My suc­cess sur­prises peo­ple who knew I was a ras­cal as a child

A for­mer Pres­i­dent of the Nige­ria Box­ing Fed­er­a­tion, Bri­gadier Gen­eral Ola Ayeni (retd.), is also a med­i­cal doc­tor. He tells ADEMOLA OLONILUA the story of his rise to grace

The Punch - - WEEKEND STARTER - – Brig. Gen. Ayeni (retd.)

You are very ac­tive in the sports sec­tor, at a point you were the Pres­i­dent of the Nige­ria Box­ing Fed­er­a­tion… My ca­reer in the sports sec­tor in Nige­ria started when I was ap­pointed as the Pres­i­dent of the Nige­rian Bad­minton As­so­ci­a­tion (be­fore it was changed to Bad­minton Fed­er­a­tion of Nige­ria). That was in 1992. At that time, I was a Ma­jor in the Nige­rian Army and most of the pres­i­dents of sports as­so­ci­a­tions were ap­pointed by the Min­is­ter of Sports. Be­fore then, I was a mem­ber of the then Nige­rian Gym­nas­tics As­so­ci­a­tion. Due to the ex­pe­ri­ence I ac­quired at the gym­nas­tics or­gan­i­sa­tion, I was ap­pointed as the Pres­i­dent of the Nige­rian Bad­minton As­so­ci­a­tion.

At the time I was the pres­i­dent of the bad­minton as­so­ci­a­tion, the late Brai Ayenote was the Pres­i­dent of the Nige­ria Box­ing Fed­er­a­tion and I was a doc­tor at­tached to the box­ers at the time. I was a ring doc­tor. Ayenote told me that even though I was the pres­i­dent of an­other as­so­ci­a­tion, he would never re­lease me be­cause I was very use­ful to him. At the time, it was dif­fi­cult to raise funds be­cause it was dur­ing the mil­i­tary regime but be­cause I was a Ma­jor in the Nige­rian Army, it was easy for me to walk into the of­fice of any mil­i­tary ad­min­is­tra­tor to raise funds. While I was very use­ful in the box­ing sec­tor, I was also de­vel­op­ing bad­minton. At that time, the sport was rel­e­gated to the back­ground and based on that, the space given to bad­minton at that Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion Build­ing was small. Im­me­di­ately I got on board, the first fight I had was about how we could move the of­fice to where the other grade one sports were and I was lucky they lis­tened to me as we were given an­other ac­com­mo­da­tion. Did you en­gage in any sport­ing ac­tiv­ity as a child?

Yes, I did but when you grow up in a vil­lage, you have lit­tle op­por­tu­ni­ties. When I was in the vil­lage at Ek­iti, I was a goal­keeper for the ju­nior team of my school – Do­herty Memo­rial Gram­mar School, Ijero-ek­iti. I was also in­volved in other sports; I used to run 400 me­tres and I al­ways came first. I did high jump and pole vault. They used to give us cer­tifi­cates in those days, not medals and I got a lot of cer­tifi­cates. Why did you not pur­sue a ca­reer in the field of sports?

It was not pos­si­ble to pur­sue such a dream. There were few op­por­tu­ni­ties then. When I got to La­gos in 1970, the most im­por­tant thing to me was how to con­tinue with my ed­u­ca­tion, so the strug­gle started at that point. I of­fered science cour­ses in se­condary school but to progress on your own in that field was ab­so­lutely dif­fi­cult. There were a lot of cour­ses in the com­mer­cial line that we could do without go­ing to school so the first course I pur­sued was a su­per­vi­sory man­age­ment course, which later led me to reg­is­ter for the Au­tho­rised In­de­pen­dent En­tity, which was an ac­count­ing course. At the time, I was al­ready work­ing in the Fed­eral Min­istry of Fi­nance at the Mo­saic House, Tin­ubu, La­gos. The build­ing housed the Min­is­ter of Fi­nance; Per­ma­nent Sec­re­tary, Min­istry of Fi­nance, Ac­coun­tant-gen­eral of the Fed­er­a­tion, and oth­ers. I was a clerk there. How would you de­scribe your life in the vil­lage?

My life in the vil­lage is not some­thing I would like to re­mem­ber too much. I lost my fa­ther be­fore I was four years old and I was raised in a polyg­a­mous home. My mother was one of the poor­est in the vil­lage but she was left to raise the five of us. Luck­ily, my el­der brother be­came a teacher and was able to as­sist my mother. When my older sib­lings went to dif­fer­ent places, I re­mained with our mother. I would say that I was ex­tremely stub­born as a child and when I be­came a med­i­cal doc­tor, a lot of peo­ple could not be­lieve it.

