Abuome Olu Edeki, an exploration and production geologist and integrated auditor, reflects on the factors, circumstances and issues that have retarded development Nigeria. The successful entrepreneur, who recently clocked 70 years, also told MIKE ODIEGWU how he overcame diabetes after fighting the disease for more than 30 years and how a gesture by former Nigerian Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, restored hope to his penurious life.
What was childhood like and what would you say has changed about life between then and now?
I grew up under the most ideal conditions anybody can have. My mates always said I grew up with a silver spoon. I was born in 1950 in the premises of St Stephens Church/Primary School in Inolende, Ibadan, where my mother, Mrs. Olufemiwa Edeki, was quartered as a head teacher. I grew up as the son of the principal of a secondary school. My father, Rev. Imevbore Edeki (M.A. University of London 1956 and B.A. Classics 1952) later became a minister in Western Nigeria and also a foundation minister in Midwestern Nigeria. He was a Reverend of the Anglican Communion.
I was a privileged kid, who grew up under strict educational and Christian discipline in the era of Awolowo educational scheme in the western part of Nigeria. I was always the youngest in my class. I entered secondary school at age 11 in 1962. There was strict discipline in the secondary school. I took advantage of mentorship from senior students and this made a difference to how well I performed as a student in a particular class. I started secondary education in Victory College, Ikare but finished in Edo College Benin City after the creation of the Midwest Region.
In growing up, I took advantage of all of the above and I passed with Grade One in my WASC examination of 1966. Then I took Prelim Entrance and passed to become a Science undergraduate of the University of Ibadan in September 1967, at the age of 17. I repeated Part One in the university as I did not pass one subject in which I had a reference. I obtained a Second Class Lower Degree in Geology in 1972. This was before the NYSC (National Youth Service Corps) started. I was then 22 years old.
Educational experience in the 1960s and 1970s was a very serious matter, as obtaining your degree was equated to you having your meal ticket for life. Every degree holder had a job waiting for him or her. One chose out of several options in our time. Teaching in the secondary school was the most common. Becoming a university lecturer was for the privileged few, who graduated with upwards of Second Class Upper division. First Class was extremely rare.
In my time, it was those who could not get admission into Nigerian universities that travelled abroad to study, notably in the USA, USSR, West Germany and East bloc countries. The reverse is the situation today.
What do you think has gone wrong in the educational system?
The intervention of the military in governance in Nigeria slowly eroded all the high educational and moral standards that were bequeathed by the British to Nigeria at independence. In my time, there were only four universities whose high standards were recognised all over the world. The number of foreign students in them was very high. The meals we had equalled what you get in a five-star hotel today. Non-academic programmes in the University of Ibadan where I attended were very vibrant. There was no cultism of any kind. The rebels named Ahoys were some of the most brilliant students on campus. That Group was initiated by Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate.
External examiners came from top universities all over the world. Many selected their brilliant favourites and gave them scholarships straight away for post graduate studies in their own universities abroad.
Now, Nigeria has over 100 tertiary institutions and international recognition of awarded degrees is at the lowest ebb for most of these Nigerian institutions. It is very shameful. The average Nigerian graduate of today has a low esteem of himself and does not believe in integrity, talk less of wanting to acquire leadership qualities or go for postgraduate studies abroad straight from completing the first degree. The opportunities are not there.
In my time, the universities produced leaders. We had social clubs from where you learned organisational skills to achieve notable objectives on campus. The Sigma Club, was the most elitist, and they organised the Havana Night once a year from where they raised money to maintain their high life style. I was a member of the Embassy Club which invited Ambassadors of foreign countries to Nigeria to talk on campus about issues of international importance at the time. We learnt the diplomatic way to speak. This club later produced Joe Keshi, and the late Adefuye, to name a few, who became notable Ambassadors of Nigeria.
In order to improve education in Nigeria, a few universities should be selected and heavily funded for specific specialties. Lecturers in those universities should consist of Nigerian lecturers and professors who have retired from Institutions abroad and who can be enticed home with provision of equipment with which they worked abroad. Those universities should operate only on merit and not on quota as it is in most institutions in Nigeria today. Government can use one of such professors to set up each specilised institution and leave them alone to be self-sustaining.
For example, the person who started the Indian Atomic Agency was enticed back from New Zealand by an Indian Government official, who in 1958 visited New Zealand for something else.
What would you say has been your most memorable experience?
My most memorable experience has been getting married to my wife, former Florence Williams, who had the attributes my father advised that my future wife should have: to be highly educated and to hail from the Midwest. I have been diabetic for over 30 years and yet my sugar level is in the expected normal range. Florence was a British trained HR professional, who met me at my work place, and we have been very close soul mates since then. She took care of my health through what she gave me to eat, some of which she researched from the internet. I am a survivor of prostate cancer. She gave me comfort and encouragement when I went through surface beam radiotherapy. We go on long walks together and we are both active golfers, even at age 70. I have very good friends, some of who contributed to my cancer treatments abroad.
What has been the most challenging period in your life?
