The appointment of seasoned journalist, Gbenga Omotoso, as Commissioner for Information and Strategy in Lagos State by Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, is, indeed, a testament of his accomplishments as a resourceful personality, a quality he has displayed overtime via his profession, journalism. The pioneer editor The Nation newspaper and 1984 UNIBEN graduate of English and Literature, in this interview with the Editor, FOLORUNSHO HAMSAT, speaks on plans to bring his 35 years’ experience to bear in his new assignment as chief image launderer of Lagos State Government under Sanwo-olu, and his private life. Excerpts…
What are your short and long term goals as Information Commissioner?
My short term goal is to ensure that people’s perception about the government and His Excellency, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, is good, that everything the government is doing is in the public domain for them to see, that this is a transparent government that wants to truly work for Lagos, that this is a Government that has his eyes on the bigger Lagos dream and he’s going to take Lagosians there. Like his Excellency said, “we won’t leave this place like we have met it, so that in the years to come when Lagosians are reviewing with time, they will know that here was a man who tried his best and did everything to advance Lagos in terms of development, infrastructure, education, health, human resources and sustainable development goals. Everything that the world uses to rate level of poverty, by the time Sanwo-Olu finishes, everybody would have seen that he had actually done well and made his marks.
With your few months in office, how would you rate the public assessment of the Sanwo-Olu led administration in Lagos State?
It has been smooth and rough. That is to be expected. If you are building a house for example, you need to buy the land, you need to do the drawing, you need to start the foundation, you need to do the building and when you have finished all these, and then you paint it. By the time you are painting it, people will start coming to inquire whether you want to let it out. They will see that it is so beautiful and they will start asking: “can I come and stay here, how much is it? Why don’t you let me in”. Everybody will disturb you. You need to plan, you need to execute your plan and then people will see. Some people will believe that his government is not fast enough. But I’m telling you that Sanwo-Olu has his eyes on the ball and he’s not distracted and once you are not distracted, you are going to do well and he is going to do well.
How is the state government going to tackle the problems of flooding, insecurity and unemployment?
In the case of flooding, there are so many ways which we can look at it. The government is confronting it. I think for some time the drainage channels were left unattended to so they became blocked and by the time Sanwo-Olu came in it was during the raining season and the kind of rain we have now is so heavy. Somebody has just told me that he googled October, that this October has the highest rain in recent times. We have about one week rain in the city every day and now to think of the fact that the drainage channels were left unattended to for some time. So now we are trying to free these channels so that the floods can move. And you will agree with me that when it rains, the kind of floods that we see are just flash floods that will disappear in matter of hours. So the government is going to go all out after the rains to see that we prepare for the rain. Usually, the job that we do in drainage clearing is about three times in a year. We do it when there are no rains at all in January, February. And then around March, April when you are preparing for the rains to drop again, we do it again. So what we are doing now is to just ensure that we don’t get consumed by the flood. And then if you consider the influence of the global warming, there are climatic changes above the world, so many cities of the world are battling floods, even in Nigeria. The other day, somebody was telling me that a street had to close down some schools and ask students to stay at home because of the flood. Then here in Lagos we are not facing that kind of measure because the government is doing everything to control the flood. And in terms of security, there are so many things the government is doing. The other day, the government gave out over a hundred vehicles and about thirty plus motorcycles to security agencies. There are so many things that the government is doing in terms of security that can’t just be announced over the magazines or newspapers or radio. For Lagosians to sleep soundly, and go over their businesses safely, it takes a lot from the government; it means some people are not sleeping. So in terms of security, the government is doing a lot of things. You will agree with me that since this government came in there has been no bank robbery, even kidnapping that was becoming a major business for people coming to kidnap in Lagos and running away through the waters, that no longer happens and it is because the government is on its toes and keeps awake so that Lagosians can sleep soundly with no worries.
What about unemployment…?
