Bolaji Abdullahi, former commissioner, minister, spokesman for the Peoples Democratic Party and teacher, has packed a lot into a relatively young life. His private life is as interesting as his public life. He speaks to SEGUN KASALI.
Bolaji roughly means waking up into wealth, was that the situation when you were born?
(Laughs). It is actually interesting asking me this question. No one had ever asked this before. It is either presumptuous on the side of my parents or a leap of faith. I could recall very well that when I was born, the situation in life was really, really challenging. Poor people in a rural area of Niger State. Poor tailor and his poor wife gave birth to a child in such condition and named him “Bolaji” (laughs). I could also recall that there was nothing at that time that would make them give their child that kind of name.
They never explained the circumstance to you?
No. That is why I said it is either presumptuous on the side of my parents or a leap of faith. Maybe they were inspired. Again, I would not attach much significance to that because just like you have so many Bolajis that are doing so well, you also have some Bolajis that are not doing well. But, in this particular context, I can only ascribe it to inspiration because the name could also be aspirational on their own side regarding their wishes for their new child.
Did you see traces of this aspiration growing up?
All I recollect is that my father especially was abnormally strict with me unlike my elder sister that was a bit cuddled. For me, it is like the man was determined very early to make a man out of me. It was like he thought or feared he was not going to have another male child (laughs). This reflects in the kind of education that I have had. In addition to the regular school. I had to go to Quran school. Then, I would come home to a lesson teacher. Then, there was a Yoruba teacher waiting in the wing. Though we were growing up in Niger State, we spoke Yoruba so well. Hausa was my fourth language.
Why did he do that?
I don’t know. Maybe he was afraid that growing up in the North, I could lose my Yoruba identity or lose the language. And also, maybe there was an underlining fear that he was not going to have another male child. Or he was actually conscious that I was his first male child. I think more of this, I guess. But, I had some brothers subsequently and he never let off after that. So, I believe his thinking was if he got me right, others would also toe the same path.
For someone who didn’t go to school, I think that was really remarkable on his own part that he had to hire a Yoruba teacher. He taught himself to read Yoruba. And I have benefitted tremendously from that because I consider my Yoruba language to be above average because of that. So, what I know was that if naming me the way he did was aspirational, I think it worked for him by the kind of training, by the kind of upbringing that he gave me. Plus, though they were poor, one thing I can remember is that we never had to go without food. I remember in my primary school, maybe primary three; he carried me on his bike. I had a crash helmet to myself. At that time, talking about early 70s in the village, that was like wow.
You later became mechanic apprentice?
My dad was so convinced about the power of education as if he knew that was going to be the path for the family’s advancement and for my advancement in particular. But, I think while he was doing that, he had one eye on the possibility of me wanting to do something else apart from academics, and I remember that even the Yoruba class he enrolled me in, I learnt the basic things like “Ise ni ogun ise. Mura si ise ore mi. Ise ni a fi n di eni giga. Bi a ko ba mu ra si ise, bi ole ni a ri. Bi a ko ba ri eni gbekele, a te ra mo ise eni. So, all that formed the basis for the shaping of my worldview. I was not so successful in the mechanic workshop. I was completely useless actually because I couldn’t even differentiate between one kind of spanner or the other (laughs).
I don’t know. I was more interested in the reading thing than using my hand. I think I was enrolled into the mechanic school while I was in Primary Four and that would take me to about eight years or so. So, I was there and there were people like my age who were even younger than me and do basic things like clean the filter, change the plug, bring this spanner and bring that spanner. I was only getting beaten because they would ask me to bring this spanner and I would bring another spanner (laughs). So, at the end of the day, I was reduced to running errands like go and buy food and I was more comfortable with that (laughs).
You never told your dad you weren’t interested?
No, I didn’t have the gut to tell him or go back to him. I think what happened was that luckily for me, we relocated to Ilorin from Kontagora in Niger State around 1980 or so. So, after that, he was a bit relaxed. I noticed that. In retrospect now, he didn’t insist that I should continue with the mechanic apprenticeship but he dragged me to show more interest in his tailoring work (Laughs). Maybe he got some report that I was not doing so well in the mechanic’s. So, at least, I knew how to run some threads, how to put some pencil markers, I know how to put buttons, I know how to put bottle holes and I know how to do basic things till now.
