It is usually a wonderful experience to reach the Biblical age of 70. This is the story in the home of the former Ondo State governor, late Dr Olusegun Agagu, as the matriarch of the family and former first lady of Ondo State, Olufunke Ibidunni Agagu, reaches the biblical age On Sunday April 1. In this interview with Presentng’s Deputy Editor, Sefunmi Akin , She speaks about life with her late husband, life as first lady and her regrets, among other issues Excerpts:
Q: How do you feel at 70?
I feel great. I am grateful to God. It is a privilege to attain the age of 70. I know so many people who would have wished to be this lucky but who are no more. So I think it is a good privilege and big favour from God that I am alive today.
Q: But you don’t look 70, what have you been doing?
Nothing. I think it is the grace of God. I hear people say, ‘oh you don’t look 70’ and I said I don’t know, me too I don’t understand. This Baba God has been really kind to me and I want to give thanks to Him for my youthful look and for allowing me to attain this Biblical age and I pray that He would be kind to me to even look much younger.
Q: I would love to look like you when I am 70 too. Is there any secret?
No secret (laughter). I am a very bad eater. I do all the wrong things (chuckle). When I was growing up, I ate a lot of chocolate. In fact, it was so bad at a point my grandmother would tell me that all the sweet things that I was eating would affect me and I would say, God forbid. It will not affect me. I ate a lot of candies. I ate a lot of chocolate, but I always have peace within me. I worry a lot, but somehow, I always manage to maintain my peace. I think that is a special gift from God. I am easily contented. If I have money, everybody will know. If I don’t have, I don’t grudge. I am happy all the time. You can never tell whether I’m passing through any stress or not. You can hardly tell because I try to be happy and I know it is the special grace of God that has kept me like this.
Q: What would you have wished for at 70?
My husband. I had wished he was alive because he had always said that he would love to do 70. And after 70, if the Lord wanted to take him, fine. But he really wanted to celebrate 70.
Q: So how much do you miss him?
Ah! I can’t begin to recount. In every way, he was everything to me. He was my brother. He was my mentor. He was my hero. He was my husband. He was my lover. He was my father. I lost my father, I won’t say too early because my father was only 61 years old when he died and since then, my husband stepped into his shoes and consistently carried out that fatherly role in my life. So he was my father and I miss him a lot.
Q: I understand that you and your husband were very good at dancing and…
(Laughter) Don’t mind me, I love to dance. I love music. I love dancing and he was like that too. Even before we started dating, each time we met at party, you know in that kind of settings, you will want to dance with somebody who knows the art and skill; somebody who can complement you on the dance floor. So, that was the pull. We danced a lot together. Everybody knew that we both loved dancing and till the very last minute, we were forever dancing. Once he hit the floor, you would beg him to leave.
Q: How did you meet?
We met in school. We were classmates at the University of Ibadan. He was in the Faculty of Sciences and I was in Arts, but like I said, you know in those days, it was very easy to meet. We attended party a lot and we also met a lot of people. So we met at party and somehow, we became friends and that was how it all started.
Q: So what was the attraction in him?
(Smile) He was friendly, gentle, easy-going, very kind and intelligent.
Q: How have you been able to cope with the challenges of life since his departure?