I tell peo­ple that it was nec­es­sary to be stub­born be­cause my

mother, who could have looked af­ter me, had to go to dif­fer­ent towns to get food that we would eat. I was left with my grand­mother who was al­ready old and could not con­trol me. I was left to play foot­ball; I played foot­ball to for­get that I had not eaten. By the time we were done play­ing foot­ball, it would have been very late and I would have for­got­ten that I didn’t have lunch. My nor­mal rou­tine at the time was to go to school and then go to the foot­ball field from there.

Im­me­di­ately my fa­ther died, his younger brother pro­posed to my mother but my se­nior brother ad­vised her to ig­nore it as she al­ready had five chil­dren so there was no need to re­marry. Due to my mother’s re­fusal to marry him, the fam­ily de­nied us of ev­ery­thing my fa­ther had worked for. He had a lot of big farm­lands. They re­jected us while his younger brother in­her­ited my fa­ther’s prop­erty, in­clud­ing his house and farm­lands. I did not grow up in my fa­ther’s house be­cause my mother had to go back to her par­ents’ house be­fore she could build a small house where we stayed through­out. What were some of the things you had to do to sup­port your mother?

I was a very en­ter­pris­ing young man. Any­time I was given some­thing to sell, I would roam the streets and en­sure I sold ev­ery­thing be­fore I went home. If it was kerosene I was given to sell, I would not go home till I sold the last drop. My mother’s younger sis­ter, who lived with us, took ad­van­tage of the fact that I was en­ter­pris­ing, so any­time she brought home farm pro­duce like veg­eta­bles and pep­per, she knew that there was some­one who would sell ev­ery­thing for her and I never dis­ap­pointed. It was very an­noy­ing be­cause any­time I sold the pro­duce, the only com­pen­sa­tion I got from her was ripe plan­tain which I ate raw. It was very painful but that was my only com­pen­sa­tion. Were you not ashamed that some of your school­mates would see you hawk­ing?

No, I was not ashamed. Dur­ing that time, even those who I felt were do­ing bet­ter than I did, hawked. Many of my class­mates who had fa­thers and moth­ers also hawked and in my own case, I was never ashamed even when I wore tat­tered clothes and no shoes I was never ashamed. When you are re­ally stub­born, all those things never mat­ter to you. Look­ing at you to­day it is quite dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that you ac­tu­ally went through all that…

Let me tell you a story that would de­pict my level of stub­born­ness. When I was at the Mil­i­tary Hos­pi­tal, Yaba, due to my rank, ev­ery­one would stand at at­ten­tion for me and peo­ple would fol­low me as I went around the wards. There was a woman who was a cleaner at the hos­pi­tal; and even though, I was a colonel at the time, I would still greet her that way. The woman never knew why I greeted her that way. Imag­ine how the woman’s bosses re­acted when­ever I bowed to greet her. I re­alised that the woman could not fig­ure out who I was. On one oc­ca­sion, I called her and asked if she knew me and she iden­ti­fied me as her boss. Then I asked for her state of ori­gin and she said Ijero-ek­iti. I feigned ig­no­rance and made sure she de­scribed her vil­lage so I could be very sure she was the one. The woman’s house was a stone’s throw from my mother’s house where I was raised. They knew me as one of the tough­est ras­cals there. Then I told her that I knew some peo­ple there and de­scribed my mother’s house and she in­stantly re­mem­bered my mother. Then I de­scribed my­self as a young boy; im­me­di­ately she wanted to reel out some of my past mis­deeds but I stopped her. Im­me­di­ately I told her I was the one, she fell down on the ground and started rolling on the floor. She be­gan to weep and pray to God, stat­ing that if He could do it for me, then He My suc­cess sur­prises peo­ple who knew I was A ras­cal as a child – Brig. GEN. Ayeni (retd.)

should do the same for her. Peo­ple around just saw her re­ac­tion but did not know about my past. I re­mem­ber a day that I kept ston­ing the woman’s house; till date, I can­not re­mem­ber who I had a quar­rel with that day. Would you say you were a ras­cal be­cause your fa­ther died while you were still young?

That is what hap­pened be­cause my fa­ther was not around and my mother was busy fend­ing for us. So I grew up to be stub­born. Re­cently, I saw one of my friends that were ras­cals like me in those days.

