MRS. Dominga Omolara Odebunmi, a former Director General, Lagos State Safety Commission is still very passionate about safety measures and her day to day activities remain in tune with that norm . She is an administrator and safety strategist with over 30 years experience in safety management system and compliance. She recently spoke with Saturday Sun.
You were the visioner of Lagos State Safety Commission and its first Director General. What did the job entail?
Saving lives. It’s not like security in terms of chasing after and making sure there’s no trouble anywhere. Government needs to have regulatory office to enable them make sure that the construction that is being done, the workers
that are there, are well looked after and, they are given the necessary amenities for their safety, to protect their health. They are enlightened, because for a lot of people, the awareness about having a safe culture was very low, especially in Lagos state. People felt safety was security. No. Security is like you address-
ing a threat but health and safety for safety commission cut across. It cuts across schools, construction, and the occupational work place; it cuts across health, agriculture, and transport. Part of that thinking was what brought about
the federal road safety corps but because as a state, you will not have a road safety corps per say. A summary of this speaks in the rider of our logo: Work Safe, Live Safe. That was the rider under the commission’s logo. You can
navigate your way easily in your house. Safety commission was to bring a cultural switch to peoples thinking, to make sure that our lives are safe, our environment and work place are safe. Up till now, safety has not left me.
What do you do now after you left as the DG?
There was an established organization that was in existence before the office of Lagos State Safety Commission. Fortunately, that was the organization that was used as a tool to set up the commission. Basically, what I’m saying is, I had an organization before that actually consulted called SafetyPlus Engineering Services. It was set up in UK in 1990 before coming to Nigeria. Part of coming to Nigeria was primarily to come and assist not government per say but any institution, any structure that has to do with overseeing, or responsibility for human life, safety, health etc. Naturally, when I left, I joined safety plus automatically. That was an organization my husband and I set up. When I was going into the government, I had to resign as a director. When I got back, I didn’t bother to get back into directorship, what I do; I consult principally for my organization because I still do other philanthropy health related work, executive administration. It also helped me to be able to spend more time with extending youth development. It’s something that I had always loved to do.
Can you pin point the salient things done by the commission during your tenure?
Promoting safety culture in public schools was key. It was when the safety commission came on board that all those pit latrines in schools stopped. That was one of my first assignments. Now, why did the safety commission go as far as having a law? It was because when we set it up for the government it was an office of public safety under the ministry of special duties, which meant we will be doing enlightenment, campaigning. For our people in Nigeria, it is more like the survival of the fittest naturally because government has kind of pushed us to the point where everybody is scrambling for survival, making sure there is water, there is light for themselves to the point that we have forgotten the primary responsibility of safety. People go to construction sites they don’t return. What happened? They are excavating things at different sites and they don’t do proper ground test, they are digging a place, they don’t know that well had been there years in the past.
When we first came on board, we had to make sure that there was a law that can penalize people; that can actually bring people to book because there’s a need for cultural change. We realized that some people already know and they don’t want even to correct themselves. They don’t want to improve because somebody is always gaining from chaos. Such people will never want that improvement to take place. Those are the kinds of people the law was set up for. When we came on board, a lot of schools were using shuttle buses, taking children to school early morning without any measure of safety consciousness. We had lots of accidents; the school bus itself running over the child they had just dropped. Lots of silly things. We had to do a lot of serious enlightenment campaign across the state.
You lived in London. Tell us the story of how the Lagos State Safety Commission comes about?
The commissioner for health came to our facility then in London in 2001. We run a restaurant. I said to him, ‘with all sense of humility, the health sector is not doing enough. When last did you really advise people not to put ‘I better pass my neighbor generator’ next to their windows? A lot of people are dying because the fumes are entering into their lungs. Increasing number of people losing their lives and nobody is being held for it.’ We are not there yet as a nation but we have moved forward, I told him. He replied, that I should come and enlighten the workers. I had that bur- den and I didn’t even care whether they paid me. I came. We did training for ministry of health, and I would work with the local governments just to be able to do enlightenment for them. It was like a joke. I really didn’t want to be the DG; I remember my husband and my friend were there to support me. I remember we wanted to make sure they would not politicize it. We wanted somebody who understands the vision to drive it. Instantly, Governor Fas- hola bought the vision straight away. It was just an ordinary email of our findings that we sent to him. It was emergency that was set up in the state first, that was when the Ikorodu Chinese factory locked up workers and they could not escape when there was fire and they all burned. That was when the LASEMA, the emergency agency was set up. Lots of emergency issues were springing up here and there. Nobody thought it through that we were chasing after emergency, can’t we reduce it, and can’t we work towards preventing those things from happening? Immediately, the governor said, that is what he’s been looking for. That is the job of a safety commission to make sure that we can regulate the activities of different government agencies that are responsible for preventive actions, preventive measures, preventing conditions that are not safe. The law of the com- mission had representatives from different ministries, about seven of them: Agric, Housing, Works and Infrastructure, Transport, Health, Fire services. It was a tall order. It’s like government overseeing itself; eventually we were able to get the structure in place.
