My mother used to bribe me to attend school –Prof Lai Olurode
A professor of sociology, Lai Olurode, who is also a former National Commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission, tells ADEMOLA OLONILUA about his childhood and his time in the commission
Was it your dream as a child to become an academic?
Not really, I did not start life with such a dream. I would say that I am an accidental lecturer. I never liked going to school; I found going to school to be disgusting because I liked playing around. As a Muslim, when it was time for any of the festivals, I would desert school. My mother would bribe me with new clothes and I would go to school for a while and then return home. If it was the festival that requires we kill a ram, I would totally forget about school. I would be going from one house to another. So I would not say that I was one of the best pupils in my primary school days because I hated schooling. I liked going to parties and some of my mates called me a professional Master of Ceremonies because my English was fluent and I made use of highfalutin words whenever I was introducing people that would open the floor. I liked doing announcements at parties and at a point in my life; I used to organise parties called Askia Party. My nickname when I was in secondary school was Askia The Great, and later, Askia of the Songhai Empire. I loved to read history and commit things to memory so my friends gave me the nickname. The party was usually held on December 31. In those days, there were no problems between Muslims and Christians; we went to parties together. When we were done with church programmes for the day, we would go to our party. For decades, people looked forward to the party. I do not know how I attained that fame. To organise the party sometimes, I would get some money from my mother and some of my friends would contribute money because they always enjoyed the party. I was so good that people I never knew would be looking for me so that I could anchor their events.
As I advanced in my secondary school education, I noticed that I loved writing. I would type my work out and paste it around the school. With the write-ups, I critiqued the society, especially men who were fond of taking young women around. I can recall that one of them called me and asked me what I knew about girls for me to criticise what they did. I did not know the implication of what I was writing about but I just saw the old men as our competitors because they were competing with us when it came to the best girls in town at the time.
Were girls swooning over you at that point in your life?
Each time I remember that period, I feel somehow awkward. Sometimes I say that I wish I was better disciplined because it could be distracting. Girls used to come around and some of my friends and I had what it took to attract girls to us. However, we never did it at the expense of our studies; we did not abandon school and we took our reading very seriously. I think we wasted quite some time because to have girls around you required time. We did not need so many resources because the taste of ladies back then is not as high as the taste of ladies nowadays. It was not really expensive to move with girls. Some of us strayed and never became focused to become what they ought to become, while some of us had a narrow escape. That made us to be more vigilant as we were raising our children because it could be distracting.
You are a university professor today, what then was the turning point in your life as you said you did not like school and were organising parties?
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I think the turning point for me came when I was finishing my secondary school education. Most us wanted to become doctors, engineers or lawyers and we were well-trained because we attended the best schools. I went to Baptist High School, Iwo, Osun State. It is a very popular school. After finishing school, it dawned on us that we were growing and that we had to forge ahead in our education. Our parents were more desirous of good education and more concerned about us as regards our education. They wanted us to go beyond secondary school level. To us, the university was a new thing and we did not have a lot of people in the university because the best education the generation before us acquired was Nigeria Certificate in Education programme or Teachers Grade 2. There were not many role models for us. Somehow, our parents saw that the world would belong to people who acquired higher education.
When I got to the university, I did not know what course to study. Most of us wanted to study law, engineering or medicine but the examinations we took did not support the course we wanted to do, so most of us had to change our courses.
What was it like to grow up in what is now known as Osun State?
I used to go to the farm with my father. However, I doubt you would come across anyone from my place that had no dealings with cows. We were predominantly butchers. During my secondary school days, I used to go to Ile-Ife for my holidays. I used to follow a butcher, who I called master, to the slaughter slab. Even though he would ask me to leave, since I had my own knives, I would cut part of the cow meat that was not meant for the public consumption. It always surprised me that my uncle always drove me away from the slaughterhouse. He never wanted me to be a butcher. I made good money during my holidays and I also had meat. I used to put meat on my head and follow my master as we went from one community to the other. Sometimes, he would ask me to go and sell the meat and I dared not return without selling everything.
