Mrs. Lucy Onabanjo, the wife of late Chief Victor Olabisi Onabanjo, former governor of Ogun State in Nigeria’s Second Republic, clocked 90 recently. The nonagenarian, who still remains alert and healthy, spoke to FUNSHO AROGUNDADE at her residence in Fidipote Area of Ijebu Ode. She reflects on her career as a teacher and life with her respected politician husband. She also spoke on why she voted President Buhari despite jailing her husband and how General Ibrahim Babangida got her family back to England.
You clocked 90 last week. How do you feel reaching that age? At 90, I feel good and healthy. I am elegant. I served the Lord the way I should. I don’t feel different as such because I have always been prepared for everything like the Boy Scout motto says.
There was a big celebration of your birthday. How would you describe the experience on that day? I was overwhelmed. It was a beautiful day. I saw many people who have been my children from the days when I was a young teacher. And I have never met some of them before. I really didn’t know what to do as I was filled with joy.
Looking back, how would you describe the life you have lived? It has been a very fulfilling life right from when I left Ijebu-Ode here where I was born for Lagos at age 10. I went to school in Lagos under the Irish Sisters who were nuns. I trained under them and they showered me with love. I later left the Sisters to attend the Teachers Training College in Yaba also in Lagos. There I was trained as a teacher. At the end of our training, we were awarded Standard Six, and that Standard Six certificate is equal to today’s University degree. As we were passing out, applications were sent to our school for us to go to higher schools. I later opted to be trained as a nurse in Lantoro, Abeokuta. When the Reverend Sister in charge as our principal went through my application, she said to me: ‘Lucy, you are not going to be a nurse but a teacher. A very good teacher.’ And it came to pass. I thank God I was good at my work. Afterwards I got married to my late husband.
How did you meet your husband? At the time I met him, I had many suitors.
Really? Why did you pick him out of many suitors? You want to know why? I was smart, beautiful and very brilliant. All these suitors came and my late husband was one of them. And I chose him because he was very intelligent. He spoke Queen’s English and I was impressed. I then told him I would be his girlfriend. Being a girlfriend at that time did not give room for attending parties together. Then, I was hiding him from my late sister who brought me up. He too was free but he didn’t come to our house frequently. We usually exchanged letters and at the end of it, I fell for him. He was good and upright. He also topped his class at Baptist Academy in Broad Street, Lagos. That was what attracted me to him. We got married and our first port of call was Zaria where he was working with a local newspaper called Gaskiya Tarfi Kobo (Truth is more than a Kobo). Even though I was teaching, Zaria was a lonely place. But after a couple of years, he wasn’t satisfied with editing that small newspaper. We then came back to Lagos and joined the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He was deeply into journalism and finding out the truth. His focus was how you can teach your neighbours about finding out the truth. Bisi spent time at work than at home, but I never complained because I appreciated the work he was doing. When your husband was picked up alongside Chief Obafemi Awolowo for treasonable felony, how did you cope? At that time, I was almost as hardened as Bisi was. The truth is that he was always prepared for any eventuality. I remember that he always had different boxes prepared: one for trips within Nigeria and another for travelling abroad. They were always packed with clothes in case of any eventualities. He was always prepared and that already made me as strong as he was. I coped very well. Nothing really changed about me. I still had to go to school to work and later visited him at the Broad Street prisons. It was at that period that I was made the headmistress of the school where I taught and I had to cope and do my work very well. It wasn’t really tiring, though it may be boring sometimes and stressful having to worry about what may happen next. But I left everything in the hands of God.
