SEGUN OLUSOLA: I TRAINED AS A CARPENTER
Amb. Segun Olusola
Ambassador Segun Olusola is a person who could be called a big masquerade in the arts and acting industry. In his active days, he produced the famous Village Headmaster and presented Take a Trip on television.
In other areas of life, he has equally made a mark. He was Nigeria's ambassador to Ethiopia. At present, he is taking care of refugees, in one way or another as well as working for peace and reconciliation through African Refugee Foundation.
In this interview, Ambassador Olusola spoke about his family, love life, career as a television producer and life as a diplomat.
Nigerians know more of your public than private life. We know that many would want to know how Ambassador Olusola started life. Could you tell us about your background?
I was born in Iperu-Remo, in Ogun State on March 18, 1935. My father was a woodworker, a carpenter. My mother was a weaver of mat. At the workshop, where my father worked, there were many apprentices from different parts of this country. I grew up with these people, who trained to be carpenters. And that taught me a lot of lessons, because among them were storytellers and singers. It was in the midst of these people that I picked up the art of storytelling, singing and also being a carpenter.
In 1941, when I was of school age, I was sent to St John, which was the first Roman Catholic School in Iperu-Remo. While there, they thought I was interested in the Roman Catholic liturgy - the singing, the chanting and all of that. So, they nicknamed me Padre, that is father. They all thought I was going to grow up to be a Roman Catholic priest. Since my father was a Methodist, he decided to take me to the Methodist Wesley School, where I eventually finished my elementary school. I stayed in Wesley School for three years, 1945-1947, before I sat for the entrance examination to enter Remo Secondary School, in 1948. It was the first co-educational secondary school in the whole of West Africa. I was there up till 1953 when I wrote the school certificate, Cambridge exam and all that. The very last year I spent in that school, I became the secretary of the Literary and Debating Society. It enabled me to engage in public speaking, singing, dancing and everything that had to do with cultural activities. Soon after I left school, I had it at the back of my mind that I would be a broadcaster. This prompted me to seek employment with the Nigerian Broadcasting Service at that time.
I first became a studio manager and later on, a feature producer, in 1956. That was when I produced feature programme for Radio Nigeria, which happened to be the most enjoyable moment of my early life. I produced for radio up till 1959. That was the year Western Nigerian Television (WNTV) was introduced. I was then recruited to produce programmes for the television station. At that time, some of my friends did not like the idea. My head of features production in radio was Cyprian Ekwensi. He came to see me and said: 'So, Segun, you have abandoned radio for television. Look, when you get involved in TV, it would be a whole lifetime work. Only your death would separate you from it.' That was the joke he threw at me. Since, I became a television producer, in 1959, I still regard myself, up till today, as a television producer.
As a growing child, what was the experience like?
Honestly, it was a great experience. I was the smallest and youngest child in my class, at the Wesley School, Iperu-Remo. It was the same thing in secondary school. The person who was almost as young as I was then was about four months older than I, in age. He is the Chairman and Managing Director of Litramed Publication, Chief Yinka Lawal Solarin. We were in the same class. So, as the youngest, I naturally receive attention and favours from all members of my class. And today, the RSS set of 1948-1953, even though some of us are now over 80 years and above, about 15 of us who are alive still meet regularly, as old students.
In school, I enjoyed my Geography classes. It was amazing that of all the subjects, I was interested, including Literature and Maths, it was Geography I did rather well in school certificate exams. And it was the subjects I paid least attention to. I later took serious interest in Literature, reading, writing and public speaking. That was where I picked up the interest in broadcasting. When the time came to look for a job, the first place I wanted to be associated with was the broadcasting house. But this did not happen until the year I left secondary school. I first served the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, ECN, as we called it then, as an account assistant. I worked from 1954-1955 there. Although I enjoyed what I did then, I needed more fulfilment. That was how I started going to Radio House, known as Oxford House in Ibadan those days, to read script and participate in debate before an opening occurred in 1955. I then joined the NBC.
Each time I remember my school days, they bring back old memories. RSS was first of its kind. Though it had boarding facilities, I did not live in the hostels because an uncle of mine lived close to the school, in Sagamu. That is the Bamtefa family. That added a lot of substance to my upbringing. The old man of the Bamtefas, we called him Baba Oliwo, the Oliwo of Soyindo, was the head of the culture and tradition of the elders society. So, instead of going to the boarding house, I lived with them at Soyindo. I learnt a lot of cultural subjects and traditional festivals there. It became the areas I took interest in. In school, white men and great Nigerians taught us. Our first principal was the late Rev. E.O Dada, while the longest serving principal at that time was the late Rev. Canon Odusanwo. He was a great disciplinarian in the tradition of the first generation principals.
