Ahead of the Saturday, December 5, 2020 Lagos East Senatorial by-election, Tokunbo Abiru, candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC), in this interview with ZEBULON AGOMUO, Editor, itemised the reasons the voters should cast their votes for him. He said he was not born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth, but has through determination and dint of hard work, got to the zenith of his career. He promised that if elected, he would go to the Senate with robust experience in service of community. Excerpts:
By way of introduction, may we know you better?
Tokunbo Abiru is my name. By training, I am an economist and a chartered accountant. I put in about 32 years to working after my university education. I spent about 29 years of my career life in banking sector. By the grace of God Almighty, I got to the peak of my chosen career. By 2013, I became an Executive Director in First Bank Plc. Thereafter, I had the privilege to be the regular-appointed Group Managing Director for Skye Bank Plc during the turbulent times. I had the mandate to rescue it and save it from total collapse that challenged the financial stability of the country. In 2016, Skye Bank was one of those banks that were systemically important in the country. It had serious prudential ratio challenges. I headed the management team that was saddled with the restoration of the bank. By 2018, precisely by September 11, we had virtually reversed all the negative ratios, be it profitability ratio, which was hitherto negative, capital adequacy ratio or liquidity ratio. All has become normal and even more competitive. By 2019, the efficiency ratio of the bank had become very competitive when compared with the peers in the industry.
Does it mean you fulfilled the mandate CBN gave you on Skye Bank?
When we were setting out on July 4, 2016, the mandate was very clear then: stabilise the bank and return it to the path of profitability. At the end of 2019, the mandate had been fully achieved. For somebody like me, I had to take the stock of my career and asked myself what next since I had delivered the mandate. I concluded that it was about time to throw in the towel and possibly, let others come and try their hands.
Some might wonder about the transformation of Skye Bank to Polaris Bank. It leaves the bank with an ownership structure that is 100 percent government ownership. Is that desirable for an enterprise that should be private? The answer is No. It is not desirable. If we look at the banking landscape, it is a highly competitive one. You cannot find an entity owned by government competing with private sector. It can also relapse or it can be over-shadowed. The most desirable thing to do is to make you get government to divest so that it can be more competitive. That was not part of the mandate the regulator gave me when I came in. I only had the mandate to stabilise the bank and return it to the path of profitability. It should have been a different or separate mandate. From all indications, I am not sure the regulator was ready to give that mandate out. At that time, I thought I had done my part; let me take a bow. As we entered into 2020, I set target for myself to leave the bank. It was actually the first quarter. But there were unforeseen circumstances. I did not foresee COVID-19 coming. By the time COVID-19 came in and its implication, it was clear that if we wanted to do that kind of divestment, we needed to have a rethink. COVID-19 led to lockdown. As the lockdown was relaxed, the conversation started again between the regulator and myself. I said it was not too good for an institution in a competitive industry to still be held by government. The bank was still doing very good, making profits. By the middle of this year, we have made about N18 billion profits before tax. It is very good, even when compared with its performance in the previous year. In 2019, the bank made over N27 billion after tax for the full year. If we are cruising at N18 billion in the middle of 2020, the bank can conveniently make N30 billion even in a difficult year that all businesses are challenged. It is an indication that things are looking good. We can do a lot better, even with the kind of industry banking is. The only way is to make it private. Again, when the conversation started, I had to extend stay till the end of 2020 because I was clear in mind that I had to leave.
At what point did you retire from banking and join partisan politics?
