Former Nigerian Ambassador to The Netherlands, member of the 2014 National Conference on the Review of the Nigerian Constitution and medical doctor, Olatokunbo Awolowo Dosumu looks back at 70. In this interview conducted by TRIBUNE EDITORS, she relives her life growing up as the last born of then Premier of the Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, SAN, practising Medicine, marriage and being a Yoruba within the prism of national politics.
LOOKING at you, it is difficult to believe that you are 70! What is the secret?
I think it is the grace of God. I think it is the genes. Look at Mama in that photograph — she was almost 100 when she took that photo, but she didn’t look it. I think it is the genes.
In your reminiscences, (when you think about your youth, your career, marriage and your parents), what comes up topmost in your mind now?
So many things that I cannot begin to count, what I see is the hand of God shaping my life all through. I don’t ever remember sitting down and planning like Papa did. If you look at Papa’s history, from early life, he planned his life, he knew where he wanted to go. Beyond that, wanting to justify the affection and the expectations of my parents was always at the back of my mind. I felt that they were doing so much for me and that I should justify the hope and confidence they had in me. I also always wanted to be a doctor. This was also in my mind. After qualifying, I worked for some years as a medical doctor. I stepped aside from medicine and did other things. My life has taken a trajectory I believe God had planned for me. There were so many crossroads along the way when it was possible that I could have taken the wrong turn, but there was that divine hand guiding me. This is what I really remember. God has been fully in charge of my life and He has made it possible for me to be who He has made me to be.
What were the challenges you had being a daughter of Chief Obafemi Awolowo?
First of all, the expectations were always very high, you had to be on your best behaviour otherwise people would wonder how come Awolowo raised such a child? This was always a challenge. I had to set myself a standard to justify who truly my parents were. Another challenge was the fact that I had to achieve, I felt a sense that I needed to achieve something in order not to let my parents down or the people who loved my parents and me. I remember when we were in the secondary school and the crisis began in 1962. We were taunted, we were abused, we were made fun of that ‘finally, all the money that your father stole…’ among other allegations. Even before then, people felt that no matter what we did, they felt that we were trying to be arrogant and they tried at all cost to put us down. Some senior girls did just that! I remember a story which I will never forget which is one of the reasons why you must never hurt a child because he/she will never forget. Some teachers in class would talk about Papa in derogatory terms. I understood from a very young age that being Awolowo’s child comes as a package and therefore I developed the attitude that ‘well, I refuse to reject the grace of God’.
Growing up, what was a typical day like in the Awolowo family? Is it like what obtains in a regular family?
Very regular. We woke up in the morning, the very first thing was prayer. Of course, Mama was always in charge of this and she made sure that we learnt some Psalms by heart. We had to learn those Psalms at all cost. I remember struggling to learn Psalms 91 because it is a long one, but I’m glad I did because such things never leave you and it comes to the fore any time I need it. So, there was prayer time and then, we got ready to go to school, then after school came the play time. At that time, the security situation was fantastic (in the country). We didn’t have any security detail in the house, the gate was permanently opened and there were no policemen. Papa only had one police orderly that went to the office with him and came back and went back to his house after every day’s work. We used to go and play in the neighbourhood. Just like every other child in the neighbourhood, we went about just anywhere in the neighbourhood to play. We were free to move around. We were very regular family. Sometimes, we went to play with other friends in the neighbourhood and sometimes they came to us to play.
Who attended PTA meetings, mama or papa?
(…Laughs). Neither of them did. I don’t remember any of them going for any PTA meeting.
Did you ever experience going through any corporal punishment in school?
I don’t remember, but then the lady who looked after me, my nanny(Aunty Moniyi) who is late now told me that anything that could attract corporal punishment was always avoided by me. I was kind of like a wimp! I didn’t like to be beaten at all. Anything that I knew would attract corporal punishment was avoided.
You write and speak English very well despite the fact that you are in the medical sciences. What is the secret?
