An American family once asked me if I got my tribal marks from fighting lions – Prof Iyanda
Prof Olukunle Iyanda is the President of the Nigerian Institute of Management and a former Rector of the Polytechnic of Ibadan. He shares some of his life’s experiences with Ademola Olonilua
How would you describe your early years in Ibadan?
I spent the first eight years of my life in a village in Ibadan called Akinlade in Ona Ara Local Government. It was a village without a road and school, so the school I attended while I was there was about a kilometre away. The school was St. Johns School and I went there for three years before I was transferred to St. Peters School, which was in Ibadan town.
It was at St. Peters school that I had my Primary School Leaving Certificate Examination in 1953. In 1954, I started teaching event though I was not even 14 years old at the time.
Due to the fact that my admission to secondary school came late for me to accept it, I had to resort to teaching. The main reason I did not get my letter of admission as at and when due was because of the hitches in the postal system, however, in retrospect, I think it was all part of God’s plan for my life because if I had gone to secondary school at the time, things would have fallen apart for me.
I say this because when I later went to the teachers’ training school, the kind of assistance I got after I ran out of money may not have been available to me if I had been in the secondary school. I see it as God’s divine providence.
Would you say you eventually became a professor because of your early exposure to teaching?
Not really. I did not intend to be an academic. It just happened. I only taught for two years. In those days, you had to do so many exams to qualify for entry into any institution. I sat for the entrance examination for St. Andrews College which was the most famous teachers’ training college at the time and when I got there, I was considered too young because the institution was meant for established teachers.
At the time, I met one of my best friends now Prof Olatunji Oloruntimehin, who was equally very fantastic and he did tremendously well that they singled him out among his peers for praise. However, they also said that he was too young so they could not admit him. They said that they would recommend us to St. Luke’s College in Ibadan and that was where I started a four-year Grade Two teacher’s programme. That was how we became students of St. Luke from 1956 to 1959 when we finished.
Upon completion of my education at St. Luke, I did my O-Levels and completed it in 1961 and by 1962 I was done with my A-level exams and passed everything. I was later admitted to the University of Lagos as one of the pioneer students that offered Business Administration and I finished in 1965.
After I completed my university education, I got a job with the Nigerian Tobacco Company. I was there for about six months when I got a telegram from the University of Lagos offering me a job as graduate assistance based on my performance.
In my graduating year, one of us made a first class, and that was the late Ali Al-Hakeem. He was the first chairman of the Nigerian Indigenisation Committee. Then two of us made a second class upper, I and Joseph Bello. We were both invited by the school but Bello had gone to the north. He taught briefly at Ahmadu Bello University before joining the banking sector. I resigned my appointment with the Nigerian Tobacco Company to join the University of Lagos. That was how my academic career started.
As a graduate assistant, we were sent abroad for a master’s degree and when we came back, I did my doctorate degree and completed it in 1975.
The value system at the time was very different. Money and material things were not considered as the most important at the time. People valued respect, integrity and a person’s capability to contribute to the society.
In those days, when you were called back by your school, it was considered as an honour because you did not apply for the job, they look at your profile and believed that you could fit into their programme. Yes, I was earning more money and I already had an official car with a driver because I was in the sales department and we needed to move around. I definitely had much more money but money was not the major criteria. It was more of the prestige and the profession. We wanted the opportunity to contribute and build the nation. This was in 1966, a few years after our independence, so the nation was still developing and no one hesitated when it came to nation building, instead it was regarded as an honour.
During my time, the private sector was reluctant to employ people with first class and second class upper because they felt that they would go back to the university.
You had to forgo your official car after accepting the offer from UNILAG, how easy was it for you to adjust to the new life at the time?
In April 1966, I got a loan for a car and bought a second-hand Volkswagen car in Sangross, Lagos, and I paid £460 for it and when I sold it in 1971, I sold it for N400.
I was single at the time and life was not too difficult. I did not have much responsibility other than catering to my siblings and parents because I was the first boy. The university provided me with a house, so things were fine. However, in terms of money, I made more money when I was at the Nigerian Tobacco Company but it was not a major consideration in those days in terms of our value system.
You said that you spent the first eight years of your life in a village, were you privileged to go to the farm with your parents?
