Lai Mohammed Lawyer, politician
By Beifoh Osewele
“My brother, I am really sorry, please,” he intones for the umpteenth time as he walks into the compact room, which serves as his office. “It has been a hectic day for me, really,” he says, as he gathers his black agbada and settles into his seat for the scheduled interview, which was starting 15 minutes behind 5p. m. Lying on his table were two copies of a book, Witness to History, a compilation of some of the press releases he has issued as the ACN spokesman in the last six years. It would be launched in Lagos on April 22.
Indeed, for Alhaji Lai Mohammed, lawyer and spokesman of the Action Congress of Nigeria, ACN, there is hardly a dull moment. Deep and firm, he is also an embodiment of humility. Anybody meeting him for the first time would hardly believe that this same man sitting opposite you this warm Tuesday evening is the same man who has revolutionised opposition politics with his scholarly and timely reactions to the omissions and commissions of the government of the day. His voice is only slightly higher than a whisper.
Born in 1951, the former Chief of Staff to Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, former Governor of Lagos State, has, in recent time, become a household name in Nigeria’s politics. Yet, he tells you he came into politics by default. He never planned. But the moment he dipped his legs in the waters, over two decades ago, he has remained stuck. But whether planned or not, he has earned a place as a formidable voice in Nigerian politics.
“My mission in life is to add value to government, and it the process, leave society better than I met it,” the Kwara State-born ACN helmsman insists. The role of the opposition, according to him, is to make sure that the government is constantly put on its toe.
A day hardly passes since he took over as opposition spokesman, without a statement from the desk of Mohammed. But he tells you that the energy with which he does it comes from the Nigerian people. “My greatest inspiration comes from the Nigerian people,” he says. “I am always amazed at the resilience of the average Nigerians, their never-say- die spirit. The average Nigerians deserve more than they are being given today. And if the little I am doing would help to improve their lot, I believe that no sacrifice could be seen to be too much to achieve that. All that we want is a better Nigeria.”
In this interview, he speaks on his upbringing, the lessons he learnt from his parents, his career in the civil service, his foray into politics and why he would never relent in his fight.
Enjoy the full text of the interview.
I was born into a humble but comfortable background in a rural setting in a village in Kwara State when values were strongly respected, when people were judged by the content of their character and when family names meant a lot.
My father was a merchant, and for his time, he was quite comfortable because he performed the holy pilgrimage in 1947 before I was born. For that kind of era, he was quite a very ‘important’ person. My father bought his first car before I was born because I remember that when I grew up, he used to tell us stories of how he would never buy a car again, because he had an accident with the car and somebody got injured or killed. So, from that moment, he never bought any car again. But above all, he was a very strict person who believed in giving his children sound upbringing. We all had to go to Arabic schools; we all had to go to school during the week and also had to help him on the farm at weekends. After school, he had to supervise our homework.
For him to have been able to supervise your homework meant he was educated.
He was not. And that was the strange thing. It took me a long time to realise that my father was not quite educated.
So, how did he manage?
He had a Reckoner, which we used to do mathematics. Of course, he was quite sharp. Come to think of it, what were we doing in the primary school apart from addition and sum? Actually, it took me a long time to know that I knew more than him. But he made use of his native intelligence. We had a very happy childhood.
How many of you were in the family?
My father had three wives and 15 children. I was the sixth.
She was the second and I was her third child.
Growing up in such a large polygamous setting must have been really challenging.
Not really. My own life was quite interesting. Polygamy was not something terribly bad in those days. That was not my experience. I remember that when my father came back from pilgrimage in 1948, he must have made a vow to dedicate his next child to Allah, that that child would not go to a secular school. I turned out to be the one. So, my father had high hopes in me and wanted me to study the Holy Quran. I was not encouraged to go to school. But my stepmother found me a handful, and to relieve herself of my troublesomeness, she encouraged me to go with my older siblings to school. For about two years, my father never knew I was in school. It was in my third year that my headmaster (at Native Authority School, Igbaja, also in Kwara State) said I must get the uniform. That was something my stepmother could not do. So, she had to approach my father. My father was very upset. ‘I told you this boy is going to go to Quranic School, why are you flouting my order?’ After that, he refused to allow me to go back to school.