When your husband decided to go into partisan politics, what was your initial reaction? Did you object to that? Even if I had objected he would still have done it. So why did I have to bother my head. But believe me, he was a very good man and husband. Your husband died a long time ago. What would you say you miss most about him? I wouldn’t say I missed him much because as a journalist, he was always travelling. He hardly stayed at home because his job took him everywhere Despite your husband being a governor, he had very few properties, this house in Ijebu Ode, one in Lagos and none in any GRA. Don’t you think this is unusual for a governor? That is a very good question. When he came out of prison in 1985 when General Ibrahim Babangida pardoned him alongside others, we all travelled out to England to look after his health. After a while, we came back home when the then Ogun State University wanted to give him an honorary degree. Days after the award, Babangida saw his pictures in the newspapers and television looking emaciated and pale. The man then sent three gentlemen to my husband. They are Olusegun Osoba, Felix Adenaike and late Peter Ajayi. Babangida called these gentlemen who were all journalists and said to them: ‘I saw your oga in the newspapers and television. Go and tell him to go back to England to look after his health and I will be responsible for the bill.’ He instructed these men to tell my husband that he wouldn’t want a ‘No’ for an answer.
When we were about to go then, the then Central Bank of Nigeria’s Governor brought to us money for our tickets, myself, our daughter Toun and my husband. There were other two top government officials who also brought money for us. But due to our usual way of life, we told them that someone had already paid for our tickets. But these men insisted that we should take the money. They told us that it was the same IBB who sent them to come and give us money and they could not take the money back to him. That was how we went back to England. It was Babangida who helped us back to England, with government money of course. That instance could best explain part of your question But why would he care less about life after office? Because he wasn’t interested in riches. He was interested in service. Bisi was interested in serving his people. When we came back finally to Ijebu Ode after his time as the governor, I became angry that we came back to the same old house he built a long time ago behind his father’s house. I wasn’t happy and was always complaining. After a while, he was forced to go and see the then military governor of Ogun State, Mohammed Alabi Lawal over my constant complaints. When my husband told the governor that he needed a land in Ijebu Ode, it was a shocked Lawal who asked my husband: ‘Who needs the land in Ijebu Ode? Which of your children needs land?’ When my husband told him he was the one, Lawal was shocked and was almost crying. He asked my husband why he could not allocate land for himself while he was there as a governor.
To cut the story short, it was much later that the state government allocated him a land in the GRA in Ijebu ode. But looking back now, I really feel proud and contented with our modest life. At a time, we had one boy from Akwa Ibom State who was serving us and most times this boy would ask me: “Mama, why is Papa doing this? His house since he left government is the poorest. If it had been in our own place, the government would have built a big house for the governor to live.” But I usually told the boy that we are happy here, living among our people in Ijebu Ode.
Was there any time you regretted marrying him? Never. This is because we never quarrel.
Among your children, who was the most problematic? It was Bukky. She was the most problematic and most loved by their father. All of them are more into their father because they say I am too tough and highly disciplined.
When you look at your surviving children, how much of your husband do you see in them? All my children have the trait and character of boldness and telling the truth like their father. They all take after him in many ways but Bukola was his favourite because she resembles his mother.
You were once a first lady, how would you compare your time and that of the present day first lady? In the first place, I wasn’t called First Lady. Those who knew me or respected me called me Mama Governor or Mama Oke Igbehin. I wasn’t interested in all these pet projects that many recent First Ladies are now committed to. I remember when I first got married to my husband; my mother-in-law called me and told me to look after his son. And that’s what I have been doing ever since. So, when we got to Government House in Abeokuta, I was solely concerned about the well being of my husband as the governor. Once the housekeeper in the Government House went to the market to buy the foodstuff and other necessary consumables, it was my duty to be in the kitchen to prepare the food myself. In the Government House, there were so many domestic workers including cooks, washer men, stewards and others. I remember telling the housekeeper to take some of them away instead of keeping them idle. Then, all my children were grown and they were all away. So, we did not need most of them. My husband did not wear khaki and we did not need the services of those washer men. I told the housekeeper that I was the first housekeeper in the Government House.
How well have the succeeding governors in Ogun State related with you? Some excellent, some good and others nil
Who are the excellent ones? Don’t worry, all I can tell you is that some are excellent, some are very good and some are zero.
Ok, let’s look at Chief Olusegun Osoba, he is very close to the family, was he among the excellent? He was my husband’s son. He is excellent.
What of Otunba Gbenga Daniel? Gbenga Daniel related very well with the family. He was very excellent. When he was in government, he was in a party different from what we believed in, yet he visited me more in this house. On more than 10 occasions, he came to visit me in this house. The car I am using now was given to me by him and on every Christmas he would send me hampers. As a governor, he asked some commissioners to visit me from time to time. What of the current governor, Ibikunle Amosun? He was at my birthday celebration but I see him more on television.