I would say that I was privileged to some extent while growing up because even though my father did not have formal education, he learnt how to read and write the Yoruba language because he served as an apprentice for the missionaries. My father taught me how to read and write the Yoruba language but his English was not good.
I started school early in life because my father understood the value of education, he was semi-literate and also a staunch Christian. As a result, he knew the value of western education. I was the third child and before I began school, my two elder sisters were already enrolled in school. I started school at about five years old, so I did not go to the farm to work because I was too young. Of course, later in life, whenever we were on holidays and I went to the village, I always accompanied my family to the farm. It was not a problem for my father because he hired labourers to help with the farm work.
You mentioned that during your secondary school days, things were difficult financially for your parents, what exactly went wrong?
My father paid the tuition for the first two years of my teachers’ training school and it was about £26 a year. In my third year, there was no money and he could not pay my fees, so the school would send the debtors out periodically to get our fees. Luckily, the schools then were owned by churches and the one I attended, St. Luke, was owned by the Anglican Church. The church had an education office which was headed by an education secretary. I think they had an education fund. I went there with a friend constantly for about two weeks hoping that our case would be treated, ultimately, they agreed to give me a loan to pay for my third and fourth year. At the time I finished from St. Luke in 1959, I owed the Anglican Mission about £53. Funnily, after school, they also assisted the students to get a job, so when I got one, I began to pay back the debts that I had accrued from my salary.
Ironically, the same issue repeated itself when I got to the university. When I got there, the fee was about £151 but all I had was about £100. Unfortunately, the bursar of the University of Lagos was an Australian. He was not used to our system, so he refused to allow me to pay my fees in instalment. As a young boy, I began to spend some of the money. We would go to the cinema or a dance and I would spend some of the money there and each time the school would ask us to bring our money, mine was always reduced. By the end of the session I had about £80 and they asked us to leave the school if we could not pay.
While I was packing my bags, I received a message from the Vice-Chancellor, Prof Eni Njoku, who said he would want to see me and my other friend. When we got to him, the VC asked why we had not paid and we explained to him and he told us to sign a document which stated that I would pay the university back upon graduation. After we signed the document, they let us sit our exams. I got a holiday job that paid me about £17 per month and worked there for about three months. I saved as best as I could but at the end of the day, the money was not enough. I had to meet friends and family to help out to see if I could raise more money. I also went to Osogbo to see a friend who was a teacher. We later went to church on a Sunday together and we bumped into a mutual friend who was already a district officer in Osogbo, Osun State.
When we met, he congratulated me but I was surprised. He later told me that he saw my name in a newspaper, that I had been granted a scholarship by Esso West Africa. Esso was a petroleum company at the time and they gave scholarship to two students at the University of Lagos; one for an incoming student and the other was for a first-year student going to the next level. The best student in my class was Ali Al-Hakeem and he was from the north; he was brilliant and made a first class but the northern students did not really need the money because they were covered to the extent that their train ride to and fro school was already paid for. So, he did not need the scholarship. Our Dean of Student Affairs was an American and he realised that Al-Hakeem would not need the scholarship, so he diverted it to the next person which was me. That was how I got a scholarship. I did not only pay my fees but had book allowance and feeding allowance. The scholarship was renewable if I passed brilliantly well and by the grace of God I did. That was how I finished my university education.
As for the loan that I was given in my first year at the university, it was written off when I accepted the job as a graduate assistant.
You travelled to the United States for your master’s degree, how was the experience especially with your tribal marks?
It was fascinating to see another country outside Africa because I had earlier travelled to Ghana but I had not been to Europe until 1966. I gained admission to New York University. I was fascinated but I was there on a purpose. I was also able to see London because we travelled through the United Kingdom. It was an exciting trip. It was not strange for them to see a black man because New York was a cosmopolitan area also, people like the late Babs Fafunwa, the former Minister of Education, passed through that school. Quite a lot of black people passed through the school. New York also had quite a number of African-Americans especially in places like Harlem.
