Interviews

Richard Mofe-Damijo

Be inspired.

SUI: You have been in government for about seven years now. What have you learnt about governance and how has that changed your perception about leadership in Nigeria?

RMD: That’s a very wide spectrum, but let me try and conceptualise or compartmentalise it; for me what I have learnt is that the minute you are in government, especially for those of us who are not core politicians, who did not go for an elective position, who were appointed, you learn that it is about your people first and foremost, your people being your state.

From your swearing in, your people come to you and embrace you, even though they did not get you the job, you become their property, so your sense of responsibility changes immediately. You become automatically responsible for a whole lot of people, and making sure that, for instance, in the area of culture and tourism, you are able to formulate policies, keep it on track and ensure that there is enough impact in the lives of the people and on the economy of your state.

So, that makes you a whole lot more responsible because you find that when anything is wrong back home, you are called upon. It also places a position of leadership upon your shoulders.

For me, there was like a complete transfer of allegiance from Lagos State to Delta State, and friends that you left behind from where you have been all your life think that it is a position of glamour, where you come in, grab a lot of money, come back to Lagos and it’s party time every day.

But I had to disappoint a whole lot of people and it alienated me from a lot of my friends because they couldn’t understand the transformation, from turning my back on living the life in Lagos State and just entirely focusing here in Delta.

It took some time for me to educate all lot of them that I cannot carry stuff from Delta for us to be partying, I now have a responsibility towards the people of Delta and that is the core focus of my life from here on. It has also taught me that it is easy to be on the outside and criticise everything that you see going on in government, you need to get in and understand how bureaucracy is designed.

When I compare what I am inside now to some of the things I criticised and was unhappy about when I was on the outside, I can now make some excuses for them.

It has also taught me that you cannot move at the speed of light in government. You to have to work in a certain direction because a budget gets passed in January or late December and it doesn’t get fully activated sometimes until April and you have less time in the calendar year to perform.

It took me some time to realise that from concept to execution, it can be very slow and that has made me adjust my expectation of certain things. Also, I have come to understand the presidential style of governance. So, sometimes some of the things you want to do as an individual you cannot do them, because it is collective responsibility.

SUI: And is that good or bad?

RMD: It is good in the sense that the failure or success of the government is everybody’s failure or success once you are in the cabinet. It is only bad when you cannot move at the pace you want to move because others will have to slow you down.

There are certain things that I did in my first year that I would have loved to move faster, in fact, I discovered that as a special adviser I moved faster because I did not have a full complement of the ministry, but when I became a commissioner, I now have a full complement of ministry. So, I have to make sure everybody is on the same page with me before moving, and that in itself is the downside.

SUI: In a previous interview, you talked about establishing a Delta State tourism park, how is that project going?

RMD: It is ongoing and again it has its own problems because the entire world is going through some. The volume of the movement of money that is available now to investors is not as it used to be, because it is a PPP arrangement – government has practically done 80 per cent of its responsibility which is to provide the land in both places, both in Delta, the Warri area and Asaba area, build road, build bridges, do some beautification around the project, the government is doing all of that, as we speak the animals have also been bought because there is a wild life component to it.

Over 500 animals are all quarantined in South Africa right now waiting to be moved here, they had to be put in a place for about five/six months – all the animals, before they can be moved here. South Africa is our holding country for the animals while construction is ongoing.

We are hoping that the Governor can actually commission at least one phase by 2015 before we leave. But again, the good thing is that government is a continuum, whoever comes in would see to it that it is accomplished.

SUI: When people think about tourist destinations in Nigeria, places like Calabar and Uyo come to mind, Delta State doesn’t seem to take a pride of place in that ranking, why is that so, and what are the things you are doing to change that?

RMD: I think that perception has changed because when you talk about tourism now, Delta comes to mind because of the growing importance of Abraka, the source of the River Ethiope, which is Umutu, is a major tourist attraction, there is hardly any tourist that comes here that doesn’t want to see the source of River Ethiope and also the with the wonders of Nigeria last listing that was organised by ATQ magazine people, the Royal Cemetery in Warri was listed, in fact, that has been declared a national heritage, some of the biggest Iroko trees in the world today are found in the Royal Cemetery here in Warri behind the NNPC area and it is such a beautiful view.

Before now it was not open to the public, but with the present Olu of Warri granting access to tourists, it has now become a place where people can go in, trees that are planted over the graves or in commemoration of the burial of some of the great Olus that were buried in that place, that is a major attraction as well.

Then, there is the Abraka turf, which is beginning to attract a lot of tourists. What has driven Calabar of course is the carnival, to have one month of street parties is not a joke and they didn’t suffer much during the Niger Delta agitation period. Apart from the fact that our name is Delta, most times when they say Niger Delta, we believe everything happens in Delta, we don’t know that we are just part of the nine states in the Niger Delta.

