Lawan Gambo – My Brother Sacked Me From Office As LG Chairman [interview] (

Simple, solemn and straightforward, he sits in the cold embrace of that morning’s harmattan breeze along with other people. They have come to discuss with him issues affecting the state’s polity. He kindly gestures, speaks softly with a sincere smile forming on his face. Magnanimous and mature, he sees politics as an opportunity to serve rather than as a bitter battlefield of winners taking all.
A thoroughbred politician, Alhaji Gambo Lawan, embodies the true essence of a politician -the desire to serve and the willingness to help the people. He was less than 40 when he became the national chairman of a political party, the GDM, Alhaji Lawan, who is well travelled, had met with various countries’ secretaries of state, the United Nations and European Union leaders. Having come from a state -Borno -that’s under the siege of insurgency, Lawan is working and praying hard to bring about peace. He wants to be the next governor of Borno State. While a die-hard politician, Lawan’s life lies deeper than politics. He’s a father of five, three boys and two girls -and married to a beautiful woman he fell in love with the first day he saw her. In this richly served interview with Stanley Nkwazema, Alhaji Lawan talks about the pains of politics without bitterness; the tragic loss of a mother that meant the world to him, about the trying moment he was about to lose the woman he had always loved to his older brother and his desire to be the next governor of Borno State under a peaceful condition
Tell us about your early life and education?
I was born in Kareto, Mobbar Local Government Area in Borno State, on June 5, 1958. I attended Damasak Primary School from 1966-1973. I also attended Government College, Maiduguri which was then called Government Secondary School, from 1973-1978. I worked as a social welfare officer. Throughout 1978 and early 1979, I was at the Social Welfare Department, in the Ministry of Youth and Social Development in Borno. From there, I went into business and started a company called Yobe Nigeria Limited. I was the General Manager initially and subsequently Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer up till the mid-80s. From 1979 to date, I have been a politician. I believe in politics so much that when I heard the stories of the Ibrahim Imams and the Sardaunas of this world, the Great Zik, Awolowo and others, I became interested in politics at a very young age. I was part of the Youth Wing of the Great Nigeria People Party (GNPP) which was headed by late Waziri Ibrahim who had the recipe of politics without bitterness. We played politics without bitterness which means clean politics. I went to a computer school; I had Diploma in Computer Application, then to Ramat Polytechnic where I had my National Diploma and Higher National Diploma in Business Administration and Management.
Looking back at your childhood, what are some of the things that remain indelible in your memory?
While growing up, I loved forming groups with my friends, and talking about what we wanted to do in life. It was very interesting then, more especially when we came back from school. We gathered one another, sat down and discussed about politics and what we wanted to be in future; how we can grow up and come back to help our people to live a better life, to save our people from extreme poverty. We tried to dream United Kingdom and the United States that we have never seen but only heard or read from our teachers and then we said, this is how we want to make our state to be, this is how we wanted our country to be. So, these are the things that really amazed me a lot and which I always remember; and when I remember those times, I feel so good about it. After that, we used to see leaders in front of us. We heard a lot of stories about the Sardauna, about the Tafawa Belewa, Obafemi Awolowo and the great Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Yes we were young but these are the things we heard and even in our schools our teachers taught us and we saw a lot of values in them. We respected that and wanted to grow up into that. So those are the things that motivated me to into politics. Also, I want to be a leader one day in order to help my people. Subsequently, the GNPP came, my brother -my first cousin -, Governor Mohammed Goni became the Executive Governor. He built building schools, putting infrastructure, creating employments and doing all sorts of things, like youth empowerment and so on. Then we were interested and happy. We even believed that it was only through politics that one can give back to the society.
How would you describe growing up under your parents?
Well, I was born to Lawan Madukuru in Karetto village -he was the village head of Karetto. My mother’s name was Hajia Fana, both are late. When I was born, there was no school or any road or television or anything like that. It was just a village. At that time people were unwilling to have their children acquire western education. They wanted them to have only Koranic education. By the time the village head started reaching every home and carrying their children to school, some left the village with their children. My father helped some to go to school. He was responsible for their uniforms, other clothes and transportation to school.
If my father gave me two Shillings, he would give same thing to all the children that he was taking to school. The parents of the other children would also give them money; same thing with uniforms. If it was uniforms he was giving us, he would give two to everybody. All of us were accommodated in the same place, ate the same kind of food and at the end of the day. I was happy my father did that, because he groomed me to work hard and at least eke out a living. So, I learnt the word ‘survival’ right from the beginning. My father used to keep his food; all his brothers would cook and bring meals to his house in case strangers came. If many strangers came that day, we will not eat, because they valued strangers. These were the most interesting values that my father had.
