“What a man can do, a woman can do better” is one popular but controversial saying that has generated a lot of row within the African society. Women mostly parrot this phrase to take a stand, announce their presence and desire for a particular place or position in a bid to be accepted to the fold and eliminate informal discrimination. But a new courage emerged in the power women can wield in a society to find their place and status, in a rapidly changing environment like Africa with the emergence of Tejumade Alakija as the first woman in Africa to attain the office of Head of Service.
With this appointment, Tejumade raised the silent voices of African women courtesy of her academic prowess, diligence to service and the faith and confidence reposed in her by the former governor of the old Oyo State, the late Chief Bola Ige, under whom she emerged.
The great ‘Mama’ Tejumade Alakija, daughter of the late Sir Adesoji Aderemi, former Ooni of Ife, was born on May 17, 1925 in Ile-Ife into one of the most ancient and also distinguished royal families in Nigeria. Princess, as some fondly refer to her had her early education at Aiyetoro Primary and Central Schools, Ile-Ife from 1933-1937 and also at Kudeti Girls’ School, a private boarding school in Molete, Ibadan.
Tejumade obtained her B.A. Honors (History) at Westfield College, University of London, England, between 1946 and 1950. She then proceeded to Oxford University, where she received a post-graduate Diploma in Education 1950-1951. Alakija was a member of the G.D.H. Cole Group, a body well reputed for its intellectual and international activities.
While she returned to the country, she joined the Nigerian Civil Service and was a foundation staff member and one of the only two Nigerian staff members at the time. She was posted to Queen’s School, Ede, then a new government girls’ secondary grammar school, between 1951 and 1953.
In 1953, Tejumade founded a Girls’ Secondary Grammar School at the invitation of the Anglican Mission in Ijebu-Ode Diocese, Western Region of Nigeria. This School, which is now in Ogun State, is classified as Category ‘A’ and several of its old girls are highly successful professionals in various walks of life.
Between 1956 and 1958, she taught at Abeokuta Grammar School and assisted in establishing a five-year programme for the School Leaving Certificate to replace the existing six-year programme. She rejoined the Western Nigeria public service as an Assistant Secretary and was later posted to the Western Nigerian office in London, England, where she gave new direction to the Student’s Affairs Department in England. Back in Nigeria from 1960-1962, she became an Assistant Secretary (Finance) at the Ministry of Works, and then training officer in charge of the region’s Public Service Training Programme.
Tejumade, the natural first as she was being referred to by Labanji Bolaji, a writer, was the Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Trade and Industries in the region from 1962 to 1964. She was later appointed Secretary of Commissions Committee on Development of Training in the Western Region Civil Service and also Committee on Technical Education in Western Nigeria.
The first daughter of Oba Adesoji Aderemi became the Chief Investment Officer in the Ministry of Trade and Industries in charge of industrial promotions and establishment of many major industrial projects now flourishing in the five states of Oyo, Osun, Ondo, Ekiti and Ogun, which made up the old Western State.
Tejumade served as Deputy Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Health (1976-1978). As the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education, 1978 to 1979, she helped straightened the central admission system. In the Second Republic, she rose and served as Head of Service of the Old Oyo State, the first female to attain such office in Africa in the modern bureaucracy. By this achievement, Tejumade has surpassed the record (another first for the west) created by Mrs. F. Akintunde Ighodalo, when she became the first female permanent secretary in the Nigerian Civil Service in April 1968.
After a period of long and exemplary service rendered to the society, Tejumade voluntarily retired on September 30, 1983, with distinguished awards, appointment and honours for her services.
She bagged a Member of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (MFR) in 1980; Honorary Doctorate Degree in Administration by the University of Lagos, 1992, Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council, University of Abuja, 1993-1997; Oyo State Merit Award for Outstanding Performance and other impressive contributions to the development of the public service in Western Region and Oyo State of Nigeria. She also participated in the Political Reform Conference as a member.
The Princess, who claimed she enjoyed the support and co-operation of her colleagues while in service, asserted her success and chances to pure experience and her ability to cope with the load of work meant for her desk and her interaction with people to be able to hold responsibility.
While some people opined that her success in the civil service might have one way or the other connected to her father’s influence, she did not allow that to deter her career and reacted by refreshing the memory of her critics. “When I first joined the service in the former Western Region in 1957, I was one of only three graduates employed, instead of 10 required at that time. Was it because I am a daughter of Ooni? The harsh colonial laws forbade women from being accepted in the permanent service and so I resigned to take another teaching appointment in a secondary school at Ijebu-Ode.
“I was outside Western Region Civil Service for eight years before I decided to come back again in 1958. The Western Regional Public Service placed an advertisement for a job for which I applied. They were looking for candidates who hold honorary degree. I was the only person who attended the interview. Was that the influence of my father?” she submitted rhetorically.
