Chief Mrs Abimbola Ibidunni Oni, a bureaucrat and entrepreneurship expert, is the former Director of the National Directorate of Employment in Ekiti State. She shared the story of her life with TUNDE ADELEKE.
You are an indigene of Lagos, married to an Ibadan man. Why did you choose Ekiti as home?
I started my career in teaching, though I didn’t study education; But I found myself in the teaching line because my children were young then and I believed, with teaching, I would be able to have time for them. So, I was teaching Fine Art: the course I studied.
At that time, Fine Art teachers were very scarce in Nigeria and once they found anybody that studied Fine Art, they easily got that person to come and teach. It made it more comfortable for me because by 1:00 p.m, I was done in school and I would be with the children. But as time went by, when the children were grown, I decided to join the Federal Civil Service. So, I joined the Federal Ministry of Labour and Productivity and became head of Vocational Skill Development of the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) in Plateau State where I started my civil service career. After some years, I was transferred to Ekiti State as state coordinator in 2003.
Getting to Ekiti, I started my work and, God being my help, I was able to make stories that gave me a lot of recommendations at work. I once got the award of the Best Performing State Coordinator of NDE in Nigeria. I was able to work with many governors in the state. I work for the Federal Government and the work we do is to create jobs for the unemployed youths and adults, and our major objective is to work with the state government to achieve that purpose. We worked with several governors and they always recommended me. I was the State Director in Ekiti for about 11 years before I was eventually moved to the South-West Zonal Office in Ibadan.
But you went back to Ekiti.
In the course of my career, I was able to start building a property here and that made Ekiti my home. Though anywhere is home, wherever I find peace and comfort, that is where I call home. I found peace and comfort here, which is why I remain in Ekiti. By the time I was moved to the South-West Zonal Office in Ibadan, I already had a home here; so, I would go to Ibadan on Mondays and come back to Ekiti on Fridays.
Then, before I retired, fortunately the Ekiti State University (EKSU) was about to start a course in Entrepreneurship and I was invited by the then vice chancellor, Professor Aina, to see if I could assist the school to establish a practical section at the Entrepreneurship Centre on a part-time basis, which I gladly did because when I was posted to the South-West Zonal Office, at the initial stage, the building given to us by the Oyo State government was being reconstructed; so, I had a lot of time to assist the university to start off. But when I was about to retire, I applied to the university for a contract appointment which was granted. I was appointed as Head of Training before last January when I established my own consultancy services. So, I find peace and comfort here in Ekiti; that is why I am here and good enough, I have four grown up children – all men – all of them are married and are independent. So, that makes me find a means of getting myself occupied. Some of them are not around and those that are around are far from here, but they do come to spend some time with me because they are all working. So, that made me stay around here where I find my peace and comfort.
Can you share your family background?
I was born in Osogbo, the Osun State capital, on March 12, 1958. At the time of my birth, my father, who was a civil servant, was working in Osogbo as an engineer with the Water Corporation. He started his career with the Public Works Department (PWD) and later to Water Corporation. My father was from Lagos State while his mother was from Sierra Leone; but my mother was from Ile-Ife and I got married to the Oni family of Aremo, Ibadan. I got married very early, earlier than my friends. By that time, I was 21 and in my second year in a higher institution and by the age of 28, I already had my last child. That decision is an advantage to me because they have all become men and when people see me, they hardly believe that I actually gave birth to those men.
How did you know your husband was the right man?
I was very young when it happened. As I told you earlier, I had my first child when I was 21. It is just the grace of God that I was able to make it to the point that I made it, maybe, because I met a man that was much older than me and he put ideas in my head. When I told my parents, they said ‘why are you in a hurry?’ But at that time, I couldn’t listen to anybody, all I wanted was to get married, So, I got married. But I never allowed it to be a barrier to my career because that was my father’s wish. When my husband went to see my dad, he said there was nothing he could do about it because I was already pregnant. And he told my husband ‘You should do me a favour; I am not a rich man, but my target and my goal is to send my children to the university,’ because that was the legacy he wanted to leave. So, any child that didn’t have that education had lost it.
So, he told him that ‘after the marriage, my child will come back to me, until she has a degree’. And that was the agreement. I got married and went back to my father’s house to complete my education because he said he didn’t want any man to boast that he’s the one that sent his daughter to school; and he made sure he sponsored me until I had my certificate.