But when my teacher didn’t see me for two days, he came to find out why I was not in school. My father told him about his vow, but my teacher said: ‘I am sorry sir, I can’t lose my best pupil to you.’ So, they had a compromise for me to go to school in the morning and attend Quranic School in the evening.
So, I owe my education to my stepmother who took the blame for allowing me to go to school. I am saying this to buttress the fact that polygamy was not such a bad thing. We all grew up with our stepmother. She was the one we all went to for food, and for anything. You didn’t go to your own mother, you went to your stepmother who was the oldest wife. She was the intermediary between our father and us. Anytime we offended our father, she was the one that would go and plead, not your own mother. The kind of polygamy we had then is not the one you see depicted on African Magic.
In 1964, when you entered secondary, what were your aspirations and expectations?
In those days, we were full of hope. We were very confident. We saw the sky as not being the limit because it was an era when merit was all you needed to advance in life. You needed two things then: You must be well-behaved, hard working and must be able to do well in school. With those, you didn’t fear anything.
I went to Native Authority Primary School, Igbaja, a village of about 30 miles to Ilorin, the provincial headquarters then. We had very rudimentary forms of transportation and going to Ilorin then was like a pilgrimage. But amazingly, I sat for and passed the common entrance examination to attend Government College, Keffi (GCK), one of the most elitist secondary schools in the northern region then. My father didn’t know anybody. The policy then was that the best seven pupils from the province would attend GCK. So, we all sat for our common entrance examination in that village. Then, a few months later, Amex transport came around, dropped the mail, and when we got to school the following day, the headmaster called us out and said we should go to Ilorin for interview. After a couple of months, I got another letter that I had been admitted to go to GCK. This is the same school that the son of the then Prime Minister attended. Bala Abubakar was my classmate. It is the same school that the late President Umar Yar’Adua attended. Here was the son of a farmer and the son of a prime minister in the same school. That shows you the kind of Nigeria that I grew up in. Amazing. And when we got there, nobody felt intimidated or odd, because we knew we all got there by merit and on our own steam. That is the kind of Nigeria I want back, where merit would be the yardstick.
What are the greatest lessons you learnt from your father?
My father was a stickler for honesty. My father believed that no matter the situation you are in, tell the truth. My father was very spiritual. My father took his religion very seriously. I thank God that we have been able to imbibe a few things from him. For instance, the non-obligatory fast that I observe twice a week was what I met my father doing. No matter the difficulty, situation or challenge my father faced in life, he never ever doubted God. My father believed in fairness and justice. No matter how difficult the situation is, my father would be on the side of justice. I think this idea of fighting for truth, fairness and justice is one of the things I imbibed from my father.
What is your fondest memory of your mother?
The fondest memories I have of my mother is that this was a woman who saw me as the centre-piece of her life, and who preferred to remain in the background, suffer some indignities just to ensure that I am somebody. And this is what I intend to do for my children also.
Your father was not into politics, so do you think he would have approved of you going into politics?
I think he would have, because whatever you are doing in the face of fairness and justice and liberty, my father would support.
So, what would you say prepared you for politics?
I didn’t set out to be a politician. I came into politics by default. I resigned, in 1988, as secretary to the Nigeria Airport Authority to set up my law firm. Unknown to me, there was this streak of stubbornness and streak of fighting for what is right no matter the odds. But I didn’t know then. When we started the authority, I was secretary to the Board and chief operating officer to the managing director. We had a military CEO (Air Vice Marshal…), and there was a seminar that was compulsory for us to attend. But one of the directors had to take my car because he had an accident the previous day. So, I couldn’t attend the seminar. Many others couldn’t also attend because there was a bad storm that day. The MD was very upset, so he called a meeting to find out who didn’t attend.
In a typical military fashion, he would say, you didn’t attend, chose between two weeks suspension or without pay. I saw that as very strange. So, when it got to my turn, I explained why I couldn’t attend because I gave my car to one of the directors who was actually the chairman of the occasion. He said that was not enough excuse, that I should chose between four weeks suspension and one month loss of pay. I told him, ‘Sorry sir, I am on level 15, so only the board can discipline me. My discipline and promotion is not in the hands of any managing director.’
