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In Nigeria, the older you are, the sadder you become Ė Alex Akinyele at 70

Posted by By FEMI ADESINA on 2008/04/22 | Views: 841 |

In Nigeria, the older you are, the sadder you become Ė Alex Akinyele at 70


Itís time to roll out the drums for former Minister of Information, Sir Alex Akinyele, who turns 70 tomorrow. And why not? To use his words, "you donít become 70 because you eat well, or live well, or because you cared so well for your life. You reach 70 only by divine grace."

Itís time to roll out the drums for former Minister of Information, Sir Alex Akinyele, who turns 70 tomorrow. And why not? To use his words, "you donít become 70 because you eat well, or live well, or because you cared so well for your life. You reach 70 only by divine grace."

So, Ondo, the traditional homestead of Akinyele, (where he is the Lobosin, one of the very important titles in the kingdom) will be agog this week in celebration. Former military president, Gen. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida will be at hand to grace a book launch on the Ďbirthday boy,í while he will also commission the Alex Akinyele Plaza. Indeed, Ondo town promises to burst at the seams with high networth individuals from different parts of the country.

But how does Akinyele feel at 70? Fulfilled, he says. But whatís his reflection on the state of the nation? A dampener. "The older you get in Nigeria, the sadder you become," he declares.
Read the full interview below, which is vintage Akinyele.

How it feels to be 70
You donít become 70 because you eat well, or live well, or because you cared so well for your life. You reach 70 only by divine grace. Itís only if God permits it. The journey of letís say from five years till 70th, is a real long journey. As you go along, you gather experiences, but what is most important is that these experiences are the things that you ruminate about when youíre 70.

When youíre 70, you want to examine your life in very many spheres. You ask yourself, professionally or by the business I do, have I made a success of it? Do I have enough and to spare? Am I equal with my equals? And these questions are difficult to answer. But if you want to answer well, you look to the right, to the left, behind you. Then youíll be able to know that in the race, youíre not the worst off. But at the same time, when you look forward, you see that there are some people ahead of you. You have to be very careful not to misjudge God.

You might probably say with all these journey, with all these activities and successes here and there, there are still some people ahead of me. If you think that way, youíll deny yourself the grace to be grateful to God. So after examining your life professionally or business-wise, then you look inwards to your domestic situation. You think of your wife, your children. You ask yourself, how much contribution has this woman made to your happiness. What is her contribution to your progress in life. How many children has she got for you. These are the things you begin to think about at 70. The answers will either make you happy or very unhappy.

And at the age of 70, you are more reflective. You run around less. You look round for your friends, you discover that many of them have gone. Oh yes. And then this song will come to your head: "Then may we know as blessings over, with comrades missed, all gone before forever more." When you think of those who have gone, you remember your best friends, best associates. You donít have a longing for them, but you are fighting, will I too go?

They way Iím missing my friends, will people miss me? These are the things that keep a man of 70 ever thinking. Then you will ask yourself, at 70, what impact have I been able to make in my local area, the grassroots. I could remember in 1954, our first principal in Boluji Grammar School, Ile-Oluji, kept telling us. Leave Boluji Grammar School better than you found it. And he told us to leave our environment better than we found it, and the world better than we found it. But he went on to check us, that it is not possible for all of us to have an impact on the world, but we must be able to have an impact on our local area where we were born. And that was why he told us, Ďshine in your little corner. If youíre unable to shine in your little corner, then youíre a failure.í Your little corner includes your home. In your home, will anybody miss you if you die? These are my thoughts, and I thank God. In the race for life, nobody ever scores 100%. There will be some failures here and there. But in the final analysis, if youíre able to judge yourself a success, thank God. For me, Iím a success. I am fulfilled, and I thank God for it.

My reflections about Nigeria
I agree with Chief Ayo Adebanjo who turned 80 recently, when he said he was a bitter old man, due to the state of the nation. The older you are in Nigeria, the sadder you become. That is what Chief Adebanjo was saying, and it is true. I am only 70, but I can tell you that I am very bitter and unhappy. If you imagine what Nigeria was in 1960, and the promise Nigeria held for the entire world, and what Nigeria is today, you canít be happy. No matter how insensitive anybody can be, you canít be happy.

