In a rare interview with PREMIUM TIMES, the Director General of the Lagos State Safety Commission, Hakeem Dickson, speaks about his work at the commission, the several incidents of building collapse in Lagos, and his alleged conviction for fraud in the U.S.
PT: Let’s start with when you came into office in 2016-2017, what were some of the targets you set for yourself and, so far, how have you attempted to meet them?
Hakeem Dickson: To be very honest with you, professionally I am an accountant, I have been an auditor all my life. When I started school from Victory High School, here in Ikeja, I was very very good in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Accounting, but my father said I should go for Accounting. And when I went to the U.S., it was all about Accounting. I graduated with my first degree, Accounting, my first Master’s degree, Accounting, my second Master’s degree in Finance. And I have done a job with the number two Accounting firm in the world, Coopers and Lybrang. So all I know is about accounting. When I came back to Nigeria, because I’m very good when it comes to talking to people, convincing people, and I found out that my talent is all about politics but my father wants me to be an accountant, so, I have done that. So, when I got this appointment, I didn’t lobby for it, I don’t even know how it came, but I had an idea after.
As Director-General, CEO, Safety Commission, the first thing, the number one, is safety. I had no idea what I was getting myself into as the Director-General, Lagos State Safety Commission. But what I know is, if you have a first degree from any university, you can be anywhere because your brain is already open to listen and read more. So, I had no target. First of all, I needed time to study ‘what is safety?’ So, I started working and studying till 2 a.m. every day, including Saturdays and Sundays. Even when I go to parties, up on my phone, ‘what is safety?’ ‘What is hazard?’ ‘What is incident?’ ‘What is accident?’ ‘What is roles assessment?’ So, I tried to study and understand, then having a lot of presentations, then talking to the rest of my staff who are experts already to be able to answer, ‘Ok, now I think I have an idea.’
We started launching different products, different ideas, different sectors, then before I am able to understand it very very well. Up till today, I cannot tell you that… but at least I’m still learning. My first thing when I got here was that I want to learn. I’ll be very honest with you, I was on the edge of going back to the U.S., 2016, I planned October. After my son was born October 2015, if I’m right, so a year… like, on his birthday, after we celebrated his birthday, we’d be on our way to the U.S.
When I saw this appointment, so, I am like I have always been a contractor, so there is an opportunity to come back political, so, let me just take this job. My wife and I sat together and we agreed that, you know what, we can go to America any other time. So, this is like another step. I was a local government chairman, I was a special adviser to Senator (Adeseye) Ogunlewe when he was in the Ministry of Works, you know, going back and forth to Abuja, the presidency, Obasanjo then. I was a PA to Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, before this one came in. The plan is, if I go to the U.S., I will be there for the next, maybe, three years, because I want to apply for my wife, so she can become a resident. So, but when this one came in now, we were like, you know what, we can get this anytime (residency application) now. So, let’s get this one done.
Now, what’s our target? Where do we have the most accidents? We noticed that in the construction industry, there has always been an accident. Do we have any data on accidents in Nigeria or in Lagos? And you know the Safety Commission is the only one in the entire Africa, there is no other state, no other country in Africa, even South Africa don’t have Safety Commission. So it’s like, what we are doing is a template for other states to follow.
Through me, we became a member of the ILO, because without being a member of ILO, you are not talking safety. Being a member of ISSA (International Social Security Association), you are not doing safety. So we were able to put this together and say ok, where do we fall short? We have the law but we don’t have the capacity, no manpower. So, then we started moving out to work in the manufacturing industry, construction industry, people who are doing plastics, food industry. We have so many, so we said let’s divide the entire thing we do in Lagos into sectors. And we were able to do that and even develop over 15 regulations that we never had before. We are now doing all the standards for all the MDAs in Alausa. We have 14 ministries, altogether with the ministries and MDAs, we are over 192, if I am right, or 182. We are now about to develop… we just started today. We have gone to the Ministry of Physical Planning, so we can develop on these standards for them all over Lagos State. And because of that, we were able to go to Abuja, I am now a full member of the National Policy for the entire Nigeria as to develop policy on occupational health and safety, I am recognized by the ILO on that. So, that’s what we just finished doing on the 28th.
Then I am going to drive what we call, OSH bill, Occupational Safety and Health bill with the National Assembly. It is either the executive bill or it becomes a legislative bill. When we did Vision Zero last year, we were able to invite the Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila, who is from my own constituency, that this bill needs to be passed, not only for any other person but for you and I to be safe, not to be injured not to be taken advantage of by any employer. So we want to go home to our family and be happy and be loved again, than getting a report that we are already dead or we are already injured or my leg has been cut, I am in the hospital, we don’t want to hear that kind of injury.
