Akin Orebiyi was a Resident Electoral Commissioner for five years, serving first in Ondo State and later in Lagos. This artiste, journalist and civil society activist, in this interview, discusses his experience as a high level electoral officer during the Prof Jega and proffers ideas on how the business of election management can be better handled going forward. He also speaks about his foray into farming and says government is not matching word with action in that sector. It’s a good read any day.
You were a state resident electoral commissioner during the 2011 and 2015 general elections, how has it been?
Well, it was an interesting experience
When you say ‘interesting’, what exactly do you mean?
You know, the Chinese would say, ‘may you live in interesting times’. Interesting times refer to challenges of everyday life and also being able to overcome the challenges. So those were the experiences I underwent when I was in INEC for five years.
First of all, the manner in which I got there was also interesting. I did not solicit or apply for the position. I was in my house one afternoon in Lagos when I got a call from a friend. He said, ‘Akin, are you interested in holding a public office? I said yes. You know, I had been in private practice all my life and I had also been very critical of people in government, but I also felt that if I got there, I would do better and also contribute my quota and show good example. So, I said yes. My friend said, ‘Don’t worry, we are working on something; we will call you back.’ A few days later, somebody called me; he happened to be someone I taught in secondary school in the 80s. He said, ‘Master, my principal said I should get somebody from the private sector, the civil society or the media who we can vouch for his integrity and has no political affiliation. And I told your friend who was also my teacher and we agreed that you would be the person.’ I said, ‘Really? What’s the post all about? Why not? Let me give it a shot’. And that was how it started. Eventually, I was invited through a phone call from the Office of the Secretary to the Federal Government in January 2011 to come and pick up my letter as the resident electoral commissioner for Ondo State.
So, from the beginning there was no doubt that you would accept it?
No. I was clear and that was because I needed to show some examples in the public sector. The phone call came on May 24, 2010, but I didn’t get the letter until January the following year.
What in your past prepared you for the job?
Many things. First of all, my father was a public officer. He was an information officer in the old western region, later Western State and then Ogun State. He was able to work with several governments in the course of his 35-year career, and I had to follow him during some his assignments. Being an information officer, he was responsible for helping to create awareness for government programmes, propagating those programmes and also enlightening the public about government programmes. It was during his time that many members of the public could not speak English, so he had to translate for them from English to Yoruba. We travelled across the western region; Ibadan was the capital of the western region at that time. We went to Oyo, Osogbo, Ekiti, Akure, Ilesha, Abeokuta. I travelled well with him to cover virtually all the six states within the region. He was also taking me around during my holidays. If it was the governor coming around, he would take me along. For instance, the installation of the Alaafin of Oyo in 1971, I was there, right on the spot at the Durbar ground at Oyo. I remember that very well. I attended quite a number of events with my father when I was very young in primary and secondary schools. So I was really exposed to how things were done then. The standards were very high then, but over the years, sadly I discovered the standards were going down. It was so sad. I remember I ran into a colleague of his years after he had passed on and he said, ‘Your father was one of those who developed the western states because he went round propagating government programmes.’ During the civil war, there were pamphlets that were sent; we translated and distributed then. There were films that were also shown then about government programmes - like family planning, people going to Mecca. I can recall that he would also be the one to run the commentaries of these films, because most of the films didn’t come with Yoruba commentaries. And he did that frequently for health, agricultural and social programmes. So I was familiar with the workings of government and was, in a way, interested and very prepared for the job.
But that’s not all. I studied Dramatic Arts. I remember he took me to Obisesan Hall at Ibadan where I watched Liberty Only in 1970-71. I watched Baba Sala, Olaiya Adejumo in 1972. So, I really fell in love with drama and I wanted to also be on the stage. Eventually, when I had the opportunity, I chose to study it. Eventually, I also found myself in the media, which also was an extension of what he did too as a media officer for the government. I worked partially at NTA Abeokuta as a freelancer in 1985 after I finished school. Then I worked at OGTV, Abeokuta, before I moved to The Guardian newspaper in Lagos for a number of years. I also worked with The Comet newspaper which was later transformed to The Nation before I went into my own advertising business. I also had my own programme on radio and television at one time or another. I also recall, in 2005, when the new pension scheme came up and people were in doubt, I started a programme on Star FM in Lagos; I called it ‘Live Belt’. I explained what the pension scheme was about and popularized it. It was sponsored by a pension administrator then.
