– The following is one of the last interviews granted by the late ex Nigerian envoy to Greece and Australia, a former Secretary to Ondo State Government, ex Deputy Vice Chancellor of Ondo State University, a Peoples Democratic Party’s chieftain and until his death on Wednesday the Asiwaju of Akure:
How would you describe your early years?
I was born on May 2, 1945, to the family of Mr. Joseph and Mrs. Elizabeth Agbi in Akure. I went to L.A Primary School, Akure for my primary education in 1951, and by December 1957, I completed my primary school education.
I later proceeded to the L.A Modern School in 1958 for my secondary school education and I was there for about three years before I went to the Government Teachers Training College, Ilesa for Grade Two Teachers’ Certificate and I was there for another three years.
In 1965, I taught briefly at the L.A Primary School, Akure and in 1966, I was transferred to the Community Primary School, Iju, Akure North Local Government Area of Ondo State, where I was until I gained admission to the University of Ibadan in September 1967 to study history.
On June 1970, I graduated with Second Class Upper Division and the Federal Government gave me a scholarship to study for my post-graduate degree in the University of Ibadan. However, when I went back to the school, I realised that the kind of specialisation I wanted was not being taught. I wanted to specialise in Diplomatic History, which was also regarded as International History. So, I had to get another scholarship to travel abroad.
I eventually got both the Commonwealth and the Western Nigerian Government Scholarship to go to Birmingham in the United Kingdom and upon my arrival, I eventually opted for the Western Nigerian Government scholarship because it was more attractive than the commonwealth scholarship in the sense that it allowed the recipient’s wife and children to get some allowances which the Commonwealth scholarship did not offer.
I was in School of Modern History in Birmingham for four years before I returned to Nigeria in September 1976 to join the Department of History in the University of Ibadan where I later rose to the position of a senior lecturer from 1976 to 1979. From the University of Ibadan, I moved to Ondo State University, now Ekiti State University, where I became a professor, head of the History department and later the Deputy Vice-Chancellor.
Why did you choose to study History?
I remember when I was in the primary school, my teacher used to instruct us to write an essay on what we hoped to be in future. My choice then was to be a medical doctor but I could not fulfil that dream because I could not attend secondary school. When I was in primary six, my father died but before his death, he insisted that I attend Christ School, Ado Ekiti. Sadly, by the time the entrance examination result of Christ School was released, he had died, so I lost hope of attending the school.
That was why I had to attend the modern school instead and so the idea of studying Medicine was gone. I had to choose from either the art or social science class. In fact, I also wanted to study Law and even got an admission to the University of Lagos to read Law but my mother said if I read Law, she would die because we had a family friend who was a lawyer but died mysteriously in the court while he was cross-examining someone over a land tussle. At that time, her belief was that lawyers died mysteriously and she didn’t want me to die at a young age. That was why I went for History instead of law.
As at the time you got the scholarship from the Western Nigerian Government, were you married?
No, I wasn’t married, but I got married in Birmingham because of that allowance. I didn’t want to lose that allowance. Of course, I had a girlfriend in Nigeria already and I had told her that when I got to Birmingham, we would get married. She came to join me at Birmingham where we eventually got married.
How did you meet your wife?
I was a student at the University of Ibadan while she was a secondary school student at the Fiwasaye Girls Secondary School, Akure. She was at the University of Ibadan to visit someone who happened to be my cousin, Alex Adedipe. During her visit, they were engaged in a discussion and I noticed how she was contributing brilliantly, so I told my cousin that I liked her mostly because of her brilliance. My cousin introduced us and that was how we became friends before she went back to her school.
When I graduated from the university, I got a teaching job at Oyemekun Grammar School, Akure, but by that time, my wife had finished secondary school education and had moved to Aquinas College for her Higher School Certificate, so we were able to continue the relationship and it was during that time that I traveled to England. She later came over there to join me and we got married and after I finished my studies in England, we came back together to Nigeria.
How would you describe growing up in Akure back then?
