• …Says he was lucky to be taught by Bola Ige, European missionaries

By Chris Onuoha

Emeritus Professor Michael Abiola Omolewa turned 80 recently. The professor whose career span at the University of Ibadan stands out, was once Nigeria’s Ambassador and Permanent Delegate to UNESCO.

His former colleagues, students, friends and those he has touched in one way or the other celebrated him with a volume of tributes, which was launched on April 1, 2021 as a book. In this special interview with Sunday Vanguard, the Octogenarian speaks on life.

Sir, you just stepped into the Octogenarian club as an accomplished academics, diplomat, and as a pastor with a book launch, celebrated recently. At 80, it’s a well accomplished life and career, yet, the energy seemed untapped, to serve humanity more. In all these what are those fondest memories that you would want to share with us? 

There are quite several of them. In the process of my journey in life I have experienced Divine favour and benefitted from the kindness and affection of many people. I have also suffered from gross wickedness of people with powerful connections. I have been grounded on many occasions and each time, a destiny helper had emerged in most unexpected manner and helped me out.

For example when I could not secure a place to a secondary school after my primary education, Chief Stephen Oluwole Awokoya, the then Minister of Education of Western Nigeria, awarded me a West Nigeria Government scholarship to Ibadan Grammar School. When I had problems with my PhD programme, the Lord had sent help to me through Professors J F Ade Ajayi, Paul Mbaeyi, Roland Oliver, Douglas Johnson, Ayo Bamgbose, Tekena Tamuno and Drs Remi Adeleye and Gabriel Akinola and the PhD that had  appeared impossible to attain, came into my hands. Later in life when I had problems with my promotion to the grade of Professor, help again came through Professor Jones Akinpelu, Kola Folayan, Bolanle Awe and S.H.O.Tomori and I became a Professor.

When I was in Paris as Nigeria’s Ambassador and Permanent Delegate to UNESCO, I wanted to have some important projects and programmes for Nigeria. I also wanted my tenure to continue beyond my first term. I ran to Pastor E A Adeboye, the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God and his wife Pastor Folu Adeboye for prayers and advice. The result was the tremendous and unprecedented achievements recorded by the Nigeria Permanent Delegation to UNESCO and the extension of my 5 -year tenure for a second term which carried me to the end of August 2009.

The pattern that I observed was that in which there were always obstacles on my path which people rose to challenge and defeat. Perhaps that has been one of the major reasons that had driven me to develop an intense interest for the Almighty God whom I see as the One sending the various people to me to clear the obstacles on my path to success and breakthrough.


Can we have a peep into your childhood days, family background, and those things that inspired your quest to toll the line of academics?

I came from a large family in which my father as a very successful farmer had to accept many women as wives so that they could join to take the ownership of his farming business. My father was the first Sabbath School Secretary of the Seventh Day Adventist Church which arrived in Nigeria on Saturday, 7th March 1914 and he was interested in ensuring that his children received formal education.

He encouraged us by giving us incentives to learn: he offered extra portions of pounded yam and efo riro soup to any of his children who excelled in academic performance. I must confess that I struggled to excel because of the attraction of extra pounded yam. I was lucky that my elder brother, Joseph Olufemi Omolewa invited me to join him at his posting in Ibadan when I was just nine years old.

That decision changed my life as I was exposed to living in a major city, away from the village life. Later I benefitted from the kindness of Pastor S A Dare, friend of my father who was the SDA Church Pastor in Erunmu and later Ibadan.  At the secondary school, I was lucky to be taught by some very brilliant teachers such as Uncle Bola Ige and many European missionaries. All this exposure at my early age introduced me to the values of hard work, diligence in study and the pursuit of academic excellence

What are those moral values imbibed in you by your parents that propelled this unique life journey?

My father, Daniel Omolewa, was a fearless man with deep convictions.  He single-handed fought a neighbouring town for the possession of a vast piece of land and he won. When he was threatened in 1915 by the District Officer stationed at Ado-Ekiti, who wanted him convert from his own chosen denomination, my father opted to serve some days in detention rather that cave in and lose the direction of his faith.

