When Maya Angelou said: “We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated,” she probably had in mind the likes of Dr. Charles Remi Akitoye, who is hewed from the stock of men who by dint of hard work achieved greatness.
He served as commissioner for Agriculture in Lagos State during the regimes of late Vice Admiral Mike Akhigbe, and Brigadier- General Raji Rasaki (rtd), both military governors of the state.
Another feather was added to his cap, when he attained a national prominence, following his appointment as the acting National Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party, the then ruling party. In this interview, the Lagos prince, who recently turned 75, shared the secrets of his youthful look, life and accomplishments.
You grew up in Lagos, how was it in those days?
I’m a Lagosian to the core. If you say that I am an Isale-Eko boy, I will gladly accept that because I was born in Isale-Eko, the heart of Lagos Island, into the royal family of Babson Babatunde Akitoye.
Growing up in Lagos was very interesting, highly stimulating and very educating. It did not only make me grow up amongst my own people, but also allowed the interaction that exposed me not only to the idiosyncrasies of Lagos environment, but also that of her people, traditions and customs, a situation that has helped me in the past to serve Lagos State well.
Lagos, while I was growing up, was very peaceful and encouraging and there was to a large extent high standard of the public hygiene. Security was adequate, youths were disciplined and moral values were high then. The situation was such that every family was at peace with neighbours and religious conflicts never existed.
All families had members that were into the three main religions: Christianity, Islam and Traditional. We all blended and were cohesive. All families, realising the value of education, started investing in their children’s education. It was a very beautiful and memorable period because everybody was each other’s keeper.
As a child, I tried to be in touch with all that was happening around me. I looked up to people, great men whom I saw as role models. I was in love with reading. I read everything I laid my hands on and this gave me the opportunity of reading about great Nigerians such as the late Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe. In each of these men, I had something to learn from, which made me want to be different and unique in such a way as to be helpful one way or the other to the people around me.
If you look at these three men, they were part of the history that has shaped this great nation. In primary school, we talked about them, in secondary school, we studied them as part of our history, and in the university they became reference points to every student who wanted to know more about his country, Nigeria. I wasn’t trying to be like them, but I tried to use their way of life to shape mine.
Internationally, people such as Martin Luther King, Nehru of India and Mahatma Ghandi had one thing in common; they served God and humanity and their people.
By nature, I’m a gentle person. But beneath my soft-spoken mien, lies a very strict and disciplined background, which comes from my up bringing. Although I was very close to my father, the old man would not give you room for nonsense. My father would always insist you did the right thing or face the music. He made us believe in God and today, I strongly believe in God and have high regards for human beings. Whatever little weakness I may have in life as human being is totally catered for by my humility.
I am a firm believer in the power of the family unit. I was not only brought up to respect the sanctity of the family life, I was educated to know that the family is the unit of a society, and for a developing nation like ours, we all should cultivate a good and strict family life. It’s also one good legacy our generation should bequeath to the on coming generation.
I enrolled at St. Paul’s Catholic School, Ebute Meta, Lagos, in 1955, ten years after I was born. From St. Paul, I moved to the famous CMS Grammar School also in Lagos, for my post primary education between 1961 and 1965, and then, the University of Lagos to study science between 1969-1972. You can see why I’m a Lagosian to the core. I left Lagos when I went for my Master of Science (MSc) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees at University of Salford, London between 1974 and 1978. In addition, I also hold certificates in Public Administration from the University of Leeds, 1977-79; in Fishery Management from Los Banyor University, Philippines, 1980-81; and Fish management and development at the Institute of Fish Management, Korea.
What happened when you came back to Nigeria with chains of degrees?
I returned to the country with the patriotic desire to contribute to the development of the fatherland. And I have no doubt made my impact felt in public service, where I pitched my tent.
When I returned from United Kingdom, the Federal Government quickly grabbed me and made me the zonal head of the Ministry of Agriculture. I was in charge of development, execution and supervision of all the ministry’s programmes and projects in Anambra, Imo, Rivers, Cross River and Benue states. The Federal Government gave me all the attention because I was one of the very few people in the country, who read such a course to doctorate level. The most important thing to me was that I enjoyed my job because I could put into practice all that I had studied.
In 1986, the then military government of Lagos State invited me to oversee the Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives as commissioner, a job I found very challenging. Challenging in the sense that firstly, I knew I was keeping an office in trust for the people of Lagos State.
Secondly, I was determined to contribute my quota to the socio-economic development of the state and by extension, our national development. Thirdly, because I wanted to excel in the duties and functions assigned to me. And in fairness to all, and with utmost modesty and respect, I actually faced the challenges squarely and I know I scored a high mark. I served under two governors, Vice Admiral Mike Akhigbe, now late and Brigadier- General Raji Rasaki. Both men meant well for Lagos State.
Do you have any regret or are there things you have done that given another opportunity you would do it the other way round?
Yes, in life and for every human being, there are stages of development and along the process of developing yourself you would make some mistakes, which usually most of us now come to say ‘Ah, this is an experience in life’. There is nobody who would write his own autobiography and has all the full pages to be good development without one or two mistakes made.