So our plan is to reduce numbers of injury, ill health, and be in a very good condition, sitting down properly in the office not like this all the time. See, anything that has to do with the economics these are one of the things that we are doing. Our target is to reduce the accident rate to a minimum. We cannot say zero but we are driving towards what we called Vision Zero, meaning zero accidents, zero injury, zero ill health, zero diseases, any kind of thing that can cause an accident should be totally eradicated.
PT: I was actually going to ask that question because, you know, we have regular incidents of occupational accidents. Like last month, there was one at Ikorodu where molten metal poured on some employees and about two of them died…
HD: (Cuts in) You see, these are the things that you give to us, we don’t get them. Most people don’t come back to us. If we have the address, we will go down there, you will be there to cover it.
PT: The question is, is it impossible to achieve zero accidents in workplaces?
HD: There is nothing that is impossible. Yes. Because the whole world is going on a global zero. I will be honest with you, that it is impossible. I will probably say to minimize it. Even ISSA cannot themselves say you can get zero anywhere in the world. A new machine that we develop will end up causing problems before we are able to see how we can do the corrections. As long as there is new technology, new ideas, new machines that are being invented in the world, the standard will be there. But that does not mean we will not have an accident caused by human beings. Machines cannot just move without somebody touching the machine to move, pressing something. I will give you an example. Somebody woke up in the morning went to work, working in a fast-food, then there is something wrong with the ice-cream machine and he starts to clean it but he didn’t know the other person has already switched on the electricity on the other end, he turned it off here but the thing circulated back because it was not properly done. The thing just shocked the guy, knocked his head on the floor, and he died. So, there is always going to be an accident, either on the road in our workforce or where we eat, accidents are bound to happen.
PT: I want to ask about the interface of your work and politics in the state. If you go into Lagos Island, for instance, that place is like a museum of very delicate buildings, dilapidated buildings, and one of the concerns that we always have is that to address that there is always a political angle to it. People don’t want to step on toes. Yet we often hear of collapsed buildings on the island. How do you think this could be handled?
HD: I am a son of the soil. I am from the Onikoyi family, I am from the Itire’s family, the Oba of Itire. As a matter of fact, if I want to be Oba of Itire, I am still on the line for it. My point is this, can we be like Donald Trump? Sometimes, you need to come out very hard on people. I said something to somebody, I can be a governor for four years and bring the change, I will not be re-elected again, fine, but people will talk about me. I have done it when I was a local government chairman and I think I can still do it.
There was no safety commission when the buildings in Lagos Island are being given to developers. The families didn’t have money, so they looked for who had small money and had no single knowledge on how to build. Even without an approval from Physical Planning or, if they did have, they were not building to specification. I don’t want to blame the Ministry of Physical Planning for what happened? How did it get there? But the building is already there. But what can we do for corrections now?
We have gone out to map over 1,000 buildings that we feel, that we know that needs to be pulled down. We don’t have the power to pull down, it is LABSCA (Lagos State Building Control Agency) that has the power to pull down through the ministry that gives approval. But we have done our own bit by saying ‘look these are the buildings’ list, addresses, that need to be demolished,’ that’s all we can do. Now the law that we set up for them now, there shouldn’t be a school in a residential building, a school should stand alone, religious places should stand alone. Hotels, if they put the proper safety, say in abroad where they have office buildings, hotels, and residential condos, like Donal Trump type. But we are going the wrong way.
So my point is, I can’t speak for the governor, he has the overall power, but if he has to do that, he needs to call a stakeholders’ meeting, a town hall meeting, look for an alternative for them. But you see the point is, ‘this is my father’s land,’ ‘this is where we come from,’ all those things need to expire. I got the guts to tell them this building needs to go down. Believe me, if I am the governor, less than a year, I will pull all those buildings down
PT: During your screening at the House of Assembly, you spoke of your plan to ensure every household in Lagos has a fire extinguisher. Are you still working towards that?
HD: Oh yes, we have been doing it. We need smoke alarm, in case of smoke in the kitchen. We need bell alarm, in case of smoke in the kitchen, in case of fire anywhere. So there shouldn’t be a house without a fire extinguisher or smoke alarm. After that, we did what we called Fire Safety Conference, and we invited all the stakeholders and to give them sensitisation on this area of fire safety. What kind of door they can use, how they are going to escape in case fire occurs. Then all those people that live in high rise buildings, we are about to do what we call Highrise Building Conference. Which is all about… what is a high rise building? Does it start from the fourth floor or the sixth floor?
There is a convention that is coming up in England on the 17th or 18th of this month but because of the change of government that is why I’m not going because I will have been there. They told us, high rise starts from the fifth floor and some people are still arguing high rise starts from the sixth floor. My point is, high rise starts from when you can be able to use the lift, which means after the fourth floor, there should be a lift. So, now when do we need a helipad in a building? Do we start from the ninth floor? Do we start from the third floor, or start all the way down to whatever floor? That there must be a helipad should in case of fire. But fire extinguisher is very key.
