Giving audience to her staff and visitors who had come to see her, one after the other without delay, aptly captures the rare attributes of the Iyalode of Yoruba land, Mrs. Alaba Oluwaseun Lawson. She comes across as a disciplined and consistent person. Lawson, the proprietress of Alaba Lawson Royal College, Abeokuta, Ogun State, is also the Iyalode of Egbaland, Deputy President, Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA), President, Odu’a Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (ODU’ACCIMA) and President, Federation of Business Women Entrepreneurs -Nigeria (FEBWE-Nigeria). In this interview with Femi Ogbonnikan, she recalls how much she craved an English name when she was young because she regarded as funny, some of the names Yoruba parents gave their children. She also tells how she met her husband, whose surname was Lawson (an English name); how she was crowned the Iyalode of Egbaland by the Alake, Oba Oyebade Lipede in 1999, as well as the Iyalode of Yorubaland by the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi in 2008, among others…
Tell us about your background?
My name is Iyalode Alaba Oluwaseun Lawson. I am Iyalode of Egba land and also, Iyalode of Yoruba land. I was born on the 18th of January 1951 to my Jehovah’s parents, Pa Emmanuel Abiona Jiboku (alias Jiboku tanna-tanna) and my mother, Mrs. Ruth Olabisi Aina Jiboku (nee Aderupoko-Coker). I went to St James’ African Primary School for my junior school, Idi-Ape, Abeokuta and later to Abeokuta Girls’ Grammar School (AGGS), at Onikolobo, Abeokuta, for my secondary education. I was in primary school from 1957 to 1960, and at AGGS from 1963 to 1967. From there I proceeded to St’ Nicholas Montessori Teacher Training College in England, where I studied the rudiments of Nursery and First Aid, and then primary college. And it was there I learnt about the psychic power behind these young ones. I worked briefly at Children House School, Ibara, Abeokuta and it was from there I left for England. I came back in 1975. And in 1976, when Ogun State was created it was an opportunity for me to start my own school. And that’s how I started planning to establish my own school, and it came into being when the approval was given to me in 1977.
Would you say you didn’t cut your teeth in any corporate organisation except in the education sector?
Yes, because I didn’t want to go into it. Because I didn’t like the way my father was being treated once the telephone rang my father would be off. I decided not to work for any corporate organisation. During my father’s time, all his time was being occupied, because he worked with Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN) that metamorphosed into NEPA. Once the black telephone box rang my father would be out of the home and he would not return home until we had slept. He was a very conscientious and hardworking man, which earned him the Member of the British Empire (MBE) medal in 1957 by the Queen of England. It was written in the letter given to him that it was ‘on account of distinct hardworking and integrity,’ he was given that medal. We thank God and I never worked for any corporate organisation, apart from that school I worked briefly with before I left for England.
Your parents ought to be influential and famous in Egbaland, a development which brought you to limelight. Who were they?
No! My father worked with the old ECN. My position is not because my parents were influential, not at all; but my father was well known in his place of work, as a very hardworking person and a man of integrity. Definitely, it is not because my parents were influential. My mother came from Aderupoko-Coker family. Alhough Aderupoko-Coker family is still famous in Abeokuta, my mother was very quiet; very steadfast and loving. Not because of the influence, but one thing I know is that both of them were highly principled and highly religious, because I was born into an African Church, where my father was the organist and the music composer. But later, my parents Witnesses and I am very versed in it. We were made to read the Bible day and night and to make the Bible principles guide us very well in our lives. So, that humility was in them and also, they were God-fearing parents, and that was what they have brought to bear on their children, including me.
Did anybody influence you when you were choosing your career?