I never disappointed him and I never allowed the fact that I already had children slow me down. I still kept on achieving my goals, because I had decided that I must succeed in life and that is where I am today. Many youths after getting pregnant and having children in school, get stuck and don’t even bother to further their education anymore. At the end of the day, they turn out to be semi-literate because they never finished school. But I never allowed that to happen to me and I give the honour for that to God Almighty and my late dad, Eugene OlarewajuOlusola, who made sure that I earned that certificate irrespective of what was happening at that time.
What about your early education?
I started my early education at Ebenezer, Ekotedo, Ibadan. By that time, we were living in Ibadan while my father, as a civil servant, was moving from one state to another on transfer. When he got transferred to Ile-Ife, he relocated the family from Ibadan to Ile-Ife and I, as a result, did my Primary 6 at St. Stephen’s Modakeke, after which I started my secondary school at Our Lady Girls’ School, Modakeke, a Catholic school. It was in the school that professionalism in me was brought out. We had reverend sisters from the United Kingdom, the United States and the rest, they were the ones that brought us up; they were able to see the potential in each and everyone and it was the potential they used to build us up. I, for instance, was very creative and very artistic. Because of that, the reverend sister who was teaching us Fine Art encouraged me and at any free time, I would stay in the Art Room. In those days, when you wrote school certificate examinations, if you failed Mathematics and you made Fine Art, it was used as a substitute for Maths. Whereas, if you failed Maths and you didn’t attempt Fine Art, it would affect your grade. But if you’re a Fine Art student, you still retain your grade. I wasn’t actually good at Maths; the reverend sister encouraged me to spend more time in the Art Room. So, when it got to the stage to pick subjects for school certificate examinations, they assisted on the subjects that would go with Fine Art, to apply to higher institutions for further studies.
And that was where your love with Fine Art began?
The same year I left Our Lady Girls’ School, I secured three admissions. But the first admission was Yaba College of Technology to study Fashion Designing and because I was eager to go to school, I went to the school. It was after the resumption at Yabatech that the second admission came from the University of Benin to study Fine Art, and of course, another one from Ibadan Polytechnic to study Fine Art.
Fashion Designing which I was admitted to study at Yabatech was not what I really wanted because I wanted to study Fine Art. But by the time those admissions came, they already had their matriculation and I continued with Fashion Designing which was a very lucrative thing at that time, but I never saw it that way because Fine Art was on my mind. Almost all the courses they did in Fine Art were the ones they offered in Fashion Designing which was what I majored in. I approached my Head of Department, Yusuf Grillo, that I wanted to change to General Arts, he advised me to finish Fashion Designing and then continue later with Interior Decoration, a course I could do outside the country and by the time I merge the two together, it would pay me better. But because my mind was actually not in it, I only spent a year. Meanwhile, I had written to Ibadan Polytechnic and UNIBEN to defer my admission. It was the Polytechnic that responded. So, the following year, I went to Ibadan Polytechnic to start Fine Art proper. And I had my HND there with the Textile option.
What was your career journey like?
After Textile Designing, I started working and by that time, I was married with two children. So, I started teaching with the American missionaries in Jos, Plateau State. I taught Fine Art, after which I joined the University of Jos Demonstration Secondary School as a Fine Art teacher. But when I joined the civil service, I was exposed to a wide range of entrepreneurship issues because I had the opportunity of attending many courses under the Federal Government; I had in-service training certificate in Pedagogical Principle, UNDP/SME training certificate in Entrepreneurship Development, in-service training certificate in Didactic/Vocational Management and Organisation, international course on Local Development and Strategies for Poverty Reduction in Africa at Rehovot, Israel, a study tour of Turkish region on Enhancing Productivity and Best Practices on Employment Generation. All these built my entrepreneurship background.
I later developed myself and had a Master’s degree in Public Administration to help me know more about administration, from the Ekiti State University. And in the course of my job, I was given an honorary doctorate in Political Science by an American university.
This is a profession that I have passion for and derive so much pleasure in assisting those that demand assistance and encouragement to be able to set up their businesses. So, it has been different stories all the way. When I was still in the civil service, there was a time I was given an award of the Best Performing Director throughout the federation. I was able to introduce so many programmes different from those that were initiated by the Federal Government, using my own initiative and it really assisted many youths in particular and gave my directorate a good facelift.
