Former Oyo State Governor Abiola Ajimobi is known for his blunt expression of feelings on issues. As he turns 70 few days ago, he reflects on his family, private sector experience, foray into politics, and legacies as a politician and administrator.
HOW do you feel at 70? When you were growing up, did you have an inkling that you will live up to 70 years?
First and foremost, let me give the glory to God Almighty for sparing my life in good health and in happiness. I feel a lot of gratitude to the Almighty for sparing my life to live this long because from my own paternal side, nobody has ever lived up to 70 years. I’m talking about all the male children, including my father and his own father and his brothers. I believe it is something to be grateful to God for.
Where did you get that optimism?
Virtually everything I have dreamt of has happened and I dreamt I lived to 96 years old. Many Nigerians lived to be 96 and they go through stress. They even live up to 100 years, they go through stress. I believe I will live up to that age. It is just my belief and what you believe in usually happens.
Were there childhood dreams you were able to actualise when you served as governor?
First and foremost, I wanted Ibadan to be beautiful, to be like Lagos, like any other modern city. I told myself each time I went round the city that the first thing I want to do is to clean up Ibadan. It has always been a dirty place and I thought I would like to see it clean. I believed at that time we should have good road networks. Above all, I just thought Ibadan should be a modern city. They used to call it an ancient city but I felt it should be a modern city. The modernization of Ibadan city was very important to me. I limited myself to Ibadan at that time but by extension, Oyo State. I wanted Oyo State and all the major cities there to be modern cities. It’s always been my dream.
How much of these were you able to achieve?
I am very happy with myself that I was even able to do what I did. Because knowing the history of Ibadan, you couldn’t have done that. I did not do all the roads, but I am pleased with the ones I was able to do.
What are those early influences that shaped your life?
The major influence on me was my grandmother. I grew up around her. At the age of five, I went to live with my aunt and her husband at Oke Padre. We lived around pastors and reverend fathers because I went to St. Patrick’s school for my primary school. I was influenced by what I called the religious environment where you don’t tell lies, you learn to forgive and must believe. So, I had a very religious background quite early in life though it was more of a Christian background. In fact, I was an altar boy at a stage. After leaving my aunt’s place, my grandmother took over and she will tell me about life, how she struggled, how she became one of the few women who owned a vehicle, who built houses… Her own family was very affluent, so she influenced me. Later on, by reading so many books and magazines, I started developing the idea of listening to radio. My uncle also influenced me. He was minister in the Ministry of Works and Transport in the Western Region. Politically, he influenced me because I saw how people would come around for his help. He was so nice. I wanted to be in a position like that to give people jobs and be the rallying point of the people in the local environment. When it comes to professional life, I was influenced by one Mr. Moshood Akanbi. He was the first Nigerian MD of National Oil. I didn’t know him when I joined the company. I was first at Nestle Foods. At that time, it was called Food Specialties. I was working there but before meeting him, I lived with my uncle, Jare Alade, who was my mother’s brother. He was an engineer. Living with him exposed me to the importance of education and hard work. Another person was an uncle-in-law, a journalist, may his soul rest in peace, Alhaji Kola Animasahun . He worked with the Guardian and Vanguard, before moving to the Ministry of Information. I learnt simplicity and humility from him. He was very simple and godly. Most people don’t know me well. When they see me, they say I am arrogant, no. It is only because I don’t take nonsense, that is what people take to mean arrogance. Alhaji Animasahun taught me that all you have is vanity. When I was going to the U.S. for the first time as a student, I didn’t have a suit. He gave me his new suit, which he had worn just once. I learnt humility, hardwork and intellectual development from him. Mr. Akanbi taught me how to be elegant and how to dress neatly. I also learnt that from my father. So, the long and short of it is that different people influenced me.
Why didn’t you take after your father as a tailor?
I didn’t like tailoring because I felt it was meant for those people who didn’t have university education and I wanted a university degree. I wanted to be a medical doctor. I was influenced by Christian Bannard, the first South African heart surgeon. I had read a lot of books and magazines about him and I wanted to be a heart surgeon. I left secondary school doing science subjects but when I got to the U.S. and was admitted for Pre-Med, things changed. The Pre-Med was just two years because in America, you have to be a graduate before going to medical school. In my second year, they took us to visit a hospital. As they were showing us the hospital environment, I saw that that the doctors’offices were small. After the tour, they took us to the head of the hospital who was a young man, 42 years old. His office was very big. When it was question time, I asked him: “People in their 60s, 70s have small offices, how come your own office is big.” He said he was the administrator, that he has a Master’s degree in Business Administration with concentration in hospital management. Immediately, I just told my advisor that I was changing course because I didn’t like the small offices. I said I wanted to become an administrator and, believe me, I changed. That was what changed me. I discovered I was better of as an administrator. Even my advisor kept telling me “you are so eloquent, you should be doing public speaking, you should be doing public administration, managing people, you are always wanting two plus two to be four, you should be a manager.”
What is the greatest lesson that you learnt in your eight years of governance?
My greatest lesson is: “Don’t try to be a perfect man in an imperfect world”. I like perfection, but I discovered it wasn’t possible.
What led to that conclusion?
Realizing that you cannot please everybody, realizing that no matter what you do, you will have friends and you will have enemies. You will have those who like you and those who don’t. But I can say that those shortcomings of mine that people perceived were due to my desire to make things perfect. There are things I could have ignored but I felt we should be perfect about things. I also realised being too honest and being too blunt is something people don’t like. But my weakness is that I can’t control my being blunt. That summarises it because there are things I should have left but because I wanted perfection, I dabbled into them. So, those are the things people believe I did wrong but to me, I have not done anything wrong.
The Olubadan chieftaincy review looks like the most controversial decision your administration took in your eight-year tenure. Looking back today, are there things you would do differently if you had opportunity to start all over again
I think the controversy stems from my desire to perfect things in an imperfect world. I didn’t just wake up one day and decided to change chieftaincy. It was out of the presentations made to me by different people: elders, young ones and so many people including people in the traditional council. I think they politicized it. That’s all. There is nothing wrong with what we’ve done, believe me. But at my age and level, I must keep certain secrets, otherwise I could give you names of all the people that approached me. As a leader, you take the plus and minuses.