Can you tell us the kind of relationship that existed between the Onabanjos and Chief Obafemi Awolowo? Papa Awolowo was my husband’s father. Among all his lieutenants, my husband was number one and his favourite. Papa trusted Bisi so much, even though in those days, my husband usually visited Papa maybe once in a month or in two months. Yet, Papa loved him. He would always tell my husband: ‘Bisi, you only breezed in and breezed out’. He always replied Papa that coming to see him every now and then is not what matters, but rather, it’s all about the quality of time he spends with him whenever he comes around. Bisi was Papa’s favourite and it was so obvious.
Chief Mrs. HID Awolowo passed on recently. What would you say of the woman and the kind of relationship you had with her? Mama HID was my mother. I remember when we won the election and were about to go to Abeokuta. I went to their house in Park Lane, Apapa Lagos and asked her to pray for us that as Papa succeeded when he was in government so shall we. I knelt down and she prayed for me. We had a mother and daughter type of relationship. It was the same with Papa. I also remember another scenario while on my way to Lagos and I decided to see Papa in Ikenne. When I arrived there, Papa was in the living room with late Chief Bola Ige. And as I walked in, Chief Bola Ige greeted me and said: ‘Haa, Mama Toun, you dress well like a real governor’s wife’. Papa responded immediately and said: ‘No, she has always been dressing well. It is not because she is now a governor’s wife that she dresses well’. That’s how close we have been.
At a time, there was an issue involving Papa Awolowo, Papa Onabanjo and the Awujale. The Awujale was to be dethroned. How well have you related with Awujale especially since the death of your husband? During this saga, I never partook. And the matter itself has been resolved. If you remember when Awujale was 80 and his autobiography was launched, he told people that he is very close to the family now. Obirin Ijebu ni mi now (I am an Ijebu woman). When I was to celebrate this my 90th birthday, I went to the palace to inform him.
Given your experience and interaction with many Yoruba leaders, what can you say about the group Afenifere? The truth is I don’t know anything about Afenifere. My husband may know but I don’t know anything about the organisation. Each time they had to go to Papa’s house in Lagos for their meetings and my husband would ask me to join him on the trip. I always declined.
What about your personal relationship with other Awoist colleagues of your husband like Chief Ayo Adebanjo, Pa Onasanya, Sir Olanihun Ajayi and many others? I don’t have a personal relationship with any of them. They were my husband’s colleagues and Papa’s other children. Right from time, I don’t go out. I don’t have friends. As a teacher, I go to school and later became a head teacher. After working so hard daily, I go back to my house. I don’t know anything about Afenifere or their politics. But we related a little closely with some of them, like Papa Solanke Onasanya. He was a loving gentleman who wasn’t looking for anything in particular from his association with Papa Awo. Others were going in and out to see Papa, carrying tales! But Papa Awo was smart enough to know those who loved him and those who went around spreading tales.
I remember when they were in prison during Buhari/Idiagbon regime. I remember that whenever my son Gboyega, came to visit me here in Ijebu Ode, he would stop at Ikenne to say hello to Papa Awo. And Papa Awo loved people eating with him in the evening because while eating they discuss politics. Through that he would know those who were seeking favour. There was this particular day when Gboyega came to see me here in Ijebu Ode, on his way back as usual he called at Ikenne. Both Papa and Mama were at the dining table, and Gboyega joined them. They were about to eat when one of those men you mentioned came in and told Gboyega to get up from the table: ‘Get up from there Gboyega, this is not your seat.’ But Papa stopped the man and said to him: ‘For now, this is Gboyega’s seat! Because he, like his father, knows what is going on’.
Papa really understood all that was going on. I also remember that during the General Buhari era, a company wanted to give money to the party and it was passed through Bisi, my husband. On his way from Lagos, he stopped at Ikenne and handed over the whole money to Papa. At that time, the military government was looking for ways to nail Papa and they wanted my husband to say: ‘Baba lo ni owo’ (It’s Papa who owned the money). These same people were expecting my husband to say he had collected the money on Papa’s behalf. They were asking Bisi questions to trap Baba, but my husband never allowed them.