As for my tribal marks, nobody took notice of it and I was hardly aware of the fact that I had tribal marks. I do not think anybody noticed until I went to Iowa. The United States Agency for International Development had a policy that all their students should be sent across the US in December to live with American families and interact. I was a guest of a family in Iowa and they were the first to ask me what the marks represented. The myth at the time was that Africans lived with lions, so they were asking me if I fought with lions to have the marks. I told them that it was a mark that was peculiar to my place of birth but the custom has since died. My father stopped marking his children’s cheeks from 1948, so those that were born after me did not have tribal marks.
You sound like one from a strong Christian background and committed scholar, does this suggest that you were a bookworm while in school?
I had my own fair share of fun but you know each culture and age had different socialising. In my time, we had parties, either family occasions, friend’s birthdays, marriage ceremonies or student union parties. At that time, the Ibadan student union was very strong and it had branches in other tertiary institutions and during the holidays we met in Ibadan to organise parties. We had our own fun.
Like I said earlier, when I entered the university, I had about £100 but when they asked me to bring the money by the end of the session, I was left with about £84. Part of it was spent on attending social events.
It is often believed that women are drawn to brilliant men; during your days in school what was your relationship with the ladies?
We organised social functions and I joined the Zik Club in the university. I also joined a dancing club because at the time you had to know the ballroom dancing and other kinds of dance. We used to have social nights organised by the university and we invited students from other schools.
Well, girls like and respect students who are said to be bright, so we had some of our fans in the school of nursing and also at the teacher’s college which is now the College of Education. I had one or two girlfriends in one or two of those places and I invited them to some of the dance. We also visited ourselves.
During that time, there was no email or mobile phones, so we relied on letter writing. I know that I used to get letters from the school of nursing. The female students of the University of Lagos initially lived in the nurses’ hostel at Idi-Araba and so some of the nursing students who were friendly with us would send letters to us through them.
One of my ‘couriers’ was the late Titi Benson, daughter of TOS Benson. She was a law student at the time and used to bring my letters and also deliver them to the recipients. We had our time but we did not allow that to distract our academics as we only enjoyed these social activities during our leisure period.
How did you meet your wife?
I met my wife in 1965. Incidentally, we were travelling in the same bus to Ibadan but we were sitting at different sides of the seat in the bus but I noticed that we were exchanging glances but could not talk in the bus. As soon as she alighted from the bus, I did the same thing and I approached her for her telephone number. At the time, we were using Post and Telegraph telephone which was a landline, so she gave me her uncle’s number and that was how we kept in touch. She was still a student at Ansarudeen in Ota, Ogun State, so whenever I was free in school, I would go to visit her there.
Eventually, I left for my master’s degree programme but we had not formalised our relationship, so I told my father in 1966 to go to their house and do the traditional rites for marriage. After that, she came to meet me in America in 1966. We formally got married in 1968 when I came back to Nigeria. Today, we have three children and nine grandchildren.
You became the rector of the Polytechnic of Ibadan at a time, how did you switch from the university system to the polytechnic?
In 1986/87, the Polytechnic of Ibadan went through a hectic period of students’ unrest and civil problems, so the government needed a change of administration in the school. They sacked the rector at the time. They felt that they needed someone that would put the school back in shape. I was not so aware of the activities in the polytechnic until I got a call from Prof Joshua Faniran, who happened to be the Chairman of the Council of Polytechnics at the time.
I was a Dean at the University of Lagos then. A friend called me to tell me that Prof Faniran would like to visit and discuss some issues with me. When we eventually met, he said that he learnt I knew some top bankers. I told him he was right. I thought he wanted their contacts from me but after we exchanged pleasantries, he broke the news that they wanted me to come to the Polytechnic of Ibadan as a rector. I was shocked and felt that it was ridiculous because I did not know much about the polytechnic system and could not leave my deanship position at the university.
I also knew that the Polytechnic was in turmoil. So, I declined their request. The pressure was much on me that I decided to seek advice from my good friend, Prof Fademirokun. I also decided to consult with some of my elderly friends who were not in the university system but from Ibadan. I contacted Chief Idowu. When I met him, he laughed and told me that he had heard about the appointment and was waiting for me to come to him for advice. He asked me a few questions and one of them was that since I left Ibadan, what have I done for the state? The question struck me. He said that if I was now being called upon by the state to help out, what advice was I expecting from him. That was how I accepted to become the rector of the Polytechnic of Ibadan. I spent three years there and I am glad that I faced no hostility.