Turning Tides: The Unplanned Political Voyage of an Ex-Great Ife Students’ Union PRO

By Abdullah Ajibade

Taofeek Ọlálékan Ògúnpérí found himself in politics out of necessity rather than personal interest. 

In this exclusive interview with Observersmag, he delves into his political odyssey, recounting his rise as the Public Relations Officer of the Great Ife Students’ Union and reflecting on the challenges of his unsuccessful presidential bid. 

He unveils the concealed and illuminates the known. 

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Can you share an insight into your background

My name is Taofeek Ọlálékan Ògúnpérí. I was born and brought up in Ikirun, Osun State, Nigeria. I grew up in a very African setting, where a child has one biological father and one biological mother but is brought up by many mothers and many fathers. I am a Muslim; I attended madrasah and graduated in 2014.

I attended Nawairu-Ud-Deen Primary School 1, Ikirun, where I had my beginning in leadership, serving as the Headboy there. I attended Orimolade Commercial Grammar School, Junior School 2, where I served as the Class Captain from JSS 1 to 3, Timekeeper in JSS 2, and finally, Headboy in JSS 3. In my years in JSS, I also served as the lead of the HIV/AIDS club, and Quran Reader for the Muslim Students’ Society of Nigeria of the entire secondary school.

After OCGS School 2, I was enrolled at the senior arm of the school. Between my primary and junior secondary schools was a series of participation in debates and quiz competitions — I was a district champion at the MAN Mathematics primary school competition, a representative of my school at Cowbellpedia in my primary and secondary schools, among others. I excelled in interclass debates and won a MicCom Foundation scholarship award in JSS 2.

In senior secondary school, I headed the Press Club, served as the President of the JETs club, and the President of the Young Ultimate Club. I captained my class in years 1 and 2. I served as the Timekeeper of the school and then the Headboy for School 1 of Orimolade High Schools, after the Osun State Government restructured the schools in the state. In MSSN, I served as the Missioner 1 in my secondary school, and the Ameer of my Local Government. I participated in a series of state-sponsored debates, quiz competitions, and speech contests. I was on scholarship throughout my senior secondary school.

I started writing in senior secondary school. Trained by my English teachers, I decided to give myself to writing. I had a collection of poems, Twisted Tongues, published with ATMAN Limited, Òsogbo in 2017 — two years after finishing secondary school. My sad experiences sometime during my secondary school and after it shaped me deeply as a creative and as a person. I believe, I always say, that the goodness or otherwise of a society has its origins from an individual or a mind that may not always be traced. If I ever want to be anything truly, it is to, if possible, be an untraceable source of something good about my society.

 X-raying your background,  one could deduce that you have held leadership positions before university. How did this trigger your interest in politics as a university student and what is your political ideology?

 I would not say that my involvement in various leadership positions before university directly has anything to do with my involvement in student politics as a university student although the symmetry appears to be there. The positions I held before university were nearly always based on appointments, mostly by teachers who considered me fit for them, and by senior colleagues who interviewed me and saw me capable of holding them. There was hardly a contest for the positions I had to hold prior to my university days, save for the positions of the Ameer of MSSN and the Headboy of my senior secondary school. Those ones came with some subtle contests of wits.

In the university, the business of student politics is a different one entirely. It is not prefectorial nor largely by appointment. You have to learn and unlearn politics at every turn. Many things appear to be in your favour at the same time, even as other points may be gathering against your political success. If anything, the positions I held before university prepared me for the managerial, creative, dynamic, and oversight constructs of student leadership in the university.

As a student politician, I take myself more as a humanist, but with an air of suspicion, I would say that I am a socialist. By the way, it was never my intention to join student politics in the university or be as popular as I am now in the student community. I wanted to function within the writing, creative, and media spaces more than anything else, and stealthily so. I became a politician before I could spend two weeks in OAU, out of a necessity more than of interest.

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Can you elaborate on that aspect of you becoming a politician out of necessity and not interest?