Greatest influences
My greatest influences started from my local environment. My father, who taught me how to do this and that, and my mother. My father was quite strict, but my mother with sentiment and emotion equally taught me a lot of things, and fed me very well.

Another influence from my local area is the Venerable Archdeacon R.E Ariyo, from Ondo Diocese. Heís a very great influence on my life. In 1962, he saw me in Ondo, and he said, Aleco, all your colleagues are in universities. Where will this carry you to? You are the master of ceremonies and announcer at every sports meet. How can? Then I said, Sir, I actually qualify to go to any of these universities, but unfortunately, I havenít got the money to finance it. He said alright, in the next season, if you gain admission, come and tell me. And the following season, I gained admission to Ibadan, Ife, University of Nigeria, and Ahmadu Bello. And I went to this old man, he was then the principal of Olofin Grammar School, Idanre.

Even though I was not a native of Idanre, or a teacher in Idanre, he gave me the schoolís sponsorship to read English at the University of Ife. If he didnít give me that lease of life, I wouldnít have gone to the university. And when I got to the university, I didnít need that sponsorship again, because I gained four other scholarships. But he was the one who gave me opportunity to go there. Heís still alive, and weíre great pals. I told our Archdeacon of All Saints Church, Ondo recently what the man meant to my life, and what Iíve been doing for him since I gained my economic independence. I told the Archdeacon that when the man dies, Iím going to buy him a casket of very high class. Let him take that to heaven. (Laughs).

Another great influence on my life is the great Rt. Rev Bishop Kale. While most people at St Andrewís College, Oyo, saw me as a practical nuisance, he was able to discover the virtues in me, and he developed the virtues. He was the one who showed me the path to public relations. When I was in St Andrewís College, Oyo, I was more or less a non-conformist. The rules and regulations there were very strict and archaic, and I didnít like them. I didnít find any sense in keeping the rules. You have a great orchard, you canít pluck anything. And these fruits would drop, you canít pluck, you canít pick. And they just rot away.

So I would pluck, and the prefects would punish me. So when it came to the end of the year, when new prefects were to be elected, I put my name forward, I lost. If I lost in house prefectship, I would put my name forward for another thing at the school level, but I lost all. So, when Bishop Kale came for the end of year meeting with us, and he discovered that I did not win election to any position, and whereas he felt I was a very good student because he saw me perform on the stage, I marketed myself to him, and he bought me hook, line and sinker. He then told the students, you have elected your own officers, I am going to appoint my own. Heís not going to be elected. He said he has created a new office, which is that of the receptionist prefect. He told us what a receptionist prefect would do, which is a replica of what a PR person should do. He said the person is not going to be elected but appointed, and I appoint Alexander Opeyemi Akinyele. That was how I went into public relations.

Then another influence on my life was one Mr. F.A. Makinde. He was my teacher in 1948 at St Stephenís School, Agbabu. He was the man who introduced me to Shakespeare. And ever since, Shakespeare and I sleep and wake together.

There are so many others that I may not remember because journey of 70 years is a long one. I can remember Dr Aigboje Higo, who really influenced me when I went to St Andrewís College, Oyo. He brushed up my English Literature. He incorporated more English Literature in me. He loved me, and was not too much a law abiding teacher. He would go to Ibadan, and he would take me along, so that I could see the outside world, Heís another very great influence.

Then the influence that we dare not forget. The influence of my late wife, Lady Yvonne Akinyele. I think sleeping and waking together, she became the greatest influence on my life. When we started our relationship, a literary rival of me wrote a beautiful letter to her, warning her not to marry me, that this Aleco is not a responsible man. All the girls on campus are his girlfriends. When Lady Yvonne got the letter in Lagos, she brought it to me in Ibadan. I said, in the words of Jesus Christ: an enemy has done this. I went on to ask her, now that you have got this letter, what will you do? She said she would stick to me. A woman can make a gentleman of her man and she made a gentleman of me. She took me from Boy Aleco, to Man Aleco, to Chief Aleco, to Sir Chief Alex Akinyele. She made me a very happy man. May her soul rest in perfect peace.

