It’s a surprise I didn’t die in a plane crash — Tunji Bello

Secretary to the Lagos State Government, Dr. Tunji Bello, speaks with KEMI LANRE-AREMU on his career and other issues

 

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you studied Political Science as your first degree…

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I wanted to study Law. I remember when I was admitted to the university, I was among the third set that sat for JAMB and I applied for Law. I chose the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and I picked History as my second choice. To apply for university admission at that time was highly competitive. There were only 13 universities and there was an array of candidates all over Nigeria. Most people had to go abroad to study but only those who were extremely gifted could get into Nigerian universities because it was highly competitive. When my JAMB result came out, I wasn’t accepted at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, or offered Law which was my first choice. Instead, I was admitted to study History at the University of Jos.  I didn’t want to go but I was persuaded. So, I went to the University of Jos. I did my first year there and I transferred to the University of Ibadan. The University of Ibadan  which had just started its Law programme then in 1981, asked for my transcript from the University of Jos because I did very well.

The University of Jos didn’t want me to go, so I had to battle with them. We had to wait for them to send my transcript because the University of Ibadan didn’t admit people through JAMB in those days. But if you had done your first year in another university, it was possible to be admitted. However, the University of Jos did not want to release me, so I met with the registrar and he told me that I couldn’t go except I wanted to withdraw from the university. So I wrote to the school that I wanted to withdraw from the university. The registrar looked at me and wondered how I could be so foolish. He then felt some empathy for  me and asked them to give me my transcript. I was racing against time because I was given a deadline to submit that transcript in that it was the beginning of another session.

When I got to the University of Ibadan, they had closed their admission for Law. The admission officer said that the only thing he could do for me was to look for another course in social sciences. The Department of Law at that time was in the Faculty of Social Sciences. Political Science was the next thing I could do and given my background, I settled for political science. From there, I went into politics. I joined student union politics and I was elected vice president of the union when I was in my second year. When I finished my first degree, I was bent on studying law because it was my passion, but it looked as if it wasn’t meant for me one way or the other.

I was admitted to study Law full-time at the University of Lagos while I was editor of Sunday Concord. Even though I was an editor, I was also a student in UNILAG; studying law in the morning. I finished in 2000 and went to the Law School and finished from there in 2001.

How did you become a journalist?

After I completed the National Youth Service Corps programme, MKO Abiola offered me employment in Concord Newspaper when I went to see him. He said my dad was one of the people that were instrumental to his success. I first met him in UNILAG, where I told him that I was Alhaji Olatunji Bello’s last son. He took me to his house and asked me the kind of employment I wanted. I told him that I wanted to work in Habib Bank, because he was the chairman of the bank at that time. He then wrote a note and gave me some money.

As I was leaving, he called me back, collected the note from me and tore it. He said I should not go for that one. He then wrote another note and told me to take it to the editor of Concord Newspaper. I wasn’t too pleased because I imagined I already had a job in the bank. He said I would do better in Concord. When I got the second letter, it took me three days to go to Concord because I actually wanted a bank job. My elder brother advised me to take the job and later look for something better if I didn’t like the place.

Meanwhile, I got an employment to join the Lagos State civil service but I refused because of my experience while I was waiting for my secondary school certificate result. I was given a job there. At the time, they were still at the old secretariat. When I resumed, I was the only male in the office and each time I resumed in the morning, the women spent office hours talking about their husbands and children.  It did not seem like they did anything else.  I could not imagine working in such an enviroment and that was why I turned down the job offer.

I never set out to be a journalist. When I got to Concord,  the editor asked me  where I wanted to be posted, and I told him  I wanted to be writing features.That was how I became a features writer. Shortly after I began working at Concord, the University of Lagos started a programme for master’s degree in International Law and Diplomacy in 1986. Because of my interest in law, I signified interest in the course. I was doing that while still working at Concord. After I finished the programme, I continued with Concord and rose to become a senior staff writer and later, assistant features editor.

How did you hone your journalism skills?