When he saw me, he did not know the level I had at­tained in life and he of­fered to buy me some things; he thought he had ‘ar­rived’ without know­ing my rank in the mil­i­tary. I was al­ready a colonel at the time. In fact, when I walked to my car, he thought I was a driver. I told him that we should thank God for our lives be­cause if we had chan­nelled our ras­cal­ity to a neg­a­tive path, maybe we would have be­come one of the tough­est armed rob­bers be­cause we were not afraid of any­body or any­thing. We thanked God that in the vil­lage, there was no­body to in­flu­ence us to do bad things. My mother’s hap­pi­est days in the vil­lage were when­ever an un­cle took me to the farm. In fact, she would sell her goods with joy and peace be­cause she knew that when­ever she re­turned home, she would have peace of mind. On other days, when­ever she re­turned home in the evening, in­stead of her to rest, there would be re­ports from dif­fer­ent peo­ple about what I had done. At what point did you de­cide to leave the vil­lage for La­gos?

My be­ing a ras­cal made me stay in se­condary school for four years without pay­ing school fees. I was able to take my ex­ams and even though I was not the best, I al­ways passed. Out of 13 weeks that made up a term, I would miss classes for about six weeks but I was al­ways one of the peo­ple that passed. When I was in se­condary school, I never had a mat­tress so what I slept on were milk car­tons.

My prob­lem started when I was in Form Five and we were meant to take our West African Ex­am­i­na­tion Coun­cil ex­am­i­na­tion. In the past, they had driven me out of school over 100 times be­cause I could not pay school fees. The school bur­sar had al­ready writ­ten to the school that I was no longer a stu­dent, so when they stopped an­nounc­ing my name as a debtor, peo­ple thought that an un­cle of mine had used his con­nec­tion to solve the prob­lem for me. My prob­lem started when we were to reg­is­ter for the school cer­ti­fi­ca­tion ex­am­i­na­tion. My brother was able to get money for the exam and as he paid the money to the bur­sar, he (bur­sar) looked through his records and noted that the per­son bear­ing my name had left the school about two years ear­lier. That was how they in­vited me to the bur­sar’s of­fice. The mo­ment he saw me and iden­ti­fied me as one of the stu­dents that gave him prob­lems; he beat me un­til I left the school premises. Also, the prin­ci­pal of­fended me be­cause he was my el­der brother’s close friend. He knew the sit­u­a­tion of things in my house and had the op­por­tu­nity to help me but he did not do so. There were in­di­gent stu­dents that were em­ployed as lab­o­ra­tory as­sis­tants and they also at­tended school but the prin­ci­pal never did that de­spite the fact that he was my brother’s best friend. That re­ally pained me and I said it to his corpse when they were bury­ing him. Peo­ple just thought I was cry­ing and talk­ing to the corpse but they did not know what I was say­ing. That was how I did not take my school cer­tifi­cate ex­am­i­na­tion in the school and till date, some of my peers do not be­lieve that I did not fin­ish with them be­cause I was re­ally pop­u­lar.

That was how I came to La­gos to take my school cer­tifi­cate ex­am­i­na­tion. I stayed with my brother, my mother’s sec­ond child. He stayed in a room apart­ment and the room was quite hot and ter­ri­ble but de­spite that, the man still got mar­ried in that one-room apart­ment. He was a typ­ist at the time. I had to carve up the room and get a makeshift place for my­self. To be hon­est, I stayed in the bal­cony for about three years. The man was very nice to me be­cause he gave me money for break­fast and lunch. It was a ‘face-me-i-faceyou’ apart­ment and the bal­cony where I slept had no elec­tric­ity so when­ever I needed to read, I used the light that came into the bal­cony any­time some­one opened a door. I was ex­tremely stu­dious and when­ever I woke up, my next point of call was al­ways the li­brary at Oy­ingbo. I never took a bus to those places, I had to trek. The prob­lem I had was with my bi­ol­ogy and chem­istry prac­ti­cal works be­cause we had not stud­ied those as­pects be­fore I was sent out of school. I re­mem­ber that there was a boy that was also ex­pelled from my school but had gained ad­mis­sion into Ah­madiyya Col­lege, Agege. I would trek from Apapa Road, Oy­ingbo to Agege. In fact, I would walk on the rail­way line. Any­time I think about it now, I find it dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that I walked such a dis­tance. When I got to the boy’s place, I would copy what­ever they had taught him in their bi­ol­ogy or chem­istry prac­ti­cal class and he would ex­plain some things to me be­fore I would trek back home. Some­times, I was for­tu­nate to jump on a mov­ing train; of course, il­le­gally. There was a time a Hausa man hit me with his stick but I could not dare leave what I was hang­ing on to on the train. At times, the peo­ple who shared the tick­ets would spot us and ask us to dis­em­bark from the train but by that time, I would have been close to my house so I would just walk home be­cause the dis­tance was much. Even when I took my school cer­ti­fi­ca­tion ex­am­i­na­tion, they were mal­treat­ing those of us who were ex­ter­nal can­di­dates, so I took the ex­am­i­na­tion about three times. How did you get a job at the Fed­eral Min­istry of Fi­nance?

