Governor Babatunde Fashola is already 50 years old. He speaks candidly for the first time on the journey so far and how he got to where he is today. This is a must read! Enjoy:
It’s not like any of the interviews he had granted in the past. For two hours he held a select group of editors spellbound and reeling in laughter as he spoke about his hatred for educated, love for soccer and the cinema until his father whipped him into line with a threat to make him a roadside mechanic’s apprentice.
Let’s go down memory lane with Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola as he clocks 50 years.
We will start by saying congratulations” because in a number of days, you will be 50. So, what are your reflections at 50?
Nobody knows what day he was born; so I am going to take the question on reflection from perhaps the time some consciousness began to form in my mind about the future. In that sense, the kind of country I had so much faith in really has not materialized. So, it’s an anniversary of mixed blessings for me. If you like, it’s positive in the sense that there is life.
Also, in many respects, some of the things I wanted personally for myself, maybe in terms of career, have largely materialized, although like in my profession, I still believe that there is an unfinished business there. But, when I look back, I’ll say there were some decisions I took as a young person, the opportunity to study abroad that I rejected because I felt that I could never be all I could be in a land where I was not a citizen. That was one reason.
I look at the decisions that presented themselves when I left the university and close to half of my colleagues that we graduated, left Nigeria out of frustration. I was one of the few who said, “No, I think that the problems of this nation will be solved and this is where my best opportunities lie.” In that sense again, that opportunity has not materialized. I see so much that we can do but are still undone. So, it’s a season of mixed blessings for me. Personally, I can’t say that is the kind of fulfillment that I desired.
You warned everybody off a loud birthday celebration, what explains that decision?
Well, my birthday has always been a private thing. But in the last few months, there has been, for want of a better expression, building excitement; people planning all sorts of things, committees being set up and I said, “No, you don’t do this to me, not this time.” For me, I think my best birthday was at 10. I remember it was the last birthday that my mum organized. I celebrated every birthday, cut a cake and I still think I can find some old pictures. I remember I wore a French suit.
From there, I think she focused more on my younger ones because I was already in secondary school. So, the transition was complete. No more children’s birthdays for me from then on.
So, in that sense, the next birthday that I remember was when I was 18 and I did that myself. I saved money for about six months and I went partying with my friends and I really enjoyed myself. The next one I remember was 21 and I was in the university then. It was my friends and I on campus and as difficult as it was then, because there was no telephone, my mum made it a sense of duty to ensure that I got a birthday card. I still keep it till today. It was a very touching birthday card and after that, there were really no birthdays in that sense.
When I got married, on my birthdays I get home early. If it’s a working day, we don’t cook, we order food, people come in – my parents, siblings come – each one at his own time and really by 7 or 8 pm, I leave them in the house with my wife and I am gone; maybe to go and play snooker or tennis at the club. So, there was no ceremony around it. I am not a ceremony person. I don’t like those formalities and I remember that when I was Chief of Staff, I turned 40 and my friends said, “No it’s a lie; we are going to have a party” and I said, “No, if you do it I am going to run away.” Someone suggested Sunny Ade because they know I like him. They said they were going to bring him and I said, that’s the one that would make me run away; but in the event, I remember that we actually printed an invitation card. How they got me to do it, I can’t quite say. What I remember was that I had to wake up very early and I said, “this shouldn’t be; this is my birthday, I should be sleeping.”
But as early as 7am, we’d started prayers and from there, it was breakfast though I must confess that it was a day that I enjoyed. I had so many people around me; the governor, the Chief Judge and the Speaker came; everybody was there. But the party went on beyond my birthday because at 3am the following day, we were still there. So, I was living in another person’s day and I said, “No, this is not how it is supposed to be.” I remember that in the course of shaking everybody’s hands, you know, going from table to table, I think somebody had conjunctivitis and I picked it. When I woke up in the morning, I couldn’t open my eyes. But, I think the fun I had the day before, more than compensated for the discomfort. I had to send for my optometrist because it was very painful. This time, with all the plans going on, I said, ‘no’, that if this is my day, then those who really love me should allow me to do it my way. It didn’t cost me that much also to receive my visitors. I funded my 40th birthday by myself. I am not quite sure I can’t do the same now.
