Steve Ayorinde is the Lagos State Commissioner for Information and Strategy. In this interview with ENCOMIUM Weekly, the former Editor of Punch newspaper, Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief of National Mirror unwrapped his experience working with Governor Akinwunmi Ambode and in the civil service as a whole.
How has it been eight months or so that you’ve been the Commissioner for Information and Strategy in Lagos State?
It’s been very well. The terrain is as new as it is familiar. I have an advantage. I am a journalist. I am a media person and I am an information person. So, I am operating in a ministry where I have some degree of expertise.
There is also an added advantage. I worked with His Excellency, the governor when he was an aspirant and as a candidate of the party. I was in charge of his media and communication. As we say in management, 50 percent of the job is knowing your boss, the other 50 percent is knowing your brief.
Therefore, I will say that in eight months, it’s been very great. We are happy now because we are at a stage where we can conveniently say we have removed the seatbelt because the plane has reached cruising level. It has stabilized so, we can take a walk along the aisle to the restroom.
No more turbulence?
There will always be turbulence here and there but we will see when it comes. The captain will warn us and we will know how to deal with it.
Was the government really shaken when there was a barrage of criticisms over insecurity and gridlock at the initial stage of this administration?
Again, like a captain who understands the plane that he is flying and who understands the terrain, you really can’t be shaken. Sometimes you might not expect the level of turbulence. You might also be surprised or pleasantly amused particularly, when you realized that some of the turbulence were actually orchestrated.
Were security problems orchestrated?
We know that some were orchestrated. You heard from the Police Commissioner that some of the pictures that were sent to the social media were cases of robberies that happened two or three years before then.
In any case, don’t forget that the first three months that were turbulent were actually the months that the governor was settling down, was reorganizing things. He had to reorder the budget just to complete a term because he came in May 31, 2015.
In reordering, the budget and making sure this is the direction that we go, you will need a couple of months to settle down. People now realized that oh! things that we saw around December couldn’t have been purchased that same month.
It means that some substantial amount of investment must have gone ordering those things, arranging the logistics, investing in them, training the personnel, etc before they now settled.
We are happy that Lagosians now understand, they are applauding, they are at peace and in tune with what His Excellency, the governor is doing.
Would you say that was the most challenging period of this administration?
Do we need to qualify it? It was a challenging period. But challenges are part of governance. I am not aware if there is any government in history that did not encounter its own level of challenges.
Challenges are not the issue. It is how we deal with the challenges and we have conquered those challenges effectively. It is obvious that these sort of things cannot return anymore because Lagos is cruising now.
For someone who has been with the governor before he was elected, how would you describe his leadership style?
I always say that Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode is a compassionate governor, a compassionate man. But much more than that, he is a damn good administrator and a manager of men and resources. It is now that I believe Lagosians will appreciate the choice of putting a cerebral accountant in charge of a state like Lagos at this time.
Don’t forget that this gentleman was the accountant general during the tenure of Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. Of course, he continued with Governor Fashola. But that was a very turbulent period of Asiwaju Tinubu when the Federal Government seized the local government funds because Lagos deemed it necessary to create 37 Local council development areas.
The brain box of the economy (of Lagos state) at that time was the accountant general, with a whole load of a team who worked with His Excellency, the governor at that time.
That challenging period was what catapulted the Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) of Lagos from a paltry N600 million monthly to, in the first instance N6 billion before it started growing systematically from N6 billion to 18 and now to N20 billion and above.
At the time that people thought that this is the year that will be worst in the history of Lagos, we are seeing that for the first half of the year, in Lagos state under Governor Akinwunmi Ambode, it looks magical that there is a kind of stream prosperity at a time that others are hemorrhaging.
Prosperity, not in a usual sense but simply in the sense that you have a governor who has the advantage of understanding how to manage resources and government that he is running.
Imagine, if at this time we had a governor who knows nothing about civil service, who knows nothing about local government, who knows nothing about accounting, who is stationary, because what is at stake now is not so much about showmanship. It is about less talk, more strategy, more action, which is what we are getting in Ambode.
