I’D HAVE BECOME UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT IN AMERICA, BUT I’D HAVE BEEN LONELY –PROF. ABIOLA AWOSIKA
Prof. Abiola Awosika, daughter of a one-time minister of finance, Chief Festus Awosika, tells ‘Nonye Ben-Nwankwo and Jesusegun Alagbe all about growing up and why she left the United States of America to come home to Nigeria
Is there anything you’re doing that makes you look younger than a 60-year-old?
Not really. I take care of myself. I eat well and I don’t worry too much about things I can’t change. And I stay active. I walk about three days a week – a distance of 5km, when I have the time, but I try to do it at least three times a week. But everything is just by God’s grace.
Your resume is quite impressive and it shows that you love academics a lot. Was it your ambition to study up to this level?
Well, you can’t stop studying when you are a professor because you have to keep up to date. You don’t want to be stale in knowledge. You try as much as possible to make sure your students don’t know more than you do – at least you are one chapter, or one book, or one event, or innovation ahead of them. But it wasn’t as if I thought about this when I was small, but events in my life as a girl caused me at that time in my 10-year-old mind, to tell myself that I must go to school and study as far as anybody could go. So if they say this or that was the ultimate in my field, that was where I wanted to be when I grew up.
What were these events that made you have this desire?
My father died without a will and we were left with nothing. And my mum would always tell us that the only way she knew anyone could get out of poverty was to get an education. So I wanted to be as far away from poverty as possible and decided I was going to go as high as anyone could go. I found myself in the business field even though in my heart at the beginning, I wanted to study Mass Communication and be on TV and radio. But Mr. Bisi Lawrence, the Director-General at Radio Nigeria conducted an interview for a group of us that had applied to be newscasters back then and when I went for my own interview, he asked me which Awosika was my father, so I told him and he said, ‘Your dad taught me Geometry in high school.’ So he said, ‘I see your yearning for a newscaster’s job, but I want you to go back and finish your professional studies.’ I was studying at the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators at that time and I had an Ordinary National Diploma, applying for Higher National Diploma at Yaba College of Technology. So he said I should go back and finish my studies, but he said he would give me a programme or two because I had the voice and the diction. He said, ‘We will use you, but I don’t want you to make this a career.’ That was a great advice for me at that time. I had already done two parts of the ICSA exams and had like two parts to go, so I decided to take his advice and went off to finish that professional degree. So I travelled to the United States before I finished my HND, where I got my master’s in Business Administration and a Doctor of Business Administration (Finance and Economics). That was how I found myself in the business world.
How easy was it for your mother to train you?
It was not easy. After my father died, we had to move out of the family house and luckily for us, he had insisted that my mum build her own house because she was doing very well in her business. Before then, she was buying fancy clothes and jewellery and all sorts. My father told her, ‘No, this is not how to spend money; I am going to build a safe for you and you’re going to put money in there.’ My father used to travel a lot as he was a minister in the First Republic. So he got a safe for my mum and instructed her to put – say an equivalent of today’s N2,000 – in the safe everyday so that whenever he came back (he knew when he was going to come back and he would simply multiply the amount by the number of days he was away), she would have had enough savings. That was how my mum had enough money to buy land and build. She hadn’t completed it when my father died, so we moved into a windowless house. But we were happy because we were friends. I am one out of nine children my mother bore and we were (and are) closest friends. We usually did not have friends outside of our family. My siblings are my friends. So we had a great time growing up; we didn’t feel poor. My mum made sure we were all educated even though it was difficult for her and I think the least of us has a Bachelor’s degree in our fields. It wasn’t easy, but we were not deprived of the basic things of life. We had joy and there was love.
Was it that your father married another wife?
My mum was the second wife. At that time, native laws and customs were not acceptable and so they went to court and we got the short end of the stick. So we were out of the picture because my father left no will.
After your studies in the US, you still came back. Why didn’t you just stay there?