So, Calabar did not suffer that much and they did not have to start from ground zero to try and change perception of what the Delta is like. But, our project is still ongoing, it is one of the most written and spoken about projects on tourism right now across the world, because people are waiting and excited to see how far that would go and we hope that it can be completed in no time.

SUI: Are you going to return to acting at some point?

RMD: I never really left. Yes, I haven’t been on television for quite a while, but do actors really retire? I don’t think so; they retire when they die. So, if something comes up, yes I will. I remember, for instance, during the break that I had for the last transition, I went back to television immediately.

SUI: You were in Tinsel…

RMD: Yes, I did Tinsel for some time, and when I got reappointed I left and came back. For as long as there is time on my hand I would always want to be in front of the camera, it just gives me a kick.

SUI: You have worked with Prof. Wole Soyinka, who just clocked 80. He is remarkable in many ways, but can you just mention one remarkable thing about him?

RMD: I think it is his capacity to discuss anything and everything on the face of this earth. He has an intellectual angle or an opinion about anything in this world. Soyinka is gifted, and he is heads and shoulders above the ordinary, he has an uncommon intellectual depth, just being around him alone illuminates you.

I had the very rare privilege of working with him during the premiering of his play; his approach to theatre is just amazing. The remarkable thing about him, like I said, is the depth of his intellectualism, it’s just amazing; he is (also) an enigma.

It’s hard to describe or articulate, but I know that when I hear the name Soyinka, what comes to me is that this man is very deep inside, this human being that personifies intelligence, so much so that you can feel the illumination around him. On a lighter note, you look at the crop of his hair and you compare it to Einstein and you wonder if intelligence distils hair and makes it so silky and grey (laughs) – I’m lost for words.

SUI: Recently, certain pictures of you went viral which showed that you had lost some weight. It also sparked rumours that you were seriously sick. What necessitated your weight loss and what’s the truth about your health?

RMD: Well, what necessitated my weight loss were purely health reasons and it was accidental. Actually, my Governor had told all of us serving in his cabinet to go to Ogara (in Delta State), which has one of the premier hospitals now in Nigeria, for complete medical check up. So, I went for the complete medical check up.

As at the time of the check up, my blood sugar was 109 and my resting BP was quite high at the time. I remember clearly the doctor that did my ECG was saying that, “What happened to you? You used to be slim, why did you let yourself go like this?” And if you read my history, both my parents died of diabetes, my mum then crossed 60 years and she thought it would be wise for me to watch my sugar. And prior to that time too, my friend, who had started losing weight too by then, introduced me to the lady that did all the magic for her.

So, I came back from that medical check up and woke up one morning and I decided to start the weight loss programme. This was in May and to show how good it was, after like a week, I felt so good that I actually stopped taking my high blood pressure pills. The lady was against it and she said I shouldn’t be too much in a hurry to stretch my luck too far. Anyway, I stuck to the programme, she was very professional about it, and in a month I had lost about 7kg or so, I was very encouraged. And she told me that this was a very good sign. That was how I started this journey. Now, in July – a year and two months after – I am in the best physical shape of my life.

SUI: So, RMD is not sick?

RMD: No, I am not sick. I remember precisely that that picture was probably taken during the AMAA awards on one of those nights of relaxation. I think it was just a bad picture (taken) from a bad angle or bad light, because I have other pictures of me taken during AMAA awards that were even published in other blogs.

But I guess somebody wanted to be mischievous, you know how it is when things like that go viral. I even heard of churches were praying for me (laughs). They say when rumours of you being ill are spread around and it’s false, it’s just a way to prolong your life. So, I guess it just bought me like 30 years on top of my 70 years that God has granted me.

The health benefits (of a weight loss programme) are immense – my blood pressure is down, my blood sugar is in the 80s now and all of this was achieved by just sticking to a strict diet or as she calls it, “the lifestyle change.” In fact, I have now put on about 3kg, because I got to 95. Ideally, I should be at 90 but if I’m at 95 and the whole world is screaming that I am ill, imagine if I get to my ideal weight, about 90. Right now, I’m about 98 and I feel like a sack of potatoes. So, I am going to start losing some weight again, gradually. I think for some people, they couldn’t reconcile the 120kg me that they had seen for years, and just like that, I’m 95kg and everybody is like, what is going on here? No, I am not terminally ill, nothing is happening to me. I play squash now, I walk a minimum of 10,000 steps every day, unless it is my day off; otherwise once I’m not relaxing, I must do 10,000 steps a day, that must give you an idea of the kind of fitness that I am talking about.

SUI: How did your family – wife and kids react to the rumours?

RMD: My wife just got very frustrated, there were family members or friends that would say to you, “You don’t have to hide anything, we can help, we mean well…” There were friends who called me to say, “Look, if it is diabetes, tell us, we know what to do,” and I am like – my entire education would be wasted if I am ill and I hide it.

