The Very Reverend Ade Osinulu is a centenarian. The former registrar of the University of Lagos shares some of his life experiences in this interview with Punch’s Ademola Olonilua. Enjoy…
How does it feel to be a centenarian?
I am delighted and I give the glory to the almighty God.
How would you describe Nigeria during your days as a youth?
Nigeria during my days was under the colonial rule. All decisions concerning Nigeria were made in London and we could not do anything as our hands were tied because we were governed by foreigners.
How are you sure you are 100 years old since there were no birth certificates during your time?
Nobody in my family was educated but one of my uncles, Prof. Olusanya, took note of when I was born. He was able to take note because he knew when he went to Ibadan to start a life and he also knew when the news came to him about my birth. So that was how they determined my date of birth, through my uncle.
How did you start schooling?
I was born into an illiterate family. While I was in the village in Ogun State, I had opportunity to see some people go to school but I did not have the privilege because my parents were poor. Although I did not have the opportunity to go to school, I always wished secretly that someday I would have the opportunity and privilege like my friends and relations who enjoyed the benefits of education. I kept wishing for that because nobody in my immediate family knew the gates of a school. I knew that someday, help would come my way and it did.
After being frustrated for a long time that someday I would be able to join my literate Christian friends in school, help came. My mother was not the favourite of my father. There was an elderly wife who controlled my father’s pot of soup and the best things always went to her and her children. They had direct access to my father and the pot of soup but we did not have that. We were the underdogs. My mother had two brothers, Prof. Olusanya and Shittu Shonubi; one was a Christian while the other was a Muslim. These two brothers saw how my father unjustly treated our mother, so they determined to help her out of her problem. The almighty God put it in them that they should sponsor their sister’s children through school, so they decided to take me and my brother to Ibadan for proper upbringing and training. The first person that went to Ibadan was my elder brother, Isaac Badejo Osinulu.
In the meantime, I followed suit and went to Ibadan for my uncle to train me. Indeed God’s plan is great because nobody knew I would become anything in life as a result of that. I was sent to Elekuro Boy’s Day School, and the school fee in those days was about three pence per term. The first fee I paid came from my uncle’s wife’s pocket although he had assured her he would repay her. Again, as God works in mysterious ways, He sent his angels to prepare the way for me at Elekuro because from the first day I got into the school till I left, I led my class even though I did not have any formal training and it went on till I completed my primary school education without any difficulty. I was sent to Wesley College on the platform of Methodist Mission Society on the understanding that as I completed my schooling, I would teach at the Methodist Boys’ High School, and it worked out very well. At the end of that training, I became a teacher according to the agreement I had with the Methodist Mission Society.
Is that how you later became the principal of the Methodist Boys’ High School, Lagos?
That was the foundation. While I was rounding off my primary school training, a lot of things happened and the first was Chief Obafemi Awolowo decided to train some students. So, they formed a committee to choose ten students who would be sent to Wesley College to improve their education and I was among the ten pupils. With the help of God, I was able to perform very well and satisfactorily. While we were still there, another opportunity came which helped my life. Some American women, disturbed by what their country had done to some Asian countries with atomic bombs, decided to train some youths worldwide by bringing them to America to study as a form of compensation and in doing so, they selected ten of them from West Africa. It was decided that Nigeria should provide a candidate and as God would have it, I fell in favour of the chairman of the board, E.J Jones. He decided that I should enjoy that scholarship. I was sent to Northwestern University, Illinois. There I had the favour of both the students and the teachers. I made good progress and I won the coveted intermediate degree which enabled me to teach in a secondary school. I later came back and became a classroom teacher.
Can you remember the events that took place in 1914, when Nigeria was amalgamated?
I cannot remember that event because in those days, students were students and politicians were politicians. You cannot be a student and a politician together.
Did the World War affect Nigerians?
Yes, it did especially the World War II. I cannot fail to remember that because what affected Britain in those days affected Nigeria. A Nigerian could not travel abroad just like that because of the war. I had a cousin who was given a scholarship to study in England; they had to pass some unusual route to England to avoid being torpedoed. A journey that should have taken a few weeks took him a much longer time. I was not unaware of the havoc done during the war.
What did children do for fun while you were growing up?
We had peer groups and we all played together based on our peer group. Also, we had radio sets but it was of a different kind. Those who had money could afford a proper radio but those who did not had radio sets given to them by the Nigerian information service so that they could have access to information.
Were you born in a hospital?
Saying I was born in a hospital would be far-fetched. None of my parents was literate, so they could not ensure that we got the best treatment. Things came my way the way God wanted it, nothing was planned for us. If a woman was about to be delivered of a baby, if she was from a wealthy family and she was lucky, she would be treated in the hospital but in my case, my mother was treated by women in the village who looked after her during pregnancy. They were the ones that gave her herbs while she was pregnant. That is what happened.
What are some of the historic events that occurred during your youth that still linger in your mind?
There are many, one of which was the atomic bomb America dropped in Asia during the war. The Asiatic world was fighting against America. The Americans saw that the fastest way to end the war was to bomb an important place in Asia, so the bombing of Hiroshima happened and it was very disastrous. That event alone was important enough to make you forget any other event.
Did it affect Nigeria in any way?
No, it did not. The only thing was that it prolonged our connection while travelling between Nigeria and America or Europe.
