Major Rasaki Salawu (retd.) was the pioneer Director of Operations, Federal Road Safety Commission, an author and a columnist. He tells reporter that an accident he had as a child inspired the road safety initiative in him
What were the unique features of the time when you were young?
I am from a rural setting in Egbeda in Ibadan. Like any other youth in the environment where I grew up, I longed for education and a good future. My intention was to be a mechanical engineer. My father was among the elite in the community at the time. He had a corn mill and transport businesses and he was popular.
When did you join the Nigerian army?
I joined the Nigerian Army just after my 17th birthday as a cadet and became a commissioned officer after some years. I was the only Yoruba man among the six Nigerian soldiers that were trained as tankers for the first time.
We were trained in Germany, France, India, Pakistan, United Kingdom, United States and many other countries to use armoured fighting vehicles to fight at the war front. I am a member of the World Body of Tankers.
Before I left the army voluntarily in 1977, I was writing articles for newspapers on accident prevention and anything that had to do with mechanical and ballistic engineering, survey and reconnaissance, intelligence report and other areas where I was trained as a soldier. I love writing and my vast experience on and off the field offers me lots of ideas to write on.
How did you readjust to civilian life after retirement?
I have been busy since leaving the army. I actually went back to something I had wanted to do since my youth days. After retirement, I formed the Oyo State Road Safety Corps which was first known as “accident prevention.” As a result of my articles on accident prevention in the newspapers, I was invited by the then military governor, David Jemibewon, who had cuttings of my works, to write a proposal on traffic and accident management.
The police were doing the job of vehicle inspection before the Vehicle Inspection Office was carved out as an independent outfit. In an attempt to reinforce the VIO and reduce road accidents, Jemibewon thought of creating a new agency. After submitting the proposal, the government decided that it was worth experimenting.
The government told me to write an application as the director and chief executive officer of the new traffic agency. During the period, I travelled to the UK and attended a course in Northampton Polytechnic which at the time was the largest school that offered road management courses. All these are in the books I have published on my work and road safety.
When I returned to Nigeria, I was better equipped for my new task. I polished my initial proposal to the government which led to the setting up of a committee that had Areoye Oyebola, Omololu Olunloyo, Bamidele Aiku, Prof. Adetoye Faniran and others to look critically into the proposal. The committee had to call me to explain what I meant and set it up as I wanted. The government did not want to put the project under any agency that would suffocate the idea. That was how we started and we did so well because of my knowledge about Highway Code, traffic management and automobile engineering. I put all these into practice and it became too stringent for people who were lawless on the highways.
What inspired the initiative?
After the Second World War, some of the lorries used were brought to Lagos, refurbished and sold on auction. My father bought two of them; a Dodge and a Chevrolet. The vehicles were used in transport business. One day when I was on holiday, I decided to travel in one of the lorries.
As we approached a hill called Olokemeje, the axle of the vehicle burst and the vehicle somersaulted because the tyre got pierced by a sharp object when the driver lost control of the vehicle. I was lucky to quickly jump off without being injured but the driver and many people were injured. Succour came very late but nobody died. When the vehicle was to be repaired, I was at the mechanic workshop and I saw the damage. That was how I became interested in engineering and traffic management.
Why did the people criticise the agency for high handedness?
I am aware that some members of the public formed the opinion that the application of my tactics was too strong. They tagged us majamaja because of the greyhound logo of the project. People changed my name to Salawu Majamaja. They thought that my house would be full of dogs.
Did the criticism lead to its demise?
We achieved our aims while the corps lasted. When we started the outfit, the police and the VIO did not believe there was a need for it but Jemibewon insisted on it. Ibadan used to be the centre point for travellers with influx of vehicles travelling to the north and other parts of the south. He believed there was need to check drivers’ excesses on the road so the initiative was sustained. It forced the drivers to obey traffic regulations and stop over-loading.
We became the drivers’ enemies. We were blackmailed and the public outcry was against me, the corps and the governor. The Federal Government then said that we were trespassing because we operated on federal roads while we were created by a state. We were limited to only a few state roads. With our huge workforce, many motorcycles and vehicles and little works to do, it was economically unethical to maintain the corps. It brought about the demise of the project which ran for about six years.
How did it resurface as a federal agency?
In 1988, the Federal Government saw the need to bring back and support road safety initiative and give it a national outlook. I was invited by the military government just like I was invited in 1977. The government realised that accident rate had increased since the corps’ operation was stopped. I still have the invitation letter and copies of correspondence with the Federal Government on the project. It started as Federal Roads Safety Commission and I was the director of operation.
How did Prof. Wole Soyinka come into the frame?
Soyinka was an honourary marshal at the time. The edict of Oyo State made the provision for honourary marshals to assist the regular marshals. When the state outfit was running, we honoured him and many others, including monarchs, with the title. Soyinka was a lecturer in the then University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University. I appointed him for the role. That was his in-road into road safety activities in Nigeria. I never met him before then.
When we started FRSC, Soyinka’s name was among the names being considered for various positions in the system. I was given the list for advice and I saw his name in number 17. Because I knew him as a honourary marshal, it was natural that I picked him.
But some people have the opinion that Soyinka founded FRSC in Nigeria?
I was the national coordinator of the project while Soyinka was appointed as the board chairman. I could not have been the chairman of a project when I was to be in charge of the operation. I was meant to be on the field. A board was constituted and Soyinka came in at the board level. He never took part in the formation of the project.
How about the case of the 30-count-charge he instituted against you?
When he became the chairman, he brought many members of Pyrates into the corps. He also brought in Olu Agunloye and the plot to push me aside began. At the expense of the experts, unqualified people were brought in by Soyinka.
Soyinka’s name is revered all over the world and you are equally respected for your contribution to the nation’s growth. Did you ever have the opportunity to sit down with Soyinka and settle your differences?
Soyinka is a difficult person to see. He attended the marriage of my daughter in my house and I was the only one who saw him. His friends did not see him. He is like spirit. It took us three years to serve him court summon on the libel case I instituted against him and we even had to place an advertisement because we could not locate him. So it was not easy to sit down with him and point out the falsities in his book.