Coming to OAU, I was not with the dream of becoming a Students' Union Public Relations Officer or holding any political position for that matter. After three UTME attempts, the last one being the only time I chose OAU and got admitted on merit, all I had in mind was study, grow as an individual, and as a writer and make something grand of myself and skills. The Taofeek that came to OAU was not the same one that left his secondary school. He lived through tough experiences even before OAU offered him admission.

I finished secondary school as one of the top guys in my class but even with my moderately high scores in my UTMEs, I could not secure an admission into my choice institution. Those years, in some interesting developments, some of the people I tutored immediately after secondary school while waiting for WASSCE results, mostly from the class that finished right after mine, gained admissions before me. Life no balance, they say. Sometimes, back then, I would meet them and some would even call me “Uncle”. Imagine o. Uncle wey still dey write UTME. Lol. But it was not entirely bad: I had two scholarship prospects to two tertiary institutions — I declined one because I did not believe that they would be able to educate me the way I would want to be educated; the other one, I could not secure their condition, which was to pay for my first year (something around 700 thousand back then) and have scholarship cover the other years, or so.

I also worked jobs, some of them very tough. The month in which I wrote my third UTME and the one in which I wrote my OAU Post-UTME test I was working in a Quality Control department in a factory floor where you only go on break for one hour in a thirteen-hour night shift. I came to OAU, literally sleeping in transit because I was coming from years and months of stress.

I have shared this background to make you see that what mostly interested me, given where I was coming from, was not politics. I understood that politics would take my time, resources, and energy, and given the complications around me from secondary school till admission, I just wanted to live differently. But my conscience would not allow me.

When I got to OAU, like many freshers, I was short on information. My departmental association was not functioning properly. There were no executives, just a transition committee that was under-equipped. I had to step in, source for information for fellow fresh students to help in locating classes and venues, get directions, even though I was learning myself. In fact, I used to go from faculty to faculty to source for information from office doors regarding classes, especially for special electives. Politics set in for me properly when a senior colleague, Gallant, prompted me to start trademarking my information.

From doing errands for a class without a class rep, I put myself up for the position and won the election conducted by a wide margin of victory. I lost my phone that same day and another phone in less than 48 hours after. Yet, I persisted. A fond memory from those days was when I had to lead a small protest to the office of the HOD over the bad state of the Public Address System given to my class for classes.

So far,  how will you describe your political journey as a student?

I would describe my political journey as fulfilling, eye-opening, and preparatory. It has been so far challenging but it has been just as worthy.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's The World is a Beautiful Place, Claude McCkay's If We Must Die, my own poem titled Politics, and Mahatma Gandhi's Seven Blunders of the World, among other thoughts, theories, and experiences form the prism of my belief. Messages in those works sum up my experiences.

 It is an obvious fact that contesting for any political post in OAU is not an easy feat due to the intellectual features of the community. Knowing fully well of this, How did you navigate your way to become the Public Relations Officer of the Students' Union?

The first for me was to assess myself and see what I best fit for. I do not rate people who court ambitions without any corresponding ability, to name but one reservation.

I once thought to myself what I could run for, was there Students' Union in place. That was when there was no SU. It was during the COVID-19 lockdown. That generated from a litany of thoughts about the state of education and how everything seemed to have come to a halt, even when there could have been alternatives. Mostly, I was thinking about the roles that an active Students' Union could play in the educational sojourn of its students. What readily came to my mind was that I would be best for a Public Relations job or a Secretary’s.

When the Union became active again, I sourced for the SU constitution and read it before I even told anyone if I was interested, including President Que D, my departmental President then, who asked me if I was interested in any position when I shared the news of the restoration of SU activities on my WhatsApp status. Right Honourable Pedro did me the favour of sharing with me that constitution. I studied it deeply for about a week. I wanted to know what was expected of any position. Thereafter, I went back to everything I could read or find on the internet about the SU. I read articles and propaganda that went as far as 8 years or so before. I read releases of the Union. I read campaign news, and political rumours. In all, I wanted to have the best understanding I could have of what I was getting myself into — the mannerisms, the traditions, etc. This had to be because there was no SU administration in place when I was admitted and no avenue to see how things were done firsthand.