It was very interesting, at least from my own perspective. I grew up at Igboyegun but we later moved to Imuagun when my father died. In those days, a lot of my friends would pay me a visit and from my house, we would go to the L.A school field to play football. In the evening, my mother would insist that I hawk kerosene, so I would put it on my head. My friend sold matches as well so both of us would go out together to hawk and when it was about 7 pm, we would return home because people slept early. If you were still outside by 7 pm, your mother would be worried about you. We also ate dinner by 7 pm with our parents and siblings. After dinner, our parents told us tales to pass time.
Why did you leave the academics for politics?
I didn’t leave the academics consciously; in fact, I was already a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the Ondo State University, before I ventured into politics. What actually happened was that a senior colleague of mine in the teachers training college, Chief Adekunle Ajasin, wanted to be the governor of the old Ondo State, so he came to inform me about his ambition. I knew he was capable because he was a very brilliant man, so I agreed to support him and he made me the director-general of his campaign group. When he won the election, he invited me to be the Secretary to his government but I rejected his offer. I told him I just wanted to become the Vice-Chancellor of the institution. There was a day I went to beg him to make me the Vice-Chancellor but he laughed and said whether I liked it or not, we would go to Akure together because I worked tirelessly to ensure he became the state governor. That was how I was introduced to active politics.
However, before then I had been participating in an advisory capacity. When Pa Ajasin was being challenged by late Chief Omoboriowo, I felt the challenge was not good enough and quite disrespectful. I thought that challenge was not necessary, the challenge was too daring and I said to a few of my friends from the University of Ibadan that we must go back home to help Baba Ajasin fight Omoboriowo. That was the first time we brought computers to Akure to monitor the election from unit to unit, ward to ward and local government to local government. It was based on my report that Baba Ajasin was declared the elected winner in the courts in 1983. Immediately we finished, we all went back to University of Ibadan. We didn’t ask for any political appointment.
The 1983 election was described as a bloody one and it was reported that many people were killed. Were you not scared for your life?
I was scared; I didn’t expect such a thing to happen and while the violence was going on, my friends and I were trying to go back to Ibadan because we didn’t want to be involved in the crisis. Of course, we were not politicians but the whole South-West was engulfed in the crisis, some of us went to Ibadan through Benin-Ore -Ijebu Ode road to get to Ibadan, which is a very long journey but luckily, I was able to travel through the normal Ife Road and nothing happened to me on the way.
But were you not discouraged to join active politics later, with your experience in 1983?
No, I was not discouraged. The politics of 1983 was quite different; far from what we experienced when I joined actively and I believe such would never happen in this state again.
From 1999 to date, how active are you politically?
Since 1999, I have been actively involved in the politics of Ondo State. In 1999, my cousin, Chief Olu Falae, wanted to be the President of Nigeria and I gave him my full support. Unfortunately, he did not make it but we had set up a group in 1994 where we planned to put Ondo State in the mainstream of Nigerian politics. We believed that Ondo State should not be in the opposition. Even when Chief Falae lost the election, although we were sad about it, our group, which we formed in 1994 did not go along with Chief Falae; instead they went to the Peoples Democratic Party.
When the late Segun Agagu contested as governor, I told him he would lose because everybody in the former western region then supported the Alliance for Democracy. Agagu lost that election. Because I thought we should be part of the national administration, I left the AD for the PDP to join my friends with whom we formed the 1994 group. I was happy that we found ourselves in the mainstream because Agagu was later made the minister and many of our colleagues were given federal appointments. I was appointed Chairman, Governing Council at Idah Federal Polytechnic and member of the Governing Council of the Federal University of Technology, Akure and since then, I have moved up politically. Later in the following administration, I was appointed as Nigeria’s Ambassador to Greece and the next administration after that I was made Nigeria’s High Commissioner to Australia.
When you were in Greece and Australia for your diplomatic assignments, how did you find the two countries?