PT: Are you monitoring homes to make sure that they comply with this directive?
HD: We don’t have enough staff, we don’t have enough funding. And Lagos is about 23-25 million people. How many can we be able to see? How many houses do we have? So, that’s why we are coming out with what we call compulsory insurance. That it is mandatory that everybody in Lagos need to go into the compulsory insurance. There are six elements of compulsory insurance. Getting an insurance during construction. You have what we call indemnity insurance meaning a lawyer, a doctor, a nurse, that is operating on you must be able to have an insurance in case of an accident. Then there is life insurance.
We are already driving that. We have gone to NICON (Insurance) at Abuja they all agreed with us. S.I.P (State Insurance Provider) was assigned to us by NICON in Abuja, which is the regulator for the insurance industry and all the insurance companies they are 100 per cent with us on this. Then suddenly the brokers went to put a stop with NICON that they are engaging individuals and states to be selling insurance. So when this happened, I put a call to Sola Tinubu, because he is the head of the brokers in his company and the chairman of all the brokers. That this thing is wrong, that we need to sit down so we can iron this thing out and he said he will get back to me. Up till date, he has not to gotten back to me on that. So what we are trying to do is, if everywhere is insured, do you know that if an accident occurs they are protected? You yourself when you buy a ticket and go to Abuja locally or international, do you see at the back of that ticket how much you are insured for? Do you know that you are already insured in Nigeria with N1 million? You are already insured in the international ticket with $10,000. You can even do more.
With N1 million naira in Nigeria, they can bury you, your family can get something and if you want to you can take extra insurance, if you have to. In abroad, the insurance owns the banks, in Nigeria banks own the insurance. It is not supposed to be. That is why things will never move.
PT: Can you talk about the (jail) problem you had while in the U.S. and why you came back to Nigeria?
HD: I personally said to her (his assistant) that I am not going to engage myself into that conversation. Why? It has… not political undertone by itself, I don’t want to mention names. I don’t want to be a snitch, and that is the number one very very important thing.
PT: But you…
HD: (Cuts in) In New Jersey, our family is so popular, our entire family, Dickson, we are known in the U.S., but very popular in New York and New Jersey. We study, we all go to school to learn. You know, when you’re popular and you’re black and you are driving a fancy car. You and I know that people want to… like ‘Who are those? Why are they driving this kind of car?’ Which is part of the mentality of police over there. One way or the other we always have driving offences. There is no way you will live in America and not be on record for driving, either speeding… even small speed. Not like here we’re losing revenue on that.
I was at home, there was a knock on the door. They said ‘police.’ I said ‘come in’ They came into my house. When they came in they said ‘we are here to do search.’ ‘Go ahead.’ 5:30 a.m. To God who made me, they searched. And what they did at that time, because they couldn’t find anything, they now said ‘can we take all your properties?’ I said ‘yes.’ They carried everything, including spoon. They brought in 40-foot container. So they took me down to downtown, asked me one or two questions and they said I can go home. You are now telling me to go home, which bed am I going to sleep on? What am I going to eat from? It’s not my house, it’s a rented place. They now said in one of the questions, somebody mentioned my name. I said ‘who?’ They mentioned the person’s name. I said let him come and meet me.
When I left the police station, I called two of my friends, ‘this is what so so person said.’ At that time that person is in jail, but he needs to snitch, he needs to bring out a name so that they can reduce his time. And they need a name that is popular, they mentioned my name. And that’s why they came. After that, I came to Nigeria. I’m always in Nigeria twice a year. They called me that somebody was arrested. I won’t mention the name, I’m so sorry. I said ‘wow, what did he do?’ That person that was arrested, I’m gonna tell you, police is looking for this person, that person stays in a different area from where I stay. My brother stays in the same building with me but different flats. A friend of mine, because he just came from Nigeria, he stays with this person, another friend of mine… so they all stay here. They are looking for this person, when they got to find this person he was not at home. But they found my friend, inside the house, that just came, not up to two months. But when he first came he was staying with me because he is my friend. But because he needs a job, so he went here and again he knows the person. They were all like, let’s see what he can do. So they didn’t find the person at home. Then they followed that my friend because he has ID card that shows where he stays, not this address. So he came here, they brought him down here. And when he got here they found my own brother. And they said ‘where’s your paper?’ Visiting paper now. Me I’m already a citizen, but I’m not at home. They took him. Then this person suddenly showed, they took the two of them to jail.
