INTERVIEW WITH OLABODE IBIYINKA GEORGE

I WOULD HAVE BEEN SACKED A DAY AFTER I BECAME GOVERNOR OF ONDO STATE

BODE GEORGE ON IGBO PRESIDENT

Can you recall sir how you became governor of Ondo State?

I remembered that I just heard my name announced. In fact, it was my official driver who told me that ‘Oga sir, I hear something’. I said what did you hear? He said ‘they have announced new military governors and I hear your name.’ I just told him to get out of my office.

What exact date sir?

It was in early December. We went for Chief of Naval Staff Annual inspection. We had just finished some sea exercise and most of the top brasses in the Navy, were in Port Harcourt, Calabar area. When I came back, we had a reception for the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Koshoni and I stayed in the Presidential Hotel, hoping to get back to Lagos the following morning. My driver now is late. He had disobeyed certain things and I told him that he was going to end the Christmas in the cooler when we get back to Lagos. So when he came in the morning and said that he heard my name announced on the radio, I thought he was trying to play pranks. Rivers State then had one powerful FM station and I switched on the radio immediately, and true to his words, I heard my name announced. I was surprised because I had never been to Akure, Ondo town and others.

So, what did you do?

I called the Chief of Naval Staff to confirm. He said, ‘yes, Bode, Good luck Bode.’ He knew before but he never told me at all. So, by the time I got downstairs, the crowd was too much, people who heard had stormed the place. They knew all the naval officers who were staying up there. In fact, I remembered the late Chief S.B. Williams was also with us in the hotel. After I heard, I ran to his room and told him and we prayed. I said this is wahala o because I had just come back from the Naval War College in the United States of America. By the time I got to Lagos, my wife had lost her voice, my friends had already gathered because the swearing in was going to be in the morning. When I got home, my home at the Naval Dockyard was jam packed. I saw my wife, my friends, everybody was jubilating and we prayed. The following morning, the Secretary to the Ondo State Government, Mr. Reuben OmoOlorun Modupe had already arrived in Lagos, to see me, to talk and all that. We were to go to Dodan Barracks the following morning for swearing in. The guy came in to pick me from my house with pilot cars and all these sirens.

After the swearing-in, I visited President Ibrahim Babangida and he said, “Bode, congratulations, you have a lot of work to do in Ondo State and I wish you best of luck. You are an officer, do your best while you are there.” I saluted him and I left. We had been told that there was going to be a meeting in Abuja. I have never been to Abuja. What am I going to do? How do we get the flight?  Mike Akhigbe was already the Governor of Lagos State. I went to him and I said, ‘Mike, how do I get to Abuja? He said we would go together. The Ondo State government had arranged my journey, but since I was not used to the system, I told them that I would go with my friend. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, he had gone. I was stranded. I drove back to Dodan Barracks to see President Babangida. He said, ‘yes rural governor’ (he used to jokingly call me rural governor), what is the problem?’ I told him that as I was very much new in the job, the person I was to go with had gone before I got there’ He said that I should worry and that we would go together. I travelled with him in the Presidential plane and we landed in Abuja. After the meeting, the protocol fellow who was to arrange my flight ticket and take my luggage forgot my luggage. In the military, we were not totally perfect, but we were near perfection when it came to logistic movement. What kind of people are this I asked? The plane was delayed and people were already there. I was so angry. He was the next that was fired. I could not work with him. Your first impression goes a long way. You don’t have a second chance to make a first impression. We re-assigned him and then we landed in Lagos. I had made an arrangement with the Navy that the Navy helicopter would drop me in Akure. It was well arranged, sealed and signed. I remembered that my friends, Tunde Savage, Gbadebo Tara and Tayo Adesanya joined me to go to Akure. I was going there for the first time in my life. I had never been there before.

Everybody, including the then governor, the obas, was all waiting at the field because they had been told that we would come by chopper. We thank God we got this aircraft and we landed in Akure at quarter past six in the evening. The people had been waiting since morning and I saw sea of heads. I was 42 years. The Kabiyesis and all the chiefs received me at Akure. The then Deji of Akure, an old man, with all the other obas was there to receive me. You know at that time Ekiti was part of Ondo State. The state government officials had mapped out my programmes and told me that I must pay courtesy call to this, courtesy call to that. I said we must finish everything that night. So I went straight to the Obas’s palace and told the baba, the Deji of Akure that he had to pray for me. We went round to other traditional rulers too before we retired to Government House in Akure.

