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Determination to free Lagos from state capture, engender development made me join politics, says Rhodes-Vivour

(First published in ThisDay on Saturday June 8, 2024)

Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour is the gubernatorial candidate of the Labour Party in the last election in Lagos State.  He is from a prominent family of lawyers across generations. In this interview with Ferdinand Ekechukwu and Azuka Ogujiuba, he addresses myriad of issues and developments in the State. He also charges the ruling All Progressives Congress-led government in the State to do more and to always show empathy when dealing with the people of the State. The trained architect also talks about recent demolition of structures and why he ventured into politics. Excerpts:

Let’s start with the national anthem which the government just passed into law that has drawn mixed reactions and attracted backlashes, what’s your take on it?

I think that this government never really had a plan for the people. And that’s why you see a lot of policy inconsistencies, a lot of flips-flops and a lot of wrong prioritisation on what will actually affect the people. First of all, I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with the idea of going back to a colonial era type of anthem. Leaders are supposed to lead their people forward. If they do not like the current anthem they could have called for entries or adopted a song. Now the issue is that they are now taking us back to a song that was written during the colonial time; a song that was written by a British person, over a Nigerian person, which is the current anthem and is just not the priority. So, I feel it’s a misplaced priority. If they want to do that they should be consistent; let us change our flag as well, let’s go back to the British flag. If we want to move back to the good old days let’s move back to a time where we had quality healthcare, let’s move back to a time where people from England and America were coming to University College Hospital, Ibadan, to school and get education because our healthcare system was amazing. Let’s go back to a time where people were going to public schools and were getting quality education. It’s not this superficial thing that our politicians constantly leave us with. I think it’s just a distraction to take away conversation from things that really matter like the high inflation; high unemployment rate; the fact that so many companies are closing down; the level of corruption that this government has been involved with from the Humanitarian Affairs minister, that’s the ones that have been caught they are supposed to be solving our multidimensional poverty…just misplaced priorities.

You often give the impression that you are capable of governing Lagos. Do you really have what it takes looking at the cosmopolitan nature and geographic spread of the State?

Oh definitely! Lagos State has one of the smallest footprints in the country. Lagos State is the most cosmopolitan State in Nigeria. Lagos State is one that would embrace innovation before most other States in Nigeria. Lagos State has a huge population that I have the pulse of. And really, I have one of my older uncles he always says ‘no matter how mediocre a leader is, put them in Lagos State they would seem to shine’. Why would they seem to shine? Because Lagos State, since the time of the Benin Kingdom has constantly benefitted from massive investment and development. From the time of the Benin Kingdom where it was the coastal arm of the Benin Kingdom, you then come down to when it was colonial government enclave because a lot of money put in there, a lot of development that happened then had the returnees that came back; families that are still well known today, a lot of investment came in, a lot of building happened and then you had a situation where it now became the capital of Nigeria, a lot of money came in, a lot of development happened and then it became the commercial hub of Nigeria. So, from all over Nigeria people came in and developed and created enterprise and business and all of that. So, these are all factors. Now, for me I feel that the most important quality of a leader is empathy and intellectual capacity. Empathy for me is the most important one because what we have seen from our leaders for so long is that they just don’t care. You will steal a country blind and somehow expect that it will still develop.

And I give examples of people like Alhaji Lateef Jakande. The amount of growth, the amount of development he was able to achieve in Lagos State in four and half years and you see that he was not one that focused on appropriation and collecting money for himself and his family. You see how he lived, you see the kind of car that he drove, you see the house that he lived and you can see that he was inversely proportional to the growth that Lagos had in four and half years. Today, we are still talking about him as the best governor Lagos has had in recent times. For me, it’s creating transparency and accountable system, having a vision for the people, creating policy with the people. The problem also with governance in Lagos State is that a lot of development and projects are based on what the politicians will make for themselves. That process slows down the development of the State. If you are going to communities and say ‘okay these are top state priorities for the government which one do you think we should do first’ and you are doing it not because you can put your brother on the board or your son on the board, like we have a situation where the federal government is saying they want to do a coastal road and they destroy some properties in the process, people were shouting. I was one of those that think they should stick with the original plan, only for them to now turn round and say they are now aware of submarine telecommunication cables.