I came back in 1991 with my family. I went to the University of Benin to lecture for a year, then I went to Adeyemi College of Education where I taught in the Business Department and then I went back to the US. My second coming to Nigeria was in 2009 and by that time, I had risen from being just a lecturer, through the ranks, to being an associate professor, a full professor, Vice-President and dean of the university where I was. My life became something like – wake up in the morning, go to work, go to church, come back home and wake up again in the morning. It was the same routine. My kids were grown and they had their own apartments, so I was actually alone. So I thought what I was doing for the American kids and adult learners, which was a booming market for our university at that time, could also be done in Nigeria. When I came home in 2007 and saw the state of the country, I was brokenhearted. I usually wrote notes in my Bible Study notebooks and I picked one of the notes where I wrote that I had a heavy burden for my country. The scripture that I picked that day was Nehemiah 2:5, which says, “And I said unto the king. If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may build it.” My prayer on that day was that God would count me worthy to be someone that would be able to contribute to the progress of Nigeria. Two years later, God settled things and I decided I should return home. I promised myself that if it was easy for me to go back then, I would, whether I had something to do or not. At first, there was a financial problem, they were going to charge me $10,000 to ship my goods, but suddenly, somebody next door just told me, ‘Did you ask so and so? He ships to Nigeria.’ Then I asked him and he said ‘Yes, with $3,000 I will do it for you.’ So I shipped all my stuff even though I had no idea what I was coming to Nigeria to do. I didn’t have a job, no prospects. I just knew I had my brain and that when I got here, I was going to figure out things. That was how I came back in 2009. This is where I want to be. It gives me joy to make a difference. You know sometimes it’s just a word that you say to a young person and they will pick it and run with it all the days of their lives. And so being around family and being able to help just feels good. It’s a bit lonely over there and for someone who is one out of nine – I mean I grew up in a large family – I couldn’t be by myself any longer and didn’t see what I was doing there more after I had attained the Vice-President level of the university I worked for. The next level was for me to become the president. Yes, I would do well, but I didn’t feel that was what I wanted to do. Already when the president was not around at that time, the place depended on me as the Dean of Academics and Vice-President, but I didn’t think of being the president. I could start my own university if I wanted.
But do you think you could have made it to become the President of the university?
Absolutely! In fact, I was on track to be the president. There were four areas that a university president must be strong in to succeed – academics, admissions, financial management and fundraising. And when my superiors and the board looked at it, fundraising was probably the only area where I needed more training. So I went to Duke University to groom myself. I attended events that were grooming those of us that were on the presidential track, but I just didn’t think I wanted to be in the US again. I wanted to come back to Nigeria. I wasn’t growing younger and I wanted to be home to spend the rest part of my life to impart the people here.
You once worked with Wema Bank…
That was between 1972 and 1975. When I worked at Wema Bank, I didn’t work in the bank per se. I was with the administration division; I also worked with the registry and the training division, I wasn’t into mainstream banking. It wasn’t something I wanted to do.
If you had stayed in the banking industry, don’t you think you probably would have ended up in an organisation like the World Bank or any other international financial organisation?
I don’t know what that would add to me. I have colleagues over there and I don’t think they are any better than me. I could have applied for such job because I had risen high enough in the American system for me to be able to excel, but it wasn’t really my passion.
You must really love teaching…
Absolutely! I usually admonish my students to do what they would do for a living for free. If you wouldn’t do what you do for a living for free, you probably need to be examined, because that means you don’t have the passion and the energy. I would teach for free.
I could have a depressed moment, but if you put me on a podium in front of students, forget it. I could be there for hours non-stop. I used to have a four-hour class when I was in the US and even a full day class. It wouldn’t bore me. While I was there, I could start class by 6am to 10am, but I would tell my students to remind me that we needed to take a break. It’s a wonderful field to be able to impart knowledge. And when you see students having aha moments, like ‘Yes, I got that one,’ one cannot but feel happy. Education was the thing for me. Since I graduated from high school, I have loved teaching. I taught at St. Andrews Primary School, Abeokuta and from there I went to do my OND at YABATECH and then joined Wema Bank, did freelance jobs for radio and television and then I travelled overseas. Finishing my degree, I came back and taught at UNIBEN and Adeyemi College of Education. From these, you can see that education has been my passion.
You were among the people who spearheaded the Obafemi Awolowo University going online. How were you able to achieve that?
All of that was providential. Remember I didn’t know what I was going to do when I came back here. I teach online in some universities in America. So one day, I was doing my work and a friend of mine came with his wife. I asked them to hold on for a few minutes so I could round off my session with my students online. When I joined them later, they asked what I meant by sending a feedback to my students online. They were surprised that despite that I was in Nigeria, I was still teaching students over there. They wanted to know how it worked and I told them. They left here and went to OAU to meet with some other friends, one of whom happened to be the director of the centre for distance learning. From their discussion, it was mentioned that they needed help with their e-learning platform. My friend introduced me to them. They got in touch with me and I went there for like six months to set it up for them. When I finished, I gave them a report, but the new director just put it in a drawer somewhere. A year later, I got a phone call that I would be willing to go back to OAU to help them with what we started because they were having some kind of difficulty. So they brought me in. E-Learning was something I also learnt, because I was always curious and looking for ways to help my students work in a less stressful manner. So anytime a new technology came up, I would ask how it could help my students. That was how I learnt about the system. I was able to bring all of that to the OAU project. We have matriculated about 320 students now on that platform – from Nursing to Accounting and other degree programmes. Not only OAU, we now have Ahmadu Bello University and BABCOCK working with us.
You’ve taught more in the US than in Nigeria. What are you going to do to strike a balance?
I think my life just played out the way it did. When I taught in UNIBEN and Adeyemi College of Education on my return to Nigeria the first time, I thought I would stay in either, but the environment was not conducive and it was very harsh. Having gone through that experience, when I came back the second time, I was ready for whatever would happen. I learnt some lessons from what we went through the first time and I was hoping that I would apply the lessons learnt. Today, I teach more in Nigeria at Olawoyin Awosika School of Innovative Studies.
