A retired Professor of Microbiology and former Dean of Students at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Olu Odeyemi, speaks with ALEXANDER OKÉRE about the high points of his career and his foray into politics
You attended the popular Ilesa Grammar School, Osun State. How would you describe the years you spent there as a schoolboy?
I used to participate in sports activities and I made a lot of friends. I was adventurer. I can say that I was a bit troublesome.
You left that school for Abeokuta Grammar School in 1965. Why did you leave?
I left to go study more because at that time, after finishing high school, we attended a certificate program to get into a university.
He attended the University of Ibadan where he studied Soil Science. Can you remember your good memories as a student?
At the University of Ibadan, I also made a lot of friends. Initially the idea was to gain knowledge, but as I progressed from the first to the third level, I began to dream of graduating with first class honours.
Did you finally graduate with the first class like you wanted?
I graduated with upper second class degree, with the best result in my department.
How did that make you feel?
I felt that I had achieved what I wanted and thanked God that I was able to graduate with an upper second degree.
My father raised me as a farmer and that inspired me to study Soil Science. But he didn’t know that I studied the course. He was very happy when I graduated as the valedictorian of my department.
You also received professional training at universities in the US, UK, Canada and India. Which of them gave you the hardest or most interesting experience?
I didn’t have a bad time there because I enjoyed the atmosphere. I wanted to get used to it and learn about the culture of the people and their kind of upbringing.
Did you experience any culture shock?
I had considerable difficulties with the food culture of the Indians. In fact, I lost some weight because I couldn’t eat certain delicacies. Indians eat mainly plants.
Racism was prevalent at the time. Did you experience racial discrimination at any time during your stay in those countries?
I experienced racial discrimination in the United States, not seriously in Canada but more so at Cornell University in New York. Sometimes when I would sit on the campus bus taking us from one place to another, the white student sitting next to me would get up and change position because I was black. It also happened in the lab when I did my research; when i installed my experiment some of them (white students) dismantled the experiment. It even happened in church.
What was your experience in Canada?
In Canada, there was racism in the seating arrangements on buses, but I was used to it from experience in the US.
Did you file a complaint with the authorities?
I complained in the US but was told to take it easy. The situation improved a little later.
He was in active service as an academic for several years at Obafemi Awolowo University and served as Dean of the Faculty of Science and also as Dean of Student Affairs. What do you miss most about his career as a teacher and academic administrator?
As dean, he still gave lectures. I miss my interactions with students. I always brought extraneous factors into my teaching to help change Nigeria. Sometimes I just discuss issues in Nigeria to educate my students. I miss not being able to do that.
Did you meet your wife at the University of Ibadan?
No. I met her at the high school where she taught. That was at Ebenezer Primary School, Ijeda in Ilesa (Osun State). She is from Ijebu Ijesa, near Ilesa.
Was she a teacher at school?
She was a student.
As a step?
I saw her in a classroom and she was a perfect fit for the type of woman I wanted. She was very beautiful and intelligent. I feel like I would have been seriously lost if I hadn’t married her because it turned out better than I thought. It would have been a loss if I had married her.
Did you tell her how you felt about her?
Yes, but not immediately. It took me maybe a week or two to tell him.
What did she say?
She was reluctant at the time. I had to visit her.
Did your parents accept your proposal right away?
Did you attend a university?
Yes. He studied Accounting.
You are a fervent believer in hard work and discipline. Are these virtues the ones you learned from your parents as a child?
I learned them from my parents and some of my teachers. My father was a merchant and farmer. He was extremely hardworking. My mother was also a shopkeeper and she was also a very hard worker. She was also religious. They were strict parents.
Also, I had an older brother who I looked up to in my career and who helped me in life. He was my mentor. He was an academic. He was Professor of Chemistry at the University of Lagos and rose to become Assistant Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos. He was like a standard to me. He was my confidant; I went to him every time he had a challenge.
In a recent interview, he said that he would have been a little more careful to avoid an illness like a stroke. What did you mean exactly?
What I meant to say is that I believe in hard work and I dedicate myself to it. I used to work day and night. So when I had the stroke, some of the doctors told me that hard work and lack of rest were partly responsible for the stroke.
Did you get the kind of support you expected from family and friends?
