Former Wema Bank Executive Director and Obasewa of Ijebuland, Oluneye Okuboyejo, who recently retired from the board of University Press Plc, tells OLUFEMI ATOYEBI how he survived with his family during the first coup in Nigeria
I was born on May 21, 1933 in Ijebu-Ode but I spent my youthful days in Sapele and Warri. Because of the typical Ijebu background my parents had, they went as far as the then Mid-Western Region to trade. I was with them and attended St. Luke’s Primary School, Sapele. Reverend Odunuga from Ijebu-Ode was the headmaster then.
I also attended the prestigious Hussey College in Warri. After passing my Cambridge School Certificate Examination in 1953, I left Sapele and moved to Ibadan. Before we left secondary school, five of us were picked from Hussey College and sent to the Ministry of Education in Ibadan as officers. I was there until 1958. The present Olubadan of Ibadan, Samuel Odulana was my boss in the office. He was known as S. Lana and I did not know his full name until he became a king. He cherished punctuality and accountability. My aim was to use the opportunity to gain admission to the University College, Ibadan, now University of Ibadan. The competition to gain admission was so tough because there were just two major tertiary institutions in Nigeria at the time. I did not gain admission at my first attempt.
What did you do after failure to gain admission?
While studying for the examinations, I played for Hercules Football Club in Ibadan. I met Dr. Lekan Are there and we became friends. He is from Oke-Are and I was living in Amunigun. The team was the best in the city in the early 50s. Are was brilliant and gained admission to the UI while I was still waiting. I then called my parents and explained to them that I could no longer wait and that I wanted to travel abroad to study. In 1958, I left for the United Kingdom to study. My parents wanted me to study medicine but after examining the lifestyle of my brother and his friend, I decided to study law when I got to the UK. Being medical doctors, my brother and his friend had no time for themselves. They were the first set of doctors at the University College Hospital in Ibadan and they slept there often because of the pressure of the job. I wanted my freedom and moreover, my friends called me ‘The Law’ in school because of the way I dressed and argued. I also loved being a lawyer because of the respect lawyers earn in the society.
But I had a problem convincing my parents to allow me read law so I called an uncle and told him to beg them on my behalf. I think my father reluctantly agreed but he continued to pay for my tuition and send money for other needs.
What about your mother?
Because my friends called me ‘The Law’, our neighbours and her friends called her ‘Mama Lawyer’. So I knew she would support my decision and I was right. But she did not argue with my father when he said I should study medicine.
At 25, how easy was it for you to adjust to a new culture and environment in the UK?
I was determined to succeed, so it was not so difficult for me. The condition in the UK for law candidates was that they must have passed Latin language at Advanced level. I was a science pupil in Nigeria and although I did a bit of Latin, I was required to spend one year studying Latin and other subjects which I did. I was then admitted to the Holborn College of Law, London in 1960. The college, which is now a university, was an external institution that was feeding University of London and training students for the Bar Final.
Were there other Nigerians in the school?
We were many and I can easily remember that the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, Mohammed Uwais, was in the same set with me in the college. In 1963, I obtained my certificate and at the same time I earned my university degree. At that time, if you were called to the bar in the UK, you could practice in Nigeria. But a few months before we completed our study in the UK, there was a change of law which required us to attend a law school in Nigeria. We protested at the Nigerian High Commission but we did not have our way. But the protest reduced the duration of study at the law school to three months and on arrival in Nigeria, I was in the second set of students of the Nigerian Law School that was at the time located at Igbosere area of Lagos.
Did you practice in the UK?
Before I left London in 1963, the Western Region Government in Nigeria sent representatives to London to interview and offer employment to some of the best Nigerians studying there. I was offered an appointment but my wife and child were with me and I was not in a hurry to return. The government then promised that the appointment would be deferred until I returned home and that the ticket fees for my family would be paid. I eventually returned immediately after my study. I was offered the position of the state counsel. But before I resumed, I met Afe Babalola, whose wife is my wife’s youngest sister. Afe was in the UK when I was also there. He advised me to join him in his chamber in Ibadan but the government paid for my ticket to Nigeria and it would be dishonourable for me to walk away. I joined the House of Chiefs as a senior officer. But in 1966, there was a coup and the legislature was disbanded. On my request, I was transferred to the administrative arm of the government where I could rise to the position of a permanent secretary.
How much was your first salary?
As a graduate coming from abroad, I earned N620. I was given an accommodation in Agodi and later Eleyele and Iyaganku. I was also told that only two people in the civil service earned what I was being paid. But the region was desperate for my service.
How much of your first salary did you give your parents?
I gave everything to my parents. That is the tradition in Yoruba land. The father will distribute the money among members of the family and give the rest to the child. Then they will all pray for the child. That was what happened to my first salary.