Well, I wanted to go on stage as an actress, because I could mimic people, because I knew the way I was then, but my own interest was in being an actress. But when I was in England I was at the Green Park and I saw these young children whose ages ranged between three and six. They came into the park with their teachers and I could notice that those teachers didn’t even touch most of them, but they were busy talking to one another and relating with one another. And right from then, the urge to be a teacher struck me and I wondered whycouldn’t I look after these young ones? That’s why if anybody says he or she has a calling, definitely, I know it is true. If it is a real divine call, yes, would lead such a person into what the Lord has in store for him or her. It was from the moment I felt the call that I found myself at St. Nicholas. Initially, I went there to have a baby and, then I enrolled at the St’ Nicholas College. In fact, I came out with First Class Diploma in Education. We first studied First Aid and then went into the junior school and from there, into the senior school. We did all subjects, including the sensorial, which is the most important one in our workload. Sensorial period means when you get to know the senses of the children, what they can do and what they can’t do. This means, you must have studied the children individually to ensure that no child has an inferiority complex that could destroy him or her later in life. That’s what we call Sensorial, which you would have to go along with the children’s senses. This also means you would have to treat every child as he or she comes and you would have to develop the talents in them; and they are highly talented.
How did you get to be crowned the Iyalode of Yoruba and Egbaland since you have not been a trader of great influence or a notable person in the society or a successful businesswoman which are some of the criteria?
I have always been a big-time trader, even since the age of nine, with my mother. My mother was among the first set of people that went into clothing business. And from there, when she was growing a little bit older she changed into making pap (ogi). It was either they called her, ‘Mama Ologi’, or ‘Mama Ajeri’, or “Iya Ibeji”. Those were the nicknames they gave to my mother. After her was my late brother – in-law, Chief Adeyemi Lawson, who was my mentor and role model and through whom I learnt big-time trading, when he was importing ‘Mama Rice’ and tomatoe paste. All these really gingered me. And, you should know, he was the owner of the West African Breweries Limited. And from there I took up trading into different breweries, Top Beer, Star Lager, Guinness and all other trademarks you could see in town, then, including Portland Cement. Then, I was a big-time trader and, my father used to stay in my shop with one of my sisters and some other people that worked with me. But when I started the school, I went to the shop only after school hours. But, then I discovered that as my father grew older I couldn’t manage the two businesses together. Both the shop and school needed my time equally and I now opted to leave the other business when my father could no longer come to the shop, and I stayed with the school. This too was made possible by one of my account officers in UBA then, named Mr. Adegbesan. That Mr. Adegbesan called me one day and said, ‘Madam, you are making money from your trade’, because I won the best overall customer of the year, and was given a good wristwatch that was presented to me at their headquarters in Lagos. I can remember very well that the man called me and told me about how well my business was doing but that the school would be a long-lasting business and that it was going to keep my name for eternity; I still remember. It was like the Lord might have sent him to me to share that view with me. And so gradually, I decided to disengage from the trade, until my father could no longer go to the shop. I needed to pay attention to the shop because I had to go to the breweries and also, to ensure that trucks delivering the products were back in the shop, to ensure that my products were out. I now decided to face the school, and gradually, I faded away from the trade. I was a big-time trader, both in cement and breweries.
Is it true that being the Iyalode of Yorubaland entails having some mystical powers?
The only thing you put in it is the mystic. There is no mystic power behind anything, except Jehovah God. Like I told you, I was born into an African Church and my parents later became Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was trained by the Anglican. That was how I grew up, and the power of Jehovah in my life is being guided by principles of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I have children who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. All my brothers and sisters are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The first time I became Iyalode was in 1990 when I became Iyalode of Ake, a clan in Egba land. And then, on August 7, 1999, I was installed the fourth Iyalode of Egbaland by the Monarch, His Royal Majesty, Oba Oyebade Lipede, the Alake of Egbaland, then. On August 23, 2008, I was installed the Iyalode of Yorubaland by the Alaafin of Oyo, His Royal Majesty, Iku Baba Yeye, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi. When I was about to be installed as the Iyalode of Egbaland by the Alake of Egbaland, I told him, point-blank that I am a Christian. I sat outside there and they handed over to me a Bible to swear. It was all pageantry and fanfare. Everybody knew. You see, things are changing and so, there was nothing mystic about it. I didn’t go to any Ogboni temple; I sat outside where I was crowned before they called me up to the arena. I sat down and they called me to the arena and they performed the traditional rite on me and everybody there saw everything. So, there is no mystical power, and any mystical power belongs to Jehovah God. There is nothing fetish till today. Even when I was being installed as the Iyalode of Yorubaland, it was at the forecourt of Alaafin Palace Hall.
You are always enmeshed or embroiled in one controversy or another. Is it because of your fame or clout?
