In this interview, Professor Ladipo Adamolekun, who was born in 1942, spoke on his passion for education, why the Nigerian government should take the sector seriously, why political parties should stop fielding ex-military men as presidential candidates, among other issues.
How would you describe your family background?
My father was a farmer and my mother, a trader. My father had three wives and my mother was the youngest. I was the firstborn of my mother. My father had 19 children. From my mother, I have three other siblings—two women and one gentleman, Dr Wole Adamolekun, who is also the baby of the entire family. He is an associate professor at Elizade University.
While growing up, there were three things —the centrality of the Church, farming and importance of education. My father got converted to Christian religion and he took it with passion and seriousness. His father had a name, Famutimi, which means that Ifa (one of the gods Yoruba people worship) has given me this child. Athough my father became a passionate Christian, he never tried to change Ifamutimi to Oluwamutimi, the way they are doing now. Those things are really superficial. It is the Christianity in you that matters. If you show Christ in your behaviour you are a true Christian. My father was one. My father took religion seriously. You could not be in my father’s house and miss morning and evening prayers every day, seven days a week. Number two, you must go to church on Sunday every week of the year. If you are under his roof there was no way you would miss that.
The Church was central in my upbringing. I joined the choir and took part in all the youth activities, unlike what they do these days, including vigil and all the noisemaking. Then, it was solemn singing from the hymn book, and of course, the importance of the sermon because when you got to my father he would ask you what you learnt from the sermon of the day. The Church was central to our lives and I maintained that to my secondary school years at Oyemekun Grammar School and Christ School. By the time I got to the university, it was another story.
My father was also a farmer; and again, there was no running away from going to the farm. I did not like farming but the fruit of the farm was used to pay our fees, so I must go to the farm.
When I went to secondary school and came back in my first year, I went to the farm on khaki shorts, which we called agric uniform. When my father saw me neatly dressed in the uniform he asked if I was there to work. I won’t tell you the rest of the story. However, I went ahead to work on the farm.
The third thing that was important in my growing up was education. I paid attention to what my father did, some of which have stayed with me up till today. For example, he had a table in one of the living rooms where he would go to after dinner and spend like an hour or 90 minutes studying. We grew up with that kind of structure and behaviour. The structure promoted love for education. It was backed up with what I call a library in the attic. My father would put a large box in the attic of our house, in which we collected books from the older ones. The younger ones were encouraged to go there and see which book was relevant to their level. I call it library in the attic to let you know how that got into me. I decided to have a library of my own, which is Oladipo Adamolekun Public Affairs Library, which was officially opened in January 2006. Secondary school students and undergraduate student go there to read. The library is in my hometown in Iju. It is one of the largest private libraries in the South West, if not one of the largest in the federation. The total number of books in the library is close to 8,000. I have given out over 4,000 to the Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba, Faculty of Administration in the Obafemi
Awolowo University, Ile Ife, where I was dean at some stage in my life, and to the university library, especially the books I brought from the United Nations and the World Bank.
Were you among the best students during your primary and secondary school days?
Oh no. The firstborn of my dad, Chief M. K Adamolekun, who was 23 years older than me, was the first Nigerian registrar of the University of Ibadan. By the time my father died, there were about eight graduates among his children.
My father did education, farming and Christianity with passion. He was an evangelist for education in the community, so at the time of his death our community would be one of the largest concentrations of educated citizens in the entire country. In our community, they followed his example by sending their children to school.
In Iju community, my brother was the first graduate. Before you were sent overseas your parents must have done the basic work. By the time it was my turn, my father was still alive and I got a scholarship to go to Oxford. I got a federal government scholarship to go to Ibadan, spent one year with their scholarship and got a university scholarship for the remaining three years. The point I am trying to make is that he gave the example.
How brilliant were you in school?
My mother played the role there. I was doing well, but when she heard that I was second or third, she said I should be first, so she got me a teacher to do extra lessons.
Obedience to one’s father and mother was total at the time. It was also my mother that wrote me a letter and told me to stop political activities in school and face my education. In my final year, my mother’s advice came in and I reduced other activities. I made a first class in French in Ibadan.
Was it part of your dream to become a professor when you were in secondary school?
I will start with my father’s dream for me. In the adjacent community, Itaogbolu, to Iju, they had a kind of joint Christian celebration activities. I would follow my father two to three kilometres away. One day, we were coming back and he said he wanted me to go to Oyo. Saint Andrew College Oyo had high reputation in Yoruba land in those days because they produced top rated teachers. That was my father’s vision for me.
In secondary school I did very well, I had the best result in class four going to five and I was made the senior prefect. In those days, it was the best student they made head boy. That was when I was in Oyemekun Grammar School.
But it wasn’t until I went to Christ School later that I started seriously thinking of going to Cambridge University. I went to Christ School for Higher School Certificate, which was to prepare me for the university. My dream was to go to Cambridge and read Law.
