Nigeria’s youngest Silk (Academic Section), Professor Damilola Olawuyi, is the deputy vice chancellor, Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti and AU’s independent expert. Here, he shares the story of his life with SEGUN KASALI.
How would you describe growing up?
Growing up was the foundation of most of the good things that are happening now. I grew up in Ibadan in a very strong Christian family. We had a very strong disciplined background well delineated in reading, praying and helping at home in terms of domestic chores and that instilled a sense of discipline, purpose and a sense of determination.
You must have a disciplinarian as a father.
Yes, a very strong one at that. He was a very respected member of the community and you could understand why he gave us that sort of strict upbringing because for him, his story is quite touching and I am sure you have probably read some. He was a very talented kid in those days while growing up but could not complete his education due to lack of funds.
How do you mean “talented”?
He grew up in Igbajo town in Osun State. When he was in primary school, he was very brilliant and intelligent. He was known as the best student in his class. But, he could not advance beyond primary six due to lack of funds. And it was a shock to everyone growing up with him that this brilliant chap could not go further. So, I think it was that determination that made him to vow that he would do everything he could to make sure his kids have a chance in life. So, because he could not go to school, he had to learn a trade as a welder and with those little means, he was able to develop a very successful company of his own and the proceeds he invested in sending us to school. So, I grew up in a family of six children and I was the last born. It is to the glory of God that everyone of us is successful in our own right – two medical doctors, three engineers and my humble self being the only lawyer in the entire generation. So, it is the story of a humble beginning.
So, that pushed him to provide a legacy for his children?
Yes, it was a product of his experience. Growing to see what it means to lack, growing up to see what it means not to have a means, and also growing up to see what it means not to have a sense of purpose and having seen all sorts of things in his community, I think all those experiences made him to decide to rewrite the history and I think that made him to adopt a very strong, regimented disciplinarian approach in our upbringing.
‘Regimented disciplinarian approach’?
I remember growing up. Our friends thought our house was a military school (laughs). This was because we would wake up early morning and have 6am prayers; then have Bible reading and then go to school; come back to catch up on school work and then no football or any form of distraction. The only recreation we had was to go to the kitchen to help with household chores. And then, we would have our night prayers as well. So, it was a sort of mixture of praying, reading and being a responsible citizen. Those were the three pillars of our upbringing.
And you never deviated from these?
Well, except I want to paint a picture of perfection and would say there was no deviation. But, I learnt a lot from all those things. Truth is when you expose kids to that sort of life, it simply means when they are exposed to peer pressure in school, they won’t go too far. However, when you speak of deviation, I am the culprit in my entire family because my siblings were very quiet, especially those medical doctors (laughs). But, I was seen as a very troublesome one. I was very fond of pushing the boundaries; saying what others could not say and standing up to authorities.
How were you doing this?
(Laughs). I can remember a lot of stories. I remember a time we had a burial ceremony for my grandmother in our hometown and I recall my dad said none of us should go. But I heard from my mum about the level of preparation and that our hometown was very good and consequently everyone was excited. So, I asked, ‘no one is going too?’ They said nobody was going. One way or the other I found my way into the back of the truck and when they got to our hometown and they wanted to bring coolers out from the back, they found me hiding there (laughs). Those were the things I would do and would be spanked heavily for that. And those things were understood as just being stubborn. I was the kid to stand up and say, ‘Don’t say that’ or ‘Don’t cheat someone.’ I got into trouble a lot even in school.
You know I was quite intelligent from my early stage but I remember they usually made comment like ‘If only you can be less playfui.’ I knew I was very playful and consequently caused all sorts of trouble. I recall that the turning point of my life was when I got into a form of trouble at Nickdel College in Ibadan. And even then in that school, I was known to be one of the most intelligent. When we had the junior WAEC, I had the overall best result in Oyo State. But I was very playful. I remained intelligent but I was not channeling it in a disciplined manner.
No social vice?
At all. Again, I think it was as a result of the strong background instilled in us by our disciplined father. However, mine was more of rascality – sneaking out of the boarding house once in a while, going home with the day students, etc. So, that is the kind of rascality I ventured into. But, I believe it was a turning point experience then because even though I was seen as a shining star of the school, I had a negative experience that changed everything for me and because of that experience, my parents decided I should leave that school.
What was that?
Well, it is a long story. But again, I would describe it as one of those rascalities. I remembered that we had finished exams at a time and there was a normal party that people usually had. And there was an instruction from the school authorities that people should go home and consequently there was a light out. But I did not know and so, I kept on playing. Along the line, there was a fight and I was picked as one of them because I was not in my bed. And I remember that, that experience almost ended my education. That would have been the end of my education because it led to a lot of trouble. And as a result of that, it was decided that I should go to Benin City. At that time, my immediate older brother was in Benin City and I felt my dad took me to Benin City because he had had enough of my trouble. But, I think the Nickdel experience was a life-changing one. What made the experience special was that I had been recommended for expulsion. So, I saw that this is how one can lose everything, even though the other kids were begging and I remember that my dad refused to go there to beg; instead, he was saying ‘you were sent to school to read and what were you doing out at night that you were not on your bed?’ That really was an eye-opener for me because I saw clearly how I could have been a drop out. So, I think that was how that came to be very special. I can tell you for free that the experience made me know that you could be intelligent and brilliant but if it is not channeled in the right direction, it could finish you. And I look back and thank God for that experience. That was the last time I engaged in any form of rascality.
