Fola Akintunde-Ighodalo: (2 of 3) – “Education, women empowerment and public service” re-echoes in Adamolekun’s keynote 2nd Annual Keynote address


by Professor Ladipo Adamolekun, D. Phil. (Oxon), NNOM. (Independent Scholar)

[Paper presented at 2012 Forum in Honour of Chief F. Akintunde-Ighodaloat Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, July 5th 2012]

My experience … has filled me with a new courage in the power women can wield in a society.  It has shown me that it is possible to have one of my life ambitions fulfilled… to help, when I get back to my country, the women to find their place and status in our rapidly changing society

–       Folayegbe Mosunmola Akintunde-Ighodalo (1953).



I congratulate the Yaba College of Technology Branch of the National Association of Ondo State Students, the children of late chief Folayegbe Mosunmola Akintunde-Ighodalo and others involved in the organisation of the 2012 Lecture/Forum.  I thank the organisers for inviting me (through my friend, Dr. Keziah Awosika) to be the lead speaker at today’s event.


From the agenda Folayegbe Mosunmola Akintunde-Ighodalo (FMI) articulated for herself in 1953, through the action-packed five decades that followed until she passed on in 2005, the following three themes are highlighted in this paper: education, women empowerment and public service.   I have selected these themes because of their strong linkages to achieving rapid and sustainable development in Nigeria.   The lessons from her life and contributions in respect of each of the three themes are reviewed in turn in this address.  Other speakers are likely to focus on a few other areas of FMI’s life that impacted on national development, for example, her successful poultry farming in retirement.





1.         Education

After completing secondary education at Queen’s College, Lagos in 1943, she taught for a few years before proceeding to the United Kingdom where she obtained a university degree in Economics.    It was towards the end of her university years in England that she attended an “International Women’s School” that inspired the citation at the beginning of this Paper. Significantly, she joined the civil service the same year that the Universal Primary Education (UPE) was introduced in the Region.

According to her biographer, LaRay Denzer, FMI correctly saw the UPE as an instrument for promoting socio-economic development.  In particular, she was concerned with the education of the child-girl and adult literacy education for women through her active role in Women organisations that promoted these objectives.  Achieving rapid increase in the enrolment of females in secondary schools featured prominently among her concerns.  It is also important to mention her consistent emphasis on the linkage of education to both individual improvement and the country’s socio-economic development in her impressive public intellectual contributions (speeches, invited papers/talks and interviews in newspapers/magazines) between 1957 through to the early 2000s.

Through what FMI achieved in self-development and the contributions she made to society (elaborated upon below in respect of women empowerment and public service) she was a good illustration of the critical importance of education as both a private and a public good.  And this is the reason why education is regarded world-wide as a key factor in achieving sustainable socio-economic development.

Strikingly, at the launching of the Foundation in her memory in 2010, her children committed to enhancing the education of female students in three secondary schools through an annual award of N100,000 to the best graduating female student in Oke-Igbo Grammar School (the top school in her home town), Queen’s College, Lagos (where she was a student)  and Methodist Girls’ High School, Lagos where she had a stint as a teacher in the 1940s (Adenle, 2010).


2.         Women Empowerment

FMI’s understanding of, and sharp focus on, women empowerment in the early 1950s is remarkable: she had become aware of the “power women can wield in a society” and she resolved “to help… the women [in Nigeria] find their place and status…”  Long before feminism became a movement in Africa, FMI had articulated its very essence in a paper she prepared for a women’s workshop in1953:

For how can a woman who all her life has learnt to regard herself as inferior to man and subject to his whims and greed suddenly come to the public to stand beside him?… Unless she is used to her opinion being listened to and respected in her own home, this call to public life can only be in vain.

Before her 1953 paper, she had co-organised the Nigerian Women’s League in London and served as the League’s first president.  Against this background, it is not surprising that she combined the promotion of women empowerment with her work in the civil service where she was employed after her return to Nigeria in 1955.  She was a founder-member of the National Council of Women’s Societies in 1959 and the Nigerian Association of University Women in 1961.

