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
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.