WHO is Senator Adeseye Ogunlewe? That was the question on my mind as soon as I stepped into his house in Ogudu GRA in Lagos. Since he became the Minister of Works, he has courted one controversy or the other. For some time, he’s been engaged in a running battle with the Governor of Lagos State, Ahmed Bola Tinubu, over the control of roads in Lagos.
Tinubu’s supporters have accused him of having a “hidden agenda”. That his mission is not to sanitize Lagos roads but to pave his way to the Government House in Alausa in 2007.
It was a Sunday morning. Even a blind man could tell that the “Lord of the Manor” was in town. Apart from the gun-totting mobile policemen and retinue of aides outside, the minister’s house, the number of hangers-on around, is enough to tell you that a “very important personality” was holding court inside.
Most hangers-on were there not to pay homage or drink from the wisdom of a successful politician, or perhaps listen to his ideology, but to get their share of the “national cake”. Among them were some bread and butter politicians who are more interested in filling their stomach than engaging in any exercise that would impact positively on the development of the country.
I sought for Senator Ogunlewe in the crowd. I found him eventually at a corner in a meeting with some people. As soon as I finished, I walked up to him and stated my mission. “An interview?”, but I just finished speaking to your colleagues”, he told me.
“The kind of interview I want is different, sir”. He stood up and I followed him. “Sir, what I want is a personality interview”, I insisted.
“Okay, I’m ready if you are”, he informed. Believe it or not, this interview was conducted on our feet. One would have expected that the minister would ask us to go into a cosy corner of his house for the interview, but he shocked me by his willingness to grant me the interview while standing. Well, without much ado about nothing, I fired the first salvo.
How was growing up like for him?
“Growing up was difficult for me. I grew up in a very depressed area. I was born in Oko-Awo, Jankara area of Lagos. And growing was like living in the streets, because we didn’t have rooms to live, we were sleeping outside. It was difficult going to primary school. I went to St. Patrick’s Primary School, Idumagbo, playing football all around from Orikoriko to Onola from Onola to Apongbon.
From Apongbon to Race Court. I was a very very good rascal when I was young playing table tennis. I was a master in table tennis. We had a club, “Oko-Awo Boys and Girls Club”. That club moulded our lives because we had older people training us, we had a library there, and we were playing table-tennis. We were going to the library. It was more exciting then because we grew up with clubs. We had “Fuji Boys and Girls Club”. We had Olowogbowo, we had “Isale Eko Boys and Girls Club”, where we played together”.
Did his parents influence his choice of career?
“They were illiterate. They didn’t influence anything. They didn’t even know. They never even inspected my result either in primary or secondary school, they couldn’t read. Only my father could read. My mother couldn’t, but my mother should take most of the credit for my upbringing, but not in the academics, because she couldn’t read or write”.
So what influenced his career choice?
“The area where we grew up was very helpful, because we grew up with clubs, and people that had the first access to secondary schools like Kings College, St. Gregory, Methodist Boys High School, CMS Grammar School.
We grew up together in the Boys and Girls Club and we looked up to them as role models and it really helped us because it was a very terrible area”.
Lagos Island recently has gained notoriety as a beehive of hoodlums popularly called ‘Area Boys”, during his growing up years, was the area like that?
“Europeans that established that place - you know it was all water logged, that is why they called it reclamation area - they now established Boys and Girls Clubs to capture the youths. So these were means through which they could mould our lives and that sort of thing should return to Lagos Island. Unless you have such reference points, it is going to be difficult growing up in Lagos Island.
So, they should establish more boys and girls clubs and let the young boys and girls get their initial training. Now they have destroyed Oko-Awo, you have only Onola. Campos Square is there, Race Court is gone too. We grew up playing a lot of football, a lot of table tennis, from morning to evening sometimes. We grew up there playing all games. We had the Onikan Stadium, KJV Stadium at that time. So, we grew up with all these sporting facilities and it moulded our lives”.
What are the challenges he has faced so far?
“Making all Nigerian roads good all the time is a very difficult assignment, because the state of the road is very deplorable. And we have to do a lot of work”.
In his life, what are the obstacles he has encountered?