The military regime later convicted and sent them to prisons, including Papa Adekunle Ajasin, Ambrose Ali, Bola Ige, Lateef Jakande and my husband. I still remember when my daughter, Bukola visited her father in prison after others had been released. It was my husband that was left alone in prison, facing Buhari and Idiagbon. Bukola asked him why he was the only one left in prison. Her father then told her the story of a man who went to war with a few soldiers to face a larger army. Someone now asked the General with a few soldiers how he hoped to fight a larger army with his few men, and he responded that the fewer you are, the greater the honour. My husband was the only one left to face the battle then. But does he not have the honour today?
That’s why you are here today to talk to me. It is the honour given to him that I am enjoying today. When he was convicted and sent to that Broad Street prisons, he met (Alex) Ekwueme and other jailed politicians looking morose. On sighting them in that state, my husband asked why they were feeling sad and morose. Why did they not feel so when the siren was blaring across the cities when they were in power? He cheered them up and asked them to be happy. That was what brought respite to most of them and they all became friends despite coming from different political parties. And that was how we became close to the Ekwuemes and other people across Nigeria till today.
Talking about General Buhari, there was a report that although the man jailed your husband, you still voted for him during the last election. Why did you do that? Because I believed that when he gets there, he would restore sanity into the system and flush away some of the rubbish that has taken over Nigeria. Talking about him jailing my husband, like I told you, it was Papa Awolowo they were gunning for and not really my husband. So I voted for Buhari because I believe he will put things right. The whole country has been messed up. People have been stealing public money anyhow and as a soldier who has ruled before and dealt with some corrupt people in the past, I believe he will deliver the change that Nigeria need at this point in time. I wanted the change and I voted for that change.
You are always very blunt. From whom did you inherit that? I imbibed that from the school I went to under the Irish sisters. The missionaries taught us right from childhood that truth is a virtue.
How would you compare the teaching profession of then and now? That is obvious. I told you that as a student I had standard six which is equivalent to the university degree of today. There is a lot of difference between then and now. If I am asked now to be a teacher, like my principal once told me, I will refuse. I can’t teach now. Where will I start from, with many of the children attending public schools wearing tattered shoes and uniforms?
What do you think is responsible for this problem? First of all, the problem starts from the government that does not treat teachers very well. Teachers are not exposed to having good teaching aids. As a teacher, you need good teaching aids to train the children. These are no more in the schools. At that time, parents would gather together to buy teaching aids and the government would supplement it. From what we see now, some of the teachers are no longer dedicated to their job because of the poor salary they earn. If you go to any big market in Ijebu-Ode now, one third of the people there are teachers. They would be in school in the morning and after school hours; they find something else to do to supplement their earnings. The issue of corruption remains the most problematic in our society. In what ways do you think we can deal with the issue, or has it become an issue that can no longer be remedied? It can be remedied. What any of the leaders in power now need to focus on is leading by example. They dictate what the people need to follow. If the leadership is good, the problem is half solved. They also need to pay the workers their wages on time, and I mean living wages. Also, charity begins at home, thus parents should try and inculcate in their children the virtues of honesty, truth and good leadership. All these start from home. Most importantly, children should be given good education.
As a growing kid from a polygamous home, what was life like then? It was beautiful. All the wives were our mothers. Of course, you know that Ijebu people are very enterprising. These women would leave the home in the morning to trade while those at home continued to be our mothers. Polygamous homes at that time were beautiful. There was no envy and the women trained all the children together as their own.
Where do you think we got it wrong with the polygamous system since the situation is no longer the same? Some have said it is because we imbibed the foreign culture, but I disagree. It is an individual thing. When some husbands chose some wives as their favourites, trouble may set in.
Looking back, what would you say you cherished most in your 90 years of existence? My faith and belief in God. And the lovely and peaceful husband God gave me. Bisi was a trustworthy husband that brought up his children well with good education.