You set up OASIS?
Yes, I did. It’s part of the initiative from the National Business and Technical Examinations Board for innovative enterprises in tertiary institutions and the idea is that institutions would be more hands-on than theoretical. So there are going to be more practicals than theories. I looked at the curriculum and I realised that it’s the only one I could probably take that would fit into my background. Actually, my intention was to start a university. When I got here, the rules and requirements had changed from the time I started researching and getting ready for it to the time I showed up in Nigeria. So I thought of finding the next step down until time comes to progress to the university level. Thank God that at least we are approved by the Federal Ministry of Education and accredited by NABTEB.
Away from academics, what kind of relationship did you have with your step siblings?
Great, actually! I am happy. Thanks to my mum. She made sure we were not embittered towards one another. At some point, we’ve lived together and we had great times, which were interesting, because I read an article recently by Chief Afe Babalola. He was the attorney for their (my step siblings’) mum at that time and we got Justice Craig as our attorney. I remember those names even though I was 10 at that time. Chief Babalola was quoted as saying some things that were not cool and I went to look for him to let him know that the story actually ended well. He thought there is still bitterness, but the story has ended well. I’m close to my half siblings now.
Having a father who was a minister at that time, how did you feel?
He died when I was 10, so the memory I had of him was limited, but even at that, I realised he was very humble, a frugal man. He was not lavish. The accounts of him that we know, we read in the newspapers. We had to pay to ask them asking if dig into archives to get anything that had our father’s name on it from Daily Times and The Sketch back then. And from what we read about him and the little I knew about him as a young girl, he was a gentle father; he was very hard working and travelled a lot. I grew up in Ibadan with my stepmother; I didn’t grow up with my mum until my father died. I left my mum because I just wanted to be closer to my father than to her and she let me go. So I grew up with them and he would take pictures and shoot videos of us. We just had a great time with him, but he wasn’t usually around because he was going about the country’s business. From what I read in the newspapers, it was an eye-opener to me that no wonder I love finance and education – because these were the things that were in his DNA.
You said something about your ex-husband…
Let’s just say it was distance that separated us. He was here and I was in the US. We came back together in 1991 and he wasn’t interested in going back again, even though I wanted to go back to the US. I didn’t want to go back deliberately, but providentially, I had to, because we weren’t making any headway here. And then again, we had left some personal effects in the US in storage and I was supposed to go back and bring them back here to see if there was anything we could do to salvage ourselves from the situation we were in. But getting to the US, it just didn’t make sense for me to come back here for all of us to just keep struggling. So the plan was that I would work and send money home – which a lot of people do. Kids were going to college and the youngest was going to high school, so it just made sense to take them back to the US. So he sent the kids but he didn’t come with them.
If you had a second chance, would you take that decision again?
I would, because it was a family decision; I did what I thought was best for the family at that time.
So why didn’t you remarry?
When I haven’t found the right man. (Laughs)
Do you have time to do other things considering that you’re always studying or teaching either online or offline?
For instance, I do cook, but not here. At times when I travel to see my daughters, I go to the kitchen. But here, I have help and I do many things that it doesn’t just make sense to leave the more important things for the less important ones. But occasionally, when I want a particular taste, I go to the kitchen myself. I write songs, but I haven’t done that in a long time.
Do you play any instrument?
I play the konga drums. I have a personal one that I beat from time to time.
Do you have time to go to parties?
(Laughs) Who wouldn’t go to parties in Nigeria? What are you talking about? That is what being in Nigeria is all about! You’ve got to have fun and you know it just amazes me that in the midst of hardship and suffering, we still find time to party. I do tell my younger sister who is still in the US – she’s longing to be here now – anytime it’s party time, and she would ask, ‘Where are you guys now?’ And I would reply her, ‘We are at a naming ceremony or other.’ She would say, ‘Hmm, e tun ti gbe gele yin (you’ve tied your headgear again).’ You know it’s so Nigerian. That’s how you relax – to be with family and friends. It’s our social stamina. It’s what keeps us going as a country. For instance, when there’s someone doing wedding ceremony, you know that at least you will dance and eat that day and forget your sorrow. It’s just fun.
What more do you want in life?
Personally, nothing, but for other people, a lot! I would like to see a lot more Nigerians get quality education. I would like to see a Nigeria that is respected anywhere in the world. I would like to see every dream that I can possibly help make come true come true. I live among my people and on average; I feed about 15 people three times a day. That’s all I ask God for – that I might be a positive influence on other people’s lives. I don’t want to be stinking rich; I just want to be comfortable and to be able to do the things I want to do in the lives of people around. That’s all.
What major decision did you take in your life that brought you to where you are today?
Well, the singular decision that has affected my life positively is giving my life to Jesus Christ. With all the difficulties I went through, I couldn’t have coped without Him in my life, because He made things easy for me. I used to be afraid of dying, but now, there’s no big deal. Because I have Christ, I am no more afraid.