Soft-spoken and easy-going, Ambassador Isiaka Adesola Abolurin is a retired Director at the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In this interview with Femi Ogbonnikan, Abolurin, who is the Chairman, Oba-in-Council of Ipokia Community, in Ipokia Local Government, Ogun State, bears his mind back on his experience working for the UN in South-Sudan and his present role at Ipokia
Tell us a bit about your background
Im Ambassador Isiaka Adesola Abolurin. I was born in Ipokia, in Ipokia Local Government, Yewa, Ogun State on 7th April 1952. I attended Local Authority Primary School, Ipokia, from 1959 to 1964 and I had my secondary school education at Iganmode Grammar School, Otta, from 1965 to 1969. From 1975 to 1978, I attended the University of Ibadan, from where I obtained a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in Political Science. In 1991, as part of in-service training at the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I attended the University of Lagos for a Master’s Degree programme in International Law and Diplomacy.
Which lineage do you hail from in Ipokia?
I am from Abolurin family. Abolurin family is from Akinbode lineage and Abolurin is one of the children of Akinbode. Abolurin decided to have a separate name from Akinbode’s lineage, in a bid to distinguish himself. The word, ‘Abolurin’ came from a deity that we worshipped and that is ‘Olu’, and it was from this that Abolurin was coined, because our great grandfather was the one in-charge of that deity. That was how we came about this Abolurin name.
What was your growing up like?
My childhood was neither rosy nor tortuous. One, my father was a headmaster of a primary school and my mother was just a petty trader. And of course, I am from a polygamous house. My father had four wives. And you could imagine the number of children we would be. I had a good primary school education and it was really rosy. Immediately I graduated from the primary school in 1964, I proceeded to Iganmode Grammar School, Otta, in 1965 and it was very rare at that time, because most of my colleagues, or to say, most of my classmates at that time, didn’t have that opportunity because they would have to first of all go to secondary modern school before gaining admission into the secondary school. So, as a matter of fact, in secondary school, I was between three and four years ahead of some of them that finished primary school with me in 1964, because they had to spend three years before gaining admission into Iganmode Grammar School. But I was very lucky to have that smooth transition from primary to secondary school.
It was really, really rare, to have that opportunity. Imagine somebody from a polygamous house having that transition, and before I left secondary school, or even before I entered secondary school, I had an elder brother who was in Egbado College, Ilaro; he is Dr Bolarinwa Abolurin. Luckily for him, he had Ipokia District Council scholarship, and after his secondary school certificate, he had a Western Region scholarship for his Higher School Certificate (HSC). So, he was somehow lucky. But on my own, by the time I was finishing my secondary school I have had two other younger brothers that were admitted at Iganmode Grammar School, Otta, and Egba High School, Abeokuta, respectively. So, funding became a problem as usual, and I was sent out of school for school fees, for one or two weeks. At times, I would go back home. During that time, it was not really rosy when it came to funding. You know, at that time, my mother was a petty trader and my father was just a headmaster of a primary school. And how much were they earning, then? But I thank God, because I was able to finish my secondary school. And from then, I had to do some clerical work with the Jordanian Embassy in Lagos, as a local staff. Later, I moved from there to Arab Bank, where I worked briefly, and that was where I managed to save some money to fund part of my university education.
In your career, did anybody influence or mentor you?
I would say I was influenced. It was curiosity that actually made me to join the Foreign Service. Initially, when I was growing up at that time, I mean, when I was in secondary school, my ambition was to be a news broadcaster; I liked it very much. But along the line, it changed because I had an Uncle, Ambassador Lamidi Maliki who used to come home, and anytime he came, I was attracted by the way he carried himself among his peers. He appeared superior to his peers and that influenced my decision to work in a foreign office. I thought maybe I could also be in that position and take after him. That was what actually took me to foreign affairs office. There was no formal mentoring; I just saw this man as, I would not say a role model, no, but the way he carried himself as being superior to others. So, that was what really made me to decide to go to the foreign affairs office to go and see why. And to be honest with you, I didn’t see anything so spectacular about it. Maybe, that was his own trait, but he influenced me to change my mind.
After your graduation from the University of Ibadan, where did you first work?
During my NYSC, I was an information officer at the Niger State Ministry of Information, in Bida. I was heading the information office in Bida. The whole of the locality of people knew me very well because I was very active and the headquarters was in Minna. They were always requesting news. But, after that, I came back to Comprehensive High School, Aiyetoro, Yewaland, Ogun State. In fact, I was a teacher there. I was teaching junior classes, Forms 1 and 2 in social studies. I am glad to tell you this. One of my students then is a Commissioner in Ogun State cabinet. Her name is Ronke Shokefun. She is the Ogun State Commissioner for Physical Planning. She was my pet in secondary school at Form 2, and several others. Later, I taught the HSC students Government, and I am very proud to say that when they had their A/L examination, I think, over 80 per cent of the students passed in Government. Many of them are graduates and they are in different establishments and are doing very well.
Were you at any point in time a politician?
