JAMES Adesokan Ojebode was the Director of Finance and Account of the National Examination Council (NECO) and founder of the Atiba University Oyo (AUO), Oyo State. The member of various professional bodies including Chartered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria (CITN) and the Nigerian Institute of Management (NIM) spoke with GBENGA ADERANTI about why NECO was established, the corruption in the civil service and his battle with his predecessor as NECO boss, among other issues.
What childhood memories would you recall?
I was born and bred in a suburb of Oyo town, in a place called Oniyarin. I found my way to Ibadan as a houseboy, where I was collecting 15 shillings. Not satisfied with my life, I ran away to the village and one of my uncles gave me a hoe to start following him to the farm. Not satisfied again, I ran away to my maternal uncle who took me to Oyo to learn weaving and tailoring. Eventually I became a cook for a school for two years before luck smiled on me and I gained admission to Teachers’ Grade 2 college where I met some of my today’s friends.
We left that school in 1978. Incidentally; I failed the Grade 2 exams. I made a request to be posted to an Oyo village primary School, Olorioso Primary School. I was the only teacher sleeping in that school as at that time, and I learnt it is so even till today. Others used to come from Oyo and go back. I sat for my O’ level and A level exam` s in that school.
I was later posted to another school in Oyo where I sat for JAMB and gained admission into the university to read Yoruba Education at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolo University. I graduated in 1985 with Second Class Honours. I did my youth service in the then Anambra State, which comprised Ebonyi, Anambra and Enugu states.
I got civil service job in 1986. I was posted to Federal Government College, Enugu as a Yoruba teacher.
I started my postgraduate diploma in 1988. When I finished that, I went in for my master’s degree in Banking and Finance, which I finished 1990.
I wanted to go into banking industry which was thriving then. In fact, out of the 11 of us that graduated that year, seven got banking jobs. I did all I could but I didn’t get any. Not until somebody introduced me to the director of finance and supply, one Alhaji Abbass from Niger State, who made it possible for me to convert to accounts. That was in 1991.
When I left Federal Government College in 1991, I went down to the headquarters of the Federal Ministry of Education where I received training and orientation in the accounts department. I moved round the accounts units of the Ministry of Education and was later posted to head Funds; a sensitive unit of the Accounts Department.
On May 3, 1992, I was posted to Kaduna to head the Account Department. They called it the Finance and Supply Department of the National Board for Educational Measurement (NBEM). We later moved out of Kaduna due to the Zango- Kataf war which was very serious. We moved to Minna when NTEB became NECO. I worked with NECO till my retirement as director of finance till April 2017.
You said it was a northerner that eventually got you a job. Things appear to be different now because of mutual suspicion among tribes…
I take an exception to that belief, perhaps because I have moved round the country. I quite agree that things are different today. You will agree with me that individualism comes into play in whatsoever we do. I enjoyed my life in the East. Every corner in the East, I was moving round freely. If not for my interest in changing job, I would have remained in the East. The Alhaji Abbass I mentioned, that is just his nature. Everybody knew Alhaji Abbass and Alhaji Dariki. They were unique at the Federal Ministry of Education.
And what are we talking about? Except for a few cases of religious issues, northerners are very friendly. I have many of them as friends. And the belief that all northerners are Hausa/Fulani is not true. If you get to Niger State where I stayed for 27-28 years, there are Gwari, Nupe and other tribes.
If you are in a relationship or you are working with somebody from the North, you will enjoy them. I still communicate with my lecturers in the North; likewise my northern friends in the NECO till today.
The almanjari culture is gradually coming to the South West. You said that non-exposure of some northerners to western education is responsible for it. What could have been the cause in the South West with all the exposure to Western education?
What is the way out?
The so called almanjari are beginning to realise that their future is important. They have realised that there are too many of them that are begging in the north. They now look at it that the south is better. You see them around now as okada riders or beggars. But it portrays a different life style to us in the South.
Almost everywhere you go now in the South West, you see children fighting over leftovers or begging for money…
Yes, you are very correct. I do see them myself. I weep for this country. On top of it, I remember my encounter with one Area Boy. He tried to intimidate me and I said, ‘I give you one minute to disappear,’ and he left. People started laughing, meaning that he was notorious in that area. I don’t know if I’m right, but the so-called democracy, instead of dividends, it is divided that we are enjoying. The politicians are training them.
Take the Yoruba for instance. We have a culture of hard work. When we were in the village, the emphasis was on good name. For instance, if Ojebode is linked with any criminal activity, not only the immediate family, the entire community will be in sorrow. But what do you see today? You are talking of almanjari, what of those who are not almanjari, the Area Boys? You would sympathise with this community. The house where I grew up in Oyo, there was no burglary proof. The entrance door if you kicked it, it would collapse. We did not bother about burglary proof, though there were pockets of burglars.
Now the story is different. The politicians are training them, giving them guns and all sorts of things. I always tell them that this community was peaceful. Even when I was in Kaduna, I would leave Kaduna at 5:30 pm we would arrive in Oyo at 2 am, freely moving to our homes.
There was an issue when you were to become the registrar/ CEO of NECO. What really happened and how were you able to resolve it?
I was given a letter to take over from the then registrar of NECO as the head of the institution. We were so close that it was so unbelievable that one day, both of us would be at each other’s throat. Even when the announcement came, he embraced me and congratulated me for taking over from him. He had three months to go on pre-retirement leave. I was the most senior director in the organisation. He said we should meet the following Monday, by 10 am. But when I got to the office on Monday, the environment was a bit different. While some greeted with attitude, others were hostile while some others were friendly.
