12th March, 2019
Nigeria’s foremost agronomist, civil/public servant, philanthropist, Dr Lalekan Ayokunnu Are, OON, in a two and half hours chat with GBENRO ADESINA in a small conference room of his Kakanfo Inn, located at Ring Road Area, Ibadan, discussed his ‘humble’ beginning, road to eminence and the complexity of the country called Nigeria.
How is life at 85?
First I want to thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to share very little of my life with you and the public. PMNEWS and TheNEWS are what I read first when I wake up in the morning. You are doing a very good job. I was actually 85 on December 2, 2018 but certain circumstances beyond my control made me to move the celebration of the birthday to January. I think I should let the cat out of the bag. I wasn’t well. So, I was actually in the hospital in the USA as at the day I clocked 85. So, I moved it forward for convenience. Again, Kakanfo Inn has just clocked 30. So, we thought it would be wise to combine the celebrations. That was why we chose January 10, 2019 for the double celebrations after I had returned from the USA. The first thing I want to tell you is that I didn’t really feel any difference growing old because I suppose I was growing old gracefully and everything went normal until I became sick last July. It was then I knew that the body is not able to take all the pressures and running up and down as before. In other words, I was forced to slow down. Also, I make sure I move about because it is not good for me to be sedentary but not like before when I didn’t feel I was old.
Now, I know I am old. Well, for us to live long, many factors are responsible. The first is your own genetic make-up. If you have got the gene to allow you to grow old, you will likely grow old. That is God’s grace. The second fact is the environment, because you can’t live in a vacuum so to say. Everything around you matters in getting older and older but the most important thing is to do everything in moderation. So what I have chosen to do and which I recommend is that whatever you like, do it in moderation. Also, try to sleep for seven to eight hours every day. For instance, when I recommended this to my cousin, Chief Ajibola Ogunsola, he did not believe it was possible as he always reads one thing or the other well into the night and won’t sleep till around 2am only to get up by 5am. But when he took to my advice, he started looking younger and younger, all because he was sleeping enough and relaxing well. Sleeping well is very important for the body. We need to allow the body to rest.
Another thing is that we must learn to live with people. You can’t afford to be alone. In other words, relating with the extended family and friends is good. It doesn’t make you to become solitary. It is when somebody is alone that s/he has depression because s/he will be thinking of all sorts of things, whereas if s/he is with people, s/he will joke and chat and this will make him or her feel better. We should avoid anything that will cause depression.
As at today, can you claim to be fulfilled as well as saying that you have achieved all that you have set to achieve on earth?
That is a very interesting question. I don’t know whether people set limits for what they want to achieve. But generally, I am fulfilled. When I was very young and in primary school, I lived with my grandmother. Because my mother was her only child, she spoilt me. I didn’t even know my mother. I was pampered to the extent that if I was asked to do one thing or the other in school my grandmother was always there to assist. For instance, if we were asked to bring ‘Igi Lapalapa’, that is Jatropha branches, to school to make fence, my grandmother would carry it and ask me to just follow her. However, from that time, I started to think of the kind of life ahead for me. As at that time, exposure was very limited. In those days, we were supposed to pass the standard six examination. Then, when I looked around and saw those people who passed the exam, they were always messengers and low ranked employees. As a result of this, at first, I called my grandmother and said to her that when I finish standard six, I want to be a messenger. That was what I saw.
However, by the time I was reaching standard six, we were lucky to have good teachers and they mentored and counseled us. In 1946, when I was in standard five, I didn’t know that there was any secondary school called Government College Ibadan, GCI. It was in 1947 that our teacher, Pa Akeredolu, who happened to be a foundation student of GCI in 1929 mentioned the school to us. We used to call him ‘Oga’ teacher. When GCI started, it was a teacher training school. It was later in 1930 that it became a secondary school. Pa Akeredolu exposed us and told us that it wasn’t only Ibadan Boys High School and Ibadan Grammar School that were around and that there was another high school. He took us on excursion to GCI in Apata and encouraged us to take entrance exam for the school. My primary school, Government School, which later became called N.A. Central School, performed best in the whole of Nigeria in the sense that 48 pupils were admitted for the first time in that year. It used to be 24, and six of us from our school passed. Before then, no school produced more than two but we had six. Now, that changed my outlook in life. Originally, I wanted to be a messenger but when we went to that place and found that there were other things they were doing, I started thinking big. Of course, we had never heard of Chemistry and all of that.
We started to do new things even Mathematics; we were doing Trigonometry, Geometry and the rest. That changed my outlook that if somebody should get a school certificate, such a person would become something better than a messenger. So, I was thinking higher. However, what determined my career happened in the last term in GCI in 1952. At that time, in Government College, they used to ask students one after the other what they would like to be in life. We were all brilliant from different schools. I was on the second row. Those who were in the front row mentioned doctor, engineer and the like. My father had wanted me to be a doctor. Because all my classmates wanted to be either doctor or engineer or architect, I felt I should do something different.
So, when it came to my turn in the second row, I said I wanted to read Agriculture so that I could become an agriculturist. The school master, Mr Alfred Long looked at me and wondered if something was wrong with me. He called me and tried to convince me that it is a dirty work and suggested Architecture or Geography. I told him that I had never heard of Architecture and that my father will be annoyed, and besides, I don’t want to be a teacher. He did everything to change my mind to read Architecture but I stuck to Agriculture. That was how I become an agriculturist.
Do you regret it?
Not at all. There is no regret whatsoever. We were the third set of Agric. students in the University College Ibadan, UCI now University of Ibadan, UI. The lecturers felt they should prepare us so specially and that was why they made the course a five year programme instead of four. So, everything was thorough to the extent that we were all good in all the areas of the course and this made it easier for us to choose rightly areas of specialization which include: Agronomy, which I specialized in, Entomology, Pathology, Agric. Biology, Agric. Economics. We did all aspects. By the time we finished, my classmates branched out. For instance, Professor Tony Adegbola became a professor of Animal Science, Professor Ajibola Taylor, a professor of Entomology. I became an Agronomist and Nnodi became a Soil Scientist. So, we produced so many specialists in different areas of Agric. Science. So, at that time, I knew I was prepared to go to higher height. I was given a scholarship by Western Nigeria Development Corporation, WNDC, in my second year. During the first year, I was struggling to pay my fees because my father though had money refused to help me because he didn’t like his son to read Agriculture.
