By Sunday Ani
The senator representing Ekiti Central, Michael Opeyemi Bamidele has said that the people of Ekiti are just waiting for the election time to vote for him as their next governor after Gov Kayode Fayemi.
Speaking to journalists in Lagos, Opeyemi, who has served twice as commissioner in Lagos State under former governors, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Babatunde Raji Fashola as well as a House of Representatives member, said God saved him from gunshot attack on June 1, 2018, because He wanted him to serve his people.
In this interview, he spoke about his chances of clinching the All Progressives Congress (APC) ticket in the primaries scheduled to hold in January next year, his relationship with the incumbent governor, and his plans for the people of Ekiti State if elected governor among other issues.
It is a known fact that you have tried in the past to be governor of Ekiti State, why are you renewing your bid to achieve that mission again?
I give God the glory that I am alive today. I have been around for a while but I will also hold myself as partly a creation of the media and largely a beneficiary and product of the collective struggle of the Nigerian youths. Going by my antecedent in my student days from being a student leader and youth activist to a beneficiary and a product of pro-democracy movement in this country, it has been impossible for power at any level or the spoils of office to get into my head because I know that I am accountable to a lot of people and ultimately to God almighty.
Going to your question, I just want to say that I am renewing the bid because I believe that part of the purpose for which God created me was to serve and driven by my own life philosophy that no man owns himself to himself alone, but partly to himself, family, community and largely, to his society. I believe that we must continue to strive to give our best and to also place at the disposal of our community and people whatever special talent God has given us. I believe that I have been privileged and opportune to get some unusual exposures and I believe that part of what God has been preparing me is to join hands with people in Ekiti to be able to provide the kind of leadership that we need to lift that state out of poverty and despair and help take the state to a new level. In saying this, I am not saying that I am the only person who is capable of providing leadership in Ekiti State. Ekiti is a well endowed community with very creative, highly educated, desirous and progressive people, but I believe that I have something that is not common and I must be ready to place it at the disposal of the people. To begin with, I have been opportune to have had the necessary exposures in all the three arms of government. I have been a lawyer for 30 years, both as a solicitor and advocate of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, and as an attorney and councillor at law in New York, the United States of America. I spent the last 30 years networking within the judicial arm of government. And today, I am a member of the Body of Benchers, which is the highest decision making organ in the legal profession. So, by virtue of this, I am well exposed within the judicial arm of government, the workings of the judiciary and the legal profession at large. Again, if you also take the executive arm of government, I was in the cabinet of Lagos State government for 11 and half years, both as a special adviser to former Governor Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu in his first term and as commissioner for youths, sports and social development in his second term. I was also a commissioner for information and strategy under former Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola. For me, this was a rare opportunity of also being exposed within the executive arm of government, serving the government and people of Lagos State, apparently the most sophisticated state in the country coming next to the Federal Government. After that, I served as a member of the House of Representatives, and currently, as a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Again, this is quite an exposure within the legislative arm of government, and I am not just in the senate. By God’s grace, I am there as the chairman of the committee on judiciary, human rights and legal matters, one of the largest committees in the senate. So, this gives me an opportunity to oversee the entire judiciary, the federal ministry of justice in the executive arm and the national human rights commission. So, for me, it is like being in government, yet practising my law and being part of the pro-democracy movement in Nigeria and beyond. So, I feel that these are uncommon exposures which have come to position me to be able to provide the kind of leadership that I believe Ekiti needs at a peculiar time like this.
I am also renewing the bid of wanting to be governor of Ekiti State because I believe that I could have been dead on June 1, 2018. It was two bullets that went through my body – one pierced through my thigh, and the other was right through my stomach. Even the doctors that attended to me in the UK and US all kept asking who navigated the bullet through my stomach that my liver didn’t go with it which could have led to bleeding and instant death, and my lung was not affected which I could have collapsed immediately before I was even lifted from the ground. Of course, they perforated my intestine and all that, but all I kept telling them was that it was God because only God could have done it. So, I believe that I was saved to serve and I am not going to abandon that cause. I believe that there is so much ahead of us and so much to be done. I am convinced that our future can still be written and it is a responsibility for all of us and I am driven by that responsibility.
Distinguished senator, there is a serious agitation from the South senatorial zone that it is their turn to produce the next governor after Fayemi; how do you see this particularly as it relates to your aspiration?
I believe the agitation by some of our people from the South that the zone should be allowed to produce the next governor is a legitimate aspiration. It is also a moral argument that no one can fault. But, the point is that it is only the people of Ekiti State that are in a position to take such a decision. It is not within the reach or decision of any particular aspirant, whether from the South, North or Central senatorial district; it is the people of Ekiti that will take that decision. It is also the card carrying members of each political party that will have to take such a decision. So, if they buy and go for that argument and they act it out, so be it.
