Monday, March 28, 2022 12:01 am
In this interview with NEHRU ODEH (AYODELE EFUNLA snapped the shots), Mrs Onanuga speaks on her life, parents, her husband and her career, spanning the media and Lagos Civil Service.
How do you feel turning 60?
It’s hard to believe I am 60 honestly. When I hear people I consider adults call me “Madam” or greet me “Good afternoon, Ma’am” – I ask myself “Am I the one they are talking to?” The truth of the matter is that age is just a number. In terms of feeling, I don’t think I feel any older than how I used to feel when I was 30, 40 or even 50. Yes, I have added on the years but, I still feel the same. I accept the fact, though, that the experiences I’ve garnered over the years count for something; life has taught me more and my perceptions have changed as I grew older, more so, having attained higher positions in my career. Then again, when I look at my children, who have also grown and are themselves, adults, I see my colleagues, my peers from secondary school, university, how different they look so, I realise that I am no longer that young person I used to be.
But I do feel good though. I feel blessed that God has been good to me. He has spared me to witness and celebrate this milestone age. I am most grateful to God Almighty. But in terms of feeling my age, not sure there’s been any significant change. Certainly, I can’t compare myself with when I was younger, when I was more nimble and agile. Nonetheless, age hasn’t debilitated me. I don’t have all those old age illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis etc. Nothing like that. I thank God.
What’s the secret to your youthful looks and good health?
There isn’t any secret per se. People sometimes ascribe a youthful look to the genes. Perhaps it is so. But for me, I have for a long time cultivated the habit of being health conscious. For instance, I eat only twice a day – breakfast and dinner. And the dinner ideally will not exceed 5 or 6 pm. I have cultivated this habit for over 15 years now, so it is part and parcel of me. Then I also ensure I do some form of exercise. And I don’t do any other thing other than brisk walking. I don’t lift weights or do anything strenuous. I just walk. I‘m used to that. Then again, I watch my diet. I refrain from eating red meat as much as possible. I eat more fish, vegetables, fruits. I love my salads, smoothies and enjoy my fruits. I do indulge myself once in a while, though. I like chocolates. But I eat them once a while in little quantities ensuring that I don’t overindulge myself. Moderation is the keyword. I also try as much as possible to rest adequately. Sleep is good for the body, after all.
You’ve done three scores so far. What has life taught you these past 60 years?
Well, life has taught me to be patient. And that what will be mine will be mine. Like the Yorubas say. “ Omi t’a o mu, ko ni san koja eni” In terms of even getting married, I remember I married in 1989, and at that time, I was 27 years old. But I knew of my schoolmates who had gotten married immediately after we left the University of Ife in 1985. During that time, once you graduated from University, the next thing your parents wanted to hear was that you’ve found a life partner. So, at the age of 27, it was like I was “on the shelf” . But I learnt to be patient, to wait for my time. And I am happy that I waited and God chose for me, as it were. Because I would say my husband walked into me. I didn’t go searching, God brought him to me; confirming the saying that God’s time is the best. Even when I now got married, having a child was another challenge. But I waited. And when God did it, it was in His own time. Ditto, when I came into the service, I was like, “where would this thing take me?” But, lo and behold, at the end of it all, my career in the service had that icing on the cake and I was appointed a Permanent Secretary. So, to me, patience is a virtue that anyone who trusts God must have. What God has ordained, He will do in His own time. And that time will be good.
You just said your husband walked into your house. How did you meet him?
Actually what happened was that a good friend of mine was about to get married. Being age mates, she was concerned that I was not hooked up with anyone at that time. I think she and her fiancé decided they would hook me up with someone and that person ended up being Mr Bayo Onanuga. We were of course introduced and, as God would have it, we took to each other, and today, the rest is history, like they say.
How has life been married to him?