As a result of my inability to pay my fee, I started waiting for when the school will send me away. As we were rounding off the first semester, they pasted the list of those who had not paid their tuition and rusticated them but my name wasn’t there. Second semester, they drove people away again, I wasn’t. Throughout the first year when they were driving people away, I wasn’t driven away. Now, I’ll like to let you know that it is good to repay people who do you good. The Assistant Registrar, Students, then, who later became the Registrar, Chief M. K. Adamolekun was the one helping me. When the man retired, he went back to his town, Iju in Ekiti State. Later, somebody told me that Papa Adamolekun was going to celebrate his 70th anniversary on a particular day. I couldn’t go that day but I went about three days later. I showed up in his house. He was so excited to see me. Being an Ekiti State man, he went to make pounded yam. He entertained me lavishly.
When I was about to go, I gave him an envelope. He said Lekan, “Eleyi ti poju”, meaning this is too much. I replied, “Olorun ko ni je ke moyi ara yin”, meaning God will not let you know your worth. He asked for what he has done to deserve this gift. I replied that he contributed to what I am today. You made me. He asked how? I told him that as the Assistant Registrar Students who was compiling names of school fees defaulters and expelling them, he did not include my name throughout the year. That was why I was not sent away. That was why I was able to complete my course and become what I am today. He explained to me that if he had added my name then and I was expelled, it will be a loss for the college as no one will be scoring goals for UCI during football match tournaments. There is nobody who has scored as many goals as I scored during my time in UCI. In my last year in Government College, if you were to call Dr Omololu Olunloyo, he would verify this. We scored 52 goals and I alone scored 20. Adamolekun was a football fanatic and so every time we played, we always won and I was scoring the goals. That was what saved me. So, after I got my degree, I returned to WNDC because they gave me scholarship. And at that time, I returned with one and half legs because I had a compound fracture on my right leg. When I joined WNDC, they posted me to the Secretariat, where they have Ministry of Education now. That was the best building then, very beautiful. They have spoilt everything now. The government has spoilt everything.
The whole place is rotten. That was the best building in the whole of the Secretariat in those days and that was where the office of Chief Alfred Rewane was. He was the chairman. While some of my colleagues were happy that they were posted to the city, I wasn’t happy. So, I complained that agriculture couldn’t be practiced in the city; therefore, I wanted to be posted to the bush. They look for a place they thought if I go within a short time, I would run back and I was posted to Apoje Farm, near Ijebu Igbo. That time, they were constructing a bridge over Osun River so as to facilitate easy movement of vehicles. When you get to the Osun River, you will park your car and use rope to cross to the other side after which you have to walk seven miles to your house. They felt the stress attached to the farm would discourage me and I would come back to the city but on the contrary, I enjoyed myself. I liked it. So, I stayed there and there I learnt a lot about practical and commercial agriculture under Mr Soba Togun, my boss. We had an overall boss, a Dutch man called Mr de Boer. I was there doing my work. At one time, I was in the field, later they moved me to the nursery to raise thousands of seedlings for oil palm, cocoa and citrus. Then towards the end, I was sent to Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research, NIFOR, at Benin to learn more about oil palm.
It was that time that something happened that also impacted positively on my life. First, someone alleged that I took bribe and a report was sent to the headquarters from Apoje Farm. So, I stormed the headquarters and I said that I wanted to see the chairman. In those days, you couldn’t see the chairman, Alfred Rewane because he was such a big man. The secretary that I saw said, “Makobami, o le gba ibi o”, meaning, don’t put me in trouble, I can’t allow you to pass here to see the chairman. I asked, “why can’t I see the chairman, am I not his staff?” I called the principal secretary, Mr Kassim and he said the same thing. They said okay, there is a place, a door for him to escape when he doesn’t want to see visitors, you go there, if you see him fine, if you don’t see him, that is your business. I went there, I knocked, I opened the door and I saw the chairman. He adjusted his monocle and said, “You rat, what do you want here?”
Before I could answer, Chief Rewane said, “I like your courage. Sit”. And I sat. He asked for what he could do for me. I explained my mission and told him that he should investigate the allegation against me. He was amused and he called the company secretary and said that they should set up a panel to investigate. They investigated and they found out that I didn’t take a kobo from anybody. One person, he is dead now. I don’t want to mention his name. He was a trouble maker who always likes to pull down anybody that is doing well. He was the senior labour officer. He went to Apoje Farm and did all the manipulations to put me in trouble. But later I was cleared. When I was cleared, I now became close to Chief Rewane. Shortly after that I was summoned to the headquarters by the chairman who said the management has assessed all the young managers and that I performed best in the year and I was to be given a brand new car as a gift. But I told him that I already have a Peugeot 403 and I can’t ride two cars.
Then he asked for what I wanted. I said I will be grateful if I could be sent for postgraduate training. He said no problem. Let me know where you want to go. I went back to my friend, Professor Bede Okigbo, who was then at Moore Plantation. He got a PhD from Cornell University. I said, “Bede, how can you help me to go to the US?” He took me to Professor Algreen, the head of the USAID team who was willing to assist. But when I went back to inform Chief Rewane that I wanted to go to America to study, he was angry. He said, “Don’t you know that those people don’t know anything? Why don’t you want to go and study in the UK? My boy, go and sleep over it and come tomorrow”. I went away and came back the next day. Don’t forget that almost all of our leaders schooled in England and the British have given them the impression that American education is not good and it is inferior.
So, when I returned the next day, Chief Rewane asked, “My boy, have you changed your mind?” I said no. He said he hates talking to somebody who is sick in the head. I was just looking at him. He said, “I’m sorry you have to go to University of London”. I said, “Sir, I was given admission there but I don’t want it. I want America”. He asked why. I said, “Let me demonstrate. If you visit a British family for lunch or dinner, he will put a big plate, many cutleries and there will be one for each food items on the table but you need glasses to find the food on the plate”. He said, “This boy, you have been brainwashed. I said no, I was just saying the truth. I said unlike the US, they will put a whole chicken and put just a knife and fork, finish and say deal with it. He said if I go, whatever I get in the US, he would not recognise it. He prayed for me.
