Senator Musiliu Obanikoro is the ultimate government man. Arguably, no politician has been so rewarded for participating in politics. Senator Obanikoro has seen it all. He started as a local government chairman and later became a commissioner in Lagos.
He moved on to contest election and was elected as senator representing Lagos Central Senatorial District. He later became ambassador to Ghana and minister of the federal republic. He became ambassador and minister under PDP and at a time he was the highest ranking politician from Lagos State in the last PDP government.
Today, Senator Obanikoro is in APC. This is a very interesting development because at the inception of this APC government, Senator Obanikoro was in exile in America. He was arrested and detained for some time after he came back to the country.
Why did he leave PDP for APC? What are his next political plans and what is he doing at the moment? Senator Obanikoro in this interview reveals he answers to MAYOR AKINPELU. Excerpts…
As a top player in the political terrain in Nigeria, which party do you belong now, APC or PDP?
Laughs… I’m with Asiwaju (Bola Ahmed Tinubu). I think it’s proper for me now to say I belong to APC since Asiwaju is the leader of APC.
Why did you decide to join APC?
Well, as it is said, all politics is local. My primary concern now is more about Lagos. I want to spend more time in adding value. If you look at Lagos now, it has grown tremendously. Next year, our budget is going to run into over a trillion. So, Lagos itself is becoming a country of its own. If you look at the West Africa sub-region, we are the next economy to the federal republic of Nigeria. That says a lot. I believe all Lagosians should invest more in the state, more so in education so that we can truly bear the name of state of excellence.
When you were in PDP, you were the highest ranking government official from Lagos State. At that time, there was a lot of pressure between the APC and PDP in Lagos State. When you came back, how were you able to ease the tension?
What we need to understand is that I started from this side. The transition though might be difficult. I kept use of my fans on the other side while I was in PDP. Fortunately, when somebody is your boss, even if you become the president of Nigeria, he remains your boss. There are no two ways to it. What you cannot take away is the fact that Asiwaju Tinubu is my boss and forever he will remain my boss. So, I didn’t find it difficult to key into whatever system he has put in place. Don’t forget too that I was very close to him. And as I have said in our private discussion, people don’t change that much though few things can change.
There is this speculation that Asiwaju Tinubu has been sidelined from the scheme of things at the top. Does it bother you that you are coming in at a time that things are very fluid?
Well, I’m not in the know of what is happening at the national level. Like I have told you, I didn’t join the APC because of the national thing; I joined because I wanted to be part of the good things that are happening in the state.
What is your assessment of the Akinwunmi Ambode government’s performance?
If you asked me, I would commend him for some of the commonsense solutions I have seen around. That is what has been lacking in Nigeria as a whole.
What are these commonsense solutions that you are talking about?
For instance, coming into my area at Parkview, if you are going out, there is this traffic joining Alfred Rewane Road. Ambode came in and added a lane to go out. This has smoothened things a great deal. That is the kind of commonsense solution that I’m talking about. Look at Oworonsoki, the laybys, he has used that to create space for public transport and kept them away from the flow of the main traffic. Also, when you are going after Oworonsoki towards Alapere, you see the diversion that goes straight without disturbing the flow of traffic. If you go to Ojodu-Berger, you see the same thing. He has diverted the public transport to a different space. He has made judicious use of the space. And the space has always been there. It’s not that he created a new space. Also, look at the solution he has found to the Lekki logjam, by removing the roundabout. These are the types of commonsense solutions that I’m talking about. There will always be challenges, no doubt about that. But finding commonsense solutions to problems, one cannot but applaud him.
As somebody that had worked at the federal level, you are one of the few politicians that have been able to move through different levels of governance. During the PDP and APC campaigns there was tension and there was tension between the former governor of Lagos State who is a minister now and the present governor of the state. What do you think is the cause of regular problems between federal government and Lagos State?
Honestly it will take us a while to get out of the military mentality that we have experienced under the military rule. I think that mentality is still in our system. And until that is completely purged from our system, we will continue to have some of these teething problems. It is not that people just want to create problems; the problems are inherent in us based on our past experience. For instance, even in political parties; the party in government would want to control everything from the national level down to the local government. That is a kind of the military’s way of doing things. How can the state not have power, how can the local government not have power? This is the way the political parties are run here; all powers are at the centre. How do you now expect a political party that doesn’t know how to devolve powers to even other levels of the party, to be in government and devolve powers to the states and local governments? This is impossible because the attitude is inbuilt. And that culture must be removed completely from our life before we can now recognize the need to empower other arms and also trust them with power. But with time some of these things will go away and new means of interaction between the state government, the local government and federal government will evolve.