I may not be able to answer that, because I don’t know what can make one to be controversial, on account of one’s fame or clout. But one can’t satisfy everybody, yes! And some people will say, ‘One man’s food is another man’s poison’. Some people may not even like your face. Some people may not even like the way you behave. But they must have their own reasons and that’s why I said I may not be able to answer that question. I don’t think I am controversial. The only thing I know is that I am a discipline – minded person. You cannot just throw me by the way, here and there, no! I have my own mind and I go about my own principled life.
Why were you craving to get married to a man with an English surname?
One day, we were coming from school; about five of us were coming from AGGS. So, we heard one man calling another man ‘Mr. Kogbodoku’ and so on, like that. And so, we asked what is the meaning of ‘Kogbodoku’? We were at the Post Office Junction, by Ibara, Abeokuta, waiting to take another vehicle to our various homes and I now said I don’t like the way we, Yorubas christened ourselves, like what is the meaning of ‘Olayokun’. I now asked myself, what is Olayokun? ‘Nibo ni ola e nyokun si’ (where is your fame spreading to?) I asked a friend, ‘What is your name’? She said, ‘Tawose’? I said, me, ‘Jiboku’. I said, I don’t mind getting an English name if I could. But then, we were young. But the Lawson I got married to is from Abeokuta. The man is from Igbein, Abeokuta. They were those that were once given an English name when they came back from slavery and they took the names of their slave masters. I mean there is something in a name which God has purposed for in your life. When I heard that man calling ‘Kogbodoku’ that day, I said I wanted a good name and that’s why I wouldn’t mind having an English name. Now, just getting married to a man with an English name to me was the grace of Jehovah God. But because I insisted I wanted to get married to a man having an English name. Lawson is not an English man, but a pure Egba-bred man. He is from the late Pa Joshua Oladeinde Lawson and my mother – in-law is from the royal Giesi Ruling House in Ife, Osun State, where this new Ooni, Oba Enitan Ogunwusi hails from. She came from Ife/Okeigbo and she was formerly Nee Aderin. The brother was the Olu Oke of Okeigbo, Osun State. Her elder brother was the first Olu Oke of Okeigbo and they all come from the Giesi Ruling House in Ife. The late Ooni used to come to my late mother -in-law at the Grail Land, Abeokuta, where mama lived.
How did you meet your choice of man who bears an English name?
His family name is Olufowora, but they decided to take their own English name from their slave master, like those prominent names Nigerians with English names as Philips, George, Braithwaite and so on and so forth. And when some of them came back, like Ajayi Crowthder too, they picked the names of their slave masters and that’s why some of them can still trace their origin. I was coming from the school one day and our school van broke down. I think, I was in class five. This man now came with his car. In fact, that time all cars in Nigeria were right-hand drive. But this man now came with a left-hand drive. All of us were saying, ah! Ah! ‘This is an odd one out of all vehicles’. And he stopped by and saw our school van that broke down. He then greeted us and he asked us if we wouldn’t mind joining him in his car. I think four of us that were going far away towards Sapon, Ake and others got into his car and we thanked him. When I wanted to get down and I was the last person to get down at Ago Oko, where I lived with my parents, he asked for my name and I told him my name was Alaba. But innocently, I just went away like that. But about few months later, somebody called me and told me that somebody was looking for me with a car parked outside. I said, ‘Me’? So, I asked for his name and he told the person that he was the one that gave us lift on our way from school on the day our school van broke down. I went to see him. I said, ‘Sir, good afternoon. Thank you for the other day’. And that was how we started. And he now asked, ‘Can I come in’? But I told him he could not come in, because my parents would not allow him to come into our house. That was how the whole thing started, but not because he was Lawson, no, because you can’t pre-empt yourself with somebody you are not interested in. But I don’t know about others. To me, innocently, but that day when we were discussing about the Yoruba names that were so clumsy, I said it loud and clear that, I would prefer an English name to ‘Kogbodoku’ or ‘Olayokun’ or ‘Jiboku’. I was formerly Miss Jiboku.
Perhaps, you might have given your children English names. Did you do that?
