Interview By Ike Taire
In spite of a career that has spanned the better part of five decades, Chief Mrs. Onikepo Akande (OON, CON) hardly shows any sign of slowing down. Now that she is 70, it seems hardly likely that this will happen soon.
If anyone knows about the Nigerian economy, Mrs. Nike Akande does. Indeed she has taken active part in shaping it in various capacities- as a two-time Federal minister, a leader at the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), Hon. Life Vice President of NACCIMA, founding member of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group NESG, Member of Vision 20:2020 and Board member of NEPAD Business Group.
Her appearance belies not only her age but also her achievements as well. She sits on the boards of Union Bank of Nigeria Plc. and PZ Foundation; and is director of the Nigeria Industrial Development bank NIDB now Bank of Industry as well as of National Insurance Corporation of Nigeria NICON. These are mere drops in the immense ocean of her formidable resume.
A proud alumnus of the prestigious Queens School Ede who has given back extensively to her alma mata, she also studied in Harvard and Oxford universities and continues to play active and leadership roles in all their alumni associations. At 70, Akande is computer savvy (she has been for 25years); and still works out with a personal trainer!
President Goodluck Jonathan referred to her as “an inspiration”, while praising the scope and vastness of her contributions to the Nigerian state. As she celebrates her Platinum jubilee, she tells Morenike Taire why she is so grateful for her work, for her life and for friends and family.
WOW, 70! How does that feel?
I feel happy that I am 70 and in good health. That is very important. My mother died at the age of 49 and my uncle that I was very close to Chief Olu Aboderin also died at 49. So I was just praying that I pass that age and now I’m 70. I thank God for it.
Did you miss having your mother?
No, I had a mother till 49. I am the eldest and my father was a monogamist. He looked after us- he was really, really caring. He called us “golden girls” and he did not marry another woman to get a boy, which was very rare then.
Was there any pressure on him to do so?
My mother died before him. She died at 49 and he died at 71 and he didn’t remarry.
You are one of those women that would first smash the ‘glass ceiling’ in the corporate world in Nigeria. Was it a fluke or pure ambition?
I believe in hard work and if you work hard you get the reward. I always loved to be a corporate person. Right from a tender age I was a school prefect at Queens’ School Ede. I also had a scholarship from Lever Brothers (now Unilever) when I was in secondary school, so I have always been a bit ambitious. I like to be a leader. I had younger sisters so I had to be a good example to my younger ones.
Was there no element of luck?
I am a very lucky person because most things come to me easily without any struggling. When I got the Unilever scholarship my father was very proud. I’ve always held responsible positions. Even when I became a minister they were looking for me. I didn’t want to become a minister; I didn’t lobby for it but people love my abilities. I have been a very active person; done a lot of things in the country. People were watching. I was a member of vision 20/20 and I was recommended. As if that was not enough, a lot of things came my way without really looking for it. That is God for you.
Did your work as a minister take a toll on family life?
That’s a difficult question. I have an understanding husband. I am always dedicated to my work and my family. I like to work hard and also keep my family.
One of the papers you have published is about affirmative action. What’s your opinion on affirmative action?
The Federation of International Women Lawyers (FIDA) made me one of their speakers at their conference. They see that I believe in the empowerment of women and having got to this level they gave me that topic: The Empowerment of Women, is it by Legislature or Affirmative Action? I listed the pros and cons of both sides but I feel that legislation will give a better result.
You just legislate and say this is how it should be done, and it will be done.
But you have achieved so much without such legislation.
You see how things are going and the younger ones have not been able to come up as one would expect so to make them come up you have to create opportunities. All the women who have been given opportunities to lead in this country have excelled themselves. At least most of the women.
So you are saying the
problem is lack of opportunities rather than capability?
Yes, it’s not that they are not capable.
You’ve also written about the Work-Life balance. What about that?
Most women when they get to a certain level in life, they are not able to keep their homes.
Dividing your time
The pressure is too much for them, they don’t know how to balance and everything depends on time management. You can keep your home, you can be a career woman, you can be a very important woman in society, all by dividing your time.
For a woman to be truly successful you need a steady home. It’s very very important. Otherwise it will be shifty and you won’t be able to do anything. As I said, I have a husband who allows me to be myself. He knows what I like, and I always try to please him.
Where did you get time to write books anyway?
Ha! I’m someone who likes to work. Anytime I have opportunity, I write something. One can always find time for something that they want to do. I wish there is more than 24 hours in a day. I know many people but I don’t have too many friends so I am always thinking.
How does that work- knowing many people but not having many friends?
I don’t go to visit many people. I have a few people that are my friends but I don’t have time. I am more of a career woman.
Has your husband ever been afraid or jealous that you’ll overshadow him?
No. he’s a very successful man. He’s a man that is very comfortable.
As a stateswoman, what do you think of the state of the nation?
The state of the nation is improving. There’s a lot of work that is going on to make sure that the situation in the country is improved. It cannot be done overnight. We human beings are overanxious. We want everything done yesterday, not even today.
All hands are on deck. I also belong to an association: the Academy for Entrepreneurial Studies. We are doing lots of activities to fast-track development in the country. We try to see how people can improve their lives. You don’t have to be looking for job all the time. You can be your own boss. We are all top executives and I am the chairman.
How has that gone?
Lots of success stories. Some of the things people don’t know are happening in the states are highlighted. We call the government and say, “this is the situation, what are you doing to improve it and they will go all out and explain.
We call the Minister of Labour and say there is so much unemployment and he went to town to explain. This I think is very good in our own part as a way of fast-tracking development and a lot of people are benefitting.
You were a delegate at the
just concluded National Conference. Do you think of Nigeria differently now having had that experience?
I have always believed in Nigeria and that conference was really, really very successful as far as I am concerned because the calibre of people that participated in the conference, it’s as if they were carefully chosen: people who were dedicated, who believe in Nigeria, who want things to improve in Nigeria and we all worked so hard. We looked at all facets of life. We looked at the constitution, the whole constitution. I’m glad I’m part of it. If all our recommendations are implemented we will have a better Nigeria.
There are one or two of them that are not popular…
We can’t all be facing one direction. When we first started everybody came with their own agenda but in the end we all agreed which was very good actually because what we want is a better Nigeria for us and our children. Even some people advocated for creation of states. Some didn’t want it but you had to give reasons why you wanted certain things.
As an expert, what is
your opinion of the current administration’s Industrial Revolution?
I was minister of Industry and I’m also the deputy president of the Lagos Chamber. This is a right direction because industrialization is the key to economic development, employment generation and poverty eradication. You have to encourage it.
What of the finer details of the blueprint? Is it feasible- is it worthwhile- as an expert?
Yes. People are working towards it. They mean well and the effect will not be felt in one day. Everything that will improve the situation is what they are doing.
No one can really talk about you without referring to your personal style. What guides that?
That is inborn in me. Personally I like people to be neat and tidy and stylish. It really makes me happy. Some people don’t care but I am not a careless person.
All my people have always been fashionable- even my grandmother, Madam Juliet Aboderin. Very pretty, very wealthy woman. She was a businesswoman. She had a house in England sixty years ago and when I was studying, she would come to London and stay at the Savoy while we stayed in the house with our friends. One of the richest women in Ibadan.
That is interesting particularly because we’ve talked about affirmative action and how women can be drawn out pushed, so to say, whereas there were women so long ago who had already been there and done that.
Yes. I am motivated by her ability. She was able to compete very well with the men.
Is there anything you would change about your life?
No. I keep thanking God everyday. It’s impossible to have everything that you want but I just keep thanking God for what I’ve been given.