You have a governor who says the first thing we have to do is to rearrange our debt profile. Therefore, he says let us consolidate all our exposures to commercial banks in one single source and get a better deal. Rather than paying 18 percent on our loans, let us be paying 12.5 percent because we have concentrated everything in one single bank.
Guess what that does to Lagos state economy? It saves Lagos about N3 billion every month, money that you are now able to channel into other things. It takes a good manager of resources to think about that and proceed with courage to get it done.
A journalist wouldn’t be so blessed. It is not a condemnation of our profession. Maybe a lawyer wouldn’t have that sort of idea. Maybe an engineer wouldn’t be so sure. But an accountant and somebody in particular, who understands the system.
I think the area where people will really, really applaud the fact that they made the right choice, will be that oh! At this time that things were expected to be difficult, we have somebody who understands how money should be managed at the helm of affairs.
Will you consider the governor as a technocrat or politician going by his antecedent?
He is both. He spent 27 years as a career civil servant. A civil servant is a technocrat, who works for government rather than work for private sector. Did private sector people go to better schools than those who work in government?
Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode has a first degree in Accounting, Masters degree in Accounting from University of Lagos, a chartered accountant, a Fulbright scholar, had the second best result in West African School Certificate Examination (WASCE) in the whole of West Africa.
Combine that rock solid educational qualifications with his achievements overtime as an auditor general for local governments in Lagos State, as an accountant general and permanent secretary, Ministry of Finance. Then almost for about three years, he was running his own company consulting for several major financial institutions in Nigeria and abroad.
So, it would be all politics when some people say he is just a mere civil servant. We are lucky to have somebody who understands the system as the governor of the state. So, don’t let us disparage what we do not understand.
In my less than one year in government, I have met with and I am working with some of the best brains who happen to be civil servants, the same way that I have met and worked with fantastic\brains in the private sector.
Did your appointment as a commissioner come to you as a surprise or it was something you were expecting?
Not really. I was glad to have contributed to the process that led to the emergence of the governor, Akinwunmi Ambode. I would have been happy to serve in any capacity, whether in or out of government.
My satisfaction would be for him to succeed because I was privy to the sort of strategy, the sort of idea, the vision that he had for the state. I know that those ideas and programmes will take the state a lot more higher.
I reckon that he is a man of his words. He meant well and he still means well. He is a selfless leader. Therefore, I thought that he deserves to be given the chance to contribute to the economy of Lagos state and taking Lagos state to the next level.
Having been offered to manage his media and communication during the campaign which I did with the best of my ability and with the whole team was not a child’s play.
That was enough satisfaction for me. That at least, I contributed to get him there. That, it would be totally left to him and the leaders of the party, knowing the area I could contribute. For me, whether inside or outside, I would be happy to continue to contribute to the successes that Akinwunmi Ambode had in stock for Lagos state.
So, how easy has it been for you, coming from newsroom environment where things are done with ultimatum, to adjust to civil service environment where there is a lot of bureaucracy?
I left the newsroom two years before I got the appointment. I was in the private sector even though, one leg in the media, one leg in consultancy before I got this appointment. But then, here is also a newsroom. I am dealing with mini-newsroom simultaneously at the Ministry of Information and Strategy.
Three of the agencies under me have to do with direct information service. The television station, Radio Lagos/Eko FM and Traffic Radio. Those are newsrooms for me. The Lagos State Printing Corporation deals with printing materials. We print our Alausa Alert and other things.
It is the same way as an MD/Editor-in-chief that I will be dealing with my production manager in the newsroom that I now will be dealing with the general manager of the printing corporation.
Yes, you may be correct that the creative madness of the newsroom may no longer be there. But again, in churning out information to 21 million people on a minute by minute basis, on hourly basis and sieving information back to government is journalistic. It is media. It is newsroom like.