He was not into partisan politics, but he stood firm for the defence of justice and fairness. He was also incorruptible when he served in the traditional court in our town, and it was common knowledge that no one could pervert the course of justice by visiting to lobby him. He was also a generous person who came to the help of people who were in need. These attributes which I observed in him must have made an impression on me.

From the avalanche of tributes that made up the book, we are meant to understand that you are an avid reader and your passion was more on history and philosophy studies.  How then, did you find adult education more appealing to the development of history?

My first degree was in History with a subsidiary in French, and my PhD degree was also in History. I had specialised in the controversial subject of European history following the decision of Professor J F Ade Ajayi,  my  former Dean and Head of the Department of History to have some young graduates specialise in aspects of History beyond the emerging African History. He was eager to have specialists who would be familiar with developments in regions outside Africa and who would be able to explain developments in their regions of academic interest.  Unfortunately the Europeans who occupied the special positions were not enthusiastic about losing them to the new breed of African scholars and they did everything to frustrate the programme.

In the process I was told of an opening in the Department of Adult Education where I could teach the history of adult education in Britain. Following my performance at the interview, I got appointed to the position and I found myself as a historian in adult education. I remained in that position for 35 years, teaching and conducting research in various aspects of the new discipline of adult education.

My training in history was invested into my new calling in adult education. Later in my academic and professional career I developed considerable interest in distance education, an arm of adult education. Following the award of a Fellowship from the Canadian International Development Research Council, I was able to spend some time at leading institutions with specialisation in adult and distance learning. I also embraced the new Open University which President Shehu Shagari launched. When the institution was suspended by the military government, I returned to the University of Ibadan from where I eventually retired.

Do you really attribute your success in life as sheer luck or hardwork garnered with resilience?

The story of my life demonstrated to me, unequivocally, that breakthrough in life is not exclusively due to hard work, diligence, and resilience. I found out that there were those fellow students who spent more time at their studies and work but whose academic performance were far from reaching my own level.

I saw many cases in which I had invested less time and energy but had surpassed all my colleagues.  I also found myself being helped by the gift of good memory with which I was able to beat my colleagues in examinations. On one occasion in our final year examinations at the University of Ibadan, my approach to a question was different from the approach of my classmates. I thought that I would fail the examination.

When the result was published, I had the best mark in the compulsory paper and thereafter became the best student in my Department. That incident humbled me and made me know that there is a superior power above that of the human being that can cause a turnaround in man with no input from any human being. It taught me to rely on the power that is above that of any human being on earth.

During your teaching days at the University of Ibadan,  you founded an organisation called UNIVA.  What is it all about and what inspired the initiative?

On the completion of my second term as Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Ibadan, I was appointed Head of the Department of Adult Education at the University of Ibadan. I was invited by the Association for Adult and Literacy Education based in Kenya to serve on the executive board of the regional organisation.

To prove that the University of Ibadan had been a quiet leader in the promotion of literacy, I submitted the nomination of my Department for the UNESCO Literacy Prize. The nomination succeeded and as Head of Department I was invited to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris to receive the award. Due to difficulties in processing my entry visa and other logistics, I could not make the Paris trip. The Nigerian Ambassador and Permanent Delegate to UNESCO accepted the award on behalf of the Department. By the time he was to present it to the Department, I was told that the Head of the Department would not receive it because the Department was only a subsidiary unit in the University.

I decided to establish the University Village Association, UNIVA as an NGO which would promote the cooperation between the University and the Villages, encourage the town and gown partnership and attempt to introduce an innovative approach to literacy promotion. With UNIVA, no participant was allowed to suffer the frustration of failing.

Those who met the minimum standard at the examination were given Certificate A and those who failed were given Certificate B with the opportunity to attempt the examination again to obtain Certificate A. Everyone graduated and those with Certificate B, most often the male participants, danced more enthusiastically than others.

By some coincidence, it was also the time that an African American organisation, the International Foundation for Education and Self Help (IFESH) was interested in supporting some projects in Africa. I submitted the proposals for literacy programmes to IFESH for funding. I also got support from the British Council, UNESCO, USAID, UNICEF and Laubach Literacy International. IFESH further supported UNIVA with secondment of some young African Americans who were attached to the project.  I appointed Dr Rashid Aderinoye as Deputy Director of UNIVAS and got some excellent support staff as facilitators and supervisors. Within a decade UNIVA had excelled.

