Prof. Ayodele Francis Ogunye is a legend whose indelible imprints in academics and oil and gas have continued to resonate for over five decades. Ogunye is a gifted and destiny child who, despite having uneducated parents’, raised in the village yet attained greatness. He completed his secondary at 18, won scholarship to Imperial College, London where he studied engineering and became the first Nigerian in his field to earn PhD in 1970 shortly after the civil war. A committed family man. Ogunye got married early, combining marriage with education and still reached the top as he bagged a PhD at 28 and became Head of Department and a Professor at 37 before retiring at 53. His preference for knowledge and its transfer made him to endow all his gratuities which stood at N120, 000, 000 for research and grants. As he turns 80, Ogunye takes Funke Olaode and Sunday Ehigator down memory lane on his life path
What is it like celebrating 80?
I was born on July 31, 1942 in Ajabandele in Ogunye village. I feel great turning 80. And not only that, I have achieved all I wanted in the world. Two, I have set a record in my family, because my father died at the age of 67, while my mother died at the age of 73. And as you have said, considering life expectancy in Nigeria is about 52 years, which means, I have already added 50 per cent of life expectancy to my age. What else do I want? The only thing left for me in this world that I pray for, is for my two last children, Ayodele, who will be 28 in October, for him to get married, but he would do his engagement during my 80th birthday. After that, I look forward to the marriage of the younger sister, who just completed her National Youth Service Corp (NYSC). Once they get married and I see my grandchildren from them, I now believe that I am fulfilled in life.
You said you had achieved all in life. What were those things you wanted to achieve while navigating through life? And at what stage did you nurse the ambition to study Chemical Engineering?
Well, I wanted to be a professor, I am already one. It was my first year at the university; Imperial College of Science and Technology, the University of London that l made that decision. Those days, only in Imperial College that you have more than a professor in a department. There were six professors of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College in my days; three of them would only give about five lectures during their three years of stay at the university, while the other three were giving regular lectures.
But (Professor KG Dembe), the father of Chemical Reaction Engineering handled the introductory course in Chemical Engineering, and when he comes into the class, a white man in a white robe, a janitor, will follow him and when Dembe has written to the half of the board, the janitor will clean the board. I had to ask myself, why is this person so special?
He was special; he was the contract professor occupying the chair of the professor that was endowed in Imperial College by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). That was how I had the ambition of wanting to be a professor of Chemical Engineering and when I completed my PhD, I had three jobs in the country. The first was the Institute of Computer Science at the University of Lagos, the salary was 1350 pounds; the second was the University of Ife, at the Department of Chemical Technology, which was changed to Chemical Engineering the following year, which gave me a job of a lecturer Grade 2 at a salary of 1575 pounds; thirdly, Shell BP at 2750 pounds.
You had great opportunity to begin your career in oil and gas sector. Why did you prefer academics?
It was a personal decision to embrace academics and accepted the University of Ife offer. I doubt if we have many that will do that because of the salary gap. And this was because the only way I could achieve my ambition of becoming a professor which l had nurtured at the inception of my academic journey was lecture in a university. Luckily, I met a good boss. I still call him boss till today, Prof. Sanni, he was the one that gave me the letter of appointment as a lecturer.
You became a professor at a relatively young age of 36. Was it part of your plans?
Yes in a way. The next of my ambition then was not just to be a professor but a timeline. In those days, the average age of a professorial appointment was 45. After listening to the foremost statistician in this county, Prof Biya Aja, at his inaugural lecture, I promised to work hard to be a professor before I was 40. To God be the glory, I became a Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Lagos at the age of 36. So, what else in this world have I not achieved? I have very resourceful children.
Growing up, what were the building blocks that contributed to who you are today?
I was an over-pampered child. My mother was not pregnant for 16 years before I was born. So you can imagine how the woman will treat me. When I was born in the village, I am not ashamed of the village in Ajabandele in Ogunye Village. It was a rural setting where palm leaf was the roofing material. It was when I returned to the country after graduation that I changed the roofing to aluminum.