I also keep a monthly column for Alausa Alert. I edit. I am the editor-in-chief by virtue of my position. I look at what goes into the magazine. We churn out press releases on a daily basis. So, it is still very media like but then we are also running it on behalf of the government. Therefore, the transition was not that difficult.
Yes, the rhythm in government might be slightly different. But as the spokesperson and image maker of government, it is a 24/7 job.
One of the key things you learn in journalism is that you are constantly under pressure and you are managing the stress and the pressure at the same time. For me, it’s a job I’m used to but it’s a privilege to be serving now in this capacity.
What is your typical day like?
It’s a 24/7 job. This is 8 pm, we are (here in his office). In the newsroom, it will be the peak of production. I am trying to get fairly good sleep of 5-6 hours a day. It is difficult to get, particularly when you work with someone like Governor Ambode. Sometimes, if I leave him at 1am, and then I get home. I’m one who can’t shut down typically before 2am. I can’t. No thanks to journalism because of the way we have lived our lives for more than two decades.
Just before you say 2am – 2.30am, let me quickly check mails and see what is happening and then you see his (governor) email just dropping and say “Can I get this before eight in the morning?”
It means that if you are going to bed at that time, you need to be up by 6am – 6.30am and then the day start, all over again.
You read newspapers, you monitor news, schedule meetings, make media appearances and they are in legion. You are on your way to a TV station, you are conducting another interview with another radio on phone because you really can’t be there.
So, it is tight, it is tedious, but it is rewarding because it is for a good cause. My boss told me 10 years ago when I became the editor of Punch newspaper. He said, you will need two things in abundance. You will need wisdom and courage and you will need to manage your time and energy.
I think those words of advice are more germane now more than ever before when one was an editor or a managing director and editor-in-chief of a newspaper.
So, how do you manage your time and energy now?
I am happy, I have a fantastic spouse, who understands that time is limited, but every little time that is available will be precious for the family. The whole point of being a good management person is the balance between work, leisure and family. You just have to balance them. Don’t get too carried away by the job. Always create time for your family. I may not have the luxury to go to the cinema, exhibition or music concert with them. But once in a while we still get that done.
I am doing a pretty job of managing the time and the energy level. The whole point is not to disappoint yourself and the cause and to make sure that the best is delivered within 24 hours.
Where do you hope to see Lagos in three years of this administration?
Lagos would have changed considerably. Lagos would have become a smart city because it is not sufficient to be a mega city. By virtue of our size, population wise, we are already a mega city. Yes, there are things that are expected of us as a mega city. Our dreams, our aspirations and all our plans now is for Lagos to be a smart city.
You will begin to see the evidence of these in the coming months and in the coming years. In three years, by the time we would be rendering account of our stewardship, every part of Lagos would have been well lit. We would have constructed and maintained more roads than ever before.
We are doing two flyover bridges in the first two years of our administration. We hope to have doubled that by the end of the administration.
We are hoping that by the end of the three years, we would be just about completing the 4th Mainland Bridge, which would radically transform Lagos state in the manner that nobody has seen before. We certainly would have finished the Blue Lane (light rail) and would also have extended it from Mile 2 to Okokomaiko and hopefully to Badagry.
We would have started the Red Lane which will run from Alagbado all the way to Marina. We would have commenced the other light rails which would link Victoria Island, Ikoyi and Lekki axis. By that time, we will know for sure, how many houses that are in Lagos because everything would be computerized.
Without doubt, yes, Lagos would have grown a lot more but it would also have become a city that is very much secured because Close Circuit Television (CCTV) would be everywhere. The streets would be well lit and the command and control centres would be top notch. The rescue operation of Lagos would be comparable to anywhere in the world.
I think Lagos, in three years time would have changed radically as destination of choice in Africa. We would have become an oil producing state and would have been reaping bountifully from oil. We would have commenced the new airport around Ibeju/Lekki-Epe axis.
The deep sea port would also have commenced if not about to finish in three years. Therefore, people would say that oh, Lagos got it right in the four years on Ambode.
Therefore, the idea that Lagos shouldn’t continue along that line would not even be possible.