Oladipo Adamolekun, a professor of Public Administration and a former United Nations and World Bank employee, has opened up about his life.
The professor talks to PETER DADA about his background, education, career, and other issues.
You turned 80 recently. How has the journey been so far?
The journey of my life is summarised in my autobiography titled, ‘I Remember’. As the Christians put it, in all things we should give thanks to God that one was able to record accomplishments. I attended the University of Ibadan. When I did, it was the best university in the country, it was a world-class institution, and from there I went to Oxford University, arguably the best in the world. In the last six years, it has ranked number one in world university rankings. And of course, I have gone from one good job to another. At the age of 26, in 1968, I obtained my first degree, did my final exams in May, and got the result in June, and on July 1, 1968, I became an academic staff member of the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University.
Was it immediately after you graduated from the university that you started working?
Within a month of concluding my degree exams, I got the results, and less than a month after I obtained my degree, I became a university academic, a junior research fellow in Public Administration. You can call it an assistant lecturer role in Public Administration. So, I have had a good educational trajectory and good exposure. I received a call from Prof Aboyade (now late) recalling me from the United Nations where I was invited to serve and he said Nigeria needed me more than the UN. And I agreed with him and we sought my release. I was released, and I went to Ife to become the foundation head of the department of Public Administration. I went on to become the first substantive dean of the faculty of administration in 1979. I served for two years. It was from my work at Ife that the UN invited me in 1975/1976. Ten years later, the World Bank invited me and I spent almost 20 years there before I retired. But life has not been all roses.
What were the challenges you encountered?
I lost my first child at the age of seven. The child had a congenital disease which the hospital told us was going to be self-corrected. When it didn’t self-correct, we had surgery during my time at the UN and again, we were told that we had a successful surgery which was given at 95 to 98 per cent but it relapsed. So, that’s some sadness in the journey. And of course, the very big sadness was the tragic loss of my first wife who was carjacked on the streets of Ibadan on May 14, 2002, between 11am and noon. She was kidnapped and killed in broad daylight in Ibadan. I was working at the World Bank in Lome, Togo, at that time. I was preparing for my retirement and she came home to prepare. So, those are the two sad stories. The biggest regret that I talk about, and I do it with all honesty, is the school of management, a world-class school of public and business management, that I had planned to establish. I had a concept paper developed. It had a trajectory of admission. In the process of preparing, I learned that I need to raise a lot of money, and fundraising is not one of my strengths.
But specifically, some colleagues were planning the same thing in their home country, India. When I read that they had raised between $2 million to $4 million to establish a world-class school of business and public management which was my intention, I knew that there was no way I could ever raise that kind of money. However, I had already identified the location, Porto-Novo in the Benin Republic. I already acquired a private land for myself to build my private accommodation, so that as the founder and all of that, after I would have served, you know, I would be able to retire to my new property there. The reason I wanted to do all that was bilingual. My first degree was in French, so I wanted to locate it close to Nigeria, the largest anglophone market, but also in a francophone country, so I abandoned it. But in my autobiography as an annex, I provided that concept paper.
What about your background?
I have a peasant background. My father was a peasant farmer and my mother was a trader.
How did growing up in an agrarian community shape your life?
In my first year at school, I was an avid reader. My father had what I call a library in the attic. He required his older children to put in a big box the books that they finished using and encouraged the younger ones to go up to the attic and see which books could be relevant at that stage of their education. So I call it the library in the attic. My father also had infrastructure that I grew up to meet – tables with chairs. Once we started school, every evening we studied for 60 minutes around that table. So, I grew up in an environment where education was highly valued and encouraged and nurtured. So I went through the school and also my mother intervened. I think I took the second or third position at the end of the year activity and she was there. She was not satisfied with that so she got a teacher to give me additional coaching. My mother was a tiger mom because the same woman wrote me a letter in 1965, a few weeks before my final examination at the end of my first year, urging me to face my studies and leave politics aside. Because of my political activism, I had a column in the Tribune newspaper.