Did your children do the same?
I trained my children the way I was trained. I have six children who live abroad. Each of them brought their first salary to us although with the kind of economy we have now, we could not touch their money. We just prayed for them and support them whenever they need any assistance. God has been very good to me in everything. I am not rich but I can afford whatever I want to eat at my age.
Where were you on the day of the 1966 coup?
I was at home in Eleyele, close to the military barracks. My wife was a teacher at the military school. In the night, we saw people running around and there was confusion in the barracks as gunshots were reeling out constantly. My wife called me and expressed her worry. For a couple that just returned from Europe, coup was strange to us. When we realised that a coup had taken place, we dashed under our bed with our two children. What made the neighbourhood volatile on the day was the fact that the Premier of Western Nigeria, Samuel Akintola, lived across my house. There was battle for control in his house and he was killed in the coup. After the state creation of 1976, I was posted to Ogun State with my friend, Abayomi Oduntan, as permanent secretary.
What were other challenges you faced in the new environment?
There were few but the major one was individual ambition. When I left in 1984, I was not due for retirement but I was at the peak of my career. My salary and allowances could not be increased again, meaning that I could seek a new challenge elsewhere to better my earnings. I approached the governor, the late Olabisi Onabanjo, with my proposal to retire voluntarily. He was instrumental to my appointment as Executive Director of Administration, Wema Bank. The bank was just being taken over by Western Nigerian Marketing Board and it was in shambles. I took over a dilapidated structure but with the effort of the good people on the board, we were able to put it on a sound footing. My friend, Lekan Are, came in as a shareholder when we diversified governments’ holdings and privatised the bank. He was always critical when we held meetings but we listened to him and his contributions helped the bank. I left in 1993 with the aim of returning to full legal practice. So, I set up a chamber in Ijebu-Ode. But it did not take off fully fledged as I planned because I was called to help resuscitate Merchant Bank in Lagos. They had liquidity problem but I used my goodwill in Central Bank of Nigeria as a former director of Wema to help Merchant Bank.
How did you become University Press Plc director because it’s a different industry from what you were known for?
Are is the Chairman of UP Plc board and when he called me to fill a position on the board, I accepted it. I took over from Ola Vincent, the former CBN Governor and I retired fully in March this year. I am happy that the company is very healthy now under Are. His ingenuity helped the company’s survival. With a share capital of N150m, the turnover has reached N2bn without borrowing money from the bank.
How did you meet your wife?
My wife, Olubanke, is the daughter of the past Awujale of Ijebu land, Oba Gbelebuwa Adesanya. We met through school activities. She attended Anglican Girls Grammar School, although I did not attend school at home, I was a member of the Association of Ijebu Students. That was where we met and we became good friends.
What encouraged you to approach a princess and how did you gain entrance into the palace when you visited her?
It was not easy to reach her or get to the palace but God had destined us to be one. The king normally had his rest close to the back door of the palace in those days so nobody was allowed to use the door. But my wife’s mother liked me so she allowed me in through the door each time the king was not there. When he got to know about it, he realised that our relationship had gone far so he just approved of it. I later moved to the UK and she joined me there. She actually came to study and she stayed with her brother, Tayo Adesanya, who attended King’s College in London. That gave us the opportunity to nurture our relationship and get married. But her father died soon after she came to London in 1960.
Did you face any challenge or competition marrying her?
There was no competition involved but there were other challenges. In Yoruba land and other African cultures, marrying a princess is never an easy task. My friends called me and were almost telling me that I could be swimming in difficult waters because my royal in-laws would dominate me after marrying their daughter. But my wife did not make a show of any of the royal paraphernalia she was bestowed with. She was submissive, gentle and kind-hearted. You hardly could hurt her. Before I sat for my final paper in London, we got married in 1961. Before leaving Nigeria, she was a teacher.
Did your parents immediately accept your wife when they knew you were dating a princess?
The truth was that they thought I would have difficulties later on. But the moment they saw how she was relating with them, they accepted her and loved her. They gave her gifts regularly and she bought things for them.
What has touched you most in life?
That was the day I got the result of my final law degree examinations in London, June 1963. There were many Nigerians who had to come back for one paper or the other. The result was published in a newspaper but because of fear, I did not buy the paper. My classmate who bought it called me and congratulated me. I was in the toilet when I heard the good news.
What are you doing now?
I have always been deeply involved in community service. I am the chairman of Ijebu-Ode Development Board of Poverty Reduction. It was founded in 1999 in collaboration with the Awujale of Ijebu land, Oba Sikiru Adetona and Akin Mabogunje. It was meant to ease the difficulty of the less privileged people in the society.
What is your favourite food?
I like amala and ewedu because I lived in Ibadan for so long. I also thank God for my good health even though I have always been busy.