The Teacher’s Son Who Wants To Be Governor

By Nonso Fustinus

Until a few months ago not many people had heard the name Akinwunmi Ambode. Well, that was then. The name is on the lips of everybody now. From being the most unlikely of candidates poised to wrestle for a chance to govern Lagos, Africa's mega city, he is now the most probable. A retired Auditor General and Accountant General of the state, who felt he had done his bit, voluntarily yielded space for others to take his place. But that was before the political permutations threw up his name as a possible replacement for Governor Babatunde Fashola.

Today his name has become a fixture to many Lagosians and watchers of politics in the state. While many other candidates have signalled interest in the race, there is no doubt as to who the “anointed” is, though he would not admit it. Calm, unassuming, jovial and ordinary with a charming smile, he comes across disarmingly likeable and gentlemanly. Just a few months tutorial in politics, he appears to be mastering the ropes very fast and transiting from the retired civil servant that he is to a politician that he is becoming.

The nocturnal meetings, the shrewd permutations and all the intrigues in tow. The governorship hopeful speaks exclusively to Shaka Momodu in his first interview outing since his touted candidacy became public knowledge. It provides a glimpse into his background, his personality and more...

Tell me what was growing up like and what kind of parents you grew up under?

Thank you. I was born in Epe, 51 years ago to the families of Festus Akinwale and Christiana Ambode. I am the sixth of 10 children made up of four girls and six boys. I actually grew up in Epe for 4 years before coming into Lagos in 1967 and ever since then I've been in Lagos. I come from a Christian family. My parents were hardworking people. My father was a teacher and my mother was a sewing mistress. I have had all my education done in different parts of Nigeria and within a very good family. I am also married with children.

What events shaped your childhood and ultimately your adult life?

I think it was when I went to Federal Government College, Warri at the age of 11. You can imagine how it was for me at that age leaving my parents and going far away to school.

What was it like?
I will say it was interesting and my leadership role started to take shape from my childhood, which I spent in Warri. Apart from the fact that we had a close knit family, I was one of the first amongst the children that actually left our parents to go far way in Warri in the former Bendel State to start an educational life. I spent seven years in Warri away from my parents and that in itself has been a turning point for me and has molded me into the character that I am today.

What kind of parents were they?
My father was a teacher, so obviously he was a natural disciplinarian and you would see that as reflection of my character today. All the virtues you could have in the son of a teacher are what reflect in my life today.

Did any of them try to influence your career path or were you just fascinated by a certain career very early on and decided this is what I want to become?

I can say this today that it was actually my father's friend that made me who I am today because at age 12 or there about, one of my father's friends came to the house and he just jokingly asked what I would like to become and I said I would like to be an accountant. He looked at me with some mocking disdain and said “you, can you become an Accountant?” That was my turning point. I believed that I was being challenged at such a young age and I told myself that whatever it will take to become the best of all Accountants in this country, I was going to do it. I was actually in form 2 but from then on, I decided to take Accounting as a subject in form 3. I decided to pursue Accounts as a career in the university. I also went on to become a Chartered Accountant at the age of 24. So, it was that challenge that drove me and propelled me on. That is how I decided to be the best I could be in my chosen profession.

Was he an accountant?
Ordinarily, I think he was but I think he must have been a bookkeeper not a chartered accountant.

Who were your role models very early on in your life?

My father will obviously come in place as my role model. I saw him as someone that had the best of all the virtues and he kept on telling me each time I came back from school that my results were not so good and that I was playful and that he saw that God has given me a talent and I should not let that talent be taken away from me by God. And if I focused on my studies eventually every other thing would be added on to me until he died when I was 18. Ever since, I have held on to that message as someone who had become my hero in life.

When did you earn your first pay as a salary earner?

My first salary would have been in 1985. I actually finished Youth Service in June of 1985 and having come back from Central Bank, Sokoto, I was at home for 3 months without a job. It was difficult getting a job then. The first job that came my way was a civil service job at the Lagos State Waste Disposal Board. I remember my first salary was N324 per month and that was so exciting for me. Today a fresh graduate could get as much as N100, 000 but that is an issue of inflation.

What was the feeling like for you?
I wanted to go back to the man that said I couldn't become an accountant (laughs). Seriously, I looked into the future and I felt that the money was not going to be enough to take care of the life that I wanted to live. Hence, I decided I was going to pursue additional degrees and professional qualifications to enhance my income, which is what I have been doing in the last 30 years.

You held so many positions during your time in the civil service, tell me about it?

