A retired professor of Microbiology and ex-Dean of Students at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Olu Odeyemi, speaks to ALEXANDER OKERE about the high points of his career and his foray into politics
You attended the popular Ilesa Grammar School, Osun State. How will you describe the years you spent there as a schoolboy?
I used to take part in sporting activities and I made a lot of friends. I was adventurous. I can say I was a bit troublesome.
You left that school for Abeokuta Grammar School in 1965. Why did you leave?
I left to go and study more because at that time, after completing secondary education, we attended a certificate programme to enable us into get admission to a university.
You attended the University of Ibadan where you studied Soil Science. Can you recall your fond memories as an undergraduate?
At the University of Ibadan, I also made many friends. Initially, the idea was to acquire knowledge but as I moved from the first to the third level, I started dreaming of graduating with first class honours.
Did you eventually graduate with first class as you wanted?
I graduated with second-class upper grade, with the best result in my department.
How did that make you feel?
I felt I had achieved what I wanted to and I was thankful to God that I was able to graduate with second-class upper grade.
My father brought me up as a farmer and I was inspired by that to study Soil Science. But he did not know that I studied the course. He was very happy when I graduated as the best student in my department.
You also received professional training at universities in the US, UK, Canada and India. Which among them gave you the toughest or most interesting experience?
I didn’t have a tough time there because I enjoyed the environment. I wanted to get used to it and learn about the culture of the people and their type of education.
Did you experience any culture shock?
I had considerable difficulty with the food culture of the Indians. In fact, I lost some weight because I could not eat certain delicacies. Indians eat mainly plants.
Racism was prevalent at that time. Did you experience racial discrimination at any time during your stay in those countries?
I experienced racial discrimination in the US, not seriously in Canada but more at Cornell University in New York. Sometimes, when I sat on the campus bus that took us from one place to another, the white student sitting next to me stood up and changed their position because I am black. It also happened in the laboratory when I did my research; when I set up my experiment, some of them (white students) dismantled the experiment. It even happened in the church.
What was your experience in Canada?
In Canada, there was racism in the seating arrangement on buses but I was used to it because of the experience I had in the US.
Did you lodge any complaints with the authorities?
I complained in the US but I was told to take it easy. The situation improved a bit later.
You were in active service as an academic for several years at the Obafemi Awolowo University and served as the Dean of the Faculty of Science and also the Dean of Students Affairs. What do you miss the most about your career as a lecturer and academic administrator?
As a dean, I still lectured. I miss my interactions with students. I always brought extraneous factors to my teaching to help turn Nigeria around. 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 secondary school where I taught. That was at Ebenezer Grammar School, Ijeda in Ilesa (Osun State). She is from Ijebu Ijesa, close to Ilesa.
Was she a teacher at the school?
She was a pupil.
How did it happen?
I saw her in a classroom and she just fit perfectly into the kind of woman I wanted. She was very beautiful and intelligent. I feel I would have missed out seriously if I had not married her because she 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 one or two weeks to tell her.
What did she say?
She was reluctant at the time. I had to visit her.
Did her parents accept your proposal immediately?
Did she attend a university?
Yes. She studied Accounting.
You are an ardent believer in hard work and discipline. Are these virtues you learnt from your parents as a child?
I learnt them from my parents and some of my teachers. My father was a trader and a farmer. He was extremely hard-working. My mother was also a trader and she was hard-working as well. She was also religious. They were strict parents.
Also, I had an older brother whom I looked up to in my career and who helped me in life. He was my mentor. He was an academic. He was a professor of Chemistry at the University of Lagos and he rose to become the deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Lagos. He was like a standard to me. He was my confidant; I went to him any time I had a challenge.
In a recent interview, you said you would have been a little bit more careful to avoid an illness like a stroke. What exactly did you mean?
What I meant was that I believe in hard work and apply myself to it. I used to work day and night. So, when I came down with the stroke, some of the doctors told me that hard work and lack of rest were partially responsible for the stroke.
Did you get the kind of support you expected from family and friends?
Yes. My friends, especially my secondary school and university mates, came and gave me support.
Did you have a different life view when you were down with the stroke?
I still believe in hard work. If I recover completely today, I will still work. What can one achieve 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 politicians making it big won’t agree with you. What makes it difficult for you?
It is because people like us, who say the truth and do things as they ought to be done without manipulating facts, are not liked. So, it is difficult to gain success in the political arena with that kind of character trait.
Does that mean honest or truthful people can’t 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 and not honest enough.
Did you contest any elections? The 2007 governorship election in Osun State, maybe?
I really did not contest. I just belonged to a contesting party. I was not really a candidate.
Did you take part in the primary?
I was advised to withdraw.
Why were you advised to withdraw?
I was advised to withdraw that year because I was told that the governor would be hand-picked, and indeed, he was hand-picked.
Which party did you belong to at that time?
It was the Action Alliance, which was a party established by Chief Rochas Okorocha.
The Action Alliance lost that election. Did you feel you should have been given a chance to test your popularity?
I actually did not have the financial backing and that discouraged me from further participating in active politics.
Why did you not join the major political parties and try other areas of politics?
I did not want to go through the horrors of politics.
You also applied for the top job at Osun State University in 2013, an aspiration many university professors tried to achieve. Did you feel disappointed about not getting the job?
Did you consider the process of appointing a VC for the school transparent?
I don’t know.
Candidates were shortlisted and some were screened out. Were you told why your application was not taken further?
No. I didn’t hear from them. I was a rector for eight years, so I thought that should make me qualify to be a good vice-chancellor but they didn’t think like that.
Service in public office, sometimes, comes with a lot of pressure to do the bidding of corrupt individuals…
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 just went straight for the truth. I don’t regret not comprising as a rector or dean. Maybe people took that against me; I don’t know.
Did you get threat messages from people because of certain decisions you made?
Yes, I did.
Can you talk about them?
I faced threats when I was a rector at Osun State College of Technology.
People came to me to admit students that were not qualified and I refused. In some instances, people came to me when we dismissed students that entered the school with forged results. I was threatened but I stood my ground.
Were you harmed in any way?
No, I was not harmed.
What is your assessment of the regime of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), in the last 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, and no truth, so he is facing very difficult challenges, particularly security challenges. In fact, a lot of the time, I pity him.
Some of his critics believe he failed to keep all the promises he made in 2015. Do you agree with that?
No, I don’t agree with that.
Politicians are campaigning and canvassing for votes from the electorate, with each candidate claiming to be the best person to fix the plethora of problems facing the country. What kind of leader do Nigerians need now?
Nigerians need a leader that is honest, hard-working, transparent, and ready to solve the problems of the nation, including poor power supply. That is what we should look out for.
Do any of the presidential candidates possess those qualities?
Well, the person I think has something close to that is probably Senator (Bola) Tinubu because of his antecedents. Somehow, he knows how to pick good people from the crowd and make them 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 emergence of his successors.
Yes, in that regard, Lagos is doing well. It is not ideal for one person to decide the future of others but nevertheless, we have to gather eggheads, people with the know-how to run the country for the better.
There is a higher level of political awareness among the youth, ahead of the general elections. Do you think Nigerian voters are more prepared to participate in the elections than they were in the last 23 years?
I cannot say but then I know that there is a lot of information going round about the elections – about the collection of the Permanent Voter Cards. I think we may have a larger turnout (at the polls).