Can you share some of your challenges at INEC with us?
First, I got to INEC on February 28, 2011, which was barely a month to the general elections. That means one had to learn a lot of things overnight. As a resident electoral commissioner, you are responsible for the conduct of elections in the state to which you are posted. So, I had to get involved with the requirements and the needs of what had to be done during elections within a very short time. So, it was training on the job I had. Interestingly, it was a time that Professor Attahiru Jega was inviting us to Abuja almost every week to get us acquainted with all the necessary things that we needed to prepare ahead of elections. It was a bit challenging because we had to commute between Akure and Abuja. So, we had to go by road for about four weeks in a row. Then you also have to get used to working endless hours. Maybe you could work from 2am, sleep for about three, four hours and at about 6am or 7am you will be up again. Then, you will also need to interact with the public, various stakeholders - as we call them: political parties, political office holders, voters, civil society, security agencies. You need to interact with them and to give them sufficient information that you are also carrying almost on the spot and that was a little challenging, initially. If it was a territory I was familiar with, it would have been a little easier, but because it was a new territory, I was learning on the job and disseminating what I was learning almost immediately. I could also recall that one of our key stakeholders was the youth corps members. On the eve of the first election, which was to hold April 2, 2011, on Friday, we posted a batch of corps members to Ilaje from Akure and when they arrived there, they were sent back. The community said they didn’t want them because they were coming from Akure and they must be agents of other parties. The corps members were sent back and the NYSC director was also in dire straits; he didn’t know what to do. I had to go out that night to appeal to them because they were going to burn down everywhere. I had earlier told some of my assistants to provide them some refreshments. Later, they were protesting and I asked my assistant: ‘did you give them what I said you should give them?’ He said no. I said why? They had travelled a long distance, some from Ilaje, Ibokoda; they were tired and hungry. So, I said ‘provide refreshment for them’. So it was done. I had to go back the second time. They had no public address system; they were about 400 to 500 corps members, so I had to raise my voice and address them that eve of election. And before we could sort things out, it was around 9-10pm and that was very distracting because it was not part of our plans for the election the next day. It was after that we now began to deal with election materials. We didn’t sleep overnight. It was about 6am–7am that the last vehicle went out with sensitive election materials.
On April 2, election took off very well in Ondo State and I started going round the state. It was when I was in Ile Oluji, at a polling station about midday, that I got a call that the election had been cancelled. Once I got that call, I knew it would be unwise for me to announce there that the election had been cancelled. I just went back to my vehicle and told my assistant that we had to go back to Akure. He said why? I said, ‘don’t worry’. It was in the vehicle on our way back that I told him that the election had been cancelled and that I would just have to go back to Abuja. There might be some protest, so we had to abandon our office to avoid being caught in any fracas. Two days later, we had to return to Abuja to re-plan the election afresh. So, those were some of the challenges. Some of them were positive, some negative, but as I have said, my experience in the media and theatre directing in which you have to direct and coordinate artistes helped, and, as you know, artistes are not the best people to coordinate (with due respect to my professional colleagues). I got that experience over the years, so I knew some elements of human management, which also helped a lot.
You also served as INEC commissioner in Lagos; how would you compare your experiences in Lagos and Ondo?