Well, how else would life be when you are married to a workaholic like Mr Onanuga? I would say that it’s been a fantastic journey though. You see, my husband is a responsible family man. Not a man about town. If my husband is not at home, I know where he is, because he will always tell me. He is a responsible father. The minute he knew I was pregnant with our daughter then, he took care of me the best way he could and within the limited resources he had. My husband is somebody that would not demand so much from his wife. He is not fussy. If you ask him what he wants to eat, once he shrugs his shoulder, he is telling you that anything you make is okay for him. My husband also does not mind doing some house chores. When we moved to Lekki, for example, and for the fact that I work in Alausa, on the Mainland, wading through traffic to and from the office, I would usually leave home early and get home late, tired from the hold-up. So, it is only on weekends that I have time to take very good care of the home. But, my man shows great and uncommon understanding by taking care of himself when I’m not available. He took very good care of our daughter when she was going to school. He was doing the school runs then, ensuring that he dropped and picked her up from school. So he has sacrificed so much for us as a family, and I am grateful and thank God for that. We got married in May 1989, going on 33 years now, and there hasn’t been a day that I regretted marrying him. We do argue and have different opinions on issues at times, but it ends there. I would make my point, he would make his. But then, it would not result in rancour. We don’t get angry arguing, let me say that. We argue and we resolve it. So, it’s been a very beautiful experience for me.
You just spoke about your anxieties before your daughter came. Were you at any time under pressure from your husband’s family?
Not at all! I would also want to say here and now that the Onanuga family that I married into are very loving. They took me in as theirs. And to date, they still see me as one of them. We have a very good and amicable relationship. We banter, we gist and relate very well. I give them their due respect as my in-laws, but then, they also accord me the same. With them, no hassles at all. Yes, of course, they were concerned when a baby was not forthcoming, but it was not an antagonistic concern. It was like if there was any problem, let us know so that we can assist. And I love that about the family. I’m just blessed that I married the Onanugas. They are a beautiful close-knit family. If you have an event and you invite them, they come out to support one another. I’m happy being part of the family.
Where did you grow up and what was growing up like?
I was born March 28, 1962, in Lagos, Lawanson, Surulere to be precise. I also grew up and schooled in Surulere as a young girl. I began my primary school education in 1968 at the age of six at Methodist Primary School, Subuola Street. After the completion of my primary education, I gained admission into New Era Girls Secondary School, Suenu Close, Surulere.
My parents, both Late, were Alhaji Layiwola Abdulfatai Machado from the Brazilian Quarters of Lagos Island, and Alhaja Mistura Machado, nee Abudu from Isoyin, Ogun State. My father’s family house is on Odunlami Street, opposite what used to be known as Forester’s Hall at that time. I am the last of my mum’s five children although I have other siblings (half brothers and sisters) from my father. I lived my youth in Surulere till I got married in 1989. According to the account of my senior siblings, I was spoilt because I was the last born. But in all, our parents supported us in terms of our education. So nothing hindered our education at all. Two of my elder sisters are Medical Doctors, another was an ace news broadcaster at NTA Channel 7, (she’s late now), I graduated from UNIFE with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Studies. I garnered work experience from Newswatch Communications Ltd (Publishers of Newswatch and Quality Magazines). I was at Newswatch when I met my husband. I later joined Independent Communications Network Limited, ICNL, as an Advert Consultant after which I joined the Lagos State public service in 2002.
I must say that the decision to join the service was one of the best decisions I have ever taken in my life. It has allowed me to have a better understanding of governance and what public service is all about. As Public servants, we are implementers of government programmes, projects and agenda. Not only that, we assist in the formulation of policies, interface with the public and ensure stakeholders’ engagement. My sojourn into the service has allowed me to interact with very cerebral officers, with both technical and administrative know-how from whom I’ve learnt and gained.
Twenty years in the service and you are now about to retire. How has it been in the civil service?