The defining moments
You see, when I was growing, my vision, my horizon, was influenced by the environment in which I was born. And by the environment in which I started to work. My vision, therefore, was not very high. It wasnít that I had no ambition, but water flows to find its level. I looked at my family, Iím the first graduate in the family of Akinyele. Everything, first, first, first. So, there was nobody for me to look up to. If there was anybody to look up to, it was my father, but what was his horizon? But finally, when I came to Lagos in 1967, I took up appointment as Superintendent Collector, and later I met Mr Duke who appointed me the first public relations officer to the Customs and Excise. My life was having a new definition and a new dimension. First, I decided to look at Mr Duke as my mirror. I wanted to be like him. And it meant I had to work hard to become Director-General of the Customs and Excise Department. And during the numerous overseas trainings and courses I went to, my horizon became broad, and I changed my vision of life. That explains why in 1978, as just Assistant Comptroller of Customs, I retired voluntarily, because I had seen new horizons, and was adequately qualified for a voluntary retirement.

And then, in 1979, I went into business with one Mr Samir Chalfoun. He became a stupendous influence. We went into business together, under one year, when we shared profit, I had a million naira to myself. I ran to Ondo to build my first house, the Ekimogun Court. He didnít like it, he said we should plough the money back into business. I said why should I? How am I sure it will be two million in the next year? That was it.

But the person who brought a big bang and change into my life was Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. In 1988, to greet me on my 50th birthday, he nominated me to the Constituent Assembly, which held in Abuja. When I got there, I saw a world of politicians. Iíd never been a politician, Iím a PR person, and I want to stick to it till the end.

I was exposed to all of them, and they loved me. I became very popular. All those who came from Ondo State came to me and said I should be the next governor of our state. I said no, give it to my friend Bamidele Olumilua. Heís a career diplomat and a good politician, he will serve Ondo people better. That was how we made him governor right from the Constituent Assembly. And when he became governor, he called me. He said this is the work of God, and your own work. What do you want me to do for you? I said what I want is that you make sure Ondo State moves forward. Thatís all I want. Unfortunately, their regime was truncated.

When I left the Constituent Assembly, I didnít really know what to do. I wasnít too keen to go back to Cybele Cosmetics, where I was chairman/managing director. With the horizon I had been exposed to in the Constituent Assembly, I couldnít see myself sit quietly in the office, waiting for women who would buy cosmetics and perfumes. But then, Gen. Babangida came again, another glorious divine intrusion, he appointed me minister.

I couldnít believe it. I didnít lobby for it, but he saw me as a super PR person. Iíd done PR for him at the back stage, and he saw the integrity of my service. The integrity is in the fact that I did not ask for anything, so he respected me for it. On that evening, when Chief Olu Falae called me to his house, and said the president wants to make you Information Minister, will you accept the job? I said; who born dog? (laughs) why should I not accept it? Nobody in my family or in Ondo town, had ever reached that height. I said I would accept. The man said okay.

You can imagine my anxiety. First day, second day, third day, first month, second month. I began to say, why did Chief Falae set my ambition on fire, and now I did not hear anything. I was in my office at Cybele Cosmetics one day, quarrelling with my business colleagues because there was another booty to share, and I said I was not going to plough it back into the business. I told them I had spent all my money at the Constituent Assembly. While the argument was going on, my wife rushed to my office, shouting, my dear, my dear, my dear. She kissed me, and before I asked whatís it, I first enjoyed the kiss. Then she said, I heard on radio, youíve been appointed Information Minister. That was how Gen. Babangida came into my life.

And when he dissolved his cabinet in 1991 December, he brought me back to the National Sports Commission, where my name becomes indelible. Weíve had so many Information Ministers, I donít know how many of them Nigerians can remember outside Chief T.O.S Benson. But they can remember me because I made some marks. But where they will remember me more is the National Sports Commission. That was how Gen. Babangida became a very great influence on my life.