Now, if they did an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), they will know that those cables are there but they did not. And you have a situation where they budget trillions of Naira for the project without going through any competitive bidding. They just gave it to one person and they’ve started sand filling the place. They now say they are changing the road. So, what is the real aim of that sand filling they are doing at such astronomical rate? And how is it that the president’s son is on the board of same company and we are all looking? This goes back to what I’m saying. That’s why you see there’s a lot of headline – Lagos is doing this, Lagos is doing that; but the people are not feeling it. The political class has eaten enough; it’s now time for the people. When you listen to the vision of leaders across the world where they are going like people are using AI to create new government, people are focusing on equipping themselves for world wars, they are pushing their science to astronomical levels, they are planning trips to mars, trips to the moon, our people here just want water and light, and good roads. That’s where we still are. We have not even gotten to a point where there’s ideology in our politics. I think that anybody that has love for the people must be able to make impact to propel our State to a great height.

There’s this opinion in some quarters that if you had been politically active and engaging in some issue-based discussions before the election that it would have increased your chances of victory at the last gubernatorial election. What do you make of this?

I would say that’s completely false. If you talk of people that engage in issue-based discussion, if you mention names, you have to mention me first. And after that you look at someone like Funsho Doherty. Because we were all about policy, we were all about selling innovation. We literarily did seven debates selling our vision, selling our ideas on multiple sectors in the State. I have been writing opinion pieces for last six years after my senatorial run, consistently on different topics. You can just search for it. I have done so many interviews – radio, TV talking about ideas that you can do this for the health sector, you can do this for transportation sector; that this is how we manage the waste and still have proper waste management than supposed to waste dumping. Listen, the way I see it is, the APC has an agenda of bigotry and that’s what they use to divide the people in Lagos for a long time. If you look at someone like Jimi Agbaje, when he was running they called him “Jimi Chukwu”. You know all the other things that happen around during this election time. And why is this? Now, look, the basic explanation is this – the indigenes of Lagos, the very few feel comfortable submitting to the APC. So, you would find that the PDP tends to always put forward indigenes of Lagos.

For instance, look at someone like Funsho Williams, he was with them or even Jimi Agbaje, he was with them but there’s something that always pushing them out because they feel this is my State that I should not have to take this. Now, what you find is that non-Yoruba speaking residents of Lagos State tend to be the biggest supporters of the indigenes of Lagos in the elections. So, every time they come with this tribal twist, when they see that tribal twist is not working enough, then you start to see them bringing in violence, intimidation, whether it is psychological intimidation like ‘oro’ that they tried to use to tell people that they should not vote or face group intimidation of people like touts coming out to tell people they cannot vote as they did to ‘mama Chukwudi’ or something like the violence that happens on day of the election. If we are talking about issue-based, Governor Sanwo-Olu dodged seven debates. Let’s say he missed the first one because he was busy following Bola Ahmed Tinubu all over campaign leaving his primary position as the governor of Lagos State. And guess what, once we beat him in the State in the presidential election, he started calling, saying he wants a debate, but nobody was going to debate with him. Overnight he became a hairdresser, he became an electrician, he became an usher. So, if you are talking about issue-based, I mean you cannot find pictures or videos of Sanwo-Olu campaigning. What is his position on anything? So, I think that’s completely false. What they do is you see if you don’t have a vision to sell to a people, you sell division. And that’s what we have seen in Lagos State happen several times.

Talking about ideology, you started from KOWA Party, to PDP and then you moved to the Labour Party. How does this fit your political ideology looking at how you have moved over the years?

My ideology in terms of politics right now is to free Lagos from the state capture that it has been in for the last two decades. The state capture that has no respect for the social contract between the government and the governed, state capture that shows situation where people are paying huge amounts of money to Alpha Beta consistently; money that should be put in our education sector, in our healthcare sector; state capture that does not account and is not accountable of transparency especially for a State that takes so much pride in the amount of taxes that they are able to generate. I would be in any association that is going against that structure. At least, thank God you’ve said I ran for local government Chairman in Kowa, I ran for Senate in PDP and I ran for governor in Labour. You will never hear that Gbadebo at any point in time went to join the winning team which is what politicians usually do. If they don’t win in this party, they will join the ruling party. You will never even hear I attended meeting to even talk about it.  For me, the main objective, the main ideology now is a Lagos that truly works for Lagosians. And whatever vehicle I need to use to get that done, I will use it. I did not intend to leave the PDP and my leaders in the party are aware of that. There was an agreement reached, it was broken, and I left. And I left with their blessings.