Everybody in the hall went silent. They couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just keep my mouth shut or apologise rather than destroy my career. But I felt it was wrong, that the man had come to destroy the civil service. I had been in the organisation ten years before he came and I knew what the culture of the organisation was. From that day, I knew that the battle line had been drawn between the MD and me. So, the following week, I went to him and said, ‘Sir, I want you to be the first to know, I am going to put in my letter of resignation.’ He was shocked. I told him we couldn’t work together again. That was how I left at 36.
So, I started my law practice with Yomi Edu. During the endless transition of General Ibrahim Babangida, he said he wanted to throw his hat into the ring and run for the governorship of Lagos. I said, ‘Yomi, you know we come from two different backgrounds. You come from a very affluent background. Your father has worked for you. Let me work for my own children too. So, while you’re busy on the campaign field let me run the law office.’ But it was a moral dilemma for me. If your partner is running for an election and you don’t support him and he losses, it becomes a moral dilemma for you. If you don’t support him and he wins, you would be in an awkward position. I now said, what do I have to lose by supporting him, after all it would be for only one year? That was my baptism in politics. Of course, I became the de facto chief of staff to Yomi Edu (governorship candidate of the Social Democratic Party). When Yomi lost election in 1991, it was my wish to go back to my law practice, but many things happened that kept drawing me back into politics. By the time June 12 was annulled, I got fully involved with the NADECO struggle and found that there was no going back.
You served as chief of staff to Governor Bola Ahmed. Can you recall how you met him?
I met Asiwaju for the first time in 1989. At that time, we belonged to two different camps in the SDP. He belonged to the Dapo Sarumi Camp, while I belonged to the Yomi Edu Camp. We heard about him as one of the major financiers of the Sarumi group. Our path did not across immediately until after the primaries of Dr. Femi Agbalajobi and Sarumi was cancelled and fresh one was ordered. Many people wanted to run, but Asiwaju insisted that it was only fair to support Yomi Edu, that he supported them when they needed him. When it mattered most, he threw his lot with us. That was when I started respecting him. Because I was the closest person to Yomi Edu in the campaign, and Asiwaju was our major financier, I got to interact very closely with him on a daily basis. He was a master strategist, even then. But then, my principal was Yomi Edu. But when the June 12 election was annulled, Yomi Edu or any of those who fought on our side for the primaries ticket and for the election did not join the NADECO. So, I got closer to Asiwaju
What is the tie that has bound the two of you all these years?
Asiwaju is a good leader. He is a very courageous person. If you stay with him, you can feel he is adding value to your life. He is also a very loyal friend; he doesn’t abandon his friends. Don’t forget that at the time I met Asiwaju, he was not quite the legend he is now. So, what drew me to him was not necessarily the aura of authority, because he didn’t have it then. As a matter of fact, he was actually a senator on the run. He was a senator who was in detention. He was a senator over whose neck they dangled a treasonable felony. But even then, you could see this was a focused, determined, visionary leader. Even in the confine of his cell in Alagbon, he would hold meetings, direct meetings, apportion responsibilities and would supervise it from there. Of course, we were very comfortable in each other’s company. And very early, I didn’t know what he saw in me, he trusted me. He would give me sensitive assignments. All the while he was in exile we never lost touch.
So, when he came back in 1998 and said he wanted to run for governorship, I asked myself, ‘what have I got to lose? One year campaign.’ I never had it in mind that I was going to serve in his administration. I ruled myself out, because, I am not from Lagos State. But whatever I did, I did for a friend whom I believed in, so that he would succeed.
But by the time the election was over, he made it clear to everybody that I was going to be his chief of staff. I think that it was like you just grew into the job, kind of. I never knew that the office of the chief of staff even existed. It was his own idea that I should become his chief of staff. And this he did over the heads of many people, because many of them complained bitterly: ‘Why would you make somebody who is not from Lagos State your chief of staff?’ His answer to one of them was, ‘You can chose my commissioners for me, you won’t chose my friends and my confidants for me.’ At another point in time, a very mutual friend of ours went to him and said: ‘You’re giving this chap too much power, I don’t trust him because he also has many friends in the PDP.’ Asiwaju’s answer was, ‘If I am dozing and I wake up to find a knife in Lai’s hand, I would go back to sleep because I believe he wants to use it to defend me.’
