BOLA BADMUS and SEGUN KASALI engaged Atona Oodua, Chief Olabode George, on how the journey started for him amid life odds, among other issues.
YOUR surname is George? What is the origin of the name?
I am the real special model from my background. My great-grandfather was a reverend gentleman. He had a white horse and was born in Lagos and became a reverend. He was evangelising around Nupe area in present day Niger State where there were Christians; then, he married a Nupe woman.
When he brought her back to Lagos, you know Oshodi people are Tapas (Nupe). In those days, the Oshodi street ended up in the lagoon. That was the area where the Nupes settled with their kulikuli and Igunnuko and all those things that were culturally linked to them. So, he came back to Lagos and she had three children for great-grandpa. My grandfather was the only son and he had two sisters, one older and one younger. And the older one got married to another Oshodi man. My grandfather learnt printing and was working at Government Printing Press, which was located on Joseph Street by Broad Street.
He married my paternal grandmother who came from Brazil. She landed when she was only five years old with her mother, her brother and her elder sister. According to oral history, she attended St. Mary’s Primary School. They were living around Popo Aguda area of Lagos Island. Mama Bamgbose, which we called her, had three children – my father, my uncle and another uncle. Then, grandpa also married another Lagos woman from one agbo’le (compound) near Tinubu Square, who had two children for him.
My grandfather became an organist at Ereko Methodist Church. Now, grandma was a housewife. I grew up to meet her and she died the year I graduated. Fortunately, her older sister also married one Mr. Martins and had so many children for the Martins’ family. In fact, one of her daughters was the original wife of Oba Oyekan. From my mother’s side was a Mrs Aganga Williams. I don’t know where papa picked up the George name. He was referred to as George Eleshin [George horse ownwe]. That was all my father told me and our family house is on Evans Street.
How did rich background shape you?
Wow! First, my grandfather died in 1947 and I was only two years old. According to my grand-father, nothing should touch me. You know that I was his first grandson. My father told me that if he corrected me for anything, he would get a slap from papa (Laughs). On my mother’s side, my grandmother, who married into the Phillips’ family, died and my mother didn’t know her mother. But we knew the great-grandmother, Mama Idumota, who came from Sierra-Leone. Papa and grandma were the two people we now met, growing up.
You must have been over-pampered then?
(Laughs). I was o. When grandpapa died, thereafter, I came under the heavy thumb of my dad (laughs). No messing up. So, I used to run to Idumota because my grandmother over-pampered me, giving me everything I wanted. Papa used to wear his suit and put a little picture of me in his jacket anywhere he wanted to go (Laughs). He died in 1959.
So, nothing must touch me. So also, was my grandma. Then, my dad grabbed me to Evans. I used to run from my father’s house in Evans to Idumota because I was over-spoilt in Idumota.
Was that why you were moved to boarding school in Ijebu-Ode?
In 1951, I started primary school at St. John, Aroloya, which was not too far from our house. I didn’t know my left from right. My father was a very tall man, but I was and still a replica of my mum, while my younger sister is like my dad. So, when it was time for promotion in the class, I had to repeat. My father then arranged for me to go to a lesson class after school. Football was the only thing in my head. Our local area in Isale Igangan was our stadium, where we used to play football and I was the captain of the club: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
I was very good in football. I remember when we finished games and won, they would carry me from the Isale Igangan square through Ipaye, straight to Evans. And I would tell them ‘don’t go to the house because if my father sees me …’ (laughs).
Was this addiction to football responsible for your truancy in school?
I tell you one thing. My dad and my mum separated. It is a very, very terrible thing for kids. It happened to me too and it affected my first son. I would appeal with those coming – it requires a lot of patience. My father had already concluded I was never going to school. He had already made arrangement for me to go and learn carpentry (Laughs).
There was one man who said why would Bode go and do carpentry? I would tell you this. In those days when West was still six years in Primary school, Lagos was eight years. Then, a very close friend of mine, who used to live on Number 4 Evans road, told me he did entrance exams in Ijebu-Ode Grammar School. I never heard of the school. Where we knew in Lagos were Baptist Academy, CMS Grammar School, King’s College, Igbobi College and others. When I did entrance exam, I passed, but because they were day schools, my father decided to take me to Ijebu Ode which was a boarding school.
I had never gone beyond Ebute-Metta in my life. So, they bundled me and I went to do the entrance exam, passed and got into the school. So, the moment I got to Grammar school, I became very well organised – there was time for school, time for food, time for games. I could not believe it. They taught one that life is not just a bed of roses. One must be organised.
That was why I said father and mother, jointly training their children is so, so important. Of course, my father married my stepmother, but it was not the same. I just could not fit into being at peace. You know we had my grandfather’s sister who was living in the house. Despite all that, my stepmother did not do anything because I was the only son of my mum. So, you can imagine why I loved rushing to Idumota, where what I wanted to eat was what I would get. But, I could not settle during my growing up years. My father could not understand. I too could not understand.
