For several years, Dr. Charles Akinola, who got a doctorate degree in Agricultural Extension and Social Change while he was still under 27, resigned as a senior lecturer from the University of Ibadan, to pursue his passion in the field of International Development and had the privilege of studying as a Fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. His interest in development issues has seen him work for several reputable international organizations in various countries and in Nigeria. Today, he is back to his cradle, the State of Osun, where he is the Chief of Staff to Governor Adegboyega Oyetola. He spoke with Sunday Sun after an event at the Nike Art Gallery in Lagos, in commemoration of the International Women Day.
Looking at Nigeria generally, would you say that women have fared well in terms of political inclusion?
Definitely, it’s a new day. Women are doing lots more than they have done in the past. You see the increase in number of women in the Senate and the House of Representatives and the various state assemblies. You can also see the same numerical increase in their membership of the executive councils of state governments. Of course we are yet to have a female president and I hope that would come sooner than later. We are going to see women coming out very strong as dependable deputies to governors. Again, we are looking towards the first elected female governors in different states of the country.
What can the government do about cultural and traditional issues that affect women’s rights?
A critical area to intervene is in the area of education. Advocacy is good but importantly, when women are educated, those barriers and prejudices get away easily. It’s all about paying particular attention to the education of the girl child through the ladder. Affirmative action helps but I think really it’s more of education. When women are educated they know that the sky is the limit, they come prepared. They are not there because of quota. Affirmative action looks like quota, the way it is sometimes implemented, it’s like you are implementing a quota system. It becomes easy for policy makers when women go in there fully prepared and there’s no better way to prepare than to have good education. .
You were at the exhibition held by Nike Art Gallery. What is your impression of Chief Nike?
She is an epitome of industry and we have seen what she’s able to do, her sheer determination in the industry and she’s doing that in a very interesting way of culture. The twist is we have seen a woman here who uses culture to project her own people, beyond Ogidi to Osun where she adopted a smaller home and Nigeria at large. She’s a cultural ambassador of note. She’s been able to speak in capital cities of the world, talking about the subject that she knows best: arts and culture. If we have women in different sectors also pushing to the zenith then we will have many more Nikes in engineering and in medicine. They will be what Nike is in the arts and culture space. For now we see many more of her in the teaching profession, Law and Banking. She is just an amazing woman, a great inspiration to womanhood. She is steeped in culture and celebrates culture without being held down.
Tell us a little bit about what you were doing before becoming the Chief of Staff to the Governor?
I started out teaching at University of Ibadan, Nigeria. I completed doctoral studies for a PhD in Agricultural Extension and Social Change. I did that for some years and went to work in Cameroon with an international organization. So, I have been in the field of international development. For many years, starting from 1989, I worked in different countries. In Nigeria, I was the country director of an international organization. I have worked in the same field in Ghana, Kenya and sometimes in Latin America. My work has been around rural communities, about the culture and agriculture, the enterprise of people in the rural area. That has moved me to work in different parts of Nigeria, dealing with public policy. I have the distinct privilege of working as a Fellow in Harvard at the Kennedy School. My work has involved partnership with the government and private sector. More recently, my work has been with government where I had the opportunity to be funded by Ford Foundation to set up a special programme in support of the government in Osun in the Office of Economic Development and Partnerships. The office was essentially set up to expand the space for innovation and we got support from the government and international agencies for eight years and I moved on to become the Chief of Staff to Osun State governor. All in all, I have been privileged to be involved in policy making in the state. One of the growth drivers in Osun is culture. We are looking at culture and its drivers that would grow the economy. In Osun we have a competitive advantage in terms of culture and the creative economy.
Did you grow up in Osun and what was growing up like?
I am from Ilesha. My parents are teachers; so we lived in different parts of the country. We would always go home to Ilesa – we have strong ties in Ilesha. My mother is from Oyo. These are all strong cultural centres.
What other memories do you have about your childhood?
It was interesting. I grew up with teachers. My mum’s father ran the northern part of the popular CMS Bookshop in Nigeria at Gusau. I was born in Zaria. My father, as a teacher, was transferred all over the states. My father was a cleric as well. I had a very strict parentage which was very helpful for people like me with rascality. We grew up as a tight family with cousins, and we all grew up under the same roof. As a child you turn out right if you lived with strict parents. It was all good and we are proud of that legacy of service. Growing up in different parts of the country was a sort of education for me.
Were you a party freak in your youth?
I did a lot of that, the only thing was that I would always pass my exams. I had a license to operate aas long as I passed my exams. You do different things in different ages, so I like to enjoy myself, I like good music. You just need to be circumspect to be able to combine that with what you do. I finished PhD while I was still under 27 and yet I was a party animal. It doesn’t stop you once you have a focus, that is the most important thing and I’m also very liberal. Even when I was teaching in the university, I realized that if I could have made it in the academics at such a young age, I do not let prejudices come in the way of ccessing my students as well. I have a capacity to manage diversity a lot, you can see me flow in different settings, that way I have been able to really discover talents.
What are the life lessons you have learnt?
Patience, live a life of service, be contented with what you have. ‘Surulere’ you will get it at some point. To none Yoruba people reading this, ‘Surulere’ means: patience has its reward. When I was leaving the university to go into the field of International Development, I was just comfortable to try other things but some people would think I should have stayed back to become a professor. Quite a number of my students are professors; I don’t think I would have had it better. Also, just like our sister, Mrs. Nike Okundaye, she goes to teach in the top universities in the world. What’s her claim to scholarship? Her claim to scholarship is what she’s done in the rural areas, and she’s now contributing to knowledge in places. The most exciting part answering this question was when I was a fellow in Harvard University and I would go to the Centre for International Development, to teach master’s students from different parts of the world, I would teach them life experiences of working in the Niger Delta and the rural areas in agriculture etc. Some of those things they don’t have many people say this to them. I would rather be a professor of the practice rather than just be a professor. What has kept me is my patience and keeping my lane. So, I thank God for this vantage position, some people need to tell the story.
Like people go to religious pilgrimage—Jerusalem, we are looking at some cultural pilgrimage where people want to come back to Africa because of where they have strong cultural ties to their ancestral home, that’s one of the things we tried to do. How do we go globalizing cultural festivals in Osun? Osun Oshogbo festival which has now has gained a lot more global prominence because of the designation of Osun Oshogbo as a World Heritage Centre by UNESCO. There are so many other festivals in ife. Go to Ila, If you look at the landscape, Oke-Iragbaji Film festival, go to Ede, they have rich culture around arts, Look at Oshogbo, which is the home of traveling theatre in Nigeria, you must have heard of Duro Ladipo, Oyin Adejobi, among others. Osun would boost its economy while promoting cultural arts.