You are from a renowned family of prominent lawyers dating back to your great-grandfather up to your own father. In what ways did this trajectory influence your life?

I think coming from a family that I do made me to be passionate about history. This is because there is so much history, it’s very well documented. And also there’s the unfortunate side and there’s the positive side. The unfortunate side is having your ancestors kidnapped and human trafficked. The positive side is the British were able to help them capture the vessel, direct it to Sierra Leone which is where they now got their education and then were able to come back and become the second indigenous judge ever in Nigeria. That’s for S.B Rhodes. The Vivour side of my family similar thing happened to them. They got education, and then they got involved in farming. So William Vivour who is my grandfather’s grandfather was one of the most prolific cocoa famers in Africa. This is well documented in the British Geographical Society. Having that knowledge and understanding that people can go to even the most turbulent times will make them develop certain level of toughness. I’m talking of mental toughness. Like I remember when I came out under Kowa Party for local government chairman people were laughing at me that ‘what is this one doing. You just moved down to the country, ajebo you are running for local government chairman’. Some people were even saying ‘he should go and run for councilor’ (laughs). You see even from the darkest moments you can have the brightest moments. That’s one. Two the fact that there’s been significant continuity as you might know my uncle just retired not too long ago from Supreme Court, gives us this responsibility of passing on the touch to the next generation and not staining the name.

I have a name that’s come down to me, that I hold dearly and people before me held very dearly. They don’t want it stained. And they’ve given me that levity. I cannot now be involved with characters that you know will be involved in some scandal because I feel I have more to lose in staining my name than the money that I want to get. We are comfortable. I might not be the richest man but we are comfortable. And contentment also is key. We have privilege but that privilege must be used for impact. And that’s how I was raised. I remember the way I got into this whole thing (politics) was when Dr. Akinwumi Adeshina wanted to bring in GMO – Genetically Modified Foods – into Nigeria and I was reading it and thought it was bad and going to affect Nigerians. My father saw me looking depressed and asked what’s wrong. I explained everything to him. He said ‘okay, so what are you going to do about it, are you going to just complain?’ And he threw that back to me… I said ‘I don’t know what I can do about it?’ He said ‘work first you have to educate the people. Are you ready to do this? Do you want to do this?’ because if something is affecting you so badly do something about it don’t just complain…that’s how the journey started and then I led a 2,000-man march to the Senate; myself and other leaders, and a lot of other people that I met on the journey. This was like a three-year campaign – radio, TV, everywhere. You can Google it, the videos, everything are still online. The Senators that came out they know we were coming but they did not even address any of the issues that we raised. They just kept telling us ‘oh you know I’m a two-time senator; I’m a former governor.’ It’s that moment that my head touched. And I said we have to replace all these people, because they don’t care about the people. I came back to Lagos from Abuja that’s when I went to join Kowa party.

Can you share a mentor or someone who has had a significant impact on your political career?

Pa Ayo Adebanjo is someone that I hold in high esteem. He’s someone that has always been there to guide me. Chief Bode George as well, he’s been a father figure and always looking out that I’m safe. Those are the two main people.

I thought Peter Obi would be one of them?

His Excellency, Peter Obi, I say he’s an ideal person that I look up to and my relationship with him has grown significantly. So, I can say yes, Peter Obi, definitely. But the reason why I don’t want to classify Peter Obi in that same regard is Peter Obi is an idea in my mind. I have been around him; I have been close to him. And I have seen a human being that is real. He’s not putting an act. That man genuinely will save money for Nigeria to make sure that money is used judiciously because I have seen him do it on his own personal expenses. He’s like that, he’s not pretending. Peter Obi will look at the price of ticket and make sure he’s getting the best deal; he will look at the price of hotel and make sure he’s getting the best deal; he’s going to negotiate and make sure he’s getting the best deal. He’s the kind of person that hates inefficiency. He hates waste with a passion. And he’s someone that has empathy and genuine love. There is so much people don’t know about His Excellency, Peter Obi. So, a mentor, yes because he took a very personal interest in the race, he did. He is a solid mentor.

You touched a bit of this at the start of this interview, that is the demolition of buildings in Lagos. What do you make of the recent developments which has seen some houses and structures allegedly owned by a certain ethnic group demolished?

