Book review: Grace and Mercy: The Autobiography of Otunba Engr ESA Oluyemi - Sina Kawonise

Autobiographies have been described essentially as ego trips. While the good ones among them can be illuminating, educative and inspirational, majority of autobiographies are dishonest, egotistical, and self advertisement of their writers. Oftentimes, they portray their subjects as flawless superhuman who did exploits in this world by virtue of their hard work, diligence, smartness and moral high ground.

The autobiography written by Otunba Engineer Emmanuel Sorinola Abiodun (ESA) Oluyemi portrays none of the above. The very title of the book, Grace And Mercy, clearly depicts the disposition of the author, vis that he was a regular, ordinary Nigerian who attained great heights and made valuable contributions to his immediate community and country at large by virtue of the grace and mercy of God. Thus, clearly absent in the whole length of this insightful book are elements of boasting, self glorification, ego tripping and impressions of moral superiority.

Providing background to the work, Engr Oluyemi stated that he was motivated to write the book to set forth the history of the community of his birth and current place of residence and to give an extended testimony of the help and goodness of God in his eventful life. On the first motive, Engr Oluyemi was concerned that if efforts were not made to write and preserve the history of his community, Atikori in Ijebu Igbo, Ijebu North Local Government Area of Ogun State, the valuable record may be lost forever. That, I must say, is great service for Atikori indigenes and historians who it should interest to know that ‘Atikori’ was adapted from ‘Atukuwo’.

Engr Oluyemi’s childhood in Idi-Ewere village, a farmstead in present Atikori, was marked by the usual village chores of helping his parents in their farming occupation, running errands for them and other senior relatives, and playing local games as well as gathering in the night for moonlight tales. A high point of life in the village was the hunting expeditions for rodents. So, as you’ll see in the early chapters of the book, there was nothing spectacular in the childhood of Engr Oluyemi.

But the significant happened when on a trip from Idi-Ewere village to the main Atikori town, he and his mother trekked 5 miles because they couldn’t find space on the only rickety vehicle they had waited for several hours. While trekking with the heavy load he had to carry on his head, out of frustration, he asked his mother: “Who are those that make motor vehicles?” And the mother answered “Mechanical Engineers”.

“I’m going to be a Mechanical Engineer”, the young Oluyemi declared. So clear was this vision, so determined was he to attain it, that in secondary school, he always wrote on all his textbooks and exercise books ‘Promising Engineer’ as suffix to his name. And razor-sharp was his focus on Mechanical engineering that when Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN) offered him scholarship to study electrical engineering (which was the corporation’s core mandate) he turned it down. Meanwhile, given his financial background he sorely needed a scholarship to see him through university education. Given his brilliant academic record as at that point, ECN had to bend its rule and allowed Oluyemi study mechanical engineering. In this, Engineer Oluyemi showed forth the virtue of focus and determination that were to define his life and character.

However, the focus and determination of young Oluyemi probably wouldn’t have taken him far on the success ladder without two key contributions by his parents. These two contributions are the discipline of his father and the encouragement and financial commitment of his mother to his education.

An incident, which I’ll like to relate in Oluyemi’s own words, happened when he was in standard five in primary school: “There then was an Arithmetic textbook, red in colour and containing only difficult exercises. Any time the teacher brought that book out, we shivered.”

“That day the teacher brought it out, wrote out the exercise on the Black Board and one could see he was so satisfied with himself that he had given us a most difficult problem. However, I cannot remember how I did it, but I got the answer in less than five minutes. He passed by me, looked at it and nodded. The person sitting next to me ... seeing I got it, pinched me and begged me to open it for him. I did, and the ‘giraffe’ process began. Unknown to both of us, Mr Okeke (that was the teacher’s name) caught us. He ... beat me so much that blood showed on my light skinned back.

“When I got to the village... the women gathered around with my mother to bemoan my lot in getting so bruised. They condemned Mr Okeke in one voice. I felt comforted, and it only remained for my father to come from the farm and decide what he would do to the offender. I was so expectant. Then came my father. I bared my back to him. He shouted at my mother and I, and said I was being properly trained!!” (pp 20 - 21).

Rather than join the pity party of indulgence, the father scolded both the young Oluyemi and his emotional supporters. Thence we saw a glimpse of the parental discipline that is sine qua non to success in life. Earlier, Engineer Oluyemi recounted how his father never came to his aid whenever older boys in the village bullied him in their play around the little community. To the senior Oluyemi, it was all part of growing up and learning to survive in all weathers.