I had already the mindset that I was going to retire at the end of this year. It was not clear to me what I was going to do when I retire. When this opportunity came, I reflected on it and thought it made a lot of sense. And I will explain the reason. In the course of my career, between 2011 and 2013, I was appointed Commissioner for Finance under the Babatunde Fashola administration. It was a four-year arrangement. After two years, I, on my own, stepped down to wrap up my career. At the time I joined government in 2011, I was just Deputy General Manager (DGM). As at that time, that was the limit of the management career because it is from the DGM one will become an Executive Director. For me, I do not think wrapping up my career in private sector, as the DGM was the best thing a man can be. That is not the way I want to account for my own career. Yes, Commissioner for Finance is a great job with great exposure. It gave me an indication of how government is run and how things are done in the public sector. But if you look at it from the perspective of focus, I needed fulfilment in my own career. After two years, I had to engage the governor that I had to go. I remember my conversation with him. He said to me that my assignment was just four years. I insisted that I had to go. I replied him: ‘You are a SAN. Despite the fact that you are a governor, you got to the peak of your career. How will I write my story in future that from the DGM, I became Commissioner for Finance?’ I can always come back to the public service. When the opportunity came this time, it was part of the reasons I had to fast-forward my retirement time to August 31. Coming into public space is not completely accidental. It was occasioned by the opportunity that presented itself. It was also due to the prior motive that I had. I thought it was a better story to tell that I had accomplished one and moved to the other. I have been tested with human and material resources, and I delivered on it.
People are saying the way you are going about the campaign is like you are contesting a governorship election. They believe you do not need to go that far because you are contesting on the platform of the ruling party and your chance of winning is brighter than other candidates. Why the elaborate campaign?
I will not describe it as an elaborate campaign as such. If you are familiar with Lagos East, you will come to this conclusion. First, it largely comprises indigenous people of Lagos. We are talking about Epe, Ibeju-Lekki, Ikorodu, Kosofe and Somolu. Outside Ikorodu, which is my origin, I am not sure I am well known in these locations. Second, if you look at the composition of people along this belt, you will find a commonality there. And that belt is composed of Ijebu-speaking people, especially in Epe, Ikorodu, Ibeju-Lekki and Somolu. For somebody, who has spent his life in the private sector, I cannot take things for granted. Let it be that people actually know me. I have to move around and explain myself to them. Also, I crisscrossed all the local government areas (LGAs) in Lagos East. We have five LGAs as constituted under the 1999 Constitution. We equally have 11 local council development areas (LCDAs), making 16. I needed to crisscross all these local councils. Part of what people are saying is that they do not know me. This is what actually galvanise me to move round and secure public acceptance so that people will not think we are taking them for granted. It was important to garner people’s acceptance. Part of what I learnt on the campaign field is that our democracy may be young, but it is gradually getting deepened. People too are asking questions regarding who their leaders should be. As that was coming to my consciousness, the issue of apathy was also coming up. When you talk to people, you find out that they are remote and not happy generally. The reasons for the apathy are not far-fetched. One is the state of economy. Two is the compounding case in the issue of COVID-19. As a result, there is need to make myself well known. We, also, need to moderate the issue of apathy. This takes me to something critical. I think the by-election is more difficult than the general election. That is the reality. A general election is like carnival. There are other candidates contesting for different political offices. We have those contesting for the Office of the President. We also have those contesting for governorship and legislative positions at the federal and state levels. It is like a carnival in town that everybody feels. But the by-election is so tricky. We have to wake people up that something is going on. A lot of people do not even know. We have to let them know. It is not meant to be a presidential or governorship election campaign. We are just doing the right thing a democratic setting should embrace.
You are just coming into politics, though you once served as commissioner. Let us compare where you are coming from and where you are going to. What are the things people lack and what are you likely to do to get things done?
