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NIGERIAN BORN ADEDAMOLA AMINU: From searching for good school to becoming British Mayor

…shares experience as UK politician

Adedamola Aminu is one of the Nigerians whose exploits are engraving Nigeria’s name on gold abroad. 27 years after he migrated to the United Kingdom as a Grade II Teacher, he was elected as the Mayor of London Borough of Lambeth, owing to the determination to change his community for the better.

Prior to becoming the number one citizen in the borough (Local Government Area) in 2014, he had served as School Governor, Councillor and Deputy Mayor on the platform of Labour Party. In this interview, the author of a book titled: Nigerian Politicians in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, shares his 34-year experience as an academic, politician and first-generation African in the UK.

Going by the feat you attained in the British system, wanting to know how long you have lived in the UK is a question that quickly comes to the mind…

I am a former Mayor of the London Borough of Lambeth.

I am a former Chairman, Nigeria Association of British Councillors. I am currently the President of Nigerian Academics in the UK. I have been living in the UK for 34 years. Within this period, I have done various things, which anybody would do. I did most of the dirty jobs to survive as a student. I had done cleaning jobs. I worked as a waiter and did security jobs as well. When I finished my education, I decided to go into academia to teach. Before I left Nigeria, I was already qualified as a Grade II teacher. I left Nigeria at the age of 22. After my first degree, master’s and post-graduate diploma in Education, I lectured at various colleges for nothing less than 15 years.

 In between when I was teaching, I decided to go into politics. When you live in a society whatever policy they make affects you. I realised that it is important to implement those policies following our background, culture and needs of our community. We are paying taxes to ensure the system functions well and deserve to have policies that affect us implemented. That was why I got involved in politics.

Another thing that actually prompted me to do that was my experience when I was looking for a good secondary school for my child. I had to go to another neighboring borough to find a good secondary school for my child because there was none in my area. I felt that as a lecturer that if I could not find a better school for my child in my borough, it was better I stepped in to change the situation because local governments are responsible for primary and secondary education in the UK.

 I felt the only way I could make a difference was to be in government. I became a school governor. The school governors manage the schools. It is just like someone becoming Chairman of the Parent Teacher Association, PTA, in Nigeria. The school governors manage the schools’ budget. They look into the standards, how the students are progressing and other issues.

When I became the school governor, I started bringing my experience as a lecturer to bear. When I became a councillor in 2006, I was able to say more and do more. I was a member of different school committees to influence education policies. Eventually, I became a deputy cabinet member for children and young people, which is the Department for Education and Social Services. Having that role gave me a lot of insight and knowledge on how we can do things better.

 Since then, the school performance of young people in the borough has improved. In fact, many families are coming to the borough to search for a school for their children. That is because we were able to turn things around. Up until now, they are still doing well. The aim of going into politics was just to be part of the people that make policies that affect me, my family and my community.

Given your background as a first-generation African, what was the disposition of the system when you presented yourself for elective position?

Anything you want to do, there would always be opposition but if they believe in you, there won’t be challenges. Starting as a school governor, gave a good knowledge of how the system works and what to expect. When I put myself forward for a council position, I wasn’t the only person. Other people were also interested.

Where there people of different race?

Yes, they were people of different race. White, black, Caucasian and whatever, but it is a game of numbers. They were able to choose me because of my background, experience and the things I pledged to do. I was there for a three-term of 12 years before I stepped down. In between that period, I was a cabinet member, a deputy mayor, and mayor. I stepped down in 2018. While I was there, I wrote a book that documented every Nigerian that had been elected into an elective position in the UK over the years. Before then, there was no record of any Nigerian in politics in the UK. The book actually profiled a lot of them. The first person was elected in 1978.

The first black person, whether African or Caribbean, to be elected in the UK is a Nigerian. He is Councillor Odulate from Ogun State. He is an Ijebu man from the family of the founder of Alabukun. This is the information I want people to learn from the book. Yes, we left Nigeria to sojourn abroad, things were difficult but we weathered the storm and excelled.

My wife wrote a different book also, which is a different version of mine. In the book, you would find that the alternatives we didn’t have in Nigeria, were given to us abroad. The UK is a land of opportunities. If they didn’t provide the opportunities we wouldn’t have come that far. But the opposite is what happens in Nigeria where one is denied the opportunity of contesting an election in a state that is not his place of origin.

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I want Nigeria to look into that and ensure that as long as you are a Nigerian, wherever you live, you should have the opportunity to stand for election. Not until we remove that barrier from the way we do things, I don’t see Nigeria as one. How can we be one when we divide ourselves based on ethnicity and religion? If I have been living in Kano for 10 years, I should be part and parcel of the state. Why can’t I stand for an election in that state? There is also the need to start using those in the diaspora in politics. Unfortunately, the department responsible for the diasporans is not actually engaging those people. The names of Nigerians in the diaspora doing well are all over the place. How come Nigeria is not making use of them? If they can’t come, there are various ways to engage them to ensure they contribute to national development.

