Hon. Idowu Osuolale Obasa, pioneer chairman of Onigbongbo LCDA
Rarely has an individual combined business with politics and intellectual pursuit and made a success of them all. Hon. Idowu Osuolale Obasa, pioneer chairman of Onigbongbo LCDA, is an exception. He is a founding member of The News magazine, a thoroughbred businessman and a politician of repute. Indeed, Obasa is a formidable force when it comes to third tier of government in the state. As a stakeholder in that respect, Lagos Panorama tracked him down for this interesting interview. Excerpts:
Lagos Panorama: For the benefit of our readers, can we meet you, sir?
Obasa: My name is Idowu Obasa. For some time between 2003 and 2011, I was the Executive Chairman and later executive secretary of Onigbongbo LCDA.
Lagos State has 20 LGAs and 37 LCDAs. Can you recall the historic sequence of events that led to the establishment of the LCDAs?
Yes, Lagos State had 20 local governments when Governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu took over administration of the state, as an active go-getter, decided to create LCDAs. He thought it was necessary for better administration, to bring leadership and administration closer to the people, to break that structure into smaller units, to divide these structures into 57 pieces. So he sought to create 57 units.
Constitutional issues were raised which made it difficult to pronounce all of them as local government areas especially because the party at the centre was not the same party that was controlling Lagos State. And there was a lot of bad blood from the party at the centre, led by the then President Olusegun Obasanjo. The newly created structures were rather described as LCDAs (Local Council Development Authorities) under the 20 local governments. But, for me, the reality was that it brought development closer to the people whether they were described as LCDAs or they were described as local governments. What it meant for me, for example, at Onigbongbo was that within a space of one year in office, we did so much, which may not have been possible if we didn’t have an Onigbongbo LCDA. If we had just one structure covering the entire what was then an entire Ikeja Local Government, because if we built 17 roads at Onigbongbo LCDA (I am not talking of roads that were being built in Ojodu and Ikeja at the same time). Let’s imagine one cannot imagine that if it was just one structure, such a large number of roads couldn’t have been built within one year. That is the way you extrapolate the importance of the LCDAs. I can say that within our own LCDA, the level of development that we reached may not have been achieved if it had been just one local government. So, that is an account of what happened, we are not talking about what would have happened. And I am speaking facts here, facts are stubborn things, they cannot be wished away. With that reality, with the forceful benefit of hindsight, justified that creation. This is no conjecture. There were so many things that we were able to do on account of the existence of the structures in spite of the hardships that were imposed on us by the politicking of the Federal Republic, which, at any rate, reminded us, unfortunately, of the imperfection of our absent federalism. So, we had to make do with that imperfect federalism. And it led to a number of dribbling here and there, and all that. We kept going to Abuja with all kinds of petitions…
Sorry sir, let me just cut in a bit because you have answered my third question and you are almost delving into the fourth. Seizure of the local government federal allocation by the Obasanjo regime, how did you cope and achieve developmental stride as the pioneer chairman of Onigbongbo LCDA?
Let us start by saying that we are not running and we are still not running a proper federalism, we are running rather a very unitary kind of government that allows the Federal to play God. And therefore places so much power in the hands of the centre, so that the President becomes God. So he can decide that he seizes money because he is not happy with everybody else. That is why that kind of thing could have happened in the first place. That very tragic reality is what would have led to a situation where the head of one tier of government who ought to have concerned himself more with running his own tier of government successfully was more concerned with seizing money that would have been used by another tier of government to achieve their electoral mandate. After all, we were elected in a properly held election. So seizing money that would have allowed us to fulfill our mandate was criminally unconstitutional. I mean, the man ought to have been thrown in jail. In a very different environment – because we were elected – how did you then manage to go on? The first thing I would say is that we had a governor that simply refused to be defeated. That is the truth. He simply refused to be defeated. So, he bent over backwards to provide us with the resource that allowed us to do the most important things we needed to do. That was the first thing. The second thing is that we had the support of the people, starting with our staff, starting with our people, people who had all sorts of entitlement and expectations of a local government who willingly sacrificed and were patient, those who waited 23 months to receive those entitlements. Such sacrifice! They saw the enemy as a common enemy that needed to be defeated. And the enemy was roundly defeated. It took 23 months. Such resolve, such courage…this was how we survived the seizure, so that at the end of the day, it was the enemy that had to give up.
The creation of the LCDAs by Asiwaju was fully endorsed by the Lagos State House of Assembly but was unacceptable to the PDP-led majority in the National Houses of Assembly for final ratification irrespective of the rightness of attendant procedural modalities. Now, 2015, the APC controls the majority in National Assembly. Don’t you think that it is the right time for the members of NASS (Lagos Representatives) should ensure that these 37 LCDAs enjoy the same status as Local Governments?
I would think so. But if we have difficulty in doing so, I would attribute it to the fact that Nigeria has been a victim of so many years of centric thinking, so many years of military bombardment to the point where we can’t even think straight any longer. One would have thought that that would have been one of the first things to be attended to. But we are beginning to think like military people because what we talked about one would have expected it to be one of the first things to be attended to. Even APC government like in Ogun State and others, they are creating LCDAs instead of creating local governments. (Laughs) I don’t know why they are doing it that way. (More laughter.)The point is that they should be creating more local governments since they control the National Assembly. But they fear that even their members in NASS may not agree because, actually, we don’t have a Federal Constitution, we don’t, whether the National Assembly is led by the APC or not.
After serving as Chairman of Onigbongbo LCDA, you opted out. Has your business vision blurred your political service to the people? Or have you adopted CSR as continued service to the people?