“Paying school fees was difficult, because we were paying about two or ten Naira at that time. Even when I was admitted to the University of Ibadan, the initial 10 pounds I couldn’t pay. It was paid for me by my brother who is here now. And please when you are growing up, remember the future, there is no way you’d get out of not meeting the people you’ve offended, assisted, as you go up. There is always another time for you to gather together, so you must behave properly. There would be no room for misbehaviour. I grew up in the Lagos State Civil Service, you must remember that is not the end of the world and you must do your best just as I am doing now, because history would be recorded and you have to be known for something”.
What are the unforgettable memories of his life?
“When I was selling ice, or when I was selling sweet in Oke-Arin, or when I was selling “dodo”, in gutter. Those times, I had to stay in the sun to sell. At the end of the day, it’s only five pounds I would realise from sales. And I would stay there in the sun from morning till evening. You wouldn’t leave the place because they would cart away the sweet. We sold cabin biscuits too. It was memorable because it made us tough. Growing up in Oko-Awo, Jankara area was tough, very tough. We wore our first slippers in primary four.
We couldn’t even afford sneakers. You had to play bare-footed. It was St. Gregory’s College that brought boots into secondary school football. There was none before, everybody was playing bare-footed, including the first eleven of Nigeria then. At the best they would use bandage, there were no boots at all. Even there was a protest during St. Gregory’s versus CMS Grammar School. CMS refused to play because St. Gregory’s wore boots, soccer boots.
I was there, it was like a drama. St. Gregory had to remove the boots for the match to begin. It was terrifying. But now, things are easier. In the whole of Lagos Island, we had only two people with cars, yes, maybe, Ojukwu, after him, Camson. There were no vehicles, we were taking scholar’s bus, and bicycles. We were renting because we couldn’t own the bikes. It was really terrifying growing up, very very terrifying, growing up. But it was good. There was no specific food in the morning.
In the whole of Oko-Awo area, very few families could afford to cook food in the morning. So, we had beans sellers, you go there with half a penny to buy the beans. You buy garri to drink with it. At times, you put garri in the beans, and still use it to drink garri, again to “konkere” your stomach. And that would last you for a day. Then we had “Feshe lu”, you put garri in cold water and mould it into a ball, that is all you’ll eat. There was no bread, no rice, no yam. All these you take once in a week, and on Sunday, no chicken. You only eat chicken during Christmas, once in a year.”
He lived on the streets so to speak, did he at any time succumb to the ills, the attractions of street life like drinking and smoking?
“I have a very terrible mother, and it was impossible for me to drink or smoke, she would kill me. So, I had to go to the Boys and Girls Club to play table tennis and to read West Africa magazine. It was parents that made many youths at that time survive because the parents were very very hard and the teachers also assisted. Woe betide any student when your parents come to school and you see your parents, you are finished that day, because it means they are there to report you. You would be flogged six strokes of the cane openly. In the assembly in the morning, the bad ones would be called out and flogged too. So, the teachers were very helpful. They were like role models to us then”.
At the University of Ibadan, was he involved in extra curricula activities. For instance, like the “October Rush” for newly admitted female students?
“No, it was impossible because I didn’t have enough money. I went to the university with only about 10 pounds, thanks to my brother. So, I had to spare money to get back. So, I had garri and “sawa” fish to sustain me. So, I was not drinking, not smoking, I was an indigent student. For the first year, it was like a miracle getting to the University of Ibadan, so I didn’t even know I was in U.I., so I had problems settling down. So, it was only left for me to read my books”.
What’s his guiding philosophy?
“Pray and remembering tomorrow. Just do good to people all the time, because life is so short”.
What are his shortcomings?
“My short coming is my generosity. I don’t have a car of my own, I have only two houses, they are unpainted. I spend most of my money on people. So, it is a big problem for me. There is nothing I have that I cannot share. And my children are always complaining.”
What is his ultimate ambition?
“I’m a serving officer, my ambition is to provide the best service for Nigerians. I’m a service provider, for me, it is service above self and I’m genuine about it”.
There’s been allegations that your running battle with the Governor of Lagos State, Bola Tinubu is binged on your ambition to become the governor of Lagos State come 2007, how true is this? “It will be a miracle, it is a mirage. I will never contest election again, not to talk of contesting election as governor of Lagos State. I’m a minister and I thank God for it. It’s not possible for me to contest elections. I remember all the elections, I have passed through, I know how human beings are, I don’t want to go through it again”.