playing field for private sector participation. The bill was passed by the senate and the effort was commended by the National Assembly Business Environment Roundtable (NASSBER) as well as affiliates of the World Bank.
The same can be said of the National Transport Commission Bill which the distinguished senator passionately championed as Chairman Committee on Land Transportation. The bill sought to create a multi-modal transport sector economic and safety regulator.
Today, the Distinguished Senator turns 65 and I wish him many more active years in the service of humanity and nation-building. Senator Ashafa was the quintessential representative who always put the needs of his constituents first and was never shy of taking responsibility whenever the need arose. It was always clear on whose side he stood when he contributed on the floor of the senate – where he was relentlessly committed to defending the interest of Lagos and Lagosians. The country needs more committed and competent parliamentarians like Senator Gbenga Ashafa whose selflessness and democratic ideals are imperative especially at a time when the entire world is grappling with a global health and economic crisis.
*Ayodele Adio writes from Lagos