As chief of staff, on the average, we disagreed at least six or seven times a day, because for me, it was about him succeeding. It was not about the power of just the chief of staff or the pecks of office. Asiwaju is one of the few people that appreciate loyalty, and that is the reason that for more than 25 years, we are still very much together.
You left as chief of staff to run for governorship in Kwara State and you were bloodied. What are the lessons you learnt from your failure in that election?
If I had known the complexities of Kwara State politics, probably I wouldn’t have resigned to go and run. But if I had not resigned to go and run, it would have been a mistake on my side, I would have regretted it. It changed my life completely. If I had not gone to run, at the very best, I would have been a two-term chief of staff in Lagos State. I wouldn’t have known anything about the politics of my state. I would have known nothing about national politics. I went and got bloodied, but today, I thank God that I made that move. If I had not gone out to make that move, I probably wouldn’t have been the person I am today. And there are some battles you must go into even when you know you are going to lose such battles.
So, that adventure was a kind of turning point in your life?
Absolutely, because you don’t understand human beings or life until when you go out to run for office. It is then you really begin to appreciate that everybody has a price, that to most people, you’re nothing more than a meal ticket; you are nothing more than an entity to be exploited. Going into that election made me understand human beings much better than I ever had, and it prepared me for life today that only very little can shock me.
Let us talk about your immediate family. For how long have you been married and what were you looking for in a wife that you found in her?
I always tell people that marriage is the only contract you enter into without knowing what the terms are. You are either lucky or unlucky. I have been very fortunate with my wife. We’ve been married for 34 years, and I would just say I have been very lucky. I have a wife who, at every point in my life, has made huge sacrifices.
How did you meet her?
I met my wife in December 1976 in Lagos. When I left the university, for my youth service, I was posted to the Second World Black Festival for the Arts and Culture as a bilingual protocol officer. So, at work, we were asked to look for students on vacation to work as clerical staff or guides. I mentioned it to a couple of my friends and one of them said he had a sister who had just finished secondary school and was waiting for admission. She came to my office in Ikoyi, and one thing led to the other.
How many children do you have?
We have one boy, three girls and three grandchildren.
You are always reacting to one issue or another on a daily basis. How do you cope?
At times, I feel the pressure. Unfortunately, when you are in the opposition and the government is not doing very well, it keeps you too busy. If you’re in the opposition and you have good government, you have little or nothing to say. But with this particular incompetent government there is work for us everyday. I must say that it has its pros and cons also, because if this government has been very efficient, I would not have been as visible in the position I find myself, probably.
It also helps in honing one’s capacity to also put the government on its toes. It actually makes us to work very hard, get your facts right, do a lot of research so that if they are going to fault you, they can fault you on your method, but not on your facts. It also gives a lot of responsibilities to you because you know that there are a lot of people who depend on what you say. So, you must not be frivolous, you must not be flippant, and you must make sure that in criticising government, you are also adding value to governance.
Do you enjoy being in the opposition?
I didn’t enter politics to be in the opposition. I entered politics to form government. But I found myself in the opposition and I believe that as opposition, part of the way of clawing our way back to government is by being very effective in the opposition. Don’t forget that a couple of years ago, ACN had only one state (Lagos), but we refused to go under. We used advocacy, public interventions, press releases and interviews to mould ACN to the extent that people began to wonder whether we had more than just one state. We used the media, we used the public to fight our wars, and we did so successfully in Ekiti, Osun, Oyo, Ogun, and Edo.
Ever felt like giving up?
I can’t give up for many reasons. First, there are many people out there that are looking up to one. Two: If we give up, what would be the fate of my two-year, three-year-old grandchildren? Yes, it is quite challenging especially when you have to deal with charlatans, when you have to deal with a government that has made impunity and corruption a way of life. But you can’t afford to give up. I just wish there are more people saying what we are saying.
Different people have different perception of you. But how do you describe yourself?
I don’t see myself as different from any other person. Everyday, I try to take account of my life and ask myself: who have I been able to help today? My sense of achievement is not so much in what I make for myself, as much as who are those who have come to me for help today? What did I do? Was I able to assist?
How do you describe your kind of politics?
