Apart from waxing philosophical and peotic at every stage of the interview, elder statesman, erudite scholar, multiple academic award winner and former governor, Dr Omololu Olunloyo, in this interaction with KUNLE ODEREMI, reminisces about his life, as he marks 85 years today.
AS an elder statesman, how do feel at your age, given your background and the trying times the country is going through?
One feels sad that the nation should be in this situation. There are three stages in the life of a man. When he is born, he is there but he doesn’t know anything that is going on. When he is dead, he is there probably he doesn’t know what is going on. And then, in the middle period, it may be in the marriage, in the school, when he is there and he knows he is there. Here, one is not at birth and one is not dead yet. So, we know what is going on and what is going on in Nigeria is not good. We thought it was a great country, at least, a country with great potentials, which would be realised.
Some of us, who studied strenuously in Europe, America and so on, we were very anxious to come back and make this country a better place than we left it. When I got the letter that I had got PhD on the 30th of December in 1960, I was very, very optimistic. Everything was going on very well for Nigeria and as for music, Fela Sowande won the competition; as for drama, Wole Soyinka won with the ‘Dance of the Forest’ but that book, his first book, was so portentous as the years went on. The Ancestors, they rose from the grave and they were called and they looked right and left and they noticed that it was not the country where they died. So, they went back into the grave. That’s the way one feels now.
The people, who are in power, are people who have tried to be in power several times and in several ways. The civilians, they are people who have tried more than once. The military, they are people who have tried as military and tried as civilians. They don’t really have any reason for the level of incompetence that one observes is paramount. As a matter of fact, nobody should rejoice that he wins an election or power in this country.
Do you mean even till now?
Even up till today; even if they vote you in, you will be crying. You should not rejoice at all. You should feel that a terrible burden has been put on your head. But people rejoice; they have parties. But, there is no good reason for anybody to rejoice.
But you must have rejoiced when you were elected governor of the old Oyo State in 1983, notwithstanding the circumstances then?
Ah, no. Even if I did, I did not; some of us have been very well trained; we have been thoroughly trained. Aduwo put me, during his short period, in a local government. I have been in 55 parastatals. Now, I can count 55 parastatals. I have been the chairman of, at least, 20 or 30 of them. By virtue of being the chairman of the Western Nigeria Development Commission (WNDC) and all its affiliates, and also by virtue of being the executive secretary of the National Science and Technology Agency (NSTA), I was in charge of all these but there was nothing to rejoice about. There was corruption in the First Republic; there was more corruption in the Second Republic; there was much more in the Third Republic; there is an astronomical, geometric progression in the Fourth Republic. It went on exponentially. And corruption is one of the problems which they say they are fighting. I think it is more of corruption fighting the polity and corruption seems to be winning.
Even up till now? Is that what you mean?
Yes, it seems to be winning. One doesn’t know, for example, nobody knows they are supposed to be…..we have tried parliamentary system, we said it did not work; it is not that it did not work. There was something wrong with us when we tried to run it. Then, we tried the presidential system. Again, if no system works, we should begin to look at ourselves.
Then, what do you think is wrong with us a people?
Corruption is one of them. I must say that the magnitude, it was in hundreds and thousands of pounds, then it went to thousands; then it went to tens of thousands, then billions, then trillions, including men and women. Some of the people who have been accused, and I don’t necessarily say they are guilty, are even women; as ministers, heads of service, they have let the country down.
While growing up, what are some of those things that made you thick and inspired you?
While growing up, one was concerned mostly with education and I was very optimistic. Some of my classmates are still alive and everything that glitters, we thought, was gold. But, we now know that all that glitters is not gold. We saw in the primary school several things. I went to two nursery schools; they were called kindergartens then in Lagos: Holy Trinity in Ebute-Ero, Lagos and Olowogbowo Methodist before I came back to Ibadan to Aremo and from there, to Government College. At that time, we thought that there was nothing we couldn’t know. Sapere Aude (we dare to learn) was the motto of Gray House in Government College. I remember during a vacation, we were given a problem to solve by GNI E N Bakare. He was the first African principal of Government College after we had left the school. He came into the school with Inter Bsc; through dint of hard work, he did overseas’ London Bsc, he passed, he did overseas’ London Msc, he passed and we had something called April Reigning, during which in Forms 3, 4 and 5, you are allowed to stay in the school: free feeding, and so on.
Normally, there were things that were free in the Government College. The laboratories were free in 24 hours. The school had a library; the House had a library; we had access to those libraries and the laboratories day and night. We could make bombs. Some of us made bombs by taking sticks of sodium, which is very flexible, you cut it with scissors and you get some nitric acid and set everything ready and get the bunsen burner. Then you put the sodium into the nitric acid and push it into the bunsen burner and after about three or four minutes, there is a loud explosion and we did it in-between classes and the whole class would be filled with smoke. The Chemistry master, Mr S O Semietan, from the Delta part of Nigeria, who had a nasal accent, will ask: who are those making bombs? I suspect Awosika and Olunloyo are people who are likely to be doing this.
