Deputy Governor of Lagos State, Obafemi Hamzat, clocked 56 on September 19. To mark his birthday, he met with journalists and shared the story of his life, his encounter with Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu in the United States, how he joined party politics, the Lagos State Government’s efforts to tackle crime, traffic congestion, among others. ROBERT EGBE was there. Excerpts
The Lagos State Government banned commercial motorcycles from some roads recently and it threw many people out of work. Is the government considering re-permitting them to continue? There was also a rumour that the state was trying to set up its own commercial motorcycle business. Can you shed light on these?
We are not trying to set up our own. If you recall, we have a traffic law of 2010 that actually restricted ‘okadas’ (commercial motorcycles) and ‘Keke Maruwa’ (commercial tricycles) from 475 roads in Lagos. All the major high roads, expressways like the Lagos-Badagry, Funsho Williams, Alfred Rewane, and the bridges: Third Mainland Bridge and so on and so forth. So, that has always been there. What happened is that we went back to that, but we were as well noticing three things; the first is the usage of these tools by criminals, and secondly is even the rate of accidents. We have 27 general hospitals and close to 2500 private hospitals. But, forget about the private hospitals; for public hospitals, we were seeing enormous deaths on the average of 20 in a month, because of ‘Okada’ accident, not just injury but death. So, the question was what should we do? Also, a report by the National Drugs Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) stated that ‘Okada’ was being used for gang activities and that even primary school pupils were being used to carry drugs. So, no government will wait and say because people are making gain, the fact is you have to be alive to make money. If we had ignored the corruption of our children in primary school without doing anything, we would have been wrong. So, the ban was more because of security and protection of the environment and you would have noticed that it was not even across the state; it was for areas we were seeing that surge. One of the things we did was the release of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) buses. Very soon, small buses will come in and then, of course, taxis. So, in building the taxis, one of the things we are trying to do is, how do we make sure that we are actually having production in Nigeria? So, we are talking to two companies and very soon you will see activities. How do we get vehicles that are made in Lagos and carrying Lagos’ name? The cars being produced here; we have our children working there, and we are also learning. So, it was more of building a bigger cake and stopping crime.
It is interesting you mentioned crime because one of the problems commercial motorists are confronted with daily is the issue of ‘agbero’. Drivers complain about their extortion and so on. No matter what the government does, it seems it has not been able to solve that problem. What are the current efforts towards that?
We have all agreed that we live by the constitution and laws. The National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) is actually a union recognised by law. I know some people say ban them, but the government must also be careful. When you just say arbitrarily ban them, what stops you from saying I want to ban Nigerian Medical Association (NMA)? Do you understand? There are times government and NMA have issues; does that mean they should be banned? They are expressing their opinion. They might be wrong or right but they have the right to express those opinions. And then remember these people (NURTW) are Nigerians; they are our brothers and cousins. So, one of the things we have been telling them is that if you are the Chairman in Ajeromi and we see that there are all sorts of contraventions in Ajeromi, we will remove you as a Chairman. We are not banning your union but it means you are incompetent. So, that is the outcome of one of the meetings we had with them, that if there’s an infraction in any of the areas due to the executive in that area, then it should be dissolved. And then you know we complain about our society, why people fight on the road; we have all gone around the world and it is only here we see people fighting on the road and tearing clothes off themselves, why? That has to change, but changing that does not mean banning them. It is to make sure we find the time and interact with them, and say, ‘look this is how it works’. Remember during former (Governor Bola Ahmed) Tinubu’s administration when we started BRT; it was a tug of war, but we took the union to Colombia to see how the union there metamorphosed into owning the BRT and so a lot of those blue buses at that time were owned by the union. We said, ‘See you can send your children to school by this; this is a job you can say you are proud of.’ Surprisingly they paid back the loans for the buses quickly. The same thing is happening in the abattoir (business); people say they don’t want the machines, some of our brothers said it is un-Islamic that they want to kill the cow themselves. So, we went to Kenya and Tanzania and we saw Muslims killing in an automated way, and so they agreed. So, it is a matter of engaging people and letting them see the reason they need to change their attitude. That is our way of doing things, not just say put them away.
