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I Wanted To Be A Palm Wine Tapper —Bisi Akande
Former governor of Osun State and the National Chairman of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), Chief Bisi Akande, shares some critical moments of his life with KUNLE ODEREMI and SAHEED SALAWU in this interview, where he also expresses his views on the polity. Excerpts:
You look radiant. What is the secret?
Well, I stay healthy. I feed moderately and eat more of fruits and vegetables than other kinds of food. I eat twice a day — I have my breakfast; I am always busy during the day, and I have my dinner. And I don’t bear anybody any grudge. I stay happy all the time.
Does this have to do with your upbringing?
It may be part of it. We were born to a very poor family, but we felt wealthy in poverty, because we met our great grandparents and our grandparents united. It was a polygamous family. My father’s mother had only one child – that was my father, and the other wives in the family had their own children. Three of them combined to build the house in which I was born. And among our mothers, we couldn’t know the difference. All my stepmothers regarded me as their child, and I regarded them as my mothers.
When I was small, whenever I returned from school, I didn’t differentiate — it was whoever I first saw that I would meet for food. The cooperation was perfect. They took care of me the way they would take care of their own children, yet they were very poor. It was an agrarian community. Anytime we said we were hungry, they said, ‘well, if you can’t go to the farm to take corn or yam, then stay hungry’. So, the wealth of the family was always in the farm and labour was very highly respected. My grandfather had a garden, a tobacco farm, behind our house and had a big farm in the southern part of Ila, where he planted economic crops like cocoa and kola nut. The whole bush to the southern part of Ila is the workshop of the Ila people. We all grew up among our relatives and knew them to be hardworking.
My father used to be a palm wine tapper. He travelled all about; to Ibadan, Ile-Ife, Osogbo. He was an itinerant producer. And before you can be a successful palm wine tapper, you had to climb not less than 60 palm trees two times a day. You would climb them in the morning to take the juice, which you carry to the market and you go back in the evening to tidy the place up against the next day.
Were you involved in all these activities?
I wanted to be involved. I was excited about it. I liked the exploit because it showed some expertise, but each time my father saw me attempt to climb a palm tree, he would beat the hell out of me. He didn’t want me to inherit the kind of job he was doing. I regret that I don’t know how to produce palm wine. When my parents were doing it, I was so excited; I wanted to learn it. I wanted to be a palm wine tapper, but my parents never permitted me.
How were you able to combine farming and going to school together?
I started schooling early enough — maybe about age six or seven. I don’t know the date of my birth, but I know I started schooling in 1946 — I would be about six or seven years old then. I loved going to school, but it was mandatory that every Friday, we moved with our parents to the farm to help them in small engagements like weeding, watching traps and fetching water from the brook. Unfortunately, before I knew how to do farming proper, my grandfather who was a farmer died. That was in 1949. Then, I moved to an uncle who was a sawyer and stopped going to farm. I followed them to the bush where they made planks. That one too stopped when I went to the teacher training college.
What kind of distractions did you face as a pupil?
The major distraction was bicycle, which was new in my environment. We would always look for our mothers’ money to hire a bicycle. We wanted to learn to ride it at all cost and you had to pay money before the repairer could give you one to ride. And you had to be accompanied by someone who knew how to ride. So, when you hire a bicycle with one penny for 10 minutes, for instance, the one to teach you would enjoy part of the money, and before you know it, the money you paid would have expired and you would not have known how to ride. This means you must look for money to ride the next day. So, as a learner bicycle rider, you glue yourself to it. By the next day, you remember you have not done your homework, then, you get exposed to punishment.
Another thing I could say was an impediment was that you play all day and in the night: no light! No electricity in my environment. My parents used what we called sugudu or oguso, made from residue of palm oil, for lighting in the night. We called it African candle. We moulded the dry palm oil residue round the tip of a long stick and lit it and it continues to provide some illumination. I was sleeping one day and the spark from the light system fell on the joint of my forearm. As a small boy, I folded my arm and was crying. Nobody knew what was wrong with me. When they checked me and couldn’t find anything, they left me to sleep. The next day, they saw that this place (he rolls his sleeve) was sore and that made the ‘aeroplane’ you see on my arm. That was the kind of lantern we had and it was not comfortable for reading. It could even get on your book and burn it.