The Secretary to the Military Government (SMG) advised me to make a broadcast to the people that I have come and I told him to fix it for the second day. The same day I came in was the same my predecessor then, Ekundayo Opaleye handed over to me and as I signed he said, ‘goodluck to you, it is all yours now.’ Everything was now on me. By the time I got to my room, there were security reports, all kind of reports on this and that. I have to take decisions on things. It was a very interesting experience. I looked at the Government House and my concept of governance was that of Lagos, what Lagos was and its paraphernalia of office. For a short man like me, I had to bend before I could enter the place. You know Ondo State had the most vibrant journalists, solid and well educated people. I don’t think any state in the country can meet the ratio of professors per area. Then the journalists came and asked me what my first impression was? I said, ‘I am so shocked, this doesn’t look like a government office, this doesn’t have what I called government.’ They said, ‘Sir, what will you do to change the face of government?’ I said, ‘We will put all the paraphernalia of office, we will re-established that Ondo State is a state with government.’ By nature, I don’t read newspapers, and the following morning, it was General Babangida that first called me and asked, ‘have you seen the newspapers?’ I said, ‘I haven’t sir’. ‘It means you have set yourself a very tough target.’ I saw my pictures in the front page with the story saying I said the state was a rural setting.

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What was your first cabinet looked like?

The first team was those who worked with Opaleye. I sent some packing, some were retained and eventually I got more hands that one could trust and we set out with a very meagre resources.

How much allocation were you getting from the Federal Government monthly to govern the state then?

Once you pay salaries, you have absolute nothing left. That was the state of Ondo at that time. I will tell you what I did. I made all those entire infrastructures that they suddenly have within a short while. I had just finished my MBA programme and so all those things were flashing in my head. I had also just come back from the Naval War College with all the academics and super management style. I met a young man, Sola Ogunsakin, now the treasurer of Mobil Oil now I think. He was God given. I met him in the MBA class. As an engineer, I don’t have problem with accounting procedure, but when you talk about trial balance I have problem. When you say something is debt, we know it is deficit. When you say you have a credit, it means you have surplus. But when they were now talking in their jargons, balance sheet and all that, it confused me. So, Sola taught me. This young man was very brilliant. Immediately I came in as governor, I said they must go and look for him to come and be my commissioner for finance. We needed to change the procedure and we needed to computerised the system. You know in those days, the Accountant General would have all these things in the file. He would be the only one who would tell you that in this account, we have N2 and this one we have N5. He was the one governing, not the governor. We computerised our system. What I could see online Sola could see both in the Government House and in my office. You don’t need the whole file from the Accountant-General to be telling you, oga, this is how we do it, hiding the file without telling you the whole thing. How can you make decisions like that? I have my computer in the office and at home. Sola has it in his office and at home. So, we were on top. I remembered that I took the spread sheet to President Babangida and I told him that how much Ondo State was given, how much was being deducted and how much we owed on just a page. If you want to do any capital project, where will the money come from? This is a serious management. That was how we were able to do so much within a short time. People didn’t know what we were doing, they just saw that people were working and things were going on smoothly to the extent that we built Owena Towers in Lagos at that time.

How much did it cost?

It cost us 27 million.

Apart from this, what other achievements did you record in Ondo State? 

We constructed all those road networks, like Adesida road and built the Governors Office, and the Governors House. We got workers from the Housing Corporation, they were the ones who built all those things you found in Ondo State today, except for one Greek contractor who built the Presidential Lodge. The Government House was an old colonial house; there were only two or three bedrooms there. The dining room there was such that if you wanted to have a banquet ceremony or something else, some commissioners had to be excused from participating. The sitting room was not befitting for a governor. Olumide Oso then redesigned it in a way that you just needed for a functional Government House. So, for one year, we were managing, we shut down the whole place. I remembered that it was the following year Christmas Carol Service that we opened the place to the people. I remembered that Bishop Bolanle Gbonigi came and he was surprised of what we had done.

We did all those complexes you find in the Government House. I don’t think they have changed that till today, except maybe they modernised the place. After a year and a half, I told the President that I would like him to come and visit Ondo State. He said, ‘rural governor, do you have a place for me to sleep?’ I said, ‘you will sleep even if you want to spend a week with all your entourage.’ And he came on a visit. I had a super, first class, committed engineer Awosika, as my commissioner for works. He did all these concepts of roads network, Public Works Department (PWD), the concept of direct labour, patching roads and all that very well. The Agriculture commissioner, Femi Rosan, also did his best.

Then we increased and improved Ondo State Radio Corporation and the state television station so that the people must know what we were doing. We also introduced bursary where you couldn’t get outright scholarship meant for the children of the poor. Once you have good result, it is automatic. I remembered that I requested for permission from President Babangida that the debt portfolio of Ondo State, the one we owed the Federal Government be delayed for one year. It was small money but it was a lot of money in those days.

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How much?

It was about 12 million naira. I told him that if he could stop deducting the money for one year, we would do wonders with it. And then we did. It was not easy approving it for us because I remembered that Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji was dodging and dodging us. But I had to take the whole spread sheet to the President and told him that, ‘sir, this is what we want to do’. He approved it. So that assisted us to have extra money without owing any contractor. In governance, you have to be committed and we didn’t make any propaganda or manifestoes. These were the basic things that the people needed. We promoted thousands of teachers because you could see on one page what the total cost was, whether one could afford it. It was a beautiful opportunity for us because at that time this spread sheet was just coming and it assisted us in the governance.

You have told us a lot of things you did as governor of Ondo State. What were your challenges at that time?