How do you mean?
As governor? No. I am not even sure that I want to spend that kind of money on a party. If we can’t eat small rice and chicken in the house and I don’t even know if I want to dress up in a formal sense. I just want to feel free, see the people I want to see and if there is something going on, on television, I want to watch, instead of, ‘Oh, come and say hello to this person or that person.’ I am sure I am not mentally prepared for that and I don’t want to offend people. The idea that probably, I will have a birthday at taxpayers’ expense is something that doesn’t sit quite well with me and it’s only for 24 hours anyway.
So, what exactly is your plan for this birthday?
A very quiet and simple day.
It will be nice to have my friends around and they know themselves. So, if they get here, they know how to get me but I don’t think that I want to cling to things that are not real. I try as much as possible to keep my feet firmly on the ground because there are two people here – there is Tunde Fashola, and there is the Governor of Lagos State. There are many people who want to celebrate the birthday of the Governor of Lagos, and next year and in 2015, I will be left to carry on with my birthday. So, let me get used to that now. That’s what I have tried to do since I took office. The other argument may sound strange but really, we are as it were, inheritors of the joy we did not experience and on the day a child is born, he doesn’t know what is going on. The only people who celebrate that day are the parents. Then, they invest in the anniversary of the day and it becomes a cross for life.
The way you are talking, you don’t seem to like to celebrate anything.
No, you see, the idea is, I celebrate every day I am alive. Every morning when I wake up, I pray. I sing to God every morning but even sometimes, people who live in the house really don’t know that I sing. I sing inside me, in happiness. For me, every day that you live is a celebration; so, it can’t be one day.
Let’s hear what you want to sing
Ah! (general laughter), I said that I commune with my maker. I will tell you about that later. You want to break into that? That’s the sanctum santorium , the inner inner.
We can’t talk about the present without talking about the past. Let’s go down memory lane. What was childhood like for Babatunde Fashola?
Sure, a lot of fun. I grew up in Surulere. I lived in Surulere all my life. The first time I am living on the island was when I moved in here [as Governor]. So, it was fun; I did everything that young people do. My grandmother used to trade at Oyingbo market. I remember that every Tuesday was the market day; so, I would wake up with her at 5am, help her tie the pots and pans with my tiny hands. She used to sell Tower Aluminum pots and pans. She believed that my six digits were signs of prosperity; so, she would tell me to put my hands on them. At the end of the market day when she came back, I would be the one to count her money. She was not very literate but she could count her money in pound. When we migrated to naira, it became a problem; so I had to do the multiplication of the number of pounds to get the naira for her, but I always got a reward. I got bags of chocolate and Nicco biscuits. Of course, it meant that on Wednesday morning, I would be a hero in class, sharing my biscuits.
Those were great memories. We flew kites; on Sundays, we went to church, St Jude’s Church in Ebutte-Metta, and after church, we looked forward to Uncle Ben’s rice and chicken. Of course, those of you who lived in that era will remember the perpetual fight over Fanta; who was going to get the bottle. We had to share a bottle; maybe, two or three of you and there was a feeling that the person who had the bottle had more content. So, that was it – I did all the regular things, played street soccer.
