I used to party hard, just like my father —Osuntokun
Researcher, political scientist and strategist, Akin Osuntokun, in this interview with SEGUN KASALI and LANRE ADEWOLE tells his life story and the youthful exuberance which almost cost him his life.
WILL it be right to call you a silver-spoon?
I don’t know what you mean by silver spoon. My father was a minister for 11 years and after that, he went back to be the principal of a secondary school. To that extent, I was born into an upper class family. But he didn’t pamper any of his children. He was one of the two ministers that were absolved of total, or any form of corruption in 1966 by Justice Kayode Eso. That was the kind of father I had. But that doesn’t mean I had a whole comfortable childhood more than many of my peers.
What were the lessons from him to you?
One of them is honesty, saying things as they are and of course, personal development. He was an extremely self-assured and confident person. He was also an intellectual. Of course, he had his own excesses. He was the most singular factor that predisposed me to seeking political office because he was my role model. Most fathers are the role models of their children. His career was more compelling. Early in life, we were exposed to struggles in order to live well.
And his excesses…?
Excesses? He played and partied hard, thus tended to neglect his security of himself and that of his family. I will consider those as his excesses. If not for that, I believe he would have lived longer considering that he had all the material comfort.
What were the traits from your mum?
My mother was also a straight-shooter. She placed emphasis on education. She was a teacher all through her life. She started being a teacher at a very young age.
The children of teachers are always expected to be brilliant. Were you?
You should be able to assess me from the way I am talking and discussing with you. I was very bright, even though I was careless. Education was easy for me. I didn’t need to be a bookworm in order to scale through my education. I guess you can say that I was above average.
Were you bright up to university?
When we were growing up, and probably till today, a brilliant child tends to be pampered. For me, I enjoyed the privilege of being brilliant. We all grow from primary and secondary school, wanting to be first or second in your class without the need to work too hard for it. And the value of education was better then than now. Of course, the school’s dedication then was world-class. The person who attended a Grammar School in a village in the 1960s was not at a disadvantage, compared to somebody in Washington. When we were growing up, after secondary school, those who travelled abroad for university education were regarded as those who could not compete here. That was the assumption. That tells you the kind of quality and standard of education that was available across board. That was what set Chief Obafemi Awolowo on the path of immortality in terms of Free Primary Education in Western region in 1955. I can’t remember the school I went to. I went to school in a village. I was living with my grandmother because our family life was disrupted by the colonial crisis of 1966. So, primary school period was a period of family instability. My father was at the centre of the crisis and of course, that affected us. But, I was not staying with my grandma in secondary school because my mother had already come back. I had a pampered secondary school. it was a kind of compensation for all of us when things were very tough.
What was your childhood dream?
To be like my father.
What are your indelible school experiences?
I schooled in Ado-Ekiti and Osun. Well, you know it’s versatility and adventurous. I had a very rugged social life, partying hard and all those indulgences. All these things toughened one up. The negative effect was that it could be at the expense of one’s prospect at school. I will not recommend ‘rascality’ for anybody. It is one of those things that prepared me for adulthood in terms of adaptability. I had peers we used to be together then. Of course, they didn’t allow us go to parties in school but we scaled the fence after midnight (laughs). Of course one got caught at times. But at the same time, I was a prefect, so, I always walked on both sides of the road. And you know that if you are good in your academics, you will get away with a lot of things, even though my parents got reports of my rascality in school.
Are your friends still around now?
Of course, they are still around. The big thing was that I did very well in my examinations, while many of them didn’t. It affected their development. I sat for GCE when I was in Form 4 and out of the 5 subjects, I had distinction in one, credit in two and pass in the rest. By the time I got to Form five, WAEC for me was no big deal. I passed all with Grade one. I was also lucky because somebody who had a very positive influence on me was my college brother, who is the owner of Chams now. He was a year ahead of me, but he was a bit mature. In terms of academic discipline and other virtues like fasting, he introduced them to me at that very early age. At the same time, I was partying, I also had that religious consciousness. We used to fast a lot.
To what end were you fasting?
To succeed in examination in my secondary school days.
Did the academic setback of your friends not create a gap between you and them?
It did. They stayed away from me and I had a new set of friends. By the time I went to the university, many of them were still grappling with school certificate examinations. Many of my friends that I had and I still have come through the route of my father’s colleagues, friends and career.
You don’t want mention to their names?