That was how I got scholarship to go and do Master and PhD in the US. By the time I returned, I found that the type of work in WNDC would not allow me to make use of my knowledge especially in research. I had to leave the place for Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria on February 1, 1963. There I became the first black man and Nigerian fully qualified to do research. It has its good side and bad side. The good side was that I was taken as a senior research officer, Agronomist and was supposed to be the head of the department but because as I discovered later, the members of top management were racists, they denied me the position. They were all white. By the time I resumed, they had combined Agronomy and Virology Departments. So, they put a young British man as the head of Agronomy/Virology Department, even though, the man was a research officer, I was a senior research officer. This man was made the head. I later discovered that that was done to prevent me from having a voice in the top management because only the heads of departments were there.
Secondly, my salary was cut by 27 per cent. When I saw it, I went to the chairman, late Dr T.S. B. Aribisala, who was shocked and asked what I will do? I said I will accept. So, I said I will just hide my head in Cocoa Research and do my work. I was there for eight years but something happened the third month I got there. The Deputy Premier of Western region, Chief N. A. B. Kotoye was sent by the cabinet of Western Nigeria, headed by Chief Akintola. I never met the man till he died. The Minister of Trade and Industry, Chief A. B. Bello from Iseyin was sent to give me a letter of appointment as the Agricultural Adviser to the same WNDC, from where I left. This time now, I was given about three times my salary and when I got it, our boss, Mr Kenten at CRIN was very happy for me. He said it is good to accept such an offer. Of course that will be their position because they wanted to get rid of me. I went to show the Chairman, Dr Aribisala. He asked, “Lekan, what have you decided to do?” I said I don’t want to accept. He said, “No, go and think about it. You know I am permanent secretary; this salary is more than mine. It is special. It is about three and half more than what you are currently earning. Go and think about it and come tomorrow”.
When I got there he asked me of what I felt and I said, “Sir, I am not accepting because one, I have got a cutlass but I have not learnt how to use it. I have got a PhD but what have I done with it? I need to work in the field to acquire experience”. He said, “What else?” I said, “Sir, I will work so hard here and by the time I leave, people will seek me out”. This is very very important. What I said was like a prophecy. He prayed for me and said, “Lekan you have taken the right decision. If you take that job and they settle the trouble between Akintola and Awolowo and Akintola loses, you will lose that job. Then you will fall from grace to grass because there is no equivalent in the whole of Western Region. So, you will not get another job of that status, you will not find your level”. He prayed for me and said, “Go and do your work”.
I went back and at the end of the year at CRIN, the white people who didn’t like me, instead of giving me one increment, they gave me four. We didn’t know that they used to go to our research farm to inspect whether we are doing anything or not. They even go on Sundays and they were surprised that some of our labourers were there even on Sunday. They were surprised that in spite of all the problems, I was doing well. After that, the government decided to Nigerianise the top positions. The first thing they did was to advertise to get a deputy director. When we saw it, I felt I would not get it, that maybe somebody more senior. I went to University of Ife and encouraged late Professor Lawrence Opeke, who was one year my senior, to apply and other people also applied. Opeke got the job.
When he resumed at CRIN, he now had to be the voice of African Nigerian at the top management. Within the first month of resumption, all the British scientists resigned, right from director down because they didn’t want any black person there. Everybody thought that would be the end of CRIN but it wasn’t. We had very very good people in the board led by Dr Aribisala, Late Chief Akintomide, late Dr. Bukar Shaib, late Chief B. Oloruntoba and Mr Nwosu from the East. They put their heads together and they mapped out a programme to get young Nigerians to that place. What did they do? They went to the universities. They let the final year students know the opportunities that were available at CRIN and they got people who were interested. Secondly, people with Higher School Certificate, HSC, were given scholarships to go to universities.
Again, the people who had just left universities and didn’t have jobs were interviewed and brought in as research officers in training. You will not believe it, by another five years, the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria which was decimated, became the best staffed cocoa research institute in the world. Everybody was surprised. We had so many young people coming. I am telling you all these because you are trying to see how things shaped up in my life. Don’t forget that I told you that if I did a good job in CRIN, people will seek me out. About March or April, 1970, I got a cablegram from the University of Sierra-Leone inviting me to be a Professor of Agronomy. I went for the interview. There were five of us. Two Africans, the other person was a Ghanaian, then a German, an American and an Australian. We were interviewed and I got the job but as I said, I never applied. After a while, I came back home and went to Dr. Bukar Shaib and told him I had resigned my appointment as a professor in Sierra-Leone.
He asked me what I intended to do afterward and I told him I had applied to FAO and I got a job as a Tree Crops Adviser to the government of Sri Lanka. He advised against it and informed me about a job in West Africa Rice Development Association, Monrovia, Liberia. He suggested that it will be better as it is nearer home. I said I don’t know what they do. He gave me some papers about it and I was put in a hotel. I read everything overnight. When I saw him the following day, I said it is a good job. Then he said, “If that is so, you have got the job”. I said, “But I haven’t applied”. He told me I already have the job. So, few days later I got a letter from the presidency that I have been given the job. You see I didn’t apply. It is the best job I have ever had because I was then on a scale of a Director of the UN. I had diplomatic status and the salary you would not believe. Even what you call post adjustment, which is bush allowance, $1000 per month, and free house, free guard, free everything. I didn’t buy petrol for one day. I had two cars, they just filled them up. I actually left the job because of injustice. When I left the job, I reported back to Dr. Bukar Shaib.
Were you married then?
