By Vincent Kalu
Former acting National Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Dr. Remi Akitoye has said that the period he acted as the party’s scribe opened up his eyes to know what real politics at the highest level was all about.
In an interview with Saturday Sun, he noted that after attending five universities for his academic pursuit, his sixth was at the Wadata Plaza, the national headquarters of the PDP, the then ruling party.
You are 77 years old. What has been your experience?
I have to thank God for giving me this long life and I’m praying that He would add more because I’m looking forward to 90; so we are talking of another 13 years.
The second thing is that I will always celebrate my background. My father and my mother jointly brought us up very well and inculcate in us a strict Christian life. When you have that Christian life, you will as a human being take the tenets of Christianity seriously, especially the ten commandments, which to me is at times very difficult to obey as man of flesh, but at the end of the day, I have leant that the ten commandments guide me in the level that is acceptable to mortality,
My father did everything to give me the best of education. I thank him greatly for this because when he didn’t have the money he would go to the bank and borrow and send to me in England just to ensure that I had a good education; so also my 15 other siblings. So, if the man didn’t leave any building in Ikoyi, Lekki etc, he used all his money to educate us. He had a maxim: “I’m not going to build any house for any child, but I will educate you to any level you want. When you come back and you join the Army, they will give you barracks; if you join the NNPC, they will give you quarters, and then you will now see opportunity and build your own house.” That was my father’s philosophy, which benefited a lot of his children.
If you are looking for a disciplinarian, call my mother. I think her own background, the problem of her own marriages; what she saw in marriages made her to be very strict with us, especially me because most of the times, she would say, ‘you want to emulate your father and I will not allow it.’ So, as the first son, the woman actually descended on me more than anybody in terms of real discipline. I thank the two of them today. My siblings too, I thank them because at times when my mother descended on me and I would be crying in one corner, my sisters and brothers would come to me to say, ‘don’t cry anymore, you know Mama.’ So there was succour from the siblings and when it happened to them, I would tell them the same.
So, those combinations of my father’s willingness to educate me, and my mother’s discipline made me a thorough gentleman. I’m not a saint or a magician, but today, if you gather ten people and ask about Dr. Remi Akitoye, eight would tell you, ‘that is a nice man; a considerate person, a complete gentleman, a giver’; maybe two would say that ‘that yeye (unserious) man.’ Eight out of ten is 80 per cent, and it is a very good mark.
I left the University of Lagos, and at that time the military officers were coming to pick girlfriends on the campus. It was a good sight to see them in their uniforms and see the girls jump into their cars and they’d go to dinner or whatever. So, immediately I left the university, I wanted to join the Army, and I actually joined the Army. One Brigadier General Austin Peters was the one that facilitated six of us to come into the Army and we went through all tests. Then we waited for ratification by the Army Board. There was this secretary of the Board, a well educated Hausa boy, who just took on me like a brother. He has been compiling our papers, sending us for medical tests and all the six of us – five males and one female – passed.
General Obasanjo was the chairman of that committee, and that secretary of the committee had told us to come early. The six of us got there very early and other people came. We found out that rather than us being called first, they called core artillery, musical, cookery, called this and called that. The man would give me a sign to hold on. Eventually, they called on the other departments and it was only six of us in medicals that were left.
The committee was to have a break. Obasanjo left the committee members on their way to the dining area and said, ‘go back to Austin Peters, you; I will not commission you. By God’s grace, I’m the chairman of this committee, I won’t commission you people.’ The girl among us burst into tears. I lost my voice that day. I told him, ‘look sir, the six of us are Yoruba. We are your children. When we get to army we will remain your children; please, sir, forget about whatever that was between you and Austin Peters.’ I was so depressed, the girl was crying and Obasanjo walked passed on and went to eat.
That’s why I didn’t get a placement in the Army after six months working at the military hospital in Creeks Hospital. Obasanjo disallowed the ratification and the commissioning of the six of us. We were part of the Army, although we were not yet putting on uniform. If we were ratified that day, we would have been taken to Kaduna for military training to be commissioned.
You had opportunity of meeting Obasanjo severally as PDP national secretary; did you in any way in the course of interaction remind him of this?
I never did. There were areas our discussion had centred on. However, something good came out of that. My father was very friendly with another Brigadier-General (I will leave the name). He came visiting one day and said, ‘Remi, I learnt you wanted to go into the Army; what is your problem? Go and educate yourself and do better things for Nigeria. The Army is not for our side of the country; if you don’t speak Hausa, you are finished. Do you understand Hausa?’ I said, ‘no sir’. He said, ‘go and get your PhD.’ That was how I applied to the university to do my Masters and later PhD. One day, I said if Obasanjo had allowed me to go into the Army, I might have been the governor of Lagos State because I know my character and people would recommend me for that; a friend said, but they might have killed you long ago.
With retrospect, I think the Brigadier that asked me to go and study did me a big favour because after my doctoral degree in Agricultural Economics with emphasis on Fishery, I made fishery the mainstay of agriculture in Lagos State. I used that opportunity to help develop the agric sector of the nation, which I’m proud of. When I want to write my autobiography, I will emphasise my days in agriculture; how I joined others to help develop fishery in particular, and agriculture in general under one Mr. Bamidele Dada, who eventually became a minister under Obasanjo.