In secondary school, my best subjects were English Language and English Literature. If not so determined to be a medical doctor, I probably would have been a literary scholar.
Considering your background, what informed your humility?
I think it is largely my upbringing because Papa and Mama never made us feel as if we were any different from other children. They never encouraged us to feel elitist. We played with the children of the washer man, we went to the washer man’s house (to eat) because his wife cooked very nice stews. We used to go there because he lived behind our house at Ibadan Boy’s High School. So that kind of upbringing where we were encouraged to relate equally with the high and the low. At the same time, we used to go to Governor Rankine’s house for tea. The governor’s wife taught us how to play games. She was the one that taught me Rounders. We also related with other staff’s children who lived in the house with us. That has stayed with me. I am just as comfortable relating with the rich as well as the not-so-rich because everyone is rich at one level or the other. The only thing that makes me uncomfortable is when people are not sincere or when they are nasty.
Having seen many of your photographs, there is a consistency in style. You are a woman of elegance. Your scarf is unique. What is the story behind the scarf that looks so much like an Awo cap?
It is just a style, I discovered it suited me. I did not even think about Papa’s cap. I just tie it. I have been using this style for years.
Like how many years?
It has been a long time. It was not a conscious copy of Papa’s cap. I just tied it, I liked it and I stayed with it. I tend to stay with what suits me and what I like. Mama used to complain that I keep wearing the same jewellery on a daily basis for so long. She kept on complaining why I chose to wear just one out of the many that I have. I told her that I stay with whatever I like.
Are you allergic to wearing make up?
I used to like it before, but I no longer care about it. I stopped making up when Papa died.
Why did you stop?
I don’t know why. Probably because I did not have the time to wear it for a few days after Papa died and after then I thought it was really not important anymore.
At 70, you would naturally love Papa and Mama were around to see you celebrate. What are those things you miss?
I miss their not being around to call me by my pet names, to share the joy of the day with me, to pray with me as well.
What were those pet names?
Papa’s was Olatoks and Mama’s was Ayoka.
Do toughness, strictness and being meticulous describe you?
Well, I have very definite opinions on issues and I tend to be very firm. I tend not to change unless I get superior conviction on issues. I don’t compromise especially when I believe that principles are involved. I can let go of many things, but where principles and integrity are concerned, I don’t let go.
Of your parents, whose reflection are you?
The older I get, I think I look more like Papa.
Who have you taken after in character?
I think I am more like Papa in character but now, I am trying to adjust to being like Mama too. In my last conversation with her, which somebody described as her handover notes, she said some things. I remember feeling irritated at the time and at a point wanted to end the conversation, I asked ‘Are we done? I want to go.’ But now, I realise that she had a point. After her passing, the words she left behind, apart from everything else she left behind, show me very clearly that she had a point. There are times when you can be rigid and say no, like Papa used to. But Mama’s methods work better in some situations. I am trying to adjust that and I am trying to ignore a lot of things. I am trying to not only ignore, but refuse to be drawn into certain conversations. There are some conversations that are actually worthless, they don’t go anywhere, they don’t change situations neither do they make you feel any better. It is just pointless having those kind of conversations. I have been able to discern the kind of conversations that I want to have and those I don’t want to have, then, ‘peace’ can reign. The most important thing is to find out who you are, know where you stand, know what makes you happy, what does not, what works for you and what doesn’t work and decide to avoid certain things, certain situations, certain people. Once this is done, you are okay.
What is your concept of happiness?
My concept of happiness is being at peace with myself. Being comfortable with what I do with certain situations, or certain people or certain things; knowing my limits with certain individuals and staying within those limits. We give ourselves a lot of heartache in this world when you feel you have to be accepted by everybody or loved by everybody. It just does not happen. The moment you get to the point where you decide to actually identify the people that are happy with you and you are happy with, and identify with the people who feel that there is nothing in this world that you can do that can make them happy or that would make them love or like you, then you are okay. You have your boundaries clearly set, and you stay within those boundaries.
Will you describe yourself as a feminist?