What was it like then as a young carpenter-in-training?
As I said earlier, apart from the fact that those trainee carpenters were under my father, they also had their own apartments in our house. I grew up getting used to their cultures because they were from different parts of the country. There was a particular man we called, 'a man from Itakpa Country.' It was just recently I got to know that we were talking of people from Minna and Kogi area. He was interested in the culture of Itakpa, the Igunu and others. This is a masquerade-based tradition of the Itakpa people. We even have them now in some parts of Lagos. So, this man taught me songs, masquerade dances and all of that. That was how my interest in masquerade and traditions developed tremendously. These are the learning and trainings I cannot forget easily.
What culture of life did you imbibe from your parents?
My father, those days, was regarded as a settler of quarrels. I remember that every Sunday morning, friends and relations usually gathered in my father's living room to hear complaints from people. They would be trying their best to resolve the issues. The problem was either between one family and another or within the family. I grew up listening to them and knowing that they were settling quarrels. I grew up knowing my late father as a peacemaker. I think I must have picked up that culture from there because, outside of broadcasting, what I do now is peacemaking, settling and preventing quarrels. That primarily is what I do now with African Refugee Foundation. It was that kind of life I was exposed to early in life that shaped me towards what I am doing today.
What pranks did you play as a child?
I didn't play pranks as such. The truth was that if you were going to be found out for whatever wrongs done, I was afraid of being caned. My father did not spare the cane. So, instead of playing pranks people played pranks on me. When I was growing up, I liked stock fish to the extent that I would do anything to eat it. So the pranks the older ones played on me was on that. Usually, you use stockfish to eat garri soaked in water. So, they would give me garri soaked in water and watched. They would then take wood shaving in carpenter workshop and put some oil in it. They would call me and say, 'Segun, your food is ready.' They would then put the wood shaving that looked like stockfish beside the garri for me to eat. After drinking the garri properly, they would give me the wood shaving, saying, 'that is your stockfish.' They played such pranks on me. At the end, my mother would run after them saying, 'don't treat my child like that.' It was one of the innocent things they brought me up with.
When you left high school, you eventually went into broadcasting as a profession. At what point did you attend higher institution?
It was much more lately. When I left RSS, I joined ECN, now PHCN. Thereafter, I entered broadcasting. After my recruitment as a producer for TV in 1959, I was admitted to do a six month course at the Syracuse University, in the United States. It was a programme designed to train television producers and people in broadcasting, for broadcasting education. So, I was in Syracuse University in 1960 and came back in 1961. Thereafter, I took up some training opportunities with the BBC in the UK. Much more later on, I attended a management training programme at the Pittsburgh University, in the US. I think that was the series of the university-based courses that I attended. As I was doing all these courses, I was still in broadcasting. One good thing that Nigeria did for me was that when I finally retired, I was able to retire with the sustained service I had done from 1955, in radio and from 1959, in NTA. What I lived on now is the pension the NTA gives me, arising from my service from 1955 till 1987 when I retired. That was when I was appointed an ambassador and eventually served till 1993.
How did you become an ambassador?
In 1982, I attended the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Jos. Now, during the year we spent in Kuru, I met with very senior people in the public service and the military. We were charged with contemplating the progress of this nation, designing solutions to problems of Nigeria. You have to do this with very experienced people, like permanent secretaries and others. At that time, I was the zonal managing director of NTA, Enugu, from 1982-1985. During that period, my name came up from the government circle that I should go to Kuru. And the 12 months I spent at NIPSS put me in touch with all these senior government officials. By the time I came back from Kuru, I had it in mind that this nation would require my attention at a higher level.
When I returned to NTA, I left Enugu and served as the director of commercial services at NTA, Victoria Island, Lagos. It was during that period that my name came up from the head of government, Ibrahim Babangida, who had gone to Kuru too, after establishing it. When I left Kuru, I became the vice chairman of the alumni association. So, we had the opportunity of meeting with the head of state. I was nominated to serve as the ambassador of Nigeria to Addis Ababa, which is the headquarters of the African Union (then OAU). In fact, I was pleased because, for me, it was the most challenging assignment that I have ever had. I served in Addis Ababa till 1993.
