At 80, Dr Oluremi Atanda has an impressive presence of mind. He is a geneticist and plant breeder by profession. He was director, Federal Department of Agricultural Research (1975-76), National Cereals Research Institute (1976-1979) and Forestry Research Institute of Nigeria (1979-1980). He was chairman, Old Oyo State Public Service Commission (1980-1983). A renowned educationist and philanthropist, Pa Atanda’s life resonates the endless possibilities of man. In this interview by KEHINDE OYETIMI and FAVOUR BOLUWADE, the octogenarian speaks about his younger years, challenges and triumphs.
You were born in 1939. Life obviously must have been different then. How would you describe your growing up?
Ah! I’m sorry for you. That’s a story that many haven’t heard before. That’s why I’m going to the press to publish my story. I never had an official birthday until I was 60. It was a very brilliant boy, now a professor, Olatoye Ojo who insisted I had a ceremonious 60th birthday. Maybe I was shy; maybe I was afraid that many people would see it as show-off. I usually forgot my birthday.
When I was 60 and said I never had a birthday before it felt like I was joking; they thought it was a lie. It was in 1999. That was when Ojo said whether I liked it or not, we were going to celebrate. He relates very well with my children and he made a ceremony, calling people; he went round everywhere in my hometown. He had gone every where even in Iwoland. He went to Osogbo, then Osun and Oyo were together. He met with chiefs and people I never imagined and ironically this people happened to know me very well.
I recall that in 1953 I, surprisingly and unexpectedly was unanimously accepted to be secretary general of the whole of Iwoland. And that was my second year in secondary school. There were men and women more qualified and older. It was unanimous. How it happened I don’t know. As if they were promoting me for more places of fulfillment in future. Whenever we had an occasion, they would say secretary general, organise. In those days up to Gbogan, Ilao, I became very popular.
How were your school years?
I went through school flawlessly. I found it very convenient to lead the class. I would say from nursery and primary two up to Standard Five. Our headmaster, an Ijebu man, who was watching my set, said a person who was leading should not be allowed to stay to standard 6. I went to Molusi College, Ijebu Igbo. I was good in sports, specifically the 100 yards. I would run for the school for 100 and 200 yards, high jump and I don’t remember anyone teaching me.
When one finds a child who is an all-rounder, it is expected that the parents must be doing a fantastic job. Is this not true in your own case?
That’s why I want to publish a book too in honour of my parents, their memories. To make it easy, let me say I came from a polygamous home. My father had four wives at a time; he was very handsome. Wherever he went, he was the center of attraction.
How many wives did your father have?
Maximum of four at a time. He was handsome; he was usually the centre of attraction. In those days, when they wanted to select someone to represent the community at the Ibadan council, he would be the chairman of about a selected group of five or six representatives.
Is it safe for me to conclude that you got your numerous potential from your father?
I think I will say my daddy. He tried heavily to get me to be a true Muslim. I went to Islamic school when I was younger. I believe if my dad had gone to school, he would have been a scholar; he was very brilliant. My mother was an excellent entrepreneur and a scientist of her own making particularly in preservation. For instance during the glut, my mom would go to the farm and buy kola, palm oil at rock bottom price and she would look for preservation. She used the kolanut leaves to preserve the kola for almost nine months. At the end of those months, when she wanted to sell, she would open them and the kolanuts would look as fresh as ever.
She would open the palm oil she had preserved in drums and it would also look as fresh as ever. She would then take the kola and palm oil to the North, Niger State was the least state, then to Kano and Kaduna. On her way back, she would buy things from the North and sell here at Iwo. I inherited my father’s brilliance and mother’s entrepreneurial mind. My father was also a mediator who could settle months-old disputes.
I remember how calm he was in going about it. He rarely got annoyed but if provoked, his tongue twisted, a trait I inherited. I don’t think I could have managed a polygamous home the way he did. When his wives quarreled, he would listen and not say anything. He passed judgment as the last resort, not minding whose ox was gored. In my most cases my mother was the culprit because she was hot tempered.
What was your mother’s position?
She was the third wife and hot tempered. My mother grumbled after such judgment but that would be the end of it. She then would go to the market to get bush-meat and prepare it beautifully and neatly; she would call me; I am her first child; she then would tell me to call my father and serve him the meal she had prepared and that would be the end of the matter.
The picture you have painted shows you grew up when things were wonderful but it appears that what we have today is in contradiction with what we had in the past.
Can you imagine one man married to four wives? Even when they quarreled as co-wives, the children would eat together. Their frequent quarrels never stopped the harmony and tolerance among the children.
Today you are a celebrated educationist among many other achievements. With what you’ve been able to achieve, have you found fulfillment?
You are right in the first assertion but wrong in the second. Education has been the main reason why I decided to write everything I have done in my life. Do you know I’m an agricultural research scientist and was never trained as an educationist? Has anyone ever told you?
The story will be smoother if I say when I got to Standard 5, the principal refused to allow anyone take entrance exam at standard 5, but all the teachers came together to put pressure on the headmaster. At that time we also had a principal, because the school was run as a model Baptist primary school. So we took entrance examination and had no choice but to convince the principal and headmaster to let us, and three others take the exam. I came first. It was supposed to be a federal college but we missed the exam date.
What school did you move to then?
I had another double promotion but let’s leave that alone. When I got to class five, I had a fracture; you will see it in the autobiography. Then, Tai Solarin was going to leave and one young man came. After we finished the exam, he called me and another boy, the late Banjoko; he was very brilliant and he was never second or third. He was always second after me. The principal called us and told us to take an exam to get into Government College and he should go to Abeokuta Grammar School. I thank God I went to Government College. The facilities were so amazing.
The way you talked about government college, it shows the government paid attention to education, why is it not so today sir?
Well, honestly speaking, the cardinal program of Obafemi Awolowo was education. In the old Western Region for instance, ask me who were those governors that were popular and whose names continued to be celebrated? Awolowo built cocoa house and many others but the education policy stands out. Then, Bola Ige, I served under him as chairman public service commission and I had the opportunity to advise him. Again this is why I will never forget Baba Awolowo. It was not my choice, it was him. After these men, who again?
You have clocked 80 this month, how do you feel?
I feel grateful. Ask me why? Despite all betrayals and all obstacles and challenges, from very close friends I could go on naming them. When I was moving faster than them, they became enemies. I was already a director before they did; I was acting director, Federal Department of Agricultural Research Institute; I was substantive director of National Cereals Research Institute and director and executive officer of Forestry Research Institute of Nigeria.
For one who led a very productive life when Nigeria was doing well. What is your perception about the ongoing xenophobic climate in South Africa?
Why are Nigerians making noise this time? When Donald Trump became president, you know he was rude to Nigerians. His derogatory comments made me almost cry. But 95 per cent of it was true. Nigerians who made South Africa a frontline country are alive today and I respect their comments. People like Obasanjo, Olu Falae and others fought hard against apartheid to make South Africa what it is today. We were Godsent saviours to South Africa. Nelson Mandela, if he were alive today, would not have allowed things to go this way. I know that we have been insulted. But let me ask, as Nigerians, don’t we justify the negative nametags that we are given by the things that are being done by our people? Are we not justifying the statement of Donald Trump? It was on twitter.
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