Of course, we had challenges on the issue of chieftaincy matters. I was very lucky that I had a very committed, honest, straight forward and God fearing man as Secretary to the Military Governor (SMG), Mr. OmoOlorun Modupe. The old man who was then the Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Matters, made a report on chieftaincy matters where they were to have more obas. The report had been done and they wanted my signature on it. I was going to look at it as basically as a report but I thank God that I had that SMG, OmoOlorun. He said, “This is your first Executive Council meeting, if you delve into chieftaincy matters, it will engulf Ondo State”. He said he was even surprised that the Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Matters would present this kind of memo. He said ‘You haven’t toured the state; you are just fresh and new in the state. It would conflagrate Ondo State”. He continued, ‘I beg you sir, I must say it in the eyes of everybody because it is going to go into the records, that you should not touch it for now.’ I would never forget that advice. I would have been back in Lagos the following day had it been I appended my signature.

What was in the report?

Apart from the Olowo of Owo, they were asking for Oba of Ijebu Owo. In the northern part where you have the Olukare of Ikare, there was the other Oba, Owaale of Ikare, not too far to Olukare’s Palace. How many will be in one town? In Ondo where we have the Osemawe of Ondo, we would have had another Oba there. In Akure, where we have the Deji of Akure, we would have had another oba there. Those were the recommendations he made to me. Whether he did it intentionally or not, my SMG said within one hour, from the pronouncement that the White Paper had been approved, there would be hell all over Ondo State. I looked at it and said, ‘this is my first executive meeting, why do I need to rush the report’. So that was one very, very, sour point. Then, there was the other issue of Ilaje. I went through the waterside area, the poverty there was alarming. There was no fresh water, no land to connect to the main land. When I got there they told me, ‘Governor, give us water.’ One old man there told me jokingly that Ogogoro mi ni mo fi nmu gari. (It is my spirit that I use to drink my gari).You will see the children excreting in the  lagoon, just down the there, some people were having their shower and then the surge of the Atlantic was so much. We dug boreholes for the Ilajes from the waterside.Coming from Akoko side to Owo, the Oba of Ijebu Owo, the late magistrate Ojomo, was presssurising all my friends that they should make him the Oba. Then we had the ex-Olowo, with all his regalia, with his Rolls Royce and in his superb damask, in his real royalty. I was in secondary school when he was exiled during the crisis in the Western Region. He asked me, ‘Kini mo se’? (what I have done?).Thank God, we looked issues from the first principles and with the fear of God.

Another thing that struck me was the first New Year Church Service that I attended after I was appointed in December, where Bishop Bolanle Gbonigi was preaching. Do you know that his first statement that day was, ‘governor, ranti ki lo wa se nibi (Governor, remember what you have come here to do). It was like a father talking down to the son. I wasn’t annoyed; I was just watching him in amazement. He didn’t miss his words. That is the characterisation of Ondo and Ekiti people. They will tell you the way they feel on any issue without fearing whose ox is gored. They don’t talk in cheeks. Oyo is different. They are a bit moderate and diplomatic. But there is no diplomacy in the people of Ondo and Ekiti at all. They will tell you their minds. And I love that. Those were the challenges.

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Sir, Ondo State then was noted for petition writing. Did you encounter this as a governor?

Plenty of it. If you wrote me any petition and you put your name, I would call you and the person you petitioned. I will tell you one very interesting episode and after that I did not receive any petition again. Chief Mogaji was in charge of Ondo State Investment Company and somebody wrote a very damaging report on him. I read it, it was terrible. I called the SMG attention to it that he should call the two of them to come and see me in my office. So, when they came to my office, the fellow who wrote the petition started fretting, Chief Mogaji was sitting, and he didn’t know who wrote the petition against him. I said to Chief Mogaji, ‘do you know this man?’ He said, ‘I know him very well sir’. I said ‘I received one letter here, signed by this man and I have read it. He is here and I want him to read it before you’. The man couldn’t say one word. So, the news went round the State that if people wrote petition that they were not sure of, they shouldn’t bother to send it to me. That was how I stopped petition writing automatically in Ondo State when I was there. If you wrote it and they were not factual and it wasn’t signed, I wouldn’t bother to read it. Then there was the story about one woman who wrote me a letter about the family house. There was a storm in Akure that uprooted the roof and demolished the house. She herself, her three children and her mother were living in the house before the disaster. She requested that the governor should please help her. I don’t whether she was the one who wrote it or somebody helped her to write it; the write up was so emotional. After I had made my investigation, I helped the woman.

How much were you receiving as a governor as security votes then sir?

First of all, if I remember, we couldn’t take more than five thousand naira as a security vote. It was a lot of money then. Once it was going to be more than that you needed to write to the Chief of General Staff for permission. And if you disobeyed it, you would have your name announced on the radio and you would be removed because it was a military posting.

What is the different between civilian and military government?

Things are a little bit different as civilian government and military government because as military government, we have very strict rules that were handed over to us when we were appointed. There were no grandiose. Ideally, you cannot compare somebody who went through election, who went through primaries, who went through this and that in getting elected and with all the paraphernalia of tons and load of people who work for him in this ward in this local government, they are not comparable.

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