Nigeria’s Ayo Owodunni, who was recently elected a Councillor in Kitchener, a city in the Canadian province of Ontario, speaks to Temitope Adetunji about the process that led to his emergence and sundry other issues
Tell us a bit about yourself
My name is Ayo Owodunni. I am from Ojodu, Lagos. I am a son to Mr and Mrs Owodunni and husband to Folake Owodunni. I am a management consultant and facilitator who brings to the table over 10 years of experience in coaching and strategic direction. My clients’ list spans a variety of industries and renowned companies.
Where did you go to school?
I attended Rider University in the US; I did my master’s, my MBA at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
What was childhood or growing up like for you?
My childhood was very fun; my mum owns the school I went to. The name is Ona Ara Prismoni School, Aina Street, Ojodu, Lagos. The school was not far from the house and I was the baby of the house, the last of my parents’ six children. I enjoyed childhood; I don’t have any bad memories whatsoever from my childhood.
What year did you relocate from Nigeria to canada and what informed that decision?
My wife and I left Nigeria in 2016. There was a day I was driving with my pregnant wife and there was fuel scarcity in Lagos. As you know, fuel scarcity in the country comes with stress, often worsening the already bad traffic situation. My wife was a month pregnant then; I remember it was about 10 o’clock at night and we were still on the expressway, driving home. In fact, it was still like an hour and a half’s drive to our home in Ajah. We were driving on the express when my wife asked me: ‘Do you really want to raise a child here? Do we really want to continue like this?’ Those were the two questions she asked me. And what triggered the questions was the kind of stress we had been through, being stuck in traffic for four hours and we both just felt it wasn’t for us anymore. That was the day we took a decision. We both had good jobs then and we were doing well; so, the decision wasn’t necessary a career move for us. We wanted something better for our family, for our children. Imagine leaving the house by 5:30 in the morning and coming back home by 9pm; when will you have time to say hello to your children? We wanted to have a close family; we wanted to see our children regularly, so we decided to make that total move. Within a few months, my wife left while I went to join her later.
How was your experience settling down in canada?
It took me five years to fully get settled down in Canada. A credit score is vital to starting a new life in a new country. For new immigrants, establishing a solid credit record can be the key to finding a home, getting access to loans with better rates, or even having a credit card to use in the parking lot.
You were recently in the news for emerging a Councillor in Kitchener, a city in the canadian province of ontario. What influenced your interest in Canadian politics?
I have always known politics to be an opportunity to serve the community. I remembered while growing up, I would go to Ibadan to spend some holidays with my grandma in Amunigun and many people in the neighborhood would come to seek her intervention to resolve one issue or the other and I saw how she was always helping people to solve their problems even at her old age. It is just the same with my mum. She is well known in the Ojodu area for that; with people coming to her for advice and tips. It wasn’t that they’ve run for any public office but they are serving in the community. I think that is just a value that has been passed down from one generation to another. So, providing solution is something in our family, making sure that those around us are okay and are taken care of. So, that is a value that has been passed onto me and I am hoping that I will be able to pass it onto my children as well, that mindset that we are responsible for our community.
It is not just about making money and living large as we all like to be acclaimed for but when you leave this earth, people should know that you have added a significant value. They should know that someone has left.
Tell us about the process that led to your emergence as Councillor in Kitchener?
I want to thank those that voted for me and gave me a chance. There are not many Nigerians in the ward that I ran in but I am glad that after so many conversations with so many people, they felt that they could trust me. I am grateful for the opportunity; and my goal is to be able to serve them well.
How keen was the election?
Well, with every election you never know. When we started, we did our SWOT analysis just to get an understanding and the landscape of what was out there and we felt we had a shot but weren’t hundred per cent sure because of the formidable competitors we went against. There were four others that I contested against. One is Jon Massimi. There is Ajmer S. Manddur, who has lived in the community for 40 years and he is well known. There is another individual named Naveed Najmuddin and also Farah Jabeen Muhammad. These are people that are well-known in the community. One has lived in the community for 40 years; one has worked here for 20-something years. So, they are well-known; they’ve been around for quite a while compared to us that have only been here for just six years.
So, we had to study the situation on the ground and then developed a strategy. We just focused on our strategy and hoped for the best. We put together a good team and we really just put our heads down and worked really hard and success came through.
Was that the first time you would contest election into public office in canada?
Yes, that was the first time and that came with its challenges, like any other thing you are doing for the first time.