Were you ever told reason(s) for your parents’ separation?
No. You know the culture. My father passed on when I had been governor, being that he was aged. You would ask your dad such a question? (laughs). You would just conclude that you would get a damn slap (laughs). So, you had to behave yourself. Before we went to Grammar School, we got to football final that year and I was the Captain, so, I kept all the jerseys in my room. And they now said the final was going to be on a Sunday.
When the man told me, I said ‘ehn Sunday? No chance in the world I can play.’ This was because on Sunday I would go to the morning service, I was a chorister and would also wait for Sunday school. Who the heck are you to say you are going to play football on a Sunday. They said ‘ah captain, we have been working and working.’ But I said ‘I can’t, we used to play on Saturdays now.’ I had gone to lesson classes when the coach came to my father’s house. They wanted to see my father. My dad was like ‘who is this one, from where?’ Then, he introduced himself as the manager of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. My father was like ‘which one is Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ (laughs). He was also surprised that baba did not know. So, they now invited my father to be chairman of that day. So, when I returned, my father called me. He had gone to my room because the manager told him I was the captain and keep all the jerseys.
As I came in, he said what is 7 Brides for 7 Brothers? (laughs). My head was now on a globe as I wondered within me how he knew about the club. He just went and brought the jerseys (laughs). That was when I knew it was now an open secret. I was wondering how he got to know because whenever we were coming from training, I would enter the house through the backdoor because he would be looking through his window. Anyways, he accepted. When my father got to Isale Igangan that day, we lost the match unfortunately (laughs). Even my friend (Jaspi) and General Olanrewaju also played for their own club: Okhlahoma. Tunde Disu played for us. But when I got to the Grammar school, there was order and I settled in.
In Form One, I played for the Junior School. Once it was time for sports, you can be sure I would be there. When I got to Form Two, I was now playing for first eleven even though I was the smallest. I played till I finished with schooling, and that was how I became popular in the whole Ijebu province. It was in this school that I settled properly for my academic work. I remember the first time I came up in a class of 30, I was in the 10th position.
If I came back to this world, I would still go to Ijebu-Ode Grammar School, for the training, the Christian virtues, the civility of life and the comportment. Everything that I am today, apart from home, I got them at that school. And there was order. I think from Form Two till I graduated there, nobody took first position ahead of me.
You even got a scholarship to Brendan in Essex despite not being bright in primary school.
Yes. I settled in my Grammar school because there was order in the sense that everything had time. It was not that we did not have the brain when we were kids, it was just that the balance was not there because you needed it at home from both parents. The responsibilities of the man are completely different from the responsibilities of the woman. But, they must combine to assist you. That was what I concluded that I lost. But, getting to secondary school, the school filled the void. If you don’t fall in line, you fall out. It was a religious school. It is the first Grammar school in Ijebu land. It formed my future for me. By their tradition, the best two students would go to start their Higher School in Brendan School, Essex. You can imagine! So, when my father heard, he was so happy. I remember he took me to Lai-D-Tailor in Yaba and sewed me a suit (laughs). So, my friend Sola and I, now flew Lufthansa and it was mid-January. We did not have any top-coat. As we got to Frankfurt, I remember very well the vapour that was coming out from our mouth and we were shaking (laughs). So, they saw us and gave us something to cover up, before connecting the next flight to London.
As we touched down in London, we heard our names, that we should report at so, so place (laughs). So, they took us to the Information Desk where the school was waiting for us. We were given the jacket from the school. When we got into the car, it was so warm and before we knew it, we had slept off and woke up when we landed in the school. They took us to a shared room and Sola and I started school proper the next day.
How was the experience, sir?
Now, the first thing was to get our school uniform; then we went for breakfast. You know here if you want to drink pap, you drink pap, no three-course meal. So, the first thing they gave us was Quaker Oats meal and we thought that was the end just as we used to do here in Nigeria. Sola said this ‘small thing’ (laughs) will not do us anything o’. But we waited there while others on our table were looking at us like ‘what are you people doing’ (laughs). So, we were surprised when the next course came.
What are the indelible event(s) at Essex?
You know they had started in September, while we joined in January. And then, it was still Mathematics and Physics. That was my own line. Sola’s too. Then they added European History. But, the remarkable thing was that I was very, very good in Physics and Mathematics. You know they look at Africans as coming from substandard schools. But, I got a prize in Physics and Mathematics. Then, of course, football (laughs). So, they put me in their team, and anytime we wanted to play a match, they would start telling themselves that one black man had come and they would all rush to the field to watch (laughs). And that was very telling.
Thereafter you left for University of Lagos and became ladies’ man?
