Mrs. Olufunke Agagu is the wife of a former Governor of Ondo State, late Dr. Olusegun Agagu. In this interview with ADEMOLA OLONILUA and TUNDE AJAJA, the former first lady speaks on her life at 70 and her memorable moments with her late husband
You always wear a smile, has this always been a trait of yours or you imbibed it as you grew older?
I would say that it is an innate habit. I love to smile and I don’t know if it implies that I am showing off because I have a perfect set of teeth, but I am not the only one in my family that loves to smile. My siblings are like me; we smile a lot. I have since learnt that it is a very good thing to smile because it brightens your face and it helps you to unwind in some certain ways.
Although you are 70 years old, you look as fit as a fiddle. Could that also be the secret?
There is no secret; it is the grace of God. The truth is that I don’t do anything special and I would say that I do not have good eating habits. As a little girl, I was always picky about my meals and instead of eating proper food, I would opt for chocolates and sweets. In fact, I’m surprised that my teeth are as good as they look even though I have removed some in hidden places. I never ate right as a kid yet here I am today and people are telling me that I do not look 70. When we were trying to have a photo shoot for my 70th birthday celebration, they brought in a make-up artist. Meanwhile, that was the first time I would use a make-up artist in my life and I think it would be the only time that someone else would apply make-up on my face. All I do is to rub white powder and try to hide my grey brow (laughs). I also use all sorts of lipsticks. So, I don’t do anything special, which makes me believe that God loves me a lot. I don’t know why he loves me because I’m just like every other person, but I can see God’s hands in my life.
What are some of those things God did for you that stand out?
One exceptional case, with no disrespect at all to those who have lost people in plane crashes, was when my sons were saved in a plane crash. God saved my two sons. I did not hear about the plane crash early enough but somehow, I knew something was wrong.
You mean the crash that happened when the remains of your husband were being taken to Ondo State for burial?
Yes, that same incident. What I was told was that the plane had a delay and we would need to stay in a hotel for them to fix it. I opted for the airport lounge but my family members insisted that I go to a hotel because it would take time for them to fix the plane or they may scout for another plane. However, on the way to the hotel, my daughter-in-law got a call and she began to demand about the whereabouts of her husband. When she dropped the call, I asked her what the problem was but she said nothing. I kept asking questions but no one told me anything. When I got to the hotel, I knelt down and I spoke to God. I told God that I accepted the fact that He took my husband, but like the bible said, the affliction would not arise the second time and He would take absolute control because I trust Him that he would do the needful for me. It was later I realised that I was just wasting my time because what would have happened had already occurred, probably when we left Ibadan (for Lagos) but no one told us anything. That was my God at work. I am grateful that God saved those boys because, God forbid, how would our house have been with three widows?
Your husband’s death came as a shock to most people. What happened exactly?
We went for holidays during a friend’s daughter’s wedding in the United States. We decided that we would seize the opportunity to visit some friends and places in the US. We both did our master’s degree at the University of Texas, Houston, so Houston had always been like our second home. From Houston, we decided to take the family to Las Vegas to have some fun. We returned to Nigeria on a Thursday night and as a matter of fact, I was the one with ill health when we arrived because I had flu. I felt so sick that I could not eat on the aircraft, while my husband was very fine and he was always very meticulous about his health. So, when we returned that night, he checked his blood pressure and it was okay. I checked mine and it was high and that scared me. I quietly took my bag, went to the room and slept. The next morning when we woke up, I asked him what he wanted for breakfast, he said we should do brunch instead because he had a meeting at 1pm. One of my grandchildren came around and I took her out to a supermarket but I left an instruction that my husband must be fed before leaving the house. So, by the time I came back, he had eaten and was about heading out. Our grandchild and I walked him to the door and that was the last I saw of him. He never came back (sobs).
How did you receive the news?
I was sitting in the living room when one of my daughters came around to spend time with us. As the day went by, I was expecting him to come home but he did not come. At about 8pm I noticed that some of our children and in-laws began to troop into the house and their eyes were teary. When they were coming in, I was smiling and even asked jokingly how they timed their movement. The next person that came in was Chief (Paul) Akintelure, followed by Deji Adeleke. I asked what happened and my son broke the news to me. I asked if he was involved in an accident but all he said was that he was gone. In ignorance, I asked where he went and everyone began to cry. I asked what happened but no one answered, so I told them to take me to where he was. Of course, no one answered me. I asked Chief Akintelure what happened because they went for the meeting together, he then informed me that my husband slumped. I must have repeated the sentence, ‘he slumped and died’ a thousand times due to the shock. I would cry and then continue chanting, ‘he slumped and died.’ In a short while, people began to troop into our house and that was when it dawned on me that it was true.
Since he didn’t show any sign of ill health, do you think that there was something suspicious about his death?