So you had a privileged beginning?
My mother gave me anything I liked. So in November 1947, I was just five years old when the Anglican Mission wanted to start a primary school in our town, Ijapara in Ijebu-Igbo. They needed to populate the new primary school. My two uncles, my mother’s immediate juniors, were lay readers in the church. So, the senior one came to the village to inform my mother that I should be one of the foundation pupils of the school. My mother objected. I was told there was a fight between him and his sister, eventually, he had his way and he took me to the town to school on November 10, 1947. The other pupils with me in the class were ten years and above my senior.
My cousins from my uncles were also older than me and it was said that I was always crying. I was living in my maternal grandfather’s house with my other cousins. My grandfather’s house was in another part of the town too though about a two-minute walk. So my aunty, the wife of my mother’s second junior brother, would make sure she coached me after school. But I will run to my father’s house, this woman will come there to pick me up and tell me that I must finish my assignment and lessons before going to play.
Have you always been a gifted child?
Not really. I am a child destined for greatness. I must say my academic beginning was rough. I was pushed to the next class and in those days, it was class one and two and standard one and two. By the time I got to Standard Two, I had improved; I was no more a bloomer. But we had to go to senior primary school in another town that had the same boundary as Ijapara. We got there and that was where my talent started to show. I was representing my school in the scripture quiz and when we got to Standard Five, the only thing was that I never came first although I was outstanding. There was a man then, who had very good handwriting. He did not allow me to come first. Luckily when we were in Standard Five, the modern secondary school started and he was not from a rich family. So, he was now transferred to the modern school, which was 35 pounds while Molusi College was charging 60 pounds, which was an elite college. It was after this man left that I became first.
You won several scholarships. How did it happen?
In those days, Government College education officers often came to our school to interview pupils and they could pick two or one, and sometimes if none qualified, none would be taken. Although this man has left, I had two other competitors who joined Standard Six. They were the children of elites, their father had been a nurse working across the country and the man decided to return home after retirement and these two boys were his children. So when Government College education officers came and they interviewed two of us, within me, I knew I would not be taken, because the spoken English of this Osinubi boy was outstanding. You will think he was born in England.
Finally, I was not taken, it was one of the Osinubi that got admitted to Government College Ibadan. So, I decided to write a common entrance examination to two secondary schools in Ijebu; Ijebu Ode Grammar School and Molusi College, Ijebu-Igbo. I passed the common entrance for Ijebu-ode Grammar school and was number one on the list of people invited for the interview.
When I got to the interview panel, the panel was headed by the principal, one Ghanaian, Mr. Nicholas and the Vice -principal NB Osisanya. Immediately I got in and standing in front of them, Mr. Osisanya asked what my relationship with Mr. Ogunye of Bola Street is and I said he is my uncle. I lied; I have never met Mr. Ogunye before.
Reacting to my response, they looked at each other’s faces and maybe because I came first, I was asked to go, and that was how I left. and I was admitted to Ijebu-ode Grammar School.
Then Molusi College is in ijebu-Igbo, and ijebu-ode Grammar School has no science laboratory but the first principal of Molusi College, late Professor Awokoya, made sure that we had a well-equipped laboratory. The fact that there are subjects not being taught in Ijebu-ode at Molusi spurred me to go to Molusi College. And at Molusi College, I was loved by my teachers. The junior teachers’ hostel was where you will find me when my other classmates will be doing the school chores. So, I had a good time at Molusi College and that is the reason I am so much involved in Molusi College affairs.
As I said, my father was rich. He provided my needs. When I was going to college in January, he would count the school fees and place them on my palms. You can also see a trusting father and he never paid my school fees twice. Unfortunately, a very bad incident happened in the late 40s. My father had planned to send me overseas to study. This was even before I started primary school because out of the children born by my big aunty, the children were dying until I was born.
You experienced a lot of setbacks before you attained greatness. You lost your father along the way. What has been your staying power?