I joined the Lagos civil service in 1985 as an accountant with the then Lagos State Waste Disposal Board. So I joined the civil service and became a chartered accountant within a year after joining and with that additional qualification I applied to the Lagos State Civil Service and joined the Local Government Service Commission where I was deployed to Badagry Local Government. I could say that I've had a peculiar career in the Civil Service. Apart from the fact that my additional qualifications were giving me sort of an advantage towards an accelerated career path because I had moved from level 8 to level 10. Then from level 10 to level 12 and with additional qualifications I became a substantive Counsel Treasurer when I was just 29. I have had a rewarding career in the Lagos State civil service. I actually became the Auditor General for Local Government at the age of 37 based on merit. I was confirmed by the House of Assembly as the substantive Auditor General for Local Government in the year 2000. My career has been so peculiar in a manner that I feel that God has actually been the major runner of my destiny. I became the Accountant General of Lagos State at the age of 43, having served almost 10 years in different Local Governments as Counsel Treasurer. I also served as Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance in 2005 and then I became the Auditor General in 2006. A job that I did for over 6 years and voluntarily retired in August 2012 because I felt that there is so much to conquer in the world and to allow other people to get a chance to move up in their careers. I am happy I retired meritoriously.

You were a Treasurer, Auditor General and Accountant General. Your experiences must have been very valuable tell me about that

The major focal point for governance is security and welfare of the people. However, there are many projects and ideas that are competing for the scarce resources of the state. No matter how much we say that this is the future of what we want Lagos State to be, the dream can't materialize without sufficient and adequate financial planning. So for one to have had that opportunity to have contributed in almost 3 decades to the financial machinery of different arms of government, it's something very fulfilling for me. I want to put on record that the last 13years of my career, I was able to experience democratic governance and I have been able to add to the achievements of the various governments I have had the opportunity to work with. Everything is about the present and future growth and development of Lagos State that is driven by a common denominator, which is finance. And for one to have had that chance to contribute quietly and now openly seen by others, it has been a fulfilling and rewarding career.

Looking back what would you say were most challenging moments in your various positions in the Civil Service?

The most challenging part was always at that point that government was not able to execute projects because it lacked the finance and worse still I remember the years in which the Federal Government during the Obasanjo administration seized Local Government fund. It meant that the local government could have been crippled and actually not existed. For one to have been one of the major contributors to finding that creative finance arrangement that allowed that arm of government to survive without any hitch and up till today they still exist. One has to be grateful to God for giving me that opportunity to do it for Lagos State.

How did you manage to run the state finances when local government funds were seized by Obasanjo without defaulting on payments obligations?

It is really not as difficult as one would have imagined. The truth is that then, we had a governor, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu who actually believed that the civil servants and Exco members had the essential dexterity to assist in letting the system work. He was not overbearing on suggestions brought by civil servants or public servants and that gave us a platform to allow creativity to thrive. Whenever suggestions were made he was very receptive to ideas and innovations that would work. We all worked as a team and we shared our successes together.

You left a couple of years ago what do you miss working for the State Government?

What I miss most is not being able to continue my act of selflessness in the ambit of governance. Even though, I try as much as possible to interact with my community and my family and all that. But quietly you always miss that moment you were in a position to be part of governance and problem solving situtation for common good. I just miss that.

What is the most difficult decision you had to make as the accountant general or Auditor General of the Lagos State?

There were particularly moments where I happened to be chairman of disciplinary board meetings and you had fraudulent cases being brought up. Apart from the fact that you always want to be good to people but sometimes when you are chairman and as the leader you need to take decisions. There were sometimes that those decisions were very difficult but those decisions need to be taken. The difficult moments were always when you had to take disciplinary actions against colleagues and subordinates. Sometimes you'll feel sorry but again as a leader you have to be strong enough to take the right decisions at the right time for the sake of the system.

Your name has been bandied around as a candidate to succeed Governor Babatunde Fashola. Are you interested or are you already in the governorship race?

I am seriously thinking about it and I have been consulting in the last eight months.And consultation is still on-going

Now you are talking like a politician
I have always been a politician like everyone. We are all political animals. In every home and community, politics is a daily occurrence. As far as I know there is no official school of politics anywhere in Nigeria. You can emerge or put on the toga of politician at any time based on your interest and passion or consciousness.

Let me go back to the last question which is you have been holding consultations about the possibility of giving the governorship a go. What has the reception been like?