Earlier in 1957, she had spelled out some of the key women empowerment issues she would seek to promote in a feature article, “The Role of Women in a Dynamic Society” published in the journal of Western Nigeria government, Western News.: The issues she highlighted in the 12-part serialised article included the following: social change, leadership, education, employment, and politics.  It is striking that though she could not engage in politics as a civil servant, she had the courage to state her conviction about the need for women to be involved in politics.

From the time she became an undersecretary in the Western Region civil service in 1964, through her attainment of the position of permanent secretary in 1968, and throughout her remaining eight years as a higher civil servant, she used her increased visibility and position of power to push women empowerment agenda at both national and international levels.  She used as platforms the various meetings, conferences, seminars and workshops to which she was invited by local, national and international organisations.

The suggestions she proffered on how best to promote literacy training among women in the early 1970s still deserve attention today: through radio and television programmes in indigenous languages, documentary films, public lectures in the market places and community centres, and illustrated pamphlets written in indigenous languages.  She also made the case for equality of access for female and male children in primary schools, two and one-half decades before this became one of the Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000.  Another area of concern for her in the 1970s was the image of women in the mass media.  She was critical of women exploitation in the media: “more as a tool of entertainment rather than an object of serious study or scientific research”.

Perhaps the most important point to make about FMI’s commitment to women empowerment is that she walked the talk.  During her two decades in the civil service, she used the visibility and power of her position to advance her women empowerment agenda. Specifically, she used the platforms provided by her writings, speeches and interviews to promote women empowerment ideas. Furthermore, she participated actively in voluntary organisations that focused on advocacy for women empowerment.  Finally, in her retirement, she continued to push the agenda of women empowerment through her writing, speeches, and interviews.  In particular, she supported women entrepreneurs and promoted voluntary organisations (including faith-based groups) that were concerned with women’s interests.  Without question, she devoted her life to helping Nigerian women “to find their place and status in our rapidly changing society” – an inspiring example of an ambition fulfilled.


(Acknowledgment: This section draws on LaRay Denzer’s article, “Nigerian Women’s Empowerment: The Voice of Folayegbe Mosunmola Akintunde-Ighodalo, 1953 to the Present”, 2001).

3.         Public Service

FMI is deservedly famous for being the first female permanent secretary in Nigeria (and arguably in Anglophone Africa).  She joined the Western Nigeria civil service in 1955 and attained this height in 1968, seven years before a female permanent secretary was appointed at the federal level.  The trail she blazed was followed by the appointment of Princess Tejumade Alakija as the first Nigerian female Head of a Civil Service, also in Western Nigeria in 1980.  Again, it was almost more than 25 years later before a female became the head of the civil service at the federal level.

I would like to highlight two points from FMI’s public service career that are relevant for the topic of this Forum.  The first point is the critical importance of the enabling environment provided by the politico-administrative leadership provided by Chief Awolowo and Chief Simeon Adebo.  It was this quality leadership that earned the Western Region civil service the high praise of being one of the best in the Commonwealth from the later 1950s through the 1960s to the early 1970s.  Adebo provides a helpful insight into the excellent work context within which FMI spent her first seven years in the civil service (1955-1962), years that prepared her for the height she attained about six years after Adebo’s departure from the service (Adebo, 1984).  The pride of public service that she exuded in the remaining decades of her life was almost certainly acquired during this period.

An additional dimension to the enabling environment was the little publicised record of Chief Awolowo as a gender-friendly leader.  According to one of his biographers, Olufemi Ogunsanwo (2009), “he did not believe in gender discrimination”.  Ogunsanwo added:

The British had introduced their archaic law forbidding married women from taking up permanent employment in the Nigerian civil service.  A woman who was in service and who got married had to resign and make do with a contract.  If the husband was also a civil servant, and he was transferred to another location [outside the headquarters], the rules, the so-called “General orders”, made it mandatory for her to resign and seek a new job at her husband’s new domicile.  Awolowo changed all that.  Why should the law discriminate against women?  He was the first gender-sensitive leader in Nigeria (Ogunsanwo, 2009: 49).