I decided to submit the nomination of UNIVA to UNESCO, knowing that as the founder and Director of the NGO, the decision-making architecture stopped on my table without controversy. UNIVA won the UNESCO recognition. Again it was the time that the new Administration of President Obasanjo was being inaugurated in 1999.

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The Hon Minister of Education, Professor Tunde Adeniran nominated me among others and President Obasanjo picked me as Nigeria’s Ambassador and Permanent Delegate to UNESCO. My literacy initiative walking along Divine favour had yielded the dividends to me that were beyond my expectation. UNIVA came at exactly the right time when President Obasanjo was looking for capable and competent hands to whom the representation of the country was to be entrusted with confidence.

Your diplomatic appointment came as recognition of an outstanding quality of service. Tell us life, work accomplishments and challenges while at the UNESCO mission.

Again, I could see the fingers of the Almighty God in my work in UNESCO. President Obasanjo had requested all representatives to try to restore Nigeria to positions of prominence and eminence, crippled under the maximum dictatorship of General Sanni Abacha, the death of Tsaro-Wiwa and the suspension of Nigeria by the Commonwealth.

It was like asking for the impossible and there was need, ardent need for Divine intervention, through prayers and fasting, hard work at strategy development and diligence. The Permanent Delegation of Nigeria to UNESCO resolved to have Nigeria elected to all the key councils and committees of UNESCO including the Executive Board and the World Heritage Committee which was responsible for the inscription of World Heritage sites.

The problem was that little cooperation came from the relevant arms of government in Nigeria which should have sent representatives and documentation to the Delegation in Paris. Despite this deficit support, Nigeria got elected to the bodies. The Osun Osogbo site in Osun State was inscribed into the World Heritage List, thanks to the cooperation of the dynamic Governor Oyinlola of Osun State. Nigeria also succeeded in having the first category 2 Cultural Institute in Africa with the adoption of the International Institute for African Culture and International Understanding in Abeokuta with its affiliate Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding in Osogbo.

Nigeria also got elected to the Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee and the International Bureau of Education in Geneva.

One of the major achievements of Nigeria during my tenure was my election as the West African to the position of President of the General Conference in 2003. I had again sought spiritual help from men of God including Pastor E A Adeboye, his wife, Pastor Folu Adeboye and Pastors Okediji, Ajide and others. The miracle came when, for the first time in many decades, there was no election as  all opposing candidates withdrew or were compelled to withdraw by their governments and Nigeria was elected unanimously by all the 189 countries of the world. I read the 2- page message of President Obasanjo and thereafter I invited the First Lady of the United States, Laura Bush to the podium.

The media, both print and non-print, was most supportive of our work in France and we were lucky to have a team of dedicated professionals and a responsive and helpful leadership at the Presidency and Ministers’ levels.

Today, lots of people are filled with high spirited words about your impact in their lives. These formed the numerous tributes compiled, to celebrate you at 80. Sir, in your words, tell us the secrets that your admirers won’t let go of you.

It is difficult for me to identify anything that I have sought to do differently. I am just going through the Book of Tributes myself. One thing that I appreciate is the warmth and love of my former students, colleagues, friends, associates, and family members for me. I have been touched by the contributions of everyone and particularly grateful to Professor Rashid Aderinoye and his team for the job so efficiently well done. I think that the secret is that the Almighty God has not allowed my admirers to focus on my fault and to love me despite all my limitations.

If you are to start all over again in life, what would you like to do differently?

I probably would pray more and ask for Divine favour, mercy, and compassion. I would be less judgemental and more tolerant of diversity. But basically, I would love to do much of what I have done, the bulk of which were by no means my design. Just imagine a doctorate holder in History leaving the Department of History and the faculty of Arts for the Department of Adult Education and the Faculty of Education where my destiny was waiting for me to be unfolded and realised!