Why your love for academics?
I have always loved to going to school because I remember the year I started primary school was not the year I was supposed to start. It was my elder sister that was going to school if you could call that a school because it was actually under a tree in a village in Niger state. There were no schools as it were but the community was just trying to organize a school. But, they had uniform. My sister would wear her uniform. So, I couldn’t understand why this girl could be going to school and I would not be going to school. So, I insisted and I follow her to school. They rejected me but I had to come back and refused to go. My hand couldn’t touch my ear on the other side. So, by their definition, I wasn’t ready to go to school. But, I was ready to go.
How well did you cope?
I was doing very well and I don’t think they had to reflect on whether they accepted me or not. You know I just joined seamlessly. But, I recall that I actually dropped out at current JSS 2 and that was the present day Iponri Secondary School in Kwara State. This is after we had relocated to Kwara State. I completed my primary school at LSMB Baraka Primary School in Ilorin. Then I went on to Iponri Community Secondary School. So, I found that I was only coming first. But, even as young as I was, say 11 or 12, I knew it was the same teacher teaching us five subjects. The teachers were not really up to scratch. All I had to do was to memorize everything and pour it down in the exams. So, it was so easy for me that I was always coming first and all. So, I was used to memorizing things, and I discovered that it was not the standard I should be. So, by the end of the second term in Form 2, I told my father I wasn’t going back to the school. He was not impressed because he felt he worked so hard- lobbied so many people to be able to give me admission into that school. So, if I didn’t want to go to that school, It meant I wasn’t going to school again. And perhaps that was why he was trying to get me an occupation earlier (Laughs). I told my father the school I wanted to go was Mount Carmel College which was closer to my house, with serene, beautiful environment.
So, what was your father’s response?
He said he couldn’t afford to pay for me to go to that kind of school. He insisted I should go back to Iponri, but I insisted I wasn’t going back. But, he didn’t know I was leaving home in the morning and coming back in the night. He didn’t know what I was doing. As of that time, I had started working as a bus conductor. So, I would leave home in the morning, go to a motor park, look for someone who was looking for a conductor and I would join them to work because in my mind, I could save enough money for me to go to Mount Carmel College (laughs). But, that was what I was doing without his knowledge. And sometimes, I would enjoy myself hearing him boast to his friends, ‘look at these useless touts [bus conductors]. No child of mine would be a conductor’ (laughs), and I would secretly be laughing.
Unfortunately for me, I went out one day because I didn’t have a permanent driver that I was attached to and was more or less freelancing, I happened to meet this driver who was plying the route from Ilorin to Kaduna. So, that was how I followed him to Kaduna. It was one thing for you to be missing in the day because he was not around. But, not coming back home to sleep was too much for anyone not to notice. So, I didn’t come back home and it was a big issue in the community. So, they started looking for me and I was nowhere to be found. We didn’t come back until three days. My mother had already driven herself insane with worry. So, I showed up on the third day and I saw people looking like, where did he come from? And people were coming out of their houses as if a ghost walked into town (laughs). And everybody was coming and saying “O ti de o, O ti de o” (laughs). You know the first question is where were you?
How did dad react?
The first question he asked was where did you go? Of course, I didn’t have the gut to answer the question. But, I got the beating of my life. I was beaten black and blue. So, after gaining some respite, I had to confess that I had actually been working secretly as a bus conductor. He was very emotional. I remember him crying that day that he was still alive and his son was a bus conductor (laughs). Of course, that was the end of my career as a bus conductor.
Did you join others to smoke?
No, I never did. I had followed some drivers who would park to smoke Indian hemp. I knew it was Indian hemp they were smoking. In my father’s eyes however, being a conductor is an advanced level of being an Indian hemp smoker. So, in his eyes, I must have started smoking (laughs).
You returned to school and eventually studied Mass Communication.