While at Concord, I considered journalism a temporary job but I was doing very well and getting promotions. I was a restless person; I wasn’t content with writing for just one title. As such, I was writing for National Concord, Business Concord and Weekend Concord on entertainment, arts, features, business and politics. Because of that, my bosses liked me. By the time I spent about five years in Concord, I became the group political editor. Some people said I was too young, but I asked them to give me a try. Sam Omatseye (Chairman, Editorial Board of The Nation Newspapers) and Victor Ifije (MD, The Nation Newspapers) were both with me then on the political desk. We did very well and  won a lot of awards. That was how I forgot about my banking career. Along the line, I won the Alfred Friendly Fellowship in 1992 and had to go to the US for about six months. When I came back, Abiola was ready to go into politics. He called some of us who were working with him and asked us which party he should join. I suggested that he joined SDP because it had its base in the South-West. Subsequently, he started his campaign and it was me and Dele Alake that wrote the speech MKO gave in Jos to accept the ticket of the SDP. As it is well known, the election was later annulled by the former military dictator, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida and we started the struggle. It was in the course of this that we met Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. He was already a senator and a  prominent member of the SDP then. Abiola needed him for support. Tinubu made sure that Abiola won the election. When the election was nullified, he was also in the vanguard of the struggle for the reclamation of Abiola’s mandate. At a time, Tinubu went on exile and our newspaper was shut for about two years. However, that didn’t stop us from continuing the struggle. Tinubu often sent us money then.

It was by the grace of God and I must thank Him for that. I didn’t have plans for journalism but when I started the job, I found it interesting and became very enterprising with it. When I was in the university, I used to write and that was even before I became the student union leader. However, it was when I got to Concord that I realised that I had the writing skill. When I was posted to the features desk, I fit in well and I was also trained.

Can you recollect some of the big stories you worked on?

I did a lot of stories on entertainment and features. When I became the political editor, we won awards as Best Newspaper in Political Reports for two years. I was the one who broke the story that (Sir Michael) Otedola was going to become the governor of Lagos State and that SDP would lose the governorship seat in the state. At that time, the votes were still being counted and we were not supposed to make any announcement. Many people didn’t think that Otedola would win because he was a simple man. The day after the election, while other newspapers  had just reported that the election went well, we wrote that Otedola had won the election. I recall that Doyin Abiola called me and said if the story was not true, I would be in trouble. However, our report turned out to be the truth.

The most interesting part was in 1990. I became a political editor in 1989. In 1990, there was the Orkar coup. I was in my house when the coup statement by Orkar woke me up.  I didn’t even bathe; I just brushed my teeth and took off. I picked Kayode Komolafe who is now the Deputy Managing Director of THISDAY Newspapers, and also one of our photographers, Mr. Femi Akintobi, and we all went in search of the news. It was a very dangerous thing to do. I think we must also thank God for saving our lives because when we got to Obalende, there were already a lot of gunshots and we managed to squeeze our way towards the other barracks. When we got there, we saw the gate open and as we were about to enter, there were gunshots again. In fact, we got down to see what was happening when we heard more gunshots. We started running with the car door open while I drove towards Awolowo Road. We were ready to escape because there was a lot of gunfire. I think Orkar’s group and the federal troops were fighting themselves around Obalende. In our bid to escape, we went to former military dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha’s house where some soldiers arrested us. It was Colonel Ali Akilu who came to ask for our identity. That was how we were freed.

What were you doing during the time that Concord was shut?

During those two years, I had no job; I was just involved in political activism. We were using the money that Tinubu sent from overseas to print flyers. There was a day I was almost killed by soldiers during the Abacha era. I had gone to print some anti-Abacha and pro-democracy leaflets and I put them in the trunk of my car. On my way going, some soldiers stopped me and they asked me to open the trunk. I recall that Nigeria had a football match against Cote D’ivoire on that day. I was already shaking and as I was about to open the trunk, their captain told them to let me go. If they had seen those leaflets, I don’t know what could have happened to me. After I left the checkpoint, I still went to the National Stadium to distribute the leaflets.

Which was the most challenging office you held while at Concord?

The most challenging office I held was as the editor of the National Concord. Before then, the paper was shut in 1994 and reopened in 1996. When the paper reopened, I became the editor of Sunday Concord while Dele Alake was the editor of National Concord. When Abacha died in 1998 and Abdulsalami Abubakar took over, all the political exiles returned to the country. Bola Tinubu came back and he wanted to become a senator but we advised him to contest the governorship instead. He then went to do further consultations and decided to contest the governorship seat. When he was eventually elected, Tinubu said since I was still young, I should remain in the media while Dele Alake should join his cabinet as the Commissioner for Information. That was how I became the editor of the National Concord and Femi Adesina (now President Muhammadu Buhari’s spokesman) was my deputy. At that time, Abiola had died and  running Concord became very difficult. We had no money and people were not willing to help. A lot of our advertisers ran away during the Abacha era because we were involved so much in politics. The Abiola family’s politics also affected the paper. At a time, they wanted to sell some assets but they couldn’t agree on which. Because of all this, we were unable to pay our staff. However, some people in former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s cabinet, such as Jerry Gana and Tony Anenih helped by giving us adverts and I used that to keep the company going. I was running the paper as editor with a lot of pains and difficulties. Despite the difficulties, we still won awards though. After some time, I got fed up with their family squabbles and resigned in December 2000. When I resigned, people like Kehinde Bamgbetan (Lagos State Commissioner for Information), Kayode Komolafe, Waheed Odushile (NUJ President), among others followed me. Femi Adesina then took over from me and he was the last editor of the paper. After I left, I became the Editorial Board Chairman of Thisday Newspapers. Shortly after I took the new appointment, I was involved in a plane crash.

