“If I told you that I spent eight hours a day doing local government work, it is a lie.”
That was pioneer Chairman of Onigbongbo Local Council Development Area (LCDA) in Lagos, Idowu Osuolale Obasa, saying what very few politicians would dare say publicly.
It was not as if he did not have a lot on his table or that he was an absentee chairman; he simply devoted his time to the things that matter most. And he did not have to be what many Nigerians refer to as a “professional politician” to do so. He neither lives off politics nor aspires to hold a public office that does not directly impact on the people.
Obasa is wary of people making a living from politics. The tag “professional politician” is a toga he argues nobody should be proud to don. Successful politicians, he points out, should make their mark in a profession or business of theirs.
For him, politics should never become a profession. Those who make a living from politics put themselves under pressure to cut corners when their needs are not satisfied by their legitimate salary, if politics is their sole source of livelihood.
Since many political positions require part-time engagement, Obasa does not see any conflict in a public office-holder making a living from his private business.
“It can be full-time at the level of the governor and president, but I can tell you that at most other levels of politics, people spend an average of less than eight hours a day,” he says.
Challenging federal and state lawmakers or local government administrators to prove that they spend at least 40 hours a week in office, he declares: “I don’t see why councillors or lawmakers should be full-time.”
Even in a disorganised environment that politics has become in Nigeria, there should be a time to do administrative work and time to attend to people. Experience has, however, shown that most of the time politicians claim are official hours is spent attending to hangers-on and cronies with little or no contributions to public good. To his credit, Obasa did a good job organising his schedule to achieve a lot even in a short period.
“I attended to people a lot while I was at the local government (council) and my office was very open; but it didn’t mean I was there eight hours every day. I wouldn’t be able to work if people were always coming in to greet me. We had meetings, inspected projects and did a lot of other things. We would not have been able to do all that, if we always had people around.”
A lot of what most public office-holders do he calls time-wasting. A meeting is supposed to start at noon, but does not start until 4pm because people are wasting time chatting. That is what most professional politicians do.
Before assuming leadership of the council upon its coming into being in October 2003, Obasa had made a name as a successful entrepreneur, and good manager of resources. He was part of the foundation team of Independent Communications Network Limited (ICNL), publishers of TheNews, PM News and the now rested Tempo magazine. Others in the team were Bayo Onanuga, Sani Kabir, Dapo Olorunyomi, Babafemi Ojudu, Kunle Ajibade and Seye Kehinde. The organisation irritated the military, especially the administration of the late Gen. Sani Abacha, to no end with hard-hitting, investigative stories about the atrocities of the khaki boys.
With an uncompromising dedication to the promotion and defence of civilised nationalism, democracy, political and economic pluralism, liberty and equality of the various ethnic groups in Nigeria, the organisation operated under the cloud of intimidation, arrests and threat to life. A profile published during the 20th anniversary of PM News last month read in part: “The late military dictator routinely sent his security operatives after editorial and non-editorial members of staff of PM News, and scores of them were arrested and detained for several months without a formal charge brought against them. While one of the journalists, Bagauda Kaltho, died in detention, our Executive Editor, Kunle Ajibade, was jailed for life over a phantom coup in 1995. His reprieve came only after his jailor died in 1998. He spent three and half years in the Makurdi Prison.
“Our Editor-in-Chief, Bayo Onanuga, and his deputy, Dapo Olorunyomi, escaped several attempts to arrest them and they eventually fled abroad. Babafemi Ojudu was also detained for several months. At the height of the military clampdown, our offices were sacked and occupied by security operatives. Idowu Obasa and many of our staff bore the brunt of publishing PM News and TheNEWS throughout the period of repression.”
He was not a trained journalist, but Obasa did a good job coordinating the troops while the others were out of circulation. That ability to manage things in good and bad times was developed over years. It is now second nature to him.