How would you describe your experience in NTA and as an ambassador to Addis Ababa?
It has left me really grateful for the opportunity that existed for me in the broadcast management. And for people who understand broadcasting, radio and TV, and what broadcasting can do to the advancement of the society. The opportunity I had is unequalled. I had the opportunity to design programmes that were culturally effective for all time. It was in the NTA I had the privilege to design the Village Headmaster. When I designed it in the 60s, I never thought it would become what it then had become, a programme, which was recognised universally and became a major input into the education and enlightenment of Nigerians. And it ran on NTA for over 10 years before it was suspended.
As for the opportunity to serve as an ambassador to Ethiopia and African Union, it was a rare one. And the experience that I gained was enormous. During that period of service, Nigeria was the leading country that got involved in the liberation of South Africa.
So, I had the opportunity of relating with people like Nelson Mandela; talking and appealing to them. Sometimes, I remember sitting with Nelson Mandela and appealing to him and the rising generation of opposition, like Buthelezi and ensuring that they came together without distracting from the mission of making South Africa independent. All of these, as a Nigerian ambassador, gave me an opportunity of participating in negotiations for the freedom of South Africa. Today, after the independence, I still relate with these people.
In Zambia, on the eve of their election, I had a very strong discussion with the then president, Kenneth Kaunda, who is still very much alive. And the election was hotly contested. His opponent was a labour leader called Chiluba. The night before the election, I sat with Kaunda, in company of other ambassadors, who were with me to dialogue with him. I recalled asking him: 'Mr. President, what would happen if at the end of tomorrow this election is held and you were to lose?' Kenneth Kaunda turned to me and said, 'Mr. Ambassador, I can assure that if this were to happen, I would gladly hand over the leadership of the country to whoever wins the election.' And that was exactly what he did. He lost the election, walked out and Chiluba was made the president. These are lessons I can never forget. It was a lesson to the world that it was possible for an African leader to surrender power after a popular election conducted by him.
Kaunda did it and today, he is now on a peace mission globally where they always sought his attention. It is a great lesson to our political leaders. It was also the same period we came in contact with the former Senate President of Somalia. Where did we find him? He was in a refugee camp. He came out and said, 'Mr. Ambassador, I heard that you are the ambassador of Nigeria to the OAU then.' And I said, 'Yes.' He said: 'Well, I was the president of the Senate of Somalia before I became a refugee.' I like relating stories like these for people to know that no condition is permanent. You can be president today and a refugee tomorrow. This prompted me to put together a collection of speeches made by people into a book. It is entitled, No condition is Permanent.
How did you manage the glamour associated with celebrity?
You see, being a television person actually made me to cope well with the situation. And I enjoyed every bit of it. There was a programme we used to have on TV. We called it Take a Trip. It was a competition programme, which I ran on NTA. It was about two contestants travelling from Lagos to Calabar and going to Kano. And for every question you answered right, you would move one step in the direction. It was a very popular programme. I was the producer and presenter. At a time, during the war year; I am not sure of the date now; there was a curfew in the city of Lagos because of the problem associated with our struggle with Biafra. On that date, I broke the curfew and there were soldiers all over the place. At Iddo, they said we should halt. The person who was driving us was a very important military officer. And we were going to Victoria Island from Yaba. The officer kept saying, 'I am Major Alao.' I think that was his name. But they did not just listen to him. Then they took the touch light and put it on my face. All of a sudden, they shouted, 'Ah! Mr. Take a Trip. Please, clear the road and let him pass.' It was a programme they had watched on TV. With that, I was allowed to go through.
What prompted you into refugee activities?
I left Addis Ababa with a lot of experience I did not wish for Nigeria to lose. I have already told you about my experience in Somalia, whereby a former Senate president had to queue to take his ration of food. I served as the chairman of the African Union Refugee Commission. In that capacity, I travelled to many parts of Africa. I went to Saharawi Democratic Arab Republic, up north, which was at war with Morocco before she became recognised by AU. All the able-bodied men were at the war front fighting Morocco to give them independence. And the AU was behind them. So, one of the days I spent in the refugee camp in the south of Algeria, I discovered that only the women were left at home looking after their family. I had a lot of useful discussions with them. Then I pledged to assist them in any way I can. That was how I became a volunteer ambassador of the Sarawi DAR. It was a memorable experience for me. Happily, the SDAR has become independent and recognised by AU, even though Morocco did not. That was one of the left over assignment I was involved in.
