Ovation trailed the introduction of Senator Tayo Alasoadura at the State House, Abuja, during the swearing in of ministers when the presidential spokesperson, Femi Adesina, told the gathering that Alasoadura rose from being a messenger in an accounting firm to a chartered accountant, commissioner, senator and to his present status. President Muhammadu Buhari and all present applauded the transformation. In this interview, Alasoadura, the Minister of State for Labour and Employment, shares his journey from grass to grace, saying he fought poverty to succeed.
Your introduction as a former messenger attracted applause during the swearing in. How did you rise from that to your present position?
Incidentally, so many people have been contacting me, believing that I did something amazing. But I don’t see it as any unbelievable achievement if anyone knows what he is doing and is ready to work very hard. My background makes it very easy for me to do a lot of things because I’m the son of peasant farmers; my mother was a farmer, my father was a farmer. And the best thing they were able to do was to send me to primary school. I managed after so many years of staying at home to pass exam. They were not even able to make deposits for me to go to that school. However, fortunately for me, I went to a school called Ajuwa Grammar School in Akoko, Ondo State. A friend there asked me about the school I was attending, I told him that I wasn’t attending any school. So, he introduced me to the principal of the school. I was taken as a student of that school without any examination or interview. So, I rushed home to tell my parents. And I was not asked to make any deposit. The school session was already on; it wasn’t as if we were just about to resume. The policy of that school was that after three weeks of coming to class, if you were unable to pay, they would ask you to leave and look for your school fees. Knowing that my parents could not afford the school fee which was four pounds per term, I decided to try and practise what I learnt from my parents; farming. So, I looked for a land around the school and decided to plant corn and cocoyam because they were popular in our area. And that was where I was feeding myself. When I was supposed to be in class, I would be there to either work on my farm or to read. I didn’t have textbooks. But I had exercise books. What I used to do was to ask some of my friends who were lucky enough to be able to go to class to lend me their exercise books so that I could copy what they wrote, and when they were in class the following day, I would be reading what they did the previous day; on the farm. That’s where I would have my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sometimes, there were occasions when I dozed off, forgot and slept. By the time I would wake up in the night, there would be no way I could get out of the farm because there was no light. I would sleep in the bush. I would wake the following morning, take a bath and start all over again. But glory be to God, we were being allowed to take the examinations even if we were not in class. So, I would go back and take the examinations. Luckily and through the grace of God, I did well. The principal gave me double promotion, saying if I was reading in the bush and performed better than those in class, then he would do that. So, I went from Form 1 to Form 3. Again, in Form 3, I was lucky. An American Peace Corps member saw my plight and took me from the bush to his house.
The American Peace Corps is like our own NYSC. It was an educational aide to developing countries. Four pounds was for feeding and accommodation as a boarder. During our time, you hardly had what you now call day student. Everybody had to be in school. So, he took special permission to take me to his house. I started eating good food. He took custody of two of us. We started eating things like beans, yam, etc. All I ate before were corn and cocoyam. Sometimes, when we were “lucky”, especially those of us who were rascally, when we saw strayed chickens, we tried to take some protein. (Laughter) I was given another double promotion when I was in Form 4. The principal thought I was good enough and he said he knew that my parents would not be able to pay the school fees. He said he would register me in Form 4, which is SS1 now, to appreciate my hard work. He paid and registered me so that I would sit for exams with those in SS2 as his own contribution to my life. He is still alive. Through the grace of God, I took the examinations with my seniors who were in Form 6 when I was in Form 5. I was lucky again to pass. Thereafter, I tried my best to go to university. I had admissions to several universities, including a university in the United States of America, because I had a cousin who was studying there. He assisted me to get admission in a university to read Aeronautical Engineering. Maybe I would have been a pilot. I was offered that admission free tuition, free feeding, and free accommodation. But there was no money to buy the ticket to go to the US.
Was it why you opted for teaching?
