Professor Bola Akinterinwa is a former Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA). He hails from Ile-Oluji in Ondo State and shares his life experiences with SEGUN KASALI in this interview
DID you ever think you would become a professor while growing up?
I never thought of that per se, but I loved education. The teachers we had gave us the training that any person with education is the best in the society. We saw teachers as people with knowledge, people who laid the foundation for societal growth and development. We saw them as people above all. So, from that perspective, I love and have respect for education and I aspired to have that type of education. But to the extent that the love for education would lead me to become a professor, I didn’t think so. But I liked to be a teacher. I love the way I was brought up by my teachers. I looked at my headmaster, my teachers – Mrs Adewakun, Moni, and Mr Oyewale. When you look at all these people in the society, they were not rich. They didn’t have any car. In fact, I would always go to their home to help them carry their books to the school. The inter-Primary school competition we had then motivated me. I and some of my classmates and friends were competitors representing our school. The best seven in the town from all the various schools would go to Ondo. Then, the best of seven would go to Akure.
Then, the best of seven would go to Ibadan. I didn’t go too far. I had a girlfriend at that time, who on the basis of her going to the University education left me. During the secondary school, I was dating her. When I left in 1959, I was working in Idi Araba and then she was in Ife. She entered the University before me. When she started misbehaving, I looked at her that was not how we were relating. So, I tasked myself to prove to the girl that my life would begin where hers stopped. So, I travelled to France. We had this French teacher who also taught us music.
How was the financing of your education?
It wasn’t easy at all. We couldn’t afford to buy all these primary school books. My mother put me in the service of the headmaster of St. Peter’s Primary school in Ile Oluji. He had a bookshop at that time. I would go there on market days to help them sell books and by the time we resumed from holiday, they would give me books. Also, there was a woman called Mama Adesetan, who would give loan in January and recover the loan in December of the same year by hundred percent. Any amount you took, you would pay double at the end of the year. The loan was always given on the basis of trust, as nobody signed anything. I attended St. Joseph’s College, Ondo. The school fee at that time was 21 pounds per term. The 63 pounds covered everything – boarding, food, medicals etc. I had to turn to day student and lived with the principal. The principal noticed I wasn’t coming and I told him that my parents couldn’t pay. So he took me in. When I went to France I was supposed to go to Yaba Technology. I was also admitted into Massachusetts Polytechnic to study Computer Processing Unit. I paid 120 dollars deposit for registration, but by that time when I applied for Visa, the man in charge in Ibadan, Mr. Raymond, requested for many documents which I provided with ease. He requested for different things and I provided them.
How were you able to offset your bills in France?
My sister, Akinyanjuola, gave me money. I had a cousin, Mr Moses Akinterinwa. I think he had about 35 pounds in his account and he was then the UBA branch manager at Idumota. I went with my sister to inform him that I wanted to buy traveler’s cheque. It was 100 pounds, so, Mr Moses Akinterinwa called his secretary and he asked her to give me 20 pounds out of his 35. I had been saving money. I had a friend who introduced me to a relation of his friend, Professor Aje, who was the Director, Nigerian French Language Institute. He was there at the University of Kant in France. So, he was supposed to travel back to France. He introduced me to him and we traveled together and then, he took me to YMTA, assisted me and gave me money. That was how all the sources were put together from here and there.
What were your experiences in France?
French people are generally good. The policies of government may not be. Why do I say that? My success today is partly as a result of the goodness of the French people. They have sympathy. I used to work as a concierge, caretaker of a building, cleaning and taking dustbins out and the Mayor of the house used to be there. He was very young, but I was cleaning his house. But some people would insult me- you didn’t clean this place, you won’t come on time all along, I didn’t like it. We had Rune Kessman, who was the chairman of the estate. He discovered one day that the Television people came to look for me, asking what was wrong. I told him that the son was a classmate and they wanted to take my notes since we were preparing for examinations. And then, the issue was that because of my language proficiency that I was working on. Then, Kressman asked if I was going to school. I said yes. They didn’t believe. I told him the name of the university I was going to and he said enough of that because the school was not for everyone. When I told him I would be defending my PhD thesis in five months, he held a meeting of the co-proprietors of the house, and at the end of the day, they told me that they didn’t want to keep me working there. They helped me. There was nothing they didn’t do but our own Embassy in Nigeria employed me as Embassy Translator. The Embassy was there when I defended my thesis. The moment they discovered I was going to school and I had my wife and two children in one room, they said it was not fair. They apologised to me. The French people do not discriminate the way they do in United Kingdom. A student is a student. They won’t say foreign students should pay a different amount of money.
