LATEEF Raji, 52, is the Special Adviser on Information and Strategy to the Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola, SAN. In this no-holds-barred interview with ENCOMIUM Weekly, the Idoani, Ondo born politician was so grateful to God, his colleagues in the Lagos State Executive Council, especially the governor for their all round support during his travails and much more…
Congratulations on your 52nd birthday.
Thank you very much.
It is something I was looking up to. But again let me tell you strictly that I had an experience. Immediately after my 50th birthday, I feel ill and I was diagnosed of cancer. When I celebrated my 51st, I was still not strong enough. All my friends were around but not strong enough to celebrate with them. But today, I feel great. I am just not a person that is used to showing how much I want to thank God for this. Certainly, I owe God so much gratitude to be around.
What type of cancer did you suffer from?
Of the throat (sent for his I-pad to look for the name), it is called Oropharynx cancer.
When were you diagnosed of this cancer?
That was in December 2012. Throughout 2013, I was virtually out of circulation.
Where were you treated?
I was treated in London. I was treated in the best hospital in London designated for cancer treatment. I was treated at Royal Marsden Hospital. It was an experience for me.
The experience was probably the saddest moment of your life?
Yeah, it was. The operation to detect it took almost two weeks to heal. Within that two weeks I think I lost close to 10 kilogrammes. For me, it was like a death sentence. I was already suffering from it when I was attacked by armed robbers. The armed robbers injured me seriously. Immediately that one healed up, I went for two weeks break in London, I came back only to discover that I still had it. They now said they suspected I had to undergo another operation to detect it. When it was finally diagnosed, the first person I spoke to was my wife. I asked her do you know what, they said I have cancer. And I smoked a lot.
You smoke a lot?
I was a habitual smoker. And I still like it, though. I don’t smoke anymore. I miss smoking.
You miss smoking?
I miss it, I must confess. I now told my wife. She has this way of saying, don’t worry yourself, we will get through it. Although she later told me that after saying that, she went inside her room to cry but couldn’t do that in my presence in order not to discourage me.
After my wife, the next person I told was the governor. The governor was fantastic. He just told me is that why you’ve been shrinking? What is the matter with you? He said in this age and time it is not cancer that will kill us. He said there are a lot of doctors out there who are doing a lot of things to keep people alive provided it is detected early. Don’t worry, whatever support you need, this government will provide it for you because you are a public officer. He provided the support, even up till now because I still go for medical check-ups and the government pays. When people talk about benefits, I think I got the best benefit in my life.
The governor told the Commissioner for Health (Dr. Jide Idris) who in turn used his connections to connect me with some people in London. I was also lucky when I got to London, I was supposed to see somebody else but I met a Nigerian doctor who is highly respected even by the British government. He is a surgeon and his name is Dr. Tunde Odutoye. He trained here in Ife (University of Ife, Ile-Ife). The British (government) treasured him so much they will not let him go. I just ran into him in the course of all these things. He was the one who introduced me to Professor Harrington of The Royal Marsden Hospital. The Royal Marsden Hospital is an institute of cancer research, exclusively for cancer. It is a fantastic place for a cancer patient to be. I had all the support.
For how long were you in the hospital?
Six months. I had both radiotherapy and chemotherapy for three months a piece.
We gathered that chemotherapy could be very painful. What was your own experience like?
I wouldn’t say chemotherapy is painful. I didn’t feel pain. It just had some effect like making you dark. With the combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, I lost all my hair. Before I left, I had some goatee beard, I lost everything. I am dark complexioned person naturally, I became darker. I was like someone who just came out from the pit of hell. I lost weight and my taste up till now. My hearing too has been impaired in a way but the doctor assured me that I will get them back after sometime.
My treatment ended in July 2013, I was very weak so I rested a bit. I left London in August 2013 and resumed work in November 2013. I thank my colleagues in the exco (Executive Council) who raised a team that paid me a get well soon visit in the hospital. I am very lucky person and we still have a lot of good people around, many of whom I met in the course of my treatment. It was a very big thing for me. It was an experience.
But what did doctor tell you was the cause?
Immediately I saw Professor Harrington, he just told me to stop smoking. But I didn’t stop until we started the treatment.
You didn’t stop?
You see addiction is a very powerful thing. Addiction is something you can’t just really get it off when you want to. Maybe some few of us who are lucky to get rid of their bad habit. That is why I said am very lucky person. I have had close shave with death three times now. The first time was when I was just five years old and I was knocked down by a vehicle while crossing the road after school. The second time was when the armed robbers came to my house and hit me on the head with one of those heavy bars in my gym and blood was gushing from my head like a running tap water.
When was this?
In October 2013. I have had accident twice. My first car in life I lost it through an accident -head on collision. And I went through cancer again.
You must be a man with nine lives.
Not that, God just love me very much and decided to keep me alive.
