What life has taught me —Gbenga Daniel
Otunba Gbenga Daniel is a former two-term governor of Ogun State. In this interview by MONICA TAIWO, he speaks on life after leaving office, his new passion and interests, and what his next move in politics will be. Excerpts:
Sir, what have you been up to since you left office?
Well, I have been very busy. I have post-office challenges which is public knowledge but, beyond that, I have always been an engineer as you know and I have, prior to coming into service, excelled in my own chosen field which is actually my first love, engineering transportation systems and all of that. The first thing to do after all of eight years is to go and see if things are doing well because at the end of the day, that is what you are and that is my own perception. So, basically, I got busy, of course, the company was well run in my absence, but I started putting additional value and that is something that is more than enough to occupy me. I have also been busy in various construction works which people don’t know is my passion. But beyond all of that, I found out that there is indeed a need to mentor a large number of younger elements who are also looking forward. There is no way I could run from those challenges. I have been asked questions; people want to know what makes me tick and all of that. So, to a very large extent, I have been busy helping, supporting, mentoring, especially the younger ones.
Can you give us an insight into your background? What was growing up like?
Like a typical, average Nigerian family, I was born in and had my early education in Ibadan specifically, SWA/648 Liberty Stadium Road was where I started with St Davids Primary School in Oke Bola. It is common knowledge that my father was a clergy man. So, naturally, I came from a highly disciplined home, very religious and stuff like that. But beyond that, we did everything that younger people did. You will be surprised to hear that at the primary school level, I was playing soccer, I was in centre forward.
Do you still play now?
No, that didn’t go beyond secondary school. I got into more serious things at the secondary level. I still play table tennis till now. That is one sport that I love so much.
What lesson has life taught you?
Life is in stages and there isn’t anything you can tell someone who is starting because he wants to achieve; he wants to optimise his potential and you cannot tell him not to do that. But as you get matured, you start looking at life from different perspectives. You start looking at life from the angle of how many people you have been able to positively affect and support. That becomes for you a major success. Life has taught me that you have a good name, a good reputation and, as much as possible, try to protect your reputation. You derive happiness from various things. Some derive it from their bank accounts, whereas I have also discovered that the cash may be required to make things happen, but that does not determine happiness. Happiness is being at peace with yourself, loving yourself and appreciating yourself the way you are. And, to a very large extent, knowing that the people around you and the people who look up to you are not disappointed.
As a clergy man’s son, can you relate your life’s lesson to your upbringing?
There is no question about that, when you look at what has always given me joy. Yes, even my father told me that at the end of the day, I am going to end up on the pulpit.
Are you prepared for that?
Between you and me, it is not a question of preparation. Sometimes circumstances, can get you to do all of that. There is nothing wrong with that. But what I was trying to explain is that after I got to a certain level in the private sector, I started the Gateway Fund Foundation and the foundation really is about helping the poor and the needy; empowering them in whichever way you can, setting people up and providing micro credits and other things like that. That was the precursor of my intervention in governance. So, when you look at it from that angle, you will see that what I have carried into governance is what I had got from my family background, from home and from the foundation. That was more or less the basis of the administration that I ran.
The administration was human based, appreciating the fact that all men were not born equal; people have different character traits, different talents, believing that nobody is entirely bad or entirely good; appreciating that my responsibility was to optimise the potential of everybody. I helped the rich to become richer and helped the people with other challenges because I was responsible for everybody. With the kind of the work we did, upbringing reflected in the way we ran government. It was all-inclusive, giving everybody something to bite.
Part of the highlight of my administration was the pledge that I made when I looked at the number of unemployed people that we had prior to my coming in and various governments were retrenching and I said, ‘how can the government be retrenching when people are at home, jobless’. So, I made a pledge that I will not retrench anybody in all of my eight years in the public service and I was going to do all I could to double the work force and also create indigenous ways of providing employment. It is the same trend…the upbringing, foundation activities, government activities…and it has impacted what I did.
Like you said, you tried your best as the governor of Ogun State, but when you hear people say negative things about you, how do you feel?
Well, clearly quite a number of things I hear people say about me is not just me, it is quite the opposite [of what I am].
I was even scared of calling you for this interview…
Because of what you heard? Because I was going to eat you raw or spill your blood? It is unfortunate that the environment that we have, the level of underdevelopment, there are a lot of superstitions. The myths around people in public office can actually diversify and sometimes give people the names that are not theirs. I think that for people who knew me, my upbringing and background, they would not believe some of those things, but regrettably, quite a number of people wouldn’t know who you are.
How do you feel about these things? Are they not discouraging?
At the beginning, I was quite upset, but governance is a funny thing. I remember that when all of these started, I felt like, I needed to correct all these misconceptions. There were other people who came to me and said, ‘why are you bothering yourself? Just continue to do what you are doing. History will be fair to you and in any case, it is the nature of people to criticise people in government. So they will criticise you whether you are even an angel’. I then said, ‘let us continue to do the work and the work will speak for us’, which was what we did and I am very happy we did that. But to be very honest with you, sometimes when you hear, especially people who are educated, who believe all these things, it is something that is quite shocking to me.