Can you recall the experience?

I joined Thisday in January 2001 and in February, together with the publisher of the paper, Nduka Obaigbena, and other staff such as Segun Adeniyi, we went on a series of town hall meetings across the country. There were actually 21 people on the plane. On that particular day, we were going to Maiduguri from Jos and we chartered an aircraft. Unfortunately, the plane crashed in the night and I think it was caused by the weather. The flight was supposed to take about an hour but we were still in the air after two hours. Meanwhile, many of the passengers had slept off. Suddenly, I heard the air hostess asking the pilot what the problem was. I also heard the pilot arguing with the control tower. The visibility was 500, while he had been told that it was 5000. We even passed the airport without knowing and the plane ran out of fuel. Suddenly, we heard a loud sound, then the plane crashed. I thought I had died. I later discovered that I was still alive and there was a lot of dust and sand around. The pilot was thrown from the cockpit and he landed on me. Several of us were injured but there was no casualty. We thank God that the aircraft did not explode, but it was badly damaged. One of us, a lady, actually experienced temporary insanity and she tore off all her clothes. She just kept screaming, “Am I alive?” We were lucky that we crashed into a savannah field. If it was in a forest, we could have hit a tree which would have caused an explosion. It took over an hour for the fire service to evacuate us from the scene. We were taken to the Maiduguri Teaching Hospital. After that, I stayed in Thisday till 2003 when Tinubu asked me to join his cabinet. I have been in government since then.

How did you make the transition from being a journalist to a civil servant?

It wasn’t much of a transition for me because I was involved in the pro-democracy movement and political campaigns. When I became a civil servant, I didn’t experience much shock. The only challenge I had was that I had always run away from the civil service till then; so, I had to figure out a way to deal with it.

What can you recall of your time as the Commissioner for the Environment?

At that time, Lagos was extremely dirty; there were heaps of refuse on the roads. Asiwaju Tinubu, who was the governor then, took me to cities in the US such as Atlanta and Chicago, to learn how they manage their waste. I gained a lot through that experience and that was how we were able to transform the state in terms of waste management, drainage and other things. We also reformed LAWMA, set up KAI, EFAD and other agencies. When Babatunde Fashola came in as governor, he also consolidated on those efforts because he was part of Tinubu’s government.

How have you been able to navigate the murky waters of politics?

Party politics is different from politics in government. When you are running a government, you are guided by rules, so you cannot go overboard. Having been in government, it wasn’t a new thing to me and I have been working with the same set of people for years.

Do you think you will  ever go back to journalism?

I doubt whether that will happen. However, I could still do some writings by contributing to columns.

What mantra guides your life?

Everything I do is guided by God. I look up to Him for everything. I have always believed that I am still alive today by the grace of God. I am also a very disciplined and principled person. I pay special attention to my conduct.

What can you recall of your childhood?

I was born in Lagos and my father was a businessman and also a politician. He was elected to the Lagos City Council. He was a member of the Action Group and was one of the founders of the Ansar-Ud-Deen Society. Our family house was behind the Lagos Central Mosque around the Tinubu area of Lagos Island. I was the last born of my dad’s 17 children but first child of my mum. When my father died, my mum remarried. I then went to live with her elder sister on Lagos Island.

Were you rascally as a child?

I was well-behaved and I was also a bit rascally; it was a mix of the two.

Which schools did you attend?

I attended Ansar-Ud-Deen Primary School, Lagos Island, for my elementary education. I went to Ansar-Ud-Deen College, Isolo, for my post-elementary education.

How did you meet you wife?

We met at the university during a student union campaign. I wanted to contest the office of the Vice President and I went to campaign in her room. One of her friends then introduced her to me.

Are any of your children following in your footsteps?

I have two daughters and a son. My first child (a girl) is getting married in July and she is a medical doctor. My son is studying for a master’s degree overseas. My last child is currently attending the Lagos Law School.

How do you relax?

I love football and I watch it a lot. I also read books and I like to travel. I don’t really like parties.

How do you like to dress?

I dress simply and neat. I am not particular about any piece of clothing.

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