Here was the son of a farmer from Iju dreaming of going to Cambridge to read Law, but as I applied for university admission, I realised that there was not going to be any money to go to Cambridge, and there would be no scholarship. I would have to seek scholarship to go to a Nigerian university.
My second choice after Cambridge was University of Legon, Ghana, to also read Law. Ibadan didn’t have law. Can you imagine that Ibadan was my third choice. As a curious person by nature, I believed that Ibadan would admit me, so I went there. Ibadan was the first and the best university. They still have this debate today, but I won’t try and engage in it.
That was the way I handled it. I got a federal government scholarship after my first year; and you were free to study any course you liked. It was attached to History, which was one of my principal subjects.
Among Latin, Geography and History, I decided to keep History and pick up French and Politics. Remember I said that but for my mother, politics was of interest to me, so I picked it. l learnt that if you studied French you could travel freely to do one year abroad. I knew there was no way my father could ever pay for an air ticket and I wanted to travel, so I had to study French.
Nigeria was functioning then. The country worked in my time. First year in the university, I had the best result in the French class, and about 20 of us who had the best results were sent to go and learn more. It was based on merit. One of my teachers in Politics knew I wanted to major in Public Administration and he said I should apply to Standford, Chicago; he paid for the forms.
I studied French and wanted to do a PhD in politics. Later, I went to Ife because the school was recruiting best young graduates as assistant lecturers. I was recruited. I finished my exam in May and it was out in June. The Institute of Administration in Ife invited me for interview and I became a junior research fellow, assistant lecturer in July 1, 1968, the very year I graduated.
You wanted to read Law, why did you drop the ambition?
Like I said, nobody was to finance me to Cambridge, and Ibadan did not have Law. I did not pay attention to other universities. In our days, the university you went to mattered; they would ask where you studied. Till today, I still ask that question because I went to Oxford. When you mentioned some institutions they would listen to you.
How did you get to the World Bank?
When the United Nations asked me to apply for a job, it didn’t pass through any government to nominate who they wanted. They saw my writing and contacted me directly, saying they had a vacancy that might be of interest to me. I didn’t have to seek anybody’s permission. I needed only the approval of the vice chancellor to go. I told the vice chancellor that I would resign and reapply to Ife and other universities on my return.
What do you think of the ongoing strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU)?
One of the things I said during press and public interaction was the neglect of education. In fact, in my community, I tell people to excuse me from certain things, but when it comes to education, I am passionate about it. Anything relating to education in the community to which I can contribute, I am available because this is very important.
I was talking of Akungba and Ife getting many of the books from my library. I must have visited all the secondary schools in Iju at least two times in the last decade. When I talk to the Ondo State Government in the area of education, especially about schools in my community, they listen. I think my passion for education is what I still live with today.
In 2005 you received the Nigerian National Order of Merit Award (NNOM). Till today, you are the only Nigerian with that award in your field of study. How did this happen?
It was established in 1979, and the three of us who were awarded at the same time were numbers 41, 42 and 43. I got the award in December 2005. As at the time we won it, only 43 Nigerians had it since it was established in 1979. That is one area of recognition in this country that has not been bastardised.
In 1984 or 1985, I was invited to serve in the committee that advised those who were awarding the NNOM. I attended four meetings before I went to the World Bank in January 1987. During the time of my involvement, I discovered, to my admiration, the thoroughness, rigour and quality of this award. I was also involved in processing the award for three Nigerians. They are Professor B. O Osuntokun, Professor J. F. Ade-Ajayi and Justice Akin Aguda. I saw how their papers were processed.
By the time I was going to the World Bank I had it in mind that it was an award I would like to win. When I got to the World Bank, it was through a process like that of the United Nations. Two directors and one division chief from the Economy and Development Institute of the World Bank came to Nigeria and decided to visit me in Ife. They told me that they had a vacancy and they wanted me to recommend somebody. I asked them the profile of such person. After they left, I recommended a Tanzanian, who I met in one of my seminars. I thought he was close to what they wanted.
At that time, merit was also at the pan-Africa level, just as it was in Nigeria. I didn’t find somebody in Nigeria at that time, so I didn’t find it difficult to recommend a Tanzanian. Some months later, we met at a workshop to which they invited me, and the directors, after dinner, called and said the man I recommended did not fit into the position. They, therefore, asked me. I told them that I used the specification they gave to me to search for the man. I said that
some of my junior colleagues and students were working in the World Bank and I knew their levels. Some of my academic colleagues that we usually met at international conference were also in the banks, so if what they wanted me to apply for was that kind of position, I may be available. However, my country had informed me that I would be recommended to become the director-general of the CAVA.
