‘I have a been realistic in pursuing my ambition’

Prof. Abel Idowu Olayinka

The Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan (UI), Prof Abel Idowu Olayinka, who turned 60 on February 16, this year, in this interview, he spoke to MUYIWA ADEYEMI in Ibadan on how he started life from the rustic Odo-Ijesa community in Osun State to become an international scholar of repute

How was it like in the beginning?
The first thing is to give all thanks, honour and glory to the good Lord for sustaining me to this moment. I never thought I would live up to 60, not because I was sick, but one grew up in an environment, a closely-knit Yoruba community, where you think many are wicked.

We are talking of an environment where a child believed to be a shinning star hardly survives. The limit of advanced medical sciences also shortened lifespan then.

Our people were not exposed to medical sciences at that time, but things have changed now, as you see many people in the community leaving up to 90 years and above.

Looking back, I started schooling at St Bartholomew Primary School in 1964, few days to my 6th birthday, in Odo-Ijesa, Atakumosa East Council of Osun State, just eight kilometres from Ilesa. You know every Ijesa man must have a village.

I finished elementary school in 1959 and gained admission into Ilesa Grammar School in 1970 and finished in 1975, then attended the University of Ibadan (UI) in 1977 at the age of 19 to read Geology. I was a resident of Sultan Bello Hall and graduated in July 1981 and by August 5 of the same year; I was already in Port Harcourt for my national service at the Federal Ministry of Water Resources.

After the one-year national service, I worked for a consulting firm in Bodija, Ibadan from 1982 and September 1983, when I travelled to the United Kingdom to start my postgraduate at Imperial College and completed my M.Sc. programme in 1984.

On completion, I got the Oversees Research Student Award from the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the UK Universities, just like our own Committee of Vice Chancellors, for my Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham.

Towards the end of my Ph.D programme, I applied to some Nigerian universities for employment, because I was interested in coming back to Nigeria. One thing led to the other and UI offered me a job in 1987/88.

The late Dr. Segun Agagu was the Head of the Department and he said they were ready to take me immediately, because one Dr. Ofure, who was teaching my aspect, had retired and that vacancy needed to be filled, for the UI to train me.

I resumed on April 20, 1988. Immediately after my Ph.D., I came back to Nigeria with the next available flight. In fact, the university was kind enough to pay for my flight ticket. I resumed as a Lecturer Grade 1 and I have been here since then, about 30 years now.

At what point in life did you begin to see yourself as a scholar?
I can’t specifically remember that now; one thing leading to other. When I was in the elementary school, the ambition was to go to the secondary school, from there I said it would be nice to gain admission to the university.

While in primary school, I was coming first in my class, but in secondary school, it was neither here nor there. But when I look at my academic performance, I did better as an undergraduate in UI than in secondary school and because we were just 22 in my elementary school, it was easy to come first.

I think the environment in UI really helped me, because I was not a boarding student in secondary school.

I can say I discovered myself as an undergraduate and tried to put in my best. While I was in Part 1, we took an elective course- Classical Physics- in Physics Department and I had the best result. The department wanted to give me a scholarship, sponsored by AGIP, but when they discovered that I was not a Physics student, but a Geology student, I was denied of that scholarship.

At the time I was doing my M.Sc. programme, I already gazed my eyes on Ph.D. I have always been realistic in pursuing my ambition. I can’t say I want to become Osun State governor now, because I know it is not possible; where will I get billions of naira to play with or a godfather?

But as a university teacher, my ambition was to become a professor and it became a reality in 1999, but it was announced April 2001.

Ijesha people are known to be Osomalo, where did you get an instinct to be different?
In fact, my father was an Osomalo. But that was never my ambition. My father was born in 1909 and was an Osomalo in Orugbo community in Ashipa.

Because he was successful as Osomalo trader, he went into transport business, but he was frustrated and lost all his investment. He returned to Ilesa to farm and that was when I was born.

My father never went to school, so Osomalo could be appealing to him, but I went to school and I was doing well as a best student in school.

How did you meet your wife?
At that period, I was residing at Olopomewa, off Sango-Eleyele road. I didn’t have a car, so I used to come to work very early. That was in 1991. I used to be the first to get to the department. I will trek for about 10 minutes to the main road, then take bus to Sango, where I will take another bus to the UI gate.

I would not want to stay at home till about 7.30am and be jumping for space in a bus with primary school kids, so it was better for me to leave home as earlier as 6.30am.

At that time, she was working at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan. That morning, I saw her and I engaged her in a chat and one thing led to the other and we got married on July 17, 1993.

Can you remember some memorable days in your life?
There are so many and they are in phases. If you see a secondary school boy that gained admission to the university, that moment will remain the best to him.

When I got my Ph.D. and when I became a professor are days I cannot easily forget. When I emerged as the Dean of the Postgraduate School unopposed, I was the first person to be elected to that position unopposed, I felt the world was under my feet.

You are happy to take up the challenge of implementing one or two things. The biggest office I occupied is that of vice chancellor. It takes a process, but I thank God I was considered for the office, because it didn’t happen over night. Even if you are good and the powers that be said no, what will you do?

What about the day(s) you hate to remember?
The day I lost my mother in November 1996 at 69.

So, you loved her that much?
It is other way round. I wish she is alive, but we thank God for her life and times.

How do you unwind?
I watch television and play with social media. I don’t have to think to send messages on Facebook. I don’t do sports, but I walk around the compound at the VC Lodge and that is enough exercise for me.

But I have to do sport now, because I am putting on more weight.

As an Ijesa man, one can assume that you like pounded yam?
That is normal; it should be taking for granted. Any Ijesa man can eat pounded yam as many times as possibly in a day. It doesn’t kill. In fact, whenever you travelled, the first thing that bothers your people is whether you see pounded yam to eat. They will pity you if you tell them pounded yam was not available.

You are not a good dancer because you were just shaking during your birthday thanksgiving service?
I agree; I am not a good dancer.

Some said you don’t laugh. Is that true and if so, why?
That is a joke taken too far. Haven’t I laughed and cried during this interview? If there is a need to laugh, I will laugh.

Those who said it have seen just one side of me that is stoned face, but people closer to me will tell you I am too soft. It is part of life; may be I need to laugh more.

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