Engineer Ezekiel Iyiola Omisore is one of the few remarkable minds left of Nigeria’s golden independence generation. Born on the 26th of August, 1927 into the Omisore Dynasty, he is a hugely accomplished structural engineer who took on some of the most important building projects within Nigeria during the second half of the 20th century. In this interview with Solomon Elusoji, which was conducted at his modest home in Lagos, he opens a window into his life and shares a variety of profound thoughts on the nature of true success
How was growing up like?
It was quite rosy and challenging. I had no problems growing up, with the support of my parents. And things were not all that difficult as they are now.
I had a father who was a good Christian and a disciplinarian who loved his children very much. He put us on the path of righteousness and made us understand that to succeed in life, you need to be upright, truthful, studious and hard working. There is no hide and seek game in it, no shortcut to success, than to work hard and be upright.
My father, Chief Joshua Oye Omisore, was one of the children on the great Anibijuwon Omisore, who started the Omisore Dynasty. He was a great builder. And he was so great and powerful in Ife during the reign of about two or three kings. He actually helped Ife people open up the road to Ondo. He had no western education at all, but he believed that a lack of western education does not mean one is not wise. He helped to construct roads from Ife to Ibadan too.
My father was the first councillor in Ife, during the colonial days. He was a cocoa merchant and being a very religious man, he was a Baba Ijo of the St. Philips Cathedral, Aiyetoro, where I also became the Baba Ijo. And after that, he was honoured to be the Baba Ijo of all the Christians in Ife and its districts.
You grew up during the Second World War . . .
Life was a bit difficult then. That was when they started rationing food. I remember that I visited my brother in Lagos and I stayed with him at Obalende. I had to wake up very early in the morning to queue for food rations. And it was really a tough time. But you know Nigerians are blessed with ability to smile through suffering; people absorb a lot of hard times. To me, this is God’s country. We’ve had so many turbulent times, yet we’ve survived.
Why did you choose to study Structural Engineering?
I love Mathematics passionately. I led my classes throughout my years at Oduduwa College in mathematics and other subjects. Again, as I said, my grand-father was a great builder. So I wanted to step into his shoes. If you look at the Omisore family, we have a lot of architects and engineers. I think it is imbibed in us. Apart from that, the art of drawing was another incentive. I took it in my Senior Cambridge as one of the A subjects and I had Grade One in 1948. So I didn’t find it difficult to study structural engineering.
I’m a Chartered Structure Engineer, a fellow of the Nigerian Society of Engineers, fellow of the Nigerian Institution of Structure Engineers, fellow of the Nigerian Society of Consulting Engineers. A member of COREN. And I established my practice in 1962, after opting out of Design Group.
Did going abroad to study make a difference in your technical abilities?
Hammersmith is a unique institution that yields out professionals in the building industry. You have architects, structural engineers, mechanical and electrical engineers, quantity surveyors being trained in the proper direction. And with the system there, you will surely know what you are doing. Apart from the academic side, you practice within the college, be involved in studio work every week where you come together with established architects and quantity surveyors to discuss and design real world projects. This is different from what is being done in Nigeria now. Nigerian universities need to put more attention to structural studies. They turn out civil engineers who are half-baked structural engineers. Academically, they have an insight into structures, but they are not deep in it. During my practice (I am still running the practice, only I have slowed down due to age), the products we get from the universities don’t impress me. They are mathematical engineers. They normally depend on detailers and draughtsmen. But how can you correct a detailer if he goes wrong without you knowing how to detail? Most universities here don’t put them through the practical side. That has to be corrected.
Compared to your days, how would you describe the quality of education we have now?
We seem to be more serious in those days than now. In those days, for Senior Cambridge exams, for instance, if you fail in English, you fail in all. You have to start again. But nowadays, they’ve made it easier for the students to pass in piece-meals. I don’t say it is bad, but it is not as good as we had it.
You returned to Nigeria from Britain in 1959. Why did you decide to come back?
In those days, when you travel abroad – we call it ‘chasing the golden fleece’ – the ambition is to come back and serve. The urge in us was to return home and prove to the people that we have arrived and able to do things in the proper way, as against what is happening now. So I joined the Ministry of Works, being the first structural engineer to be employed there. But I never stayed long due to the treatment meted on me. There was differential treatment between civil engineers and structure engineers. Although I fought the battle, because I asked for an interview with the then Head of Service, Simeon Adebo. He granted me the attention and I proved to him that what I had done within a year was incomparable with the civil engineers working on other projects. And he accepted, even giving me two incremental dates above what I was having. But it was short-lived.