Now, when, due to his poor financial condition, Oluyemi’s father suggested that his son learn a vocation rather than proceed to higher education, his mother insisted that Oluyemi would do ‘akogbacar’ - that’s he would study to the point that he would earn a car - which, in those days, was a big deal. That indeed came to pass when a few months after graduating from the university his employers gave him his first personal car.

Thus, the combination of the parental discipline of his father and the financial commitment of the mother helped the focus, brilliance and determination of the young Oluyemi to become what he became. Herein lies the first visible grace and mercy of God in his life; for none of us chose the parents that gave birth to us. God that wanted Oluyemi to succeed in life brought him to the world through parents whose beautiful combination helped him realise his ambition of having good education.

God indeed helped Engineer Oluyemi right from his childhood. And early too did Oluyemi recognise the existence of God and the need to seek Him. The first visible sign of spirituality showed in him in 1956 when the young Oluyemi, barely 13 years old, fasted and prayed to gain admission into secondary school.

Another evidence of faith in God and His commandments showed in 1959 when Oluyemi, on the way to Ijebu-Ode General Hospital for routine dressing of a serious sore on his leg, gave out the very money for his treatment to a beggar who asked him for help. This generosity played out in another significant way when he took upon himself, as President of Rotary Club, Ijebu-Igbo District, to sponsor Dr Babatunde Ipaye through medical school. Ipaye is currently Commissioner for Health in Ogun State.

The testimony of his sacrificial giving in God’s vineyard in the construction of Anglican Church cathedral and vicarage on portions of his land in Atikori, particularly the incident of his physical labour, preparatory to the actual building, are noteworthy examples of Christian obligations in kingdom service.

Beyond philanthropy, Engineer Oluyemi showed admirable faith in and commitment to God in his refusal to join any occult or engage in demonic practices to reverse his financial setbacks at some point in his life. He stood his ground even when some influential person declared to him that the money he needed was in the hands of Satan!

In like manner did Oluyemi resist the lure of filthy lucre. In the ten years that he spent in paid employment in ECN, Oluyemi conducted himself in manners worthy of Christ Jesus that he confessed as Lord and Saviour.

Distinguished audience, kindly permit me to cite a few instances when, against the general flow, Engineer Oluyemi display strength of character and incorruptibility that were as heart-lifting as they were instructive.

On an official trip to United States of America, Engineer Oluyemi ran into the Chairman of General Electric (Nig), Chief Michael Omisade. GE Nigeria was a leading contractor to Oluyemi’s employers, ECN. When in USA, Chief Omisade made a couple of attempts to see him in his hotel, but Oluyemi dodged him. Later Oluyemi reported thus:

“When the Chief and I came back to Nigeria, he sent a friend of mine Larry Okunọla who then worked with him to call me and bring me to his office. I went, and I sat opposite him at his desk. He then started to express his shock that I dodged him throughout our stay in Manhattan. He spoke in Yoruba asking what I thought I was doing refusing things those on top of me had got theirs. He said what he wanted to do was to lead me to Broadway. We would then go from shop to shop and as I pointed to things he would pay for them to my heart’s satisfaction. He would arrange their transportation to me in Nigeria on his own ‘expense account’. So, what could I possibly see wrong in that? I said I was sorry if he did not like it but that is my own policy. He then said ‘ok’ and pushed a paper across to me for me to write the names of my wife and children and nominate any place on earth where I wanted them to enjoy the coming summer holiday. When I pushed the paper back to him unattended, he got up with his huge frame and stormed out of the room. My friend Larry then came in and was like someone who had just seen a ghost. He said ‘Chief is angry with you o’. I said he should help me appeal to him and in a moment, I was on the road to my office.” (pp. 104 - 105).

On another occasion, this happened:

“... one December period, I think 1976 or 1977, an expatriate officer of a company involved in a contract, I think it was contract six of Sapele  thermal power station, walked into my office bearing a big parcel. The parcel was wrapped in a beautiful gift wrapper, with a beautiful Christmas Card attached. I took the card, spread it on my desk and before the white man could depart, I told him to please open the parcel. I found that it was a cartoon of beer of those days. I requested him to open the flaps. At that time, the highest denomination of our currency was the “Muritala”, N20, notes. The carton was packed full, pressed down with mint fresh N20 notes. I told the man to cover the flaps back and please carry the gift away. His white face flushed and became red as if blood was going to rush out. In embarrassment, he carried the thing out of the small office through the general office for engineers unto the passage on 11th floor and off. The engineers in the general office burst into a loud laughter and when I came out to ask what the commotion was about, Daniel K. Kufeji, an engineer whom I really liked said he told all of them when the man walked through the general office to meet me that he was going to meet the embarrassment of his life!!” (pp. 106 - 107).