I am a deeply religious person and I know that nothing happens without God’s consent. It does not matter whether there is more to my husband’s death or not. I am still confused about his death but I would never complain because God has been kind to me. God forbid, what would have happened if I lost those two boys as well? I just do not think of it, I believe that it was time and God took him away. That is what I believe. When he was alive, my husband was so protective of me that when my father was on his deathbed and the doctor called him aside to inform him that my dad would die soon because he had a terminal illness, my husband never told me. He told everybody not to tell me because I am a very fragile person and that pained me when my father eventually died, but he did that to protect me. I just believe that if God does not say it is time, nobody can kill a man. I believe my husband has gone to rest and he is doing that in the bosom of the Lord.
Did you call each other pet names?
We were very close, but it was my husband that gave me a pet name. He called me Orente (laughs).
How did he get the name?
He loved his mother very much and I think that was the same name his father called his mother, so in turn, he had always called me that name. I don’t know whether it is because of my physique though. It is only when he was a bit upset that he would call me Funke. However, I called him Segun mostly because I love the name.
You called him by name even when he was governor?
Yes, what else would I have called him? ‘Your Excellency’? He was my husband, don’t forget that.
How did both of you meet?
We were in the same set at the University of Ibadan. He was in the Faculty of Science while I was in the Arts. I saw him mostly at social activities because we both loved to dance. My grandmother used to say that one day someone would lure me away with music and dance (laughs). I love dancing so much that if you hit two sticks together continuously, I would begin to move. I just love dancing and singing. The only type of music I do not like is fuji. So, at first, whenever we met, we just greeted casually, but there was a day I fell ill with malaria, so I went to the school’s clinic which was behind the female hostel at the time. After the doctor attended to me and I was returning to my hostel, I noticed this guy sitting on the stairs leading to the clinic and he was in his pyjamas. I asked if he was ill and he said, yes. I told him sorry and I left for my hostel. Two days later, I went back to see my doctor but I noticed he was now on admission in the clinic. So, I stopped by to ask what was wrong with him and he told me he always had chronic malaria. I told him sorry once again and I left (laughs). Since that day, we started talking and gradually we became friends. We then moved on from there.
What made him different from the other guys that would have loved to date you at the time?
If you knew him, you would know he was a very likeable person with a fantastic sense of humour. He could see the humour in everything. That alone tickled me a lot. I love to smile a lot, so that attribute endeared me to him. Also, he was a very intelligent and smart person with a kind heart. He was a real gentleman.
How did your husband propose to you?
He came to me and asked if I would marry him and I told him to kneel down and ask properly (laughs). The day he told me that I should go and find out about my genotype, I knew he was serious about our relationship, even though he had not proposed at the time.
How would you describe your days as the first lady of Ondo State?
It was a time to really help people. When my husband told me about running for office the second time after he had lost to Chief Adebayo Adefarati and former President Olusegun Obasanjo made him a minister, I was not too pleased with the idea of running for governor because I enjoyed my time as the wife of a minister. Abuja is a very beautiful place. When he told me that he wanted to run as the governor of Ondo State, I had to ask him what he was looking for. I told him I liked Abuja a lot because it is a beautiful place and I enjoyed going out with the president’s wife. I asked him why I would leave everything in Abuja only to go and sit down in a state. He told me that all he was after was to serve his people. He further said that he wanted to take care of Nigeria and if everybody took care of their state, it is then that the whole nation would be a better place. He said in the United States, the different states develop themselves at different levels to make the country great and that is what we ought to do in Nigeria as well. He also said we were not going to Ondo State to make money, instead we had a lot of work to do. My husband was so blunt that he told me that if I went to meet a commissioner for contract and they insulted me along the line, that was my business. After he told me all these, I decided that I was going to support him and give him all the necessary encouragement.
How did the family take the news when the court announced that he should vacate office?
I remember he just said that he had tried after gunning for justice the legal way. He advised us (his family members) to walk tall and hold our heads high because he did not cheat or lose the election. I want to thank God for the fact that before he died, he got a judgment which said that the report of the secret service that was used to nullify his election was fake. The DG of DSS came to testify that the report did not come from them. He gave all his grown family members a photocopy of the judgment and told us to walk tall. When the verdict that removed him from office was delivered, we were all watching television and from the tone of the judge, it was obvious what the verdict would be. It was at that moment my husband advised me to start packing our load. I just took the bag containing our box of certificates and my trinket box; those were the only two things I took and I left my sister who was with me to take care of other things and then I left the government house.
The picture some people have of the late Dr. Agagu was that of a jolly good fellow who always had his necklace, put his glasses on his nose and used lipsticks…
(Laughs) He never used lipsticks. His lips were always glittering because I always made sure he had this chap stick for the lips since they always went dry easily. I always made sure it was in his pocket because I don’t like seeing people with dry lips. My lips also tend to get dry and that is why I am always wearing lipsticks. It is not because I want to be vain but I don’t like to see dry lips.
How would you describe your early days in Ibadan?
I was a very good girl. However, I was born in Lokoja. My father was a nurse but he changed jobs. He went to Lagos, got a job with United African Company group and they sent him to the north. His first point of call was Zaria, which was where I started school. We spent a year there before he was moved to Gusau, and at that time, there was no school there, so I was at home for about eight months. After that, they transferred him to Sokoto. At the end of that year, he said he had had enough, so he asked his younger brother who was in Ibadan to take care of me because he felt his frequent transfer was disrupting my education. I stayed with my uncle in Ibadan where I completed my education up until university level. I went to the north during my holidays to visit my parents. My uncle loved me like his child and most people did not know that he was my uncle; they thought he was my father. In secondary school, I was a very brilliant person.