What are your challenges?
Honestly, the challenges are always there. What we do now is to cooperate with the African Refugee Foundation to ensure that we prevent the spread of refugees in Africa particularly. Do you know that next door to us thousands of Liberian women and children are still at Orure Refugee Camp? The reason is that they couldn't go back or did not accept the invitation to go back home because they have no place to go. The people who went to Liberia are reporting to them that there is nothing to go back to. And we in Nigeria have stopped looking after them at the camp. They have no money and their accommodation have been impoverished. So, to make their lives worthwhile has become a bigger challenge to us.
Any regret in life?
I don't think I really have any because I have been a privileged person. I pray that I should be forgiven for not using all the opportunities and challenges that came my way. I think I will end up as a preacher of the gospel of peace and reconciliation. It is unfortunate that many people have misused opportunities to make peace. Therefore, I regret any shortcoming that must have occurred in my activities of life. I want to spend more time in my lifetime to convince our political leaders to change their attitude towards the poor and the society at large. We have a problem of defining what a stranger is and what an indigene is. From Jos, Plateau State to the Bakassi, Sabo community and all over the Yoruba speaking areas, we are creating a dichotomy that can result in war between the so-called indigene of a place and the so-called strangers in that place. You have people who regard themselves as indigenes and make life uncomfortable for those they have regarded as strangers. And this problem is spreading and Nigeria cannot afford another war. This is the next line of activity that AREF is drawing attention to.
Have you ever had a close shave with death?
I have had it every time. That is why I live to be grateful to God everyday. You just think of sleeping and waking up everyday. If you were able to sleep and enjoy it and after that you became conscious of the fact that you could have slept and passed on you should be grateful. Whenever I wake up, I always give thanks to God. I was 75 in March and I have never thought I would live that long.
Tell us about your family.
I have been married to Mrs. Elsie Olusola, who was an actress on the Village Headmaster. She passed on in 1993. I was in Addis Ababa then. I had to come back to Nigeria for the funeral. We had three children, Ronke, Jimmy, the only boy and Toyin. They have all grown up now with their own family. Then two years after my wife passed on, I married another woman. And this woman was my schoolmate at the Remo Secondary School. She was never married and we are about the same age. So, I asked her to come and live with me. We got married and she is now my wife. She has had two children from two people and I adopted them into my family. So, when you asked me, I would say I have three children of my own and two from my present wife.
How did you meet your first wife?
By asking this question, you have brought back old memories. She and I met on television. She was an actress and a presenter, while I was a producer. When I returned from the US in 1961 to Ibadan, I was delighted to see Elsie presenting programmes on the screen. In theatre we started performing together. That was how we became friends and eventually got married. The marriage was very popular. When reading news, she used to say, 'Here is news read by Elsie Thomas Nkunne.' Then one morning, we went to the registry and got married. She came back and the next they heard, 'Here is the news read by Elsie Olusola.' And the whole of Ibadan was agog to hear that. Later in life when she passed on, I was then reminded of an old school mate. It was my children who convinced me that they didn't want me to be alone. So, I invited her and we got married.
What attracted you to her'
She was a very tough girl and forthright. I love a woman who can communicate and speak to my understanding.
How do you relax?
After going through such an intensive interview like this, I usually take a walk. I always like to be in company of friends. My set of RSS meets every two months and the Akesan Iperu club, which we founded in the 50s, still meet. So, attending these meetings is a way of relaxation for me. It ensures a long lasting relationship with friends. And again, by sitting with a journalist, like you, to discuss things of life is another way of relieving stress. Honestly, you have made my day.
What could weigh you down and move you close to tears?
As you have noticed, I have already dropped some tears in the course of this encounter. I cherish old memories because my encounter with people is always significant to me. I always feel sad when I see people suffering and nobody is there to help, just like what I have seen in refugee camps. You see people dying on daily basis and yet the society is not bothered. Such situation is always very painful and sad. And it can move me close to tears.
What is your philosophy of life?
Wherever you are and whatever you can, lift a voice, a finger to assist anyone. Try when you can. Don't postpone it. Even if it is a wish you can communicate, try and do it because it may well be your very last encounter. And it may go a long way to save a soul.