I am one to a large extent, not ‘bra burning’, or wanting to be a man. I don’t want to be a man. I love being a woman and I think the best thing in this world is to be a woman, absolutely the best thing. As a woman, you can also stand your ground and assert yourself.
You have fought so many wars. At 70, which one do you consider the most tasking?
I know what it is, but I won’t say it.
In 70 years, was there anything that you wanted and chased after that you did not get and each time your mind goes there, you feel a bit down?
I tried to go into politics, I didn’t get anywhere with it, for many reasons. It was not a life and death thing. But this was never something that I wanted above and beyond. It was for me an opportunity to offer service but clearly, some other persons were preferred. It just did not happen. I was quite happy to step away from politics. Actually, my attitude to life is that if I want something and it does not happen, then it is not God’s time. This is my attitude to disappointments. I believe that is the way God wants it. At every point and in my trial, I ask God ’Lord, what are you saying here? Where do you want me to go?’
Was there a point in your life that you felt there was something you could not get, but somehow God turned it round for you and you got it miraculously?
I got so many things. Most of the things I have achieved in life have been offered to me at least in public life. Privately also, even though I had delays, eventually, I just got it on a platter of gold and I know that there is a divine hand that guides my life, that orders my life. Things happen for me at the time God wants. Even though I don’t realise it at the time, looking back I know that the best things happened at the best times. I am at a point now in my life where I have never been as confident of God as I am right now. I have no doubt whatsoever, not even a shadow of doubt. I used to fret a lot. I used to worry a lot, but not anymore.
Is it because you are now Asiwaju Obinrin Onigbagbo of Remoland?
(Laughs…) No. A lot of things have happened that have proved to me that God is on my case 24/7.
Did you also find love at the right time?
I believe so.
At a tender age?
No. I was at the university when I met my husband.
How did you meet him?
We just met in Bristol (United Kingdom). He was a student there, so was I.
Where exactly? Was it in the library, laboratory or where?
No. He was told I was there and he came to see me with his sister.
Did you know him before leaving Nigeria?
His father was the Administrative Secretary of the Action Group. Our families had known one another for a long time.
Are you sure there was nothing between you in Nigeria before you left for studies abroad?
There was nothing between us.
Did you have any of his family members as a friend?
I did not have a friend among his siblings before we met.
How did he propose then?
He came to see me and we became friends and one thing led to another…
What is your favourite colour?
A lot of people see Papa Awolowo as their mentor, who drives you?
Actually, Papa Awolowo is my mentor. He and Mama are my mentors. No doubt about that.
Is it because you are his daughter?
No. If I was not his daughter, I would be an avowed Awoist.
What do you like about the Awoists?
I like the way they are focussed, their focus on the development of every individual, their focus on working for the good of all and their focus on making a difference to their generation for good.
Of all your books, apart from the Bible, which others are your favourite?
I like fiction. I also like books on Political philosophy.
Which of Papa’s books do you consider your favourite?
Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution.
How many times do you eat daily?
Once or twice at the most.
I think my system is used to that. I cannot eat more than this, if I do, I get upset.
You have lived everywhere, no doubt. You started as an Ibadan lady, you have lived in Lagos, London, The Netherlands and now you are a local woman based in Ikenne. How do you find living here?
Ile labo simi oko (laughs)…I love it. My life here is no different from the life I live in Lagos except that I don’t have to contend with the traffic. I have everything I need here. I have my computer, internet access, telephones, television. I have people that I can talk to.
How have you integrated yourself to Ikenne life?
