A former Senior Special Assistant on Policy Formulation and Programmes to President Bola Tinubu when he served as the governor of Lagos State between 1999 and 2007, Dr Dapo Thomas, shares with MUHAMMED LAWAL his expectations from the Tinubu presidency
Many Nigerians have described some of Tinubu’s economic policies since assuming office as inflicting hardship on the people, do you agree with those who said things could have been done differently?
If you go through the history of subsidy under the military and civilian administrations, it has never gone well with the people. They were always against it. There was never a time an attempt was made to remove subsidy that did not result in rioting. Surprisingly, people have given him the necessary support, hoping that things will get better and based on his credibility when he was in Lagos. It is in his character to always take care of the poor. There is no way we can start seeing the results now. He has suspended the five per cent excise tax on telecoms and others. This means we are approaching a level where we will begin to see the effect of this policy.
Many people have admitted that subsidy could go, but its removal without palliatives has plunged many people into poverty. Was it right to remove it before strategising on palliatives?
This is like a case of the chicken and the egg, and the narrative about which comes first. It is a matter of style and approach. On what basis or framework will the Nigeria Labour Congress use to arrive at compensatory or commensurate palliatives if he had introduced the palliatives before the removal of subsidy. If palliatives had been introduced when fuel was selling for about N200, what happens if the marketers raise fuel price to N500, the current price? Will you come back to do another palliative? Now that we know the average cost per litre, that can be used as a framework for palliatives. Government and the NLC can start working on whether to increase salaries or reduce taxes. However, various committees are working on the palliatives as of now.
People are demanding a cut in the cost of governance but he hasn’t said anything about that, what are your thoughts on that?
It is important to note that it is not within his power to fix salaries for politicians; it is the work of Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission. The President cannot even fix his salary. I listened to the interview of a former governor where he said when he was in office his salary was N500,000, although he was not sure if it had increased. The salaries of political office holders are not that irrational; they are fixed based on certain parameters and indices. The commission is established by the constitution, and you cannot just dictate to them.
Many people have described the President as someone who appoints people primarily on merit, even without previous affiliation. You once said your uncle introduced you to him, could you tell us more about that?
For the eight years I worked as his Senior Special Assistant, I discovered he loves the poor and he doesn’t fake it. This explains why he always talks about the children of the poor. His style is to look for the best people who can do the work; people who will not consider personal interest first but those who will work around his vision for the poor. For someone I worked with for eight years, I did not see any wave of corruption or a scintilla of it. When you are in government, you axiomatically lose the privilege of believability. Even if it’s a day or a week you joined the government, you have by extension been mired in the blanket aspersion of being a thief. Nobody considers your financial status before coming into government. If we continue to sustain this erroneous perception of “everyone in government is a thief”, one day, there will be dearth of good rich men that are ready to serve their fatherland. When he finishes his first term and gets re-elected for the second term, the way people use Lagos as a reference point, Nigeria will become a reference point in Africa by the special grace of God. Speaking of how I met him; my uncle introduced me to him not for an appointment. He was not a governor at the time. He was an aspiring senator in 1991 when he contested Lagos West senatorial seat. I stayed at Computer Village and he was using his uncle’s house as a campaign office. My uncle was always going to the campaign office as the deputy governorship candidate of the Social Democratic Party to (Dapo) Sarumi. Tinubu was also in Sarumi’s faction. By this time, I was a journalist at Daily Times, I was a political editor. I had always followed my uncle around since 1979 when he was in UPN. My uncle casually told him ‘Bola, see my brother I told you about, he lives opposite you and he can also assist you, he is a journalist’. That was it.
You mentioned that you later had a disagreement with Tinubu, what led to that?
It was not a fight; let us call it misunderstanding. I thank God it happened, because my respect for him rose to adoration. It happened on May 25, 2007, four days to Fashola’s inauguration as the governor. I was the chairman of all the Special Assistants, so I relate directly with the governor. Most of the other SAs were resident in different ministries, either working with commissioners or overseeing the ministry for the governor. There were three other colleagues who had been with him before he became the governor and they were also integrated into the system. As the chairman, I got to know that severance packages had been given to commissioners and permanent secretaries. I took up the case of the SAs with the governor in one of our usual morning meetings but he did not take me seriously. On May 25, 2007, a send-off was organised for Tinubu by the state government. The crème de la crème of the state were invited; judges, magistrates, legislators, the incoming governor and his wife, business moguls, bankers, entrepreneurs and government officials, including members of the exco, which was dissolved on May 22. One of the anchors of the event informed me that I had been selected as one of the three people to speak about Tinubu. When it was time to talk, instead of eulogising and praising him for a job well done, I veered off completely from what people expected me to say, by raising the issue of the exclusion of the SAs in the severance package. In fact, to the shock of many guests, I called the act ‘Use and Dump’. The two other speakers, including Tunji Bello, placated him with sweet exhortations.
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What happened afterwards?
After the ceremony, I went to my house. I was reflecting on the incident when my phone rang. It was Mr Sunny Ajose, Special Adviser to the governor. He said the governor would like to see me and that I should come with the list of all the special assistants. I was stunned. After the ceremony, instead of going to his house, because it was late, Tinubu reconstituted the exco, summoned all the members to an emergency meeting and approved all the prayers I put in the protest letter written earlier. Two things here: his humility and his respect for due diligence. Only a humble leader would overlook my exuberance and still accede to all my demands. Two, the approval was what he could do with his executive powers but he chose to reconstitute the exco for that purpose. Since that day, my respect for him has multiplied. The interesting part of the story is that I thought he would never forgive me, so I stayed away from him for about one year after we left office. I did not go to see him until September, 2008. The first thing he said was ‘Dapo Thomas, where have you been?’ As I was about to explain myself when he gave me an invite to represent him at the 70th anniversary of Ikoyi Club. Since then, our relationship has been very good.
Tinubu recently announced student loans, how does that make you feel?
The initiative is great. In Britain or the United States, you use loans or grants to help yourself as a student. The idea is good; the mode of operation that will make it work is what should be worked upon. My only fear is the modalities. I want to appeal to Nigeria, especially the students, that they should not see it as a national cake. It is a kind gesture from a President who is interested in the education of the children of the poor. They should make the best use of it just like their counterparts in developed economies.
The spike in the cost of goods and services is becoming alarming and many people are becoming poorer, should people not be worried?
The President has not spent up to two months in office. The ministerial list is not yet ready and the personnel you see now are doing paperwork and working around many issues before the eventual take-off of the government with its full cabinet. So, this is not something you can assess in two months. Let’s start talking about how we see the policies in 100 days.
After serving for eight years as SA, why did you quit politics?
I am not a politician. My position as SA was an appointment. I went as an academic and I took leave of absence. So, I returned to school after serving for eight years; I’m not so interested in politics. I do not want to go for any elective office, but appointments are about service. In any case, the President does not like anybody coming to lobby or beg for position, because he is not somebody who works on that. This is somebody who acknowledges or selects people based on merit.
As he makes his appointments gradually, what are your expectations?
The special advisers he has appointed are of great quality, like the lady on energy. She spoke the other time and you would know she is brilliant. I am a theorist, so if somebody is talking theoretically, you will know from their countenance or confidence whether they can marry practice with theory. Wale Edun, Yemi Cardoso, Dele Alake and others are all tested people whom he had worked with in Lagos State. Trust me, Nigeria will rise again, especially under Tinubu.
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