I was married then. I had three children. My children had left secondary school as at that time. The eldest was in the university, the second one was also in the university but the last one was not yet in the university as at that time. It is good you raised that question with the kind of condition of service that was attached to the appointment. First, I could send my children to school anywhere, so I sent them to the US. Then you could earn your salary in three currencies. I earned in pound sterling and dollar. I didn’t earn in Naira. Again, I never applied for the job. When I wanted to leave this job, Dr Bukar Shaib flew a kite, saying with the way they have treated you, I think you should leave that place. I said yes Sir. That was in February, 1977. He said, “When do you want to leave?” I said June because the children would have finished their education for that school year. He said, “Yes, there is a job of General Manager, Ogun-Osun River Basin Development Corporation”.
He showed me the paper. Then I asked of what the office entails. He pressed the bell again, called the secretary, told the secretary to give me all the necessary papers and book me into Federal Palace Hotel like before. The next day I came back. He directed that I should see the permanent secretary Agric, Chief Barnabas Oloruntoba. We were close friends. He died last year. He deliberately sent me to him because he wanted him to convince me about something, which is the salary structure. The man told me that the government says that anybody who will become GM of say Ogun-Osun River Basin Development Authority, OORBDA, should be on grade level 16. If you are a GM of NEPA or NPA, you will be on level 17. I said no way. Oloruntoba tried to convince me, I said, “You are on level 17, I am three years your senior. How can you earn so much and I earn below you? No”. I was sent to the Minister, Mr Mafeni. He used to be a lecturer in UI. We knew each other very well. He tried to convince me to accept the grade. I said, “Look here, young man, when I was a professor, you were just a lecturer grade 1!” After seeing them, I went to Dr Bukar Shaib. Immediately he saw me, he asked, “Lekan what do you think about it?” I said, “Yes, the job is challenging but the salary is not good. I was on level 16 in 1968, how can I go back to level 16?
He said, “You can become level 17 on merit. What we will do if you take level 16, we will put you on the last step so that you will be the most senior on grade level 16 in Nigeria. Since you have reached the end, we will be forced to push you to the next level, which is Grade level 17”. So, on the basis of that, I accepted. Then, I talked about two more conditions that needed to be considered before the deal is sealed. I said I can’t start now and that I will only start after my children finished their education in in June Liberia. Again, I said that I have been going from here to there and I have been resigning, so, I want condonation for the brake in my service years. I said I will not stay in that place for more than seven years. He said, “You are still a young man, you can stay longer”. I said no, I target achieving whatever I will achieve between five to seven years. If I leave at seven years, the law says you must have worked for at least 10 years to be able to get pension. I said so if I don’t have the condonation, that is joining all of my service years together, then I would have worked for nothing, I would get nothing.
He said no problem. He wrote it down. I didn’t spend two months in Ogun-Osun RBDA before Dr Bukar Shaib put in the paper that they should do the condonation. Then the permanent secretary, a lady, refused. I don’t want to mention the name of the permanent secretary because the person is alive. When the person refused, I said I would never take my paper there until they move her out. How long it will take I don’t care. Later they put Imafidon Akade, he is from Edo state. We were classmates like the person who has refused. I took my paper to Akade and he said let us go to the head of service. We went to Mr Gray Longe. Though Gray was one year my senior but we were friends and anything I wanted, he ensured that I got it. Gray asked if my wife has brakes like this too. I replied yes and he advised to bring her papers too. The two were done at the same time. That was why I didn’t spend more than seven years that I promised to spend in OORBDA. When I wanted to leave, I had done all the formalities without telling the minister, Dr. Bukar Shaib, who was my mentor and benefactor all through. I said I was going to take terminal leave and then go on retirement. I wrote the letter December 1984.
On the Friday before the Monday that I was to start the terminal leave, I went to Lagos to see Dr B. Shaib. He said you can’t leave like that, you are my right hand man. I said, “The Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari has sent his minister of finance, Dr Ona Soleye to me asking me to stay for three more years and I said no. The governor here in Oyo State, General Oladayo Popoola came to my house begging me to stay more, I said no. But you Sir, you made me. I will concede to you. Let me stay for six month but the Secretary to the government has acknowledged my letter and thanked me for my service to the nation”. So, I had to withdraw the letter I had sent so that whatever I do in the office now will not be illegal. He said no problem. Let us go to the head of service. They were all in that secretariat at Ikoyi, sixth floor. Again Dr Bukar Shaib didn’t know how close I was to Gray Longe so when we got to Gray and I said, “Gray, how are you?” Bukar Shaib was surprised and asked, “So, you know him?” I said, “He is my very good friend. I used his car to learn how to drive”. So, I withdrew my letter and that was how I extended my stay for six months because of that man, Dr Bukar Shaib. He was so good to me. That was the only way I could at least honour him.
The highest rank in the university is professorial cadre, I became a professor in the university; in the international community, I became a director and chief executive at UN and I also became a director at Ogun-Osun RBDA. In those days, there could only be one director in cocoa research, I pioneered going there. Wherever I went, I reached the top. Life has been good to me. I am fulfilled.
How did you feel when you were given a national award?
When it happened, I didn’t know, but my friends, like Chief Kola Daisi, the Bashorun of Ibadanland, Sir Tunji Akinniyi, Dr Oluremi Atanda were the first to phone me early in the morning congratulating me. When they told me I was given a national honour of Officer of the Order of the Niger, OON, I told them that I would reject it. I said, “First of all, you Dr Atanda, I employed you. I brought you up in this Agric. sector. I trained you and you got Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic, OFR. Akiniyi, I brought you up, you were one of my assistants, you got OFR, why would I get OON? People who didn’t do anything for this country are getting OFR, CON”. I later found out that I was recommended for Commander of the Order of the Niger, CON by three eminent people but I was given OON. So, I decided I was rejecting it. By the time Bashorun Kola Daisi heard, he begged me to accept it, that later they will upgrade it. They have not upgraded anything up till today. Secondly, my cousin, Chief Ajibola Ogunsola, who was given OON had rightly rejected it. Ogunsola is the first actuary in this country. He was the chairman of the United Nations Staff Pension Funds for over 20 years.