After sometime, I got used to it and I just took it as some of these people are just naïve, especially the people that I thought should be educated. Regrettably, the level of naivety in our society is unbelievable. It does also appear that there is also something in our nature that the only thing we want to believe is tales by the moonlight, if you ask me. See, I asked a friend of mine who ran a news magazine and knew me before I got into government. I asked him, ‘two, three years down the line, I have been running helter skelter, we have turned around this state and everybody is looking good, why is it that I am not appearing in your papers as doing good? He then said, ‘I don’t pray that you appear on my front page. The front page is for bad news; we don’t put good news on the front page?’ I thought it was a tragedy that the system had no room for good deeds and, regrettably, the people that are being celebrated are the people who have the capacity to manipulate. So what we are celebrating, to a large extent, is manipulation. So, if you don’t like to manipulate because of your background, nobody remembers. But for me, it has gotten to a stage where I no longer, regrettably, care.
You are a handsome man, good physique; obviously this will attract the opposite sex. How do you handle advances?
I think what attracts the opposite sex, at a certain level, is not so much of whether you are handsome or ugly. I think it is just because of the level of want in the environment that people will just look up to whoever can help solve their problems. So whether you are handsome or not [they will make advances as long as you have the means].
Are you denying the fact that you are handsome?
Well, thank you very much. I think, basically as a man, you are attracted to various people for various reasons and when you have the opportunity to run as governor, it doesn’t mean anything any longer. It means nothing because it comes in different ways, different forms, various objectives; what other people see, I don’t see. I am a human being, there is no question about that. Of course, I compliment good things, but if you also appreciate some of what some of us have faced, there is something that we learnt while growing up. It is the unlimited capacity of women for mischief and so some of us have been trained in such a way that, for whatever comes easy, there must be catch. So if somebody is spraying herself at you, our training is caution, be wary; there must be a catch somewhere. If the catch is just ordinary for fun, ok fine, but more often than not, it is more than that. So, if you know how the terrain of politics is, then one of the things you have to be careful with is the opposite sex.
Has there been a particular experience that you find it hard to handle with the opposite sex?
How did you meet your wife?
I ran into her at the bookshop. In my earlier days, I was a bookworm. So, I went into a book store and saw her also looking at books. We exchanged pleasantries and I then found myself going to the University of Ibadan to say hello to her and one thing led to another.
What were the qualities that made you say, yes this should be my partner?
First and foremost, she looked very beautiful. When we were much younger, we looked at beauty from top to bottom. So, it was not just the face; she had very straight legs and she was walking with so much poise and confidence. That was the immediate attraction. The second attraction was that we have been trained to believe that the people you meet in clubs and parties are not exactly wife materials. So, to now find somebody in the bookshop, that is really what made it happen.
What is your next move in politics?
The environment is getting worse by the day and if you look at it from that point of view, what a reasonable man needs to do is to stand and watch and that appears to be my current mood. But I must confess, there is also a school of thought which says history has put you under pressure that you couldn’t come, run the thing for all of eight years and things are not going right and, because you feel that you don’t want to ruffle any feathers, you have had your time, you just decide to keep quiet. Your children will ask you, ‘what did you do?’So, to that extent, one will study the situation carefully. One thing that is unfortunate is that different animals have entered the forest and the objectives are no longer the same. Some now look at it as straight forward business, it is no longer about service. In fact, it has become like a war zone. So, the questions that you ask yourself are, ‘why this war, if indeed politics is about service to humanity? ‘Why must things be like this?’ So, those are the conflicting mindsets that one has, but I have no doubts in my mind that, somehow God has always intervened in the affairs of this country. Sometimes, when you feel like it’s over, it is going to crash, something happens and we move on again. So, Nigeria is a cat with nine lives.
Let us leave office and politics. Who is Otunba Gbenga Daniel, the father and the husband?
I am very close to my children, extremely close. They are, to a very large extent, very independent but we are very close. I think I love them a lot without any exception. Of course, public service created a little bit of a gap. I am not particularly happy about all those eight years when I wasn’t able to get close to them the way I would have loved to. But in the last two years, we have bridged the gap and I am particularly happy that they all turned out to be good children; none of them has been a deviant and they are very well behaved. They also don’t carry the toga of the office because they are trained not to. They are very respectful. They have also been trained to understand that they have to work and earn their own money. They can be supported because that is how it is today, but they must appreciate the worth of money; they must work to earn money. They must measure the amount of effort it takes to get a particular amount on their own so that when someone is supporting them, they will have appreciation.
I am very close to my wife. It is not as if we do not have our issues as husband and wife, but I understand her perfectly and she understands me a lot. She makes allowances for my human foibles and I am very attracted to her. I have no issues with her. If I have to look for a wife again, I will look for her. I have given you the very honest answer.
What is your best moment ever?
I think that was Class 3 at the Baptist High School in Abeokuta; it was prize-giving day. Those days, it is after Class 3 that you drop your many subjects and focus on nine. So in Class 3, on the prize-giving day in 1971 when I collected 11 prizes for the best student out of 13 subjects. My father was there and the way the arrangement was done those days, the parents that are invited were at the front, the students were at the back and so when they were calling the prizes, I kept running from the back to come and take it and after I had run three times, they said, ‘just stay here’ and they put a chair for me and I collected 11 out of 13 presents in the presence of my father. That was the happiest day of my life.
It is not possible to live a life at 60 without any regrets, but I think by and large, whatever you can call a regret I call an event of life and you can learn from it and make you a better person. So, there isn’t anything I could say I regret. I think, with the amount of information at my disposal at every point in time, I took a decision.
Credit: Monica Taiwo