I always felt integrated somehow. I have my traditional age grade, I go to church, I belong to societies in church. You know what, Mama insisted that the building that I am occupying had to be constructed, now I understand why. I moved here before she died. Before I did she said, ‘I want you to live in Ikenne because that way you can do whatever you need to do in Lagos or Ikenne and Ibadan, because Ikenne is at the centre of both cities’. Though Mama’s stand generated arguments between us, but finally, she went ahead with the project. Mama ensured I joined her society in church. Mama was something else. I remember the day I joined her society, the church was having the Harvest in 2012 and I came for the event from Lagos. Mama sat in her usual seat as the Iya Ijo while I sat at the Awolowo’s pew. The Secretary of Mama’s society came to collect Mama’s harvest dues, I saw Mama pointing me out to the secretary that he should go and collect my dues, but the man said, ‘but she is not a member of our society’. Mama’s response was, ‘she is now’. That was how I joined the society that she and Papa belonged to in our church, Our Saviour’s Anglican Church, Ikenne. Mama kind of dragged and dragged and ensured I got integrated into Ikenne totally. I did not find it strange at all moving here.
You have got so many chieftaincy titles, which of them to you is the most important?
They are all important. I cannot rank them.
May be we should be specific. How do you see the title of Yeye Oba that you were honoured with yesterday?
I consider it as a great honour. I look at myself and I pinch myself sometimes. I pinch myself and ask myself, ‘are you sure this is happening to you?’
I ask myself the question because I am the last child of the family. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that any of these would come to me because in my family there is a pecking order, it was sacred — the pecking order.
Were you ever treated as the baby of the family?
How do you treat a baby? You treat a baby with love and pampering. Yes, I was. Papa and Mama did not hide their feelings for me.
It is amazing that you don’t like big cars…
Cuts in…I don’t have a car!
Not having one is my choice. I don’t have a car.
Have you ever driven?
I still drive in the UK. I have my driver’s licence in the UK.
This concept of not having a car is strange in this part of the world. Then how do you move round?
I use hired cars. Nobody gives hired cars a second look. This is okay by me.
Is it a security matter or finance?
You know how much the car hire costs? I kept a car hire on retainer, you can imagine how much it costs in a month. It costs more than running a car, but I prefer it this way. In any case, all I want is for the car to arrive and take me to my destination. I don’t care how it is fuelled. I don’t want to know how you make the tyre good or how you make the engine to be in good shape. I don’t care! All I know is that a functioning car arrives in the morning and takes me to where I want to go and brings me back.
What is your concept of motherhood?
It is the greatest gift that God can give to anybody.
Being a grandmother…
That is even greater and better. The joy of it is unbelievable.
When you handled your first baby, what ran through your mind?
I have only one child. When I handled her, I asked myself ‘Is it real that I am a mother of a baby?’
When you organise or handle events, there is this panache, is it because you are a rich man’s daughter? Is it because you are a medical doctor? Is it because you are London trained?
I really cannot say. It is a gift. Even right now, I am handling the preparations for the events celebrating my 70th birthday. It is something that comes naturally.
The country is in a crisis, with killings in Benue, Taraba, Nasarawa. There is this belief that restructuring can bring about an end to these uprising. Do you also believe that restructuring is the answer?
Well, to the extent that each federating unit will be at liberty to determine its own rate and direction of progress. Then of course, yes. Each unit will be in charge of its own territory particularly policing, then of course yes. Then there would not be any reason for any one from elsewhere to claim that he has the right to impose his own needs and wants on another territory. Then of course, yes.
What is your opinion on the recommendations of the All Progressives Congress committee on merging of states and restructuring?
The recommendations are just a copy of all that everyone has been talking about. I think the question we need to ask is, how genuine is this? It is very difficult not to be a bit skeptical given the fact that this was something that was in their manifesto before they got into office and we have heard conflicting sound bites from important functionaries of this administration. Hopefully, this is sincere because, really, restructuring is at the bottom of everything. It is the foundation without which we can’t at all build a house that will last.
At what point did you find this fervour for the Yoruba agenda? You are involved in so many of the Afenifere,YUF activities. When did you see yourself as a Yoruba woman?
I have always seen myself as a Yoruba person first and foremost. I always did, right from the days of my father. But as the years have gone on, the inequities have gone on unchecked and have increased and injustices are becoming more and more apparent so this is not a new battle. Always, even from the days of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his colleagues, there has been agitation for a true federal system and they really got something that approximated to that just before independence. But unfortunately, with the coup in 1966, a unitary system was imposed which has not gone away and the consequences have multiplied and they have become so apparent and so glaring now. What I see is that if we don’t address it, we will keep irritating one another. This is not good for Nigeria.