Then in reading books, we had some people, who read about four times as fast as others. Wole Soyinka, whose full name is Oluwole Soyinka, his father was the headmaster of Saint Peters Ake in Abeokuta, a native of Isara. The baba was called S A Soyinka, so he was called Baba Essay because his son write one essay every day. So, in the Government College, we had a complete box where we were had to criticise teachers. We will write all our criticisms and we will give it to a writer, who will then put it in a room which had been reserved and that room was used by Wole Soyinka. But we criticised some of the teachers very unfairly, the principal thought because some of the teachers knew less than some of the pupils. The Physics teacher didn’t know much as more as I was. Some of us in Mathematics had fantastic methods of getting into the solutions.
I created a rumpus once. The principal wrote one question on the board and wanted to go to the administrative office. He had and said we should call him if we had any difficulties. As he was writing down, I went to the university to see senior boys during the weekend. I learnt some methods from Adeyemo and Harolds who are wizards in Mathematics. So, as the principal was writing the eighth question, I was writing down the answer. ‘So, if you have any difficulty, could you come to the principal’s office?’ So, I said I had question, he said ‘what is Olunloyo; you don’t make trouble here again; you face the work you have been given’ and I said I had finished and he said it was impossible and I said I had finished and that as he was writing the eighth question, I was writing the eighth answer.
Going by your pranks and antics, will it be appropriate to conclude that you were stubborn and radical while growing up? Does it suggest you were unruly?
No we were sure of ourselves. Soyinka was in the same class with Ladipo Akinkugbe, a very brilliant man called Otapete from Ilesa, Akinkugbe, Abel Goubadia (a former INEC boss), he had a PhD in Physics; all these boys were in the same class. You know the English are very permissive; that’s all you can say. We were very confident. So, what happened was that the principal called us and said ‘we are not going to allow students to teach the teachers in the school any more. But we will like to tell you something. We have investigated from the lexis, from the vocabulary from the structure of the sentences criticising us, this could only be the work of one man, Wole Soyinka. So, we started to look at one another. He said it was the work of Wole Soyinka but we were allowed to give him what we wanted. So, Wole Soyinka, what is that? But one boy now said, ‘watch the initials, WS, that’s William Shakespeare.’ That’s how Wole Soyinka became Williams Shakespeare.
Those were the good old days, as many Nigerians are wont to say. At what stage did the country begin to derail from the path of high standard of education?
We derailed when materialism caught up with us. When you have a system that is quantitative, it is likely that standard will fall. But not because they had to fall. Take Obafemi Awolowo’s Free Eduction Programme. Awolowo did not go beyond himself. He didn’t set free education at all levels. It was free primary programme. Not even secondary, or the university and when he started, Adekunle Ajasin wrote the policy paper and they had a quarrel. Ajasin was not a realist. He wanted the programme to begin immediately. But the permanent secretaries, who were all Europeans said they must pass it through the House and it took them three years to pass the first, second and third readings before it was finally approved. It was launched on the 17th of January 1955. I remember all these things because I was a commissioner for education for two times, part of 67 and the whole of 68, 69 and part of 70. Then, I was the Commissioner for Education part of 1971 together with Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs. I was handling both portfolios. So, the first thing that happened on the day the free primary education was launched was that Awolowo was expecting 80,000 new pupils to be registered; 80,000 more than the previous year. But, they got 540,000 pupils. It was about seven times than what they envisaged. So they had a problem to start with. There are some things you can get quickly: exercise books, chalk. But you can’t get teachers quickly like that; you can get seven times the trained teachers. You can get manpower but you cannot get buildings. So, I mocked Awolowo one day. I was never in his party but because he was my father’s friend, I went to his house with a friend. He said I should join his party but I said I could not join him because he does know how tell lies as a politician. I now told him why I came to him. I said all the buildings you have put up for the free education scheme were mud structures and some of them on Akingbile on the way to Moniya were already collapsing. He said, ‘Olunloyo, what do you want me to do; you want me to make the building of marble? I can make it of marble but, one school will be 10 miles from the next school’. He said the pupils would walk 10 miles and they will be tired and they would not get to the school. He said, moreover, if you can look at the population in the village, whom you want to build the school, you will see that the baale’s house is made of mud, the town hall is made of mud; the hospital is made of mud. So, the school building is a means to an end and not an end itself. So, I said he had defeated me one nil. Awolowo was a lovely man.
Looking back into history, how will you compare the set of leaders the country had in the past vis-a-vis the ones we have now? Were the former better and how?