I told the World Bank that I would be available if for any reason that position would not happen again. At that time, the Nigeria government, through the Office of the Head of Service, had contacted, saying that Nigeria was going to sponsor me, but unfortunately, in August that year, they informed me that they had postponed appointing a director- general; and I was ready. So I just contacted the World Bank and there was no reply. But few months later, I got a telex message from them, inviting me for interview. That was how I got to the place and spent almost 20 years in the bank.
To digress, my NNOM, as you can see in my autobiography, was an intellectual accomplishment I value very well. There was no other person in my discipline because of the rigour I told you.
Can you recollect your sad moment?
Even Jesus Christ wept. When you weep, it is because you are feeling some pains. I have also wept twice, one for my seven-year-old daughter who had congenital disease. We took her to the hospital in Oxford and they carried out a surgery, but they later told us that the thing later corrected itself. We were very glad. However, she passed on. It wasn’t a regret because I didn’t cause it, but I cried. The second sadness was my first wife, who established the Kaleyewa House. You must have read it in the media. She was coming to Nigeria to launch it and was killed. This was between 11am and 12noon. She was killed in Ibadan on May 4, 2002. These are two sad moments in my life.
Do you have any regret at 80?
When I see people saying they don’t have regrets, I don’t understand. I have very few, but the only one I recorded in my autobiography is that I wanted to establish a bilingual school of management and public administration because I speak French as I speak English, very fluently. I wanted to locate it in Port Novo, Benin Republic. That is to tell you the pan-African dimension of my generation. At that time, we were not limited in our thoughts. I got a plot where I would have my private building, so that whenever I was disengaged from the institution I would still stay on campus or in the town. The school was to have a building for staff. But when I realised that I was going to raise a lot of money to get it done, I was discouraged. To me, world class was natural. The University of Ibadan was world class when I went there. Oxford is also world class till today, and it has been like that, year after year.
I went to Oxford in 2019 to mark my 50th year of going up there. We called it going up in 1969 when I matriculated. And I am going back in September this year, which will make it 50 years after I obtained a Doctor of Philosophy. We don’t call it PhD in Oxford, we call it by its name, unlike Cambridge, which calls it PhD. Cambridge seems to be influential on other universities, but we in Oxford appear to be special. If other universities wish to imitate us, we don’t mind; they are welcome.
I was worried about how to raise money because fund raising is not my strength. At that time, two Indian nationalities wanted to establish a school of management in their country and I read that they raised about four million dollars, then I said if what world class meant to me was what it meant to them, then I had to raise two to four million dollars because there’s no way I would do something that is not world class.
The concept paper to establish the school, the projection of admission and graduation for the first four years, are provided as appendix in my autobiography. That is a regret because if I had been able to do that, I would have had a pan-African influence, and if you like, world influence, because I would have been relating to people from another region.
At what stage in life did you meet your wife?
When I was an undergraduate and getting close to my final year, I said I would like to get married before clocking 30; and I got married at 29. I had my traditional marriage in 1970, but the church wedding, which my late wife insisted on and we agreed, was in 1971. We had our first child in 1972 when I was 30.
Can you compare Nigeria of your days to what we have today?
The title of my monograph is: Getting politics right to make Nigeria work. I told you that Nigeria worked in my time. The country was functioning very well. At that time, somebody from no background could rise through all the experiences I narrated to you. There were educational excellence, meritocracy and strong institutions. I have a fond memory of the three things I mentioned, which characterised the Nigeria of my time.
Our judges helped to establish the justice system in East Africa. Justice Akin Aguda, who won the NNOM in 1984/1985, was the first African chief justice in Botswana. He presided over the Africanisation of the judiciary in Botswana.
Our judiciary was so strong that it was assisting other countries. The University of Ibadan, when I was there, was having students from Cameroon, Uganda, even from The Gambia. If they come now, with the six months of ASUU strike, won’t they go back to their countries?
If at 80 I say that Nigeria is no more working, the question is: What are the things to be done? As an octogenarian, if Nigeria is no more working, I should be able to contribute to some of the reflections that can make the country work again. In my monograph, there are bold answers to what we can do to make it work again.
In your monograph you stated that political parties should agree not to give their presidential tickets to ex-military men, why?
It is based on the strong evidence we have. A former military ruler who becomes a civilian president cannot be a true democrat. This is because the military culture is undemocratic. In 1999, Obasanjo came and said he knew how to make Nigeria move forward, but after eight years, instead of us to move forward we were moving backwards. This is another military man who is spending his eight years, and we can all see. Their military culture is primary, so you cannot blame them. My academic culture is primary to me too. When I worked in the World Bank, I gave a report during my first decade and a senior personnel said it was too academic. That was because I am fundamentally an academic, so when I said their military culture was primary to them, I was not abusing them. A former military ruler can never become a democrat, it is not possible. A civilianised Nigerian leader can never be a true democrat.
Interestingly, today, at least none of the major political parties is presenting a former military man as presidential candidate for the 2023 elections. However, there are former military leaders as gubernatorial candidates in some states. I hope that would be the last time.