My mother was also a butcher in Iwo and she used to ask me to sell cow dung in Iwo because that was what people used for the flooring of their newly constructed houses. I was also a thrift collector and people trusted me. I remember a friend of mine gave me a bicycle and I repaired it. I used to move around with a lot of money and nothing happened to me because the country was very good. Although I dealt with adults, they trusted me even though I was very young at the time. The first collection I took on the first day was always for me, so I would add that to my savings, even though I was privileged to have a mother who had enough to take care of me.
How about your father?
All my father wanted me to become was an Arabic scholar; he wanted me to go to any university in Saudi Arabia to study the Arabic language and speak it fluently. That was my father’s wish. At that time in Iwo, people were not sure about western education because they saw it as a potential source of conversion. Some people who went to school got converted to Christianity along the line and Iwo was predominantly a Muslim community. The worst thing that could happen to a parent was for their child to be converted to another religion, so they guarded our religious beliefs jealously. Although my father supported my western education, he was not too keen about it. He would have supported me more if I had gone to an Arabic school. Although after school we always went for Arabic classes, that was not sufficient enough for him. Later on, he appreciated my western education even more than my mother. My father is literate only in Arabic and he can read and write. When I was in England, he would write me letters and send them via the post office. My mother could not write so sometimes, she would ask my father to write letters for her. There were times she would not want him to know the contents of the letters, so she would call any literate person to help her. She always had a pen and a notepad with her. She is still alive and till date, she is always with her pen and notepad. She did this so that whenever she saw any educated person, she would approach the person and ask them to write a letter for her. She also has envelopes with her all the time.
Is it right to assume that you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth because you travelled to England to further your education at a time when only a few people went to school?
I would say that it was a case of providence and stroke of luck. I was admitted to the University of Lagos in 1976 to study political science. I must confess I had never been to any university before then. I did not believe anyone in my family would attend a university and I was the first. I am not sure my parents understood what university education entailed but they just wanted me to further my education. Luckily, it rubbed off positively on my siblings because almost everyone acquired university education except the girls. The reason the girls did not go to school was because of the discrimination against their gender. They felt they would become spoilt if they went to school. When I got to the university, they said that there was no accommodation. I met some of my mates whom I had secondary school education with and one of them volunteered to accommodate me since he had a room. I went to the toilet and saw everything was sparkling white, very clean. I went back to my friend’s room and told him that I had found a room. Then he asked where the room was, so I led him to the toilet. I never knew it was a toilet because the place had no smell or odour. I also saw a table there but I did not know that it was meant for ironing clothes. My friend told me that it was not a room but a toilet, but I told him that I could still manage to stay there. Before I gained admission to school, I doubted if I had ever seen a water closet before because we did ‘shotput’ (throwing faeces wrapped in papers or polythene bags into the bush). There were not many pit latrines then.
When I got back home, my mother asked me what course I was studying at the university and I told her it was political science. She did not understand what it meant, so I translated it to her in Yoruba and immediately she remembered ‘Operation Wet E,’ in the 1960s and the killings that happened in my community and other places in the old Western Region. People were burnt alive in those days. If you recall what happened during the 1983 elections, there was so much violence and people really died. My mother did not want me to offer the course and my father also insisted that I should change my course. My father questioned why I would offer political science when I knew that politicians killed people like cows. I tried explaining to them that it was strictly academic and that offering the course did not mean that I would become a politician. So they asked me ‘what was the use of studying a course I would not practise later in life’. My mother said those studying political science and politicians were birds of a feather. My father called me and said if my mother was not in support of the course I was reading, then I should not do it because I had to make her happy. I went back to the university and changed my course from political science to sociology. So I would say that I strayed into sociology. Later in life, I studied law.
So how did you find yourself in England?
After I completed my studies, I did not have it in mind to become a lecturer but as providence would have it, I turned out to be the best student in my set while I was studying sociology. I had my National Youth Service Corps programme in Kaduna and when I completed that, I returned to the village in Iwo and not UNILAG. Someone who was like a mentor to me then and had been a graduate assistant in the school, brought a letter to my house, saying the university had been looking for me. He said they wanted me to come back as a graduate assistant. I did not know what it meant so he explained it to me. That was how I joined the university system and since then I have never had any regrets. I started as a graduate assistant at UNILAG. I also had my master’s degree in UNILAG and as God would have it, I was the best graduating student during that programme also. When I was done with my master’s degree programme, the Commonwealth scholarship came out and I applied for it. I also applied for Oyo State scholarship. I got both scholarships but I opted for the Commonwealth scholarship.