It’s been challenging. It’s been fun, yet tasking. The work of the public service is unending. You solve one problem today, rest assured, another would emerge from the solution provided. You provide rail transportation for one area, traffic congestion may increase in that area due to the influx of people who wish to use the rail service provided. The government will therefore need to solve the issue of traffic subsequently. So, there’ll always be unending government interventions. The service has also afforded me the opportunity of working closely with the likes of Mr Sunny Ajose, a former and prominent Head of Service and later on Special Adviser to His Excellency, Mr Babatunde Raji Fashola,(SAN), former Governor of Lagos State. I equally worked with Her Excellency, Mrs Adejoke Orelope- Adefulire, former Deputy Governor of Lagos State, and currently, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), when she superintended over the Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, MWAPA. Before I was appointed Perm. Sec, I worked in what we call “the Engine Room of the Service”, that is, the Public Service Office, Office of the Head of Service. Here, I worked under the tutelage of fantastic Heads of Service, chief amongst whom is the current Head of Service, Mr Hakeem Muri Okunola, who we fondly call our “ Olori Ebi bam bam!”. These are very astute and distinguished personalities with dynamic leadership styles that have helped to re-orientate and mould me. I give glory to God that He made me pass through such individuals in the course of my career. I took a lot of things away from people like that.
To crown it all, I was appointed Permanent Secretary by the Lagos State Governor, Mr Babajide Olusola Sanwo-Olu on 28th January 2021 thus joining the highly esteemed and prestigious Body of Permanent Secretaries in the State’s Public Service. That, for me, was a huge honour for which I will be eternally grateful. The position brought me to the Teaching Service Commission, which is essentially charged with the recruitment and training of post-primary school teachers in Lagos State public schools. I met on the ground, a very forward-looking and dynamic board chaired by a formidable personality, a retired Permanent Secretary herself, Mrs Elizabeth Olabisi Ariyo, a seasoned administrator in all ramifications. Under her chairmanship, TESCOM has changed the face of education in Lagos State by ensuring that round pegs are put in round holes and professional teachers are engaged to teach in our public secondary schools. My experience here as a Permanent Secretary will remain indelible.
Any regrets so far working in the public service?
None at all. If anything, I wish I had more time to work in the service. It’s been very fulfilling for me to see myself working to implement this administration’s T.H.E.M.E.S developmental agenda, helping my state advance and seeing the public service continue being a trailblazer. Nothing beats that for me. Like I said earlier, the work in the public service is unending. New challenges emerge that require solutions. I honestly wish I could give more. This is a state that has, for one, ensured that I am gainfully employed, ensured that my salary never for once stopped, I have benefitted tremendously from the state. So, there is no doubt that the state has done me well and I wish I could give more. But, retire, I must, more so that it is statutory that you either retire at the age of 60 or on the attainment of 35 years in service, whichever comes first. So, once I mark my 60th birthday, that is the end of my tenure as a public servant.
I have however enjoyed the service. We’ve had fun. We have our Public Service Week, where we relax, play games. The HoS Games is there, in which public servants compete with one another, one agency with the other. We have games like football, table tennis, ayo, chess name it. We have fashion parade. We have talent hunt. So the service has a way of making itself a bubble for public servants. It is not all work. We have times that we relax and enjoy ourselves. The service has also provided an opportunity for me to meet a lot of people. I have met so many people in the course of the 20 years I have been in service. Of course, we are deployed from one ministry to another. So, once you go to another ministry, you meet new people, you meet new challenges that need to be addressed. All these are things that make the years fly past, and before you know it, you’re exiting. But, It has been wonderful. I don’t have any regrets whatsoever. I thank God that I worked in the Lagos State public service. And more so a service that is renowned for excellence. Yessooo!. We pride ourselves as trailblazers in Lagos State. The other States look up to us and take initiatives from us. They want to know how we’re doing it. So this keeps us on our toes, ensuring that we break new frontiers in all sectors because the reward for hard work is more work.
Your maiden name, Machado, sounds exotic. Could you speak on that name?