In all of this, what are your pastimes?
Do I even have leisure time? I am a workaholic, sort of. The kind of job I do, because of the passion I have for it, I spend most of my time doing it. I have given lectures on entrepreneurship, talked to youths, encouraged youths and presented many papers on entrepreneurship. I spend most of my free time on the internet, reading things that are important to me.
Although I go to parties when I am invited, I prefer to be on my own instead of being seen all over the place; if I am seen, it must be that I’m invited. If not, I prefer to stay under my roof, trying to do one thing or the other.
In my early days when my children were still going to school, and I needed money, with the entrepreneurship skills in me, I was able to set up various business outfits to earn extra money to assist my children too, in their education. There was a time I had ‘Adire’ School. People would come to my house to learn how to make Adire. I got that from the creativity in me, not to do the common Adire that everyone was wearing, but to be creative and do their own designs. I would just pluck a leaf from a tree and draw it and that might be what I would use as my design. I could pick a flower, draw it and try fixing how the colours would be to make a good batik print. That was what I was teaching and I had a lot of students. And along the line, I went into catering; I didn’t really acquire it, I just bought books on how to make cake, sausage rolls, among others. I would make moimoi, sausage rolls and other things. I approached the principal of the school where I was teaching that I wanted to be supplying the school store.
What pranks were you involved in as a youth?
So many pranks! I can remember when I was very young, I loved the way my mother used to cook in the kitchen, and at that time, they were using charcoal and I wanted to know how to cook. My sisters and I would look for milk tins, cut them and go to the back of our yard to look for vegetables, and we would steal peppers from the kitchen and use them to learn how to cook, not bothering whether it was tasty or not. We would cook and eat and God did not allow us to have cholera. Also, every December, maybe because of the talent I had, I love singing, dancing and acting. The Igbo youths in my neighbourhood would teach us Igbo dance; the Yoruba would also do the same. We went from house to house, clapping and dancing, and they would give us money for that.The next day, we would use the money to buy roasted plantain and groundnuts!
What do you detest in people and what attracts people to you?
I detest people that are arrogant because my policy about life is that there is nobody that God can’t make successful in life. The person you look down upon today may be the person you look up to tomorrow. And because of this, I try as much as possible to humble myself; I did that right from childhood to bring myself to the people I believe that are at the lowest level. Even when I was in secondary school, I held about five positions and I can’t remember punishing a person for any reason.
I had so many students I gave nicknames like Anike, Aduke, Asake and so on. Anytime I appeared displeased as a result of misdemeanour by any student and they addressed me as mother of any of the nicknames, I just laughed. There was an instance when a reverend sister punished me for refusing to punish a class because they were making noise. They were arranging a hall for social gathering and they saw a snake and screamed. The reverend sister came and wondered why they were screaming. She ordered that they be punished, but I didn’t carry out the order. The next day, she punished me for it.
I never treated any of my staff badly throughout my service years. Even when I was in Plateau State, the messenger there was respected because I believed I might need his help in future. So, I detest pride. But I love people that are humble and easygoing. My life changed when I got to Ekiti State from Plateau State. There in Plateau, I was an extrovert and I was all over the place due to my social activities, but in Ekiti, I changed.
I make friends easily. Because I make myself available to friends, I assist them a lot, running errands for them and the likes; the Master of Ceremony and engagement coordinator I was doing made me popular. But when I came to Ekiti, I changed my lifestyle. I made my life rotate between my office and my home. People come to me and ask, ‘how do you relax?’ I tell them I relax in my house. Most times after office hours, I remain in the office till around 6:00pm, go home, have something to eat and prepare for another day.
So, my lifestyle changed and that is my permanent lifestyle now. If I’m not doing anything, I’m in my house. I hardly visit people not because I don’t want to, but I want to maintain that level; I use YouTube and other social media handles to keep myself busy.
What dimension of entrepreneurship are you drawing Nigerians to?
Well, that is why I said I have started my own consultancy services. My business is Setomokay Resources Nigeria Limited. Basically, we are entrepreneurial consultants. We do training/workshops; we are into innovations, capacity building and general business.