The second point that is linked to the first is the need to acknowledge the role that FMI and other female civil servants played in the significant achievements of the Western Region civil service in the political, social and economic spheres in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Evidence of the high quality of the civil service in which she was rising through the ranks in the 1950s was provided by chief Awolowo in his valedictory address to the Western Nigeria House of Assembly in 1959:

Our civil service is exceedingly efficient, absolutely incorruptible in its upper stratum, and utterly devoted and unstinting in the discharge of its many onerous duties.  For our civil servants, government workers and labourers to bear, uncomplainingly and without breaking down, the heavy and multifarious burdens with which we have in the interest of the public saddled them, is an epic of loyalty and devotion, of physical and mental endurance, and of a sense of mission, on their part. From the bottom of my heart I salute all of them.

By the time she became Nigeria’s first permanent secretary in 1968, she had worked in a quality institution for about thirteen years.  In those days, only a few male high flyers attained that position within such a relatively short time.  In other words, she was a star performer in the service.  As a close observer of the higher civil service in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I know that she worked alongside competent and service-oriented men and women who largely succeeded in maintaining the quality of the service through political crisis, coups d’états and civil war.  As a higher civil servant from the early 1960s (when she became an undersecretary) through her years as a permanent secretary from 1968 until her retirement in 1976, she contributed to socio-economic development in Western State through her work as a leader of Ministries, Departments and Agencies and through her membership of numerous boards of parastatals.

As in the case of education, the Foundation that FMI’s children established in 2010 provides for four awards to be given annually “for Best Permanent Secretary in Ekiti, Ogun, Ondo, Osun and Oyo states, with a cash prize of N500,000 each” (Adenle, 2010) – to encourage the current generation of higher civil servants to follow in the footsteps of FMI and her colleagues.

When she asserted in an interview published in Vanguard (April 13th 2003) that the military ruined Nigeria, the decay and decline of the civil services nation-wide that began during the second half of the 1970s and persisted through the 1980s and 1990s to the 2000s was certainly one of the “ruins” at the back of her mind.

Having highlighted the “golden age” when women alongside their male colleagues contributed to national development at regional/state and federal levels, it is necessary to admit that women have also been involved in “under-developing” the country in the locust years of poor development performance, especially from the 1990s to the present.  It is instructive that the widely-acknowledged succession of weak politico-administrative leadership teams at both the federal and state levels (with a few exceptions at the state level), constitute a major explanatory factor for the country’s persistent underdevelopment.

Concluding Remarks

I would like to end this Address by, once again, congratulating the organisers of the annual Forum as part of the memorial activities of Chief Folayegbe Mosunmola Akintunde-Ighodalo.  She was a remarkable woman, a woman of character, courage, intelligence, hard work and supreme self-confidence. Her strong and sustained passion for development in all areas – social, political and economic – is a model.  Above all, her consistent pursuit of the goals she set for herself in 1953 through the succeeding five decades is testimony to her sense of mission.  I would argue that if leaders at the different levels of government (local, state and federal) were to consistently seek to promote education, women empowerment and quality public service as FMI did to the best of her ability in her lifetime, accelerated progress towards good governance and prosperity could become a reality in Nigeria within a decade or two.

Finally, I would like to strongly recommend that the biography of Chief Folayegbe Mosunmola Akintunde-Ighodalo should be re-printed and put in the hands of students in all tertiary institutions. She richly deserves to be celebrated as a visionary, an action lady in women’s empowerment movement, a pre-eminent social activist, and an icon of the good times of Nigeria’s civil service system.  Without question, she belongs to the top league of Nigerian women who contributed hugely to national development during the second half of the 20th century.


Adebo, S. 1984. “The role and performance of the Western Region Civil Service, 1955-62” in Our unforgettable years.  Ibadan: Macmillan Nigeria, pp. 268-305

Adenle, Tola. 2010. “Fola Akintunde-Ighodalo: a foundation as fitting tribute” in The Nation on Sunday, February 28th.

Denzer, LaRay. 2001. “Nigerian Women’s Empowerment: The Voice of Folayegbe Akintunde-Ighodalo, 1953 to the Present”.  Paper presented at Dartmouth College and York University/UNESCO/SSHRC Nigerian Hinterland Project Workshop… accessed online, June 23rd 2012.

____________ 2001. Folayegbe M. Akintunde-Ighodalo: a public life. Ibadan: Sam Bookman Publishers.

Ogunsanwo, Olufemi. 2009.  Awo. Unfinished greatness.  Lagos: Pace books.


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