What is your take about restructuring because it seems that is what everybody is talking about now?
Whether we call it restructuring, whether we call it true federalism, what we have now has been on for 50 years. The first six years, things were almost perfect. But since the military came in and introduced the unitary system of government, they bastardized everything. It is that system that is still operational. They say only fool does things same way and expect different results. So, we cannot afford to continue with that trend. To achieve extraordinary results, we must put in extraordinary efforts. Let me give you an example; almost all the roads in Lagos State are federal roads. If successive Lagos State governments had sat by and say these are federal roads we are not going to tamper with them, we will leave them for federal government; the whole of Lagos State would have come to a standstill now. Nothing would be working in Lagos State now. But because commonsense prevailed on those who are governing Lagos who realized that if Lagos does not work, it is failure on their part not on the part of the federal government, they took it upon themselves to do federal government roads, make them motorable and make life more bearable for the people of Lagos State. That is a good example for the federal government to know that they must share this heavy weight they are carrying. It is that weight that is killing the whole country. I’m not saying this because I’m no longer in government. No. I have always known this. I was educated in the US; I lived my adult life there. I arrived in the US when I was 19 years old and I left when I was 29. So, I grew up there. I’m accustomed to things like this. Look at the public transport system in New York, it is heavily subsidized and for good reasons too. They know that the citizens alone cannot bear the cost of managing that system and without it the whole of New York would come to a standstill, they joined hands to put the system in place. It is not about which political party is in power. It is a system that does not know the colour of any political party. All it does is provide services to the people. I believe that is the right thing for us to do. If we devolve more powers to the state, it can only accelerate development. The way development is stunted now, if something drastic is not done, we can be in trouble. The rate at which our population is growing is unbelievable. If our developmental drive does not match the growth, it will create a lot of outcasts who will in turn become a liability to the system and at the end of the day, kill that system.
In devolving more powers to the state, what will be the place of the local governments?
I have always been a strong supporter of a strong third tier of government, which is, the local governments because I believe they are closer to the people. Overtime, we have made the local governments inconsequential, to the extent that strong personalities don’t want to participate anymore at the local government level. But we need to make it more attractive so that you can get people who have the wherewithal to add value to the society to come in. I think the approach has to change. The first thing is, delist all the local governments from the constitution of Nigeria completely. Let it be the responsibility of the state. When you do that, you are now giving what we call equality of state. Presently, there is no equality of state in Nigeria. For instance, we have Lagos State with a population of over 20 something million and it is collecting less allocation than Jigawa State with less population and less input to the federal coffers. See Kano State also; it is not as productive in terms of input to the federal coffers as Lagos State yet they collect double the allocation that we collect here. So, if there is equality of state, all this cry of marginalization, clamour for justice and fairness will just go away naturally.
What is your view about those agitating for a return to the old regional arrangement?
It is because the federal government has grown too big that people want anything other than what we have now. And in the process of struggling for anything other than what we have now, people are coming up with all sorts of ideas. Of course, I believe that if we were in the old regions, we can cooperate and collaborate more. It will accelerate development. I’m happy and I want to applaud what our governors did of recent, the Western Nigeria Development Commission. I commend them. It was long overdue. Why people did not have the courage to put it in place, to begin with, I do not know. But now that they have put it in place, let them give it the teeth to bite. Through this collaborative effort, we can create railways. Why do we have to wait for federal government to do roads that will link up all the South West states? Through this regional arrangement we can do it on our own. In America, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey have this kind of collaboration. They manage roads and even airports together. So, you have more funds in the pool to do other things that are not going to affect what the states are already doing. Through that collaborative effort, each state brings resources to the pool to do all these developments.
Are you saying that this collaborative effort should be a regional arrangement or within this present framework?
For me, I would approach it this way; each of the states should come together in a collaborative manner and do projects and institutionalize that framework. It shouldn’t be as if we are doing ourselves a favour, no. May be that framework should be in the constitution so that it is compelling for every successive government to follow the plan. Look at what happened immediately states were created; some states abandoned their responsibilities to joint universities and colleges of higher learning that they both own. We see that between Oyo and Osun States over the LAUTECH issue where Oyo is the only state funding the institution while Osun is not, yet they are in joint ownership. But when it becomes institutionalized, nobody can run away from that responsibility. But speaking for the South-West, there is no doubt in my mind that we are endowed to take advantage of the competencies that we have within the region to make regional collaboration a model for the entire Nigeria. We had done it before, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the symbol upon which success in government is gauged up till date in this country. Not only when he was around; even today he hit the barometer.