You can’t afford to read in the evening and during the day, you run about riding bicycle.
Can you remember a particular occasion where your parents had to reprimand you for a misdeed?
There were several such occasions. I remember one day, I was riding bicycle and — maybe I was speeding — I fell to a gutter in an attempt not to hit a chief in my area. But, it became a big noise everywhere that I was a bad boy; that I was about to kill a chief with a bicycle. Truly, I didn’t hit him, but the man was scared. The story went round and wide and it reached my father. That wasn’t a palatable day for me. He really spanked me.
Also, we used to have a play in which you have to find people blindfolded. During the play one day, as I was groping to find my playmates, I bumped into somebody carrying palm oil, and the whole thing broke down gboa! They said I had to pay 75 kobo for the palm oil and that was a lot of money in those days. I became a debtor suddenly, and my parents couldn’t bear this and I was spanked. This other one happened in the support of the family. The family called me and said, ‘look, Bisi, you will not go to school tomorrow. The family’s masquerade is coming out and you are going to be the secretary’. So, anywhere we went and the masquerade was given money, I would write the name of the person and the amount he gave. We were dancing all around town.
I didn’t know it was wrong not to go to school. The family asked me to follow the masquerade and I was following the masquerade. As we were coming out of a compound, I ran into two of my teachers – my class teacher and his friend. Then, my teacher held my hand and said, ‘so, this is where you are doing your schooling today!’ In that moment, I knew I was in trouble and I wasn’t happy anymore. At the close of the masquerade outing, I was given 10 kobo, which I appreciated because to me, it was a lot of money. The family supported what I had done, but I had caused trouble for myself. So, I decided not to go to school again. They persuaded me to go back to school, but I insisted I didn’t want to go to school again. I said I wanted to become a motor mechanic.
Eventually, I was tricked to believe that before I could learn the job, I needed to have my certificate and testimonial. But I said as long as it was not going to be my school in Ila, I would agree to go. That was why I finished my primary school education at Methodist School, Idanre. But when I finished, there was no way I could go to any other school because there was no money. It was later when I got employed as teacher that I went to teacher training college. The primary school where I was a teacher was created by Chief Awolowo, so also was the teacher training college which I attended. There, we paid next to nothing. I think, we were paying N32 per year. From that money, we would eat; they would wash our clothes for us; they would give us books. Call it scholarship.
Perhaps you want to share how you met your wife...
That one is a long story. I didn’t know the woman much. I only saw her whenever I visited my friend who was her brother. We went to the same teacher training college. Each time I came home on holiday, I played in their home, and this girl too would come on holiday from somewhere. One thing I noticed was that she was quite different from the other girls that I saw around in town. Most of the girls then did not wear slippers or shoes, but she was always putting on shoes. And she was the one her brother would ask to buy things for us for entertainment, like palm wine. But I didn’t pay any attention to her. She looked so young that I didn’t think she could be a wife. I just knew her as my friend’s younger sister who was taking care of us.
One day, at a football match at the community field — I don’t know how she got there — she ran into my arms shouting, ‘Please! Please! Please! She said somebody was trying to manhandle her. That one happened to be my classmate in primary school. He said the girl had been so rude, putting a gaze on him as if I he was dirty or something. So, I begged the boy and he went away. From that moment, this girl started moving in the same direction with me. She would not be left alone, afraid that she might run into another rough hand. So, about the time the match was to end, I told her I wanted to leave because I had to see a friend who was bereaved. She followed me to the place. After leaving the place, I thought we would go separate ways, but she requested me to follow her to her aunt’s home. So, I followed her because she followed me to my friend. When we got to her aunt’s place, we were welcomed as if we were engaged already, but we had never discussed anything. They treated me as if I was the fiancé. They asked me, ‘do you want biscuit? Do you want soft drink and all that? I was embarrassed. She too was embarrassed. Maybe from that moment, we started having feelings for each other. Then, I followed her to her house and she didn’t want me to enter to avoid trouble from her father. From there, we started asking each other out sometimes to parties.