In one of the books I read in my first year, I saw the expression, “Through hard work to the stars” and I adopted it as a motto. I think within some weeks of adopting that, I saw another one that I made a second motto. Significantly, I read the most books in my first year among all the students in classes one to three, because the library kept a record. And as a reward, I was freed from manual labour in the school and I was made an assistant librarian. Here is somebody who read a lot of books, and was free from cutting grass and put amid books. What do you get? You get somebody who reads more books. In my final year, I had the best result and in those days, the best student was made the senior prefect and head boy.
You attended Oyemekun Grammar School, Akure. What did you do after that?
From Oyemekun Grammar School, Akure, I went to Christ School, Ado Ekiti, because I was not of Christ School at the beginning; a Christ School person was usually made the senior prefect but I was made a prefect. The second time, the principal invited me and said I had been selected as the deputy senior prefect. So, you know the background that I talked about. It was about the church, the farm, and of course, education. With my good results, I had the options of going to a university in Zaria, Kaduna State; Nsukka, Enugu State; and Ife, Osun State, but Ibadan was the one I picked, However, the University of Lagos first admitted me and I knew I wasn’t going there. When the University of Ibadan offer came, I knew that was what I wanted. However, Cambridge University was my first choice for Law but nobody was going to sponsor me.
That was the kind of vision, the kind of dream I had. I felt that Cambridge was too far, Legon University in Ghana offered Law, so I would prefer to go to Legon, but again, there was no money. However, I later got a Federal Government scholarship to read History at UI. Once you get a university scholarship at that time, you can study anything. So, I decided to stick with French. In my Higher School Certificate, I studied Latin, Geography, and History. I didn’t want all of the hard work to go, so I kept History which was pretty natural and reasonably easy for me. And then picked up French and Politics – French, because if one studied French there, one had the opportunity of spending one year studying abroad. I wanted to travel. Then I also chose Politics because I said, “If I am politically active, why don’t I learn about this subject?” So, in my first year, it was French, Politics and History. But then I started doing very well in French. I think I was the best in my first year. Twenty of us were sent to Senegal in the first year. I finished and I made first class in French. Again, with the flexibility of those days, with the first class in French and Politics as a minor, the University of Ife was still able to interview me and take me as a junior academic. The first class was already a passport to be shortlisted, so I became an assistant lecturer. The Rockefeller Foundation took me to Oxford University and I returned to the University of Ife to teach. Based on my academic activities, the UN also invited me, and 10 years later, the World Bank invited me. So I have had opportunities.
Did you ever aspire to become a teacher?
I didn’t think of it. It was my father’s. I used to accompany him to a community called Ita Ogbolu, an adjacent community to my hometown. He attended some church committee meetings. I used to carry the church book to follow him. He will tell me that I will go to Saint Andrew College of Education, Oyo. The school had a huge reputation in those days and it was producing the most senior teachers. There was no degree in education. Most of the Headmasters went to this. So the ambition of my father for me was that I will be a Headmaster. But after my HSC, the vision I had for myself was Law and to study it at Cambridge, but it was not possible; in Legon, it was also not possible. Even when I returned from Oxford, I toiled briefly with the idea of studying Law but I was doing very well where I was, so I killed the idea of (studying) Law. There is no regret at all.
With the way you spoke about your parents, it seemed they valued education. Were they also educated?
My father was very literate in Yoruba. He kept a diary from 1908 until he died in 1987. It’s not just literacy but also discipline. My mother who could not write but could read Yoruba got somebody to write for her. She kept records about her trade, her children, and her finances which we found after she died. So, you can’t call them illiterates. They were literate in Yoruba. I want to tell you that it is a loss to us that we have not developed our mother tongue education. Go to China, go to Japan, go to India, they all speak their mother tongue to communicate and educate themselves.
How do you think we can retrace our steps in that regard?