If I compare where I am from and where I am going into, honestly, there is a common feature. That common feature is what I can call service. Banking, for instance, is about service. I am sure you will agree with me because all of us are account owners or holders. Even if you go to ATM and it does not respond to you, you know the crisis that can create. So, it behooves on the bank to just get some arrangement whereby people get their money. Politics, to me too, is about service. That is one belief that I hold. This tells you that I have just handled one type of service and I am getting into another type of service. What do I do to meet the need of my people? First, the answer is almost obvious to all of us. People need all things that can improve human development index (HDI). People need good roads, stable power supply, good governance and accountability, among others. Given my background, what I am going for is not an executive position. So, I will see it in terms of good governance and accountability. All through my career, I have been guided along the path of accountability and good governance. I will also use this as an illustration. If I have had the privilege of saving a bank, it is like you have saved a community. The staff strength of the bank is about 10,000 people. If that bank went under, it means 10,000 people would have lost their jobs. It, also, means over 40,000 dependents would have been in disarray. Then, it was a bank that has four million customers with over N1 trillion deposits. You can imagine what will happen if that bank collapses. That means I am coming with the background of someone, who has been tested both human and material resources. With all sense of modesty, I have delivered on it. With the kind of experience I have gathered over the years, it tells me clearly that part of conversation around this country today is somebody who can bring quality representation. I must tell you that this is not an executive role. I cannot tell you that I will go and construct road here. I cannot tell you that I will go and provide water there. I see a legislative role as more of facilitation and influencing. The kind of background and pedigree I have will come into play. Let me give you some examples. When I visited Epe, I went from Ikorodu. I have not travelled from Ikorodu to Epe by road for a very long time. But I was shocked as to the state of the road when I was going. I was really shocked. So, we had this session in Epe. It was a raining day and the journey was tortuous. I was so tired that I told my campaign that if you were returning to Ikorodu, I was going to Lagos. I did not realise that I was going to have another experience. Coming from Epe through Lekki was another bad experience. This is where one’s background and pedigree come to play. I just picked my phone and called my former boss, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, who is today the Minister of Works & Housing. I told him that if you did not want people to stone you, you had to do something on this road. I equally called the governor and told him the same thing. I told him that Ikorodu-Itoikin-Epe road was a federal road. If you are talking about Lekki-Epe road, it is a state road. I have known the governor for more than 20 years. We were in banking together. Even his deputy, we served together under Fashola. While he was the Commissioner for Works & Infrastructure, I was the Commissioner for Finance in the same cabinet. Why am I bringing this up? Because you have a pedigree that has a wide influence, it is going to make the job easier. I may not have executive power, but I can reach out. I can confidently tell you that we have gone far on the Lekki-Ibeju road, mainly from Abraham Adesanya Housing Estate to Epe. We have to mount pressure on the governor to do something about the road. The pressure also gingered him that he could not leave the road that way. For me, we can serve role models for the upcoming youths. We can shape them because they can just assume leadership roles blindly.
Governance is a personal touch with the youths, the old, the less-privileged and the vulnerable. How can these people in the senatorial district feel your impact?
First, they will feel my impact through legislation and facilitation. Beyond this, I have a constituency office here in Ikorodu. It was properly set up with a vision beyond winning the by-election. I do not hope to replicate the same in other LGAs because it will be a waste in this age of technology. At best, I probably can have satellite offices in LGAs. It will just be a small one so that we do not waste resources we can use for the betterment of the society. But I deliberately set up the Ikorodu Office up because I am from there and it is important I have coordinating office beyond my campaign office. Beyond the primary roles of legislation, facilitation and influencing, a senator is expected to anchor, I, on my own, will establish an empowerment and endowment programme having been around and seen the level of poverty, the rate of unemployment and the number of vulnerable people. You just need to go on a campaign trip. Part of it that worries me is the number of young people, young women, older people that are running after us. If these people are engaged or have their means of livelihoods, they will not probably be doing this. If you want to campaign in an estate, probably a well-organised, you have to look for a weekend or else you will not get any person to attend because these are people, who are engaged. You will not see any person if you go to any organised estate during the week. The number of people that followed us from here to Epe was huge. Some will join us on the road on their bikes. This has been my burden. I keep asking the party, what happens to these people after the campaign? It is not something I can do alone. But I believe strongly that I can lead by example.