Yes, that was how I decided to be a teacher. I was a teacher for 18 months. But I left because I was restless. I couldn’t continue my life without reading or progressing. So, I went to Lagos. Incidentally, I got a job. A new firm was being set up at the time and we were called for interview. Something funny happened which I will never forget. Because I didn’t have any clothe that could match for an interview, my cousin in the US sent me a pair of trousers and a sweater. I wore that sweater to the interview because I didn’t have any good shirt. You know how hot Lagos is for somebody to be wearing sweater. The man who was the chairman of the interview panel asked me why I wore sweater. I said, “Sir, it’s the best clothe that I have and because today is my birthday.” Luckily for me, the same day was the birthday of the chairman of the interview panel. Despite the fact that they wanted only one person who knew anything about accounting, I was taken because my birthday coincided with that of the chairman of the interview panel. I just went for an interview. I didn’t know what they were doing there. I had never had of the word accounting. So, I was not interviewed in such a way that I would even know what I came for. As soon as the man heard that that day was my birthday, he just decided that I should be employed. But the man who they wanted had already been employed. And he had got to Section Two of Association of Certified Accountants of England (ACCE). I was raw. I never had anything to do with accounting. So, the man told them to engage me. I was engaged. There was no chair and table. So, the firm posted me to one of their clients who was selling iron rods. For the first six months of my employment, I was in that office carrying iron rods to the vehicles – loading and unloading. I had no place to go so I had to do it. It’s not that I wanted it, because that was not my purpose for joining the company. After six months, I returned to the office. A small place had been created for me. I had to supply those doing the work with stationeries, make tea and clean tables and chairs. That was what I did for another six months. One day, fortuitously, I was going to serve the man with who I was engaged same day. He was retained in the office because he knew accounting. He was my senior when it comes to knowledge despite the fact that we were engaged the same day. I saw him filling a form. That form had a lot of Cs. Then, I asked him what the form was meant for with As and Cs. He explained to me that it was a form expected to be filled by those who had applied to be students of accountancy in England. I then begged him. Fortunately, it was only the first line that he had written his name. I asked him whether he could clear it so that I could make a photocopy of the form because it could be photocopied at that time. That was how he cleaned out his name, photocopied the form for me and I applied to be a student of ACCE. By the grace of God, three and a half years later, I was a qualified accountant because we had to do it from home. I was already used to reading at home. You were sitting for examination set in England. Nobody will come from England to teach you. You had to teach yourself. So, it was easy for me to read individually and pass. I was in a hurry during the first examination that I did because I was in a hurry to make it in life. That was the first time they would allow people to combine two sections. I decided to combine the two sections – Sections One and Two. And I passed. My friend who photocopied the form for me wrote Section Three. I, who was nobody, had one section to catch up with him. That was how I became a chartered accountant and started working for the same firm.
What happened to the people you met at the company?
Most of them left the firm because they believed that the salary we were earning was too low. But I wouldn’t say so because as a messenger and somebody who started examinations, I had to be there to continue with my studies because they would have to take money for textbooks that I used and tuition from my salary. I had little or no money left. I was eating one “boli” (roasted plantain) per day by 06:00pm for two years. And that was when I knew that in front of WAEC at Yaba in Lagos, they had the best boli there. Then, it was at YABATECH that I saw water dispenser for the first time. I would go there, open the tap, rinse my hands and fill my stomach because I knew it was that time the following day that I would eat again. But I had one grace, since I was the one making tea in the office, I bought the biggest cup because I knew that would be my meal in the afternoon. We used to serve tea once in a day. Since I was the brewer, I made my cup very big and took tea.
How much were your salaries as a messenger and as a chartered accountant?
When I started, it was 13 pounds 10 per month. When I became a chartered accountant, it was 72 pounds per month. So, it was a big leap. For my room and parlour accommodation, I was paying 10 pounds. So, I had a lot of money. There’s no way you can spend more than 10 pounds in a month for food. There was one thing I never did. In my office, we used to have the opportunity of buying a car when you become an intermediate officer, maybe a deputy director now. I refused to buy anything. I made a commitment that I would not do that until I became a chartered accountant – that I would not engage myself in any frivolity that would prevent me from studying. So, by the time I finished, I was ready to go. A lot of my mates had left the office because of looking for greener pastures. But I decided to stay to serve the people who gave me the opportunity to qualify as a chartered accountant. I had an obligation to serve them no matter the money being paid outside. Eventually, I started getting promotion. Again, I had triple promotion. I qualified in September 1974. By April 1978, I became a manager in the same firm. I was employed in December, 1968. The firm is called Balogun and Co, an accounting firm. But it’s metamorphosed over the years. Today, it is called BBC.