I don’t know if you know late Chief T.A. Oni & Sons? We are family friends. We are both from Oke-Imesi.
Do you still see those your secondary school friends?
Yes. There is one of them who is doing very well now. He is the founder and chief executive officer of Providus Bank. Also, he and his wife own a petroleum outfit. They have a chain of retail petrol stations. He is far, far richer than myself (Laughs). His name is Walter Akpani.
You still do owanbe together?
No. After secondary school, he was not given to social experimentation. Like I said, I come from a very large family and many of the circles that I flow in came from that family circumstances-friends of friends and relatives of relatives. So, that was the advantage of a good family. My dad had brothers who were very successful, so I did not only make friends with my father’s friends, but also from my uncle’s friends and their family. And of course, also from my mother side. So, the bulk of the friends was from social circle, while I inherited a lot from my family circle.
Were girls involved in rock and roll of those days?
Of course. We were not homosexuals (laughs). But the prevalent impression is that people of that generation were only into love letters. That’s not true. Dancing with girls when listening to blues was something rated as high. One of those things that set us apart was that many of those things we did, many didn’t do it even after they left university. But the thing is that I always look back with a sense of excitement of those days because you also matured before your peers. When you have had those experiences that adults had, there was nothing new by the time I got to the university. And of course, many of our peers had delayed development in that respect. So, many of them compensated for it when they were already old. I think a large part of my own was luck and providence. We did things that could have resulted to fatality. We were partying, driving recklessly all over the place, drinking and smoking. I can say that I lost friends and cousins to accidents. I missed accidents by the whiskers.
Can you recall a significant episode?
Oh yes, of course. I had a friend, Kunle Doherty, who we used to call Bobo Dee. My older sister then wanted to sell her car, Honda Civic, and I took him to where the car was. I didn’t have a car when we used to go around then. A student with his car at that time was very unusual. We had a club outing at Badagry and we were in University of Lagos. We were already going and he wanted to pick two girls from their hall to join us for the party. When we got to the female hostel, I was very impatient and restless and I told him I couldn’t wait any longer in the car. So, I went to join another car. On our way to Badagry, not far from LASU, his own car overtook us on the way. On a sharp bend around LASU, there was an ECOWAS truck that was on a reverse on the expressway and you know young people drive fast. They ran into it and we were looking at them like this. There were four people in the car and they were lying down flat on their stomach. Two of them survived with severe injury and two died, including my friend.
When did you start slowing down?
Maybe after my Youth Corps scheme. I was the manager of a night club called Page in Ibadan during my youth service. It was owned by a family friend. Of course, we were having parties. One day I woke up and I discovered that I had vomited in my sleep. This is what kills many people. If I was lying on my stomach, I would have choked. I remember that that was the beginning. I started saying no, that I needed to slow down and take things easy. Of course, when we were young, we thought we were immortal, regardless of the fact that it was happening around us.
How then did you carry out your fasts with that lifestyle?
By the time I was doing my first degree, I was very unserious and less-disciplined. I was no longer fasting. But, of course, I went back to the idea of fasting and praying later in life. But, I was more serious in my second degree.
Did your unseriousness affect your academic performance?
Yes, because I could have done better. Like I said, I was always lucky because I would have a room to always rectify them. When I started writing, it was strange to many of my friends that we were partying together. They were like ‘when did this one start getting serious?. Many of them were surprised because they couldn’t remember the you they knew and the new you. It was not something I deliberately set out to do. It just came. All I along, I knew I had the gift of writing. Starting a journalism career then was not a conscious decision. Like many were looking for jobs in oil companies and all, I was also looking for it. But, when that didn’t happen, I went into journalism. The thing about journalism is that you are going to be recruited because of your ability and talent that have become manifest. So, it just came naturally. I enjoyed journalism and it suited my career. Journalism gives you room for flexibility. It accommodates the tendency not to have routine discipline. I sleep late and tend to wake up late. If you are a journalist, going to the office before 12 wasn’t a big deal because you didn’t have anything doing. I used to laugh at myself because when I listen to a Yoruba radio station, they used to say “ago mejo ni ole n ji” meaning the lazy wakes up at 8 a.m. (laughs). My output was meritorious.
At the mention of your name, what comes to mind is someone that loves life?
Really? Actually, it is the contrary that people say. They say I am someone who is so serious and more sensitive to the development of Nigeria. So, I don’t think that is the perception people have of me.
Which of the vices is still with you since there is no man without one?