What do you do when you are not thinking about safety?
My pastor, Matthew Ashimolowo had helped to inculcate something in me and that is the sense of organization, being able to administer order and structure. Basically, that is what I do in church. When I started having family in the UK, I left the manufacturing company I was working. For about 10 years, I set up an outfit for children. It was called ‘Little Lamb Carers.’ There, they will teach you when you start having children you don’t want to injure the children, you don’t want anything to harm them. All those safety things were being taught and little did I know that I was still going to use it when I got to government. All these little things we find ourselves doing, they all add up at one point. If I’m not managing safety , I’m actively developing programs with the youths .That’s my other interest, youth development. I’m passionate to see the youths become better. When I was in 7up, my boss usually gives me task that was beyond me; it was much later that I realized that I was always saying he was pushing me so much. I use that story a lot when I’m counseling youths, they invite me to come and do some motivational talks and I have adopted some youths to mentor them. I’m into mentorship. I think I have hearts for the vulnerable, people that can’t help themselves. I love reading pictorial things; I love just being in the atmosphere of helping.
When you served as DG, how did you cope with the people already on ground in government?
I basically drew from fountain of prayer for daily wis- dom. I had confidence to achieve knowing that my life is hidden in Christ, Christ in God, so I was at peace and didn’t hold any grudge. I’m a grassroots person. I grew up in Nigeria. I may be born over there but I also schooled in Nigeria. I went to St Mary’s private school at Ajele Street. My secondary was Government College, Ikorodu. All my early years were grounded in grassroots. It’s about understand- ing people and drawing your boundaries, and working with people you need to work with. As long as you don’t look down on anyone because everyone has one help that they will offer you one way no matter what. So, with those kinds of approach, it helped me to achieve my goal. One thing that stands out in most things that I do is being focused. If I see that somebody is opposing or being a stumbling block to something I’m doing, I am not going to beef the person, I’m not going to create an enmity in our relationship but I will make sure that person doesn’t stop me. When I left government, I realized that what we say in civil service is also happening in private sector. I say it to my colleagues in ‘SafetyPlus,’ that what I see in private sector is worse than what was in public service but in public service they hold them responsible, and accountable more. That is why there’s a lot of noise about public service. I brought in standards to run that agency, when the civil servants working with me brought their own sloppy behavior, I drew the line. How can a director say, we are holding a meeting on a particular day and you cannot have the courtesy to inform participants that the meeting is not holding again. That is bad. My term was four years but I stayed for five years. I worked with Governor Ambode, as well. Towards the end of Governor Fashola’s tenure, I began to prepare a hand over. note. I structured some new ideas that would have to sustain what we had done. I handed them over to Ambode. One of them was the establishment of what brought about the Neighborhood Safety Corps that you see now. Lagos Neighborhood Safety Corps (LNSC) is an offshoot of Lagos state safety commission. I actually wrote that proposal and handed it over to Ambode. I’m no longer in government but when I see them I’m happy that there is progress, there’s continuity.
What lessons has life taught you as a person?
It is interesting. Never turn your back on anyone. Have a heart of compassion. Life has taught me not to write off anyone. I didn’t get a lot of that in the private sector before coming to the public service. Public service opened it up more and then coming back to private sector, I have seen that, never write off anyone. Even at this critical time in Nigeria, there is hope, if we put our mind in it and if we mean well we will see the benefits of doing the right thing, irrespective of what we say that in Nigeria nothing works. Things work, things can work. The only thing is, we should realize that once there’s chaos somewhere, somebody is benefiting from that chaos. If you really want to overcome that chaotic setting, have an open mind because there must be a reason why that person is benefiting from that chaotic point. It’s either circumstantial or desperation. Even as the most horrible, wicked person, you cannot save everybody naturally but do your bit, at least you will save some and the lives you save today might be the one that would save the person you know at one point or your loved ones.