A 1979 Economics graduate of University of Ife, now known as the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile Ife, Obasa also has an MSc in Accountancy from the University of Lagos (UNILAG). He is today a Chartered Accountant and Public Administrator.
The question then arises: why local government? After all, people with less qualification and exposure punch above that weight.
“It’s a misconception that the local government is for people who are less qualified or with less experience” is his ready answer. He went into local government administration because he believes it deserves “your first team” if you are genuinely interested in delivering service to the people.
“It is the local government that actually has direct contact with the people. By the nature of our politics, generality of our people have no access to any level except at the local level, and if politics is about serving the people, that tier of government that has direct access to the people ought to be given the greatest recognition.”
Using healthcare delivery as an illustration, he is quick to remind his listeners that of the primary, secondary and tertiary tiers of service, the first takes care of about 61 per cent of the ailments that plague the people. Things like malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis are primary healthcare problems. And because they form a greater percentage of the problems Nigerians encounter, greater attention should be paid to primary healthcare because a lot of secondary and tertiary issues will be prevented if there is a vibrant primary healthcare delivery.
He offers no apologies when he says: “You can put the dunces in Abuja or whatever, but the best brains should be at the local government.” This was his thinking back in 2003. That is still his thinking today. “I have never had interest in any other level of politics because, frankly speaking, I do not see how they directly impact on the people,” he said.
Being tied to the apron string of a state governor has affected some local governments negatively. Not Obasa. Serving under former Lagos State Governor, Bola Tinubu, helped.
His words: “Whatever anybody might say about him, Tinubu lets you do your thing. Go and find out what we did at Onigbongbo. As a governor, he wanted to deliver and could not have held you back. If you didn’t perform as a local government chairman under Tinubu, it was because you didn’t want to perform. And I am not the type of person to be held back. I was the kind of person that was ready to resign.”
But he didn’t need to resign. Even with former President Olusegun Obasanjo withholding Lagos State’s local government allocation for 23 months, they still managed to operate. With a wide diversity in terms of residency, Onigbongbo attends to people whose needs are often poles apart. There exist the densely-populated sections which include Mosafejo in Oshodi, Abule in Opebi, Oregun and Koto Kwara in Olusosun. It also has the upper middle class areas like Shonibare, Cappa, GRA, Howson Wright, Bamisile, Awuse and Maryland estates. Eight crowded military and police barracks add to a delicate mix of people.
After two terms in office, Obasa left the chairmanship of Onigbongbo on October 29, 2011, having achieved a lot in the areas of infrastructure, primary healthcare, education, empowerment and sports. His administration built about 16 standard roads and rehabilitated a lot more using the Onigbongbo Road Maintenance Agency (ORMA) he instituted. Hospitals like the Beko Ransome Kuti Health Centre in GRA and Wasimi Health Centre were modernised and equipped.
The mobile clinic project he introduced became a template for others. In the area of education, the Onigbongbo Education Foundation was set up because people lacked access to quality foundation education due to the total collapse of the primary school system owned by the government.
Sports, recreation and youth development were other areas of interest.
A proud Obasa says: “I am recognised and respected by party members, the populace and opposition.”
A man of the grassroots, serving at the local government was a dream come true. “I am not concerned about being known in Abuja or anywhere else. I have other challenges in the world of business, so I don’t have that need.”
Having ticked local government administration on his to-do list, Obasa fully has his hands in many entrepreneurial pies. In his words: “I have my hands in a lot of things like farming, property development, buying and selling, lottery and sport betting. As an accountant, I am trained to manage any kind of business. I particularly enjoy farming. At the moment, my main interest is in piggery. I find that most fulfilling.”
Doing business in Nigeria is challenging. Corruption, manpower deficiency and infrastructural decay conspire daily against entrepreneurs. But like politics, managing a business is not an individual job. He does a lot by delegating and using the resources available in the people he works with. That way, he does not need to spend all day at work, just as he didn’t have to spend more than eight hours doing local government work.