…on employment, I remember during the last 100 days celebration, through the Lagos State Employment Trust Funds, the government gave out empowerment to women about four billion naira in association with Access Bank, Access Bank is leading the initiatives Lagos State employment funds and people are being given money in millions to start their own businesses and so nice was the program that the acceptance by the people for it was so high that the managing director of Access Bank decided at the ceremony to increase the funds to 10 billion naira. People also have been trained in skills acquisition. There are skills acquisition centers being manned by people from Ministry of Poverty Alleviation, especially widows. They are being trained to acquire skills and then given some money to start what they have been trained for. The government is doing a lot in employment but to tackle employment generally is not only the government’s responsibility. It has to be done with private sector and the government is doing a lot to attract private investments into Lagos so that more people can get jobs so that the investment opportunities that are in Lagos people can take them up and provide jobs for our youths.
Are there particular areas of these challenges where we might be expecting proactive actions by the government?
Of course in every area the reaction has been proactive. Look for example all the attacks that we have had over roads issue. Lagosians have been very patient. And the governor appreciates this. And he is not taking their love and patience for granted. That is why about three weeks ago, the governor summoned construction giants like Julius Berger, Hitech, and others, about nine of them, to a meeting and they agreed move on to Lagos and start fixing potholes and craters. There are about 100 plus roads that will be tackled in this first stage in what I call Operation 116. So with Operation 116 there is going to be so much relieve for Lagosians AND by the time the roads are finished, we would have traffic reduced and travel time will reduced. So there is a kind of proactive action in that, to borrow your language.
What do you think is needed to improve on the existing cooperation between the government and the people of Lagos, given that the Sanwo-Olu government is new?
Communication is what is needed. We should be talking to Lagosians and Lagosians should be talking to us. Very soon we are going to be having a kind of programme called ‘Sanwo-Olu Listens’. When Sanwo-Olu was campaigning he promised Lagosians that every time they call he will answer them and be there for them. So this is the kind of symbiotic relationship that is expected between the government and the governed. The governor will be there to listen to them and whatever their complaints are, he will be ready to address them.
The most pronounced challenge is the traffic situation. What strategy is the government putting in place to ease traffic?
A lot of these are being done now to ease the traffic. About 60 traffic gridlock areas have been determined; some places that are really notorious for traffic. There are places where bus stops are going to be removed and there are places where they are going to be expanded. Potholes will be filled so that traffic will ease. When bus stops are moved where they are now supposed to be and everything is redesigned, traffic will ease in such areas. The most important thing I have seen is the lawlessness by our people. People will drive against traffic on highways, this kind of lawlessness has to be stopped. Now there are task forces moving round, arresting motorists that are misbehaving in traffic. It is the height of irresponsibility to drive against traffic and the government is not going to condone that. And that message is being sent vigorously now with campaign advocacy coupled with action. I hope our people will cooperate with the government so that the traffic situation in Lagos State will ease.
How did you receive the news of your appointment and what was your first reaction to it?
It was surprising to me, and I was excited because I was not expecting it. I was a newspaper editor, the pioneer editor of my newspaper, The Nation. I have spent over 13 years as editor and when I received the news, I thought, well, maybe it’s time to do something new. So when I got the news of the appointment I was excited and I thought this is an opportunity for me to go and practice what I have been preaching, to be in public office, to experience how it is and to be able to put some of those things that I have learnt into practical use, which is what I am doing now.
When you received the news, did you feel like ‘why me’?
I was surprised and of course I thought ‘why me’ because I felt there were so many other people who could have gotten the job. I am not a politician; I have never gone around searching for jobs. I have only done one thing in my life, that is journalism. All other things that I have done they are just by the side. So when they said I should come and do this one, I was a bit surprised. I didn’t even know how anybody could think about me because I am a very quiet and reserved person and a professional. I love my profession so much. I thank God and I thank His Excellency Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu and His Excellency Babajide Sanwo-Olu, for considering me fit to occupy such an important position.