I can easily see why people would feel they are being targeted. At the same time, I want to focus more on the complicity of the government in these so called illegal structures. Lagos State has a procedure to get a building done. Lagos State has a list of document you must bring to the table for them to even give you building permission. So, how is it possible that a person will bring all these documents and then the next thing they will say 80 percent of the properties in Lekki don’t have planning permission? Apart from the planning permission, government has an agency, LSDCA they are in charge of building permission. They are supposed to inspect at different stages of construction from when you are doing your foundation to when you are roofing. So, the government is directly and indirectly complicit in whatever it calls an illegality in Lagos State. The government must come from that position. You cannot just be destroying buildings and it’s only the people that are paying the price. The government is not holding itself accountable; there’s no investigation to find out who are the people that are going against the government plan. Then you see the issue with all of this is that people don’t realise that when somebody does evil against somebody else, and you are quiet because it’s not affecting you, or your tribe or your friend or your family, eventually that same evil will come and meet you. It’s just a matter of time. That’s life. For me, I feel like the government should first of all eschew its complicity in the illegality. It shows that it’s not hands-on; it’s not on the board in terms of the planning of the future of the environment of Lagos State. It also shows a serious lack of empathy. Because they wouldn’t just be demolishing buildings the way they have been doing without understanding of the stress they are putting people. Especially in this current economic climate, the suffering, the high risk of inflation. Not like there’s any resettlement area for the people. I have not seen that. I have talked to several of the people they have made homeless.

The government says they will compensate. They have been saying that but let’s see. This is not a country where you get mortgage and you pay installment. This is a country you have to gather all this money and they just destroy it like that. So, where are these people going to start from? And a lot of time they are not able to move their things out of the place. They are giving like three hours to move their things. So this is what I will do if I were the governor of Lagos state. First of all, I understand that as a government we are complicit in whatever thing that is done against a class in Lagos State. Bear in mind also, the government also sets bad examples because their friends are the ones sand filling all our wetlands and are closing the borough of our water not going into the water way. Eko Atlantic is major problem of water not leaving the city; Ilubirin is a major problem of water not leaving Lagos Island and so on and so forth all across and they are all friends of the government. You even see LSDC doing projects and be sand filling wetlands. So, we need to have a wetland protection plan that is immune to everybody no matter who you are, even if you are Bola Ahmed Tinubu. A Wetland protection plan where nobody can sand fill any wetland. Two, we need to ensure that we channel all canals in a way that minimises the destruction of buildings. Buildings that must be demolished the government must come there with a sympathetic human face. You must come there with a team made up of psychologists to be able to walk people through the trauma you are putting them through. There must be a doctor among that team checking these people probably over a period of a month. You must have people that are professional movers. Someone should not be traumatised that you are destroying their house and also packing all their things at the same time. Have your vehicles very close that will help them move their things. Then have temporary storage for them. That’s why I’m talking of empathy.

Away from politics, can you share a significant event or experience from your childhood that influenced your career path as an architect?

My father always wanted me to go to a prestigious school. I’m the first child. Looking back now I know he used to do it on purpose. He will see a beautiful building, he’s not an architect he’s a lawyer, but he will say that airport was done by an MIT guy; this was done by a Harvard guy. So subconsciously, he has started programming and planting those seed. I remember that we used to talk about buildings a lot. Like his first house that he built, it was massive. During summer, to keep me busy, he will say I should go and do paper modelling of the house. And I guess that’s where I started to fall in love with architecture.  He engages us in total conversation, what do you like? What do you enjoy doing? What are you passionate about? He never said you must do this or do that. To be honest, I don’t know why he didn’t encourage me to be a lawyer, because if you think about it I would have been a nice lawyer. My two sisters studied law. The fact of the matter is if we have a government that’s working I have no business being in politics. I don’t. Just the impact I want to make. I’m comfortable. I would just focus on architecture maybe in England or America or something. But we must be the change that we want to see.

What kind of a man are you at home?