Greece was interesting. The people there were also very interesting and friendly and I enjoyed my stay there. I did the best I could do for the country. First, I ensured Greece became interested in Nigeria. We set up a Nigeria and Greece Business Council and that Council is now flourishing in Greece and in Nigeria. Of course, the Greeks have been in Nigeria since the early 1960s through Coca-Cola and so on but now, more Greeks are doing businesses in Nigeria. It is not just only Coca-Cola any more. Australia is very far from Nigeria, it takes someone a whole day to get to Australia and the business community in Australia sees Nigeria as a very far country, the businessmen there hardly knew anything about Nigeria. What I did was to educate the business community about Nigeria. I gave lectures and invariably, they agreed that we should set up Nigeria/Australia Business Council but unfortunately, not many Australian businessmen were willing to come to Nigeria because of the distance.
Did you miss home at any point when you were in these countries for eight years?
Of course, one would miss home if you were away for eight years. But for me, I visited home especially during Christmas.
Are you enjoying retirement?
Life after retirement is very nice and interesting. When you retire, you might have health challenges because the more you grow old, the easier for the minor ailments to attack you, I have gone through that phase. I have had to travel to Germany for my medical treatment and I was there for several months. So one of the challenges of the retirees in Nigeria is the fact that the government does not take care of the elderly; if you fall sick, you are on your own. If you don’t have enough resources to take care of yourself, you will die but in Europe and other countries, it is not so, people could be taken to old people’s home, where the government will take care of them. They have value for life there but in Nigeria, the reverse is the case.
If you look around, you will see that retirees are dying and the reason for this untimely death is that they don’t have resources to take care of themselves after retirement. In retirement, it is you and your wife because the children are gone. If your children are living in the United States and you are sick in Nigeria without the means to take you to the U.S for treatment, you will die. So in retirement, you have to be extremely careful, you need to have some managerial ability to spend the little resources you have and it should be at the back of your mind that you will have these minor ailments, you have to prepare against it.
The PDP is no more in power, what is your perception of the present administration in the country?
My own personal view about the party in power now is that when President Muhammadu Buhari got to power, many of us, even in the PDP believed in the change mantra. We believed he could do something to ameliorate corruption in Nigeria because corruption has almost finished Nigeria, and that is the truth.
But your party is being alleged to have allowed the corruption to get to this level?
You see, corruption in Nigeria is not about party issue, it is a systemic problem. I just told you now that governments at all levels do not care about retired people. People might decide to steal money to take care of themselves and their children in future when they have left office. That is a systemic problem, it has nothing to do with PDP, APC or any other party and once this systemic problem is solved, then to find anybody stealing will be very difficult because nobody in his right sense will be amassing N2bn or N10bn or more, it is madness as far as I’m concerned.
But again when you look far into the future and you see that once you leave, the government will desert you and even your pension and gratuity will not be paid, how will you survive?. Do they want you to go and set up a company at 70 or to apply for a job at that age? That is why you see that many civil servants are corrupt, and perhaps the most corrupt set of people because they do not belong to any political party. Those of them that did not steal money will have no money to take care of their health after retirement, they will just die and those who were able to steal money while in service will have money to travel out of the country to take care of their health because we don’t have a sound medical care system in Nigeria where you can get adequate treatment.
When the President was sick, he had to be flown abroad for medical treatment. Have you ever heard the British Prime Minister being brought to Nigeria for treatment? Why can’t we think? We have the resources to make this country great. Where I go for my own personal treatment in Germany, the hospital is just one of the hospitals like that in Berlin. The hospital is built on a very large expanse of land with all specialisation. Go to Dubai and you would be happy you have gone to a good hospital. There is a place called a compact hospital village in Dubai and they treat all manners of ailments. But here in Nigeria, there is no hospital you go to that you will get adequate treatment. For instance, the young ones are now dying of kidney failure in this country because there is no money to treat them. Some of them will say they want to go to India. Though India is good, it is not as good as some European countries. Although treatment is cheaper there, in the process, people also die there. So once you are able to make our system work, corruption will be over.