What were the lessons you learnt in the process?
The lessons I learnt in the process were firstly; as a person, as a man, one must be honest. You must have regards for others. You must also want for others what you want for yourself. Then you also have to believe that every human being is equal. God created us equal and you do not have to be so selfish and greedy, if you always share with others, you will be gaining more, you will be respected by others, you will even achieve whatever you want to achieve easily than being alone. Always give part to the rest of the world, respect others whether they are senior or junior to you or even your contemporaries. Be nice, be good. It has taught me to be humble and to be a sincere human being, not to be selfish, but to give back to others.
What profession fascinated you while growing up?
Honestly, politics; whether you call politics a profession or not, as far as I am concerned, it is the only game and it is the only profession I know. Whenever I am with my friends or subordinates, colleagues, I will say I don’t know how to do business, but the only game I know in this world is politics. I started politics at a very young age. When I became a councilor, initially I had wanted to go for the chairmanship in Kukawa Local Government (now about six local governments). It was during General Ibrahim Babangida’s era when he came up with the policy that one must have stayed 12 months in an area before you qualify as a candidate. It was one of the criteria for qualification by the electoral commission. So, I could not go to Kukawa because I came from Mobbar LGA then.
I was sitting down when my brother told me that we should go to Maiduguri because Maiduguri belonged to everybody. If one’s father did not come from Maiduguri, his grandfather must have come from there because it was created in 1907. Nobody owns Maiduguri, it was the villagers that came and formed what is known today as Maiduguri. So, you also as a stakeholder could contest. Then I told him Ibrahim Ali was contesting, so what should I do? He then advised me to opt for the councillorship position in 1987. On a non-party basis, I contested for that position in Gala-Lawanti. Interestingly, I won the election with my total votes being 1,036 and my closest rival scored 1,032. Subsequently, I became the Vice Chairman of Maiduguri Metropolitan Council 1987-1989.
When General Sanni Abacha took over the reins of government, he dissolved it, we all left. Abacha caused election to be held under the two-party system vis-à-vis, Social Democratic Party (SDP) and National Republican Convention (NRC). So I joined SDP and contested for the chairmanship of Maiduguri metropolitan council and then took Maiduguri as my own local council. Even without the qualification guidelines of 12 months, this was in 1990 and got elected. On January 2, 1991, I was sworn in. I was there till 1993. It was during that time that we formed National Conference of Local Government Chairman (NCLGC) which has now transformed to ALGON. I was the deputy chairman. After that, we thought about forming a political party when the late General Abacha muted the idea. We thought it was time for us to start something of our own as new generation politicians. What we quickly did was that since we had chairmen of 594 of LGs and councilors in those places. What INEC was looking for were structures. So, if we could get the entire chairmen to open offices and we get all our councilors at least more than three quarter to open their offices, we will have formal structures. That was how we formed the Grassroots Democratic Movement (GDM).
We got registered and became a political party. It is now history that GDM was the only party that had candidates during Abacha regime. GDM was also the political party that challenged Abacha on so many issues. It is on record for anybody to see if you go back to the archives. We told Abacha clearly that he could not contest under our party while wearing the uniform. We also clearly told Nigerians that we are truly a democratic party and believed in true principles of democracy, that only a National Convention can determine who becomes flag bearer or President or not. As other parties went ahead to adopt Abacha, we went for a full-fledged convention in Maiduguri and it was at the convention that people decided, because I said I did not have the right democratically to say this was the candidate we wanted or endorse anybody. We went to the convention and I handed over the party to them, it was up to them and whatever they decided, I followed it up because they were the ones who gave me the mandate in the first place. I took the whole issue to the convention. You know that Alhaji MD Yusuf contested, Tunji Braithwaite, Joshua Dariye also contested. Then at the convention they accepted Abacha to join them. It was only three candidates at the convention and I told them that they were the only candidates I knew as far as the constitution of the party was concerned and my address for the convention is still there, you can cross check.
You know, it was a very interesting time. The media from all over the world were there including Sky News, CNN, REUTERS, AFP, BBC, etc. So that was how we ran GDM. Unfortunately, General Abacha died (may his soul rest in peace). Gen. Abdulsalam took over and dissolved the whole thing, and asked us to go through another transitional process. At that time, we formed what we called the Unity 99 which metamorphosed into APP, PDP, and AD. At that time there was a lot of horse-trading, we discussed a lot with APP, finally we were part of the people that formed PDP. Even though I was earlier talking with APP, but at the end of the day by 1999, we joined the PDP.
Tell us about your first job, how interesting and challenging was it?