How did you meet your wife?
A friend of mine, who is dead now, introduced me to my wife. They were from the same community. There was a modern school that my wife attended and we used to go and watch inter-house sports competitions in her school. She was not one of the girls we used to move around with in those days when we were young because she was quite reserved. Whenever we went to watch inter-house sports competitions in her school, I used to notice her in the crowd. Later, I discovered that she was my friend’s distant relation. She was a sprinter for her school and she was very good. That was how we met. When I was wooing her, she never believed that I was serious.
Before we started courting, there was a lady that I was dating and it was as if we had a perfect relationship. She had agreed to get married to me and people knew us together in the community but I think she was unlucky because when my mother saw her, my mother asked if she had come to visit us. My mother further told me that she was my relative and it was a no-go area as it was not possible for us to get married. I still believed that I could continue with the plans because I had not met my wife at the time, but my father also discouraged me and told me not to make my mother unhappy. That was how I began to search for a wife and fortunately, I met the woman who is my wife today. She was a sprinter and she always looked very smart.
You are a former National Commissioner of the Independent National Electoral Commission, how would you describe the experience you had?
I do not know how President Goodluck Jonathan put the team together but I think he put together a very formidable team. His primary preoccupation was probably to ignore some of his very powerful party members, especially in regards to the appointment of Professor Attahiru Jega. Not many state actors in the Jonathan-led administration wanted Jega to be appointed because they saw him as someone who was very independent. My own appointment was also very controversial. When I was on the floor of the Senate, I spent some time being quizzed by senators, just like Jega. Also, the pedigrees of the commissioners appointed cut across various fields because we had a medical doctor in our team, Dr Abdulkadir Suleiman Oniyangi. We also had Hajia Amina Bala-Zakari, a pharmacist; we had an engineer, Nuhu Yakubu; we also had Dr Igbani. These were people from diverse disciplines and with different orientations. We had a large number of academics in our midst. Jega, for instance, was a professor of political science and I am a professor of sociology. We also had a technical team. I think one of the key success stories we had at the time was that whatever activity the Jega-led commission embarked upon, it had to be research-driven. We did a lot of research. We have room for science to dictate whatever we wanted to do. A related factor, which I think contributed, was how much we relied on the accumulated experiences of previous commissions and ours as well. In fact, we invited previous electoral commissioners to camp with us and we shared experiences with them. Jega was transparent and open about anything he wanted to do and he asked for other people’s opinions. I recall that after we had completed the compilation of the national register of voters, Jega invited a professor, who was once a commissioner so that he could critique our work. Everything we did was subjected to a critical review.
Our education was also very helpful. With all modesty, Jega had done a lot of work as regards election and he had played active roles in some public offices in this country. So we were looking for an opportunity to implement those ideas. We saw it as an opportunity that would never come again, so our enthusiasm was very high.
Would you say that President Jonathan conceded defeat in the 2015 election because he had faith in those that were at the helm of affairs in INEC?
I am not sure whether there was sustenance of the degree of believability that Jonathan imposed on the Jega-led commission, whether it was sustained through the end. Towards the end, as the elections were approaching, there were controversies as to whether the elections would hold, if there was a credible register, and how many people had collected their permanent voter cards. And Jega always said that we were ready. I think a measure of distrust began to creep in. I am not sure that the Jega-led commission was able to get that confidence back from the administration. I am sure that people would have been telling Jonathan that they had warned him against appointing Jega during that period. I do not think it could be said to be the reason that he conceded defeat. I am not sure that he felt the (presidential) election was free and fair if you read his book because he cast some aspersions on INEC and its leadership.
I think Jonathan conceded defeat because the election was adjudged to be free and fair. It was also said to be a credible election by the local community and the international community. Also, the consequences of not accepting the result would have dawned on the Jonathan-led administration. We can see the experience of President Laurent Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire, who did not want to concede defeat. He ended up at the International Criminal Court. I think that the reason why he conceded defeat was not because of the trust he had in the commission but because the elections were seen to be free and fair. The use of card readers checked electoral fraud. We had a very clean register similar to the one that they used in the recently concluded elections.