I played truant in school a lot and I didn’t like school because there were too many interesting things to do –play football and go to the cinema. My mum used to take us to cinema; that was when cinema was popular. The one at Onipanu, on Ikorodu Road, Metro Cinema was where I first saw James Bond’s Gold Finger. She took us to the cinema on the last Sunday of every month. That was the kind of childhood I had and we lived in regular middle class home. My mum is a nurse and my dad a journalist. I also remember that my affinity for Juju music came from my grand-parents because my grandfather used to buy Sunny Ade’s records. We had a Grundig player and that was where I learnt all Sunny Ade’s music. It was always blaring and I learnt how to change the records. I still draw a lot of inspiration from the deep philosophy in those songs. There is a lot of rich philosophy if you bother to listen to the lyrics rather than the music. You will see their stories of tribulations and success and if you look at them now and listen to their songs, you will see that every success story is founded on adversity. They faced their own adversities. Obey was once accused of carrying drugs. They had their bitter rivalries. He was accused of supporting criminals when he sang for a notorious armed robber and he quickly had to do ‘E maf’oju buruku wo onileesi….’ and all of those things. Of course, there were supposed feuds, that helped to bring more converts and those were the building blocks of my childhood.
I didn’t see the civil war in but my memories of the war have summed up in a word, ‘Moto gagara.’ I will tell you the story of Moto gagara. I must have been around four years old when the war broke out and our brothers from the east were moving back home and in big trucks. For a four-year-old, the sound of those trucks was frightening. So, any time I saw them, I always wanted to go out and play and my grandmother would say, “Stay indoors.” So, the only thing that kept me in was the sound of those trucks; I would rush back into the house. So, any time I wanted to go out, she would say, ‘don’t go out, Moto gagara …,’ and I would scamper. Post war was the reconstruction of Lagos and many parts of Nigeria; so riding through the streets of Surulere, seeing the stadium being built, National Theatre – the sand filling that took place from Iponri; we rode bicycles through all those places; through Badagry Expressway.
I remember Yinka Folawiyo was the main supplier of cement to the site then and all of these, l did riding bicycle. I remember going with my grandmother to her house in Oshodi to collect her rent. She had a lawyer who managed her property in Oshodi and I recall that after every visit, she always complained that the lawyer had cheated her and the final word always was my promise to her that I would be a lawyer so that I would manage the property for her for free. And unfortunately, that happened only after she died. Of course, I took over the property; then my younger brother who is also a lawyer took it over from me and we still manage it. We are trying to renovate it now but that gave me a very strong knowledge of Oshodi because we used to walk through all those places and I knew how it was as a child then. It gave me a good knowledge. My aunt lived in Bariga, so I would take a bus from Oshodi to Bariga and then from Bariga to Akoka.
Your mother was a nurse, your dad a journalist, how did you end being a lawyer, instead of in the sciences or in journalism?
Well, I think that our parents are the mirror through which we see life. So, maybe somewhere down the line, my grandmother’s exhortation struck a chord but more importantly was the fact that I was very horrible with mathematics. Or perhaps not horrible; let me explain it. The primary school I went to used to do arithmetic; then in 1972 or 1973, Nigeria turned decimal. So, some schools started doing mathematics. We remained with arithmetic because we were then getting ready for common entrance and I think the school thought that it would be difficult to change us.
So, I think they got the National Common Entrance body then to set two sets of questions. In the front was mathematics and then there was a footnote that if you did arithmetic in school, turn to the next page. But even at that, I just managed to score about 50 or 60 to pass arithmetic. So, by the time I got to form one, it was straight mathematics. I remember it was an American who taught us mathematics and I just couldn’t hear what he said in class. First, because of the accent, secondly all the signs on the board were new. So, I just stopped going to mathematics class. I didn’t stop initially, I just sat down there; I just found something else to distract myself until he left the class. But my Physics, Biology and Chemistry were quite good. I was taught by two Indians, Mr & Mrs Matthews. Mr Matthews taught Physics and Chemistry; Mrs Matthews taught us Biology and I desired at that time to be a doctor.
I wanted to be a surgeon and I was very good in Biology. I am still conversant with it. I am just enamoured by nature but in form three, going into form four, we were going to choose subjects and they called my parents and said, look, this man’s Biology is good, in chemistry, he doesn’t solve any equation, he just answers the theory questions and leaves the rest blank and that he has to withdraw from the science class and move to the arts class. I said well, I was ready to do that; there was no point arguing but that they would allow me to keep my Biology and they agreed. Then, I focused more on history, bible knowledge, literature, geography and by the time, it was all done, the only professional course I could do without mathematics was law. So, that’s it but it’s not something I didn’t want to do.
