A UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR, COMMUNITY ORGANISER AND FORMER COMMISSIONER FOR COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY AND AT A LATER TIME, COMMISSIONER FOR RURAL DEVELOPMENT AND WATER RESOURCES IN THE OLD ONDO STATE, FOLAYAN OJO TURNS PAGES OF HIS LIFE AT 71, WRITES ADEOLA AKINREMI
For lack of 50 pounds tuition fee, he lost the opportunity to be enrolled as a student at the University of Lagos. That was in 1965. But six years later, he returned there as a lecturer. And 10 years down the line, he had so distinguished himself to become a professor of economics in the same university.
His life tells a story of personal and professional excellence. In it, there is a myth, pain and rare courage. But to break the ice, he told the story of how he met his wife first: “I met my wife through a friend and the journey has been a complement to everything that has happened in my life. Each step of the way she has been a pillar of support. We have been married for 40 years.”
And while his wife sat across him in a joyous and gleeful manner, he turned the pages of his life in sequence up to 71. He was born on November 12, 1941.
First, he lost his father at the tender age of eight and the dream he had shared with his father left him. He had told his father how he would become successful in life and he had got a promise of full-fledged academic support to make his dream come through. Indeed, that dream came through, but not through the support of his father anymore.
“When I looked back, I realised very quickly that I achieved whatever I have achieved today through a dint of hard work and the blessing of God,” he says. It is amazing how much pain one can bear, when one really wants something. Professor Folayan Ojo really, really wants success against all odds and he bore the pain.
“I was determined. I kept chasing the dream, regardless of the challenges and problems. I believed they were surmountable. In the midst of it, I will weep and I will move on. In the end, I succeeded. I became a professor of Economics. I just didn’t give up on my dreams,” he explains.
Ojo’s academic brilliance and dedication will later attract his benefactor to him. A Reverend Brother had noticed his academic prowess he simply gave his name as Rev. Hugh.
To Father Hue, a brilliant and forward-looking young man that Ojo was cannot be left without support. So he took his case to Canada. He forwarded Ojo’s name to African Students Foundation in Canada for scholarship, but he was rejected. But, Ojo had learnt to look forward.
“I was not accepted for the scholarship at first, but within few days that I couldn’t meet up to pay admission fee at the University of Ibadan and UNILAG, I got the news that I have been offered scholarship by the African Students Foundation to study for my degree at Brandon University in Canada, you can imagine it. The joy was limitless. That was how I landed in Canada. I excelled in my undergraduate works. I won the faculty for academic distinction in May 1969 after my first degree. That afforded me to go on to University of Alberta for my Masters and later on to the University of Ontario for my doctorate. I spent one year where I concluded my course work.
“In my third year as an undergraduate in Canada, I was appointed as a student assistant to grade the first year undergraduates in the economics and that’s very rare then.
“I left that university highly satisfied and I represented Nigeria as a good citizen. The president of the university wrote me two letters appraising my efforts, saying I have justified the scholarship given to me.” Ojo returned to his native country and remained in the ivory tower until July 2001, when the zeal for altruism and philanthropy took him to Swaziland for another nine years.
“I left Nigeria for Swaziland on July 31, 2001. I just needed to change environment. But in my mind, I thought I was just going to spend two years, but I ended up spending nine years. After my two years in Swaziland, I retired voluntarily from the University of Lagos. I wanted to just work quietly, teach and do research at the University of Swaziland, but it was more than that. I eventually became the Dean of the Faculty of Social Science. I became an elected member of the Senate; I became an elected member of the Governing Council and I was appointed the Acting pro-vice chancellor and I did a lot for the university. In fact, if I were to highlight my support to humanity, I would say those days in Swaziland were great days.”
To demonstrate his love for education, Ojo set up a foundation in his name: Folayan Ojo Educational Foundation. The foundation award scholarships to the indigents and the gifted students. Although, at the moment, the scholarships are limited to the first community Secondary School in his home State as a way of giving back, at 71 he sees beyond the length of the object within the microscope. He says, “I started my scholarship scheme devoted to the students of Doherty Memorial Grammar School in Ijero, Ekiti and also to St. Gabriel’s Secondary School in the same community.
“My plan is to expand it to have national appeal because I see that people are deprived everywhere. The scholarship is divided into two parts; there is a part that cares for the indigents, while the other part is for the gifted students.
But, Ojo regrets what is happening in the educational sector. “If I have any regret, it is in the educational sector that I have the most. I have spent my whole life in the education sector. We see almost unbelievably low level of capacity among today’s graduates. It is very pitiful.
“In the past if you have a 2.2 for a grade from a Nigerian university and you go to the United States, you will be performing wonderfully well, but today even our first class is not trusted again. Nigerian educational sector is in a very sorry situation.
“How could the federal government be setting up nine universities in one year when the government cannot even fund the existing ones? How can we be granting license to private universities in hundreds when we don’t even have PhD holders to teach them?
“Why should a new university be advertising classes for doctoral students when they don’t even have staff to supervise their work? The educational sector is rotten and I don’t know what revolution will change it. I think the government has to do something very urgent to revamp the sector and individuals must do something too. That was the reason I started my foundation. If the educational sector falls, every other thing would fail.”
Today, at the same University of Lagos, Ojo will launch his memoir. “I remember there was a picture I took on October 1, 1959. I was young, seemingly hopeful. We were made to believe that, that was the beginning of the development of this country but things have been going the other way round. My message is this: There is a lot of rottenness in this country. If it is only one person that is doing it right, it has to be you,” he said.