After I was satisfied with my process of self-education about the Union, I had to decide between running for Secretary-General or Public Relations Officer. I decided I was going to run for PRO. Once I made my decision, I started making underground efforts. Nothing in the world was enough to stop the mandate, despite difficulties.

My closest friends and departmental political leaders were the first to know. Everyone agreed that it was good for me to run. Honourable Sir Tee first thought that I would want to be in the SU SRC until I announced that I would serve in the CEC instead. I was not surprised he thought I would be coming to the SRC of the Union since I was already an Acting Clerk in FSRC and a sound Honourable in the Faculty of Arts for that matter.

To become the PRO of the Union after a long proscription was to allot to myself a herculean task of working on an image for an association which in itself was supposedly nonexistent. That task was in itself and for itself an exploration of a difficult terrain, one that submerged me in a cesspool of issues. Although a contestable fact when it comes to the SU, to say that something previously dead or passive is now alive or active is to have to prove its resurrection to the limiting points of its aliveness or activeness.

The politics that went into my emergence as PRO of the SU was one that I identify with at every turn: it is one that asserts the primacy of competence and the centrality of the people (the students). That was why the main drivers of my campaign were my classmates, the exceptional ladies and gentlemen of the Class of Transcendence (shout out to you, my loves) and other many nonpolitical students (whom I equally give shout out to). And by God, they took the campaign everywhere; some even took it into their relationships. Where my name and flyers have reached, on account of my campaigns, I do not think that my feet can easily access them. There was even a case of someone joining the e-campaigns from outside Nigeria, just for the fun of the trend that it was.

Yes, you cannot deny the influence of major voices who were ahead in student politics at that time (and it is to them that the political mathematics is credited and for which they remain appreciated by me even till now) but ultimately things went the way they went because it was without a doubt a student-driven mandate. Recall that I won in 10 out of 13 faculties, with close results in one of the three I did not win.

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Over time, there have been claims that the Faculty of Arts Students' Association which you are from reeks of godfatherism and everyday permutations. There were claims that you were a product of this process. What's your position on this?

Faculty of Arts Students' Association is a student association unlike many others, for reasons of the nature of our courses (a very key area less explored), the arrangements of our faculty in relation to the constitutional provisions for winning elections. A great deal of negative things you hear or read about FASA are also either untrue or exaggerated.

As Yorùbá says, there is nowhere that the supper is not prepared, the delicacy shall only taste better. There must be disagreements where contests must be. The presence of disagreements does not even necessarily mean the presence of retrogression — in the eternal work of progress, there must continually be relentless negotiations of being and processes. What happens in FASA happens everywhere, albeit at varying degrees — it is an unavoidable reflection of partisanship, which cannot be done away with anywhere there is politics, for politics subsumes preferential treatment, and once you have a preference you have a party and you can be accused of being partisan, of being a godfather, or parading permutation (which is not bad, unless that betrays the process of election and the philosophy of good leadership). Permutation here would mean your preference of people for positions, so if you as a voter have come with your preferences in mind to an election, by whatever measure you hold aloft, you have necessarily come with a permutation, one that is sacred and of value to you.

Call into question what anyone means by permutation or any other suspicious term, before you take their point. The burden of proof, philosophy, and law, have taught us, is on the person making the claim. And it is on that note that I shall take the question of what produced me as a student politician. First, you recall the information I have shared so far prior to this question and see for yourself if these insights define someone who is produced by whatever they may mean by “everyday permutations” or anything else. Secondly, it should interest you to note that all political individuals in the faculty had no issue with my candidacy as PRO whatsoever. If there were disagreements, my candidacy was not at the forefront of them. That is to say that I had the faculty-wide support in Arts and it reflected in the outcome of the election. It reflects poorly the intelligence, and vividly the hypocrisy, of anyone who truly knows the political terrains of the Faculty of Arts and its history from the point at which it includes my name to perpetuate a reductionist argument on my political legacy and stature.

What were the challenges you faced as the Public Relations Officer of the Union and how were you able to overcome them?

I hinted earlier that I was submerged in a cesspool of issues doing a PRO job for the Union. I suppose I should elaborate here.

