By Vincent Kalu
Dr. Charles Remi Akitoye has served Lagos State government and Nigeria in various capacities. He was Commissioner for Agriculture under the military administrations of Vice Admiral Mike Akhigbe and Brigadier-General Raji Rasaki (retd), both, one-time military governors of the state. But he attained national prominence following his appointment as the Acting National Secretary of the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). In this interview with Saturday Sun, the Lagos prince who turned 76 some weeks ago, shared the secrets of his youthful look, life, and accomplishments, and how he would have liked to be a Catholic priest if he could rewind the hand of the clock.
How do you feel at 76?
I thank God for His mercies in all ramifications of my life. When I was born, I was so small that my mother didn’t think I would survive. I was so tiny that they needed to wrap me in about three towels to be able to lift me from the bed. For quite a long time, my mother suffered the fear of whether I would survive or not. And this is I, now – strapping, good-looking, if not handsome, at 76. I thank God for His mercy, protection and grace in giving me life. I also thank Him because I share the same date with the current democratic process of Nigeria,
You really look very strong. What is the magic?
Being very strong is because of my lineage. But I have come to realise that one should be contented in life. I made that a principle right from my secondary school days. I believe that whatever God wants to give you, even if you travel to America, it will be waiting for you. It is a sign of contentment. The other thing is that I have been a very good Christian not a churchgoing type. Inside me, I know that I am a very good Christian. My behaviours and characteristics are truly of good Christian tenets. But above all, what I think has added to my youthful look is the fact that I don’t keep animosity against anybody. Secondly, I don’t allow any problem to last beyond a day. No matter the problem, I let it rest by the time I am going to bed in the evening. I do so because obviously there is going to be more problems tomorrow; it may not be from you but from a relative. So, I allow the problem of today to go with today. Lastly, I try to eat good and balanced diet.
What are the Christian tenets that are keeping you going?
When I say good Christian tenets, obviously you get that from your background. Your parents would have taken you to church early in life. And, when you come back from church on Sundays, they would ask you what you learnt from the pastor’s teachings. That is when you begin to cultivate the behaviours that make you want to earn eternity. The other virtue is that I believe in the omnipotence of God and try to live my life around it. I will give you an example. My mother was a Cherubim and Seraphim prophetess, Mother-in-Israel. When I was studying for my PhD in England, I was to have a surgery on a Saturday. The doctor said I should come in on Thursday to ensure that I didn’t eat anything hard. On Tuesday before that Thursday, I got a letter from my mother wherein she relayed a vision from their church saying, ‘I should not use blade to cut my nail around this time not to talk of a surgery.’ I called the doctor and cancelled the surgery and till today I have not had it. And it didn’t bother me anymore until very recently and I know that it is old age that caused it. Those are things that increased my belief in God. Another virtue that may have given me longevity is my practice of the 10 Commandments. I am not a saint. I know my weaknesses. But if you look at the 196 countries in the world today, all have constitutions. If you combine all the constitutions, you will find them in the 10 Commandments. So, if you have those virtues enshrined in the 10 Commandments, you will live long.
My biggest virtue is humility. You can virtually smell or touch it in me. I don’t know how I cultivated the virtue. But, at times, my humbleness becomes too embarrassing. But it’s not embarrassing to me because it had opened doors for me in the past. For example, I was returning to America. I had an important meeting on December 26, 1989. British Airways took me from America to London, but didn’t find my name on the list of those travelling from London to Lagos. I know that the governor won’t forgive me if I didn’t attend that meeting. I decided to go to Nigeria Airways and they kept me waiting for six hours before I saw the manager. The secretary kept insisting that everything was done at the counter and that I had to go there. When I eventually went in to see the manager, he was still shouting at his secretary: ‘where is the commissioner?’ I said, ‘Sir, I am the commissioner’. He said, ‘Oh, are you sure? Can we get many Nigerians like you?’ The man did not only book a flight for me. He saw off at the airport. And till he left, he kept calling to tell me that the flight would depart at 9pm and to ask whether I had anybody that he could board on the plane free. That was how I got a northern friend and we still remain friends till today. That is what humility does.