Af­ter I had spent about three years in La­gos, my un­cle got a job for me at the Fed­eral Min­istry of Fi­nance as a clerk. Af­ter spend­ing four years liv­ing at the bal­cony, I was able to rent a small room in the com­pound.

The luck I had was that I was able to ap­ply to the Na­tional Tech­ni­cal Teach­ers Col­lege and our cam­pus was in Yaba Col­lege of Tech­nol­ogy. While I was in the school, I was able to meet a very bril­liant guy who was do­ing a de­gree pro­gramme at the Univer­sity of La­gos and at the same time, was do­ing a pro­gramme at Ya­bat­ech. He had a mo­tor­cy­cle so it was easy for him to move around. Sud­denly, the guy dis­ap­peared and the next thing I heard about him was that he had trav­elled to Budapest, Hungary on schol­ar­ship. I did my in­ves­ti­ga­tion and that was how I re­alised that there was a Rus­sian schol­ar­ship. Be­cause of my po­si­tion at the Min­istry of Fi­nance, I was priv­i­leged to know those on the pay­roll of the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment and I was also able to know those that stud­ied in Rus­sia. This as­sured me that if I went to Rus­sia for a de­gree, my cer­tifi­cate would be recog­nised in Nige­ria. Even­tu­ally, I ap­plied but soon for­got that I did. Dur­ing our hol­i­days, I met a man, Mr Martins, who hurled in­sults at me and when I asked what I did, he asked if I had checked my name at the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion. I told him I had not done so. He even­tu­ally told me that I had been short­listed to study in Rus­sia and that the last batch was leav­ing Nige­ria in about four days’ time. I re­alised that I had been ad­mit­ted to study ve­teri­nary medicine. When I con­firmed my name, I rushed back to meet Mr Martins and he said that he would try his best to get me a visa at short no­tice. That was on Au­gust 25, 1975 and all schools in Rus­sia were to re­sume in Septem­ber. From there, I sneaked home to in­form my mother. Luck­ily for me, Mr Martins’ wife worked at the em­bassy so she helped me to process my visa; I did not be­lieve my luck till the plane took off in Nige­ria. Why did you change from ve­teri­nary medicine to den­tistry?

We do not call it den­tistry as such; it was stom­a­tol­ogy. In my first

year in the Soviet Union, I was taken to a town called Kharkov. We were in the gov­ern­ment univer­sity and they taught us their lan­guage as well as pre-science. I re­alised that all my friends that of­fered the pre-science course were not bet­ter than me ex­cept in physics. I spent a year in the ve­teri­nary school and when I was there, my friends study­ing medicine al­ways made fun of me. So I felt that since I used to do bet­ter than them dur­ing pre-science days and they had the guts to mock me, I de­cided to change my course to medicine. How did you join the Nige­rian Army?

Dur­ing my last year at the univer­sity, they were re­cruit­ing cadets into the army. I saw the ad­vert in the news­pa­per at the Nige­rian Em­bassy in Rus­sia. When I saw it, my stub­born na­ture was brought to the fore again be­cause they spec­i­fied that ap­pli­cants must be grad­u­ates of Nige­rian univer­si­ties, but I ig­nored it. I ap­plied and sud­denly the let­ter for an in­ter­view came. I felt that they would not ac­cept me; I only saw it as an op­por­tu­nity to have a hol­i­day in Nige­ria at gov­ern­ment’s ex­pense. When I got to Nige­ria, I was lodged in a ho­tel. When they asked us to run, I did it half-heart­edly and I still beat the time. My aim was not to pass but to ful­fil all re­quire­ments so that I could col­lect other al­lowances that were en­ti­tled to me. If I did not com­plete the drills, I was not el­i­gi­ble to col­lect those al­lowances. When they even­tu­ally called me for oral in­ter­view, you would have thought that I was the one in­ter­view­ing them be­cause I was very con­fi­dent. I did not even ex­pect them to ac­cept me. Af­ter I re­turned to Rus­sia, I for­got about the in­ter­view com­pletely. I got mar­ried, my wife got preg­nant and she was de­liv­ered of our first child, I cel­e­brated. And as I re­turned to the hos­pi­tal, I re­ceived a let­ter from the Nige­rian Army, which ad­dressed me as Sec­ond Lieu­tenant. One of the rea­sons I ac­cepted the let­ter was be­cause it co­in­cided with the birth of my first child. I had for­got­ten about them. How would you de­scribe your time in the Nige­rian Army?