In 2018, there was a similar agitation and the ruling party in the state at that time, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), actually went for that argument and brought the then serving deputy governor of the state, Prof Kolapo Eleka as the party’s governorship candidate. He is from Ikere-Ekiti, which is in the South senatorial district. Ekiti people voted; that was not a consideration to determine who would emerge as governor. And that would not be the first time somebody would be contesting from Ekiti South. So, I feel that it is something that goes beyond agitation. It is something that will have to get to the root of our own democratic conviction. More networking and horse-trading need to be done taking into consideration the demographics of Ekiti State and the voting pattern and where you have the bulk of the votes and all that. A lot will have to take place for that to happen but I don’t believe it is impossible and I am not opposed to it. Today, I have not seen any serious attempt on the part of any other political party to act based on this agitation, not even the PDP that picked its candidate from the South before but time shall tell. Before the end of January next year, both parties would have held their primaries. I am a member of only one political party, the APC, so if at the end of the day, the person that wins the primary is from Ekiti South, he would have become the candidate of APC and all of us will have to work for him. I believe that will also be the situation with PDP and every other political party. But, I believe that a lot of people in Ekiti who today are probably not subscribing to that, are still pushing the argument that Ekiti is not Ogun State, where you have different people like the Ijebus, the Egbas, the Egbados and others, which requires political balancing. A lot of people still hold on to that view and I just feel that as our democracy continues to mature in Ekiti State, you will get to a point where some other factors other than where you come from will count. So, I am not opposed to that agitation because I believe it is legitimate, but at the same time, I also believe that Ekiti is in dire need of people who are capable of helping and such people exist in every part of Ekiti and it will be for the people to decide.
You are a close friend to the incumbent governor, Dr. Fayemi. Have you discussed your aspiration with him and what is his disposition towards that?
Have I discussed it with Gov Fayemi? Yes. Is he aware I am contesting? Yes, he has always known that I will contest. Have I told him I wanted to come out? Yes. What is his disposition? I want to be very fair to Gov Fayemi. We had a disagreement in the past as all of you knew but by the grace of God, we reconciled and I ended up as the director-general of his campaign in 2018, and we have had a very cordial relationship; I must say that for the record. What is his disposition towards my aspiration to be governor of Ekiti? Gov Fayemi knows that by the grace of God I will do well when I become governor of Ekiti State. What do I expect him to do? Do I expect him to tell everybody that he is standing up for Opeyemi Bamidele? That will be unfair on my part. He is the governor of the state. And to begin with, he still has almost one year; in the next 10 months, he is still the governor in the state. He needs the cooperation of everybody. He doesn’t need distraction; he doesn’t need to make himself a lame duck on the basis of the political aspirations of anyone. So, the Gov Fayemi I know believes in internal party democracy. And the implication is that he cannot at this point in time stand up to be counted with any aspirant. In being fair to him and our people, and in understanding the rudiments of democracy, I will not join in any name dropping. I may as well just sit down here and say Gov Fayemi is supporting me and that he is the one behind my aspiration but I won’t do that because I know he is not meant to do that and he is not going to do that. So, definitely, those who are spending their time and resources trying to make Nigerians believe that Gov Fayemi is the one sponsoring their aspirations, are doing that because they need something extra to be able to market themselves and if possible, browbeat other groups into supporting them. But, I can assure you that Gov Fayemi knows better than to adopt any particular aspirant at this point. He wants the unity of the party; a strong party that is united to face other political parties in a general election. We are the party to beat in Ekiti State and Gov Fayemi knows that he cannot do anything that will make us defeat ourselves even before the election. And I know that he will also be interested in a candidate that can win a general election for the party. Ekiti people are waiting to vote for me as their next governor. I have no doubt about the love the people have for me. I was in the theatre and doctors needed three people to donate blood on June 1, 2018 and as soon as they came out to announce that, over 300 people came out to donate blood for me. That is the kind of love the people have for me and they are looking for an opportunity to vote for me. I came back from the hospital to run my senatorial campaigns with a colostomy bag on my stomach and everywhere I went, I wasn’t allowed to campaign; I was just asked to wave to people. It was like a celebration; people were happy to reconnect. They know I have always desired to lead Ekiti by the grace of God and they are looking forward to that opportunity but I need the mandate of the party to be able to stand for a general election because our constitution does not recognize an independent candidacy yet. So, you need a political party to sponsor you and it is my desire that APC will sponsor me for the next election so that together we can harvest the goodwill that the people have for me and the party. So, I say with every sense of modesty that making me the candidate of the party will give APC a lot of leverage and we will make the general election a walkover in Ekiti State.
Primary elections are always very controversial in Ekiti and nobody is sure about the fate of the amended electoral bill waiting for the Presidential assent, which many believe the direct primary clause in the bill would have taken care of such ugly trend. What do you think can guarantee a free, fair and peaceful primary election for your party, the APC, in Ekiti next year?