It is power of vision, being focused and commitment. My father’s desire was to send me abroad to study. So, he was saving up to achieve that goal. When I had just started in Form 1, the total money he kept in the arctic was 1200 pounds but one of our relations stole all his savings. All my cousins live in a very big compound with everybody having his room. So my father went to his village. By the time he returned, he wanted to add more money to the ones at the arctic, that was the bank in those days, he did not see a kobo of the money he had kept.
There was a suspect and he was invited because they knew he was pilfering and was told to return the money but he refused. This man (the suspect) later became the neatest person in Ijebu-Igbo, and he was a Washerman. Whenever you give him clothes from Dolphin Estate, he would wear them to Parkview. Probably out of the money he stole from baba, he went to have a relationship with another man’s wife in another town. They killed him and kept his corpse at a T-junction. When the news got to our quarters, his siblings accused my father of masterminding the act and the district officer arrested my father. For six months he was beaten but when he did not confess to an offence he did not commit, that was when they left him off.
But by then, the brain damage had been done to the extent that when he became very sick in 1958, we had to take him to Dr. Salau’s hospital in Lagos. After about 15 months in the hospital and all the money he had been saving had been depleted, he asked that we take him back to Ijebu-Igbo. We took him back and by October 1959, he died. Before then, three months earlier, he invited me home from school and he prayed for me and all the prayers, God has heard them. His ambition was for me to travel overseas to study. Despite the fact of his death, it happened. In Form Five, my mother was able to pay for my school fees easily.
When I passed my HSC, the Ijebu-Igbo Local Council scholarship was available for me. That local council had given only a scholarship and it was given to me. That scholarship covered tuition and 75 pounds allowance. Fortunately for me, when I gained admission to Government College, the principal, even though I did not pay my school fees, did not reject me. I have a half-brother through my mother, which he had before my father married her. He told me to collect the two years fee from my mother for him to plough it into his business, produce buying, and that he would give it back to me by January 1961 when I would be resuming at Government College.
When we resumed, my brother never gave me the money though he was the one that took me to Ibadan, he never gave me the money till today. So, I was in a dilemma as I could not go back to meet my mother for another school fee. But the principal of Government College never sent us away; we were two in that dilemma. Miraculously l won the scholarship, the school fees, 42 pounds, the local government paid and 75 pounds was given to me as pocket money and out of that, I paid my friend, Adefunwa’s school fees of 42 pounds and what was left was still big money then and people started to see me in designer wears. And you can see how pleasant my days have been.
We finished the school certificate exam and the next was to travel overseas but at Molusi College, I had a very bad incident. The day we were to write the English Language examination, I abused one of my older classmates, I called him a monkey and he beat the monkey out of me, to the extent that when I got into the examination hall when I was to write A or B, I wrote both A and B questions. When our principal saw me and asked which essay I wrote, I said 7 A and B, he said I have failed. And that was what happened.
When the school certificate examination result came out, I was given a pardonable failure in English and that pushed me to Grade 2. I am sure nobody else was given a pardonable failure after me, the reason being that I was the best at Molusi College. In those days when your school has just one Grade 1 school certificate examination, you are considered a great school, except in Government College. But in Molusi College, in my class, 12 were in Grade 1 and if I had Grade 1, we would have been 13 out of the 47 of us that left that year. So, I could not apply for an overseas scholarship. Luckily, the scholarship I have could take me for my university education. So, I was okay with that.
You got married early joggling education with marital life. How did you cope?
My wife and I started dating when I was in Form 3 and 1963, she wanted to travel overseas and I said if that is the case, I needed to travel overseas myself. I wanted to study Aeronautical Engineering, but my uncle said no that I should look for another course. My senior and mentor, Prof Babajide, a former president of Chemical Engineering was studying in Medford then and he advised me to study Chemical Engineering. There was no counsellor in the schools in those days, that was how I came back to look at all available information.
How did you get to Imperial College, London?