I must tell you that my party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) has actually given every person who is interested in a political office to go to the field and I have been so excited that in the last 8 months we have been engaging and consulting with party leadership, party members and even citizens of Lagos. The excitement is more about these stakeholders asking for positive change which APC stands for. I always try to tell all the people I've been consulting with that we are in for a progressive movement in Lagos and it is only APC that creates that platform for us to be able to continue to move Lagos to that next level. I've been receiving positive responses from people. A whole lot of professionals who have always been indifferent are becoming a lot more interested in politics and they believe that the future of a better Nigeria is in APC. It is only the APC that can create a new generation of progressive leaders of which a whole lot of us are more interested in.

At the recent launch of your book the Oba of Lagos did say that on behalf of the Obas you are the preferred candidate. How did you feel about a highly traditional ruler endorsing your governorship candidacy?

Believe me, if there is anything I want to take away from the book launch, it is what the Oba of Lagos said and I would forever cherish it. Because this was not something planned or programmed and coming from such an elderly and revered king of course I would take it. There is nothing as good as elderly people coming to say this is our son and this is what they wished and the wish of the people, they say is the wish of God. If that is the way it is then I will be very grateful to God. I don't see anything negative towards my person, personality or aspirations when people openly associate with me and what I stand for.

I want to assume it was only whispers before he came out and endorsed you. How did that change the calculus?

Nothing has really changed because I am still consulting people and the truth is that there are other aspirants that are still consulting. The party is open to anyone of us. The future of Lagos is about who will take it to the next level. The present governor is wearing very big shoes. The party is interested in who will be able to fit into those shoes in order for the party to continue to remain that symbol of positive change. So everybody continues to move around and consult. We know that at the end of the day the party primaries will throw up one person who will carry the flag of the party to the election.

It has been observed and read in the media that some aspirants and members of APC are opposed to your aspiration. What is your take on this?

It is natural that every aspirant will always want to win any competition. Infact, I will feel odd if everybody supports me. The ultimate task of the party is to create an enabling platform for the emergence of a legitimate candidate of the party. Each aspirant is at liberty to test his or her popularity at the forthcoming primaries of the party.I have grown up to understand that I should never burn my bridges rather I am a bridge builder. All the aspirants are members of the same party. In the cause of this process, whoever wins the primary should have the support of all the aspirants in order for our party to win at the general elections.That is why I will never gang-up or attack any of the aspirants. It is about issues and our people.

What is your assessment of Fashola's government so far?

I will say fantastic. You know, when we look at the last 15 years. I just want to state that we started with the Asiwaju government and the Asiwaju government could be described as a government that has laid that irreversible foundation for growth and development in Lagos state. What we've witnessed right now with the present governor is that he's been able to consolidate and actualize the dream of the foundation of that growth and development. He has not faltered or waivered. He has been someone focused on the goals of the party and he has delivered. No matter what anybody has to say he has performed.

The challenges of governance are enormous. What makes you think that you will make a better replacement for the current governor?

My belief is that before our party can decide on a person that will carry the flag of the APC, it would have been unanimously agreed that such a person is sound and competent enough to be the candidate. Beyond that, I bring cognate experience that is not shared by any other aspirant in Lagos. I believe strongly that the years that I have worked and the experiences that I have shared with previous governors, almost like 7 governors, working closely with them at the highest levels give me that competitive edge to be able to continue to drive the vision of Lagos State. If it is in terms of character, if it is in terms of capability, I possess all the good qualities that you can find in anybody that will want to become the governor of Lagos State. It's more about the people and it has to be a people person. I know that's where my strength is. A people person is one that can be a good caretaker of the resources of the people. That's why I see myself as the best aspirant that you can muster right now.

If you could change anything about yourself as a person not an aspirant, what would that be?

Maybe to be an extreme extrovert because you know politics is about being an extrovert. Obviously my consultations are making me look more like an extrovert but I am going to mix the two together. I Love my calmness, which is all about the strength of leadership.

Is that your most marked characteristic?
Not necessarily but it's one of them. But obviously, I am a people person

What do you value most in friends?
What is your greatest fear?
Fear? No. I have since conquered the fear of failure, which is the most common for most people. Only those who dare, stand the chance of climbing the ladder of success. I am not afraid of failure because I have used the strength of courage to succeed thus far and in this new calling, we are going to succeed.

Who are your real life heroes?
If you go through my book, I gave you an accounting book and also a biography of me in the 'art of selfless service' which is dedicated to Nelson Mandela. I love selfless people. That is my mission in life, to help as many people as possible. That is what humanity is all about. Nelson Mandela comes to me as someone I need to look up to as hero.

After you left the civil service what did you venture into?