After the victory on December 5, I like us to discuss a validation of what I am about to say, perhaps, after 90 days in office. I intend, by the grace of God, to have an empowerment and endowment programme that can at least impact directly by January 31. It is a model I have been working on. Part of the model I am working is that we shall be impacting between 500 and 1,000 constituents across the senatorial district on a monthly basis. I will tell people to go and validate it. Also, we have a situation whereby you wake up in the morning; different people are sending messages to you, complaining about one health challenge or the other. I intend to come up with a medical arrangement that can impact the people in a structured manner. I do not need to see your face or whatever. But it will be limited because I am just an individual. Personally, I want to set up an endowment. It must be in place at the end of December or not beyond January 2021. That endowment will focus on two critical things. First, it will focus on our youths. I have studied different empowerment schemes, their strength and their shortcomings. The kind of empowerment I want to do will focus on the youth and women. We will identify vocational centres. Our emphasis will be on skill acquisition and skill development. We will determine the number of people we can bring on board periodically. When the selected people will run six-month or one-year training at the cost to the endowment, we can then give the tools they need. If any person endures to go through the training, he will definitely have his hands in it. If you take them through a learning curve and comes out successfully, there is possibility that out of five persons, three or four will take it up from there. Second, given my own background that has been essentially in lending and banking, I want to come up with credit scheme that can support small and medium enterprises (SMEs) within the district. We can accommodate between 500 and 1,000 per annum. We will give them soft loans. Again, part of the problems is access and the cost of such credits. In this case, access will be easily available. In terms of the cost, that is the interest rate, we have just to bring to what is just affordable. I am just hoping people will not see as the dividends of democracy. We just try it and hope it will be successfully. Of course, there will be a scoring model. We will ask them whether they belong to Community Development Committee (CDC), Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), any Islamic association or a leader who can identify you. Or you have a BVN. This is enough to serve as collateral. I am saying, within my own capacity, the seed money of that foundation will come from me. Also, I am going to use the goodwill I have built during my work life to get people on board either associates or friends. I have had conversation with some of them and they also believe in it. I have benefited particularly from Lagos State. Look at my background in terms of education; I went to public schools all my life. I went to Ereko Methodist Primary School, which was owned by government. I went to Government College, Lagos. I went to Baptist Academy, which was also owned by government. I also went to Lagos State University, which was established by government. With this antecedent, I think it is the right time for me to give back to the society.
Lekki Free Zone falls within Lagos East. There has been complaint that most companies are bringing in foreigners to work there while thousands of youths have nothing. How do you intend to handle this situation?
Lekki Free Zone is within the new industrial belt of Lagos State. We have the Free Trade Zone there. We also have Lekki Deep Sea Port. We equally have the Dangote Refinery there. Of course, these kinds of projects will ordinarily, by economic terms, create a lot of multiplier effects in terms of dependencies for those who are into real estate and other sectors. For those who hold this notion that the operators will bring in imported capital both in terms of cash and human being, I think they are exaggerating it. There are laws in this country that regulate who comes and what comes. Just like the laws, economic policy is structured to attract more foreign direct investments into the state, which I think, should be encouraged. Part of what we need to look at policy framework to ensure that there is a balance between the FDIs and its employment components. The owners of the FDIs will show concern in their capital. Restaurants will spring up. Are they going to bring foreigners to work there? There will be a lot of labour needs.
Lagos has been on the issue of special status for a long time. If you are elected, how are you going to address it?