Well, maybe what I should say was that in Ondo, as I said earlier, I was supposed to make some marks. When I got to Ondo, after the general election, which I believe went well, by June that year I looked at what I had done in three months and I was ashamed of myself. I told myself, ‘Look, you have five years here, what you have done in three months is just an election, what would you leave behind?’ So, I began to work on the physical structures we had there and also on the personnel with trainings on ICT. We had some laptops that were not in use, so with the support of the ICT head and admin, we brought out the ones we were using to start trainings for virtually all members of staff in ICT. By the time I left Ondo three and half years later, I could say that over 80 per cent of the over 400 staff members had become ICT compliant to a level. They could send email, type their reports and send to me and do other things they could do with the laptop. In fact, after the 2012 governorship election, I bought for my electoral officers – 18 of them - laptops to upgrade their ICT usage. We also had training in health management, fire and safety. A lot of training programmes which really, I think, also helped me to become more and more familiar with the system on ground and also to elevate their status. By the time we conducted the 2012 governorship election, we introduced a number of things that had not been experienced in INEC before. With modesty and humility, I would say that, with my team, we were able to implement one or two things which are still in use in INEC today. One of them, I recall, we called it at that time SSS (I cannot remember the meaning now). The intention was to be able to monitor, to the last point, every single ballot paper. In Ondo State; there are 3,009 polling units across 203 wards and 18 local government areas. I told them that in spite of all our preparations, if we didn’t know what was happening - whether election materials had got to each polling unit on election day - our work would be useless. To ensure this, we came up with the idea of having some members of staff to call those on the field to monitor and report back. And through power point we were able to design a programme for all the 3,009 polling units, across 203 wards and 18 local government areas. There was a monitoring room to that effect and we had about 36 people in the room, two for each local government, calling officers in the local government areas and sending reports so that once election materials arrive in one particular local government, we would know and tick it off. And when they were also leaving in the evening - we call it reverse logistics - they would call as they were moving back from the polling unit to ward, local government area and state. We were able to monitor everything clearly. It was innovative; it was new; it was fresh and successful. When Professor Jega saw it, he was impressed with it and it was adopted at the national level. That was in 2012. In 2015, it was called Electoral Operations Monitoring System and they now implemented it nationally. Till today, it is being implemented. That was one of the things we did. There were two or three things we did which are being used in the country till today. So, I think those were the things that the Jega commission saw in me and when they were doing posting for 2015 election, by the time the posting came by December 23, 2014, I got a letter that I should proceed to Lagos. I think those were reasons I was posted to Lagos.
How was the Lagos experience?
Interesting too, but I need to be careful because I don’t want to be seen praising myself. I think we also saved money during the 2012 election. We returned about N9million to the INEC headquarters. We also paid the about 9,000 ad hoc staff and the security personnel who worked for us on time. We did all that we needed to do; logistics was fine - we arrived polling units early. I also need to say this: we were able to study what were done well in past elections and what were not done well. Edo was ahead of us by three months; Edo election was on July 14, 2012, Ondo election was in October 2012. In fact, I brought the head of operations in Edo to be my chief of staff for the election in Ondo. So we learnt from them. When Ekiti also conducted their election, we learnt from them. Interestingly, I have lived in Lagos for 25 years. Though I was not from Lagos, I knew the state like the back of my palms and that helped me. I got to Lagos State at a time when there were tensions: there were issues with voter card distribution; quite a number had not got theirs; quite a number had their names missing on the register. So, as soon as I resumed there, one of the problems I noticed was that there was no face to INEC in Lagos State. Somebody should be held responsible for what was going on. I couldn’t find any, so I took up that responsibility. I went round the media; having worked in the media in Lagos before, I knew most of the editors. I walked round and visited virtually key media houses in Lagos, and one thing I did was to drop my personal number, so they could call me, text me 24/7 when there were issues. That was what helped. So when there were complaints, they knew who to call. And I also made sure that I was picking all their calls, replying text messages and whenever I could not do that, my assistant did. I think six weeks to the election I must have got about 5,000 calls, if not more, and we tried to respond to all of them. Putting myself to that responsibility was a challenge, but it helped to calm down tensions. I could recall that one of the directors sent from Abuja to Lagos appealed to Lagos State governor, Babatunde Fashola, then about issues we had with voter card distribution and some other registration matters. The director said, ‘what did you do to calm the tension? ’ I said maybe my training in the media also helped - my familiarity with people in the media and members of the public in Lagos State. I met the traditional leaders, religious leaders; I went to the Council of Obas and I took questions and was able to answer them and assured them. I went to several local government headquarters, I met with stakeholders and I met with security agencies and we mapped out a security plan ahead of the election. It was very tasking, I need to say, extremely tasking. And I don’t think I had handled such a huge responsibility before because Lagos State at that time had about six million voters, the highest in the country.
So, we met with security agencies, the media, the youth, civil societies and also foreign observers. I received visits from various embassies and various ambassadors. We had meetings with the United States ambassador, Danish ambassador, the AU observers, ECOWAS; all of them came and I had meetings with them.
Did you have to deal with all these people when you served in Ondo?
Yes, to some extent, but not as much as Lagos, because Lagos is more or less next to Abuja. Most of these agencies have their headquarters in Abuja. After INEC headquarters, Lagos was next. That was why all them visited. But I remember, Jeffrey Hopkins, former consular general of America, visited us in Ondo; the British High Commissioner also came. But most of them who could not visit us at Ondo came to Lagos. Even from Abuja, Professor Jega would ask me to meet some of them or attend some events on his behalf.