The only challenge I have was during my husband passing. When it happened, there were encomiums from people from all walks of life: Both the high and mighty and the lowly. People were trooping in, saying beautiful things about him and that kind of things comforted us. It was like everybody was over-reaching themselves to come and pay condolence visit to us. And when his body was to be brought, the plane crashed. When it happened, I saw the hand of God. The Lord saved my son. When it happened; they didn’t tell me what happened. They just said there was a hitch and they needed to change the plane, and that it would take a while. But with the way everybody was speaking, I knew there was a problem and as soon as I understood, I went on my knees. Just like Jeremiah said, I complained to God. I told him that His word says: Affliction shall not rise a second time. I told God that whatever the situation of things, I have absolute trust in His intervention that He would not make me suffer unduly and would intervene in the situation. But unknowingly to me, I was just making noise because the Lord had already done it. The incident had already happened almost two hours before I knelt down to pray. And when they came to inform me that my sons survived, I knelt down again to thank God. I said if I don’t show appreciation to God, then I am not a child of God. For God to have done that, I will be an ingrate if I kept crying and not showing appreciation for what the Lord had done for me. So that comforted me and I didn’t hold back. I held on to Him, to all His promises. The Lord said “I will never leave him or forsake him”. That is the promise of God to everybody especially the widows and the fatherless and I challenge Him every time. Fortunately, my baby was pregnant with the second child when her father died and she had planned to travel to the US and stay with her friends. I have some siblings in the US, so we decided we would go together. So she changed her plan. Instead of going to stay with friends, we decided to stay with my siblings. So while we were there, we recorded some gospel songs and every morning, we stayed in our different rooms and listened to the recordings. This helped us a lot. We listened to the lyrics of the songs and they ministered to us. Sometimes, I got emotional. An Anglican by birth and I have remained in Anglican. When I listen to some of the hymns, they minister to me from the deep inside. So those things helped me. And of course, maybe because I was away from home, because when I was in Nigeria, a whole lot of people would come around, many phone calls, people would come weeks after and some would start crying and such brings back a flush of memory. But in the US, there were not too many visitors and there was little you can say on phone. So I think that helped the healing process to be a little fast plus the grace of God. The grace of God was abundant for me and the children. He has been really awesome.
Q: Can you give us an insight into your last moment with your husband?
We had just returned from the US the previous day. It was a Thursday night. We were on holidays for a wedding. We went with some of our children and their spouses. When we woke up the following morning after our arrival, I asked him if he wanted breakfast but he said it would be better for us to have brunch because he had a meeting for 1pm. And I asked what he would like to eat to which he replied ‘Eba’. So I gave the instruction to the cook. My daughter who didn’t travel with us to the US came to drop off her daughter on her way to office. So I said to the little girl, let me take you out before grandpa wakes up. I took her to Elbano in Lekki, but I can’t remember what we went to buy. On our way back, we ran into traffic on the bridge. So by the time we came, my husband was just finishing his brunch. He said he couldn’t wait because the meeting was for 1pm and he wanted to get there before 1pm. I said okay that we would eat the rest. And I saw him off to the door and said, have a good meeting. And he never came back. That was the end.
Q: Considering the status of your late husband in the society, how can you describe the traffic of people in your home right now?
I cannot complain. Not too many people come but people are always calling. Sometimes, somebody who had never called me since I left Ondo State will just call. I am grateful because it means that even though I don’t see them as often as I should, they have not forgotten me. Out of about 200 million people in Nigeria, somebody who I met several years ago suddenly remembers there is Mrs Agagu somewhere, picks up his phone to call me, I am grateful.
Q: What is that thing you are not likely to forget about him in a hurry?
I learnt so many lessons from him. He had such an amazing spirit to forgive. He forgave easily. He never held grudges or malice against anybody. Without trying to be blasphemous, I always say Jesus Christ re-incarnated. He taught me patience. He was selfless. He would give everything. He would rather deny me than not give whoever needs whatever. He was an amazing person. He had his faults but he was a good man. When I say he was a good man, it is because I don’t know how else to describe him. He was loving. He tried to show love to everybody. He tried to help as many people as he could while denying himself. I didn’t want to leave Abuja when he was a minister. I told him Abuja was good and beautiful and you are the Minister of Power and Steel, let’s stay here. What do you want to go and do in that small state, I am from Ondo State too, but I wanted to stay back in Abuja. He said ‘I want to go back and help my people’. He said ‘when we go there, we are not going to make money, we are going there to help our people’. And you can quote me or ask any of his commissioners. He told me they are not your friends. You don’t go to them to ask for favour, you are not going there to make money, you are going there to work. So I remember a selfless man. I remember a forgiving spirit. I remember a very patient man. I remember a loving man. He shielded me away from the wickedness of men. I remember when my father was terminally ill, he said don’t tell my wife. He would not tell me the pain he was passing through as a politician.