From whom did you take most of your traits between your parents?
I think it is both. My father had a lot of landed property. He was rich and there was no problem about that. Why he was unable to pay was that a cousin of his, without telling him, used his house as a mortgage to take a loan in Ilesha. He didn’t tell my father. He was into business. So, his business collapsed. The people who were working with him stole a lot from his exports. Now, his father was referred to court by his creditor, who came to my father’s house to seize it. But when the court gave that order, he met my father in front of his house and said they had a court order that everybody should pack out. My father said, “in my own house? Pack out from where?” They said they had one order but my father said he didn’t know about any order. So, what happened was that as they were going in to enforce that, my father had a scuffle between him and those people. My father threw him downstairs from the window. So, they now charged my father for assaulting law enforcement agent and that was 62/63. So, all resources, revenue were diverted to the prosecution of the matter. So, my mother was now left alone to find solution to the funding of my education. But when my father even died, I inherited all those things at the end of the day. I inherited extended Cocoa plantation. I am in charge of the land. I gave four plots to the Police, four plots to immigration, four plots to Civil Defence, four plots to Post Office in the community in Ondo.
How did you get your father’s property back?
When they went to court in Ilesha, they discovered that they have never seen this face before. My father’s relation, who signed the agreement all along, was not even living in our house by the time he came. He used to have a room and a parlour by the time he used the house as a collateral. But by the time the business ran into hitches and there was a court order, he was not living with us. So, when the police came and they asked for the owner of the house and they pointed to my father. That was how they said they wanted to arrest him. When he was taken to the court, they discovered that this identity is not the same thing. They later discovered that they arrested a wrong person and our lawyer had to say yes of course but it is normal for him to have acted the way he did because he knew nothing. He was just a witness. He now said ‘this house belongs to me, I built it.’ It did not belong to his relation. They asked if he knew him and he said “yes.” “But didn’t he tell you that he was using your house?” He said “no.” So, on the basis of attachment of the house that one was removed. But the issue now was that he threw the policeman from the first floor of the building to the ground floor.
Will you say that this informed your uprightness even at the level of the Institute while there as the DG?
Of course, yes. You don’t allow people to give you bad name. I don’t need any pastor to tell me that God will solve the problem. No. You can just imagine in the Institute of International Affairs, Research Fellows will just sit down and make unnecessary allegation and then you stay there. For instance, I wrote a letter to the Accountant General of the Federation to say that “look I am entitled to renewal of furniture.”
It was approved. Before it was approved, I was asked to submit a letter of my first appointment. You can only take furniture allowance once in four years. On the fifth year after the first four years, I applied and it was approved. But in the second term, it was not approved because I had these complaints. People who were complaining wrongly that I stole 300 million naira. And I am saying that it is not possible to steal money you were not given. The mere fact you have money approved on paper without cash backing, you can’t steal it.
Because the Chairman of Governing Council, one Nwachukwu was promoting ethnic chauvinism and at the end of the day, they wanted me to promote people contrary to what the constitution practices. Professorship is not for sale in the market. And the secretary to the federal government said there were allegations against me. They said I should hand over. I told them that I was not handing over because of the allegation but because my tenure has had finally come to an end and I said I was handing over. But if there were allegations against me, what prevents you from investigating and established the extent to which the allegations were valid. This is why I have gone to court to say no and say that they would have put in black and white the allegations. One of them, who even assaulted my wife, has been convicted.
How did you rise to become the DG of NIIA?
You see how I became an embassy translator is very interesting. We used to have Ambassador Yaya, who is a Northerner. He came to hold a meeting with the Nigerian community
What were those things you learnt from your parents?
I learnt integrity from my father. For instance, my father once asked me a question- which one do you think is better- to be stabbed on the chest or to be stabbed in the back. I said that none was better. He now said that if you were stabbed on the chest, it means you are a man. You do not run away and that you must face challenge but when you are running away they stab you in the back and that means you are not my son if you are stabbed in the back. But if you are stabbed on the chest, it means you are doing what God wants and that is why I don’t fear standing for uprightness. I don’t fear challenging societal ills. My mum is over caring. My mother just believes that if you look after your children, you should also look after people and don’t look backward.
So, that human kindness is just what I think my mother stands for. Now, there was an agreement that had just been done at that time on cultural cooperation, educational scientific cooperation between Nigeria and France. There was an argument between the French and English version. One of the embassy’s staff in one way look to say No there is no way I would have been correct.