The elections that were just concluded recorded many deaths. What do you think can be done to forestall such in the future?
Political parties should go into elections as disciplined political parties that are cohesive and not factionalised. Once a party is not cohesive and it goes into an election, the chances are high that there will be trouble because already, they are not speaking with one voice. We see that from the conduct of the primaries. It is time for the political parties to respect their own laws because if they do not do that, it becomes an invitation to anarchy. The parties have done well since 1999, considering the fact that we have two major parties that are formidable. This is a plus for the development of democracy in this country. We have to learn to build on it by reforming the political parties. One way of doing that is by allowing members of political parties to make some payments in terms of fees, however little the amount is.
Let them been seen to own the political parties. If you do not want political parties to be hijacked by moneybags and barons, the party members should be allowed to pay some money because they have to run their secretariats. Also, party members should do some volunteer work. As a university professor and a member of a political party, I would be willing to give one hour of my time a week for my party. I would go to the secretariat and ask what they want me to do for them. I think this sense of volunteerism has become weakened and it is contributing to the hijacking and complete takeover of the political parties. This would create a sense of ownership and give people the knowledge that the party does not belong to anybody. The internal machinery for recruiting leaders needs to be sanitised as well. No doubt, ‘godfatherism’ cannot be eradicated because some people were there before but these godfathers should see all the party members as their children and whoever wins an elective position should do so by merit. They should not appear to favour anyone because they are like a shepherd. They should let all their party members have a sense of belonging instead of giving them a feeling that they have been short-changed. Also to make our elections peaceful, we need to train our security agents. It is very important. The security agents tend to see themselves as agents of the government in power instead of seeing themselves as agents of the state, which they are. Their role is to uphold the electoral law. They are not there to satisfy any member of the administration; they are there to satisfy members of the public. The administration of elections needs to be decentralised. I think that too many activities are centralised in Abuja. You can let the Resident Electoral Commissioner play more physical roles in terms of the procurement of materials. We also need to have electoral offence tribunals because there is no way that INEC can cope with prosecution. Their hands are full already and they should not be saddled with that responsibility because it is very expensive and requires the attention of specialists, which INEC cannot do given the circumstances. Other stakeholders are not partnering with INEC sufficiently enough. INEC would take one direction and the political parties would head to the opposite direction, undermining INEC. They need to understand that this is a collective venture. If they want good elections, then the parties have to partner effectively with INEC beyond the partisan level.
Has your life ever been threatened in order to manipulate election results?
In 2015, we had to return to Imo State when Rochas Okorocha was coming in as governor. The election was inconclusive so we had to return to do a re-run. We were at a collation centre at the INEC headquarters when a phone call came in from someone in a very high position of authority, saying that a particular person must return because that was the person the people of Imo State desired to have as their governor. The person said we must not do anything other than the instructions given. The returning officer then had received several calls before then; he was a professor and I was with him. At a point, he gave me his mobile phone to answer a call but soon after, he told me that he did not want to continue with the exercise because his family members had received several threats that if the election went a certain way, then he should forget about his family. So he resigned and decided to discontinue the collation process midway. The commission under Jega’s leadership had to get someone else to conclude the process. We had to be rescued after the process because the commissioner of police had to bundle us into his vehicle and that was how we escaped after the announcement. I have been at other election arenas where we also had to run soon after announcements were made because we had been warned by security agents that hoodlums were hanging around. It can be really frightening and I feel for the people that are participating in these elections. Sometimes what leads to these issues is the undue use of power by the incumbent government, which nobody can do anything about except we censor ourselves. The desperation is unbelievable. We have to change the mindset that, ‘I must win at all cost’. Elections should be approached with some scepticism and a doubtful mind because it is about probability. We have an attitude of ‘winner takes all’ and we need to create rooms for the losers to be accommodated. Proportional representation should be an area that the next National Assembly should look at so that everybody would be a winner. Those who win elections should draw the losers close to them. For someone to have contested for an elective office, it means that he has some qualities to offer the country. This would help us change the notion whereby we see the opposition as an enemy that must be run down and killed.
Credit: The Punch