I am sure by now you’ve stopped smoking?
Yeah, I quit that is why I said I miss smoking. I still miss smoking. When I see my friends smoking, I tried to see if I could but the fact is I just couldn’t do the puffing anymore.
Your 52 years couldn’t have been all these stories of tragedies and near death situations. There must have been some happy moments in your life?
Oh a lot, a lot. For me, my political career has been on the rise since 1999 when I joined politics. I started off as the state secretary of the party, AD. I later became the chairman of a faction of the party when the party became factionalised. My hand is the hand you see holding the broom in the symbol of the party right from when it was AC till it metamophorsed into APC now. I did that logo with Dr. Bunmi Omosehindemi. I am always proud to tell people that my hand is the hand holding the broom in the party symbol. Today, by the grace of God, I am a member of Lagos State Executive Council. These are all happy moments for me.
Another happy moment of my life was when my wife gave birth to all our four children. I was with her right in the labour room when she was being delivered of them. The last one was through a caesarian operation. The outcome of every delivery was always a happy moment for me.
What was your childhood like?
Beautiful, rascally but one that is defined by love. My father was a civil servant and was always not around. It was my mom that was in charge. My mom was a tough but loving woman. I was very rascally when I was young and it affected my education. I attended three secondary schools because of one trouble or the other. But a lot of thanks goes to my mom who never gave up on me. Despite her toughness, she was always providing the necessary advice and support.
Where did you grow up?
Idoani, in Ondo State.
Are you her only son?
No, I am in the middle. I have a brother and a sister before me and another brother and sister behind me. I was just her favourite child despite my rascality.
Is your mum still alive?
Very well. It’s only my father that has died. He died four years ago.
For someone who has gone through so much in life, what lesson of life would you say you have learnt?
That in life don’t write anybody off. You need to give everybody a second even a third chance to be successful in life. Let me tell you something. When I was having those challenges in school, I was written off by some people. Many of them concluded that I would never amount to anything. In fact, when I completed my Masters degree (at University of Lagos), an uncle of mine came to me to say Lateef, I have offended you. He said he offended me because he never thought I will complete my secondary school education, not to talk of going to university.
That is one lesson of life I have learnt. Give people a chance to change for good.
After your Masters, you went for Ph.D. Have you completed it?
I have not because of politics. But I have done quite well. I have written my exams. I am writing my thesis, I have done about four or five chapters. I want to have some sizeable numbers so that when I am asked to go and make some corrections after my first seminal paper, I will go through everything within a period of six months. I structured that out with my supervisor. He has seen some of my papers, I am very sure by next year I should be able to earn that degree.
It is same next year that you are planning to contest for House of Representatives seat in your federal constituency?
Yes, you are right. But every day, I spend about three hours on that paper. I am lucky I have a lot of people who could help me with one research or the other. All I have to do is the writing. If I get the party ticket and I win the election, I will not be sworn in until June 2015. That is an ample time for me to complete my papers.
Will you get the party ticket this time around? This is the same seat you contested for in 2011?
I won the party ticket in 2011 but the party is always supreme. The party gave me another assignment to do. I was part of the party screening committee in Ibadan, Oyo state. Having served as the state secretary of the party, I always bow to the decision of the party. I also know that the party, most of the time, reward loyalty. I have the support, I am well known. Virtually everybody you are seeing here today is from there (Oshodi Isolo). I have here ward chairmen, caucus leaders, officers of the party and so on. So, to a large extent, I am well liked by the party members. If I am not sent on any assignment this time around, I will beat other aspirants to the ticket. However, the final decision rests with the party.
With your state of health, how easy has it been for you to cope with your responsibility as managers of the state information?
Initially, when I first resumed, it was tough. But now nothing is hampering me from the performance of my duties. I do my job like every other person. I cover my beat very effectively. I don’t have any problem anymore. That is why I said I am a very lucky person. I don’t know how many people that have the kind of health challenge that I had and pulled through it and still be able to continue with their normal work. You saw me today as I was dancing with my children. I still do my exercises. I move round the estate.
How did you meet your wife?
It was during one of those escapades in my younger days. I lived in Ladipo while she lived in Sogunle (area of Oshodi). I had a friend who also lived in Sogunle that I used to hang out with. I met her in 1992, I was an undergraduate and I was already having a car then. I will go to my friend’s place, park my car put on the music and I will sit on top of the car smoking. She will walk past. She has all the features I was looking for in a girl, tall. One day I decided to give her a chase but as I was calling her she didn’t answer me. She just went inside the compound and closed the gate behind her. And I looked up, I saw her father at the balcony, I quickly made a retreat. Eventually, we met and I gave her a lift in my car. She told me she did not like someone who smokes, there and then I promised to leave smoking because of her. That was how we became friends and six years later we got married.
How many children has the marriage been blessed with?
Four children. Our first daughter is 17 plus.