Number one, we didn’t have any political experience, so we ran purely on grades. Number two, I would say we made many mistakes just like anybody doing things for the first time. Number three was the challenge of raising funds because to run an election here in Canada, you have to raise funds; it cannot be just your own personal money; it has to be money raised; people have to believe in you to put money into your campaign and there is a limit that each person can give. It has to do with the rules and regulations that come with running for an office here.
The idea is to put together a team and put each member of the team in charge of something. So, everyone just works on different aspects towards our common goal. We just tried to push for it. I would say lots of mistakes were made but we are grateful that at the end of the day, we were still able to push through.
And my colleagues that I ran against, they all pushed as well; we pushed one another. I would say that we brought the best out of one another through the process. So, kudos to Jon, Ajmer, Naveed, and Farah.
What is the size of the campaign team you put together?
We have about 15 people that were part of the campaign team. We had men’s force that had political experience; they provided strategic direction. The power of consistency also helped, whether we were making mistakes or not, we were ensuring that there were deliverables on a daily basis.
Does it take so much contesting for a political office in canada, in terms of finance?
Well, there are different levels of government and for every level, the amount of money that is needed is different. However, for every level, you need to know people; you need to be able to convince people to invest in your campaign. It comes down to, number one, are you believable? Number two, can you sell your idea? Number three, do you know enough people who can put money into your campaign? With the way the system is set up here, each person can only give a limited amount. So, you can’t ask someone for $50,000 or anything like that; there is a limit to the amount they can give.
In my ward where I ran, the limit anybody can give is between $1,000 and $100,000. Even if that person is the richest person, that is the limit they can give. At the end of the day, you have to be conversant, you have to be a able to sell a vision and you have to be able to build good relationships. It is a level playing field for everybody; anybody can do this, if they really want to.
What exactly is the rationale for putting a cap on the amount of money an individual can donate to a campaign?
Unfortunately, I do not know why; that is just the law. When you say you want to run for office, there are a set of rules and your job is to follow the rules.
So, how much were you able to raise and how much did you spend to prosecute your campaign?
I will prefer not to share (this information) right now because we are still going through our audit process. What that means basically is that at the end of the campaign, you have to submit all your expenses, receipts of the things you spent money on, how much was raised, and the names of the people (who made donation). I don’t feel comfortable sharing all of that information (for now). After the whole process, I will be able to share.
Can you compare politics in Nigeria to that of canada?
(Laughs) My response to this question will be that Nigeria has a lot of extremely talented people. I am a management consultant, so I get to work with different companies on a daily basis and I get to understand that there are Nigerians working in banks here and they are already moving into great influential positions. So, we have lots of smart and intelligent people in Nigeria. Our educational system, we might not realise it, but is one that pushes us. It might not be the best but we need to appreciate how we are raised as Nigerians. I think we need to trust our people, we need to give younger people leadership opportunities; we need leaders to be able to find young people, and provide mentorship for the next set of people that will come in. If we put in the work to help people, in about 50 years from now, we would have so much values, even 10 years or five years from now. The people I met five years ago were the people that really prepared me for today and I am grateful for that. I hope we would be able to have the same thing that comes as well.
What are you responsibilities as a councillor in canada?
If you Google the responsibilities of a councillor, it should come up.
How long is your tenure of office?
It’s a four-year term.
How much is a councillor paid in canada?
It’s public information. Here in Canada, it’s $60,000. That is what we are paid in this city. It’s different from city to city, depending on the size or the number of people and whether they (roles) are part-time or full-time. The amount paid in Toronto is different from that of Kitchener.
Are you able to combine the role of councillor with your priate job?
Well, right now, I will continue in that position because public office is a part-time role; 20 hours in a week is expected from us in the community. It is not a full-time role; I do continue my work.
The first few weeks were a bit harder because of training and orientation. However, as time goes on, once I set into a routine, it will be easier for me to balance the two, but right now, it’s a bit tough but it is what it is.
How do you balance your work and family Life?
Family is very important to me; so we make sure we have dedicated time for one another to spend time together. Our goal is to keep and stay connected to one another, supporting one another. For us, that is important but we are praying that we are connected to the process.
What advice do you have for new immigrants in canada?
The sky is the limit, you have so much value to add to Canada; you are super smart, you are coming from a country filled with super-smart people, talented and amazing people; believe in yourself, work hard and give Nigeria a good name.