Ah! Ladies’s man? (laughs). I became the golden eye of my parents because I was the only son. Then, first year was okay. Second year, I became a student politician. You can imagine reading Engineering and at the same time being a politician. Most people thought I was in the Faculty of Law. Now, somebody that I would never forget because he took us as his younger brothers was Professor Ayodele Awojobi. Academics, for him, was ‘you would get it done if you are serious.’ But, to get involved in politics and be doing well… he really encouraged me.
So, in my set, many people did not know I was in Engineering (laughs), and when I became the National President of all Nigerian Universities Students Union, we pulled Unilag out of NUNS. How many universities were even there at that time – University of Lagos, University of Ibadan, Ife and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. University of Nigeria, Nsukka was locked down during the war. Later, College of Tech joined the union and Federal School of Science also.
You mean politics did not affect your studies?
No. I think it was God’s gift. I was now used to apportioning my time into doing things. All meetings as the president were done after the lectures. At Engineering faculty, you would have your lectures and then you go for your lunch. Coming back in the afternoon, you would go to the lab. We were just only eight in class then. I got a job in my final year and that was even before the exams.
So, how did Navy come in?
Before we wrote our final exams, the Niger Dams Authority came to the university, interviewed some of us and then offered us job to go to Kanji. Then, it was the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, a massive organisation and Niger Dams Authority was the only power station producing energy and the only client we had, was ECN. The World Bank now recommended to Nigeria that ‘look the account of Niger Dams Authority was always in black and ECN was always in the red’. They then recommended to the government to merge the two. That combination now became Nigeria Electricity Power Authority (NEPA). That was when I pulled out.
Really, Kainji was technically sound. I learnt a lot there. And then, Navy was moving into modern technology, and needed new graduates, not the old maritime navy. Like an Admiral said to me at the Royal Naval Engineering College, ‘in our days we used to have wooden ships but iron men. But, you today, we have wooden men but iron ships’ (laughs). He was trying to tell us that what they used to face was serious. You can imagine Columbus heading to America with a sailing boat.
So, I looked at Niger Dams Authority and ECN and they were going to merge. We were just 20 engineers from the top to bottom, but ECN had a lot of engineers. So, I said ‘I won’t join this’. I thereafter applied to the Navy because they were looking for young engineers. I was taken and they sent us for conversion course at the Royal Engineering College, where my naval life really started.
What are the impacts of life in the Navy?
Incredible! I attended a lot of courses – technical courses. I attended a lot of military trainings. I went to the HMS College in Portsmouth. I went to a Fire School. And then, United States War College was a gift. They took us to the United States and showed us their strength and power. We went to Naval Air Stations where they monitor submarines. I was lucky too, to be the class president at the US War College, Class 30.
And the unforgettable memories…?
I learnt to be 150 per cent loyal. I remember I went to Jaji which was a Staff College. It was a terrible experience for me. We had some operations. The last operation was taking minutes. You know in the military there are ways you are trained to do things and you know those ways are very different from the civilians’.
So, we started and that was the end of the course. We had written our papers. We had written everything. They now said I must have seen the paper to do so well. I was like which f….g paper? This one borders on jealousy but I was still high-flying. The other ability that God gave me is debating. When I was in Grammar school, I was doing inter-collegiate debate. For instance, the balloon debate where you must convince why it must be you.
Back to what I was saying as per my naval experience, I thought it was a joke when they said I would not graduate and we were close to graduation. That was the worst experience I had in my life.
How do you socialise at 75?
Socialise? Hmmm! I had my days when I was growing up. Nothing excites me anymore. When I was in school and even at the university, I was a good dancer and dressed the way ladies liked. I was a ladies’ man. If I go to a party now, it must be connected with very good friends of mine. I have had my own feel of booze in the Navy. Now, I am happy that I have a good woman as my wife.
Really? So, how did you meet her?
Ah! We went on a campaign. I was already in politics. I think it was Campos Square. We were talking and talking. Funsho Williams was my junior in Unilag and they all joined us and we were campaigning. I asked her ‘what are you doing at this campaign rally’? She was just interesting. She had divorced and was interested in politics. So, the thing just developed. You know it does not happen in a day. You have to develop it gradually. She was married before. She had her children. One has learnt all his lessons. What I want for me now is peace of mind, someone who will be on the same page intellectually.
At 75, what would you like to be remembered for?
That I led a race, I did my best and no regrets but there are principles of life – one must be honest. One must be just and must be equitable because, someday, one will be called to answer for what one has done. In life, God didn’t say one won’t have tribulations. By the time I came back from the War College in the US, I became Director of Weapons. And by that December in 1987, I became Governor of Ondo State. So, you see that if God wants to use one, He would send one through some tribulations in order for one to learn and see all sides of life. So, all these experiences make me tell people to calm down. Patience is important.
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