A Nigerian, Chuka Umunna, was once touted as a favourite for the position of Prime Minister in the UK. He actually started from the grassroots to the point of becoming a member of parliament. Why did you step down instead of going for a higher position like Chuka?

Chuka is even from my constituency. There are two different types of ethnic minorities in the UK. I am a first-generation African while Chuka is a second-generation African. Being born in the UK made him a second-generation Africa. I was born and brought up in Nigeria and that makes me a second-generation ethnic minority. The second generation were born there, brought up there and have their accent. So, they are more accepted in the system than us. That is the advantage they have over first-generation Africans because there is no limit to the extent they can go in that society. On the reason, I stepped down, if I wanted to stand for Member of Parliament, the opportunity was there and the chances were there. But as I said earlier, they always prefer the second generation for such a position because of having a foreign accent. And people would really see you as a British person. That didn’t stop me but the chances are slim for first-generation Africans.

If the second generation ethnic minorities have more chances than the first generation, doesn’t that mean there are still barriers in the UK system?

The barriers have always been there. There is a limit to how far you can go in the political system. You know what happened to Chuka even though some think it could be his fault. But from my experience, it is going to be tough for an African or Caribbean to become the Prime Minister. I know a lot of them who have been in politics for many years, the highest they have attained are either deputy minister or vice exchequer. By the time it would be expected for them to be the party leader with the potentials to be the Prime Minister, they are gone to do other things for one reason or the other.

Comparatively, being a Mayor in the Borough in the UK is like being a local government chairman in Nigeria. Being a local government chairman means occupying a position that guarantees quick wealth. Is it the same thing over there?

It is completely different because over there we are in government to serve the people and not to be served. In Nigeria, they are there for people to serve them. In fact, the allowance you get as a councillor or as a mayor is not big. If you want to do your job well as a mayor, it can’t be on part-time basis. When I became the mayor, I had to take a year’s sabbatical to do it well because it is a fulltime job. You will be invited to many events within the community because you are the number one citizen in that municipal year. You get your allowance but it is nothing to talk about. As elected politicians in the UK, we don’t really touch the money and we don’t see it. Everything is on paper. We make approvals but do not touch the money.

Given your experience, what are those aspects of the political culture of the UK  you would want to see in Nigeria’s political landscape?

Money should be removed from politics in Nigeria. When that is done, anybody that wants to get involved would also do that to make a difference and not to make money. When I stood for election in the UK, I was not asked to bring money apart from my membership dues as a member of the party. After that, you pay some percentage of your allowance as a contribution to the party. We have different ways of raising money for the party. It is unlike here where people spend millions to contest an election. When we are having our elections, there is a budget. And you can’t spend more than the amount allowed by government. If you spend more than allowed, you are in trouble. In Nigeria, some roles should be on a part-time basis. Councillorship shouldn’t be a full-time job. Let them have another job. Let us get professionals to get involved in governance at the local level. I was a lecturer when I was still a councillor and doing other things in my community.

I am not saying they shouldn’t get sitting allowances, but representative at that level shouldn’t be taken as a career. Even at the national level, lawmaking should be on part-time basis where the legislators receive sitting allowances. The constituency allowances should be given to the local governments for development. As I said earlier, there is a need to engage professionals in the diaspora. So far, the department in charge of that in Nigeria, only organise meetings with diasporans after which nothing happens. For instance, my two bodies, British/Nigerian Councillors group and British/Nigerian Academics, why is it that professionals from there can’t be involved in our system back home? We can oraginse education workshops for teachers also at local government level to improve education at the grassroots.

The level of political awareness at the grassroots is very poor in Nigeria. A case in had is the last local government election in Lagos State.

Coming from a place where there is huge political awareness at the local government level, how can political participation at that layer of governance be improved in Nigeria?

People do not participate because they don’t trust the politicians anymore. They feel that whatever they do does not matter because, at the end of the day, candidates would be imposed on them. To get things right, when they are having their primaries, it has to be people that the electorate want and not those who are imposed. The structure of the membership of political parties has to change because members are the owners of the party.

Because of the way things are done, people at the grassroots are not encouraged to participate. Let candidates emerge from the people. In Nigeria, the middle-class people do not get involved and at the end of the day, those who make decisions that affect them are those people who get involved. I am encouraging professionals to get involved. Money politics should also give way to people-oriented politics.

How much fiscal autonomy do local governments in the UK have?

We are the ones that determine how much rent council tenants have to pay and how much council tax. We have the power to set how much business rate to be paid in the area. A percentage of that money goes to the central while the council keeps some. There is also funding from the central government in addition to internally generated taxes from the borough. That is what we put together to set our budget for all the services I mentioned earlier. My major achievement was being able to turn the schools around in the borough as a member of the cabinet and as a member of the party. Being able to be the number one citizen of the borough is an achievement and honour to me.

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