The first issue was from the external authorities, the management and others. You will recall that a protest was held just a month after our election. That protest gave us all the first political and administrative problems we dealt with. It was in part a bad PR for our administration at the end, since activities were decimated and a whole lot of back and forth happened before we were inaugurated. That moment put my office on some difficult demands. I was elected but not sworn in, which means that I had to make releases as a PRO-elect for months. That was unsettling. More so, I had to put on hold all my plans which I wanted to execute immediately after inauguration and before resumption.

Then another problem was fulfilling promises in my manifesto. Yes, I had my plans on how to go about them, but the political issues which enveloped our administration disturbed my creativity for a time; in fact, some things had to be shelved. I must say this here: the survival and the optimum realisation of the strength Great Ife Students' Union is in the collectively sincere and best efforts of its leadership without ever belittling the supremacy of Great Ife students in their entirety over those who are in all arms of the Union as their representatives. Where a group fights the other, the purpose of leading may be seriously frustrated, if not lost.

And then the last and most telling are the intra-union political issues. Any student on this campus must already know some of those issues. Naturally, these issues put a dent on the image of the Union and as such made my job difficult. I had to do different forms of public relations, from corrective, to political, to educational, to financial, to security, etc public relations. I want to acknowledge the authors of The 10X Rule, Grant Cardone, and Public Relations: In Search of Professional Excellence, Victoria Ajala. Cardone's book and ideas followed me into office but Ajala's subject-specific book added a thousand feathers to my wing. I navigated issues using these books, using guidance from politically experienced persons and using the best plans I could muster in doing my job in the interest of the students.

Resolving the first issue was by waiting and putting all defensive mechanisms in place. The Union was on the verge of another proscription again. It was such a depressing moment. For a time, I and the then Vice President-elect, both of us being major voices from the protest, nearly renounced our positions. With efforts from different angles, we overcame that challenge and gained some strength. I think that whatever headache we had after inauguration was actually nothing compared to what we faced in silence before inauguration.

As for fulfilling campaign promises, I had to invest my personal resources in delivering on my mandate. That put a lot of pressure on my life as a person. The hard part is that while everyone can hide so easily, a PRO must somehow make his way to the public, even if it is one that is angry or demanding. I ended up being called names or insulted for crimes supposedly committed by others or of things I had no idea when they happened in the first place as though I was omniscient by virtue of being the PRO.

The political issues were the hardest to resolve. I must tell you that whatever politics is played to win an election is nothing compared to what shall be played to have a successful administration. With the way people were quick to seek to eliminate others in deeply political cases, it was evident that certain collisions would happen. You can tell that by the happenings you observe, even as a student. It is important to note here that political problems that student leaders give one another are in the least of their consequences distracting the act of leadership and at the extreme end creating more opportunities for the Union to be unfairly treated by other powers that be, within and outside the university system. And when the Union is seen as weak or easy to attack through political cracks within it, students will suffer the negative effects and lose faith in student unionism, even if only briefly.

There were other issues, but I have taken those three, since they somehow have to do with other challenges. Particularly one serious challenge was the issue of propaganda which came in several anonymously written materials circulated online. The problem with them was that they were successful propaganda, since the goal of a propaganda is to raise an enemy for whom it attacks. The propaganda raised for our administration gave us more antagonistic reception than tolerable for proper functioning of the Union. What saved us in the end was the unflinching usage of established Union platforms and identifying propaganda for what they were.

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You contested for the position of president in the last union election but lost. What do you think led to your defeat considering the fact that you are an incumbent with an established audience base?

 I think that what was responsible was not securing enough votes out of my established audience as an incumbent, as you mentioned, since such an audience was shared with others and they exercised their individual rights to freedom of choice as constituents of a thriving democracy that Great Ife Students' Union is.

What sprouted your interest in contesting for the presidential position of the Great Ife Students’ Union?

I contested for the position of the Students' Union President because it was the right call to make, after assessing my journey and the capacity that I had built. I have already stated in this interview what constitutes my own political candidacy, which is a measure I identify with in others, whenever I have to support anyone.

It was a question of competence, experience, and what I envisioned for an administration after the one in which I was the PRO. I see it as a form of epistemic violence to have had the wherewithal to best do something, to put your lived experience and best efforts to use, and refuse to do so.