Yes. My friends, especially my high school and college classmates, came and supported me.
Did you have a different outlook on life when you were down with the stroke?
I still believe in hard work. If I make a full recovery today, I’ll keep working. What can be achieved without hard work, especially with the situation in the country? Nothing.
You had an interest in politics. Are you still active in politics or have you retired?
I am not active I have not retired but it is very difficult to be a politician in Nigeria.
Some successful politicians will disagree with you. What makes it difficult for you?
It’s because people like us, who tell the truth and do things the way they should be done without manipulating the facts, are not liked. So it’s hard to succeed in the political arena with that kind of character trait.
Does that mean that honest or truthful people cannot survive in politics in Nigeria?
I will not say that absolutely because we have seen honest people. Politics is difficult for honest people because many Nigerians are not truthful or honest enough.
Did you contest any elections? Perhaps the 2007 gubernatorial election in Osun State?
I didn’t really compete. I only belonged to a quiz match. I wasn’t really a candidate.
Did you participate in the primaries?
They advised me to retire.
Why were you advised to retire?
I was advised to retire that year because I was told the governor would be personally elected, and in fact he was personally elected.
What party did you belong to at that time?
It was the Action Alliance, which was a party established by Chief Rochas Okorocha.
The Alliance in Action lost that election. Did you feel like you should have had a chance to prove your popularity?
In fact, I did not have the financial backing and that discouraged me from continuing to participate in active politics.
Why didn’t you join the major political parties and try other areas of politics?
He did not want to go through the horrors of politics.
He also applied for the highest position at Osun State University in 2013, an aspiration that many university professors tried to achieve. Was he disappointed that he didn’t get the job?
Did you find the process for appointing a VC to the school transparent?
I dont know.
Candidates were shortlisted and some were discarded. Were you told why your application was not pursued?
No. I didn’t hear from them. I was chancellor for eight years, so I thought that should qualify me to be a good vice chancellor, but they didn’t think so.
Service in public office sometimes comes with a lot of pressure to comply with the orders of corrupt people…
Yes, I am aware of that.
Have you ever had to compromise as a public servant?
I will never compromise.
Were you under pressure to compromise as an administrator?
Yes, I was.
How did you handle it?
I went straight to the truth. I do not regret not having been part of it as rector or dean. Maybe people took that against me; I dont know.
Did you receive threatening messages from people because of certain decisions you made?
Yes, I do.
Can you talk about them?
I faced threats when I was rector at the Osun State College of Technology.
People came to me to admit students who were not qualified and I refused. In some cases, people came to me when we fired students who entered the school with false results. They threatened me but I stood my ground.
Did they harm you in any way?
No, they didn’t hurt me.
What is your assessment of the regime of the president, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retired), over the past eight years?
He is in a very difficult situation because this country is very difficult to govern. There are so many problems. There is no honesty, no transparency, no truth, so you face very difficult challenges, particularly security challenges. In fact, most of the time, I pity him.
Some of your critics believe you didn’t keep all the promises you made in 2015. Do you agree with that?
No, I don’t agree with that.
Politicians are campaigning and soliciting votes from the electorate, with each candidate claiming to be the best person to solve the plethora of problems facing the country. What kind of leader do Nigerians need now?
Nigerians need a leader who is honest, hard-working, transparent and ready to solve the nation’s problems, including poor electricity supply. That is what we must take care of.
Do any of the presidential candidates possess those qualities?
Well, the person I think has something like that is probably Senator (Ball) Tinubu from his background. Somehow, he knows how to pick the good people out of the crowd and get them to do the right thing. That is the area in which he has influenced the country.
Some of his critics accuse him of corruptly controlling Lagos, having been instrumental in the rise of his successors.
Yes, in that sense, Lagos is doing well. It is not ideal for one person to decide the future of others, but nevertheless, we have to gather intellectuals, people with the knowledge to run the country for the better.
There is a higher level of political awareness among young people, ahead of the general elections. Do you think Nigerian voters are more prepared to participate in elections than they have been in the last 23 years?
I cannot say it, but I know that there is a lot of information circulating about the elections, about the collection of Permanent Voter Cards. I think we can have a greater turnout (at the polls).