By Bolaji Tunji
Today, December 16 is unique for me and many others who have had the opportunity of working with Senator Abiola Ajimobi, Governor of Oyo State. The date marks the day he was born and which is being celebrated without fanfare but in his usual belief of giving back part of him to the society – a multipurpose hall for his alma mater, Lagelu Grammar School and a round table to advance the course of development to which many prominent Nigerians have been invited to share experiences and guide the future development of Nigeria, among many others.
As he celebrates his birthday, it offers me an opportunity to reflect about the gift that he is to Nigerians, most especially the people of Oyo state. Indeed, the history of modern Oyo state cannot be written without a copious mention of his achievements, having laid a solid foundation for the development of a modern Oyo state. And when that history is told, it would be mentioned in the same breath with that of the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Though they lived decades apart, Senator Ajimobi will stand as that governor that laid the foundation for a modern Oyo state, the way late Chief Awolowo opened up the then Western region in the 50s and the early 60s and made it the envy of the other regions.
But that is not the story, I want to tell. My story is about a leader who has an uncommon courage to pursue his vision and passion for the people of Oyo state and whose desire, upon assumption of office in May 29, 2011, was to restore Oyo state to its past glory as a pacesetter state, a state of many firsts. I want to tell the story of the other side of my boss that is rarely seen and is unknown to many who only see a tough visage out there.
When Senator Ajimobi took over, he met a state in chaos. Arson and brigandage was the other of the day. Daylight robbery, sporadic gunshots enveloped the state capital. The National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) held the state by the jugular. For travelers going through Oyo state, it was with trepidation as violence could break out at the drop of a hat. Many have witnessed these with fatal consequences. It was a dark pall that terror cast on the pacesetter state. The situation was enough to discourage the not so brave. With aplomb, Governor Ajimobi began the task as captured in his three-prong agenda of Restoration, Transformation and Repositioning. Today, Oyo State is better for it.
My first encounter with Governor Ajimobi was not physical, it was through his restoration works in the state. For someone who had been resident in Lagos and who had been used to good quality roads, I was thus amazed to see something similar on a visit to Oyo state. Due to the story of arson and brigandage prior 2011, some of us from Oyo state and resident in Lagos had given up on the state. Oyo state was scary and it was a no go area if you had no business in the state. The roads were narrow, untarred and unsafe. If you had any business in Oyo state, you had to make it a one-day trip, you do not factor staying the night, you were also warned about areas to avoid. Challenge and Molete were notorious, Iwo road was dangerous. The state Secretariat, seat of government was not spared as shooting was rampant in Agodi and areas adjourning. Hoodlums were anywhere and everywhere and had no fears of the government in power as they were not held accountable for their actions. It was difficult venturing into the Oyo state of pre-2011.
You can then imagine my amazement when I had cause to visit Oyo state for a conference of the Nigerian Guild of Editors in March 2013, two years after Senator Ajimobi took over. In the first place, the Guild would not take its conference to an unsafe venue.
The Oyo state we met was still undergoing a major transformation. I and a few colleagues had driven into Oyo state through the Lagos-Ibadan expressway and taken a turn off the expressway by the Lead City bridge towards Challenge. That was when we started noticing the transformation. Beautification efforts on the bridge, good road that compare favorably with any in any capitals of the World. Well constructed four-lane carriage ways were welcoming sights in Oyo state with the Governor Ajimobi administration. The transformation generated a discuss in the vehicle. Moving further into the city, we were further confronted by the rapid transformation. The tag of the dirtiest city in Nigeria was no longer visible. Ibadan, prior to 2011 was dirty with heaps of refuse everywhere. A mountain of leafs generated from the wrappings of corn cake (Eko) and moin-moin (bean cake) as the joke goes.
That was the epiphany. It was a moment of revelation. I wanted to be identified with the Oyo state miracle worker, the transformation had started and I wanted to be part of that transformation. What I felt was impossible was becom
Within a short period of my appointment, I understood why my boss was able to transform Oyo. In the words of the Australian Filmmaker, Lynette Wallworth, “If we don’t care about something, we don’t feel the need to act”.
My boss was passionate about Oyo state and the need to restore and reposition it to the pacesetter status it enjoyed in the past. It was a daunting challenge. Changes always come with a whole heap of challenges, but like he is wont to quote Rosalynn Carter: A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be”. He is a great leader who realized that Oyo state must be taken into the 21st century, that it must once again assume its number one position in infrastructural renewal, knowledge and cultural resuscitation and in achieving this, tap into its many comparative advantages of Research Institutes in the state, the highest number in the country.
The challenges were there, but what is life, if there are no challenges? All you need in life is courage, if you are not courageous or aggressive, you would not succeed, he never failed in admonishing members of the team. A session with him is a session to tap into his rich repertoire of life experiences. “ I am sure, no matter how little, you would have taken something from me. You may not realize it now, but in many of your actions in the future, the realization would come to you that this came from me . I may not hold an academic Ph.D, but I have a Ph.D on life experiences”, he was also fond of saying. You always have something new to learn, whether in the courage he displays in confronting issues, his dissection of seemingly knotty issues or laser-like focus.
A man of uncommon wit, gift of the garb and an engaging smile, you knew he was talking from the heart and the need to impart knowledge to better your lot and give you invaluable lessons about lives’ many challenges. Passionate about Oyo state, his vision goes beyond the present, it is about a 25-year development plan for Oyo state. “ Government is a continuum, while we will work until the last day, the government that comes after should continue where we stopped”, he not only says this, he practices it. On assumption of office, he embarked on the completion of projects left behind by his predecessors, one of such is the Central abattoir which he completed and courageously relocated butchers in spite of opposition and the negative spin that those who wanted to continue with the old order of butchering in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions were pushing. The state is today better for that action. You are sure you are eating healthy beef, whenever you had cause to buy in the market.
One can go on and on about Koseleri or Shehu, two of the sobriquets by which he is popularly called. Koseleri simply translated, means unprecedented. No governor in modern Oyo state had ever got a second term until he was again re-elected in 2015. The Shehu sobriquet is in recognition of his sage-like remarks and anecdotal life experiences that are didactic in nature. And as my boss, my governor clocks 69 today, I can only wish him the best with more contributions to Oyo state and Nigeria.
Tunji is Special Adviser, Communication and Strategy to Gov Ajimobi.