In fact, we tried to deliberate on what I said with the students. But you see Ambassador Yahyah Mahmoud went to the National Library in France to find out who was correct. He now looked at it then discovered that at the end of the day I was correct. Then, Ambassador Ebenezer Olusanmokun was Head Of Chancery. I think Ambassador Mahmoud now told him to ask him if I wanted to be a translator and I think by that time probably there was a directive from Lagos that they should get Nigerians who can translate rather than allowing a French man. That was why Olusemokun invited me and by that time I was a concierge. Please it is as simple as that. I started as a protocol assistant, assisting then Mr. Seye Davies. Why?
This is because many of the documents whenever they needed in the French system, I know the library, the books since I was there. And at that time too, Nigerian government was working on a publication Nigeria in relation with its neighboring countries and so they sent a group of researchers to come to France. That was how I was brought in in terms of protocol to assist in this translation. My intervention during this process leds us to the basis of how I became the DG, NIIA. This is the beauty of it all. You see when you have Nigerians who are not ethnic chauvinists. Mahmoud Yahyah and one other compatriot asked me to submit my CV.
The secretary told me and I said submit for what? I am a locally recruited staff. I said he wants to report me for what? So, I gave him. Mahmoud Yahyah now called me to say I want you to go back home to Ministry of Foreign Affairs that they need a French background person. I told him that Professor Olajide Aluko wanted me to come to Ife and be a Lecturer. He had actually sent Rafiu Akimwale, who will be coming from Canada passing through Paris that they should interview me and bring me home. I said I want to go and be an academic. He told me if the issue is academic, why not go to NIIA.
It is a research institution. He now said I should please go there and I said okay. He didn’t tell me that he had already sent my papers to foreign ministry or NIIA. But when I said alright, he now sent my papers. This is a Northerner saying we have a fantastic Nigerian scholar here. We must not miss them. When we are talking about unity, we have some Nigerians who are in a position to build a vibrant, very strong united Nigeria. Now, they asked me to go home and I should first of all report to the NIIA.
When I got there, I was in the office of the personnel manager. They now called the NIIA to say Akinterinwa has arrived and he was asked to see them at the NIIA. Professor Gabriel Olusanya then the DG now said is he in Lagos? Please ask him to come in. I went there and they said I should do my NYSC there. They gave me letter the third day I arrived. At the end, they staffed me and that was how I started as a research fellow and I grew up to become a professor. Even though there were different problems, politics in the process, people did not want me to become the DG. But at the long run, I became the DG. That is another story and you will see the story in my Memoir.
How did you meet your wife?
Her Father rented a flat in front of our house in 22, Onasanya Street, Surulere. So, I was there walking in LUTH but she was still in secondary school in Ipetu Ijesha. So, she comes back home during holidays. The father had one Toyota Crowner. I was the one watching the house. I was very dutiful. So, everybody liked me. Her step mother too liked me. And I was teaching everybody in the house French-James brown and so on. You know, I was the one that would come with the latest. In terms of sociability, everybody liked it.
In fact, we were dating but nobody knew we were dating. The first time they would notice was when we took some children to Barbie show. So, by the time we were competing, couples, boyfriends, girlfriends, if you are not dancing well to a particular record, they ask you to move.
I think one record came out two days before that time and they now put it. We had one elderly brother in our place working with EMI, who was always bringing latest records and we had access to that. He was playing it that night and I listened to it. So, what happened was that by the time they have been eliminating different people, they now put this record.
So, by the time I came out and we were going to dance. I did the new style and the camera caught it. They now focused attention on me dancing. I think the father was also at home watching. But by the time we got to the final something that we are winning, we danced to the acceptance, admiration of people and we were announced the winner of the competition. Then we got home and my would-be father-in-law asked are Iyabo and Akin girlfriend and boyfriend? The stepmother knew but the father didn’t know. She now said well they have been playing etc. I was the one watching and doing everything for the whole house.
He said they like themselves and are they going to get married because Akin is going to travel now and I said no problem about that. This sister and the father wanted us to marry all along. So, my sister took my father to go and see her father in December 1973 when I had already travelled to go and formalize everything. So, when I was in my final year of my first degree, I agreed that she could come now because I said I wouldn’t marry until I am in the possession of first degree.
The only regret is that I don’t have parents who can be living to enjoy the fruits of their labour because by now after retirement, this is the time I am getting to take advantage of my experiential knowledge to bear on them. My parents are no more. My parents couldn’t see this kind of house
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