At one of her interactions with a journalist as the Oyo State Head of Service, she was asked if she would deliver as a warrior because traditionally, people thought that the cumbersome work of a Head of Service could only be effectively carried out by a man.
She replied by reasoning that it is not only men that could deliver. She said, “women can do this. Women also have qualities. We are all human beings. If you educate your daughter, she reacts to learning like a boy would do. The belief of the people in the east was that if you educate a boy, he brings back returns to his family and if it is a girl she marries away and this would not bring returns to the family. For example, if I was not educated, I could not have become what I am today. We are all human beings.”
Actually, the mentality of not training a girl child was that of our fore fathers, a way of life which Oba Adesoji Aderemi ignored. Meanwhile, Tejumade also responded to Kabiyesi’s encouragement with the result that she was one of the earliest Nigerian ladies to obtain a degree at the University of London in the early 40s. Like her name implies, she kept her eyes on the crown by her emergence on the highly rated bureaucratic seat.
Unknown to so many people, the lady’s career was not without hiccups, it was not all bed of roses as assumed by some school of thoughts. Though there was a serious alarm when she got to the peak of her career, her shiny energy was everywhere, she was the talk of the town among both gender and women were singing her praises. Meanwhile, at a particular time, a number of promotions were made in the senior administrative cadre of the former Western Nigeria civil service, her name was not in the list, even when some of those behind her on the seniority list were promoted. But she never relented, she kept the fire burning until she got there.
Describing her as a workaholic bureaucrat while she was appointed head of service, a top civil servant who pleaded anonymity talked enthusiastically about Tejumade. He said: “If you serve under Mrs. Tejumade Alakija, she would work all your energy out of you but you will be happy for doing so. The atmosphere under which you work will be conducive; she will laugh with you and you would even want to ask for more work even though you are tired. She is not the lazy type.”
When she got to know about this remark, she said: “I know I work people hard but I work myself harder.” No wonder, while her boss then, the late Chief Bola Ige, acknowledged that “what a man can do, a woman can also do.”
One of those things you may not know about the career woman was that while she was in active service, she never handled any domestic chore; she employed the service of house helps. This, she noted herself, while she was asked how she coped with the cumbersome office work, and the home front.
“I have a lot of house helps. I don’t do anything at home after my office hours” she said.
Moreover, when she founded her school in 1954 under the Ijebu-Ode District Church Council, she made sure that the teacher prepared their lesson notes, updated them and submitted them to her directly. She wasn’t merely looking at the content; she was also interested in the former. This is because, if a teacher is not organised, he or she is not going to know how to present a subject; he or she won’t be able to transfer knowledge to a student, or anyone for that matter. She believed if a teacher has a properly planned out format, one is then able to transfer almost 90 per cent of that to one who receives it. If 90 per cent of knowledge is transferred and students are able to take in 50 per cent and above, that is fair in her estimate.
With her experience and background, she wanted only qualified teachers engaged to teach the students and their preparation, she opined, must be rigorous, maintaining strict standards of excellence in education, so that educational institutions in Nigeria would be able to rival even those in the west.
She postulated that teachers must be controlled and for punitive measures, put in place so that anybody caught and proved to be involved in examination misconduct In the country is decisively dealt with, that there should be no pardon for anybody.
During her active years as a civil servant she never believed women were discriminated against but rather that they did not come out in great numbers like men. Though her notion about that seemed to have changed as she said, not long ago, that the way women are treated in Nigeria is appalling and appeared to be an example of man’s inhumanity to man.
“One man treats the other offensively, simply because of difference in colour, religion and gender. It seems to be a natural phenomenon of man’s desire to ‘lord it over’ someone else. Nigeria, for instance, has not dealt fairly with women and the issues regarding them, to a certain extent, but I think it’s now up to women to fight for what they want, improve in what they already have. And I believe that women are ready to take up this challenge. Women in Nigeria are involved in many things,” she said.
In 1974, she was the officer in charge of reviving industrial operations which was financed by the Western Regional Government. She spent eight years in the industrial sector and was responsible for initiating the Iwopin Mill, NIROWI, now scrapped and the Cocoa Industries Limited (CIL).
Tejumade shared the belief that things were alright in the country when Nigeria was operating three regions. “Things were easier to manage then. And what is presently left for the resource areas in terms of remuneration is not as much as when there were only three regions,” she said.
Madam Tejumade Alakija, except from the history she made as the first African women to be the Head of Service, has been and remained a point of reference not only for the women folk but for all bureaucrats, as virtually almost all the states in the western part of the country has immortalized her in the minds of civil servants as somebody to be emulated. For all appointed Head of Services at any time of their inauguration, Tejumade’s name must be echoed to them. She had shown that it is possible to have positive life ambitions achieved with focus, determination and commitment.