Q: What was it like as a first lady?
As a first lady, I was there to support the governor and to help the women and the children. I tried to re-orientate the women. I wanted them to know that they could do better than just go to rallies to clap and dance. That they could stand for themselves too. We had this monthly meeting called Gbebiro during my time. What I did was to let the women know the programmes of government and how such concerned them and the children and as well how they could benefit from the programmes. We gave them Health talks and tips and we also tried to take them around to see what was being done in the various local governments. We travelled around to see what was available in different local governments so that they could tap and make a living from whatever was available in their local government areas.
Q: What do you miss being a first lady?
The fact that the women have gone back to their own ways. Well, I don’t know what they do now. I did my bit and I would have wished that somebody builds on whatever was there before.
Q: You talked about not wanting to leave Abuja when your husband was a minister, how did you feel when you wanted to leave the office in Akure as first lady?
I felt we were cheated. I felt the world was an unfair place. But if that was the judgment, what could one do? We moved on.
Q: Considering that experience, would you allow any of your children to participate fully in politics?
I think we’ve had our bit. Let someone else try.
Q: What you are saying in essence is that you don’t want your children to join politics?
We will be political by the special grace of God because this is our country. We will support anyone who is doing well. But you will agree with me that we have done our bit. My husband was deputy governor in our state. He tried. He was responsible for making Ondo State an oil producing state because of his geological background. He continued because that was what opened his eyes to what was happening in politics and tried to be more active even though, he had always been active. He was always writing position papers from the time of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. He wrote position paper for Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin and so many others. It was because he was writing position papers for Chief Bamidele Olumilua that made Olumilua invite him to come and run with him as his deputy. So he had always contributed. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo appointed him as minister of Aviation, and later minister of Power and Steel. He did his work. He tried his best. And then, he went to Ondo State to vie for the governorship seat and he left the state much better than he met it. What I am saying in essence is that my children, by the grace of God, are political. They will support in every way they can, a good candidate, but personally, I think we have done our bit. I do not want them to be full time politicians.
Q: Would that be because of your experience or you want other people to participate?
Q: From your experience, how can you describe the political system of Nigeria considering your last moment in office as first lady?
Q: As a former first lady, what can you say about the system then and now?
Don’t let me compare because I am not a politician. My husband was the politician. I supported him. I worked with him. I wanted him to succeed and he did. If you want me to comment on what is happening now, I am not happy with what is happening. Whether I am a politician or not, I am not happy with what is happening especially as an educationist. There are one or two states in this country where the children hardly go to school because their teachers are not being paid. I was in the system. I was a teacher myself. I was a head of school and I know what it means for a student to miss even a week in school not to talk of so many weeks of no academic attendance. Then, why are they learning? Nothing. You go to some of our hospitals these days, you can’t get treatment except you have money. I can’t be happy about that. I grew up in Ibadan but here I am in Lagos. I cannot stay in our Ibadan house alone because I don’t want to be kidnapped by hoodlums who will begin to demand for money I know I don’t have. I had been a victim of armed robbery before in that house and that was when my husband was still alive. Now that he is gone, why should I go and stay there and be victim of armed robbery or kidnap again? As an ordinary Nigerian, I am not contented with what is happening in the country now.
Q: So what’s happening to your NGO, HANDEF?
It’s still there and it’s still functioning. As a matter of fact, we had our programme last Friday and it was successful.
Q: Any regret at 70?
The only regret I have is that my husband is no more alive. Also, I wish I could do much more than I am doing at present for people with disabilities. It pains me to know that I can’t do as much as I was doing a few years back, but these are the realities of life and the time we live in. I am grateful to God for what He has enabled me to do and what I am still able to do. But like I said, I would have loved to do much more than I am doing at present. There are too many people suffering and it is a pity that one cannot do more than he is able to do now. It pains me to see so many people suffering and you cannot help.