I was telling you about my father. I said my father came from the Brazilian Quarters. The Machado name, if you Google it, you’ll know it’s a Portuguese name, borne by Brazilians and quite known in that country too. Surely, you must know that some indigenes of Lagos are returnees, that is, slaves who were brought back from a foreign land to settle in Lagos. Some of such families are the Machados, the Gonzalezes, Salvadors, etc. These families bear these foreign names to date. History has it that my forebears were taken from Nigeria to Brazil as slaves. According to what we were told, their slave masters gave them the name Machado, probably as a form of identification or, because they could not pronounce their indigenous names. There is only one Machado family in the whole of Nigeria. If there is any Machado you see anywhere, I am related to that Machado. It is the same family. When I came into the service, I came in with my marital name, Onanuga. But, with the consent of my husband, I added my maiden name to my marital name, just to affirm my “Lagos-ness.”
And it’s a name that has stuck since then. Even now I am more popularly known as Machado than Onanuga. The name is very rare, unforgettable and uncommon.
You had dreams growing up. Going down memory lane, was there anything that you wanted to be that you have not become?
Yes, I did. But, I must stress that my dreams were modest. For instance, I did not have a dream of becoming the President of Nigeria someday, but then, I also knew what I didn’t want to be. I certainly dreamt of making something of my life. I didn’t want to be a school dropout. I didn’t want to beg for food in my life. I dreamt of getting a good education, being a graduate, getting married and having three children, being a source of pride to my parents. I am therefore grateful that God has enabled me to achieve these modest dreams. I don’t have three children but I have one, what if I didn’t have any? But I have those who I did not bear naturally but who call me mum because of the roles I have played in their lives. Because I have been like a mother to them. So I am fulfilled.
When I came into the service, I had a dream of rising to the peak of my career. That has also been a reality. So I am grateful. Because some people would dream and it would not come to pass Going from here now, honestly, retirement in my view should be a time to retire and rest. And I fully intend to do that- to rest. Yes, I don’t want to rest my brain. Because you need to work your brain so that you don’t become senile. To that extent, I would do what I need to do to ensure that my brain is engaged. I have found out that I have a passion to impart knowledge. I have discovered that in the course of being in the service. I have a passion to be a mentor, guiding people, to counsel people, to support people. I have a passion for that. I discovered that as part of what came to me in the course of being in the service. And I intend to do that fully because I know that I need to do my little quota to impart the society whilst I am still in this space. If it is one, two, three individuals that I can change their lives, oh glory be to God because that is more fulfilling than anything. When you see people that you have impacted their lives, you are happy, you feel fulfilled.
What was it like working with frontline journalists like Ray Ekpu, Dan Agbese, Yakubu Muhammed in Newswatch and May Ellen Ezekiel in the defunct Quality magazine?
These are very brilliant journalists that you’ve mentioned. I didn’t work with Dele Giwa because I think he had passed on before I joined Newswatch. But I worked with Mr Ray Ekpu. I worked with Mr Dan Agbese, a very brilliant writer. Of all of them, I loved Dan’s style of writing. Mr Yakubu Muhammed, Mr Soji Akinnrinade and the likes of Nosa Igiebor, though they later went on to establish TELL. Dare Babarinsa. It was fun working with them. Those are brilliant journalists. They were committed to journalism. They blazed the trail as well. May Ellen Ezekiel of blessed memory was also a very pleasant lady. May her soul continue to rest in peace. I was around when she got married to Richard Mofe Damijo. I attended the wedding. Her junior sister and I went to the Federal School of Arts and Science together. That period brings fond memories for me. I worked there for quite a several years. It was whilst working there that I got married to Bayo. After I finished my youth service I worked there for four, five years till I married. I was in the advert department then. But because I married a journalist, I took interest in journalism, as it were. And I have written one or two articles in newspapers before. There was a time I was handling a human angle column in PM News, “Dear Aunty Totty”.
What was it like married to a frontline journalist like Mr Bayo Onanuga, who spoke truth to power during the military era. How did you feel then during those challenging periods?
