Toyin Akinosho is a geologist, writer and publisher of Africa Oil and Gas Report. He shares his childhood and career experiences with ALEXANDER OKERE
You recently turned 60. How would you describe the feeling?
I was very surprised when I turned 40. I thought I was too young to be 40. Although I had an interesting party (to celebrate it), I still didn’t think I was an old man. But in Nigeria, nobody gives you the opportunity to call yourself a young man once you are 50. In fact, once you approach your mid-40s, people, not your children), start calling you dad. So, by the time you are 60, you really would have acknowledged the fact that people think you are an old man, even if you don’t feel so. At that time, you are no longer embarrassed when people say ‘good morning, sir’ or ‘welcome daddy’ when they are addressing you. I’ve been hearing that sort of thing for over 10 years; I need to begin to feel comfortable with it. I do not feel very strongly that I’m an elder. But the environment doesn’t allow me not to feel so.
You grew up in Ebute Metta, Lagos. What was it like growing up in that area in the 1960s?
If you ask me whether it is something I will like to experience again, I will say yes. If you didn’t grow up in poverty, you would like to experience your youth again because it was about freedom, lack of responsibility and it was much fun. My parents were quite lucky. My dad worked for a construction firm; he used to work for the Lagos State Council. A civil servant at that time had access to a good life. So, for him to have joined a construction firm as an accountant, it means it was a better offer. So, we fairly lived well.
I attended Baptist Academy at that time and the fees were relatively cheap and there were libraries in Lagos. My earliest memory of my childhood was on my street which led to Abule Nla Road, where a bar called Cool Cats Inn was located. It was a bar where highlife bands used to perform. I used to sit in front of our house at 11pm, talking to my friend and listening to music. That was the environment I grew up in. At the age of seven, Nigeria was having a civil war but Lagos still had some night life. I don’t remember the war being a terrible situation like that. So, my childhood was beautiful.
As the only child of your parents, did they not mind that you stayed out late at night at that young age?
My mum had me when she was 33; so she was 40 when I was seven. My dad was roughly 43 years old. So, they were almost in their middle-age, having fun. They used to go out a lot. As a matter of fact, at the time I was outside, they had not even returned from where they went to.
So, my friend and I were out there waiting for them. It was after the war, when armed robbery started, that people began to stay indoors. The robberies in Lagos started around 1972 and that was when we were no longer able to attend night parties. When we had night parties, such parties started around 2pm and by 8pm, we would have rounded off because of the unsafe environment caused by robberies.
the unsafe environment caused by robberies.
You studied geology at university; did your parents want you to study something else?
My parents actually wanted engineering, which was the reason why I attended the Federal School of Arts and Science to study mathematics, physics and chemistry. I left secondary school a year before the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board examinations started. If I had been taken based on the concessional examinations that were used in those days and had been offered admission, I would have avoided taking the JAMB examination and started from the preliminary stage in one university. I needed to have a pass in two out of the three subjects to be guaranteed a direct entry to university. But for engineering, I needed to have three subjects.
So, when I was in higher school, I quickly took the JAMB examination to see whether I didn’t have to use my A level. In my first year at Federal School of Arts and Science, I was offered engineering at the University of Ilorin but I had my mind somewhere else. I discovered that all the interesting people I knew had attended the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). University of Ilorin was relatively new and didn’t sound appealing to me. So, I had to use the two A level papers (physics and chemistry) I had to secure admission at Ife. I looked for a course as close to engineering as possible, and that was geology, which is an applied science. But what was important was to be at Ife.
How did you find yourself in the field of arts and journalism?
There is nobody who attended the university (OAU) between 1978 and 1982 that would not have been affected by the whole cultural atmosphere. On my very first day at the Adekunle Fajuyi Hall of Residence, I remember carrying my load and walking up the stairs when I saw a poster with the inscription, ‘If: A Tragedy of the Ruled,’ by Ola Rotimi. It was a play to be staged at the Oduduwa Hall and I told myself I was going to see the play. The Department of Geography was across the road from the theatre which was some kind of a laboratory for drama students. So, as a geology student working on your samples overnight, all you would hear were the sound of drums and you could just walk up to the theatre and see charming ladies taking part in a play as their course work. But to us, we thought they were having fun. I enjoyed the atmosphere.
It was something else that took me to journalism. In 1981, while I was still at school, there was an Austrian-German, called Uli Beier, who came to Ife to give a lecture on the three years of the death of a fantastic playwright, Duro Ladipo. When I heard Beier was going to talk about Ladipo, I invited myself to the venue at Oduduwa Hall. I enjoyed the lecture and decided to write about it in a newspaper and that newspaper was the National Concord. I probably was 21 at that time and wasn’t expecting anything. I typed the article, took it to Ikeja and gave it to one Mr Ola Amusan. The following Saturday, I saw my name in the Concord and it meant that I could write about the arts and other things. It was through the arts that I entered journalism. I didn’t take part in campus journalism, I only thought I could summarise what Mr Uli Beier said.