Looking back at the two experiences, which of the two experiences would you prefer?
It is difficult for me to say. This is because one is the development of the other. If I didn’t have one, I would probably not have been able to prepare well for the other. Ondo, for instance, is not as cosmopolitan as Lagos. I told you that due to the nature of my father’s work, I travelled to Ondo and other parts of the western region. So, to some extent, I was familiar with Ondo and I could relate with them one on one. I could tell the story of political development of Ondo State. I knew that Action Group had their first meeting in Owo at the residence of Chief Michael Ajasin, who later became the governor of the state in April 1951. I could tell the story of how political development evolved in Ondo State. So I told them I was there to uphold justice and fairness which Ondo people were known for and not to destroy those virtues. I was able to speak Yoruba with them. I related well with them at that level. I met with the traditional rulers, the local people and I was able to relate well with them. They would give me pounded yam and bush meat. (Laughs). I spent about four years there, unlike Lagos State where I spent 30 months. In Ondo, I was able to relax and have meetings with my staff. I encouraged the cleaners and gardeners to cherish their job, telling them there is dignity in labour, and they transformed the place; it was very clean. When Prof Jega came in 2012, he was overwhelmed by the cleanliness of our compound. We had lawns, flowers and a clean environment. But I didn’t have all the time to do same in Lagos before I left. It was a beautiful experience in Ondo, different from Lagos. Lagos was also beautiful in its own way.
There are speculations or allegations that state governors usually pocket state electoral commissioners so they could have their way during elections; what was your experience?
You know, I like the way you put it - allegations or speculations, and I think it is likely rested in the era of speculation, because by the time I got to INEC, Prof Jega had already put in a new thrust about responsibility, about honesty, about fulfilling our duties without compromise. He would say, ‘If you need anything, come to the commission; don’t go to political office holders’. That was what I met there, and that was what we were able to implement. I keep saying it that if you are not greedy, what was made available within the commission was sufficient for any officer at my level at that time. So we didn’t have that kind of issue. Of course, we did have interactions with state governments at various levels. And we also had a kind of governor who, to a large extent, believed in his invincibility, who was very popular and knew that his people voted for him; therefore, he needed to do nothing extra for anybody.
Which state was that?
That was in Ondo. You know, Governor Olusegun Mimiko was very popular at that time. He was so confident of himself, he said, ‘You have come here, we are not asking you to do anything for us; we are popular here, just do the right thing.’ The second week or so, the chairman of a political party came in with his secretary to welcome me. As soon as I learnt he was in the reception, I said, ‘Please wait, call my admin secretary, I will not receive you alone.’ When the secretary, Dr. Sam Awujola, came in, I invited the two political executives and we spent one and half hours with them. I asked them questions and they asked us questions. When we finished, I also told my people to send for Labour Party, ACN and all the parties - let them come and visit us. I was so open to all of them. I invited them one after the other. There wasn’t such experience of any governor bribing me in Ondo. Even in Lagos, since this republic started in 1999, it has always been governed by AD (Alliance for Democracy) which later evolved into AC (Action Congress), ACN (Action Congress of Nigeria) and now APC. So they were always very confident of themselves. Each time I met Governor Fashola it was always on the media for the public to see. It was open throughout. In fact, when I didn’t even go to see him, he said, ‘REC, I am governor of Lagos State not APC, we are talking about what will make us progress. We need to meet, let the media come.’ That was all we did throughout.
You are saying no governor ever offered you bribe?
With your experience of five years and two years as REC, would you say that INEC is truly independent?