Later, someone came to tell me that some people from a section of the country were ganging up. I said okay, it is not a problem, because I didn’t apply for the job. Less than two hours later, a petition was allegedly written by my predecessor to the ministry, telling the minister that I was not the most senior person and that he was not comfortable handing over to me. Honestly I didn’t believe it, because we were too close.
When he came around, I brought out the petition he wrote and showed him his signature and he said it was his. When I showed him the first page, he slumped and the meeting took a different dimension. I just said, ‘Don’t allow Satan to come between us.’ That was the drama. I left everything to God, but not without some pockets of challenges here and there. For instance, the office was divided into two. At a point, I now went to see Malam Shekarau and said, ‘Let us leave this thing to God. Go and look for someone that will do this work.’ Since that time, I don’t think NECO has been the same.
What is that experience you are not likely to forget in a hurry as a civil servant?
It is one case that I would not easily forget, though there were others. Why I am saying so is this: my life is such that although I sometimes quarrel with people or shout at them, it does not last more than five minutes. You can easily read me when I’m happy and when I’m not happy. I can’t do evil or think evil about anybody. I now realise the effect of trusting human beings. I say so because some people around me that I trusted were in ambivalence. Some of them were completely against me but would be laughing. What I learnt is that human beings are not trustworthy, especially when it has to do with money.
That is why I always tell people that I don’t have interest in politics. The people that work with you, even when you want to do what God has designed you to do, would not allow you. That incident exposed me a lot more to understand human beings. Those who were close to me knew I wanted to restructure the entire organisation (NECO). I did it in such a way that in four years the NECO offices would have a turnaround. That every year, I would be saving between 1-2 billion naira. Look at the Lagos office, go and see where the NECO office is, you will bury your face in shame as NECO staff. They knew what I planned for Abuja itself, but because some of the things being gotten would stop, it was frustrated.
Why is it that we have so much corruption in the country?
It is flesh. I have answered that question so many times in the church. You see, this flesh, if you cannot fight it, it is going to be a problem. Let me give you an example: in the last five years, I have not gone out of this country. The question I always ask myself is what is in the US or the UK? The weather is not even conducive for me. If you cannot fight this flesh that people call Satan, it will be very difficult, except you work with God.
If God wants to bless you, he can go to any length. A colleague bought an N8 million car and mounted pressure on me to buy one too. You know, I drive myself from here to Abuja. I now went to Minna to buy a portion of land for N1.7 million. Six years later; I sold it for N21 million. I bought another piece of land for N2 million in 2011. If they use juju on me now, you will pay N100 million. My main business is property. I bought this place for N110,000 in 2002; this place where the hotel is built. The place was in the bush then.
People don’t understand that they are battling with the flesh. People are very covetous; they feel I want to own the whole world. They want to do this and that. All those things you want to do are vanity.
Look at the Atiba University; it was the programme of the Ambrose Ali University that we were running that gave birth to it. The person that started the university with me has fallen out with me. He doesn’t even greet me again. But he is the one God used in establishing Atiba University. Not that he has money in it. He used his tongue to say it was possible. He didn’t call it Atiba University. He said we could establish a university and all we needed was some piece of land, and I had 100 acres. It was 100 hectares that was required but I thought it was 100 acres, so I thought the land was enough. That was how we collected form. We later discovered in the paper given to us that the requirement was 100 hectares. We had to run back to the village to go and buy more. That was how we started.
Even the immediate family members were laughing at me when we mooted the idea of Atiba University. For 15 years, we were on it, eventually victory came. Because people don’t believe in working with God, they run ahead of God. That is why there is corruption everywhere. Society forces the politician to be corrupt. Nobody is born a criminal; the society encourages corruption.
At the time you wanted to start Atiba University, did you envisage the proliferation of universities in Nigeria?
If I knew, I would not have gone into it. We are suffering. In Oyo State alone, we have about seven private universities. But we still thank God. The purpose and idea was not for money. Just like this place (hotel),
I thank God for using me to contribute my quota for the growth and development of this community and I will continue to be grateful to God. But honestly, if I knew that this would be the situation, I would not have gone into it.
You so much believe in your faith. How do you resolve it when your faith comes in conflict with your profession?
As an accountant, accountability and transparency is my watchword. But most often, the problem with an accountant is that he is never a boss. You take instructions from your boss. There are many times your faith will clash with your work. What you do most cases is to retire to faith again, telling God, ‘See my heart, see my hand, see everything about me.’ Sometimes when you don’t compromise, your life is in danger; people could do anything.
At the time you started NECO, was it necessary since we had WAEC?
It was necessary for two major reasons. I defended it at the National Assembly. The first reason was to provide jobs for Nigerians. I left 3,480 staff by the time I retired. I’m aware that after my exit, they still employed about 500. They should be talking about 4,000 staff today. Secondly, WAEC arrogated the power God didn’t give them to themselves, to the extent that if NECO had not come on board, only God knows what would have happened.
Let us start from exam fees. Before 1999, WAEC was charging N5,000. It was that year they wanted to increase the fees. In fact, they had already written to the minister then, Comrade Ola Oni, increasing the fees to N7,500. It was that that made Comrade Ola Oni to invite our own registrar, the registrar of WAEC, Prof. Olu Aina and one other person to go and sit down to really see what each candidate should pay. They came up with N2,000. We were to charge N1,000 and the government would give us the balance of N1,000, which never came anyway.
If by 1999, WAEC was to charge N7,500, that was about 21 years ago, only God knows how much each student would be paying to write school cert exams today. The competition was worth it except that it brought down the standards of the exams.
Nov 7, 2020 @ 13:46 GMT