They called me, I’m already in Nigeria, that my brother and so so person in jail. I came, I bailed this person. Why? Because this person is already in America for so many years and he’s studying and he has final year. I didn’t bail own brother because he just came in and I figured he can easily come back because he came on visiting. So we can tell them that he wants to go back home instead of charging him. And he did that. We paid for the ticket, everything, he came back. Before he finally went back to America and now a citizen. This one (the friend) got sentenced for two years. Before sentence, I was the one that paid the bail. But when he got sentenced, he left. Now who paid the bail? Me. And I need to produce him. But im aware that he… bail, 100 per cent, between you and I. Because he’s gonna do two years. They came to my house when I got back, and said you’re the one that put the bail. That’s why they put all his eggs on my head. And that’s the truth. I’ve been to U.S. more than four times after. I’ve been everywhere. As I explained to you I was about going before I got this appointment.
PT: Do you not think it is better for you to clear up this issue because whenever your name is mentioned, it’s going to be associated with that fraud case in the US? Why didn’t you let people know what really happened instead of the silence?
HD: You know I told you something. I was on my way to U.S. I had gotten my ticket. I was even going to leave my house in Lekki Phase One, because all my brothers and sisters, they are in America. I’m the only one in Nigeria. They are all citizens, so who will live in my mansion in Lekki Phase One? My policeman, who has been my orderly since I became council chairman, I was like ‘maybe you’ll stay here.’ I was looking for one of my cousins to just stay there so I can go. I don’t want to rent it out because I don’t want, you know, all these troubles, before this appointment came. That’s the truth. And you have to remember one thing, the Constitution of Nigeria, including that of INEC has always been there, that is why I never bother myself.
PT: But your lawyers filed a suit before a U.S. District Court that you had served your jail term in a Nigerian prison when you returned to the country.
HD: Let them go to Nigeria. Where did I serve it? It’s a lie. Where?
PT: It was your lawyers’ claims in the suit they filed…
HD: Let them go and bring it now. When it comes to politics, add up. You have access to prison, go and get your documents.
PT: There is no record of you doing time in a Nigerian prison.
HD: Thank you. If there is no record there will be picture.
PT: So why would your lawyers do that?
HD: My lawyer?
PT: Yes, your lawyer.
HD: My own lawyer? I don’t have a lawyer. Politics.
PT: After your tenure at the Commission, what would you want to be remembered for?
HD: To be honest, I am enjoying this because there is element of accounting audit. Because if you look at what we do, check this check that. If you go to Surulere today I’m the first person that says there is money in local government. Meaning these people are lying to you that there is no money in local government. There is enough money to pay everybody’s bills, enough to put down infrastructure. Let me be honest with you, I refused to send anybody to Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem, I don’t believe in it. I’m not a religious person. But the point is, I was able to do 14 roads and 82 streetlights, new ones. I never owed one kobo. People that were owed money before I became local government chairman, I paid it off. The same thing when I got here. I asked for the list of the people they were owing money, I called them, I paid everybody off. I don’t like people being owed. So I will be remembered as ‘Baba Safety.’ People that want to save lives and I’ve been doing it. If I’m driving around and I see you without a seat belt or you are using the phone I will bring out my badge. I will do the corrections right away so that you will know. I have my badge in the bag. These are part of my innovations. We have badges for staff and for consultants, that give us the power to do this. And anytime we’re going we are all well known. It was approved by His Excellency and we are able to defend it.
All the civil servants nowadays, they are now covered with the new policy we just signed. We made the HOS sign a safety policy for all the civil servants in the entire Alausa, in terms of they are going to be taking care of their welfare in terms of providing safety arena for them. Meaning that they will be working safe, safety will be the first priority of government, for all the staff and people that come inside Alausa and, again, in the entire Lagos State. So we wrote one to the governor to sign for the entire Lagos State and we wrote one… because all the companies, they are already signing for their staff, including for their infrastructure and for themselves. So if they are doing that, what happens to us? So we developed that too and it’s one of the things we are presenting to His Excellency that this one of our achievements.
PT: What kind of challenges have you faced in the office in terms of trying to achieve your goals for the Commission?
HD: To get approval from the governor is a major challenge. Two, it’s the manpower capacity, meaning that most of the people that are posted here are either from the Ministry of Environment. Instead of them to get people who are safety practitioners to come together and be part of the system but they bring them from Environment, Engineering and we have to be the ones to start teaching them what we do here. Basically, I’m the only that says I’m a practitioner here. The rest are not practitioners. So I have to bring in experts from outside to be a consultant, to be part of the practitioners working for us.
Another challenge is that there is no space. I need more staff. I need more office space where people can be able to sit down and do their jobs freely. Because we have too many staff who are not practitioners, too many from Admin, we don’t need that much. The training is very important, we need to develop content all the time, to train. How many do we have to do that and go to all these companies, when we have over 5,000 companies in Lagos State. How many can we, do we get into? The challenges are funding, office spaces, then the practitioners.