What are your memorable experiences?
When I was in the secondary school, I was still very small and was in a boarding school. I was missing my mother so much that I always had the urge to return home. But we had a prefect called Da-Silva. He just picked on me and became a guardian angel to me. That gave me the reassurance to stay in school. I passed out from that school in second grade, Grade II of those days. The day I passed out from that school was very memorable.
From 1969 to 1972 in UNILAG, when I got my first degree, it was very memorable. I thereafter taught for about two years. That period of teaching is very memorable; it is also very influential. Till today, I still get benefits of being a teacher for only two years. There are people who would meet me and say: ‘excuse me, sir, you don’t know me again, you taught me in class five.’ And they will help me to carry my load. Some are very high-ranking officers. The day I got married and the day I had my first daughter are also memorable. The day I had a seminar in my MSc class and I decided to represent my group, I spoke so well that the professor of the university stood up and said: ‘Akitoye I offer you a place for your PhD.’ That was how I got a place for my PhD when I had not completed my masters.
Another memorable thing that happened to me was when they wrote me a letter from the department saying that because of the way I speak English, I would be the person to represent the whole of African students in England to address Prince Philips, the husband of Queen Elizabeth, who passed on recently. He was the Visitor to my university, the University of Southford in Manchester. Another memorable experience is, when you want to do your PhD, they will give you three years minimum. Some Indians did it for eight years. But if you do well in your first year and the post-graduate people sit down and say that your work is a progressive one, they will honour you by reducing it to two years minimum. The day I got my letter to that effect was memorable. The day I was nominated as a Commissioner for Agriculture during Akhigbe’s period was very memorable. At the same time, it was fearful because I didn’t know what a commissioner was supposed to do. It was just a political nomination where I had no experience but when they said I would serve as Commissioner for Agriculture and Cooperatives, I knew I have a post-graduate degree in agricultural economics. So, agriculture shouldn’t be the problem but the political side of it because I was nominated to represent a particular constituency. But through the help of God, after five years, the press corps at the Government House, Alausa, celebrated me as the best commissioner they ever worked with. Why they did that was because they found the best humility in me. As a commissioner, I said to myself, ‘you cannot lock your office door’. So, the moment I come in the morning, my secretary opened it wide. Anybody could come in. I am not a magician. What I could do, I did immediately but what I could not do, I told whoever that was concerned that it had to be addressed to Akhigbe.
What are your regrets?
I had a son I lost at age seven. I also lost my parents and if there is anybody that I truly love, it was my mother. Not even my wife. I was there when she lost her marriage and she really suffered. I was with her and I saw the suffering. I told her not to marry any other man. I promised her that I would study hard, work hard and marry her. I didn’t know I was having a commitment with God. Eventually, I had to build a house for her at the back of my house. She lived there for over 20 years and died there. I have two sisters who could have taken care of her, but I refused. The day she died was not a good memory for me. The latest mishap was that I found myself in politics. I started rising in politics because of my attitude to life. I can boast of integrity; honesty resides in me. But the moment you enter into politics, you will lose part of your integrity because politics has a lot of branches. The first branch is: ‘they said’. The next one is lies; then rumour and rivalry. But on the left side of the three are beautiful things, which include: honesty, integrity, lack of avarice and so many other good qualities. Politics is very good; it is the people who practise it that are bad. Whether in Nigeria, America or Zambia, it is the politicians that are bad especially in Africa, where a typical politician places his self-interest first and then the amount he can scoop from the common purse. Yes, when you are in politics, doors will open for you; you don’t have to steal. I didn’t steal one kobo when I served as commissioner and I can swear before God and even lesser gods. But because of the fact that we all rose from poverty background, we adore money and the more we can get, the better, whereas we forget that money is an ordinary paper. If there is any law tomorrow that says don’t take that, if you have millions of it in the house it turns to trash. But there is nothing that can compare with good name.
If given another chance, what are the things you would like to do or like to be?