No! None of my children has an English name. I have Akinola Adekanmi, Olaoluwa Oladipo, Babalola Oladeinde, Bolaji Ayokunle, Oluwarotimi, Oreoluwa. But one of my children christened his children with both English and Yoruba names. But to me, I don’t dabble into their affairs.
Are you a chieftain of APC?
I will never be in politics. I will never. Ask them and I am saying it loud and clear, I have never taken part in any political affairs. People do mistakenly take a community leader to be a politician. I am a vocal community leader. If anything is happening in my community I must know and we must sit down over it and see what is good for us or not. I was born in Abeokuta. Definitely, I am not a chieftain of any political party; I can’t because I call a spade, a spadeI will never see any white and say, perhaps, it is not. But I am a community leader. People misyake community leader for a politician. I am not. Ask any of the political party, I have never taken any party membership card. I have done my voter registration because that is my civic duty. Everybody must be encouraged to register so that we can know how many we are in Nigeria. But politics, no! I will prefer to keep my integrity to going into politics.
But you are very close to the incumbent Governor of Ogun State, Sen. Ibikunle Amosun, which suggests you are one of them?
Not only this incumbent governor, I have been close to all the governors. Even past military governors I have been close to all, When Abeokuta was made capital of Ogun State in 1976, I was 25 years old. I am not a politician, but people do mistakenly take me to be a politician. I am very close to Governor Amosun. I was very close to former Governor Gbenga Daniel, I was very close to Akintonde. He was the one that gave us that Commerce House, with Olofinmoyin. Everyone of them. I don’t fear anybody, except Jehovah God, who created me. If there is anything in the community and I don’t fear anybody, I will go to them and mix with them and allow them to bare their minds. Like I am now the chairman of my CDA, at Quarry Road, Abeokuta; we sit down and we talk and if there is anything that the government can come and do for us, we will go to the goverment. And that is what I have been doing all my life, in this town. And that was what has earned me Iyalode of Egbaland. I asked the then Alake, ‘Why did you make me a young person Iyalode’? He said, ‘When I am gone you would realise what I have done’. He said, ‘When the integrity of the Egbas is at stake I know you would stand up for it’. If you know what has happened since 2003 you will know that, yes, I stood up for that statement, which Kabiyesi said. Then, the Kabiyesi that day made, ‘I wanted to know I would have a worthy person when I have gone, but if you write my name in gold you would see the reason I have chosen you as Iyalode.’ So, definitely, not because of anything, I rather try to keep my peace and integrity than to join politics. I am closer to Governor Amosun and I am close to everybody.
Which implies you have reservations for politics?
I just don’t like politics.
You are blessed with promising children and if any of them comes to you for advice that he or she wants to join partisan-politics, will you encourage him or her?
Why not? Because I am not in partisan politics does not mean any of my children cannot go into politics. My baby, Oreoluwa even wanted to go for the House of Assembly and it was not his time, but he went into it and I backed him up. But one thing is that Jehovah’s time is the best. God’s time is the best. I don’t force anything on myself and I don’t force anything on my children, but you will just have to wait for Jehovah’s time, because that time things will be done steadily and successfully.
Can you remember your greatest moment in life? And what happened?
Well, the one I can recall now was when a child swallowed 5 kobo coin. When that child swallowed the coin it blocked his trachea and he started foaming. That day I wanted to travel, but my spirit told me, ‘stay around and see what is going to happen in school today’. And I called the head teacher, then, Late Mrs. Biodun Adeyemi (Aunty Biodun) and when I came in and I told her, ‘Aunty Biodun, let us be at alert today and I don’t know what is going to happen in school’. She said, ‘Ok, Aunty’. So, these children had their nap and when they woke this child up he didn’t wake up, but instead, he was foaming. The whole thing had blocked his trachea and we went straight to the General Hospital. And when they did the X-ray, we could see the coin was blocking his trachea. We were asked to go to University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan and one of the nurses attached to us from the General Hospital started giving this boy oxygen. As they set up all the surgical equipment, there came in an old woman, who just slapped the boy from behind and the coin came out. And they had already prepared all the surgical equipment at the theatre in order to commence the operation. In fact, I am still giving that testimony and I am thanking Jehovah for that wonderful intervention. We thank God. So, you can see how Jehovah could help his own people. It was very touching, extremely touching.