When Jibola became an actuary, there was no African, not even South African, who was an actuary. You know he has been responsible for pension review in the military and in the civilian even in Nigeria. So when I said that I was going to reject it, Ajibola ran from Lagos to Ibadan and said brother “E ma ko nitori won a so wipe n se la ma n ko national award ninu ebi wa”, meaning don’t reject it so that they will not say that our family is fond of rejecting national honours. Honestly I felt very very bad. I felt very very bad that people like us who have done so much for this country are not rightly recognized. While people who have done less for this country are getting higher awards like CON, people like us who have done so much are being given lower awards. I am not proud that I have any OON.
What are the challenges you have faced in life and what are your memorable events?
You see, people have so many challenges but some of the challenges are manmade especially when you are in government work. I am proud to say I did not take kobo either for gratification or for bribe from anybody. The contractors knew me that if they did their works and their papers are submitted by the project manager, who vets and recommends, they must get their money within 24 hours. Everybody knew that. They knew that you don’t have to see me to get what is due to you. They respected me but every time it is some of your staff who engineer petitions, which only take away your own time in dealing with them instead of doing your work. In fact, I wrote a memoir titled, “Serving to Survive and Succeed”. I will give you a copy. There were many challenges and because of these challenges, the first thing I did was to ensure that I keep the job going. Several people will write all sorts of things. At the end, all they have written are all false but at least you must reply, you must give details of how things happened. This will take your time. The worst of all the challenges is that they hate me because I will not allow them to “chop”, as they normally put it. So if they will not chop, there are only two ways out: get rid of him or her or kill him/her.
So, let me tell you of a life situation. One day, we went for a board meeting in Ikeja in 1981. During the meeting, four people burst into the meeting. I had a very good chairman, late Prince Adeleke Adedoyin. They said they brought a letter from the minister asking the board to sack me. In the letter they listed all sorts of things. When the chairman got it, he said, “Look, we can’t deal with this just like that. We have to give Dr Are the letter to go through and then respond by stating his own side of the story based on the allegations levied against him”. To cut a long story short, the leader said, “Ani ke le lo, e ni e ko ni le lo, ti e ko ba le lo ta ba so di were n ko?”, meaning we asked you to sack him, you said no, what about if we make him mad.
Immediately, one old man among them dipped his hand into his big “Agbada”, and brought out a charm and started to make incantations that will make me go mad. When this continued, some young people like you who were on the boardroom ran out. After some time I whispered to the chairman that he should allow me to challenge the juju man. Prince Adedoyin said that if that charm should touch your body, you will run mad and there will not be a solution, so be careful. I just summed up courage that I should save myself. I challenged the man and said, “Baba, do you know Dr Are?” He replied and said that that Are should thank his mother that he was not at the meeting. My mother died nine months earlier. I said I am Dr Lekan Are and I asked him if he would be happy that somebody should make his child like me mad. He said he was given the job and he has been paid to do it. I started to pump more questions, first he was foaming in the mouth, his eyes were as red as fire, then the chain dropped from his hands, the man became groggy. They had to carry him out. At that time, more people ran out.
Three years after, in 1984, we got a radio call that the governor would be visiting Mokoloki Farm and that we should show up there. We went. When we got there. We sat. General Oladipo Diya, the Military Governor of Ogun State, got up and said, “This is the GM that you are talking about that doesn’t know his job. We have heard more than enough about him and all the petitions you have written against him and his wrongdoings. Now, make the allegations before him”. The first person who came out was a former head labourer, who was among those who burst into the board meeting to make me mad. He abused me so terribly. Diya said, “Head of Service, I told you Dr Are is useless”. The head of service said, “No, the man is not useless. The man is doing a good job”. Diya asked the HOS whether he was my lawyer. Another person was called, he also abused me. Civil service! I was just watching. He then asked Dr Yaya Olaniran that is it not right to say Dr Are is useless? I was sitting beside Yaya. Instead of Yaya to talk, he was just grinning. When Yaya left UI and was yet to be employed, his uncle Mr Akinbode, was my mechanic, he brought him and asked me to help him get a job. I employed Yaya at CRIN same day.
Yaya couldn’t talk. At a point, one elderly man stood, I didn’t see him well. By the time I looked closely, I was amazed because he was the juju man that wanted to make me mad during the board meeting. I was frightened. Baba said he was coming right to my front and I was more frightened. When baba got to the front he said, “Mr Governor, everybody stand let us pray”. He prayed for me and after that he asked all of us to sit. He then faced the governor and asked him what gave him the audacity to be reckless on the road. He asked, “Why were you over speeding and raising dust on us? All of you are levying series of allegations against Dr Are but he has not done anything wrong. Mr Governor, it is you that is bad not Dr Are. Have you ever been to this farm? You are a mere Abeokuta’s Governor. You stay in the capital, Abeokuta, without visiting us here. Owode to this place is 28 miles. Are you the one who made our road motorable? No, it is this man, Dr Are, that constructed the road and made this road motorable and that is why you could be over speeding on it and cover us with dust. When you got here, have you not seen rice factory and gaari factory? Can you see anybody hungry here? If we get to Abeokuta where you are, there are so many hungry people, we are not hungry here. Dr Are that all of you want to kill is the one that taught us how to be good profitable farmers. He taught us how to form ourselves into cooperative societies. Can you see anyone that is sick? And you keep saying that this man, Dr Are is bad? Dr Are is a good man”.
After the speech, the governor asked the Head of Service to comment on what the elderly man said. He said baba has spoken his mind and that Dr Are is working very well. Diya asked again, “Are you his lawyer?” Diya then made a grave mistake. Baba was already going to sit while people were clapping and before the man could go far, Diya asked if anybody still had anything to say. Baba turned back and said, “Governor; do you have home training at all? If you go to a place, and you speak, can anybody speak after you? When a president speaks, no one can speak again. Don’t you know that I am the governor of this farm? I spoke and you still want my people to speak after me”. He then asked the people if they still wanted to talk and resoundingly, they said no, and that was the end of the meeting.