I was very excited because I just finished secondary school and I considered people in the working class as special. We were young men growing up. I was happy to start work because at that time jobs were easy to get. Everybody got job before one finished school. It is not like today. I do not know what happened to this nation along the way. We pray that we go back to those days. Three or four weeks after I was employed, my first assignment took me to Kano. At that time, the Government of the Royal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was deporting our people; I was in Kano for three months. So we were the people who received the deportees, camped and then transported them. They were brought in large numbers. You know what? The day we came back to Maiduguri, the Chief Social Welfare Officer (CSWO) called us and asked us to apply for Leave Grant and over-time. In just three days, I was paid a lot of money. Same day I went to Mangi Enterprises and bought two Vespa motorcycles, for myself and my brother.
What challenges have you faced on your way to the top?
I did not face many challenges. I contested in the governorship election in 1999 and 2003. It made me go round every nook and crannies of Borno State as early as that time. I can say it was really fun politicking it was tasking going round for the first time, contesting for the governorship seat and talking to everybody in Borno State, we moved from house to house, ward to ward, unit to unit trying to convince the people and the service I wanted to render. It gave me the opportunity to know the real Borno, its geographical situation, ethnic structure. I knew all the tribes, traditions and everything. Even though, they all look similar, there were certain differences that made me to understand what Borno was then. That is why if you ask me about anywhere in Borno now, I can tell you the configuration of each local council, because I had been to each of the council. It was a fantastic challenge for me. Then I was so young, dynamic and vibrant that I wanted to be the governor so that I could help my people execute the entire dream I had since secondary school days.
Realistically, other challenges that I faced was as the national chairman of a political party at a very young age. I was less than 40 years; at the time when many Nigerians were skeptical and doubtful about General Abacha’s sincerity and ability. God brought me close to Abacha. I could sit down with him, discuss, eat with him, joke and laugh with him. Let me tell you honestly, Abacha was one of the nicest persons you can relate with if you get close to him. He was being taken hostage or surrounded by lot of his security network which created fears and myths in the minds of people. But Abacha was one of the simplest and nicest persons you can ever chat with. I stayed with him for several hours on a daily basis. We prayed and chatted together. So when people were dreading Abacha, I was the one sitting down and laughing with him, at that time.
As chairman of GDM, I went to the United States of America. I sat down with Secretaries of States, with the Jimmy Carters of this world, with Leaders of Congress on Racial Equalities, leaders of the United Nations, leaders of Ministerial Action Group of the European Union and all of them. Talking and discussing about the future of Nigeria and other things. These were very big challenges at a very young age; I did not have the experience to operate at that level. It motivated me to say I must go to the six continents of the world to see their life style, how they run their governments so that I can give it back to the people when I become a leader. I grew up in it and I learnt so fast and got accustomed to the system. I was so happy about that that is why today if anything happens I will just laugh at it because there is nothing that I have not seen while growing up in this process.
Who were your class mates?
Many of them like Alkali, Yerima and Sadiq. I also had people like Tijani Musa, Biu, Umaru Alhaji, Umam Baba, Yusuf Buba, Ishiaku Bulus, Usman Abubaka, Mohamed Ali and others that we grew up and schooled together. Tijani Musa was the immediate past secretary of the APC. There are others who are permanent secretaries at the federal and state levels. Some are also successful businessmen. Everybody went his own way. For me I am a politician.
What would you say was your lowest point in life?
Firstly, the death of my mother; she died on June 6, three years ago. I was so close to my mother. I am her father’s namesake. Even whenever she was sick and I sat near her, she would call me her father. The chemistry between us was intense. The death of my mother really shocked me. I looked at it that it is God who gives and takes. He created us at his own appointed time. I prayed for her on her death bed. The other ones are the violent killings, terrible bombardments by the terrorists. The insurgency that is happening in Borno is the worst thing that I have seen in my life. If I sit down, I can’t sleep. I feel so helpless and wonder.
What could be done to help?
When one looks at left, right, center and everywhere, you feel so sad that everyday people are being killed. The people being killed are the most innocent and vulnerable people: the children, market women, the men, the traders, the vulcanisers and the bean cake sellers. These are people that get up early in the morning to look for their daily meal. Sometimes they may go to bed without it. Then you begin to ask God what went wrong and asking him to help these people. It is not like something that you have to carry a gun and go after them because you are not trained as a soldier. But in a worst case scenario, when it comes to everybody carrying guns, you will not be able to because you are not soldier. It is a terrible thing and I just pray that this thing will end quickly and God will help us eliminate this problem in our state and Borno will get back its peace back, so that our people can go back to their homes and live in peace.