Many people passed through their lives arising from the fact that when one was younger, immaturity made you behave in certain way which when you grow older, maturity would have made you to operate in other aspect.
I will give you one example, it is the fact that I didn’t really follow my heart; I would have been a very good lawyer and would have studied law. It was fashionable at that time to want to be scientist and I left the good grades in arts subjects to go and do science.
It is not that science has not benefited me, but behind my mind, I now realise that I would have been better in the arts rather the sciences. That is one of the mistakes one has made in life and that is why it is good for upcoming parents to be able to let their children be exposed to career counselling and not just to pick career because my friend wants to be a doctor or my room mate says we should go and read law. Let somebody of experience sit with them and show them their capability and at the end let them benefit from their capacity.
Do you mean you could have been a better politician if you read law?
Obviously, I would have been a much more better politician.
You look young at 75, what is the secret?
There are lots of factors. First, it’s divine grace; secondly, it’s inheritance. What I inherited from my forefathers – slim, tall people. Lastly, I have given my life to God to guide and to monitor. From that aspect of giving my life to God I have realised virtually everything including our body is vanity. Vanity upon vanity is vanity.
The only important thing is our soul, which we all strive to make sure that earns everlasting life, that is salvation. It is that Christian doctrine, which I have abided with of late in my life not even when I was younger that has given me that peace of mind that makes me look younger than most of my age group. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink and I don’t womanise.
How do you relax?
I relax by listening to classical music. I’m fanatical about music, and not just any kind of music; it is strictly classical music. Not just any classical music but that of German composer and pianist, Ludwig Van Beethoven.
If I want to relax, I play a very classical music, especially Beethoven series. He is one of the best classical musicians of all time. Then I seclude myself. I pick up an autograph and just get a real sleep. That is best way I relieve my self of stress.
Apart from listening to music, I make sure that I leave the problem of today for today; it ends up today because by 6am the following day other problems will come. So, why add problems of yesterday to today’s? You are just leading yourself to depression. So one must organise himself to say, ‘okay 8pm today, I thank you God for keeping me alive. All the problems of today I’m leaving them to you and wait for those that shall come tomorrow.’ It gives peace of mind. If you postpone yesterday’s till today, by the time you wake up you just be seeing the graph of those problems on the roof. That means you have not slept well last night and you are killing yourself gradually. Peace of mind comes with all these things we are saying, leave the problem of yesterday to yesterday and you handle the one of today. That is one thing I have done. One other thing is that I’m very contended in life: I don’t know if you have a jet or Hummer jeep, it doesn’t bother me. I’m satisfied with what God has given me. I’m Akitoye, you find people among your mate that can buy your entire family, from the grace God has given them, and they are so rich that they can buy Akitoye family. And when you look back you can find some other mates, the same classmates with you who are looking on to you to give them monthly stipends to eat and feed their families. So, at any stage in life one must be contended and thank God.
What has been your highest point in life?
The highest point of my life, firstly, I was very obedient to my mother and before she died, she said, ‘Remi, the little success you made in life was because you were obedient son.’ I allowed that to be part of my life, and even from my father, the biblical injunction, honour thy father and thy mother, that injunction didn’t say, you should honour a good father alone or a good mother. Even if one’s mother or father is wicked, you must honour him or her and that has guided me to a point where I can thank God for a lot of things. Firstly, I’m alive and have clocked 75. A lot of my classmates have passed on.
What are still your expectations after 75?
I will initially thank God for keeping alive till now. I sincerely hope that in His benevolence, He will still accord me more time, He should take me to 90 years and slightly above.
I also want to thank Him for His grace for the little He has done for me in life. His little but essential gift He afforded me, especially the gift of children, all of who are progressing in life.
However, part of my expectation is to build a befitting Old Peoples Home. Maybe of about 100 well fitted bedrooms. Well fixed, functional and of best conveniences. This desire arose from my experience in looking after my late father and mother in their old ages; my father at 92, and mum at 93. It is not easy for elderly people after 80 plus to 90.
My very last desire is that in my remaining years on earth, may Nigeria grow from strength to strength and become a country that ranks amongst the best in the world. Our youths obviously must be the foundation for this progress.
You are a very senior member of PDP, and it is regarded that after Bode George in Lagos State, you are presently second in hierarchy. What is your expectation for the PDP as an opposition party?
It is true I am a very senior member of the PDP; I am a member of NEC and BoT. I also sometime served as the acting national secretary of the party. True, if you look at the present official hierarchy, I am high in Lagos State, but there are other senior members than me. Look at Chief Sarumi, Chief Mrs. Bucknor, Dr. Ogunkelu, Papa Soyoye, Barrister Akinsanya, Mrs. Jumoke Osisanya, Alhaji Sowole and so many others who are equally senior party members and have good managerial experiences. As for the party as an opposition party, I think there has been fair and acceptable level of opposition, which evidently has been without bitterness, which is a plus for the party and her managers.