Besides, it gives you an idea of how fickle people are or the level of intelligence we are dealing with. I’m a public servant and a serving commissioner in Delta State, if I am ill, would it be on social media that it would be broadcast or that people should pray for me? What they had done was to hack into Stella Damasus’ Facebook account and send a broadcast, and they did the same with Pete Edochie. The first one I even saw was Pete Edochie’s Facebook page and we know that Pete Edochie doesn’t do Facebook. I was told some came out of Mike Ezeruonye’s page. This tells you how some Nigerians are, and when they find out that you are not ill, because they have started the campaign, they just don’t know when to stop, they can’t stop; they are people who actually wish one were dead.

My wife was very unhappy about it, and my kids, they know that I am not ill, so they didn’t even react. Besides, they don’t use blackberry where people would start sending them stuff. It was just a few family members that do see me often that were like, “hope all is well?”

So, I had to deal with that, my wife had to deal with that. Now, I have converted almost every one of my colleagues to the ‘ keeping fit lifestyle.’ I used to jog round the commissioners quarters every day.

Now, the bug has caught up with everybody and everybody in this place wants to live a healthy lifestyle and I’m the consultant for health lifestyle.

People can’t believe that they can be disciplined to do this. It has been a major turnaround for me in my life, doing this at 52, and turning my back to every pleasure that I knew from time just to get on track with my health was a major decision for me. It is obvious now to me why people don’t like losing weight because they cannot be that disciplined, and the thing about weight gain is that if you can gain 1kg, you can gain 20kg. It is as simple as that, and also as complex. Now, that I have gone through it, I can lose and put on weight as fast. I know what to eat now, I know about calories, I know about food, I can cook a Nigerian meal now and make it as fat free as much as possible.

SUI: You’re an actor, writer, public relations guru, lawyer, and now a politician, what would you want to be remembered for?

RMD: I would like to be remembered as somebody who inspired young people. I went through my young life not sure whether or not anybody would give me a chance to succeed in the career path that I chose.

In the 80s, I had moments when I doubted whether or not it was the right thing to do. I was an only child and the eldest male child in the family of 18 – all of these pressures were always there but I kept seeing the glow in my mum’s eyes each time I spoke to her about acting and what I really wanted to do. I had an early success in my Year Two by doing a play on television that she saw and she became overnight ‘ Mama Emeka’. So, that had helped to settle her spirit that what my son is doing is okay. I fed off that to authenticate what I was doing.

Now that you mentioned it, I remember sitting with a young man during the Soyinka’s birthday, who said to me, “Do you know that for many years as a young man all I wanted to be was be like you, dress like you, you have influenced my choice of clothes, and tonight again as I am looking at you, I remember how you made me wear only shirts without collar.” Those are the currencies you get for the work you have done.

I also remember building my house in 1999 and running out of money and there was this particular day my foreman called me to say there was not enough materials to continue building. I was very depressed that day… Anyway, I got to the site the next day and I saw everybody working. I called the foreman to ask what happened.

He then told me that some proprietor of a school nearby came to the site and asked who owned the building and they called my name.

The next thing was that she sent some bags of cement, and said they should tell me, ‘welcome to the neighbourhood.’ So, I rushed to the woman’s school and luckily she was still there, broke protocol, and walked right into her office. She was very motherly and said, “Oh you are RMD? I said they shouldn’t tell you, I just did it because I was happy that a young man like you was building his own house, and it is just a little token of appreciation for what you have done that you might not be aware of.” And I said what did I do? And she said, “My daughter in England read theatre because of you. She said she was going to study theatre and be like you.” Then, she opened her drawer and brought out a paper plate and showed it to me. Inside the paper plate was my autograph, which she said I had signed for her daughter in England. Those are the things that happen to you and you are like, wow, my life means something to somebody else.

So, in answering you directly, what I would like to be remembered for is that I inspired some people just like Soyinka inspires me, just like Fola Adeola inspired me, just like I draw from Mandela and what he stood for, I hope that people would say it was RMD that did this and that for me.

I can give you example of people in schools who would say to me, you know I read theatre because of you. Yaw had stood on stage to say openly that without me advising him to go back to school he won’t be where he is today.

Those are the kind of things you live for; I take a young Bovi off the street after youth service, bring him under my wings and today I sit back and see him on stage, he’s inspiring other people, that’s perhaps the biggest thing I could wish for, that I would meet a lot more people who would say to me, “I looked at your life and it inspired me to be who I am today.”

Sometimes I look back now and I cannot believe the things that I have done from my humble days of teaching in Kings College, becoming an actor, moonlighting as a writer, graduating from that to being a columnist and journalist, to being a publisher, and then branching into PR, then stopping all of that to becoming a lawyer and just at the time you want to start practicing the law, politics comes calling and you are in government. Sometimes you look at all of that and you are like, how did I cram all of this into my life? So, I’m hoping that I’m going to inspire a lot of people to look at that and say, oh here is something to be inspired by, and probably at some point too, if they are overweight, lose weight too (laughs).

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