I would say that by the time I left INEC. The results of 2015 elections would testify to that. Let me speak about Lagos State. Lagos State, in 2011, the results were 80 to 85 per cent going the way of ACN. When I came and conducted election in 2015, the election result was about 54/45 per cent. In the presidential election, for instance, President Buhari had 54 per cent; former President Goodluck Jonathan had 45 per cent. They had never seen that in the history of elections conducted in Lagos State. The same thing happened to the House of Assembly election; you have members of the PDP, APC. The same thing also for the House of Representatives election; it was about 75 to 25 per cent. It’s only the Senate that the APC had 100 per cent. Before then, it used to be 100 per cent AD or ACN or APC, but now it’s changing. So it was a keenly contested election and we tried as much as we could to be independent, fair and just to all of them. Go and check; the figures are there for you to verify. So, what the commission did under Prof Jega’s watch were some of the things he introduced; first of all, the use of voter card and the card reader machine. It was introduced to check multiple voting; two, to also ensure that it is the person who carries the card that votes. All of these were what the commission did. In addition, consistent voter education really helped to change the conduct of election in this country. 2015 elections will always be a landmark in the history of the conduct of elections since 1922 in Nigeria. That gave a lot of independence to INEC; we didn’t have to rely on politicians being able to influence results because of the introduction of technology. Two, INEC was well funded to the extent that I said that if you were not greedy, you didn’t have to ask for money from anybody to support or assist you. Third, we also created more voting points and had more ad hoc staff. In 2011, the entire ad hoc staff population in Lagos State was about 36, 000 ad hoc staff for 12,000 voting points, three to each polling units point. For the 2015 elections, we had over 50,000 ad hoc staff, 12,000 polling units, five to each polling unit. Some polling units had four ad hoc staff. So, to a large extent, we were able to cover the election a lot better. The security agencies have also stepped up. They are more committed to their work. Due to that commitment, there was less of subjectivity, partiality, of wanting to support any party. With all these, INEC had tremendous freedom, liberty, and huge independence to conduct elections in 2015 much more than in 2011. Also, it was the first time that a commission would be conducting two elections. Usually, after conducting an election, the commission is disbanded and another one will come. That benefit of conducting 2011 elections and learning from the mistakes helped to put in place new measures to conduct better elections in 2015.
You worked with Jega for five years, what can you say about him?
Prof Jega was a straightforward person; he still is. He is easy to work with. You’ll know where you stand with him, and he is so forthright. If he agrees with you, he will tell you and if he doesn’t, he would tell you, ‘REC, I don’t agree with you.’ He could be very patient. I recall the meeting of the commission with RECs. We could start our meeting at 10am and we would be there till 6pm, at times, till 10 in the evening. Each of the 37 commissioners would speak; directors would speak and he would keep taking notes and he would respond according to the notes he had taken. He would not shout anybody down. He would listen to you and give appropriate responses. And where he wasn’t sure, he would let the issue go round before he took a final decision. He is a fine administrator. We benefited from his experience as ASUU (Academic Staff Union of Universities) leader and Bayero University vice chancellor. All this experience really worked well for him when he took up the job at INEC. Don’t let us forget that he was on the electoral reform panel constituted by the late former president, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, in 2007/2008. So he was already familiar with the work at INEC before he came on board. He believes in consensus. He reaches out to a lot of people. He also has a way of commending you when you have done well: ‘REC, you have done well, now this, now that’. You will like to work with him. He may not be smiling publicly but how he handled what former minister, Elder Orubebe, did during the result collation aptly describes the true person of Attahiru Jega.
You are saying that he wasn’t compromised against Jonathan during the 2015 presidential election as some persons have been accusing him?
You know one thing about elections in our country, just as in Africa in general and Nigeria in particular, nobody dies an innocent death. Even if the person is 95 years old, it must have been the work of enemies, wizards or witches from his village. That’s the same thing with the conduct of elections. Those who won will beat their chests that it was their work that brought their success; those who lost will accuse INEC officials. Unfortunately, even when they didn’t do well in the field, they will always claim it was their work. So, those who lost will continue to claim that he was instrumental to their loss. Those who won would say he did his job and wasn’t instrumental to their success. That’s how it is and it is not palatable about work. It’s sad, because when you put in a lot of efforts and commitment to it and somebody loses and he tries to mess you up or decides to dismiss everything, it is painful. That’s painful. That’s what I found very unsavoury about the work. It is not every time that a contestant loses that an INEC official is behind it. Most times, it is not. I’m saying this because a few of our staff members at one point or the other compromised, so I won’t say 100 per cent we are very good, but the election of 2015, I will give it 80 to 85 percent.
What are the changes you would want to see in INEC?
I would still want the appointment of members of the commission - the chairman, national commissioners, resident electoral commissioners - not to be directly from the president. If you ask me, ‘by whom then?’ - I honestly do not have a full answer. Maybe it will be through a system that should involve the Judiciary and the National Assembly. Let there be various inputs from several quarters before final appointments are made. But in a case where every appointment (of national electoral officers) is done by the president, I’m not sure it is a system that ensures 100 per cent objectivity in the long run. I don’t know, but maybe we need to study how it is done in other countries. We can learn, but Nigeria is a peculiar nation; even when it works in other countries, it might not work here. But I see the need to continue to review the appointments of members of the commission - the chairman and the resident electoral commissioners. That’s one key area. I also feel there should be greater independence of financing of the operations of INEC. I know we are on the first concurrent list, but if there is a better way to do it and you don’t need to go cap in hand to the executive when you need to implement certain projects, it will help better.