Absolutely. It was the only thing I wanted to do at that point. After reading all those authors, I marvelled at what they did. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to create words. So, I wanted to learn to do that. I could remember I was already in the Press Club in my secondary school. Of course, I read a bit of African Poetry. So, when I applied for ‘A’ levels, I actually wanted to leave secondary school in Form Four in the following year because I registered for External GCE in Form Four. I remember the exams were in Gwagwalada and I was the smallest in the exam hall. But, NOV/DEC exams were designed for those working and older people. So, they were surprised to see this young boy coming to write GCE. I remember I just chose some subjects randomly- History, Government, IRK and English language. And I got A1 in History and Government, A3 in IRK and C in English. I became a sensation in my school. This is because they had been graduating students for years but they hadn’t got that kind of result not to talk about someone in Form Four.
I remember I filled in Unilag and Mass Communication for the three choices. My friend thought I was dumb because how would you have three options and choose the same thing. But, that was the only thing I wanted and that was how I got into Unilag to study Mass Communications.
Is that where you met your wife?
I have more than one wife. So, It means I would have to talk about all my wives. What I can say about that is that it has taught me leadership, the ability to have a sense of perspective and to be able to hold things together, to be able to develop an instinctive sense of fairness, justice and equity. I don’t think the saying that the path to peace is justice is truer in any other context than in a polygamous marriage. So, if you really want peace, you have to be just. I am particularly lucky in whatever decisions that I have taken. So, that is why I said I am particularly lucky with the kind of persons they are.
Was polygamy a choice for you?
It just happened. But, having chosen this kind of marriage, it imposes that responsibility on me and because of this, I found out that it is the principle that I have learnt in the leadership position that I have had- the principle of perspective, equity and fairness. Ability to put other people first. People who know my family would know that we are stable. You won’t even know who is whose mother. That is why I say that I am particularly lucky because I never encounter all the horrors that people talk about in polygamous life. Alhamdulilah! So, I never had a cause to regret for one day. I have never had a quarrel to settle between my wives.
What is that vice they complain about?
Well, they say that I don’t listen enough (laughs). I am sure your own wife would have told you same. Maybe their love for me overwhelmed whatever complaints they have. I think other people would be in a better position to talk about what I consider as my flaws. I am not in any way perfect.
You are handsome. Do ladies still make advances?
Priorities are different. When you have gotten to a stage that God has been kind to you, then you have to be very careful so you don’t fall into wrong hands or do anything that will embarrass your family. I have grown-up daughters already. One is already out of the university while the other two are in the universities. They are all adult. So, I can’t do anything that would embarrass them. They believe in me. They believe that I am a disciplined man and I have helped them to become who they have become. So, I wouldn’t do anything that would undermine that perception of me in their eyes.
Looking back, what would you regard as your happiest moment?
It is difficult to single out a day as my happiest. Again, that is to say that the Lord has been marvelous. So, which of those favours of the Almighty Allah can I deny? But there were significant moments in my life I could point out and say I was really happy. One of the significant days was the day my daughter graduated from the university in UK. Another was when I sat in the National Executive Council meeting. It was a 42-member Council and I reflected that this is the highest decision making body in Nigeria. forty-two people out of more than 170 million people in the country and I the son of a poor tailor and a trader mother was one of them. I shed tears that day because the story is not a common one. When I looked around me, the man who was the president had the same story. And so many others share similar stories too.
You worked with former President Goodluck Jonathan and also former Senate President, Bukola Saraki. What are those things people don’t really know about them?
I would say that they are two persons. Let me start with Dr. Saraki. Dr. Saraki was very comfortable with power. He understood power. He also feels that he was not as good as anybody and he was extremely hardworking. He has this calmness that makes it difficult for people to know what is going on in his mind. Even if you are arguing some issues and he is not really interested in what you are saying and he’s got a lot of respect for your opinion, he would agree with everything you are saying (laughs). If he doesn’t have enough of respect for your opinion, he would be nodding his head (laughs), saying ‘that’s true, that’s true, yes now’. You would go away thinking ‘I have deceived that man’. So, he is that kind of person.
President Jonathan is a different kind of leader. president Jonathan didn’t want power but he was aware of his responsibilities and I think he wanted to do so well for Nigerians and I have so much respect for him. These are two men I have tremendous respect for. When President Jonathan came out to say if a President used only 60 percent of his power, he would become a tyrant. He meant it. With the way he related with his ministers and the people around him, you could see that he wasn’t really interested in the power.