That’s a very deep question. What kind of man I’m I at home? I’m a young father. My first born just turned four years old. I’m learning to manage my time more and just be there. That’s a very strange thing for me because I always feel like I have so much to do. So, wherever I am I must be doing something. I’m learning to be there. And when you say just be there, not on your phone. I have to virtually be there to see them, play with them, engage them, watch Baby Shark with them and know all the songs (laughing). I’m learning. My wife complains I’m not doing enough. But I’m trying to be better at it. And be more involved. Because you know you have 1-7 to programme your child. You see a lot of adults today behave in a way you might not understand but it’s the programming they got in those years and they are still dealing with. So, I want to have the best impact that I can. Aside from that, again, it’s also legacy I want to also be able to put in as much of me into my offspring. My father did the same for me and his father did the same for him in their own different ways. But you know different generation have different parenting styles. We are reading a lot now. But generally when I’m at home I like to read, I get my brief in the morning on Lagos State, everything concerning Lagos State, about 40 to 50 pages. I’m up generally at 5am. When I’m done with that, then I tend to start my day. I have different interest. I have real estate interest, I have architecture interest, I have commodity interest, I have finance interest. So, I delegate and make sure business is moving as it ought to move. And then aside from that, now I’m making a lot of effort and its priority for me to join as many social clubs as possible so I can get that connection with a lot more people as opposed to a few that have access to me and to know me. I sail, I’m a passionate sailor. I’m a member of the Yatch Club. I’m a member of Eko Club; indigenes of Lagos only are allowed. Also and a number of other clubs I’m working to be member of. And then I like to read deep; I really enjoy reading. Lagos history, Nigerian history, African history, and Politics and Policy books I really enjoy reading. Those are main things I love reading. That’s it generally.

What were those things that inspired you to venture into politics and how would you describe your political journey so far?

I think I have touched on that. It started from going against the federal government’s policy idea on agriculture which was to introduce Genetically Modified Foods, which has been introduced into Nigeria now despite all the negative consequences. Then I was part of a team that led a 2000- man march in the Senate and the way Senators addressed us with lack of empathy, lack of an understanding of the effect it was going to have on Nigerians at large as to what’s important to have representatives that prioritise people first as opposed to interest, lobby groups or corporations. That’s why I got into politics. And I wanted to start from the bottom, which is local government chairmanship. Because the idea then was like win the local government chairman I will do so much for local government that will then create a ripple effect so that the people will start to know that a local government chairman can actually really impact their lives. If your local government is working the way it’s supposed to be working, your lives are going to be much better because that is the closest arm of government to you. If I was in office, I will not be doing what the regular local government chairman in Lagos is doing. I will fight to ensure that I have money coming into my local government directly; I will fight to ensure that we are doing what we are supposed to be doing based on the powers we have in the constitution.

Roads that are supposed to be done by local government chairmen we will do. We would not be glorified contractors or errand boys for the government. That was the idea. I think the idea of policy, the idea of politics and the idea of creating and thinking about solutions to people’s problems. It was from campaigning that I started doing my pet project. I have health insurance where if you are sick you can activate it and you can get treatment and get drugs up to N5,000. And it’s from campaigning that I learnt the importance of micro-healthcare. I know so many that have died just because they were not treating malaria, they were just drinking ‘agbo’. So, it was from that experience that I said even if I’m not in office, if I can make a difference like this let me be doing it. Every other weekend, my team is in different local government, if you are sick you can call with the card doctor will speak to you and advice you. So things like that. But that’s been the journey. I feel that more than anything if you have the ability to make impact and make a difference in whatever area you can, do it and that’s how I was raised and I particularly enjoyed it.

 

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I don’t think it’s enough because people under 35 make up more than 60 per cent of this country. I mean you have a president today that claims to be in his 70s but most likely in his 80s. It’s very important that people that have an understanding of the majority of the population are the ones at the helm of affairs. But aside that I feel that it was definitely a very good legislation. Aside from the age, it actually raises the awareness of young people to say I can run, I can be part of this process. The publicity that it brought with it was also very positive. I remember then when I was running for Senate in the entire party it was the conversation ‘Not too Young to Run’, so a lot more people were more open to young people coming out to vie for office. It really did a great job in creating that enabling environment for young people to be able to thrive. Now the reality of the politics is a complete different one where politics can be very expensive especially when you are passionate about it. For instance, look at what Peter Obi is currently doing. He’s travelling across the country all over Nigeria sinking boreholes, doing things, these are very expensive thing to do you know. So how many young people can actually do that? That’s the consideration. But I feel that at least it’s a step forward, it was a good step forward.

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