I am up for serving my community and fostering its growth, in my ablest strengths. The presidency was the capacity in which I could serve the students better than when I was the PRO. Regardless of what I think, I also have the full awareness of the optionality of service and the democratic supremacy of the people to give the chance to another person, even if you are a better choice. That is a marked difference between power-mongering and altruism, between usurpation and legitimacy.

How would you describe your relationship with other executive members during your administration and now?

My relationship with others during the administration was largely fraternal and formal too.

I worked with everyone based on the mandate of their office. As the PRO, if anything had to do with any of the offices I worked with the idea of the executive there.

After the administration, I have maintained a cordial relationship with fellow former executives. I understand that some have graduated now, so I send them my best wishes and wish those of us graduating a year behind them a great deal of success too.

Three incumbents contested for the presidential position while two of you are from the same faculty.  Although everyone has the right to vote and be voted for, still, in this kind of situation, the general view is ‘politics at play’. How would you describe that situation?

Since the constitution of the Great Ife Students' Union does not put a restriction on how many contestants can come from a faculty, one cannot be surprised that there is more than one presidential candidate from a faculty, however politically upsetting that may be. Recall that when Reform emerged President, there was more than one candidate from the same faculty of Arts; in fact another opponent of Reform was from his class back then.

Political contestants have different plans and ideas. You must understand that if ideologies are not the same, it may be difficult to say that the proximity of candidates are wrong. What is wrong is not in the act of contest, what is wrong is in the motivation for the contest. As for me, I mentioned earlier the guiding principles of my political candidacy: the primacy of competence and the centrality of the people (students).

As a PRO, I distinguished myself as a versatile and responsible executive. That still holds true regardless of political issues and electoral results. What is not correlating is the equation of electoral results for feedback on administrative performance. What goes into an election cannot even be completely accounted for by anyone who wins.

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What has been your biggest regret as a student politician?

 My biggest regret is that I have witnessed political fights nearly helplessly as some of them dragged on for too long, causing dehumanisation of people and assassination of characters, and most painfully the distraction from the actual business of leadership. I do not enjoy being caught in such political miasma, however inevitable. As a result-oriented person, I am always impatient to make good of my promises, even if not political, but political fights always impede such and incapacitate someone.

Even sadder in this case is that people forget so easily that student leadership is only a preparatory ground. A political enemy today may be a political ally tomorrow; write no one-off. After all, if we are being sincere, we are all trying to serve fellow students. Student politicians are no more than employees, the students being the employers. Anyone in student politics should do their job well; anyone can be fired.

From your experience, what advice would you give any student interested in politics?

Any student interested in politics should build a capacity for service, for politics is an agent of instituting things, including leadership, and leadership is ultimately a form of service to others.

In the service of others, you must set an example of yourself. In the service of others, you must keep an open mind and a giving hand. In the service of others, learning is to your mind, as sound thoughts and a great sense of judgement are; authority is to your utterance — and even your silence — as truth and wisdom too; actions are to your legs as with swiftness.

Cultivate a sense of reasoning, a good understanding of organogram and systems. Understand the diversity of the world and human dreams. Speak what you can eat; eat what you can speak. The legs can go anywhere but some movements are intrusions, some are rebellions, some are betrayals, some are arrivals, some are departures.

Some people are ahead of you, some are behind you; some are beneath your feet, some will walk over your grave, you being unknown to them. Ultimately you are only human. Live. Relax. Yes, you can.

What are your plans for the future?

  My plans for the future contain a lot of Insha'Allah and a package full of willingness, enthusiasm, finesse, experience, excellence and others, to be used in whatever endeavour I invest myself in, anytime and anywhere. It was my mental note to self when I was just a fresh student finding his path on this campus, and it shall remain the same, even as I am on my way out.

I believe that I am captured in this quote of Malcolm X: “Tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today”. I strongly believe in myself and my capacity to positively impact the spaces I find myself. I am committed, as usual, to my self development, convinced only those who lead themselves can truly lead others, and only those who know the way can guide others through it.

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