Low moments
I had low moments in my life. First, my fatherís third son, Sunday, died when he was about to take his school certificate examination. He was a very brilliant student. I was summoned to Ondo. So a very brilliant star of the family was dimmed.

Another very low moment was when my father died. I felt that the atlas behind me had gone home. I cried like a baby. Just as I became minister, he saw me, organized a party for me, and then died. He was 87.

Then death took my mother. She died in a dramatic way. When I came back from the Barcelona Olympics, my son came to me, right at the airport. He said I should drive straight to the hospital, mama is about to die. He said for six days, she had not spoken to anybody, because she was hearing my name on television. She was in a private room, and she said when they begin to mention peopleís name on radio and television, it means such person is dead. So, from the airport, I drove straight to Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH). When I got there, she said, hey, you are alive. All the nurses were shocked, because she had not spoken for six days. That day, I took her back home, and I was to go to Abuja to brief Gen Babangida next day on the Olympics.

I left in the morning to catch a flight. The previous night, when I went to her, she held me tightly. I asked, Mama, from where did you get this energy? She said she took pap. I asked, when does pap give so much energy? The second time, she held me tightly again, then she said, Adufe, I am alright. I put her back on the bed. Stupid man that I was, that was when my mother died, but I didnít know.

I went to Abuja, signaled Aso Rock, and they told me the president would see me by 10.30a.m. But by 9.30 a.m they phoned my personal assistant, Adeyemi Nelson, that my mother was dead. He didnít know how to tell me. He just told me to phone Lagos. He then went round, gathered some friends, who told me my mother was dead. I cried like a baby.

But let me tell you something. Where science ends, mystery begins. I had a dog then, throughout that night, it was barking. When I came out, the dog stopped barking and wagged its tail. It was trying to tell me my mother was dead. She was 84.

I told the ADC to Gen Babangida that I could not make the appointment again because my mother had died. I went to the airport, and Chief M.K.O Abiola saw me. He said, Chief Akinyele, why are you so sad. Your eyes are red. I said, my mother is dead. He said Ah, he left me, and when he came back, he was with 20 to 30 Muslim friends. They prayed, and after that, he took me in his private jet to Lagos. And when we got to Lagos, he provided the car that took me home. That is one of the reasons I have soft spot for that great politician.

And finally, the big bang. March 14, 1988. Lady Yvonne died. And everything that was me died with her. I thought that was my end. She was just too good. In one of my previous interviews, I said if Lady Yvonne was married to a baboon, or a gorilla, the gorilla will treat her with every tenderness.
After her death, another terrible thing that happened was the death of my immediate brother, Benson. He was the pillar behind me. If we had anything to do in the family I would just call him. He was very patient, would arrange everything. As long as he was around, everything would be alright. Maybe I had to provide logistics, but if he was there, I had no anxiety about anything. But since he died, I do things all alone. The loneliness his death and that of Yvonne brought, is enough to kill a human being. But they call me die-hard.

Nigeria then and now
The nation then was full of promises. In 1960 when we had independence, I was ready to die for Nigeria, and Bishop Kale permitted us to go from St Andrewís College, Oyo, to watch the Union Jack lowered for the last time. I was ready to sacrifice my life for the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Today, I donít think I can give my nail for this country. That is to tell you how I feel. You see, there were three revolutions in this country. But many of us do not appreciate the revolutions. One was the revolution brought about in the Western Region by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. The way he administered Western Region, if he had continued till the end, all other regions would envy the West and it would bring a lot of development for the country. Maybe the other parts would have needed visa to visit Western Region. But he surrendered that good job for his presidential ambition. It was very unfortunate. That change of heart from being a premier was a revolution.

Another revolution was this. January 15, 1966, we upset the applecart. Nzeogwu thought it was a coup. It was not. It was a revolution, and we lost most of our experienced politicians. After the first coup, there was a second, which was bloodier than the first. It was a terrible revolution. It didnít do Nigeria any good, even up till now.