The honest answer is that I don’t know but what I know is that by not making the effort to put one’s mother tongue language as a key part of one’s learning, one is losing a lot. I know that for a fact and the late Prof Babatunde Fafunwa tried to preach that. My first two or three years in education were totally in Yoruba. By the time we got to Standard One or so, English was introduced. In Standard Two, we were still not taught in English. If for example, my advocacy for a devolved federation happens, the South-West ought to adopt that because we have a very rich language. When I took my school certificate examination, Yoruba Language was compulsory but now, it has become optional. The value of education has been de-emphasised. Unfortunately, 39 years of military rule contributed to that because with one’s school certificate one could join the military and become a major general. So the educational excellence that involves parents, community, and all tiers of government has changed.
I’m almost sure that there is no state in Nigeria today where free primary education is comprehensively implemented the way it was launched in (old) Western Region in 1955 and implemented fairly successfully up to the early 70s. Now in the South-West, no state is doing it comprehensively; maybe Ekiti State and Lagos State are also investing a lot in education, but not Ondo State. I can tell you, it is on record.
Educational enrollment in primary education in Ondo State is 50 per cent private. During my time, it was zero. During the governor’s time, maybe 10 per cent. Free education was implemented for about two decades at least. There is no ASUU strike in any Lagos tertiary institution. State universities have no business accepting ASUU’s negotiations with the Federal Government. The Federal Government did not establish the Ondo State University. So, they are contributing to the unitary nature of the country. An agreement reached between ASUU and the Federal Government should not be binding on a state. Six months without education, how can you have international students when universities are not ranked internationally? International students and international teachers have a score. That is why Covenant University rose very quickly, Afe Babalola University Ado-Ekiti too is rising.
How did you stay connected with your family during your stay abroad?
I got married in 1971 and I had my first child in 1972. From 1972 to December 1986, I was attached to UNIFE(now OAU) during which I was a civil servant for six months and I went with my late wife. Similarly, when I went to the UN, my family went with me and in those days, there was no difficulty because we took a house help along with us. There was no problem in getting a visa. Because I was travelling a lot and I couldn’t keep going with them, I bought tickets for them to go and stay with my ambassador friend in Holland (the Netherlands). When I went to the UN, my wife stayed behind a bit because she was a teacher and she had to disengage to meet me.
Can you recall one of your memorable experiences working outside Nigeria?
There is more than one. In fact, I have many of them. Given the poor state of our roads, I will never forget to mention Malawi, where their authoritarian president said there must be no porthole on Malawian roads. When my wife came, we drove on the roads and we didn’t see portholes. In China, I visited the Great Wall. I had exposure. My favorite cities are Paris and Nairobi.
Did you miss Nigerian delicacies while you were away?
No, never! Even in retirement, my lunch daily is pounded yam with egusi soup or vegetables. I take it every day. The moment I travel, I adjust. I spent three years in Oxford, why will I not be familiar with the food they eat? Same thing when I went to China. In Paris, I learnt that water is more expensive than wine, so I drank wine.
What were your youthful days like?
The usual youthful things. My first visit to America was in 1966. With my colleague from UNILAG, we always went around. It was fun.
How did you meet your late wife?
We are from the same hometown. I had many girlfriends then but she was permanent. When I was at Christ School, she was in another school, and thereafter, we got married and had children.
As an advocate of devolution of power, what is your take on some sections of the country opposing restructuring?
I don’t believe that (opposition to restructuring) is true because (Kaduna State Governor, Nasir) El-Rufai was the chairman of the All Progressives Congress’ restructuring committee. That was one of the items in their manifesto. You have a military man as your President who says we cannot have state police because states cannot pay and those around him have refused to tell him that the lion’s share of Nigeria’s wealth goes to the Federal Government. Where are the states going to get money to pay state police? Therefore, part of the restructuring is the reallocation of resources. The President does not believe in it. It is the lack of political will to implement (it). The crisis we have today will deepen and develop dimensions. From my academic studies and understanding, Nigeria, as it is today, cannot survive like this forever.