Let me start by saying that I have always been a businessman and I didn’t stop doing my business even while I was serving. The law does not say you cannot do business. What the law says is that I cannot serve in any executive capacity. I mean I didn’t sell my shares. I simply did not work in any private company during that period. I know precisely what the law requires of me. When you are in public office, you are divorced from your private engagements. And I adhered strictly to that. And then when I left office, I got involved in my business
Number two, how does one really retire from politics? I am not sure it is possible to retire as a politician. It is possible for you not to take public office, but it will not be possible for you to retire from politics. I have said that I am not retiring from politics. I am not keen on seeking just any public office because I see public office as a service. I don’t see it as a reward. Therefore, the service has to be worth my while, requiring my expertise. The service has to be worth my time, in terms of my being needed. There are so many people that have a lot of skills, a lot of skills to offer in this country. In anything that you are offered, you have to weigh the options. That is to say, I am not a professional politician because I really don’t understand how it is to be a professional politician. Therefore, if you must feed your family, I have to be in business and if am not able to provide for my family, when we get to that bridge we will cross it. I cannot stop being in business just because I am expecting to occupy public office. Then, I will be in danger of accepting just any public office, which will return me so many centuries back. I don’t want to find myself in that kind of critical condition at this stage of my life. That is, I don’t want to find myself in a situation where I just have to accept any position. No! I have to play politics in so far I can be useful to society. I don’t want to play politics just because I have nothing else to do. I want to take public office only if it is recognized that I am coming to add value, and that I actually do have something that I can do or that I am needed to come and add value. That is the only time when it is worthwhile and not because I have nothing else to do. This is extremely important both to me and the public that I want to serve, absolutely important.
On Tinubu’s fallout with former President Obasanjo and their reunion many years later. Is that how politics is?
Yes, it is. In politics, there are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies. It is the interest that counts, that is paramount. One thing I will like to know is that the reading of a politician of a situation could change depending on his analysis of the situation at any point in time. There was a time Tinubu and Nuhu Ribadu were not seeing eye-to-eye. And there was such a time also when Tinubu backed Ribadu for presidency fully. And yet, at another time, Ribadu went to PDP, yet, Ribadu came back to APC. Sometimes, politicians make errors of interpretation, errors of judgment and when they make these errors, they make the wrong decisions. And when they learn that they made errors, they are courageous enough to retrace their steps. And leaders would be foolish not to accept them back. That is why you see Tinubu accepting people back when they have made errors like that. It is the hallmark of a good leader. Even in the bible, Jesus Christ left 99 sheep to go after that one. It is the hallmark of a good leader. One thing I know is that the interest of Obasanjo and the interest of Tinubu became coterminous. It was of historical importance for them to collaborate in the interest of the country. Had they not collaborate, only God knows where Jonathan would have taken this country, only God knows, if at that point in time, they had not collaborated. Only God knows what would have become of this country at that point in time. Such is that importance of proper reading of history and of the expediency of the moment. It was imperative for them to read the situation very properly. And forget about personality issues and that time and look at the overall interest of the country. I think this is what defines an experienced leader. I commend them for that.
Politicians in Nigeria are not used to reading. Who are your best authors, or whose books are you likely to read over and over again?
The author I can’t get over is Obafemi Awolowo. I can’t stop reading him.
Because of the forcefulness of his simplicity in his books and the fact that he seems to have come ahead of his time. I just can’t get over that. When people say they are Awoists, I don’t understand how because they don’t read him. (Laughs.) You can see clearly that they didn’t read Awo.
From your days as a student activist and journalist what were you guys clamouring for that has not been achieved? What do see that has been achieved today after the military left power? Have you achieved it or what is left to be attained?
Very difficult question because it is easy for me to say that it never used to be this bad before somebody will come and announce a coup at that time. It will be very difficult to see a military coup in this country again. But it seems unfortunate that the major institutions that constitute the fabric around which the society is woven have been removed completely. They are now comatose at the moment. Institutions like the Labour movement, student movement…cultism has destroyed the student movement, and some others compromised.
Just recently, the rot in the judiciary was exposed, the religious institutions have been long discredited, all the institutions that hold the society together have been either destroyed or discredited or diminished one way or the other and it makes one so sad. It is very frightening, frightening because these are institutions that will give you an assurance of the future. Where are the student bodies that will demand answers, the Labour movements that will ask questions, a civil society that will continue to ask questions? These institutions are not there, and they don’t appear that they will be there…The only thing people are thinking at this moment is dismemberment of the country, that’s all you hear now.
But like you rightly mentioned earlier, don’t you think that through a fiscal federalism most of the agitations can be resolve?
It is not fiscal, it is far beyond that. It is far more than fiscal. You are talking about something truly constitutional, it is more fundamental than that because we are sitting on a ticking time bomb, That’s all I can say, ticking away, slowly but surely.
Do you think the anti-corruption war of President Muhammadu Buhari is sincere and is it in the right direction?
It is sincere and it could be in the right direction but it won’t solve the problem. I think that they are sincere, they believe in what they are doing and I think it is in the right direction because people are cautioning themselves, yes, they are advising themselves seriously (Laughs). But our problems are far greater than that. So, as they are doing that, we ought to be doing a lot of other things, too. The problem that plagued Nigerians are more than that so they need to be doing more. I mean those guys destroyed this country. To think that only anti-corruption will solve the problem is not to have an understanding how horribly they have destroyed this country. There is a danger that if we focus only on corruption, the problem will overwhelm us.
Thank you so much sir, you’re always an interviewer’s delight.