After retiring from ECN and having started his own private enterprise, another significant temptation came his way:

“As soon as I registered my company E.S.A. Oluyemi and Co, my background in the public electricity industry began to attract sources that needed the services of the company. In the Shehu Shagari republic and early into it, my friend, Otunba Ṣọla Akinyemi was in the Ogun State House of Assembly. He brought to my notice that a Federal Government work relevant to my experience was to be carried out. He directed me to Maza Maza in Apapa, Lagos. I reached Maza Maza. The whole place was flooded with politicians most of them adorning the babanriga of our Northern Nigeria brothers. The one in charge of the place called me. He laid the job before me and after a short discussion, he was convinced I could do the job.

“He them told me that it was “chairman’s job”. They would give me N40M up front. Out of this, I would immediately bring back N20M. To get the true weight of these amounts, one notes that in my last series of journeys for NEPA, my N1,000 Estacode converted to $1,550 (One Thousand Five Hundred Dollars).

“The first rush of thought that entered my mind was how I could buy a chopper, to supervise the projects and such thing. Immediately, however, the second thought came to my mind as to how I would account for the N20M I was to hand back and if I had to refund the money for any reason in the future, where will that N20M come back from. Upon that I picked my briefcase and told my interviewer that I was going to bring relevant papers, I jumped into my car and drove off Maza Maza quickly. Incidentally that (quickly) is the meaning of Maza Maza.

“I thanked my stars when Muhammed Buhari came in 1983/84 and started bundling people who got such moneys into prison for scores and decades of ‘calendar’ years.” (pp. 114 - 115).

So, as an employee and later an employer, Engineer Oluyemi neither received from nor gave bribe to anyone.

In addition to his moral disposition was his conscientiousness, diligence and hardwork in all his endeavours in public service and private business. His breathtaking travels across the length and breadth of Nigeria installing electric power equipment, sleeping on bare floor on work sites, etc marked him out as a patriotic professional committed to nation building.

Yes, Engineer Oluyemi didn’t eventually build a car as he purposed to do as a young chap on that dusty road between Idi-Ewere and Atikori, but he did invent significant engineering products that were quite useful and which brought pecuniary gains to him.

In the latter part of his life, Engineer Oluyemi made a significant occupational shift from being a professional engineer to a professional politician. And this was a defining moment in his life.

Oluyemi’s foray into the murky waters of Nigerian politics was precipitated by a summon made on him by then traditional ruler of Atikori who wanted to prove a point that he had a successful and prominent son who could be the chairman of Ijebu North Local Government in Ogun State. This move by the late Kabiyesi was an attempt to push back the snide remark by the Oba of Ijebu-Igbo that he didn’t have a qualified subject that could run for that office.

From his thriving engineering workshop in Ibadan where the Kabiyesi came to see him on the mission to draft him into politics, Engineer Oluyemi’s first response was to turn down the offer. With some persuasion by and pressure from the Kabiyesi, Oluyemi gave in to the request. He didn’t win that election, but Oluyemi made significant strides through quality appointments given him by two former governors of Ogun State, the most significant being Commissioner for Works in 2011.

But all of those came at heavy costs. His involvement in politics resulted in his not being able to directly oversee his business in Ibadan and other ventures. The business went down and Engineer Oluyemi involuntarily got on the lonely road of financial wilderness which lasted several years.

In an early part of this review, I drew attention to how a barely 13-year old Oluyemi prayed and fasted in seeking admission to secondary school. The same Oluyemi, now a full adult, a Christian, and an accomplished professional did not deem it necessary to seek God’s face in taking that monumental leap into politics. In response to an ego trip of a Kabiyesi and on the spur of the moment, Engineer Oluyemi jumped full steam into the treacherous waters of Nigerian politics.

Yet, there is no denying the positive contributions that Engineer Oluyemi’s involvement in politics has brought to our people in Ogun State in general and Ijebu-Igbo in particular. The question which I have no answer to is whether if Engineer Oluyemi had continued with his engineering profession and business, without the interruption of politics, he wouldn’t have made more significant contributions to his fatherland, his immediate community, family and friends.

Whatever, I personally have benefited from his principled politics and political mentorship.

This book is quite illuminating and inspiring. I recommend that everyone gets a copy, read, enjoy and learn.

To my uncle, brother in Christ, and political leader, I say hearty birthday.

 

 

 

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