At my age, when I look back, I’m not regretting that I wasn’t commissioned. I’m now enjoying that I have contributed immensely to fishery production in Nigeria.
You said your father had 15 children from one woman?
No. My father had 15 of us from five different women. He said he was a progressive polygamist because one woman would go, and another would come in. So, he coined that word, ‘progressive polygamist.’ He said he was a progressive polygamist; he asked, ‘my son, have you seen two women at the same time?’ I said, no. He said that is progressive polygamy.
This new year and years to come, what are your expectations?
It’s to keep helping my children. Somebody once said that nowadays with the global turndown of the economy we would care for our children from cradle to grave. Married children these days still rely on their father to feed their family properly. Either the husband has lost his job or the wife is on meagre salary, so when they branch to greet you, as grand pa, the wife would go to the kitchen to mop up what is there and asked the house boy to take it to her car. I want to do that; I want to be there for my children, especially when I can. I want to contribute to the nation; we need a change one way or the other; positive change and not the type of change we have had in the present past. I’m not faulting anybody, we all as Nigerians are jointly guilty of whatever that is happening today. Though it is a global depression, Nigeria and some other African countries have done badly more that the depression itself.
I joined politics by accident, but for my integrity and little luck, I’m now a BoT member of the largest party in Africa, the PDP. I’m a member of the highest authority, NEC of the party. There are platforms where one can still make sure that Nigeria keeps progressing.
I do a lot of philanthropy and I will not stop it till I die. Even in my will, I created opportunity for that. I will make sure that I do everything to have good health, manageable one. Old age is bringing all sorts of things – prostate, diabetics, arthritis etc. I will like to give myself good health attention. I will not allow any individual to stress me. My father and mother have died; they have a way of stressing children – to be upright, do this and that and to discipline you. My siblings are there. I have gone through two women in my life. All these can bring you stress, but I have so blocked my mind that nobody, friend, family, politician or whatever can give me stress because for quite a long time in my life, I have realised that there is nothing that you can take out of this world. Even if they put a wristwatch in your hand, it may be working two years after your flesh has decomposed; a good nylon stocking may be hanging to the bone for the next six years. That is all you can get. The jacket, maybe some people may go and collect it from the grave and resell it as second hand. So, peace and peace is what I’m asking God to give me, even though you cannot live in a world like ours and have total peace, but you can create partial and enduring peace for you.
It is a common saying that a son should be greater that his father. Since your father had five wives, why didn’t you toe that line to have at least six and counting?
I deliberately did not go that way. God has given me five good children – four females and a boy, but from two women. My marital wife has four – three females and a male. We lost the boy when he was seven. I was transferred to Enugu, Port Harcourt, and eventually I met this lady in Port Harcourt and for one reason or the other, we got going, and she has a boy and a girl for me. I have no other children in any part of the world. There are some people who have eleven from one wife. So, if I have five, obviously, I have not toed my father’s line.
You always mention Chief Bode George. What impact has he made on your life?
I met Bode George at the University of Lagos. He was two years ahead of me. He was a unionist when we were in the university, so politics was in his blood from his relationship on mother’s side to the late Herbert Macaulay. He learnt politics from Macaulay, as a little boy, he was always sent on errand to the house of Herbert Macaulay to do one thing or the other. Macaulay’s house was where you have the General Post Office, Marina. The Whiteman took the house when Macaulay was giving them problem.
When I met Bode and we were getting closer he was already into big time politics. He was the man Friday for Obasanjo. If Obasanjo writes his paper and said he succeeded, Bode George would be part of that success. I was sitting down one day when the late Funsho Williams came to my house and said, ‘Dr. Akitoye, if it’s true that some people working with Abacha don’t want me (Williams) to run as governor of Lagos State, because of the bitumen issue, then you would run for me.’ That’s how I got into politics. That day, Williams and Ogunlewe took me to Sen. Bode Olajumoke, and I wrote a letter of intent and they wrote a cheque for N25, 000 for the form.
My background is such that even if N10 billion is given to me, one kobo would not miss and I would account for it. The politicians ask, which type of man is that? Even Baba would say don’t write anything, political money is Red Cross, it has no account, but I believe that if you give me N10, 000 today to do something, I should be able to give accurate account. Honesty and being able to face politicians and tell the truth gave me that integrity where some politicians in PDP today would say, ‘Dr. Akitoye is the conscience of the party.’ But, I could not have been the conscience of the party if not for my closeness with Bode George.
What was your experience when you acted as the national secretary of the PDP?
I have been to five universities all my life, but my period as the acting national secretary of the party was the sixth university I went. It is when you are in that position that you will know politics at a high level. That encompasses all I can say. I was in the university where politics was at a high level. The other thing I can say is that I did my best using my background and everything that till today people I worked with at Wadata Plaza will tell you that Dr. Akitoye was a different secretary and one of the best they have ever seen.
What is your relationship with Oyo State governor, Seyi Makinde?
I met him casually years back in commerce. After the commercial deal we never related. However, when he became the Oyo State governor, I saw his capacity and his capability to govern well, to do grassroots governing. If you go to Oyo today, you will doff your hat for him. He has mastered governance. I met his mother once before she passed on; she was a carbon copy of my mother. So, Seyi too has a very good background and he has brought that into his administration.