After she left for her school in Abeokuta, I wrote her a simple letter asking her about her arrival in school and her studies. Afterwards, I think she wrote to her brother, my friend, through whom I knew her and asked if it would be a good idea to agree to marry me. And my friend wrote a brilliant testimonial. So, she decided to come home the next holiday because of that. Then, from the second moment we met, the idea was in the minds of both of us and her suggestion was to visit her mother at Ikire. But when we got to Ikire, mama put me off. She said, ‘No, we can’t give you our child. They say you are too rascally. After all, you are brother and sister. It is forbidden. You can’t marry her’. I was so embarrassed, but when I was going, my wife asked me not to mind her mother; that I was the one she had chosen to marry. The courtship lasted for about five years. We met in December 1961 or so and I think I met the father in 1966 because she couldn’t tell him. She wanted to finish her education first.
After her education – I was already with the British Petroleum – she ended up at Iree Baptist Welfare Centre, where they were being trained as midwives. So, one day, her brother decided to take me to their father. We met the father in the village. The man asked a few questions and he was satisfied with the answers. He entertained me; gave me pounded yam and palm wine. When I reported back to my wife, she was very happy. The moment the father supported me, the mother became my friend and didn’t remember to say I was rascally anymore. I became their son until we got married.
Would you say you were actually rascally or not?
Honestly, I don’t know. I was a little daring, but I thought I was doing what was normal. I was involved in all sorts of exploits that many people would not foray into. I always forayed into things that demanded courage, but not bad things.
As a politician, you are always involved in a lot of activities, how do you relax?
It is becoming more difficult to relax nowadays. At the beginning, I managed to prioritise and do things as I could. I was living in Lagos. The Ila people were attracting me to come and be their representative. I was always involved in community activities and I always came home for meetings. Later when they were asking me to represent them, it became more involving. I was working in Lagos and was a politician in Ila. I always travelled all the way from Lagos to Ila, but most of my contemporaries in Lagos felt uncomfortable. They believed people here could kill people; that one, day, the aje (witches) in Ila would just kill me, because I came to Ila so often.
When it was time, I built my house within the family compound because I didn’t want to be far away from my grandmother. When my friends came and saw me among my people and the kinds of houses around me, they felt concerned for me. They wondered how I could live among my people. I said they were my parents. They gave birth to me; they sent me to school and I grew up among them. Why would I want to become an ajele (stranger) among them and decide to live in places like GRA. I lived among them. I saw their problems. I saw the problems of their children. I helped them train their children. I was happy living among them, but when they became old and eventually died, I felt lonely and I was becoming the olori ebi, then, I decided to move to my other house.
When did you buy your first car and what brand was it?
I bought my first car, a Volkswagen beetle, when I was preparing to get married. I bought it for 80 pounds, N160, out of my monthly salary. I was a senior staff of the British Petroleum, earning better than many of my colleagues in government. I learned to drive with the car and used it to impress my fiancee.
What are those things that turn you off when you look at our contemporary society?
Corruption! It is the major cause of the general unemployment. People don’t want to go into business with Nigeria anymore. Recently, I read the World Bank report that says if you want to establish a business in Nigeria, you are going to spend 34 percent of the total cost on bribe. Corruption never allowed the infrastructure provided by the government to be stable, therefore, companies that were producing in the country before and were employing people moved out of the country. Also, new ones were afraid to come in. And because of that, there is general unemployment.
Who is to blame for the situation?