A number of things that slow the conduct of elections are caused by the fact that the federal government does not have sufficient funds for that year to be able to be appropriated in the budget. And when funds are not appropriated in the budget, you can hardly get funds for projects. That’s one reason the continuous voter registration exercise could not be done until 2014, a year before the 2015 elections, and it affected the overall upgrading of the voter register. If INEC had funds, it should be done every year. It could be done every quarter like INEC is trying to do now. And not just registration exercise, a lot of activities that if there were sufficient funding and if the body is also independent of the government, to a large extent, INEC would be able to implement these projects at its own pace. Those are some of the changes I would like to see.
Furthermore, I still feel that members of staff of INEC need training and voters also need enlightenment programmes. I’m not comfortable that it is when we are close to election that we begin voter education programmes. Democracy has come and it is part of us now. And, sadly, most of those who vote are usually people who do not know what democracy is. Usually it’s when it comes to an election that politicians reach out to them, by doling out rice, beans and all of that, which is not healthy. If there were regular, good voter education, they would know that it is not about rice, beans and bread; it is about their lives. Therefore, there is need for constant voter education throughout an election cycle. If we can have sufficient funds to do that, that would be good. I still support reaching out for supports from external sources. United Nations has helped us a lot; UNDP has helped us a lot; EU; we have IFEST - International Federation of Electoral Systems; we have IRI - International Republican Institute; we have National Democracy Institute - a lot of them have helped us. This is important because democracy the way it practised today is not traditional to us; we still need to continue to learn, and if there is any support from them in terms of materials, enlightenment programmes from them, we should be able to accept them more and more. We need a lot of voter education programmes; we need to train INEC staff more; we need to have more independence in the appointment of key INEC staff, and I’m in support of upgrading the system technologically. We can have voting machines; I saw it work when I represented INEC at Dominican Republic, at the world electoral bodies’ conference in August 2015. The voting machine will reduce, to a large extent, a lot of electoral malpractices. Then Diaspora voting; let Nigerians abroad have the opportunity to vote.
Remember you said one of your motivations for going into public service was to improve what was there; would you say you achieved that?
Well, I would say yes to a large extent. I feel satisfied. I told you earlier the few things I tried to do in Ondo which was adopted at the headquarters. The first day I arrived there, after I was welcomed to the REC’s office and I addressed senior management staff, the admin secretary, HODs, as well as electoral officers, I spent over two hours going round all the rooms at the headquarters. One thing I saw to my consternation was filthiness; the offices were dirty. Each place I touched was covered in dust. I said to them, ‘This is not good, people work here, things have to change.’ So, I resumed on Monday, on Thursday we all came out for environmental sanitation; everybody must clean. When they saw me holding a broom, they said ‘no, a whole you, the commissioner.’ I insisted and said, ‘no I have to do it’. From that moment we began to clean up. I told you earlier, we encouraged the cleaners; I brought them to my office to have sessions with me. Most of their challenges were materials, some people not coming, some were overworked. Then there was that feeling of shame that they were just labourers. I tried to explain to them the need to cherish the dignity in labour and that one is a labourer or a sweeper today does not mean that one will remain so, and that there is nothing bad in being a cleaner. There was a story of a young woman who was always reported to me for not doing her work. I called her into my office and encouraged her and forgot about it. Coincidentally, she was always responsible for the corridor to my office, a very long corridor. So, I noticed that the place had become very clean. One day she helped me to carry my bag to the office and I said, ‘come back, this place is now cleaner than before’. So I gave her N1,000. She knelt down and said she had something to say. She said she wanted to thank me, that she didn’t like to do the cleaning well before, that after I spoke with them, she discovered that she began to do and enjoy it. And she took the same thing to her house. I think she stayed in a face-me-I-face-you house where they had a roaster for who cleans the corridor, bathroom and toilet. She said she wasn’t doing all that before. She said after what she learnt, she began to do it and she was enjoying it at home. And what she saw was that she now became a friend to everybody in the compound and there was peace and she felt joy going home everyday. She said she had cause to thank me and she didn’t know whether to take the N1,000 I gave her or return it. I said, ‘no, you have changed, so you should have it’. That was how far some of the things we did touched the lives of people. Not just there, they took it home. I remember I bought a lawn mower and donated it to the office. We planted flowers and everywhere became transformed. We bought furniture for offices and also ensured that we had television in each office to engage them. We also had DSTV because they needed enlightenment. I recall that when one of my colleagues came (he was resident electoral commissioner at Ebonyi or Abia), he said he was impressed by the number of furniture we had in our offices. He asked where we got the funds and I told him that they came from the little money we were getting and that we were saving and spending to get what we needed, because if they didn’t have a seat, they would not stay in the office; they would be in the corridors or on the streets and I don’t like that.