Nigeria as a country is wonderful, we should stay together, but we need to renegotiate the terms of our staying together. This is where I am and it is so fundamental to everything. Unless we do this, we will continue to go round in circles and violence will increase. I pray it does not consume the whole of Nigeria. We don’t want a Somalia here. We don’t want pockets of warlords here because what will happen is that people will feel that they need to defend themselves and take what is theirs! This is not good.
My campaign is for the good of the entire country. I don’t have any animosity against anybody which everybody knows. I don’t have any problem with other parts of Nigeria. As a matter of fact, I have friends all over. I have real friends all over the country. But when it comes to governance that is not going to count very much if we don’t do things in a just, right and proper manner.
Does it bother you that there is so much betrayal with the politics of the Yoruba race?
Unfortunately, this tends to be our lot. What we need is a rallying point. Betrayal has always happened and it will always happen. In the interregnum, when Chief Awolowo was the rallying point it was still there, but it was muted because everybody looked towards that rallying point. Papa’s leadership was unique. I don’t know any leader that had that kind of relationship with the people at the grassroots. His relationship with the grassroots was direct. They felt that they owned him and he owned them. The leaders that were in different layers in between were doing certain things on his behalf, but in any situation when they felt that something was wrong or see any misdemeanour, they felt that they could go directly to Chief Awolowo. Any leader in between that offended Chief Awolowo would not be able to live in the community with them again. So this kind of arrangement muted betrayal and we cannot have that again in several generations.
But we do need to learn that the situation we are in in Nigeria requires tact, requires a great deal of solidarity. Unfortunately, for some people they feel that once they have made it, they don’t have any affinity again with our aims and aspirations and they feel that they are now up there somewhere and they don’t have any dealings with us again.
Betrayal goes both ways. People can be leaders and betray the interest of Yoruba people which is the worst kind of betrayal. Most other nations within Nigeria don’t do that. They are there for the interest of their nation. But with Yoruba, we feel once you made it up there, then you can kick the ladder. It does not work that way.
You were a teenager during the crisis in the South West (wetie crisis). How did that incident affect you as a teenager and how did it affect your relationship as a friend to the children of Papa Awolowo’s associates?
It affected me very deeply. I lost confidence in human nature and that is still the case even up till now. It is probably not a good thing, but I don’t trust easily. I am always looking, waiting, on my guard, waiting for people to let me down and to show their hand. I am always on the lookout for this which is probably not a good thing. Papa on the other hand was completely trusting, his attitude was — he would trust an individual completely until they showed their hand. If they don’t show their hand, he would continue. In the end, it did not hurt him. In my case, I do not trust and unfortunately nine times out of ten, I am proved right.
In terms of relationship with other children of the people who were concerned, I have no animosity towards them at all. As a matter of fact, looking back I see now that there is nobody in this world that does not have his/her own weakness. Unfortunately, people’s weaknesses were exploited for the sole aim of breaking up that wonderful team in the Western Region. The team that was moving so fast and so far that if they had carried on at that pace, maybe the Western Region would no longer be part of Nigeria because the region would have gone so far and it was just that they needed to be stopped. I think this was what happened unfortunately. In a way, I don’t blame anyone because it is hard to do this, because, who knows if they were still alive, they might look back and wish they had done it differently. I am sure they started so well as a formidable team. What was done was the only way they could have been broken. We need to forget the past and forgive people in the handling of the situation then and move on.
You were an ambassador of the Federal Republic in The Netherlands, judging by the refugee crisis in Libya currently, with your experience, what counsel would you give to Nigeria and Nigerians at this time?