How did he relate with you?
Initially, I wasn’t really personal with him again because of where I was coming from. I think what happened is that on many levels whatever was the state of the relationship between him and Dr. Saraki at a point in time was also reflecting in my relationship with him (laughs). I think that kept us apart even though I was working for him. Towards the end of his administration, I think he began to realize I could bring a lot more into his government. So, he started inviting me to personal meetings where he was giving me specific assignment. And I think he was really happy with the work we were doing. I had a couple of friends like the former Attorney General, Mohammed Adoke, Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah including those who were telling him to see me for who I am. I know he had a lot of misconceptions.
I am not going to go into details because I am writing a book. For example, after we won the African Cup of Nations in South Africa, the kind of reception I got was not what i expected but I know what happened. Even when I was Minister of Youths, I did not expect the way he related with me. But, I know what was going on. So, there was a lot of prejudice attached to that. I think towards the end of 2013, he began to see me differently and he actually believed I could be useful to his administration.
Did you ever regret working with him?
No no. I never regretted because again I was the minister of sports. He showed that he was really really interested in what I was doing and he supported me. I remember when I organized a sports summit, he didn’t leave throughout. He would have been the first person to do that. He made it clear that sport was important to him and it was a priority of his government. In relation to my sector, he gave me all the support that I needed. And that is why when what happened happened, I wish I wasn’t made to choose. I was forced to choose between President Jonathan and Dr. Saraki. Dr. Saraki himself never made me to choose. President Jonathan himself never made me to choose.
What was the thing that happened?
There was a rally in Kwara State that President Jonathan was coming to attend ahead of 2015 elections. And being the most senior office holder in Kwara State, there were certain roles expected of me. At that point, Dr. Saraki had already left PDP. So, there were certain things I was expected to do as the most senior office holder which I was not in a position to do. All that happened that day was about abuses and attack on Dr. Saraki. I didn’t do that because Dr. Saraki did not offend me. He’s been my benefactor at different levels. So, I wasn’t going to do that because I wanted to protect my appointment. Jonathan did not ask me to do that because he was not that kind of person. So, there were some people around him who were telling him, no, this guy is not going to be useful for you. You have to remove this guy and bring somebody else who can help you’. I think he yielded to that pressure but did not require me to start fighting Dr. Saraki because of the political decisions he made at that time. But, when I had to choose, I voted for my principles because if it was Dr. Saraki that asked me to start attacking Jonathan, I would have said no. So, that was what happened.
You mostly refer to him as your benefactor.
Yes. He is my benefactor. This is because I was reluctant to join his government in 2003 but he persuaded and encouraged me that we were going to do something differently. Eventually, I joined him and didn’t have any regret over that. We changed a lot of things. And I think that was the time you started hearing about Kwara State. And of course, he gave me the opportunity to do what I love to do which is caring for the children, as commissioner for education. If you ask me of all the things that I have done which I am most proud of, that was it.
Why the love for children?
I don’t know. But, what I know is that I am the happiest when I am in the classroom or amongst children. I am at best when I am in the midst of children because it does something to me. That is what inspires me more than anything else. For me, that was the happiest moment of my life. It was challenging at many levels and many people were seeing the challenges. But, for me, it was the opportunity that I had, to impact the lives of the children. He gave me that opportunity. So, he is my benefactor.
Looking back, what would you have done differently?
Maybe there are some political decisions that I took but ought to have given deeper consideration and probably be conscious of what I was doing.
I am not going to elaborate (laughs).I think I was too impulsive and instinctive about some things. Even though those decisions were to affect too many people at different levels, I didn’t put their decisions by mine. But, I think if you are a man of principles, you should be willing to pay certain sacrifices.
Why the Mallam in your name?
Interestingly, the first time I was addressed as ‘Mallam’ was during my NYSC (laughs). I served in Sokoto Polytechnic. And if you see some of the reports I had written, it was Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi. This is because the Hausa people refer to a lecturer or teacher as Mallam.
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