I have had many challenging experiences in my life. One challenge came when my father died in June 1970 and there was no means of paying for my university education after his death. Before he died, he reminded the Almighty how he had helped poor students with scholarships meant for us his children. He asked the Almighty to help me and my immediate elder brother through our university education. He died a few days later. My father’s prayer before his death was answered through General Yakubu Gowon, who in November 1970 gave scholarships to all indigent students in the four Nigerian universities. He ordered that first year fees paid by each student be returned to them. I instantly went overnight from a poor and sad student to a ‘rich’ and happy one. We thanked and praised the Almighty for getting us through the eyes of the needle to be able to complete our university education.
My bosom friend, Olu Dania, was home on holiday from the UK when my father died in 1970. New and interesting information from him was that I could purchase a used car in the UK for £50. I used this information between July and September 1971 when I used the bonanza from General Gowon to go abroad on summer holiday. I did three jobs in one month, saved £70 and bought a Morris Minor which I brought back to Nigeria and used as a Taxi in Benin City while still in the university at the time. I was 21 years old at the time. This was how I learnt at an early age that one could become well off through entrepreneurship and the grace of the Almighty. This is one of the memorable events in my life.
Do you have any regrets?
One remarkable regret and disappointment I have was in my career when I discovered that hard work, innovation and integrity could not carry me to top management in the company where I worked. You required a godfather to who you would give damaging information about your colleagues at work, particularly to superiors, and be disloyal to our country in order to make it to top management. Hard work and innovative abilities enabled me to work for my employer abroad, where I made outstanding contributions that increased the company’s profit. On returning to Nigeria, hard work enabled me to obtain the highest meritorious rise in the company for many years up to July 1995, only to be laid off in February 1996. How come? I said to myself. I felt betrayed.
Another challenging experience was the unwarranted resignation of my wife from the company where we both worked. The European head quarters of our company had arranged that my wife and I would interchange with an expatriate couple coming to work in Nigeria. In the last minute, the boss of my wife substituted my wife’s name with that of his friend. This led to the cancellation of the whole plan. We were very disappointed. This is why I was adamant to take my family abroad when the opportunity later came for me alone to go to work abroad without my wife. This led to my wife learning industrial sewing, which later metamorphosed into our company, Sister & Twins International Ltd. This company produced men’s underwear which was marketed all over Nigeria through the Leventis Group, UTC Stores and other national outlets.
The company also produced coveralls for nearly all in oil majors and the biggest oil service companies including uniforms for the major security companies with headquarters in Port Harcourt and Warri in the 1990s till 2011. Proceeds from this company built our house in Port Harcourt and in our village and enabled the university education of our three children in the USA. The wickedness of my wife’s boss led to our success in business later in our life. My character of always pursuing integrity and innovativeness, which disabled my getting to top management in the company for which I worked for 20 years, enabled our success in our private company.
Is this the Nigeria you dreamt about while growing up?
I was 10 years old when Nigeria became an independent nation, and as son of a secondary school principal, who read newspapers every day, I was very exposed. We expected Nigeria to be a nation where education and economic progress would be our focus as a new nation. It was so for the first two years until political divisions based on tribal sentiments took control of everything we did, just as it is in the South Sudan of today.
The military interventions compounded the problems. The northern part of Nigeria thought that taking over the federal systems would make them narrow the gap between the north and the south. The gap arose because at Independence, the south was 40 years ahead of the North in western education and in western economic systems. For example families in the south would contribute money to send one male to secondary school and even to the university. My mother funded my father’s education from financial contributions from Otuo community.
Northern peoples were comparatively less interested in western education. They preferred Koranic education. Only the children of the northern elite were programmed for western education, and the Northern Nigeria regional government sponsored them. Their wives were on government subvention while their husbands studied. Development of artisans grew very fast in the south. Awolowo’s 10-year educational plan for the western region of Nigeria increased the gap, putting the West far ahead of the other two regions. I, for example, was one of two Awolowo protégés who could enter the university at 17 in 1967. There were many older entrants in their early 20s. Before this time, over 90% of entrants were old married men and very few women. Of course, a job was waiting for you once you obtained your degree. A few very old graduates like my father could become politicians in addition to their primary vocation. It was legally permitted at that time.
The Nigerian civil service had plans for every facet of Nigerian life, based on the strong advantage of each of the regions. Government under the total control of the centre, which the military introduced in 1965, markedly slowed down Nigeria’s economic development. Unfortunately, the military from 1965 gradually put an end to the efforts put into meticulous economic planning and development of Nigeria. It speedily got worse when a head of state of northern descent assumed the head of the affairs of Nigeria. Well-trained civil servants were sacked and one of them diminished the powers of the permanent secretary by introducing directors-general to each ministry who he personally selected. All the civil service systems just died thereafter. Occupation of strategic position was based on quota and no longer on performance. That is where we are today. We are just a drifting nation controlled very much by outside forces. What a shame!
How do we solve the problems in this country?
To solve our national problems will require putting integrity foremost in everything we do in Nigeria. It will take many years to be so. The politicians with their heavy salaries and allowances will delay Nigeria to reach her full potential and take its rightful position in the world. Nigeria in 1965 trained Malaysians, Indonesians, etc in the economic use of palm oil in WAIFOR (West African Institute for Oil Palm Research) near Benin City. Those nations have moved forward. We who trained them have moved backward. What a pity! To solve these problems, we have to accept our failures before agreeing the way forward. Let each part of Nigeria develop at their own pace by consolidating their local strengths.