I also recall that my experience as a theatre arts practitioner was brought to bear. We started a cultural group that sang songs about the conduct of voters, political parties and stakeholders at the stakeholders’ forum. Whenever they sang, people would ask, ‘where did you get this group from?’ We told them they were INEC staff. They couldn’t believe it. I still have photographs and videos of them. I think, across the nation, it is still Ondo State that has that functional cultural performing group. They even did a CD last year. When the national commissioner, Prince Soyebi (Solomon Adedeji), came, he was really impressed. He called me and said, ‘Akin, I say you work there o.’ So these were some of the things we did at Ondo. Sadly, some of those things are no longer in practice. That’s Nigeria for you. Some of these things, if they were not institutionalized, will not be continued. But the REC who came after me also did well. Segun Agbaje did well and he did a lot of training for the staff. I’m not saying I’m the only who did well. All the staff members contributed. We also tried in Lagos. We couldn’t have so many training programmes, but I made sure that the offices were well ventilated, the ACs were put on few hours of the day. I wanted to do more things in Lagos but my time was up. If I had more time, I would have done more.
Did you regret leaving the time you did?
No. it was a five-year tenure appointment. I knew that right from when I got here. I planned my exit the very day I got in on February 28, 2011. So, by the time I left on February 26, 2016, I didn’t look back. I never went back there, until last month, about 20 months after, when the new REC invited me. So I planned my exit. I knew I had five years and I said it would be stupid of me to expect to have one extra day after five years. It was an assignment I did and left.
What have you been doing since you left INEC?
I’ve always loved to do farming. I recall that during the holidays when we were in secondary school, my parents would take us to the village from Ibadan and we helped my grandmother on the farm. I did enjoy it much. I liked the village environment. And I was always dreaming of starting something. I recall that when I was doing my National Youth Service in 1984-83 in Hadejia, in today’s Jigawa State, my friend and I (we went to the same secondary school; we did the same course at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife; we were posted to serve at Government Secondary School, Hadejia; we were so close - he is dead now) started vegetable farming as youth corps members. We were not familiar with their soups there, so when I finished youth service and returned to my village, Iboro, in Ogun State, I started farming as a secondary school teacher in 1987 for five years before I joined The Guardian newspapers, Lagos. It was the same place I went to when I left INEC. I need to say that even when I was in INEC, I had already begun to plan because I knew that, till today, government policy allows civil servants to go into agriculture. So I started on a small scale when I was in INEC, and by the time I left INEC in February last year, that’s what I have been doing. I have been more into poultry farming, rearing birds and selling eggs. I have above 10,000 birds now. We started with just 120 birds laying about three crates of eggs per day. When the demand rose, we went to 500 birds. We did very well, doing about 10-13 crates of eggs per day. When the demand rose, we went to 5,000, and from 5,000 we went to 12-13,000 birds now. It is a gradual thing. Agriculture is very interesting. First, to see an egg come out of a fowl is a thing of great joy. Nothing can equal when you plant a seed and you see a seed sprout and you have harvest at the end of the season. I have enjoyed that. So I also want to expand that by going into crop farming. We have some plantains; we also had done maize and cassava before. We have vegetables, tomatoes, pepper, but we still want to expand to piggery. There is no end to agriculture, anyway. We have had the benefit of the visit of the president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), then from Rome, in Italy. He was impressed with what he saw on our farm and he has been encouraging us. Any time he calls, he asks, ‘how is your farm?’ That will be his first question and he has not stopped giving us ideas. He encourages us on what we call agribusiness. You know, agriculture is good; it feeds you; it helps to provide jobs for youths rather than keep them on the streets, and it also puts money in your pocket.
Since the administration of Goodluck Jonathan, there has been much noise about agriculture. You are there now; can you say that the government has been as supportive as it should?
