Last week Saturday June 4, 2023, I had just finished watching the F. A. Football Cup final, in England when a small piece of news item caught my attention that His Excellency Mr Akinwunmi Ambode, former governor of Lagos State between 2015 and 2019 would be clocking the diamond age of 60 years on Wednesday, June 14, 2023.
My immediate reaction was one of surprise; and I asked myself, how come? It occurred to me that time moves so fast. It seemed like yesterday when I first set eyes on him in the late 80’s. His physical appearance has not changed much, retaining its youthful gait. He looks boyish with an oily smile whenever you see him; he has that athletic build that makes him look like an Olympic hopeful; With those bright looking eyes and broad shoulders that aspiring boxers would envy, Ambode does not exhibit any trait of a man who today, marks his 60th birthday on earth. Well endowed and blessed with unique insights, he comes across instead as an unassuming gentleman and in fact somewhat meek expression. Incredibly, despite his chequered career, there are no traces of pride or those I–have–achieved-kind-of –look in him, always preferring to remain shy and ensconced in his privacy. Now, as we celebrate with him, I can only recall some of my early encounters with this enigma not too long back. Incidentally, all of the encounters have always been instructive and revealing. One of them was in 1980 at the Federal Government College Warri, when he was just 17. It was at the cricket pitch where he was a bowler—and a very good one at that. Mind you, in the sport of cricket, there are two broad categories of bowlers: pace and spin. Pace bowlers rely more on the speed of the ball to dismiss batsmen, whereas spin bowlers rely on rotation and turn of the ball. Ambode had both techniques. He may not be your Imran Khan or Shoaib Akhtar for those who know the game very well, but we all got impressed with his special abilities. At that youthful age, you could see traits of greatness in him and a man who is mentally, physically and spiritually alert. Ambode was to represent the then Bendel State (now Edo State) in many high profile cricket competitions. As you may well know, family and friends applauded him for those early exploits. Next was at the University of Lagos where he read Accounting. Our paths would cross often and in one of such occasions Ambode was to display his charming personality. No one knows, but from his attitude to life in the university, you could notice something was different from him; he had that uncanny insight that portrayed him as someone specially anointed and set aside from his peers for a future task. No matter how strong the situation, his expansive smile would always resolve the issues at stake. It came as a surprise to many close to him, that this apparently harmless young man may not be ordinary after all. He would look at you with those piercing eyeballs that seem to be reading your mind, and speak to you in such a robust language that is hard to turn down. In any discussion, it takes Ambode less than five minutes to make his point; he has the ability to break down and explain what would take others ages to do. He is that gifted. More outstanding for this Epe-born technocrat is the fact that he is more of a good listener. He sees more and talks less. That’s how he became the favourite of his colleagues in school and beyond. As a result, they found it easier to become his paddy and flow with him. Suffice to say that throughout his stay at the University of Lagos, he had no blemish and was loved by all who crossed his path. Some people actually believe that he never gets angry; this is because no one ever remembered seeing his face frown or sad. He is always upbeat, calm and if nothing else professional; neither is he ambitious. Because, where people lobby and struggle to get something done, Ambode’s powerful aura does for him. You had the impression that, like the Igbo would say, his gods had cracked his palm kernel for him to pave his way straight! If this was so, Ambode would have exhibited such a carefree attitude to life that would have belied his impressive resume. You could see that his lifestyle is a testament to those wishing to aspire to the top—extremely disciplined! He did not indulge in those excesses that youths come along with. Not that he is a saint either, but he was as straightforward as he was simple, never allowing those social vices to distract his focus! We left school in June 1984, only to be dispersed to our various destinations for the National Youth Service Corps scheme.
I did not get to meet Ambode again until 1996, one Sunday morning, at the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Acme Road, Ogba where he worshipped. As I arrived for service that early morning, I saw at the entrance to the church a stocky security man ushering people in. As I walked closer, I noticed this one didn’t look like the usual shabbily dressed men (no insult intended). The man confronting me was impeccably dressed in a sparkling white long sleeve shirt on grey trousers. His oily face carried a wide trademark smile that reminded me of intending students union “contestants”, those days in the university; they would smile and shake hands with you and give you the thumb up as if to say: remember me on the day of voting! Once it was our turn, I screamed “Ambodes”! And thereafter, we both hugged each other and praised God. That was the start of another long period of enduring relationship that brought another extraordinary aspect of Ambode to life—a celebrated giver! By this time, he was already a treasurer at the Mushin Local Government. By virtue of my being a businessman, I would later invade his office seeking for petty “contracts” Here, Ambode was exceptional. He surpassed the imagination of everyone, including me, who crossed his path so much that he was to be nicknamed “Here comes the helper!” This was so from 1996 to 1999 when we had unfettered access to him. Ambode gave practical solutions to everyone that cornered him for help; and he extended this to the Redeemed Camp at KM 35, where he attended programmes regularly.