In a sense, there was a little bit of a mix. I enjoyed every day I spent in the law class. And I think that I am better for it because in the course of my practice, it has enabled me to know a lot more about other disciplines because you are a client to doctors, to patients who sue doctors, to engineers and to people claiming compensation for building damage. So, you have to know quantity survey, engineering. There are areas of life that you never read about but you have to learn by force once a client comes in, otherwise, you give up the brief and the money.
Tell us again the story of how you missed travelling abroad with your siblings because your school grades didn’t meet your father’s expectation.
At that time, around 1976/77, my father decided apparently that part of the education of his children was to travel abroad. For us, it was fun; for him, it was education. We didn’t know that and we used to think he was a rich man. It was much later that we realised that he borrowed money to send us on those trips but the qualification always was that you must be in the top five in your class. I was always the one who didn’t make it. So, they dropped me twice. For me, school was too much of a problem. There was football to be played and I didn’t learn how to study until I was in A’ Levels class. Sometimes, I didn’t go to class and just two days before exams, I would come in and ask; what did you people do? And I would look at somebody’s note and read to just get the minimum pass.
At what point did you change this attitude of hating school?
When I failed School Certificate (general laughter). I wrote school certificate when I was 14 and half. So, I just didn’t understand what the big deal about this WAEC exam was. Why is everybody reading when we should be playing? I found out that all my playmates had left me behind and I didn’t even know what to read. So, I just went into the exams, wrote what I knew, passed biology and the rest were P7, P8 and of course mathematics stood out, F9. When the result came; my dad and I went to the school and the teachers were congratulating my dad. They said, this boy didn’t come to school. My dad said he was no longer paying for exams again. He told me that he had booked an apprenticeship for me with his mechanic, so I broke down in tears. He said I should go and think about it, discuss with my mum and come back to him to decide what I was going to do. One week after, I went to see him and said well, I still want to go to school. And he said the mechanic was waiting. I think it was that shock treatment that changed my attitude. I went on to write the exam again and I passed. Then, I got into A’ Levels class and it was very good in the first year and everybody. My dad said that it must have been because I hadn’t discovered the football field there. In a sense, it was true; by the end of first year, I got into the football team in Igbobi College and the grades just started dropping.
I tell everybody who cares to listen; I am a product of many chances and that’s why I give a second, third and fourth chances to everybody who is serious; those are the messages for me. I also acknowledge observably that my parents own the credit for what I have become; they just didn’t give up. I don’t think that any parent should give up on any child. By the time I entered the university, all of the freedom I wanted was an anticlimax. There was nobody to tell me to go and study. By the first week in the university, I was the one waking others up to go and study. I don’t know how that consolation came and I was able, through the university, to still combine football and tennis with my academic work.
What I simply did was that by 6am, I was up to do my exercise. I used to jog in the morning. By 8am, I would be in class till 4pm and by 4pm, I was in the sports complex till 7pm. By 7pm, I was cleaning up; 8pm, I ate dinner and between 8pm and 9pm, I studied. I studied one hour every day till I left the university and it worked. So, I was always ready for exams long before it came. It was the same thing I did in the law school. I played tennis throughout law school exams everyday and it didn’t affect my grade. Well, maybe it could have been better but I left the school with a 2:2 and I left the law school with a 2.2. I think that is enough effort really. My dad wanted me to do masters but those were his plans. My own plans had become different and I was not going to argue with him. He collected the form, I filled it and I submitted it late.
Yes, I was tired of school; I had become a lawyer. I didn’t need masters; I wanted to practice. I didn’t want to be a company secretary where I would need a higher degree to get promotion. I knew what kind of law I wanted, to be in the courtroom. I didn’t need a masters degree to do that.