You know, initially in this country, people didn’t believe in skill acquisition, what people do is to go to school and after university, get a government job. But government jobs are no longer available. In fact, NDE was created in 1986, and it was then they found out that white collar jobs were reducing. But unfortunately, instead of it getting better, it is getting worse and I want to say it is getting worse not because the government is not trying, but because we have more people going to school. That is why, in the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) attendance, you can have about three batches in a year; whereas when NYSC started, it started with less than 200 graduates in Nigeria, but now, in a single batch, a state can have up to over 2,000. Then, if you multiply that by 37 (Abuja inclusive), that is quite a number and you have that three times a year.
I had the opportunity to visit some countries in order to understand how they combat unemployment. And I found that in Nigeria, we are doing very well. The only difference is that our people are not enthusiastic about acquiring skills or doing business that involves skill acquisition. But out there, people are doing it with joy and are making ends meet. Turkey that is regarded as being able to cope with unemployment very well, what are they doing? Of course, they are into skill acquisition. I was in Turkey with other officers to understudy them. What they do in Turkey is what we do here and we even do better; the only thing is that as soon as they finish, the government sets them up and they are doing beautifully well.
Is the message catching up in Nigeria?
In the past, people didn’t really want to acquire skills, but now, the awareness is there and the reality has dawned on so many youths. We have so many graduates that are acquiring skills now, to set up businesses on their own. I was surprised when Ekiti State University invited me to set up the practical section of their Entrepreneurship Centre; I went to conduct interviews for skilled people that would be teaching the students and we placed an advert. Over 90 per cent of those that applied were university graduates who couldn’t get jobs after their NYSC. They went to acquire skills and set up their own shops. And initially when we set up the skill acquisition programme, we didn’t really bother about educational qualifications; what we were concerned about was that once you have the skill and you are good at it, you can impart it unto others. But now, we have more graduates that have acquired skills and own businesses. And because they are graduates, they apply their education to their businesses and they prosper. So in all, all those we recruited, except one, are all university graduates and they are able to teach the students very well. So, the awareness is there now; many more people are going towards the area of entrepreneurship because they have found that that is the only way out because government jobs are no longer available. You wait till ‘thy kingdom come’, you won’t get it. You see people go for their Master’s degree after their first degree, some even go for Ph.D, thinking that maybe, while doing that, a job would come.
What extreme cases have you encountered?
Well, I have seen a Ph.D holder ending up with a shoe factory and making his money. Otunba Gaddafi of blessed memory, when he started the ‘shit’ business, he was a lawyer and the inspiration came to him. I read the story that he went to a party and saw that people were squatting all over the place, messing up the whole place to ease themselves. That was when the inspiration came that ‘If I do this business, it will succeed.’ Even after his demise, other people are doing it. The business has come to stay in Nigeria; many people are in it, doing that business now. I was at a party in Lagos and found there is an institution that has gone beyond the small mobile toilet – that one, they constructed it like a house in a moving caravan. You enter the place, there is light, there is air-conditioner; it is like the toilet of an event centre; there are three or four places, you find people working there, they give you tissue and as soon as you finish, they disinfect the place, put air freshener; the place will be left looking neat and smelling nice. Unemployment has brought this into limelight and they are succeeding at it. Only those that are lazy are the ones looking for an easy way out. But those that are hard working are making it and are looking towards being entrepreneurs.
YOU SHOULD NOT MISS THESE HEADLINES FROM NIGERIAN TRIBUNE
Nigeria Needs Stingy Leader To Develop — Obi
THE standard-bearer of the Labour Party (LP) in the February 25 presidential poll, Mr Peter Obi, on Tuesday, said the country needs a stingy leader to develop in all sectors…
Atiku Discusses Economy, Security With UK Government Officials
The presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, has met with officials of the British government to discuss issues bordering on economy, security, and immigration among others that are likely to be of mutual interest if he is elected the president of Nigeria…
Dear Nigerians, Resident Doctors May Go On Nationwide Strike (See Details)
The Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) has warned to go on a nationwide strike if the federal government does not meet its demands…
What Makinde Must Do To Retain His Seat — Abdusalam, Ex-Oyo AG
Aare Abdulsalam Abdullah, a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and ex-Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Oyo State, in this interview with OLAWALE OLANIYAN, spoke about the chances of the re-election of Governor Seyi Makinde…
Lagos Port Operator Increases Export Charges, Threatens Nigeria’s Export Promotion