The Apapa traffic congestion has been with us for decades now. What is the status of the efforts to decongest the area?
It is a huge issue. One is that we (governments) have ‘concessioned’ our ports and that is something that is a legacy issue. In ‘concessioning’, there were mistakes. If you fly over the port you will see huge spaces that some of these trucks can go to, but it is a concessioner and you can’t just come and park in my own space. Those are the kinds of agreements that should have been part of the concessions that we did not do at that time as a people. Secondly, as an economy, we import a lot and don’t export much, so when these containers come in, let us say 3000 containers come in, probably only 200 go out. What happened to the remaining 2800 other containers? That is the challenge. At a time they were also charging them for not bringing back the containers. I think it is N15, 000 per day; so if I have 100 trucks and you charge me N15, 000 per truck and then I can’t bring it back for 10 days, you know that will kill those businesses. But also the Nigerian Ports Authority is a federal government institution, so we have to bring in the federal government. You can see that the governor and the Minister of Transportation recently came to Lagos. Those are parts of the efforts. We invited them to come and see the challenges and know what could be done. We have the Bola Ahmed Tinubu Trailer Park in Orile that was started some time ago, unfortunately, I think the proponents have gone into AMCON receivership, so, part of what we did was to reach an agreement with AMCON, NPA as well as the Lagos State Government whereby we can pay off those debts; that has just been finalised. Also, as I said, the BAT trailer park can take say, 3000 trucks at a time; so if they can park there, there can be a call-up system that takes them to Lilypond Terminal. And then of course we are talking with the Ogun State Government in Sagamu so that as people come, they first park in Sagamu and then maybe there to Orile. So, it involves a lot of stakeholders like the Shippers’ Council and everybody. So I believe we will resolve it soon. The reality from my experience, though it depends on different countries, the 10km radius of the port is always the responsibility of the port, that is the reality. I mean go to places like Hamburg, Frankfurt, or anywhere. We must have those kinds of changes so that the environment will be served well. And then our ports have been built for long, and as people, we keep growing, so our population is much now that the port can no longer serve us conveniently. That is why the Lekki Port we are building, hopefully, it is going to finish soon and we can transfer some of these things there and hopefully to Badagry Port. When all of these come up, then we can conveniently say we have resolved the issue, because the truth is, Nigeria loses about $1.8billion on those things. This we ought to have done long before now, but thankfully we are doing it now.
Your predecessors said there were plans to relocate the Mile 12 Market because it is causing serious traffic congestion on the Ikorodu Road. Is that still on the table?
There’s a plan to move them to Imota, but like you know everything in life changes, and a lot of people are also asking us how easy will it be for them to get to Imota? Again you must engage people. But the Imota Market is under construction; it is about 1000 hectares but 500 hectares is currently under construction. We were also there about six months ago. By the time we finish it, certainly, some things will be moved. Some are saying we should move the cattle market alone, but, as I said, the decision will be reached at the right time and we can then properly plan the Mile 12 Market and build stores instead of the mode currently used.
Some traders often complain that market leaders are imposed on them. They often refer to the Ìyál’ọ́jà and Babaloja systems. What is the state’s connection with this?
First of all, you need to understand that we are Yoruba. In our culture, we have Ìyál’ọ́jà because that is us, that is our culture. So, every market in Yorubaland has them because a market is an assembly place for us as a people. From the historical perspective of the Yoruba, many things apart from buying and selling happen. So, historically we have Ìyál’ọ́jà and ‘ Babaloja. We do not want to change our culture; I mean since it is not harming anyone. So, if a culture is sustainable, I see no reason why we have to change it.
I would like to take you back to the issue of motorcycles. Since the ban, has the crime rate reduced?
Well, there are statistics and it depends on which one you believe. For instance, the 2006 census revealed that Lagos is about 9 million-plus, but our own local census came up with a different figure larger than that. Like the issue of life expectancy of Nigerians said to be between 48 and 51. The question is who did this survey? So they (statistics) are there but which one do you believe? Firstly, the police stations confirmed this, like at Oshodi for instance, we were having a meeting and the DPO (Divisional Police Officer) said, ‘look my cells are empty.’ And as well like I said our 27 general hospitals confirmed this too.