Obviously, the answer is yes. You had Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the Western Region before the creation of states and his wife, Chief HID Awolowo, did not have an office. There was no office of the First Lady. She plied her trade in Gbagi. Then, they created more states. The late Chief Anthony Enahoro was the one that said they should try and create 60 states. When you don’t know the name of the governors again, you come to realise you are doing nonsense. There are too many states; each governor now ride in long convoys of cars, with a retinue of aides and others.
Look at one embarrassment; nobody knows what the legislators earn; it is a great embarrassment to the country. How much does a senator earn? Former President Olusegun Obasanjo has said if you should know, you will rather murder all of them or you yourself will commit suicide. It is so because they are the ones who approve the budget. They have no conscience. it is the Revenue, Fiscal Allocation and Mobilization Commission (RMFAC). They fix their own salaries and have something called oversight, where they (the lawmakers) do executive work again. It’s very disgraceful; it is very shameful. They should bust the treasury. This presidential system cannot work in this country because it too expensive; it is run by vagabonds. It is ridiculous for somebody to be getting millions in a month as salaries. We should go back to the parliamentary system of government. They should be fewer states like the six zones.
In the North, they do not have the population. I was a commissioner at 26. They don’t have the population in the North. The population census was rigged. I was Commissioner for Census and there were only three of us: the late Ibrahim Waziri Ibrahim for federal; Imoke and somebody in the North and the figure we got was very low in the North. The result was rejected; it was changed the next year but I made sure that all the secret papers that we used for that census, I gave them to one man.
Who is the man?
The man is not a member of my party or a party I have ever been.
Why did you give the papers to him in the first place?
It was because he was the only one who can make proper use of it.
Was it because he was a Head of State or president of the country?
He was not a Head of State or former president. There was only one man who asked me about the papers; that was Samuel Olatunbosun Shonibare, and I did not give it to him; I gave it to his boss. Even the 122/3, I gave him the correct solution.
Most Nigerians have lost confidence in the political elite because they have failed to take the country to where it deserves to be in the comity of nations. What do you think is wrong with the Nigerian elite who have obviously run the country aground?
There are two books on the political elite: one is written by Saburi Biobaku and the other by Chinua Achebe, very slim just five or six pages. The condition the country has found itself is due to selfishness and fraud.
You belong to that elite club I am talking about. So, does it not amount to self-indictment and collective guilty on your party?
No, I don’t have any property in Lagos. I wanted a piece of land in Lagos and the then governor of Lagos State, Alhaji Lateef Jakande. said they should not give me because I was in the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). I don’t have a plot of land in Abuja.
But did you ever apply to get one in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT)?
Yes, I applied. As a matter of fact, not only did I apply, a former Head of State, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, said each of us in the Transition Implementation Committee (TIC) should be given allocations when he was in government. Somebody swindled me out of my own allocation. It was not conveyed to me. I think Mallam Nasir el-Rufai knows something about it because when he became a minister, he tampered with my allocation. And whenever my wife asks him, he would say he would try to find out. So, I have not been given anything.
Did you make any formal complaints or enquiries on the matter?
I did and I heard nothing. Probably, the people I was referring to were the people who acquired it. But the important thing is that I have no land in the capital of this country, I don’t have any property.
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And it is your wish you have one?
I do not have property anywhere, except in Ibadan. I have a property, which was given to me by General David Jemibewon and a former attorney general. So, some of us are not in the list of corrupt people. I remember one day, the Czar of the anti-corruption war, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, when he searched the files of the people in the First Republic, he found only three people who had clean records: Adekunle Ajasin; Yahaya Gusau and Dr Omololu Olunloyo.
It is quite remarkable that even at 85, you still bury your head in books without the aid of reading glasses. How and when do you relax?
I relax by reading, planting flowers and writing. I still have a lot books to read. I have a beautiful garden in my premises I inherited from my father. Concerning my father, he did not live long; he lived for only 42 years and built the house the first house in Oke Ado Road. The second building is Ladega’s House.
What are the kind of books you love to read?
I have read widely. These days, I read the ones I read in the past such as Things Are Not What They Appear To Be; Long fellow, among others.
You said you love writing as well. Which areas fascinate you most?
I wrote about 300 articles for Nigerian Tribune. I see do a lot of Mathematics because I give lectures in various universities.
At your age, one expects you try to mellow down, concentrate less on energy-sapping activities and have sufficient time to rest…
There is a very strong quotation from Hamlet: “To be, or not to be? That is the question—whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them?”
With Nigeria battling the coronavirus pandemic and the untold hardship arising therefrom, what is your message for Nigerians and the authorities, as many are asking the government to have a rethink on the locking down of states, closure of markets?
I think that what Nigerians are asking for is between the devil and the deep blue sea. They are seeking to die; so if in the morning in Oyingbo market somebody has COVID-19, by evening, maybe a thousand. Is that what they want?
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