At 80, I would say you have seen it all in life. Using yourself as a model, how would you advise the youths on how to achieve level headed success without focusing on the fast lane?

We must face the reality that the youths are only responding to the contemporary situation and circumstances of life. In many ways, therefore, they are only victims of circumstances. They need a healing and assistance of the delinquent adults who have chose to follow the path different from that leading to integrity, honour, and sacrifice, such as demonstrated by our ancestors.

I strongly believe that the coming of the military to governance, led to the change in the emphasis on education. It became clear that learning and the pursuit of academic excellence was no longer required for access to power and influence as the soldiers ruled with immediate effect and frequently addressed fellow Nigerians after the frequent coups and attempted coups.

The discovery of oil also led to the accumulation of wealth and the disregard for due process and accountability. By the time civilian rule was restored, it had become difficult to return to the age in which the craze for wealth was derided by the society. In politics and community recognition, money had become the tool for access to power, prestige, and position. Globalisation has also compounded the problems of the youths as the social media became the irresistible companion.

Is Adult Education really meant for adults who missed early education at young age or is it a special course?

Adult education caters for adults who were unable to access education at an early age due to several circumstances including the unavailability of facilities or poverty and other limitations. Adult Education also seeks to assist, through remedial education, those who had not been successful during earlier efforts.

Adult education provides all sorts of special programmes for professionals and anyone who is interested in making education lifelong, continuing, and sustained. It can be done within the walls of the university, as is now being practiced, or outside the walls of the university which was one of the earlier forms of learning described as extramural, outside the wall.

I feel a young student today may think twice before choosing Adult Education as a course of study as it sounds. How do you convince him to take the course?

You should let the student know that the mission of adult education is to make education inclusive to all, and that education is human right that must be made available and affordable. You can then draw attention of the young student to the unlimited opportunities in adult education which covers all subjects and all ages.

Speaking about the standard of education in Nigeria today, what is your take?

There have been changes: changes from the number of years spent in the School, changes in the curriculum and in the monitoring and evaluation. When we say that the young student in the university is unable to perform at the level of the old standard six level graduates, we must remember that in the past we had two 2 years at the pre-primary school, eight years at the elementary, six years at the secondary school, additional 2 years at the Higher School Certificate preparation for the university and the final 3 years in the university.

Today within the context of the 6 3 3 4 or 9 3 4 education system, the young graduate at the age of 20 has arrived! It depends on what standard we are measuring. Of course competence in the use of language has been affected but we must also know that many of the subjects which were not available in the past are now there to be learnt.

With the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, we now have what is referred to as the new normal in which courses are provided online, the new technology is used and there is the general effect of social distancing and so on. It is observed that the online teaching has competed the teachers to review the old class notes and seek to make their teaching more appropriate and standardised. That should be a plus brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, thus proving that there is always something good that emerges from a desperate situation and circumstance.

As a retired teacher of teachers, can you compare teaching in your days to now and what do you think government should do to uplift the standard of education in the country?

In my days, we chose teaching intentionally because of the respect accorded to teachers at the time. It was with pride that young ladies announced our courtship to their parents. We were given vehicle loans and accommodation.

Today some parents even challenge teachers for trying to instill discipline in the young ones, only some privileged few can afford to own cars and few parents take any delight in having teachers who are still struggling to pay their rents as in-laws. However some progress is being made as the teachers’ registration Council is doing a great job with the professionalisation of the teaching profession and government is reviewing the condition of teachers.

At 80, you still look younger vibrant and full of life. What’s the secret sir?

The Bible says that godliness with contentment is great gain. I don’t look at the wealth and other display of wealth and connection of my neighbours, as I thank the Lord for what He gives me. I also spend quality time at ori oke and worship centres and seek to serve God and humanity.

It is likely that the Lord is happy with me and wants me to complete the assignment that He has given me before calling me back home at His own chosen time. I try to eat well and have some exercise. My laughter is sustained by the Creator of smiles and I am told that those who laugh live to old age.

When you are not at work how do you relax and what is your favourite African food?

I read and pray. Pounded yam has been my choice food for the past 80 years but it is meeting with some competition of rice and plantain as a result of my Gambian wife’s preferences.

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