You took this experience to your new school?
Yeah, I left Nickdel for Igbinedion Secondary school which is a premier private school. That helped me a lot. Firstly, I was far away from home. It gave me a sense of purpose, you know, living far away from one’s parents. So, there was no opportunity to sneak out of the boarding again (laughs). I noticed I became more focused. Yes, my brother was also there who is generally a quiet person. He was a year my senior and was able to guide me through. He was already a prefect and I looked at him and said ‘yes, why can’t I be like you too?’.
Did your ways, in those days, influence your choice of profession?
Yes, I think so and would also give credit to my dad. In all those things, parents have a big role to play. What we describe as rascality could actually be a talent or a skill. I was described as rascally because my other siblings were quiet, more meticulous and of course they turned out to be good scientists. For Law, you have to be the only one that would say what others cannot say. You have to be bold and confident. You have to be ready for good trouble. Those were my natural gifts but were easily dismissed as rascality. But I think my dad saw through all of those and concluded that this guy should be a lawyer and those were the times Gani Fawehinmi and others were making the news. They described him as a radical lawyer.
I think my dad began to pay close attention to that and ask me to read newspapers. And I was reading newspapers everyday, it was becoming clear reading those newspapers that I had a natural flair for social justice. Even though I was in Science class, I was taking attending Government and History classes which is very rare. So, when it was time to go to the university, it was already full blown and clear that this guy had a very strong skill to study Law.
I was already much more confident. I was positive and no longer extremely playful. I remember I did very well in WAEC. So, when it was time to go to the university, my immediate older brother was also at Igbinedion University studying Medicine. And I was meant to go there to study Computer Science. So, I went there to get a form for Computer Engineering or so. But, I was told that Computer Engineering was not starting that year. So, I called my dad to inform him of the development and asked what I should do. Then he asked me other courses on offer and I said Law. He said ‘bring the form back home because Law is what you have always been known for.’ You could see that it is a story of strong parental influence. I could have ended up studying Computer Science in which I might not have excelled. And I think the beauty is doing what you enjoy doing. As God would have it, I became the best graduating student of my whole set at the Igbinedion University graduating with a first class and also becoming one of the best students with a first class honours at the Law School. This opened so many doors for me home and abroad. I got so many scholarships outside of this country and I thank God for the most important call I received from my father and mentor, Aare Afe Babalola, SAN to come and take part in the development and uplift of the school.
A call from Aare?
Yes, someone close to me and also close to Aare Afe Babalola discussed with Baba about my academic achievement and this made Baba to call me to come and lecture in his higher institution.
And you just jumped at the offer despite doing well abroad?
Yes, I was doing well, especially having traversed virtually all countries of the world. However, the call was important to me because I had heard a lot about Aare Afe Babalola and I had never met him until then. As a matter of fact, looking at how respected and influential he has been in the country, I could not but honour the call. I felt it was an opportunity to be under the tutelage of a man of honour like Baba Aare Afe Babalola. I have never for once had a regret over that decision and I thank the Lord that under him, I have been able to build on past achievements and accomplish several professional milestones at a very young age, which include becoming a full professor of law at 32, deputy vice chancellor at 36 and Senior Advocate of Nigeria at 37. I, however, continue to avoid setting age limits or targets for anything as God is the ultimate planner and decider.
How would you describe Aare Babalola then?
Hmmm. Baba Aare Afe Babalola is a father figure to me. I am extremely fortunate to have the greatest mentor of all times, Aare Afe Babalola, SAN, OFR is a highly cerebral, versatile and supportive father, whose love for mentoring young people is unparalleled. I think my head and brain size have enlarged at least 10 times more since I met him. This is an exemplary and selfless man who, without formal classroom education, has become globally-recognized as the father of university reform in Nigeria and the founder of the fastest growing university in Africa. My goal in my current role is to be an inspiration to and support for others just as Aare Afe Babalola has been to me.
You met your wife amidst these?
(Laughs). My wife completes me. She is a truly beautiful and wonderful woman and I was indeed very fortunate to have met her while I was in the United Kingdom. Interestingly, we had both attended Igbinedion University, Okada, but she was in the sciences, so I only knew her from a distance back then before she eventually left Igbinedion University for the United Kingdom. As fate would have it, I was fortunate to meet her again in the UK when I was a PhD student and we connected immediately as former schoolmates as we had a lot to talk about. What started as old school gist transformed very quickly and the rest, as they say, is history.
How do you unwind?
I am an avid traveller. In addition to work-related travels, I like to discover new destinations, new cultures, new languages and new food. So I take my time to try out new things in every country that I have visited. Similarly, I am a passionate football fan and so I actively support Manchester United, and of course, the Super Eagles of Nigeria.
What is your style statement?
My style is warm and contemporary. I pick out warm colours that enable me to maintain a professional but very sophisticated look. I also actively try out new fragrances and colognes that allow me to always complement the professional look with a dash of contemporary and fresh scent.
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