When I got my let­ter of ap­point­ment from the army, they asked me to re­ply within a pe­riod of time to show that I had ac­cepted the of­fer, which I did not do till it was al­most the dead­line. When I dis­cussed it with my wife, she ad­vised me to send my re­ply and I did just that. I was also meant to re­turn to Nige­ria to fill some forms but I did not do that. How­ever, when I got back to Nige­ria, I de­cided to stay with a friend even though my wife’s mother had pre­pared an apart­ment for us in our new house. I went to the head­quar­ters for the med­i­cal per­son­nel and im­me­di­ately I in­tro­duced my­self, they asked me why it took me so long to re­port for duty. Af­ter they had made so much noise, they called the ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer to send me to my ho­tel. I was told to re­port to Yaba to start my house­man­ship the next day, and that was how it all started. How did you meet your wife?

At a point when I re­turned to Nige­ria, Mr Martins was the one who was pro­cess­ing my wife’s schol­ar­ship and that was how we met. He felt that I could show her around town and when she came to Rus­sia, I was the one who went to pick her up. From there, we started and here we are to­day. She is a very spir­i­tual woman. When she got to Rus­sia, she was meant to study phar­macy so they sent her to the out­skirts of Rus­sia for her pre­lim­i­nary stud­ies and I vis­ited the town reg­u­larly. Af­ter her pre­lim­i­nary stud­ies, there was no open­ing for in­ter­na­tional stu­dents. Be­sides if she had stud­ied phar­macy, she would have been far away from me, so I con­vinced her to study medicine so that we could be to­gether in the same school and that worked. We were able to stay in the same school. My wife is a very quiet woman. You are also a na­tional hon­ours awardee. How did you get the award?

When I had the op­por­tu­nity in Rus­sia, I went for my spe­cial­ist course and dur­ing my PHD in medicine; I had two break­through dis­cov­er­ies that are be­ing used in­ter­na­tion­ally. When I was in the army, I strug­gled to clinch the pres­ti­gious Chief of Army Staff Award de­spite my sci­en­tific break­throughs. The first year that I ap­plied for the award, some of my good friends who were in the po­si­tion that could fa­cil­i­tate the process blocked my files. When I was in Ibadan, Oyo State, I was with an­other friend, Colonel Olo­jede, who was a ju­nior of­fi­cer to me. We were talk­ing and I told him what my so-called friends did to me, so he paci­fied me. A year later, Colonel Olo­jede was posted to that of­fice in Abuja so I told him to push my file and not be like my other friends.

When he read my file, he said, ‘Oga, I am so an­noyed.’ When I asked what the prob­lem was, he said that all the mil­i­tary of­fi­cers that sent their files to Aso Rock in or­der to be­come na­tional awardees did not have the kind of qual­i­fi­ca­tions that I had. He said he would not send my pa­per for the Chief of Army Staff Award but that in­stead, he would send it for na­tional hon­ours. I said ‘half a loaf is bet­ter than none,’ but he in­sisted. So I sent my file to him and he sent it to the Pres­i­dency for the na­tional honour. We for­got about it but I was not happy be­cause I thought he had de­nied me of my Chief of Army Staff Award. I did not know the process of grant­ing peo­ple na­tional hon­ours. I al­ways heard that you had to be con­nected. I did not even know the of­fice in charge but one day I be­gan to re­ceive calls from ev­ery­one that they saw my name and that I had been short­listed to re­ceive the award of Of­fi­cer of the Or­der of the Niger. I was the only one in the army that was short­listed apart from the Chief of Army Staff, whose award came with the of­fice. I was sur­prised when the late Dora Akun­y­ili, who had never sent me a mes­sage, called me to con­grat­u­late me. Dur­ing the award cer­e­mony, I saw the peo­ple they gave and it was then that it dawned on me that it was a big deal. I got the award in 2003 un­der Pres­i­dent Oluse­gun Obasanjo.

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