That gave me confidence and when I started writing, newspapers were publishing my articles. It was easier for me to write something that was not as heavy as the summary of Duro Ladipo’s life. For the Lagos Weekend, I could write anything and they would publish and those ones were paying. So, in a sense, I used the money I made to fund my project because it was a lot of money. At that time, it was N45 to buy a full month’s ticket for food at school – 50 kobo a day for 30 days. So, imagine that someone paid you N25 for an article; you just became a big man. So, journalism just sorted me out; let me put it like that.
You practised journalism for a while before joining the oil and gas industry. How difficult was journalism as a career for you that your family had to advise you to quit and find another job with a better pay?
Left to me, I thought journalism was my calling; I thought I had arrived where I was going. The only regret was that I left The Guardian for a company called ThisWeek, the forerunner of Thisday. I’m not sure the gentleman who created ThisWeek was interested in what the magazine could do. I think he was more interested in using it as a platform to network and so, we struggled with a lot of things we didn’t need to struggle with. So, I started having challenges. I’ve always been someone who spends very well on himself. But if I had been in The Guardian, I might have adjusted and risen. I was doing very well when someone told me to join him at ThisWeek. The kind of challenges I had at ThisWeek made the decision to leave journalism easier. I loved journalism but the family pressure was there. I went back to geology; I became a trainee geologist at Chevron, rose to become an advisor in 20 years (from 1988 to 2008) before I left. I spent 20 years there telling myself that I would publish something one day, which meant that my intention was to come back to journalism.
How did you find your way back?
Right inside Chevron in 1993, I was publishing Festac News and I had people, no less than 10, working at Festac News run from my house and they took their careers seriously. But I wasn’t a very smart businessman at that time so the newspaper could not pay its bills. In three to four years, it packed up. We would have done well in a civilian dispensation but we were clearly in the military era. But the moment I won the CNN MultiChoice African Journalist of the Year award, writing as a freelancer for a magazine nobody knew, I thought that, in a sense for me, was a validation of the quality of journalism we had in that magazine. It didn’t take a year after I won that award in 2007 that I left Chevron.
In 2015, you fled Nigeria over an assassination attempt on your life, though the attackers met your driver instead. What went through your mind when he narrated how they trailed him and confronted him three times while trying to identify you and your location?
It was surreal for me. I didn’t think anybody would want to attack me. Who was I and what were we writing? The day after he told me what happened while I was in Abuja, I went to look for a friend of mine who was an Assistant Inspector General of Police at that time. When he listened to my driver, he looked at me and advised me to leave Nigeria. When a senior police officer told me to leave the country, it was unnerving. I wondered why I couldn’t stay in my country and enjoy the good things it offered. But I left.
However, I enjoyed the West African coast where I was during that period. It was someone who told me to establish a case with the police so that anybody challenging me would know that the assassination attempt was already in the public space. It was during an election year so the friend said if I hung around in Nigeria and got killed, it would not receive the right attention but would be seen as one of those cases of electoral violence. So, it was when I returned that I reported the case.
Where is that driver now?
I’m not the best employer in the world but he is around, if you want to speak with him. He is my friend. People move; he left around 2018.
Would you consider that as your worst experience in life?
Yes. I think I am one of those who have been totally blessed that I don’t run into any kind of surreal challenges like that. God just finds a way. I thank God. But there was a time I went to Maryland, Lagos to see an ex-girlfriend and I took a taxi with other passengers. I didn’t know they were robbers. They took my belongings and pushed me out. But they didn’t hurt me.
Are you married?
No, I’m not married.
I didn’t want to assume that you married the lady you visited at Maryland many years ago, so…
I could have married the lady but I didn’t.
Why didn’t you two get married?
I don’t want to blame anything. I am an only child and I have been very comfortable with the degree of aloneness I have enjoyed. I think it is not good for anybody. I basically allowed things to slip overtime and got used to that. So, I found myself at 60 alone. The person I thought I could start something with wasn’t particularly keen on it. There have been two relationships like that in the last 13 years. One of them ended when I came back from the CNN award in Cape Town, South Africa.
Do you intend to try again?
Yes. I am working on something now.
What is the opinion of your parents’ about you being single?
My dad died and my mum is 93. She has complained about it.
Do you have any regrets not having a child she could call her grandchild?
Yes. I am a very unusual person. I know I should have done something but I didn’t feel that sense of regret when I should. But I think I’ve been a very good son to my mum.
So, how do you cope with loneliness?
I have never felt alone. I have a circle of friends and there was a time my house was practically everybody’s house.
How do you relax?
I read a lot. I like travelling. I take extensive walk and I live in places where the night life is vibrant. I attend exhibitions. I watch plays, discuss them and write on them on a fairly regular basis. I create platforms. I am constantly writing. That is work but it’s also my therapy. My real hobby is reading. I read virtually what anybody has done.
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