There is only one advice I have for the government and it is very simple, if the country is conducive, then nobody would go out even to the best countries in the world, let alone going through the kind of harrowing experiences they go through even to get to Libya. I had known about this route and the sufferings that went with going through that route. Even as an ambassador, I remember one of them finally made it to The Netherlands and he said that five of them left Nigeria and that he was the only one that survived the journey as the other four lost their lives along the way. It was then I had an idea of what was going on. If the country is good, if there are opportunities here, if there are jobs here, and the quality of life is okay, then there would be no reason for anybody to want to go to Europe let alone Libya. To those who go, my advice again is very simple, the troubles are just not worth the benefits because I don’t even think there are any benefits; maybe a few of them make it to Europe and when they get there, they get hounded because they don’t have papers. When they are there without papers, the government of the country does not even recognise them. As far as the country is concerned, they do not exist, therefore anything could happen to such a person and that government is not answerable! We see pictures and videos of the kind of humiliation some of these Nigerians go through. Really, it is not worth it. The amount of money that we hear that they pay to even take that horrible trip, sometimes N600,000, sometimes a little less, sometimes more. Anyone who has this kind of money should actually sit down and invest it and try to do some business with the money. There is a lot that can be done, but the trouble is young people these days sometimes look for the big bucks, they want quick returns. They hear about so many thousands of dollars or pounds and they convert it to Naira, they imagine that once they get there that these things will come to reality and they will be in money.
How did you deal with those without papers in The Netherlands?
It was very hard because I was between the host government and the interest of Nigerians. Once they were not caught, I had no problem at all, but once they were caught, it wasn’t my place to try to tell lies to keep them there. I didn’t believe it was my place to subvert the laws of the host country because they would soon find out and then I would be in trouble. I don’t get involved in crime or better still, I don’t do crime as I am not comfortable in criminal settings. Unfortunately if people got caught, I believed my role was to make sure that in spite of their situation, they were treated fairly, they were treated with dignity and even if they were to be deported the whole process was carried out in a dignifying manner. I was very clear about making sure Nigerians were not rubbished. But to do underhand things and forge papers for them was not my place. I don’t do such things. This is not my line.
You have had reasons to be in public service when you were in The Netherlands and of course, as Chairman of Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) Board of Management. With these two appointments, what did you see in the Nigerian public service?
I saw a lot. I was not really involved directly in public service, but as an ambassador and chairman as you said, I saw a system in which you had to be constantly on your guard so that you did not get sucked in into any underhand dealing or anything that you would not be able to explain. First of all, certainly when I was appointed an ambassador, I believed it was a result of my service and my role as a member of the International Committee of the Council on Foundations and my appointment at the LUTH was as a result of my track record in the medical profession. On both occasions, I performed the task as a child of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief (Mrs) Awolowo. I knew that I had to be on my toes all the time. There were lots going on in the public service, there is quite a bit of corruption and I had to make up my mind about what to do and how to conduct myself.
Did the system attempt to also subtly corrupt you?
Not overtly, but suggestively. At the initial stage, you are tested, though I will not give details. You are tested to see what you would bite or what you would not bite. From the beginning, I just made it very clear that I was not interested in all the underhand dealings in the public service. Once we all knew where we all stood, though it was not easy, but at least everyone knew what my position would be on most issues.
What would you like to be remembered for?
It is too early to answer that question because I still have a lot to do. There are so many things that I still want to do that I would want to be remembered for.
How do you keep fit?
Now you got me. I hate exercise. I dislike it intensely. I don’t know how I keep fit. When I’m in the UK, I go for walks. I don’t like missing the opportunity of walking. But here, I don’t have the chance for walks. Many years ago, I had a gym in my house in Lagos with all the equipment, but I never used it. I invited some of my friends to come and use the facilities in the hope that would encourage me, but it was a lie. They were coming at 3 o’clock and I would deliberately have my lunch at 2 o’clock. I would in turn tell them that I was not supposed to exercise immediately after food. I would then sit, watch and chat with them while they exercise. In the end of the day, I dismantled everything. It is something I just don’t like. As a doctor, I should not be saying this.