I am sure this is a question that would probably have been clearer to ask and it will be answered if it had been asked after 12 midnight on Sunday, December 19, by which time it would have been obvious as to whether or not Mr. President decided to sign or withhold assent to the pending electoral bill. However, I have no doubt that Mr. President means well for the country. The National assembly where we sat down to pass this bill meant well for the country. When Mr. President was being sworn in for the second time, part of what he promised Nigerians in his speech was that he would leave a legacy of credible electoral law that would enhance the growth of our democracy. I am sure he is driven by that conviction and promise that he made to Nigerians. Whether he chooses to sign the pending electoral bill will depend on his own reading of the bill and its indications and because he means well for the country, I am sure he will back up whatever decision he takes with reasons. As a matter of fact, the law requires him to give his reasons to the National Assembly on what he chooses to do, especially if he decides not to sign it. So, we are all waiting and luckily, we couldn’t conclude on the passage of the 2022 appropriation bill, so we couldn’t go on vacation this week as planned. So, we are continuing and we are going to sit beyond Sunday, December 19, when Mr. President is expected to take a decision, and on the next legislative date, we will be able to review his decision and also decide on what to do in the best interest. But as I said, Mr. President means well as the nation awaits his decision. But specifically, with respect to Ekiti, I want to say that either way, work will have to be done as to taking part in the Ekiti primaries. I would love it if it was a direct primary. My senatorial primaries were direct and they adopted that only in my senatorial zone just because there was a sitting senator, who had become a member of the APC and who also felt that she should be given an automatic ticket because she crossed from the PDP to the APC. The leadership of the party felt it was important to make it transparent for the whole world to see, so they adopted direct primaries, and at the end of the day, it was a difference of 58,000 votes to less than 18,000. So, if anybody was in doubt that I had 58,000 votes during the primaries, the fact that INEC declared that I had over 94,000 votes during the general election, made it obvious that not only did the 58,000 people actually existed and voted, more people were waiting to vote for me during the general election. So, I am a product of the transparency of direct primaries and that is why I will always go for it. But, there are as many opinions as there are people. That’s my own opinion. It doesn’t mean that everybody will agree to direct primaries. If all senators agree to direct primaries, it doesn’t mean all governors will agree to it. We are convinced that direct primaries is something that will help all political parties to help give power back to the people and allow every card carrying member of political parties to be a part of the decision making process in choosing those who fly the flag of the party; that is why we went for it. As it relates to Ekiti 2022, my mindset is to work for both so that whether it is direct or indirect primaries, we will be ready for it. And that is the kind of campaign I am running in Ekiti but I will be happier for our democracy and its growth if it is a direct primary because it will make it more transparent.
You want to be governor at a time that most state governors depend on handouts from the federal government to survive. Many state governors can’t even pay salaries not to talk of undertaking serious infrastructural projects; how do you intend to face such a challenge if you become governor of Ekiti?
You are right. The times are hard but the challenges are the same reason that I should contest. And a lot of people regonise this and that is why they are encouraging me to run. I obtained my nomination form three days ago and a day before that, I received a group of concerned Ekiti indigenes who told me that at this point in time, they don’t need anybody that is coming to do trial and error. They needed someone that is tested and has the necessary exposure to provide the needed leadership in Ekiti. They recognize these challenges and I also recognize these challenges. What is required now is leadership that is collective, scientific and anticipatory. Politicians will have their say in governance but you cannot afford to neglect the corporate individuals in Ekiti. The political system that produced me is such that as a governor, you must be ready to work with people who are almost better than you. If I have to go and beg people who I know can deliver, I will do that. The mainstay of our economy in Ekiti is agriculture and mineral development. The current governor has done so much trying to revive the sector, from the abandoned dairy farms to attempt to revive the mineral development and rejig the agricultural sector but definitely, these are not things that can be finished in just four years. It is work in progress but he has started it. He has laid some solid foundations. You need someone who really understands these issues to build on them and actually ensure that we are able to build the economy of that state. I am not expecting Gov Fayemi to support me to be governor and not support me to run the administration. What we need in Ekiti is a collective leadership platform where former governors will all join hands with me to run the state. That’s the kind of leadership I want to provide in Ekiti. I will also run a government where you have the cabinet and think-tank, or people in the private sector, not in government, who are thinking for you. Any governor who does not have people thinking for him is almost dead on arrival. For you to be able to run a sustainable government that is consistent and that will be able to compete within the context of global best practice standard, you must have people thinking for you. That is the kind of leadership I want to provide. I just want to be in the driver’s seat and not forget that I have a conductor who is there monitoring things for me and also not forgetting that I have some other people giving me information to know what pitfalls to avoid. I am sure if Gov Fayemi made some mistakes in his eight years, he will not like me to make such mistakes as a statesman.