I look at politics as a means to improve the welfare of Nigerians, my people. Therefore, you would see from most press statements that I issue on behalf of my party, that one is concerned with how we can improve the welfare of the average Nigerian, either when we complain about the economy which is collapsing or write about corruption, ineptitude of government. In all we do, there is one line that runs through-how do we make this country a better place for all of us. That is my politics.
How would you want to be remembered?
This is an ordinary Nigerian who was very fortunate, who benefited a whole lot from the system, and who tried to give back to the system part of what he got. Generally, I believe that I had better childhood than my children have. The system worked better in my time. If the system did not work well, I would not be what I am today. If corruption was as rife as what we have now, I wouldn’t have been able to go to secondary school, let alone the university or get a job. The Nigeria of 1960s and 1970s was one where you could rely on your merit, your good behaviour and progress in life. Today, you need more than that. Today, you can send your children to the best schools in the world, but for them to get a job in the federal civil service would depend on who you know. This is not the Nigerian I met.
I want the Nigeria that made me what I am today. I didn’t have to bribe anybody to go to secondary school or the university. I didn’t have to forge result or buy exam papers. All you needed to do then was to work hard, pass and go to school. I want to get back to that Nigeria where merit would be the watchword and where people would be judged by the content of their character and the quality of their intellect, not today where what you need to survive is to be streetwise, to be a sycophant or to be a brute. Honestly, I am very concerned about the Nigerian that we are leaving behind.
So, the battle to get Nigeria back on track is the battle of my life. Yes. I want to be sure that in 20 years time, my grandchildren would be in a Nigeria that is secured; they would be able to travel to any part of the country; they would be free and be able to work anywhere; the economy would be so good that they would be able to achieve all their potentials. That is the kind of country I am looking at.
Who are the people you look up to as role models in Nigeria?
I have many role models. Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu is a man for whom I have tremendous respect. As a leader, I look up to him, because very few Nigerians have the political strategy that he has. He is one Nigeria who is very courageous. He is one Nigerian who is ready to pursue what he believes in with everything he has. I respect Chief Bisi Akande a lot for his simplicity, honesty of purpose and experience. Also, I have a lot of respect for General Muhammadu Buhari. General Buhari is probably one of the few Nigerians today that can call out a million or two million people because they believe he is a very honest and straightforward person.
I have many people I look up to, who inspire me either from the viewpoint of their integrity, viewpoint of their knowledge and courage, but I think my greatest inspiration comes from the Nigerian people. I am always amazed at the resilience of the average Nigerians, their never say die spirit. The average Nigerians deserve more than they are being given today. And if the little I am doing would help to improve their lot, I believe that no sacrifice could be seen to be too much to achieve that. All that we want is a better Nigeria.
When you say no sacrifice would be too much, does that include dying for Nigeria? For you, is Nigeria worth dying for as it now?
I think we have said things, done things that in retrospect, when I read them, I begin to wonder if I didn’t know what I was saying could anger some people. And when you talk to power, you’re taking risk everyday. But for me, because it is the truth, and because the purpose is to correct the situation and find solution, I believe that I am not doing anything out of the ordinary. I have taken some fairly big risks in the business of being in the opposition. But I think I think I have been most gratified by the kind of reactions I receive from the average Nigerians who say to me, ‘actually, you represent what we feel.’ So, the average Nigerian is my greatest driving force. Often, I am embarrassed when I go out and people I have never met before come to me to say: ‘Alhaji Lai Mohammed, oh, thank you very much for all that you are doing for us.’ Such encounters give me the feeling that what I am doing is not in vain after all. I always feel humbled and gratified.
Of course, the people who are mostly uncomfortable with what I am doing are not the common man. The common men love what we are doing. But those with entrenched interest, the interest that we attack everyday are the ones that would abuse me everyday and call me names. But they don’t matter, because the people for whom we are speaking, the downtrodden masses of Nigeria appreciate what we are saying and doing.
What would you consider as your worst decision?
Probably not sticking to my law practice. When I started my law practice in 1988, I had very high hopes. I was doing very well. I think if I had stuck to my law practice, probably I would have been a SAN (Senior Advocate of Nigeria) today. But I don’t think I would have been as happy as I am, because I feel fulfilled. So, really, I can say abandoning law practice was a mistake.
What is your most valued possession?
My name and my integrity.