When PDP lost the last election, you left the country. When you came back you were arrested by the EFCC. How were you able to solve the problem?
Hmmm. That matter is better left untouched. I will tell you why. For me, it is just politics. Every one of us, APC, PDP, we are all guilty of using government money for elections. That is it. If we want to clean the system, let us clean it at once so that nobody uses government money again for elections. I did not benefit a kobo from the money. We were given money and we gave each state their due, we gave Governor Fayose, we gave others too. So, it’s not as if any money came to me. But people would rather play politics with everything than speak the truth of the matter. As I have said, few months ago, they passed the law that compels all political parties to advertise their donors. That is how you can clean up the system. If we say, okay we are the one in government, it is okay for us to use government money and it’s not okay for those who are not in government to do so, the system is not going to benefit anyone at the end of the day.
You said you gave Governor Fayose money but he had come out to say he didn’t collect that amount from you. Are you aware of that?
Well, the system knows the truth. I don’t even want to join issues with him because we only got to know each other only when he became governor. But the authorities know what happened to the money, and they are pursuing it. That’s all I have to say.
Politically, as a major player, what next should we expect from you?
This is a cooling period for me. I’m still studying the situation and at the appropriate time we’ll come up with what should be our own contributions.
Looking back, what do you think made PDP to lose the last election?
I’d say leadership. Yes, leadership.
What is your assessment of the government relating to the situation of the country now?
I think the president is at his midterm now. I have seen a couple of things he has done and some that have not been done. Let’s hope that in the next two years, there will be more developments.
As an elder statesman, given the responsibilities that have been entrusted to you, what will you want to see within the polity?
Elder statesman when I’m still very young! (general laughter)… well, I take that as a compliment. Now, what I wish to see in the polity is, first, there is so much division. Those who came up with the idea of federal character saw danger in not embracing it. I think we should fully embrace the federal character and ensure that competence is the order of the day. We cannot sacrifice competence on the altar of federal character but we can ensure that each region brings their best to participate in all government institutions. That will reduce the tension in the land. After all, slavery was ended hundreds of years ago. When people still have a sense that they are being enslaved or they are second class or third class citizens in their own country, it’s not a good thing. I think that is one of the reasons that federal character arrangement was put in place. Let us do justice to those souls who were courageous enough to put that federal character arrangement in our laws and also embrace ourselves as brothers and ensure that what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander.
As a former minister of state for defence, what is your take about those from the South-East who are agitating for Biafra Republic?
I have told some of my friends who are from the South-East to see the map of Nigeria, if it is feasible to have a State of Biafra. No state can thrive among enemies. If you create a state of Biafra, other states around you become your enemies by the way and manner your agitation is being championed. Even if it is granted by force or hard talk, it will still generate bad blood. If you look at the map of Nigeria where the South-East is located, you will see that it is sandwiched between the South- South, North-Central and South- West. And the South-South is saying no, we are not Biafra. Definitely, the North-Central, Plateau and Edo are not going to join Biafra. That means it is going to be very tough for them. You can’t have hostile neighbours surrounding you and you want to have development, no way. For me, it is not a solution to the problems we have, although I totally sympathize with them.
How do you spend your time now?
I spend my time more in my farm now. I have a fish farm.
Is that enough to occupy your time?
More than enough (laughs). In fact, I have three farms where I grow turkeys and chickens, snails and fish. I have one in Ibeju-Lekki, I have one in Badagry where I grow guinea fowls and I have one in Ogun State which is primarily for tilapia fish. So, it’s a lot of work.
Since when did you cultivate the passion for agriculture?
Since I was a young man, I have always had the desire for agriculture. I kept majorly chickens when I was growing up. When we bought rams then I had the tendency to want to keep them forever. That is what developed into full business.
Your kids, are they still interested in politics because the one in politics seems to have slowed down a bit?
Yes, he would have to slow down. There is time for everything. When you are under pressure, you need to retreat. Even some prophets of God also retreated not out of fear but they needed to rethink and refocus.
Is he still in PDP or he has joined the APC?
He is in APC.
Looking back, what do you want people to remember you for by your contributions to politics and governance?
The most important thing I would say is the fact that, you can come from nothing and be something if you put in sufficient efforts. I came from practically nothing. If you look at my background, the only thing my parents gave me was good attitude towards life, hard work, fear of God and education. That was all my parents gave me. The rest, God made it possible. I’m saying this for those who think today that they are not privileged; they are not sons or daughters of rich family. They can make themselves become privileged; if they put in hard work and are focused, they will become great in life.