Do you see PDP coming back to power in 2019?
Well, it is not up to the PDP but the people of this country that have constituted themselves as the opposition to the present Buhari administration because their expectations have been dashed. Their hope has been dashed and so they have switched to the PDP again to see whether the PDP will be able to provide a better alternative and also the PDP must have learnt a bitter lesson in a way. The party was in government for 16 years before they were ousted from government, they did not know that Buhari could win.
But even now if you compare the APC and the PDP administrations, people say they were happier under Jonathan’s government, when a bag of rice was only N6,000, N7,000 and now it is almost N20,000. So people cannot feed, that is why you see many people committing suicide under this present administration. Many state governments are owing workers months of salaries in arrears. That is why we should look for ways to tackle our systemic problem. This government said it wants to tackle corruption, since Buhari came on board, how many people have been sent to jail over allegations of corrupt practices. The EFCC only tries suspects on pages of the newspapers and that is all. Is that the way to fight corruption?
What are your hobbies?
For now, politics is my hobby. How Nigeria would be better is the utmost thing in my mind, I don’t have time for any other hobby. I am so busy politicking now, I can’t go to the field again to go and play football. My children have advised me against taking long walks for fear of being kidnapped.
What is your favourite meal?
As a typical Akure man, pounded yam is my favourite food.
How often were you able to eat pounded yam when you were serving in Greece and Australia?
Though there was no pounded yam, we had something similar. In Greece, we had poundo yam which is made from yam but it is not like the original pounded yam which you pound in a mortar and pestle. We also had some Nigerians who brought foodstuffs from Nigeria to Greece, so we bought from them.
Looking back all these past years, do you have any regret?
Not really, but the only regret I could have had is that if my father had not died when he died, I would have attended Christ School because he was very much committed to that but death did not allow him to achieve his dream. Apart from that, I don’t have any regret, I grew up as a cheerful child in a peaceful environment and my mother was up to the task. She took adequate care of all of us.
Can you share the happiest moment in life so far?
You know I went to the University of Birmingham for my Ph.D., my professor told me I would be appearing on a certain date to face the panel. After three hours of drilling and interviewing, I was called in by the chairman of that panel and he called me, Dr. Olu Agbi. Few hours before that time, I was referred to as mister but there I was referred to as a doctor. In fact, I regard that as my happiest moment because to do and succeed PhD in Birmingham within just three and a half years, it is not easy. I know those who were on it for over seven years but my own case was different, it was a very joyful moment for me.
Why was it so rigorous to do Ph.D in Birmingham?
It was because they wanted a better standard, not the kind of Ph.D we have all around now.
What are those things you did as a youth that you wished to continue doing but for one reason or the other, you could not?
Honestly, when you grow up, there are many things you have to discontinue. For instance, attending events and parties has to be reduced as you can’t be going out like that. You have to look for friends in your vicinity, who you can discuss national and international issues with. But in those days, I could leave the University of Ibadan for the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, to attend seminars but it is not easy now. So many things would come to your mind; the fears of kidnappers are there, armed robbers and so on.
In the long run, you would prefer to be indoors instead of exposing yourselves always. Also travelling abroad was a pleasure for me in those days and I have travelled to so many countries in this world but for me now, even to travel abroad for my medical treatment, I sometimes find it difficult. At times, it is my wife that will be putting pressure on me to go, because I don’t like travelling by air again. That is one of those things old age has taken away from me.
Do you still get in touch with your friends and colleagues?
Yes, I still keep in touch with many of my friends on the telephone. The likes of Biodun Shotumbi, former General Manager of N.T.A, Prof. Tunde Adeniran, former Minister for Education, Biodun Keyede, he was a director in the Ministry of Power and Steel, Bayo Yussuf, he was a manager in the IITA and many others. In those days, we used to go to the Ibadan Recreation Club to play billiard and we had a lot of fun but that can’t happen again now.
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