Diya now remarked that if we do not behave, the farm will be relocated. The man asked, “If you relocate the farm, can you relocate the land?” On that note, we all dispersed. Baba came back to me and embraced me and I told him that I hope he was not using style to use something to rob my body so that something bad will happen to me. He said, “My child, don’t be afraid. Nothing bad will ever happen to you”. I then remarked that what of if he had made me mad, how would he have saved me now? He said that Chief Harold-Sodipo that sat beside me at the meeting was the one that contracted him to make me mad. He said that Sodipo gave him money to make me mad. He said that because the mission failed, Sodipo left him stranded in Lagos where he was visiting for the very first time without making arrangement as to how he would return to where he came from. He stated that while confused and wondering how to get back to his village, I came and I stopped to ask him what he was doing at the bus stop and he replied that he was stranded and he didn’t know how to go back home.
He now reminded me of how I got out of my car and asked the driver to take him to wherever he was going. He said he kept wondering in the car how I would get back to my own destination since I had surrendered my car to take him home. He said, “You also gave us money that was six times what Sodipo promised us. Do you think I will now see who wants to destroy you and I will not be ready to die there?” He said that was why he did all the things he did as well as abusing the governor because according to him, I am a good person. He added that I can now see that he was paying me back. After the discussion, we both left for his house at Ofada Village. He was a farmer. He gave me kola nuts, pawpaw, plantain, oranges and banana and said that if he knew that I would visit his house that day, he would have bought chickens for me. My Range Rover was full with all sorts of food items. That was how the man saved me. That was a big challenge. If God had not protected me throughout this period, you couldn’t have had the opportunity to know me, talk less of talking to me now because I would have died. That is the kind of insult and risk that is attached to government work.
Going by what I saw in your CV, you work 24 hours seven days. When do you have time to relax as well as play with your family members?
If you talk of relaxation, you have to separate it. I have been actively involved in sports since my youth days. Because of my involvement in sports right from the university level, I got colours in cricket, football and in table tennis. I was playing those three for the university every week. So, I am very very interested in sports. Now that I cannot play, I commit a lot of time to watching football and other sports, including golf, tennis and table tennis, live on television. Well, my children and my wife are used to the fact that I spend very little time in the house. Anytime, I am in the stadium. Of course, I was also an organizer of football. I was also the chairman of Ibadan Football Association at one time, member of Nigeria Football Association, member of the Nigeria Boxing Board of Control, NBB of C. We license the boxers. I was busy with all these activities and I derive joy in doing them but usually, I am home on Sundays. Although, I don’t go to church regularly, but I do go to service on Sunday. When I return, I spend time with the children. Fortunately, after some time, they were all gone. But the point was that I spend time with them off and on. Whenever there is a match at Liberty or Lekan Salami Stadium, you can’t find me in the house.
You were born in Ilesa. What were your parents doing in Ilesa at the time you were born?
My father was working there then as a clerk for government. Later he was transferred back to Ibadan.
How was life growing up?
That is very very interesting. You see, the first thing I want to tell you is that, you know in those days, the issue of religious divide was very very serious. Here was my mother, Miss Aboderin. Then all the Aboderin were Christians. My father, Are, all the Ares were Muslims. So, my father went to marry my mother and became a Christian and became Samson. He was Karimu. It was not acceptable to my maternal grandfather, Chief Aboderin, because he said his daughter will not marry a Muslim. When my father came back to Ibadan from Ilesa, I was five month old. One Sunday, he was on his way to church when his father called him back and said, “Karimu, you know we named you Karimu. If you ever go to the Christian’s house, you will become dead”. He escaped corporal punishment that day but the following Sunday, he was beaten to a pulp. So, he became a Muslim again. The next day, my grandfather took the daughter away from Oke Are.
That was the end of the marriage. So, from the time I was five months old, I was living in the Aboderin’s compound at Kudeti, Ibadan with my grandmother, Madam Awero Aboderin. So as I grew up, I didn’t even know my mother until my grandmother died in 1944. Then I said this old woman, she wasn’t that old, may not be my mother. It was then that my mother showed up. That was the first time I knew my mother. She used to come regularly to see me but I thought she was my sister. From the time I started school, I bore the name Aboderin. When we wanted to start school, our aunt, Aunty Duntan Adeyemi, nee Aboderin, took all of us from Aboderin’s family to St. David, Kudeti. At school, during registration, they started asking for our names one after the other. When they said what is the name of this, Doja, what about this, Bolanle, what about this Olubunmi, what about this, Lalekan and the person asking for our names just asked, “don’t they have a father?” My aunt replied, “Write Aboderin for all of them”. And all of us became Aboderin. That was how we started school. I was bearing Aboderin until the last term in Government College, that was 1952. This is the reason why some old boys of GCI cannot recognize me as Are but if you say Aboderin, they will say, “Yes, I know him. That was the boy I punished”.
They remember Aboderin, they don’t remember Are because they had gone before my father changed my name. When you see all my certificates, they bear Aboderin. I must tell you that things were not easy from 1944 when my grandmother died. So, I became like an orphan really because since I don’t go to my father’s house, I continued to live at Kudeti and I slept wherever night caught me because the other senior wife to my grandmother inherited the living room and the bedroom of my grandmother, so, there was no place to sleep. I had a mat. I just carried my mat, and any space I see, I slept. It was not until I passed to GCI that I started to have a more ordered life in the sense that I was sure of breakfast, lunch and dinner. Between 1944 and 1947, life was tough. I got admission to GCI in 1948. I can tell you that between 1946 and 1947, there was not one day I ate lunch, not one day. And most days, I didn’t eat dinner. Why? I was going from Kudeti to Iyaganku, Ibadan which was where Government school, now N. A. Central School, was.
The school is still there. The police have messed up the whole thing. In those days, most people could only reach standard four. Standard five, standard six, you have to take entrance like secondary school. Only two schools had standard five and standard six in Ibadanand they were Christ Church, Mapo and the then Government School. So, I took the entrance from Kudeti and passed. Look at Kudeti to that place. I was just four feet, two inches tall, walking like 16 miles every day to and from school-Kudeti to Kings Barracks, Iyaganku. By the time we got home, my uncle’s wives who were supposed to prepare food would not have done so. So, I will sleep without dinner. In 1944, when my grandmother died, it was at the time we had the long holiday before the September school time. That was the first time I worked. I had to pay eight shillings for my school fees. Nobody was there to help me; even the uncle who was supposed to be there wasn’t there. So, there was a man moulding blocks in the area. I went to him and said I wanted to work. He asked, “You small rat?” and I said, “Yes”.