If truly people come back to this world, I would rather be a Catholic reverend father. Some years back, I miraculously found myself in a Catholic environment and became a Catholic. I passed through Anglicanism; that was where I was baptised. But I went to a Catholic school. That was where I met the late Funso Williams. I was one year ahead of him but we became friends. That school opened my eyes to what this world is all about. If you look at it, what have we come to do in this world? People have different answers to the question. But Machiavelli said we are here for two purposes – to serve God and serve mankind. Just love God and obey Him and love your neighbours. That is all. And the best people that are doing that are the true Catholic reverend fathers. I used the word ‘true’ because I have been to Rome. Prostitutes carrying children of our reverend fathers populate the next city to the Vatican. And the Pope sends food to that community. It is another tourist attraction. So, a reverend father that truly practises celibacy and is having souls for God is a man that is doing the two things that we have come to do in this world. So, if I have the opportunity, I will be a good reverend father.
It is said that the quest for money is the basis for current insecurity in the country. Do you share this view?
When you look at it closely, it is the society that allowed it. People say there is no bad leader, but bad advisers. And after the advisers come the followers. There were stories in the past when the followers made sure that their leaders listened to them and did what they wanted. So, if a leader fails, the followers have failed too. We say we are almost 200 million in this country. The totality of people in government, ministries and parastatals cannot be more than a million. So, we should be able to stand up for our rights. It happened in the Philippines. Ferdinand Marcos was going to kill a lot of people. He brought armoured tanks to the front of the presidential house. After four days, America told him that the last plane was leaving, that he had to come if he wanted to go. That was how he left. The people rose and said kill all of us; it is better. By the time they opened the door of the presidential palace, they found 30,000 shoes for the wife; 4,000 wristwatches for the two of them. If a man is not insane, what does he want to do with 2000 wristwatches? So, it is our society that has given rise to that and it is because we are not enlightened. If we say we are enlightened, we should be homogenous to face the people governing us. Buhari didn’t start all our problems, but he magnified them. It has never been this bad. It is because majority of our people are not educated. We had leaders who wanted to help Africa but the developed world used some of us to destabilise us. And because we are not enlightened, we don’t read between the lines.
Now, China is buying the whole of Africa. They call it debts. If I owe you N200, 000 and I can’t pay, you can carry my television; you can mortgage my house. In another 50 years, our children will be speaking Chinese. There was a time Lagos State said Chinese was compulsory in its schools. It used to be French. So, I still blame the society and in blaming the society, it goes back to the government which has refused to enlighten us. If you really want a homogenous Nigeria, the Yoruba, Hausa/Fulani and Igbo must join together to face the government without violence.
What is the path to building a homogenous Nigeria?
One answer, restructuring – realign the geographical demarcation, realign the resources, realign how you distribute it. And let me also say that self-determination is part of restructuring. If we all sit down and say we are restructuring and it is the hope of Biafra to go and still be a satellite of Nigeria or have bilateral relations with Nigeria, it is still part of restructuring. I gave a public lecture recently, where I said that self-determination is part of restructuring. If we get to that discussion and it is easier to restructure by self-determination, why not? Let everybody go and then develop diplomatic relations. They did that in Yugoslavia; Russia did that. That is why you have Georgia and the rest of them. Russia knows that they made a mistake by letting some of them go because the resources are there. And that is the problem here. The resources are in a part of the country. Everybody is benefitting from it without contributing to it. That is why they say we cannot divide. But there is nothing sacrosanct about Nigeria. A woman woke up from the side of her husband and named us Nigeria. By now, we should have changed it. Burkina Fasso changed theirs. So, we can change names; a lot of other countries have changed names. It doesn’t have to be Nigeria at all costs. VAT mainly comes from the sales of beer but nobody says that because of Sharia, don’t give us money from VAT. Every state takes it.
What are the things you wish to do if life tarries for you?
I am praying God to give me resources to build a hostel for old people, where they can be housed comfortably for free till the end of their lives if their children are willing to put them there. That had agitated my mind in the last seven years of my mother’s 92 years on earth. It showed me that you need to pay special attention to old people, especially women. So, if I have the resources, I will build it, even if it is a 50-bedroom hostel, and donate it to a church for the upkeep of old people till they die and get befitting burials.