No! And I don’t want to be. My father had warned all of us that we should not participate actively in politics but that we could align with any party that we liked. But for me, because of my current position in Ipokia, as the Chairman, Oba-in-Council, Ipokia, in the real sense of it, I don’t really want to belong to anybody but to belong to everybody. So, I interact with all the politicians, but I have made my point clear that I don’t belonging to anybody but I relate with everybody.
At the foreign mission, how taxing was it to represent Nigeria
Representing Nigeria abroad is an opportunity to serve the country in a higher capacity. As you would expect, it entails a lot of responsibilities in which performance could be very interesting, and of course, otherwise. You see, when I was in the foreign service, what I found out was that your performance sometimes would depend on the type of relationship between the host authorities and the deciding state, and that is Nigeria. If the relationship is very cordial, you have no problem and you will be able to relate and liaise with your host authorities. But if it is otherwise, you will have some difficulties. And of course, it also depends on the situation in your country. If the situation is ok, like I am talking mostly in terms of probably you have serious human rights issues and some of other issues that are not really welcoming to the international community, then you will have a problem.
I could remember when I was in South Korea, and that was when we had this Ken Saro-Wiwa issue. It was very difficult for many of us because we knew quite alright that what the government did was wrong, but we still had to defend the government. It was not the best time for every Nigerian diplomat when Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Abacha regime. It was not the best time for any Nigerian diplomat at all, because you were always put on the defensive. You knew quite alright that this thing was wrong but you would still have to defend the government.
So, you just have to make sure that you don’t compromise your loyalty to your government. It was really very difficult. I was seconded to the United Nations (UN) to represent Nigeria, and the position I headed last was the State Coordinator and Area Security Coordinator of the UN Mission in Sudan, where the conflict was very, very intense. And at that time, as the Area Coordinator, the security and safety of over 20,000 Internal Displaced Persons (IDPs) was one of my responsibilities. And good enough, I had the human resources and other resources because I had about three battalions, one from India, one from Rwanda and then, the third, from Ethiopia. We had UN police.
We called them Police Force Unit, just like our own Mobile policemen from Rwanda. They were about 800, a contingent and then, we had UN Police, about 95 and military observers of 55. As the State Coordinator, you would have to liaise with the government of the state with regard to the issue of reconciliation and resolution of conflicts and what have you. Of course, with the IDPs too, you would have to constantly liaise with their leaders, that is, the community leaders to ensure that they live together, that they peacefully co-exist. The IDPs camp, which was called Protection of Civilian Site (POCS) was established when the conflict started in December 2013, and in a day we had over 30,000 people rushing into our camp. And at that time, we knew it was coming but we were planning for only 1,000. When these people were first coming, they were just staying wherever they had space, as far as they were Sudanese, as IDPs, but not on ethnic basis.
But later the issue of ethnicity crept in and from there we started having very, very serious problems. Even at that time, I was not the State Coordinator but I was team leader of civil affairs. During that time, I was the team leader of civil affairs and we had to liaise with the authorities at the state and county levels to promote understanding of the UN mandate and strategy. And of course, we had to also assist to organise workshops with the civil authorities and community leaders to assist in technical understanding of the UN’s protection of the civilian concept and also to assist in the development of the holistic state level strategy to protect civilians. And that was very important and, of course, to encourage and facilitate discussions with State Peace Commission, aimed at developing the road map for reconciliation and national healings state-wide. It was a very big job. That was where I really had to exhibit my diplomatic skill, because there were so many issues between the state government and the IDPs which needed to be resolved.
How challenging is the task of being the Chairman, Oba-In-Council, in-charge of Ipokia Community?
To be honest with you, if I say, it is easy, I am lying. Even though when I was bowing out of active service in February 2016, I had made up my mind that I was going back to Ipokia to join the people at home, in order to move Ipokia forward. But I never envisaged that I would be made the Chairman of the Oba-In-Council, because nobody expected that the Oba would die anyway. But even then, when the Oba died, it didn’t occur to me that I would be made the chairman, Oba-In-Council. But as providence would have it, I found myself in such a situation. Yes! There are a lot of challenges, very many challenges. Unfortunately, the challenges, I would say, probably is envy, I don’t know, but I won’t say hatred. You see, that is why the majority of the people of Ipokia are very happy about me being the chairman of the Oba-In-Council; just a few of them have been trying to undermine everything that I have been trying to put in place. The reason is probably because they could not come to terms with the fact that somebody “from nowhere” could come, and they see me as destabilising their plan or position. They see me as an interloper. But I have been trying to explain to them that everybody knows in Ipokia today that it is something that I am not really crazy about or crave for. No! And I have been explaining to them that there is no benefit in it.
No financial benefit, but I see it as a selfless service to my town. So, it is not that I am expecting anything from it. It is not that I am doing it so that I can be recognised or to see it as an opportunity to be recognised and be given any position or title. No! I am not looking for any position or office at all. I just don’t want to take or accept any position at all. I like to just be on my own. But some people don’t see it that way, and that has been the main challenge that I have been having, otherwise, what I would have done is to delegate anything traditional to the chiefs; do your traditional things, while I do other things that relate to the development of the community. And that is what I have been doing. My main challenge is from a few individuals who think I am an interloper.