He employed me. He said work starts when you can see the lines on your palm and finishes when you can’t see the lines on your palm. I get there very early and close very late. At the end of the month, I got nine shillings. I took eight shillings and went to pay my school fees. That was how I continued school. I kept only one shilling. If I didn’t work that time, that could have been the end of my education because I had nobody to help me. My mother was far away in Benin because Pa Alabi, who she married, was in Benin. No telephone, nothing. I just decided on my own, let me go and work carrying blocks.
Where was your father at this helpless period of your life?
He was at Oke-Are Ibadan. My father had money but he would not help me because I am a Christian. If I had been a Muslim, he would have sponsored me in school but I didn’t really mind because I survived. Then, when it was time to take entrance exam, my father said that I have to go to Ibadan Grammar School. I didn’t want Ibadan Grammar School. I took the entrance and passed but I didn’t go. I wanted to go to Igbobi College or CMS Grammar School both in Lagos or Government College, Ibadan. I took entrance exams and passed to all three and I was admitted in the schools. I was told that I must reply at a particular date if I want to keep my place. I got that of Igbobi and I was to reply. I got that of grammar school. When I got Igbobi College, I was still waiting for that of Government College. So I said I have to wait. It was like gambling. I waited but it was a good wait. We had 2002 pupils who took the entrance to GCI. I was second and the top four were given federal scholarship. So, that was what made the difference because I will be in the boarding house and will be eating well. If I had gone to Lagos, I would have been a day student, although, I would have stayed with my aunt, Mrs Jadesola Adisa, the mother of Chief Mrs Nike Akande. She was my mother’s younger sister. With the opportunities available, I decided to go to GCI.
You wrote two novels. You were a science student? What motivated you into writing creative works? How do you create time to write?
The time I wrote most was when I was a professor in the university. If you want to be a professor that will have a lot of achievements, you must have money allocated for research. Being a good teacher is one thing but research works takes you to your destination. Because they didn’t give money for research at Njala University College of Sierra Leone, I had so much time that I could write novels. Of course, I wrote agricultural books. It was that time I started to write. If I wasn’t writing then, I would have been doing nothing. Then I had some friends who inspired me. The first was a professor of English, Vincent Ike, who was Registrar, WAEC, Registrar at Nsukka, and Assistant Registrar, Students, UCI, after Adamolekun in those days. He writes very good novels. He encouraged me to write when I told him I wanted to start. He would read the scripts and make suggestions for improvements. Of course, I have written very many text books. The last one was out in 2018.
What do you think is the problem with our education?
Talking about education, things are not like in our time because now, the government is not voting enough money for education and you will be shocked when you go into the school system and see what is happening. I actually have facts and figures because even a governor in Oyo State asked me when I will graduate from GCI. I have been in the executive of Government College Old Boys since 1962 and I am the only person who has occupied all the positions in the sense that I was an assistant secretary, I was secretary and I was the president for 18 years. I graduated to be patron till now. I am a member of the board of trustees. What I am trying to say is that I am very close to the school and see what is happening there. Rashidi Ladoja would have solved the problem. He made each class not to have more than 30 students. Then, the class was teachable. Now the class is no longer teachable. They are too many. Again, they don’t have what we had. We had the library well stocked. So if you are from a poor home, you could go to the library and borrow books. The library is no longer well stocked. The schools are not well funded, they are not well staffed. So, let us get it right. There is no free education anywhere in the world. It is just a political gimmick. In those days when Awolowo started free education, we had education levy.
Everybody paid something to help, whether you have children in school or not. This government is not levying us and they are saying education is free. I don’t see how it can be done right because the schools are not well funded. You also find out that in our time, we combined sports and extracurricular activities. In those days, you function in at least one extracurricular activity like debating society or the other. There are all sorts of things students are doing in addition to reading. Then, what happens, now they say they are reading.
When they read, even though they don’t do as well as in our time, those playing sports will concentrate on sport and will fail in the class. In our time, the best sports people were the best in class. All the people who did very well in games were doing very well in their academics. We finished in GCI in May and by September we were already in the university. When you look at the students who passed in my class, they are all into one sport or the other. For instance, I passed, I was a footballer and, table tennis champion in the school, Olunloyo passed, Olunloyo was a fantastic cricket, he was good in athletics, Oladapo was captain of athletics, a footballer, Ikedionwu was very very good in football, Akin Agboola, goalkeeper and wicketkeeper, footballer, Egbudie, footballer, Dr Oloyede Awosika, outside right, captain of cricket.
All the people who were playing were the ones passing but today, they can’t even play football very well and they are not good in class. It is as if they are specializing. If they want to go into sport, they do it to the neglect of academics, if they are in academics and not into games, they don’t do well like us. In our time, we were in the boarding house. It was a regimented life. You are told this is the time for this and you followed it. As somebody said and observed rightly, our time, we went to two schools. The first school was 8am to 2pm meant to acquire academic knowledge and the second school, 2pm to next morning, is meant to acquire ways of successful living. In other words, in that period, even if you are a small boy, everybody is given some responsibilities. You are trained to manage things. It is the students that do everything. It is the students that will ring the bell to say this lesson has ended, taste the food brought by the contractors to check whether it is of good quality and whether it is enough and so on. I am saying that students of nowadays don’t do all these things. At the time, we had conduct sheets to record our behavior every week. In other words, everybody is being marked for how he behaves. So, you will find that till the next morning, it is the students who are doing one thing or the other. So, from 1979, when the government of Chief Bola Ige cancelled boarding school, the students are now different. You will see a small boy slapping a prefect. In our time, we can’t look at their faces. They were like gods to us. Sincerely, what the children have missed is good character.