In Britain then, there were 26 Departments of Chemical Engineering. In those days, if you wrote to England, you were sure to get your reply, at the latest one week. I wrote to all the 26 departments of Chemical Engineering. The first 25 said admission had closed and the only one that sent me a form was Imperial College. Immediately, I ran to Ibadan to fill it and asked my chemistry master, who if you had a block or stone head you would get credit to write the recommendation letter. He loved me and had been my teacher at Molusi College before moving to Government College.
When I got to Government College, he had already announced it to everybody. So I went to meet him for my recommendation letter to Imperial College and I went to drop it off at the Post Office. And within a week, Imperial College replied that the condition of my admission was that I must have a minimum of two distinctions and a B. But when the result of the GCE A level came, I had four distinctions so it was easy for Imperial College to admit me.
When I was admitted, the last hurdle was that I must have a Federal Government scholarship, because in those days the total number of Nigerians at Imperial College was about 15, who were either on Federal Government scholarship or shell scholarship. So, I applied for the FG scholarship and in those days there was still merit. We were graded on the number of As produced at HSC or GCE A level and school certificate examination.
I did the selection examination and l scored 22 points. So I was very confident that I would get a scholarship. Eventually, that year, four of us were awarded a FG scholarship to study chemical engineering and I was on top of the list. That was how I travelled to Imperial College, England. That has been my early years, I never suffered and that is the reason I did not allow my children to suffer. None will say he or she suffered.
What was the transition like for you, moving from academics to the industry?
It was never my wish to leave academia, it was never my wish. I was a political element at the University of Lagos. And it started from Ife, I served as Assistant Secretary to the then Union of Universities Teachers, and I learnt how to campaign to win from Ife. So, when I got to the University of Lagos when a new department was to be started in August 1973, four of us were to start the new department, a foreign Professor myself, a senior lecturer and two lecturers Grade 1. Along the line I got involved in campus politics or academic politics and I had to leave. I have no regrets because I made a mark in the academic community.
Would you say you have achieved all your life aspirations?
Absolutely. I have no regret. I attained the highest in my profession by becoming a professor. I have resourceful children who responded to training. While climbing the ladder, my Magodo house was built within eight months and I bought a brand new Mercedes car. Would I have done that if I was in university? To build a house, buy a new car and plan my son’s wedding all at the same time without borrowing a kobo. My children were angry initially when I left the university, but when they started to enjoy the plum of a businessman, they changed their minds. I still kept my faith in the university, mostly UNILAG because the platform made me what I am today. It was that opportunity that I was given when I was 31 years that made me popular in engineering throughout Nigeria and the world. And to show my appreciation to UNILAG, when I retired, my gratuity and pension till today have been ploughed into the Professor Ayo Francis Ogunye Trust Fund, professor of chemical engineering endowment. The endowment has about N120m today, which gives prizes, scholarships and research grants to eligible candidates every year. Part of the programme on the day of the book presentation was the endowment of prizes and research grants.
There are beliefs that Nigeria’s progress has been retarding because the gown is not providing the lead, do you agree?
It is not the fault of the gown, our government does not believe in the university system to turn around the country. In 1978, we were in a better position than China. Look at the history. What did China do, let us do the same in Nigeria? China closed their doors to importation and challenged its engineers. You must produce this and that. Academics in China are the backbone of the progress in China. When I was the president of the academy, my last address to this nation was on that. Let them give us the challenge but until we have a president that will believe in such things, Nigeria will never make progress. We have an academy of science, engineering pharmacy and many others. The government should call on them and let us close our doors to importation. You will see how this country will be transformed. So, it is not the fault of the gown but that of the town. We have first-class brains and you can never have better brains than we have in Nigeria.
How will you describe yourself outside academics?
Prof. Ogunye is a family man who loves his profession. He is a very humble person. I would like to be remembered as a professor of Chemical Engineering that singlehandedly established the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Lagos. I want to be remembered as a humane person, I do not hold a grudge, I will shout at you but in the next seconds, I have forgotten. I am also a community man.
Originally published by ThisDay