While with the ministry, I was doing some private work with architects outside, especially Design Group, a firm of architects who are still going strong. They offered me a very rosy and fantastic offer. The salary was almost three times what I was earning at the ministry and I had other remunerations. In fact, one of the bonuses I had in the first year was enough for me to buy a Mercedes. I joined their group as Associate Partner.
But that was short-lived too, due to youthful exuberance and other reasons. I was the only engineer, with two draughtsmen, working on all the group’s projects. One day I was going out with a friend, who was a Commissioner of the then Western Region, and I pointed out that I was the structural engineer that designed the National Library at Dugbe. He said ‘no’, that it was done by Design Group. And I told him ‘yes, Design Group is a firm that comprises architects, engineers and quantity surveyors’. He never believed me. It was then that I decided to come out and prove, with a new firm, that I was capable of doing all these things. But they insisted that I should stay within their fold, with an independent name: Iyi Omisore and Partners. And I accepted.
Some of the projects I had were in University of Ibadan Nnmadi Azikwe Hall of Residence, Queen Elizabeth Hall of Residence extension, Department of Social Sciences, Student Union building and so on. But I could see that I was having so much to handle. I had to decide to have a partner. I sent for a friend of mine, Salau Adewoyin Afolabi, who was a very brilliant engineer. We did a lot of work together, including Great Nigerian Insurance Building, the University of Lagos’ Pro Chancellor, Chancellor, Registrar lodges; the Faculty of Arts with the lecture theatre in front. At the Obafemi Awolowo University, too, we handled Moremi Hall of Residence, Mozambique Hall, the Cafeteria, which is now being used as Department of Environmental, and the Pharmacy Building. In Lagos, I handled the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in Kofo Abayomi and some of the tall buildings in Ikoyi.
What was the most challenging period of your life?
That was when I arrived Britain in 1953. The weather was very unkind to me. I couldn’t stand the cold. For example, I remember that one day I left my house in the Paddington area, to catch my train to school. It was during winter and snowing and the ground was very slippery. When I got to the junction, I fell down and burst into tears. I had to go back to my house. But when I got to the door, it was another struggle, because I couldn’t manage to open it. I had to rethink, took courage and went to school. That period was the most challenging time for me. But with determination, I waded through the winter period. Even though I was highly sociable, I decided to put all efforts into my studies. For good nine months, I never partook in any socials. And it yielded fruits. In my first year, I came first. I was awarded five guineas by the Mayor of Hammersmith in the town hall; it was a civic reception.
Why didn’t you go into politics?
I feel that if I work hard, I will have enough and live a good life. Politics in Nigeria has been messy, but it has become messier now. I was doing fine with my practice in structural engineering and I felt contented. So I never thought of joining politics. It’s a pity the politicians have actually spoilt Nigeria’s economy. I only hope to see a Nigeria of my dreams before I die, a Nigeria like a nation, a Nigeria that is peaceful, a Nigeria where 75 per cent of its budget will be spent on development and 25 per cent on governance. To me, the constitution we are practicing is too expensive for us. It’s only a rich nation that can succeed with it. I think we should go back to parliamentary and regional systems: it’s less expensive. May God save us all.
You belong to some social clubs . . .
Being a social being, I joined Island Club since 1962; I’m a member of Metropolitan Club in Lagos and also Yoruba Tennis Club. I take life easy; I’m not avaricious. I believe that it is not the amount of gold or silver you have that makes a rich man, but the contentment of the mind.
At 90, how do you still manage to be so agile?
To start with, age is in the mind. I usually feel young at heart. As I said earlier, I always feel contented with what God has given me. Apart from that, I do some exercise daily. When I wake up, I do some frog-jumping in my room; if the weather is good, I could come downstairs and walk round the neighbourhood; if not, the staircase is there and I can go up and down several times.
In the morning, I take eko and moi-moi. I eat a lot of beans daily, either as akara or moi-moi or beans itself. It’s only in the afternoon I take lumps of eba or amala or semo. I don’t normally eat at night. I might take just fruits and pawpaw, because I believe that if you eat at night without burning it, it would make you uncomfortable. I love reading novels: Hadley Chase and the likes. I love music and dancing. My favourite artistes, in those days, were Nightingale, Haruna Ishola and Ebenezer Obey; King Sunny Ade and Fela too are okay.
What’s your advice to young people?
Young people should take things easy, believe in God, not be over-ambitious. With patience and fortitude, good things will come their way. They should be studious and try to be trustworthy, not cutting corners. I believe in gradual achievement. I remember when I was riding a Volkswagen and when I saw someone with Peugeot, I will pray that God bless me enough to be able to buy a Peugeot. Later, I bought a Peugeot, then a Mercedes, and so on. I believe in gradual achievement, not a sudden one.