Leadership! Not necessarily politicians, because if you enter a bank, there is a leader there. The leadership there are thieves. Haven’t you been hearing of them being arrested? In an oil company, the leadership there are corrupt. If you go to churches and mosques, the leadership there are corrupt. So, would people in politics be imported? They too are corrupt! Civil servants are generally corrupt. They are more corrupt than politicians. They teach politicians how to steal. In the olden days, there could be some level of corruption among the civil servants, but not as pronounced and transparent as it is now. When the military came, they used civil servants to steal money. But when the military left, the civil servants couldn’t stop stealing money and they are teaching politicians to steal.
The military intervention in governance was the beginning of corruption. If the military didn’t come into governance, corruption wouldn’t be at this level. They are the ones that can steal 100 percent. Before the military, people heard of five percent, 10 percent, but during the military, they could take the money without doing the job, and nobody would challenge them. If you challenged them, they would lock you up or kill you. There were no assassinations and murders before the military incursion into politics. So, the military brought all the woes into politics. I don’t blame politicians. The military introduced civil servants to brazen corruption and civil servants transferred it to politicians, who took over from the military.
Why is it difficult for politicians to change the whole process?
Well, it depends on individuals. I didn’t say all politicians are corrupt. Some politicians would not steal because they would not want to soil their names. When you are in government, it is very difficult to steal alone. There must be collusion of some people because the money is being kept with the bank. The accountant-general is the one having the linkage with the bank. Politicians are no signatories to cheques, civil servants are. So, you might bring a contractor to front for you, cajole the civil servants to pay him and he returns the money to you. But he can’t return the money to you alone, but the civil servants. So, it depends on the leader. Not all politicians are corrupt. Some became corrupt because the society too became corrupt. The society can’t elect anybody without taking money from them.
I was elected councillor two times unopposed. When I went to the constituent assembly, I was elected without spending one kobo. I can’t remember if I spent N50,000 when I became governor. If I did, I used the money to buy petrol for my vehicle or to buy Coca-Cola for my friends. Nobody took money from me when I became governor. Today, nobody can become a councillor without spending millions. When he gets there, he would be stealing. It becomes the society’s belief that you go to power to steal. The military has shown us that they go there to steal. How do you explain salary earners who are now riding in jets all around, who are military? A military man joined the army as a small boy and remained a salary earner until he left the military service. And he left the army and is riding in jets! Is it possible for a salary earner to ride in a jet?
What could be done to make Nigeria regain its glory like in the days of leaders like Chief Obafemi Awolowo?
We tried to introduce it when we were in government. I was trying to be very frugal with the public money. For example, when the Federal Government awarded a road contract for about N84 million per kilometre, I was doing it for about N19 million. When they were building a block of three classrooms for about half a million naira, I was doing it for about N150,000. When I was to build the secretariat in Osogbo, the bill they gave me was about N10 billion. I built it for less than N3 billion. You can always do it by example when you have the opportunity to be in power. There is no other way. My party suggested to Jonathan recently that if he wanted to solve the problem of Boko Haram, he should introduce meals to schools. Give school children all over the country a loaf of bread and an egg in the morning, and in the afternoon, give them rice and some meat. We said if he did that, in five years, there won’t be Boko Haram again, because the schools would be full of children. Industries would grow; bread makers would multiply; poultry farmers would multiply, because they would produce all these foods for the children; catering job would soar, because they would provide the foods for the children. Notwithstanding the religious standpoint that children should not go to school, because of food, they would go to school, in Sokoto, Kano, Borno... everywhere. And in five to six years, most of these children would have become well educated. The environments around the schools would be producers of school foods; agriculture would grow; employment would soar, and the new generation won’t learn to be almajiri; they would learn to make a decent life, and there would be an end to the problem. My party suggested the idea to President Goodluck Jonathan, but he didn’t see a sense in it. About two weeks later, he founded an almajiri school in Sokoto. The leadership in Nigeria are visionless.
They are thoughtless. They are selfish.
Now most governors are saying that their states are broke. What was your experience when you were in government? Security vote has also been described as an avenue to steal. How did you manage your own security vote?