You are said to be an introvert. What is your social life like?
It’s true I am a very quiet person but my effectiveness I will not judge by myself. I will allow people to judge, people that I have worked with before. And if they say that I am an introvert I do not exactly know what they mean by that. I have so many friends, I attend social engagements, I belong to some clubs. I play table tennis. I belong to the G.R.A Table Tennis Club, I play golf, I belong to Abeokuta Golf Club, and other clubs. If you invite me to a party, I will come. So I don’t know what they mean by I am on the quiet side. But I don’t talk anyhow. I get involve in debates, I go out to deliver lectures, I attend interviews, I talk to people, I mentor young people but I don’t fight and quarrel. I don’t argue unnecessarily, my arguments are seen in my works, in my writings, but if people think I will just get on Twitter or Facebook and abuse people so that I won’t be called an introvert, they would be disappointed because I don’t do that. I am a much disciplined person, and I’m very responsible. I was brought up to respect other people’s views. That doesn’t mean I cannot express my own views. I feel that as a journalist if you use your position to address people anyhow because they don’t have the opportunity you have, that is an abuse of privilege. I have been an editor for so many years and I hold the position as a sacred one held in trust for the public. I was not trained to abuse that kind of position because it is just an opportunity.
What is the government’s plan on taxation and sanitation?
On sanitation, we are planning massive advocacy to let people know that the issue of sanitation, the issue of environment is for everybody, it is not for only the government. Lagosians have to join hands to ensure that our environment is clean. You will see people going from house to house to educate people in how to keep their compounds and environment clean. That is not out place, in churches, in mosques, everywhere, people are being told to join the government to keep the environment clean. One of the reasons why the drain channels are blocked is that people have been dumping their refuse into them. And government has been telling our people through the mass advocacy that they should not do it because the result would come back to us. So, it’s a collective responsibility. In terms of taxation, the government is interested in making more money because the requirement of Lagos are so huge that what the state is getting now, is not just enough. What the government is doing is not to increase taxes because if taxes are increased it may bring more hardship to the people. What the government is trying to do is to expand the tax base and bring more people into the tax net because the number of people paying tax in Lagos now, out of about 22 million, remove the kids and the unemployed, the percentage of the real people who are supposed to be paying tax is so low, I think less than a million people are paying taxes. Even in the whole of Nigeria, about 120 people, according to statistics, are paying more than 100 million naira in taxes. So in Lagos, what we are trying to do is to expand the tax net and bring more people into it and not to increase tax. We believe that when we have more people in the tax net, the internally generated revenue in the state will go up.
How would you assess the capability of Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu and the will to turn around Lagos State in four years?
It depends on the kind of turnaround that you mean. But I can bet it with you that in four years, with Mr. Sanwo-Olu that I know, Lagos would not be like this. Many things would have changed, in education, our public schools will become a gathering of parents who will be withdrawing their children from those so-called private schools and enroll them in public schools. The plan he has for teachers; teachers will be very happy. Three weeks ago, a teacher who won the ‘teacher of the year’ award was given a present. In few years’ time the healthcare will have really improved. In housing, so many of the housing estates that have been abandoned during the days of His Excellency Mr. Babajide Raji Fashola, are being revived and more people now have more homes to stay in; in Sangotedo, in Ikorodu, everywhere, all the housing estates. During the 100 Days anniversary, the one in Alimosho was commissioned named after former Governor Lateef Jakande. There are so many of them like that across the state that will be revived and new ones will be built. In healthcare, the Mother and Child Maternal Hospital that was opened in Sangotedo is there and another one built in conjunction with the federal government was opened in Igando. There are are so many others that are lined up. So in four years if you look at what Sanwo-Olu has done in health, education and housing, there is no way he won’t be scored very high. So Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu is focused. He came with a plan and he is going to execute those plans to the satisfaction of Lagosians.