The third revolution was the one brought about by Gen. Murtala Muhammed, who destroyed the cherished fabric of our civil service. Our civil service used to be the best in Africa. He destroyed it.
And all these revolutions are tragic. When you think of them, you canít be happy.

Me & controversy
Yes, I donít shy away from controversy. People who are brave, who have nothing to hide, will always be involved in controversies, hoping to establish the truth. I love controversies. Things people donít talk about, I talk about them. But one thing you will agree is that my name has never been linked to any scandal in this country. If you love controversy, you must be very careful that you donít get into the trap of people who will finish you. Thatís why Iíve been very careful not to get into any scandal.

Me & my friends
My friends have influenced my life. If you have a habit, and your friends encourage the habit, you will live long with it. This idea of humour was actively encouraged by my friends. They love me for my humour. If the whole place is so quiet, and everybody is like mourning, when Aleco comes in, thereíll be spontaneous joy.

My friends had some kind of insight into my future. They kept saying, donít mind Aleco, he will go ahead of us. They loved my children, loved Yvonne, whom they were very fond of. Those of us who were village friends, we are still together today. But on my 70th birthday, something continues to worry me. The state of health of Chief Gani Fawehinmi. He is only two days older than me, and I am asking myself, with the state of his health, should I celebrate my own birthday with a big noise? Deep down my heart, I pray for him. Each time I pray for all those who will travel to attend my birthday, I also pray for Chief Gani Fawehinmi, and I pray by the grace of God, he will get out of his current situation and serve the nation again.

But I want to warn, when youíre getting to 70, you have a lot of problems. In 2006 and 2007, I was hospitalized about four times, I had four operations abroad. When you are about to cross the bar, you are shaken. Gani will get out of this current state and cross the bar by the grace of God.
My friends are good to me, but I also have some bad friends (laughs). They are surprised at what I am today. They say, that noise maker? They canít understand why a stupendous noise maker like me should be made minister. They are the cynical friends.

And I have some other friends, if I become YaríAdua today, they will not respect me. These are friends like Cassius to Julius Caesar. I wonít say more than that.

How long I want to live
I will live for 85 years. My father was 87, my mother 84. So Iíll live for 85 years. I have that covenant with God, and nothing will change it.

Life hereafter
This idea of life hereafter. You see, you canít be a Christian without believing in life hereafter. The fundamental of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus Christ my Lord and Saviour. So if you believe in the resurrection, you must believe in life after life. And that is why I always pray to God to prevent me from doing anything that will debar me from going to heaven. But let me tell you, there is no man living that shall be justified before the living God, and God who created us says He is sorry He created man because the thoughts of his heart are evil continually. So, when we have problems here and there with God, He forgives us.

The chemical with which man is made, thereís no perfection in it. So, God will take me as I am. But I will not deliberately go out of my way to do evil to any man. I wonít kill, wonít envy anybody, I pray for people, and I pray for myself. So, life after death, we shall be there together. Youíll be surprised where youíll find me. I will be there in paradise. And you too will be there by the grace of God.

Life after 70
I told those who interviewed me earlier that at the end of all the celebrations, I will remain in Ondo, and do my best to develop the town. I will join hands with the Osemawe of Ondo kingdom, Oba Victor Adesunmbo Kiladejo III, to develop the town. That will be in fulfillment of the order we were given in 1954 to leave our environment better than we found it.
I have transferred so many things from Lagos to Ondo because I donít want to get there and miss anything. And that has cost a lot of money.

But there is a BUT. There is a national call from the Federal Government to chairman a Youth and Sports Committee just set up. I canít say no to my nation, so I will still be in Lagos for a while.
Also when fully at Ondo, Iíll be able to directly monitor my business at home. And I will also love to teach English Literature at the Adeyemi College of Education. An hour of teaching per week will keep me awake, because I donít want to die early (uproarious laughter).

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Fay(Katy, Texas, US)says...

Actually translates to bravehearted.