Prof. Ademola Abass is a professor of international law. He was one of the top advisers to the last governor of Lagos State, Akinwunmi Ambode on overseas affairs and investments. He spoke to Saturday Sun recently in Lagos about his service in the last dispensation, what keeps him busy now, his dream country and lots more.
You are a professor; most professors are in the classroom, so why are you not?
I used to be in the classroom but it is not just about classroom, I am relevant in other areas of life. I was a professor in the United Kingdom for about 10 years and I have done other things in the United Nations, in the African Union. I came back to serve my country. I served Lagos state government for four years. I am back in the private sector now as a consultant.
You have your own firm?
Yes. It’s LinkLegal Consulting Firm. We deal in few things and we support foreign investors in Nigeria, we also support government policies on peace especially and also we provide services and general legal advisory because I’m also a lawyer by training. We do a range of things.
Why did you come back to Nigeria, to serve your country?
Principally, that was why I came back home to be honest with you. That was in 2015, after spending 19 years overseas, where I did my postgraduate studies up to my doctoral level. I became a professor, I worked for the African Union, worked for United Nations, at a point in time you also want to transfer your knowledge to your country because you realize that a lot of smart Nigerians outside this country could come back home and contribute their quota, so I came back to contribute to Nigeria but I would say that I didn’t come back to come and join the government. I came back for something totally different, accidentally, I found myself in a government.
You are the kind of people they call technocrats. So, how did you cope with politicians, some of them don’t like technocrats?
I don’t think there is any government that doesn’t like technocrats at all. Sometimes, they say Nigerian government doesn’t like academic or intellectual. To some extent, you can say there can be a challenge. Not just because you are an academic, maybe the government itself does not understand that no country can survive without research, without data analysis. I think Nigeria generally, that is one thing we do not emphasize. We don’t emphasize the role that intellectuality, the role that analysis contributes to the running of a government. If you build everything on politics, then you don’t move forward because policies are not being driven by politics, they are best driven by research, by analysis. That is where you get the best in terms of policies. Nigeria is the way it is today because there is little premium placed on intelligence and on meritocracy, on technocracy, putting round pegs in round holes. I think until Nigeria realises that it has to do better in that; we are going to be having problems.
You spent four years serving Lagos state, how was it?
Largely, it was very rewarding in terms of being given the opportunity to serve Lagosians, to serve Nigerians as a whole, even though Lagosians in particular. I ran the office of Overseas Affairs and Investment for four years and I was instrumental to receiving a lot of foreign Heads of States in Nigeria. The president f Germany in those days, the Prime Minister of UK, Theresa May, President Macron of France, to mention a few of those leaders that I had the opportunity of leading the teams that received them in Nigeria on behalf of Lagos state government. Apart from that, I had a spectacular opportunity to lead investment in the state. That means to support foreign investors who are coming into Lagos state, to support local investor who wanted to invest in Lagos state. That was a huge opportunity because I had worked for the African Union in the past, I have worked for the European Union, and I taught in the United Kingdom, I have got a bit of multinational experience that served me to a large extent when I was in government. It has its own challenges like anything else, I won’t exaggerate on these challenges and I wouldn’t waste my time commenting on them. What is important is to learn from those challenges and to convert them into opportunities and to be able to build a stronger state that is Lagos and stronger Nigeria as a country.
Why don’t you want to talk about the challenges?
They are not things that are germane to Lagos state; it’s all over the place. Sometimes, you work in an environment in which people don’t place premium on rigorous analysis and appreciation of things before they take decisions and that is always going to be problematic. That is one of the biggest challenges. If you are in the academic or even in the private sector, you have a much bigger room to be able to display your talent, to say, when you do this way you get this result. But when you work in the political offices sometimes, no matter how much you try, things don’t just go your way, sometimes because of a lot of political, not intellectual or analytical considerations.
Could you tell us a bit of your growing up?
I grew up largely in Nigeria. I was born in Ibadan; I had my primary, secondary education in Nigeria. I studied English for a while at the University of Ibadan, I studied law in the University of Lagos and I went to University of Cambridge for my masters and Nottingham for my PhD all in the UK. I taught in the UK, I was made professor of International law in 2007 in the UK. After that, I worked in the United Nations, Belgium etc. I spent 27 or 28 years of my life in Nigeria before I travelled out.
Considering your experiences, what lessons have you learnt about life?
One thing I have learnt is that we have to be tolerant about our own heritage. Sometimes, we are very quick to condemn our country. I lived in the UK and some other countries in the western world and I saw that they have some problems that we also have in Nigeria; the difference is that they have strong institutions. What is going on in the US today with Trump and all these elections etc shows you there are no angels among men. What we need to keep doing in our country is to keep working, to keep identifying our challenges and our problems and make them better. Don’t let us give up hope on our country. Don’t let us imagine that we are the worst of humanity. Nigeria has problems but these problems can be fixed and they will be fixed when we are realistic with our choices, when we confront our problems headlong without any doubt. One of the biggest lessons for me is that we must have hope in our country and we must do everything possible to make sure we do not allow this country to be destroyed for us.
You have had a bit share of governance in Nigeria, would you want to go into politics someday?
I always say, futurologist is always problematic, except you have the grace above. I have worked in government before for four years, it was fantastic, and it had the down side. All it takes evil to prevail in any society is for the good ones to keep quiet. If going to political offices, will be what some of us need to do, because at the end there is where decisions are best taken, if going there is what we need to do to rescue our country, from what is going on, from endemic corruption, nepotism, nobody should shy away from it. I would not shy away from it, if and when the opportunity comes.
You’ve travelled far and wide, where would you take as your best destination?
Everywhere I have had my peace and tranquility has been my best. To be honest, it’s like asking a father among your four, five kids, which one is the best. Every kid has good sides, advantages over the other kids. Every single place I had lived in my life had its advantage. UK has its advantage, Nigeria has its own, I stayed in Cote d’voire for a while, all of them have different strengths and weaknesses, but I have enjoyed them on equal basis.
How do you relax?
I like to read a lot. I engage in social discourse with my friends, I like travelling a lot and I like writing