At 56, what is your perspective of life?
My perspective of life is a function of how my father raised me. My father is the type that does not talk much, but there is one thing he always said in Yoruba which is ‘ To ju iwa e, esan o gbo ogun’ that is if you do good in life, that is exactly what you will reap. It doesn’t matter the number of times you go to church or mosque. What age also does for you is that it allows you to see many Christmases, meaning you see many events to either confirm or go against your belief. I think for me as I age, it confirms exactly that. Just be your brother’s keeper because whatever you sow so you shall reap. So, for me, that is basically the essence and it carries across everything in life.
We know Dr. Hamzat as a politician and a technocrat, how would you describe yourself?
I am a human being, but like I said, we all get influenced by our environment, our parents, our uncles, our cousins. So things we do in life affect us. My father was a politician, but at first, he was a banker and spent a lot of years in the North. He was the Regional Manager for IBWA then, International Bank for West Africa which I think it is now Union Bank or so. So when he came back from the North, he went into politics in Lagos and was in the House of Assembly for a while before he became a commissioner. At that age, I noticed that my father would make me write long minutes of meetings even though they would have typed it with a typewriter; he would still ask me to go and write it. I did not know the intent at that time but it allowed me to read the minutes of elders. So, of course, you are influenced by that and you always have it in mind. At times when I came back from school, I meet thousands of people in meetings without my father. So you get used to that and know that this is how politics is, but I never had a plan of becoming a politician. All I wanted to become, of course, like every one of us, was to be well educated and succeed. That was exactly what I was doing until I technically met ‘Asiwaju’. I was lucky; I was young when I had my Ph.D. I had my Ph.D. at 26 and I started working in the United States. I finished in England, after which I got a post-doctoral job in Saudi Arabia in 1991 and then I came back home to spend two or three months before going back. Although I got another one in Canada in a place called Saskatoon, the university specifically. It is a very cold place. I remember then the Registrar of my school, Anna De Winter, came back and said Quadri, I am not sure you will like it. And I went for the interview and it was very cold and I said ‘I can’t live here.’ So, I turned that down thinking I would go to Saudi Arabia. That was when the Gulf War started and they cancelled the whole thing and so I became stranded. I had turned down the Canadian offer, so I went back to my school and I was lucky my professor, Professor Clark, was just leaving the school to go to the United States so I followed him and that was how I left academics. I did not stay long in academics. I went to City Bank, because for my PhD I did more of computer analysis than engineering. So, I started doing IT stuff. I went to Morgan Stanley. That is how I met ‘Asiwaju’ one day when we were having a meeting and he came in as the Governor of Lagos State, of course I had heard about him from my father but I had never met him. So, after the presentation and I was the only black person and he said ‘Ha! Femi Hamzat. Which Hamzat is yours?’ And I said from Lagos State. He said ‘You are the son of my leader? ‘ki ni iwo n se ni bi? (What are you doing here?) and I said I needed to survive, that is it. One of the reasons why it was easy for me to come back was that my father’s birthday is June 13 and by June 12 Abacha’s government would have arrested all of them. By the 8th, 9th, and put them wherever they wanted to put them. It was a bit discouraging and that is how I decided to go and that was how I met ‘Asiwaju’ and the rest, as they say, is history. He knew what I was doing and he wanted to be sure, and that is when Lagos State was doing ERP implementation, what people called ‘Óracle’. He said ‘You know we are doing this and you are doing it overseas, why don’t you come home and help us complete it?’ I did not initially take it seriously, but he was putting pressure that he needed people who had done it overseas and did it well to come and do it. But I now said ‘Sir, I like to work in the private sector not necessarily government and that is what I know.’ So he organised and I had an interview with Oando, MTN, and Oceanic Bank. So, Oceanic and Oando took me but I went to Oando and from Oando we started implementation successfully and he said ‘You need to come and help us in Lagos and that is how I became a commissioner.’