You will often find him serving bottled drinks and distributing assorted foodstuffs to various worshippers; he doesn’t discriminate in doing so. You only notice his genial disposition and infectious smile. This can only come from the mind of someone who understands the meaning of life. Only few can deny the fact that this cheerful giver derives joy, perhaps, from the satisfaction of those that come around him. Ambode loved the things of God and I almost asked him if he wasn’t aspiring to mount the pulpit as a confirmed Man of God! We both laughed at this. He would later tell me he was a volunteer in the church. Afterwards, I pointed out to him that since we left school, he has remained consistent, humble and reliable to which he responded that he was only being himself–a realist and optimist. Maybe, unknown to him, the significance of his charismatic lifestyle was now becoming recognizable nationwide. By this time, Ambode was steadily climbing the ladder of life in such a rapid manner becoming the (*60*)-General and Accountant-General respectively of Lagos State. You could see the fingers of God in the affairs of his life. Not long after, I sojourned away from Lagos and did not get to see him regularly except when he came for FAAC meetings in those days. Next time we were to meet, it was in a most improbable manner. This was in 2016 at Ojodu- Berger and 2017 in Ikeja. By this time, fate had propelled him as the governor of Lagos and there had been a fire outbreak in that area. It was stiflingly hot and I was one of those sweating profusely on that fateful day. Despite the gridlock that ensured, it took Lagos State Fire service less than five minutes to respond. His Excellency Ambode arrived moments later. Swiftly, the fire was put out and the injured conveyed to the hospital in an ambulance. The governor was hailed by those in the crowd for that exemplary performance and the standard did not drop until his exit from office. The next chance meeting was late in the night at Ikeja when the bus terminal was being constructed. This was also the period of “Light-up Lagos.” At midnight, as we were heading in the direction of Lekki, when suddenly the governor’s convoy emerged from out of the darkness.
We were to learn later that Ambode had come personally to inspect the ongoing project. This was around 1am and a cold night. It happened at a time privileged people were supposed to enjoy their sleep. The truth is, Ambode took his job as governor seriously. Records show that in the four years the political structure of Lagos allowed him to reign, his administration handled quite a lot of projects; a close examination showed that they could have been up to 1,389. He applied the logic of common sense to supervise his projects and that helped a lot. What many may not know was that Ambode only got better with challenges. It was as though he had a pact with destiny. Those who may want to dispute this only have to dig into his background. I will explain a few examples here. Sometime in 1995 while serving at the Mushin Local Government, Ambode had embarked on a pilgrimage to Israel. Somewhere in Nuweiba, while returning from Mount Sinai, they were involved in a ghastly accident. The luxury bus they were travelling in, somersaulted and ended up in a deep ravine. At least 22 people lost their lives. But he came out unscathed. He had another brush with death on the Third Mainland Bridge when his car was bashed from behind by a driver. He has God to thank for escaping that incident. After serving for 27 years in the civil service, he voluntarily left at 49. Don’t forget that this was an age in which most people on the wrong side of life were searching for jobs. So, Ambode cannot be more than grateful to mother nature. It was from the civil service with an unblemished record that he was drafted to serve as the state governor. So when next you hear people calling him the accidental politician or technocrat, that’s the angle they are coming from. You know as it were, politics is a different ball game. If it was possible to excel in the civil service without much ado, in politics, such a move could be read the other way. And so, although Ambode tried to “be himself”, discharging his duties without fear but with favour, things didn’t “jell,” to use Warri boy’s language. The “accidental politician” was quickly engulfed in a battle no one understood. He soon found out that being in the civil service was not the same as in politics. Some people actually joked that it was like being a commanding officer without troops! Unfortunately, in political battles, there is no room for niceties. That experience is better left in the realm of imagination. Since then, the trained chartered accountant has studiously kept to himself avoiding controversy as much as possible. He tried to ‘flow’ with his party while probably exploring other ventures in life. As you may well have guessed some Nigerians are amazed that there is such a “politician” so much vilified internally, and yet restrained himself by not decamping to another party. Paradoxically, the train has moved on. Now as the amiable gentleman clocks 60, he must be reflecting on the real meaning of life. Here is a man of strong faith who had to retire to meet up with “family interests.” Imagine someone who dreamt of becoming a corporate czar ending up as a level 8 officer in the civil service. He took the job and started from scratch because of his legendary humility—the same that stood for him in the course of time! No doubt, his life has been eventful and fulfilling. As he clocks 60 today, he will be thanking God for preserving his life and giving him the opportunity to serve his fatherland. He will also be thanking God for making him useful to his family and friends alike. May God grant him many more years on earth in good health and prosperity. Congratulations Ambode.
- Oyofo is of the Federal Government College Warri, 1980 set.