How would you describe life as a Nigerian under the colonial rule?
Life was better when we began to rule ourselves because self-rule is always a better option than colonial rule. Those in charge could not do anything on their own except they had a go-ahead from England and so our affairs were tied with that of England.
There is a picture of you shaking the hand of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. How did you meet him?
I met him on several occasions. He attended Methodist Boys’ High School and he embraced any opportunity that associated him with the school. On this occasion you mentioned, it was probably the time the school decided to honour him as the first governor-general of Nigeria. My receiving him was a very important occasion.
Is it true that you taught Segun Osoba, Mobolaji Johnson, Rasheed Gbadamosi and the likes?Yes I did.
How would you describe these distinguished Nigerians when they were young boys?
They were all well brought up young men. All the people mentioned had good connections. Take Gbadamosi for instance, his father was a very enlightened industrialist who valued education. Somehow, he arranged for his son to live with me so that he would get education beyond the surface. Mobolaji Johnson was referred to as Mob J and his father was a very notable figure during the colonial days. I can’t really say much about Segun Osoba but he became known for what he is today during his training at Methodist Boys’ High School. His peers and seniors respected him for his knowledge.
How would you describe your tenure as the principal of Methodist Boys’ High School?
Humility will not allow me to talk about that but people who knew me and the school before I became the principal will be able to say much on the matter. The number of people I have trained like those earlier mentioned and Ola Rotimi, the playwright would tell you the kind of school I ran. I was the one that encouraged Ola Rotimi to become what he was and his father acknowledged it later. When Ola Rotimi wrote certain several articles, he was visited by the colonialists but his father opposed them, saying that he would become what he wanted to be. That encouragement made Ola Rotimi to become the man he was.
How did you transit from a principal to becoming the registrar of the University of Lagos?
If God wants you to become something, he would find an instrument to make it happen. The instrument He used in my own case was the Most Rev. E.J Jones, who was the chairman of the Western Nigerian Synod. He was impressed by my activities, my honesty and devotion to my duties that he did his best to push me along. When the time came and the Nigerian government decided to establish the university, E.J Jones felt the Methodist church should find a footing in that school, so he made the recommendation that I should be appointed the assistant registrar of the university and he followed it up with his direct interest. Of course, that did not please people from the northern and eastern parts of Nigeria. From there, I moved up the ranks to become the registrar.
We learnt that you love photography?
Yes I do.
While I was in school, right from the outset, my interest had always been in photography. At a particular point, a governor of the Western Region offered a prize in photography and I won that prize. That made my name in photography. The prize made me more popular and developed my name in the photography world. Our old boys used to call me Sofoluwe, which was the name of an old boy who had established his name in photography.
Why were you referred to as the flying president in the university?
That happened when I was the president of the Student Union of the University of Ibadan. I knew that people were working against me especially those from the Eastern region. There was a shooting incident that occurred and it involved students and the law enforcement agents. The students of eastern origin wanted us to demonstrate because of the shooting. They were urging my government to demonstrate so I consulted some friends who advised me against leading the students to protest. They said that if I did that, it would give the government an opportunity to bring out the army against the students, so I decided against going on protest.
I kept postponing the meeting till I could no longer do so. It was during the end of my tenure and they had appointed people that would take over. When the time came, I prepared the agenda putting the shooting incident as the last topic to be debated. When it got to the shooting issue, I told them that whatever we decided, we had to be careful because of our lives. By the time I said that, I was already on my way to the hostel and when they saw that I was escaping, they started running after me to injure me because I did not agree to stage the protest. As they were chasing me, a friend of mine kept shouting that they should not injure me. I was lucky to get to my room and I locked myself in there. They started throwing stones at my room. That was how the name ‘flying president’, stuck.
Is it true that the likes of Samuel Edgal, Amb. Joe Iyalla, and Bola Ige were your contemporaries in school?Joe Iyalla and Edgal were my contemporaries but Bola Ige was my junior in school. I cannot describe them in details but they were very vibrant in the political scene while we were in school. They were active in the student union and their own sectional unions as well. The Igbo union was acting against the Yorubas and the Yorubas were also acting against the Igbos.
Why was there so much tension between the major ethnic groups during your time?
The British people knew how to divide and rule and they used the technique very well to bring disunity between the Igbos and the Yorubas.
Did your student activism ever put you in trouble?
You cannot be active in the student union and not be in conflict with any government. If you are in student politics, you must be ready to take up the gun against any government at any time.
How do you feel being honoured by the University of Ibadan?
It is the Lord’s doing and it is wonderful in our sight. I praise Him and thank Him that he has allowed me to live so long and well. I thank God for where I am today because many of us that started the journey are no more today. There was an event that they had in the university some years ago and they invited those that were around when the university was founded. They looked around and I was the only one remaining, all the others had gone. It is only God I praise for it. Most of my colleagues that attended the school with me are no more. I am grateful to God.
Do you have any regrets in life?
No I have no regrets. Overall, I have only praises to God for making me alive till date. I am also grateful to God for all my eight children. My eldest son is a minister of God in America. I have another child who heads an organisation that helps people acquire land in Nigeria and abroad. Everyone is doing great and I am thankful to God.
What has been the happiest and saddest moment of your life?
That is a question I will not like to answer. I will not want to establish bitterness in my life.