Within the last 2 years I have been running a public finance management-consulting firm where we deal on issues that relate to public finance and try to help the different arms of government in the international public accounting standards set for the public sector. Beyond that I engage myself in community work. In the last two years, with my friend I have written 2 books, one on public sector accounting and the other on the 'art of selfless service'. I love to engage in community service. I actually also run a foundation called LA ROCHE Foundation where we focus primarily on leadership and education because we believe strongly that leadership is something that should be activated from a younger age not necessarily when someone wants to become a councillor or a minister. We need to start to groom young leaders who will take over from this generation and we've already started doing that in different places.

After retiring I made up my mind that I was going to go back to school and start to do some academics again. So, I actually found myself doing a bouquet of business schooling where I tried as much as possible to realign myself to the private sector life. I went to Harvard and I did a course on public finance management. I attended Wharton Business School to do an advanced management program. I went to INSEAD in Singapore and I also attended IMD Business School in Switzerland to do some work on corporate directorship. All combined together this was for like one year and came back in February 2013 to continue working in my private firm.

What did that exposure give you?
One year in Business school is a totally different thing from 27 years in the civil service because you are able to meet the likes of yourself coming from different industries and professional backgrounds from different parts of the world. Most business schools try to teach you is to have some kind of potpourri of achievers talking to each other and that was a very good takeaway for me. It is actually up to me to move on with my post retirement life.

Before now you were not in APC so why did you think the APC was the best platform to pursue a possible governorship ambition?

You know the All Progressives Congress is a new party for a better Nigeria. Yes, we have all sorts of parties in Nigeria and people have always said there is no difference between the APC and PDP but that's not true because the APC stands for progressivism. APC is about positive change and is about the common coalition of all Nigerians coming together for progress. APC stands for reforms. We are reformers; progressives and we are receptive to change. We are responsive people. We look into the future. The future of all Nigerians can be brought under that banner that is called the APC and we start to pursue it. APC is the best platform for anybody that has the future of Nigeria at heart. Why I am saying this is that the other major party PDP represents conservatism.

What is the difference when we have people defecting back and forth?

It is not about the individuals who are defecting but it is about the ideology. What PDP characterizes in the last 15 years which has been their major message is transformation. But believe me; is there a transformation agenda without parameters? You must transform from a particular place to another point. There must be KPI's. What are the Key Performance Indicators for this transformation? In the last 15 years they've been telling us they've been transforming but they've not been able to have a bench mark for this transformation because it is all about conservatism. There are have been enormous motion without movement. It is steering every Nigerian in the face embarrassingly. We need pragmatism, we need to start to talk about issues where would be able to say we are reforming the society, to create inclusive governance which PDP doesn't do. You cannot have people like us who are interested in talking about issues and who are interested in moving the daily life of the common people forward to go and join PDP. It is not going to happen. You go and ask them where are they transforming to? No where. That is the difference. So anybody that has the future of Nigeria at heart and thinks about the common identity that brings all of us together as a united Nigeria must think about progress, must think about change, must think about APC and that's why I am in APC.

Of recent, we've heard some politicians say it's the candidate rather than the party that wins elections. What's your view on this?

That's a fallacy. I believe that competent and experienced candidates should emerge through a democratic process. However, there's no way a child can be born and grow outside of copulation and parental care. Don't forget we do not have independent candidacy in Nigeria yet. For me, I submit myself totally to party structure and discipline. If anybody thinks he or she can win elections without the party, then that's a recipe for personal disaster. Will such a person have respect for the party, its ideals and programmes when he or she gets there? Is any politician bigger than his community? Absolutely not!

How much time have you had to spend with family especially now that you are foraying into politics?

If there is any time I've stayed with family mostly is in the last two years of my retirement. The mere fact that I was the Accountant General of Lagos State with such enormous responsibility, took most part of my time. So I've spent the last 2 years as the most momentous period for me and I am enjoying every bit of it. I've had enough time with my family all this while.

Tell me how is your wife taking your political foray?

We've been very challenged about it because if you've spent the last 15 years being in a chaotic situation and now you are spending so much quality time with family, of course they believe a whole lot of that time will be taken away but she is also someone that believes in touching humanity. If this is our destiny to touch as many people as possible as we have always done together, then let God's will be done. It's a lot of sacrifice and a lot of things we'll be transiting into, and God will help us. But I tell you, she is in total support.

What do you despise most?
Let me put it this way. It is being in a situation or location to help someone and I am incapacitated.

So what sport do you like?
Ah, I am a football fanatic but when I was in secondary school I used to play cricket. I actually played for Bendel State at a time. But I follow football like food. Then again I am compelled to love all sports right now.