If you don’t have good character in Government College, you will be expelled. You must behave. So, in those days when you go from class one, by the time you reach class five, we already know who will be the head of the house and prefects because all the conducts are marked. So before we get to class five, we already know the school prefects, more importantly the senior boy. But, nowadays, even parents pay money to make their children prefects. You see the trouble with our education is enormous. Even the so called teachers, most of them are not dedicated. Some people just come to school sign and disappear. They will show up again on the day they will collect salaries. In those days, the teachers were dedicated. They even helped you after school without collecting money. They volunteer their time and they will not say that if I spend extra, you must pay me, no. They want you to do well. And you see because of the tradition that the people before us did well, we were motivated to do well.
What is your comment on the political situation in the Country?
First of all, I am not a politician but I pay attention to the things that are happening very well. Now, I am not impressed with the opposition because they are telling us that when they were in power, life was better but now under the current administration life is not so good. Why didn’t they tell us that they stole all the money? Now, if you take all the money before you leave, what do you expect your successor to use to do well? Is it not terrible to hear that one person is stealing $20b? If you figure it out, that person will be spending over N1m a day and the money will never finish till the person dies. I have given that extreme example but see all the things being exposed. Is it right for a few people to be stealing all these money? How can the country develop? I don’t buy the argument that we are suffering now. The argument that should have been is that, oh! Yes, we are suffering because you stole all the money. Secondly, it could have been worse because as far as I am concerned, when you look at the situation on ground, you will find out that we were unlucky to have had the previous government. I don’t care what anybody says.
I myself have served in the colonial period. I served during military and civilian eras. Well the problem in this country is that people have made politics business. People are going into politics to make money and not to serve. The only way we can improve is to make all these political positions unattractive. The first thing that should be done as far as I am concerned is to merge the House of Representatives and the Senate together. Why do we need the two if not to waste money and create jobs for the political boys? Secondly, anybody who is elected should be getting only sitting allowance. If you see how much a Senator or legislator gets for daily newspapers, it is much more than your salaries. He is getting newspapers but he doesn’t read it but that is if he buys the newspapers. What I am saying in essence is that we have to make politics unattractive so that whoever goes there knows that he is going to serve people without having the opportunity to steal money. People are making incredible money from the government at the detriment of the development and growth of the nation. As long as the situation remains like this, no way. Again, people are shouting restructuring, restructuring. First,
I don’t understand what some people mean because restructuring means different thing to different people. But like I use to say, if we want to restructure, the first thing is to devolve more power to the states so that the federal does less and gets less money. Let the people who will do the work get the money. Secondly, reduce all the political appointees, aides to the government, special assistants and special advisers. When you have permanent secretaries why do you want advisers and you also have commissioners? Political appointees are too many. For instance, many state governments say they can’t pay N30, 000 minimum wage, it is all a lie.
They can, if they can cut down expenses. For instance, when the governor is going somewhere, see the number of cars that will be in his convoy. Why can’t they just take a bus and everybody ride in one bus? If we are restructuring, no state governor should have more than three aides. When you say you have advisers, it must be special, not that you have ministry of agriculture and you have special adviser on Agric., what is he doing? Nothing. The adviser is supposed to be special to bring about new policies or something to achieve higher height not just like you yourself sits there and you don’t know anything. Of course, it is political patronage. When you want to restructure, the people there themselves will be affected. That is why they will not want to go the whole length. The presidency is so large. There is waste everywhere. If you are to save money from all those things, it is more than enough to pay N30, 000. Government ministries need to be restructured too. I don’t care who is contesting. Most of them are running for themselves. They are not running for our sake. They are not running to improve this country. When you hear what they are even saying, you will be discouraged but I still hope there will be election and I want peace. The only thing is that because their politics is fashioned towards do or die scheme, whoever loses will not want to accept it, which is unfortunate.
With the benefit of hindsight, looking back at life at 85 years, what will you have done differently?
I don’t believe in one thing. You know some people when you interview them and they look back they will start to either regret, or be making apologies, I am not that kind. I would have done all that I did the same way. The first thing is this: you can’t succeed as a good manager or administrator without stepping on toes. You have to be a man of principle but unfortunately many of our people derail. I am not saying I am perfect but there is nothing I have done that I could have done differently. There are people that may have become my enemies because I did the right things. I will not condone people stealing and all sort of things. They must be sanctioned. So, if I caught somebody stealing, he has to go. When such a thing happens our people don’t like you. So, what I tried to do is that people should respect me. They don’t have to like me.
If you want everybody to like you, you are wasting your time, they won’t. So, my principle is to be fair to everybody and I feel that I did exactly that. As I have said there is no way you can go through life without offending people if you are a man of principle because everybody who comes to you has selfish interest and they feel you must do what they want. But my prayer for you and everybody in any position is, please, do not help people to destroy yourself. In other words, it doesn’t matter what position you are, you as the boss, you also have limitations and you are guided by rules and regulations. I can illustrate with a case. Somebody came to me and said, “Lekan, give me a contract so I can build some houses for your organization, i.e. OORBDA”. Since I had not tested him before, I decided to give him a bungalow to build. He built it. Some months later, he went to a common friend and said, “Lekan kii ran yan lowo o”, meaning Lekan doesn’t help friends”. When I was told, I laughed. The person said this is not a laughing matter. I told him I was surprised that he believed the man. There was no photocopier at the time, so I took the file to Ibadan from Abeokuta the next weekend.
He invited the person and asked him, “Did you not say nothing was given to you?” He answered, “What about another person that was given upstairs to build?” I said, “If I had given you upstairs to build, the house would have collapsed”. He may not be able to do the decking. I told him that now that he had done what he was given well, he would now qualify to get another contract. So, the common friend blamed him. In other words, the lesson here is that if we want to help untried hands, give them what you think will not put you in trouble. In other words, even when you want to help, help to the extent of what you think he can do, not what he says he can do because on the long run you are answerable to any fault that comes. That was why I said do not help anybody to destroy yourself. If they will abuse you, let them abuse you at least your integrity will be intact.
Read more here: https://www.thenewsnigeria.com.ng/2019/03/lekan-are-a-fulfilled-man-at-85-how-to-make-nigeria-better/https://www.thenewsnigeria.com.ng/2019/03/lekan-are-a-fulfilled-man-at-85-how-to-make-nigeria-better/