I had no security vote as such because I didn’t know where they spent it. I had a security officer who was a civil servant. The title of the officer was Permanent Secretary, Policy Coordination. And when there was a security issue, I called him and he would talk to the police or the military. All I saw was the paper and I would approve. And what caused it? The Ife/Modakeke problem was prevalent, and the police were stationed there overnight, so, they talked of some allowances and so on. And what was my business in that? All I wanted was to solve the Ife the Ife/Modakeke problem and it was solved. I didn’t have anything at the corner of my room, which I dished out to anybody. We called it security expenses, but it was kept by accountant-general and the officer, not by me.
Why is the scenario different with many governors now?
Because people just do whatever they like with it. The military introduced security vote into our system. It is a free fund, a largesse; mountains of money which a governor put somewhere and keep spending. But I didn’t do my own like that because it won’t pay me.
Why do you think most states are broke?
I don’t know how they make their money or how they spend it. When I was in government, my state was about to be the ‘brokest’, if that is allowed in English Language. My state was sharing the least from the Federation Account and the internally generated revenue (IGR) was the lowest. It was like squeezing juice out of stone. But I decided to make a mark and I made a mark. I was put in charge to look after the frugal management of the resources of my people, and that was exactly what I did.
If then I bought my wife a new gele (headgear) to be going about as first lady or whatever lady they call it, there would be trouble.
The idea of First Lady is arrant nonsense. Where did we get it? In which law is it written? Which law are we following? Is it written in the law of Nigeria that there should be a First Lady? They are creating a budget for the office of first lady. When I came into government, I turned the First Lady office into a situation office and relocated my wife to my kitchen. That is the First Lady’s office, as far as I know. It is this sense of waste in some leaders that is producing all the problems we have. I don’t believe in these kinds of things because they are, to me, distractions that should not be allowed. And I thank my wife. She cooperated perfectly with me. Even the SSS people came to plead with me to stop my wife from buying vegetables in the market for security reasons. But my wife knows what I want to eat. She would go to the market and pick them. She knows the kind of fruit I love.
She knows the kind of vegetable I love. She was the one going to buy them. I said I didn’t want a government cook to cook for me. I wanted my wife to cook for me. I created a government kitchen and I created my kitchen. My wife was cooking for me in my kitchen for me and my friends. And the government kitchen was for the public. So, the government people were preparing food for the government and my wife was preparing food for me. And that is the way I think it should be. But go and read the budget for 2012 in Aso Rock and see how much they spend per kitchen, either the kitchen of the president or the vice president. You need to see how much they spend on cutlery! It’s leadership.
I told you I was born poor – my father was a palm wine tapper. If I went to the government house and began to eat egg and sugar, I would have been killed by diabetes by now. But you would find me eating African sausage, well-boiled ogede dudu (unripe banana) and garden egg. As governor, I ate what I was eating as an ordinary person. Now that I’m no more in government, I eat what I was eating in my youthful days, what I met my parents eating. The only people that give me problem now are my children. They can’t eat what I eat. They want to eat oyinbo food. But what can I do? I can’t force them.
What are your regrets in life?
The only regret I have is that I accepted to be lured into politics, because everybody in politics that moves out clean now, people would say, ‘oh! It’s our money’. And God knows that I don’t belong to that class. So, when they say politicians are thieves, I don’t know how to wriggle out. If I hadn’t forayed into politics, I would have been what I am now, although I may not be as famous. That is because I would be home tending my garden and living comfortably with my family.
But you must also be regretting the circumstances under which you left government...
I don’t regret that. I celebrated that.
How would you like to be remembered?
I would want to be remembered for being a lover of my people; that I always wanted the best for my community anywhere I found myself.
Why do you smile all the time?
I think it is my life. When I am looking at you face-to-face, the next thing for me is to smile. When I joined British Petroleum, they were to train me as a telephonist as part of my induction. The person that trained me said when whenever the telephone ring, I must smile before picking up the receiver; that I am bound to smile into the mouthpiece so that everything that would come out of my mouth would be pleasant. So, from that moment, when I meet someone, the first thing I do is to smile. It’s my life. Only when I sleep do I not smile.