The issue of special status has been with us for a long time. We can trace the origin to 1976 during the time of General Murtala Mohammed. He actually initiated the need to relocate Federal Capital Territory from Lagos to Abuja. He also mentioned that given the level of federal government assets that have been invested in Lagos be it seaport, airport and even flyovers, among others, they will continue to be sources of attraction for those outside of Lagos. That is what we call rural to urban migration. He went further to say that there is need for the federal government to have a special arrangement to sustain these assets for the benefit of all. If we cast our mind to that period and to 1990 when General Ibrahim Babangida, we can see that Lagos still remain both the commercial, entertainment, financial and tourist capital of Nigeria. It behooves on us to find a way to continue to enhance the facilities that are attracting a lot of people here. If you speak to the Lagos State Government, they will tell that the population growth rate of this country is at an average of 2.5 per cent. But the rate of people migrating to Lagos is in excess of 3 per cent. So, the pressure is so much. You see traffic here. You see traffic there. It is welcome. But we need to enhance those structures until we get true federalism. We cannot stop the arrangement for special status. We will continue to agitate for it. That is the way they are treating Abuja as well. Abuja is centrally funded from the national budget. The federal government cannot leave Lagos for the Lagos State Government. If you look at the rehabilitation of the road from the seaport to tollgate, it is rigid pavement concrete structure. You can image the cost of that road and you leave that to just one government. Even if you take a look at the budget of this government, this financial year is about N1 trillion. In terms of size, Lagos is supposed to be the smallest state in Nigeria. That tells you the kind of pressure in this state. Also, you see what happened recently. The good intentioned #EndSARS protest, the hijack and the destruction barely tell us that we do not have a choice than to support the facilities that are attracting people to Lagos State. Special Status, of course, is a just agitation.
You have traversed the length and breadth of Lagos East during your campaign. Can you share the feedback you got on the campaign field with us?
For me, the feedback has been very encouraging and supportive. Of course, it is a mixed bag of people’s challenges and their concerns. Without being selfish, I think that I see what I can describe as genuine acceptability. I always make it very clear everywhere I went the kind of background that I parade. I also let them know that it is not all about me. It is all about giving to the society. With due respect to everyone here, I am not an old man. I am full of energy. Part of what I am bringing on the table is the energy I use to deliver my earlier career. I still have that energy to bring to the table. I see a lot of acceptability from the people – the traditional rulers, the youths, the old people, the women and even the working class. Again, part of what we heard from the people is the need to attend to people’s needs. For instance, mothers were pleading to have job opportunities for their children. When you heard that unemployment rate is 27 per cent, in real life, you will see that this is a major challenge. We just have to find a way around it. The solution must be sustainable and enduring. We have to look at the development deficiency of this country. If we have high unemployment rate and look at the demography of the country, people between 18 and 35 account for about 65 per cent. And we have unemployment rate around 27 per cent. It tells you that we have a lot of burning energies that are unused. We have to support policies that create enabling environment for businesses. That is what I mean by sustainable opportunities. If we create a fluke that endure for a short period, it will not help us. We need a development policy that creates employment opportunities. We can only build it around initiatives that will support infrastructure; that will encourage private enterprises and that will allow businesses to grow. We need peace because businesses can only grow where there is security of lives and property. These are things we need to keep our minds to save ourselves from the economic situation of this country.
What is your message to the voters ahead of the December 5 senatorial by-election?
I strongly believe this is an opportunity for Lagos East to have on board somebody that is experienced; that has the capacity and exposure to play the roles expected of a senator. Also, this is an opportunity to bring on board somebody who can give quality representation as to what is expected of a senator representing Lagos East. It is an opportunity to bring in a personality that is homegrown individual, whom our youths can look up to, learn from and believe as to the possibilities in this country. I am not a foreign trained person in any form. My background is very basic and local. When I look back, I have more to lose if I do not live up to people’s expectation. That is part of burden I carry on this assignment. I have run a very successful career. I will not at this stage do anything that will rubbish it. This is a journey of four years and I have run a career of 32 years unblemished. I will not at this stage of my life mess it up. I think this is an opportunity for Lagos East to have somebody that will not disappoint them; somebody that will live up to expectations and somebody that has listening ears. My life has been of service. I will not be a kind of person that they will only see during election period. I will be that person that will periodically, either quarterly or biannually go back to my constituents to give account of what I have done; listen to them to get feedback and see what I can do to further their cause.