What did you do as a child that earned you the worst beating of your life or you were never beaten?
I once left school before we went on vacation. I was in upper six and we had finished our exam but we had not vacated, so I went home. When I got home, they asked me if school was over and I told them that I had finished my exams. They asked again if we were on vacation and I told them that I was not so they asked me to go back to school. But before I left, I received the flogging of a lifetime.
How would you describe your time at the University of Ibadan?
I faced my studies very squarely because you dared not go home if you failed. I found a way to balance my life and I was a very obedient child and I dared not put my family members to shame. I was a member of the Scripture Union right from my secondary school. I also taught at the Sunday school section of St. Anne’s Church. I also volunteered to go to the school of the deaf, so I had a well-rounded education. I volunteered for community services on Thursdays. We looked after the underprivileged in the society and till date, whenever I visit a hospice, I cry. I’m such an emotional person.
Is it because of this background that you established a foundation to cater for people living with disabilities?
I think so. I’m such an emotional person and I cannot stand seeing another person suffer. I stopped reading newspapers about ten years ago. I also do not listen to the news because most of what they say upset me and I feel helpless. I wish I was a billionaire so that I could do more than I am doing at the moment, but sadly, I do not have the means. Since I do not have the means, I do not want to hear any bad news that would upset me. If I see any bad news, I would feel bad about it then I would begin to think about it so much that it would give me a headache. I just had to stop because I did not know how to solve the problem. And one other thing is that when I tell people I’m shy, they do not believe it. I could be in my house for days without stepping out.
What would you be doing alone indoors?
I read a lot. I read anything apart from newspapers. I also watch all sorts of programmes. I love to watch game shows because it does not involve any concentration. I love watching cooking competition even though I don’t have anyone to cook for. I also love talking to my friends and relations on the telephone. I love helping people solve their problems if I can do that.
Is it right to assume that since the demise of your husband, your children have been your major source of joy?
Yes, they have been, and I have amazing friends as well. Many times, when I kneel down to pray, I’m always asking God what I have done to deserve so much love and kindness from people. I’m a very shy person and I love my privacy very much. Normally, I didn’t mean to celebrate my 70th birthday because my husband and I are just weeks apart when it comes to our birth dates. When we celebrated his birthday, I always refused to have an elaborate birthday. What we did was to travel. I told my friends that I would prefer we travel regardless of the destination, just to avoid the celebration. I suggested that we could go to Obudu Cattle Ranch or go to Benin Republic, but they refused. They said that I always avoid celebrating my birthday but I would not escape this one. During my birthday celebration, people came from all over the world and I kept asking what I had done to deserve that goodwill from my friends.
Now that you are a grandmother, how would you describe your first time in the labour room?
It was quite dramatic. I had an easy labour. I was labouring and when a friend’s sister who was a nurse came to see me, she had to ask me if I was truly in labour because I was reading a magazine. That was in the morning at about 8:30 am. She predicted that the labour would take time, but at about 12 noon, I had started pushing but I didn’t know. I was in bed with my husband. I would run to the toilet thinking I wanted to defecate not knowing that I had already started pushing. At a point, my husband said he did not understand what was wrong with me, so he insisted that we went to the hospital. If there was any traffic that day, the baby would have been born inside the car. When we got to the hospital, they asked me to sit down. The nurse on duty was behaving nonchalant so I went to meet her that I felt like defecating. It was at that point she brought a stretcher and told me to lie on it. Then she examined me and it was at that point she informed me that I was pushing out the baby. She rushed me into the elevator of UCH and my husband followed, including two nurses that witnessed what was happening. I was delivered of that child inside the elevator, and that was my first child, a boy. My husband was there and he saw everything. We always laughed about the situation. Before nightfall, the news had spread around town that I was lucky the child was not born on the road.
At 70, is there anything you still hope to achieve?
I just wish I could do more than I am doing now because there are too many poor people in the country. Like my husband always said, we have no business being poor, especially in Ondo State. I wish that I was a very rich person so that I could start a business that would empower people. Like I said, I always cry when I see people suffering and that was why I was almost nicknamed ‘Cry Baby First Lady’ in Ondo State because I’m very emotional. Each time I went into a hospice for the blind, deaf and dumb or other people living with disabilities, I always cried. The day I went to the school for the deaf and dumb, I was moved to tears because the situation I met there was very appalling. They had just two toilets and there were about 300 of them there including the staff. The toilet was a makeshift and it was made with raffia and palm leaves. At the school for the visually impaired, after school hours, the children were left on their own and there was no one to look after them in their hostels. There were no teachers with sight to stay with the children living with visual impairment. They could wander anywhere and no one would know. The only person with sight present after school hours was the gateman who could do whatever he wanted with them because there were girls among the children. I felt that was very wicked. I am glad that the situation was rectified a few weeks after I reported what I saw when I got home.
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