How did you meet your wife?
Interestingly, my wife happens to be a sister to my elder brother’s wife. I met her on the eve of the marriage of my elder brother to her sister. From the very first time I saw her, my eyes never left her. But I never showed it to her or any member of my family for a very long time. It got to an extent that I was the one who took her to secondary school for the first time and waited for her to finish Form Five. Unfortunately, the sister (my elder brother’s wife) died in an accident. In our tradition when an elder sister dies, they will arrange and give the junior to the late sister’s husband. When they took her to my brother, he bluntly refused but told them that I liked her. Thereafter, I married her. We have five children, three boys and two girls.
The two boys have their Masters Degrees and the third boy has a First Degree from the American University (AUN) in Yola, Adamawa State. The first two rounded off their Masters programme in Miami, United States of America. My own policy is that none of my children will leave Nigeria to study abroad before their first Degree. I do not want to lose my children to other people’s culture. I want them to be rooted in their culture and traditions before they leave this country. After that they are on their own. The girls are all in secondary school and not married yet. They are young.
Have you achieved your dreams in life?
I cannot rightly say that I have achieved much of my dreams. As far as I am concerned, I am happy. I thank my God for what I am today. In my chosen profession, at least I have reached up to the national chairman of a party. That means if I am in the Police, I have reached the pinnacle of my career as an Inspector General and in the Army as Chief of Army Staff. So it means I have actually achieved my goal because in party politics, I was able to rise from ground zero to the position of national chairman of a political party. That means I have fully succeeded and I thank God for that. Any other thing is secondary. But for my primary profession, I have got what I wanted and I appreciate that.
What do you desire to achieve now?
For now, I am a candidate in Borno State. We just finished the congresses and I am the flag bearer in the state. We are now getting ready to campaign to take the present state government out so that our party can take over. We need to help our people to embrace and bring back peace and real development in the true sense of it. We must reconcile after a peace process, rehabilitate, reconstruct, and re-orientate so that we can put smiles back on the faces of our people.
What is your greatest fear in life?
Fear? Under normal circumstances people say what they fear is death. But let me tell you one thing, I don’t fear death because whether you like it or not it is the promise of God that death must come one day. Every living thing must die including trees, animals, insects and others. I just pray that when death comes let one go in peace and let one die with the forgiveness of God. Let one die without any fellow human being offended for what you have done to him or her. So, my fear really is the fear that I will annoy my fellow human being before I die. If I die it will be worthy when people say, ‘God bless this man, he was a good man.’
What do you value most in friendship?
I value respect, understanding and being your brother’s keeper. This is because I will want what I want for myself to be applicable to my friends and to my fellow human beings with every sense of responsibility. I believe in team work, I believe in live and let live. I always stand by my friends. Politics can never separate me from my friends. Whether we are in the same party or not; once you are my friend. If anything happens to you, I will stand by you on every issue. Politics is different from personal relationships; I believe that the two must be separated. That is why I always say that even in my family, we are liberal politicians. Amongst my brothers, same parents, we are always in different parties. Every time in the political process, one of my brothers must be in a different party, while others will also be on their own.
When I was a local government chairman, my elder brother Umar, was the chairman of NRC in the state. I was council chairman under the SDP. He took me to court and caused me to be removed from office. But I was returned to office because I had to re-contest. But, he actually succeeded in removing me because he was supporting his party, holding rallies in town and feeling happy that he took me out of office with the NRC candidate, Momodu Ali Dibari, through the court process. But, I never cared because that is politics. The only person who does not contest against you in politics is your mother. Even your father can contest against you. It will surprise you that politics is always dynamic. Do not mix or bring enmity into politics. As far as I am concerned my friends will remain my friends and nothing will change that.
What does true love mean to you?
There must be sincerity in that person. The person must have integrity and he must have honour. When you are a right thinking person to the core, you are right. That is the only thing that matters in this world. That is what I value. I will never double cross or blackmail you because we are together. I will never cheat you, but rather I will be fair and sincere in whatever we do. I expect same from you. But if you are dishonest, then you are not a normal human being. You are either disabled or have mental disability. A right thinking person, a clear minded person will always be upright and just in his dealings.
What is your typical day like?
I have social interactions with people early in the morning. I am not an exercise freak. My children will always want me to have exercise with them. But if I am outside Nigeria, I like walking, going to the gym or swimming early in the morning. But other than that, here in Nigeria, as soon as I wake up two, three or four persons will come to the house, then we sit down and chat and also meet up with some programmes. In Maiduguri, a lot of people come, we chat and eat together and discuss social issues and politics.