Maybe partying. I don’t smoke. I am a social drinker. I don’t know how you want a married man to accept that he womanises. I am not a womaniser anyway. Even if I am,…
Did you have nicknames in school then?
Yes, they called me Sozo (Laughs). I inherited it from my elder brother. They passed his nickname unto me. I didn’t know the origin of the name, but the irony was that I was more known with the name than he, who was the originator,
Of course yes. The regret I had was that I mixed Science and Arts subjects in a way I shouldn’t have and I suffered for it. In my A-levels, I registered for Government, Agric, Economics and Mathematics. I was told that if you wanted to study Mathematics at A-levels, you must be brilliant and be a bookworm, so I had to change to Government, Economics and History.
Looking back, what were those things you would have done but you didn’t do?
I would have been more serious about my studies. But that disappointment ended up in a good way. If I had taken up an offer in the oil industry, I don’t think I would have attained the heights that I have now with my background in journalism. By that time, I would have seen it as a blessing if I were offered a job in the oil industry. I ended up in journalism not because I wanted it and not because that was my choice. I liked it as a sideline but not as a career. But I knew I wanted to be active and visible in the public life.
Did you feel inferior to your friends in other sectors?
I didn’t feel so because when I started, I became very visible. Many people started to read about me. So, there was no room for that at all. I was compensated with early visibility and exposure which you cannot buy.
Were you calmer when you met your wife?
Every critical stage in my life was always unique, so also my marriage. I don’t like hurting people. When it got to the stage that I got to the marriage age in which any girlfriend you have should look forward to getting married to you, in 1994, I was going to Germany for a Fellowship and I had a relationship that I had to abandon. It was very painful to the lady. So, I said that God should give me my wife and that the next lady I would ask to be my girlfriend would be my wife. Of course, I didn’t tell anybody. It was only me. So, on my way back to Nigeria, I encountered the lady. The only thing was that I had a German girlfriend, but I couldn’t marry her. The covenant I entered into with God was that the next person I approached to be my girlfriend would be my wife.
How have you been giving back to the society.
By sacrificing my comfort, material security and struggle to get Nigeria better since I was able to do that effectively in my journalism career and it has stayed with me up till now. I have been writing a column since 1990. Of course, it is very critical of the status quo. This was most instructive when Abacha was the military Head of State. That time, I was at the Guardian Editorial Board, where I wrote a weekly column on Sunday. The column criticised Abacha, not minding what could happen. I don’t know if it had anything to do with my uncle being detained because we have the same name. The thing I knew was that I was very confrontational.
Have you seen yourself in any of your children?
Oh yes. My first child, who is also my first son, is almost a duplicate in appearance, in free-mindedness and the tendency for laxity. He is almost following my path. I don’t intrude in his private life. All I know is that he parties too. In fact, he is better than me because he doesn’t drink and he doesn’t like alcohol. I was smoking at his age but he doesn’t do either.
You worked with two presidents. Any public misconceptions about them, particularly OBJ?
He does things that if you are not close to him, you would never understand. He disciplines his own child more than the other person. He believes that Yoruba are very competitive, but you don’t need to be nepotic. He believes you need to have a level playing ground for everybody.
Did you ever see Jonathan raise his voice during the time you were around him?
Well, I have not been around him that much. One thing you need to know about him is that he did not aspire to become president. That is the critical difference between him and Obasanjo. Jonathan was thrown into a situation he was not fully prepared for, considering the complexity of Nigeria’s politics. He had not been exposed to the nitty-gritty of Nigerian politics at that level. He is not an assertive person.
Doyin Okupe once said there was a day OBJ, as president, threw a slipper at him because he was trying to advise him.
That doesn’t mean Baba was overly angry. He could be playing pranks at times. Like when he is playing squash with his ADC, he would say that his ADC is stupid enough to beat him (laughs).
There are also talks of him having a soft spot for you?
You have to ask him. I think it has to do with honesty. Secondly, I am not intimidated by office. I see him more like a father figure and that justifies the way I speak to him. I can be very critical to his face and he encourages me to do that. He gets to hear some things he wouldn’t have heard from other people. If people are with him and everyone is expressing their opinion and I am not talking, he would say ‘you, you must say something. You with your big mouth, you must talk’. I think people in power enjoy people who make them feel natural rather than massaging their ego. I have some friends who are the same age with my father and I speak to them the way I speak to him, but not rudely.