Hmmn! Your words are well framed – ‘as supportive as it should be.’ If you say, ‘has the government been supportive’, I would say yes. But if you say, ‘has government been as supportive as it should be?’ I would say no. The average farmer there is still left to the vagaries of what obtains out there; it is unfortunate. The average farmer still uses traditional methods, traditional equipment - hoes and cutlasses. No constant supply of water, no input as it should be. Agric extension officers are not there on farms. We have been here for about five years, none has visited here. It is unfortunate. Rather, who do we see? Officials from rural and urban planning (who come to say): why did you put this poultry pen there without our permission? Why do you do that? I’d say, ‘if you come here again, I’ll deal with you. We are trying to feed the nation.’ So we don’t get the right people who should be coming, scouting to see what farmers are doing on the farms. You need seedlings, what can we do for you? Equipment? Come together, let’s have harvesters, harrowers; let’s have this, let’s have that. Those are the things the government needs to do more. They do, but not on a large scale, not as well as they should be doing. Some say that government business is not agriculture, but they should be largely supportive as it is done in other parts of the world. Support the famers and also be able to buy some of the produce from the farmers. Support them when they cannot sell. We don’t even have sufficient silos, sufficient storage equipment where we could keep harvest before selling them. A lot of things that farmers are facing: no water, no roads, no good education on modern developments in agriculture. The government still has a lot to do and they have not started at all as far as I am concerned. Then about financing, if you are still struggling - like we are doing, you will not get help. I remember, a bank came to me when we just started. We had just one small pen containing about 2,000 birds. Our farm house was still under construction. We still stayed under the sun, no roofing. We asked for only N5million, they said they will come back, they never did.
What about the Bank of Agriculture?
Well, we are trying to approach them now, but I feel that they also need to do a lot of enlightenment programmes, to reach out there. An average farmer does not know that they exist; or if they exist at all, what they can benefit from them, they don’t know. They are supposed to send their officers to find out what is happening in this local government or that. For me, I will say this with all sense of responsibility: the state of agriculture is still in the last century, and to be able to catch up and compete very well with the rest of the world, we need to accelerate activities in agriculture. Now to do this, I still believe very strongly that there should be much interface between the government and practitioners in the agricultural sector. Two, I also believe that there could be a public, private partnership, where we have companies founded by farmers with some shareholding by the government. They will first of all pick one area good for one particular crop - the north is good for groundnut, east for palm nut and west for cocoa - and massively get machinery, and massively also be able to process. I am not saying government should run this (government is just a shareholder); let them get professionals from anywhere in the world to run these farms and then be able to engage many of our youth, who are roaming the streets, in this massive project. Africa must dream big and must move fast because we are behind. It is key.
So, can you say that you are in it for life?
I told you I have been in it almost all my life, because I find joy when I see things growing. I find joy seeing young people working and enjoying what they are doing. I find joy seeing them eating what they produce. I find joy when at the end of the month they are able to collect their salaries. I find joy when they are able to do something with their salaries. Nothing compares to that.
How many workers do you have?
For now we are over 20.
What keeps you awake?
Reading. I enjoy reading; I still read a lot. I used to write and I want to write again. So, that keeps me awake. When will I start writing again? You know, I told you I trained as an artiste. I’ll like to write again. I’ll like to be on stage. I would like to produce one of these films. I have been involved in TVs and film production since the 80s. I was in Wole Soyinka’s film, Blues For A Prodigal in 1985. I have worked with some of the best in the movie industry - with Yomi Sodimu, Richard Mofe Damijo, Mahmud Ali Balogun, the late Ambassador Segun Olusola, Chalk Mike, Hilda Dokubo and quite a number of accomplished artistes. I still feel occasionally that I want to go back. But now farming is so engaging.
Coming back to your question, the fact that I want to continue to expand is what keeps me awake. For now, I’m not sure whether we could plunge into taking the agric loans. I want us to stabilize for a moment so that if we put N100 somewhere, it will give us N120, then I can say, ‘give me agric loan of N9’. If I remove N9 from my markup, I still have N10. That’s the stage we are now. Maybe in two years or so, we will be confident to say, ‘yes we are ready to take the loan’. I also want to mentor a lot of others who are yearning to go into agric, not only those who are working with us but those outside. At this stage, it is what you can do to impact fellow human beings. So those are the things that keep me awake at night.