Bayo Onanuga is a very interesting man. You find that he doesn’t talk too much. But his willpower is as strong as steel. And if there is one Nigerian that I know I can beat my chest and say that he has not allowed position or fame or popularity to remould him, to change him, to make him cocky, that would be Mr Onanuga. I still told him recently that I appreciated one thing about him. My husband bounces ideas off me. If he has one idea, he would say, What do you think about this? And he would take in whatever suggestion or advice that I give to him. I remember the time of the military junta and when he had to flee to the United States. I had to flee our house as well to stay with a family member with my daughter. My daughter was just three or four or thereabout. I remember that those times were trying period for me. And it was not funny at all when my husband was incarcerated, was arrested several times. There was a time he almost got arrested whilst my daughter was with him in his office at Ogba at that time. So it was not a palatable period. There was a lot of anxiety, trepidations. Ladi, the wife of Mr Dapo Olorunyomi was detained with a child. It was a very tough period, especially when they were contending with the military regime at that time. But now it is all water under the bridge. We have overcome it. But what I want to say is that my husband never faltered in his beliefs. He never faltered in his faith in this country, in his faith in the sense that this country can only get better with good leadership. So he would always be on the side of what is good for the overall majority. That is the side he would stay on. And I do not doubt in my mind that this trait of his would follow him to his grave. I have no doubt. He is not ready to compromise. He was appointed Managing Director of News Agency of Nigeria. And still, till today they would call him and tell him Oga we miss you. Because his style of leadership is exemplary. He would not say something and then not do it. He would tell you this is what I want and he would show you by example that this is how I want it. So he is a leader that leads by example. And that is one quality that is rare in leadership generally.
What advice do you have for the youths, especially for the girl child?
Those growing up should know that after prayer it is the sweat of your brow that will get you there. You must work hard. All this quest, unholy, unrighteous, devilish quest for money and fame and wealth is wrong. It is an ill wind that would blow nobody good. Rome was not built in a day. I will give you an example. When I married my husband, I fetched water on my head three, four houses away. Yes, when we didn’t have water. I would sit in the backyard and wash my husband’s clothes. I would iron them. Some people say they cannot get married because they have not bought a car. I didn’t have a car when I got married. My husband was driving one jalopy car like this. The first car I ever had was won during a promo by IKB. My husband did kabu-kabu when I was pregnant with our daughter after he left Concord.
So what is the hurry? The youth of today want to blow, as they say. What are they blowing? So Yoruba people would say Ibi pelebe lati mu ole je. It is from that flat portion of the bean cake that you start eating it. So you have to start low and then grow up. We lived in a rented apartment for 11 years before we built our own house. What is the hurry now? Who is running after them? Who are they trying to impress? We the parents? No way. Because we started from that lowly place. I married into a rented apartment, a two-bedroom apartment. I didn’t think it was beneath me. I was a graduate. I never lived in a rented apartment all my life before marriage. I didn’t say, Ah you, you don’t have a house. I cannot live in a rented apartment o. No, I didn’t. So what’s the hurry? Who’s running after these kids? What does life mean to them? Where are they going with it? If they have loads of money, what would they do with it? Ask them. What do they want to do with it? The men amongst them want to buy the biggest cars, the flashiest cars and drive about town and take the most expensive drink. Is that drink not going into that same stomach that Fanta or Coca Cola or water will go into? Will that very expensive drink do their body better than water?. No. Who is running after them? Please let our youth know that if they destroy their beginning, then their latter years can never be okay. Because what they are pursuing at this tender age would only lead to destruction. They better know that they need to slow it down a bit and know that it is from their sweat and their toils that they will make it. Why is it that it is the thieves, the corrupt ones in the society that they wish to emulate? Why is it that those are their role models? Why? Can’t they look at the good ones and say, I want to be like this? I want to be like this man because he started low and he got there. Today, we are living in Lekki, but we never started living there. We lived in Oko Oba. We lived in Ogba, in a rented apartment and we didn’t die. What’s going on now. Honestly. It is disturbing to me as a mother to see the way our youth are going about their lives right now. See, how many people were educated when we were young too? How many people? Not everybody was educated. My mother was not educated. And yet she went to the market, she sold and from there she built the first house, the second and the third. She obtained loans to build houses and then she paid back. Where is the truth? Where is honesty? Where is integrity? They’ve flown out of the window?