Recently, you marked your 70th birthday. How has this humble background shaped your personality?
I have always seen myself as poor. And that was why when I was being briefed by the directorate here (ministry), I told them there is nothing extraordinary in being a minister. So, it is better to be yourself, and not claiming to be something else. Just be yourself. I know the pains of being poor. And I believe that anybody who is poor today, if he works hard and is focused, he can make it in life. My only problem with the downtrodden, of which I’m a leader, is that our people nowadays are lazy intellectually and physically. The physical stress that I went though, the mental pain that I went through, I’m sure if it were today’s lads, they’ll start taking hard drugs and engage in other vices. The only time I ever smoked was when I was studying and I taught smoking would prevent me from sleeping, but it galvanised me into sleeping, so I just dropped it. That was the only vice which I tried, and when it didn’t work for what I wanted it to work for, to make me to be able to open my eyes and read for as long as I could, especially at weekends, I dropped it. So, it is just determination, hard work, and belief in yourself that will make you achieve what you want to achieve.
The poverty level is still on the rise; as somebody that metamorphosed from being a pauper and now a minister, how do you think poverty can be addressed in the country?
I’ve said it; everybody must have focus. I could have dropped out of secondary school, but I was determined to read. I kept on pressing, I kept on reading, I did not allow that poverty ravaging my life to take my life over; I fought it. All I did was to fight poverty, if you fight and are determined, I believe you will make it. I ask my heart nowadays, as a politician, there are youths you try to empower; some will come to you, what do you want to do? We have land; venture into agriculture. How much do you need? From my own village, about 10 of them will tell you what they need, you give them the money. You expect them to go and farm, use that money to start building up their lives. But, lo and behold, if you give them money this Saturday and come again the following weekend, they are the first set of people you will see in your house.
How did you find yourself in politics?
It was by accident; in my village then, there used to be only one councillor who represented the town in what we formally called Akure Constituency 3, and my cousin who was a retired headmaster became interested in the position and started aspiring for it but he had no money. Another politician who was my senior in school said since my cousin did not have money to run for the position, we should all support another candidate who he sponsored. It got me angry and I decided to support my cousin with the money I had. So, I came home and started campaigning for him, going from one beer parlour to another buying drinks for people in his name, doing other things to win people’s support and that was how he became victorious and won the position. That was what triggered my interest in politics.
What is your next political ambition?
None; I celebrated my 70th birthday on the 23rd of August and I thank Mr. President for appointing me as a minister. Frankly speaking, I never knew I would be appointed because I did not in any way lobby for it. Even the day my name was read on the floor of the senate, I was unaware and I doubted it because nobody contacted me either from the presidency or the security agencies. It was when I saw my name on the television screen that I believed that I was nominated. So from being a messenger to where I am today, I have no political ambition. The only ambition I have now is serving God and ensuring that younger people are brought up in the way of productivity and improving the system. I will ensure that this portfolio given to me by Mr. President brings about peace. Also, I will support my governor to go for a second tenure so that Ondo State will continue to develop.
What is your favourite meal?
I love roasted plantain (boli) a lot, and when I finally settle here in Abuja I will be eating it more often. I also like “pomo” because then when I had no money to buy meat, I went for it, and since then it has been part of my delicacies, but when it comes to real food, frankly speaking, I do not have a favourite.
You are not looking 70, what is the secret?
It is God’s grace because I am not doing anything special. I was reckless when I was younger in some ways, but not in alcohol or drugs, and despite that God still promoted and favoured me. I say it’s God because I had a friend then who never partook in all this recklessness but he died before me and here I am still living and enjoying God’s favour.
Talking about regrets, it is when my junior wife died; I had two wives. One is like my mum; she shepherded me, but hated politics. So, to be successful you have to have a woman who will stand by you, take care of your guests and make sure that you don’t make mistakes. That made me to have another wife who shared my aspiration as a politician. Unfortunately, I lost her three years ago. That has been the greatest regret of my life. Any other thing to me is normal, life is full of ups and downs.