Nigeria’s Ambassador to The Netherlands, Dr Eniola Ajayi, speaks about her career, her foray into diplomacy and political engagements among other issues with GBENGA ADENIJI
Please, kindly take us briefly into a journey on your background.
I was born on January 18, 1965 to the family of Pa Oluwatoyin Ajayi of Iyin Ekiti and Mrs Elizabeth Ajayi of Ipoti Ekiti in Ekiti State.
I had my elementary education at St Georges Anglican Primary School, Ijero Ekiti, and Emmanuel Anglican Primary School, Ado Ekiti, before proceeding to Christ’s School, Ado Ekiti, for my secondary education. Following this, I had one year of A’Level education at the Ondo State College of Arts and Science in Ikare, Ondo State.
I went on to attend the University of Benin for a Bachelor of Science in Optometry; while I obtained a Master of Philosophy in Ocular Pathology at the Moorfields Eye Hospital and St. Thomas’ Hospital under the University of London.
Subsequently, I got a Doctor of Optometry Degree from the University of Benin. On my return (to Nigeria), I started my practice as an optometrist at the 445 Nigerian Airforce Hospital, Lagos, before branching out to private practice. I am married to Dr Adegboyega Oke and I am a mother to many children.
What was your childhood like?
My childhood was very happy with quality parenting. My parents were teachers at the time. My parents gave their best for us. My father made sure we all got our textbooks in spite of the fact that we all went to the same secondary school and our older siblings could have passed down their books to us. My father often told us that he would sell the last agbada (voluminous attire) on his back to educate us. He lived in Ekiti but ordered Ladybird books from abroad for us to read. Sometimes, he ordered clothes too. Our parents made sure we never lacked anything, even if it was at a personal sacrifice. My mum never considered anything she owned as too big for us to use, including her nice gold earrings. We also got ample doses of training in self-esteem and self-worth. We were taught about contentment from an early age. We also learnt values of honesty, loyalty, dedication and hard work.
What inspired your career choice and expansion of academic horizon?
I studied Optometry in the first place because I suffered from an allergic eye condition when I was a child. I used to be a regular visitor to the clinic of Professor Olurin at the University College Hospital, Ibadan, Oyo State, and I loved the way she took care of me; so I made up my mind to do the same when I grew up. I decided to learn more about treatment of eye diseases in particular, hence my area of specialisation. I wanted to know more about irreversible eye disorders, especially at the level of the retina, being the innermost sensory layer at the back of the eye.
What were your observations about eye health in Nigeria while in full-time practice?
I think the eye health sector in Nigeria has made and is making steady progress. When I started out as an optometrist in 1986, optometrists in Nigeria were counted in hundreds while ophthalmologists were even fewer. According to the Ophthalmological Society of Nigeria, the number of registered optometrists of today is about 5,400 while we have about 700 registered ophthalmologists. Although the number of both professionals are still less than required for our population, the improvement we have made is significant considering the fact that there were only about 450 practising ophthalmologists as of 2020.
There were only two schools of optometry in two universities in Nigeria when I started out but as of today, I believe there are seven schools of optometry in seven universities in Nigeria. The number of eye care professionals in the private and public sectors across the country is increasing daily. The quality of care and general awareness of the importance of eye health is also improving. The segment of our society that is still deprived of accessibility to good quality eye care is our rural areas. Most eye care professionals want to practise in the city.
How have you increased your contributions to eye care in Nigeria when you embraced private practice in 1997 as an optometrist/ocular pathologist?
When I started my practice in 1997, I got clear instructions from God not to charge for registration and basic eye examination at the clinic. I have continued to offer this free basic eye exam to make eye care accessible and affordable for the past 25 years since my two clinics are still active in Ikeja and Ikoyi, Lagos. We also offer free screening for the eye condition called glaucoma from time to time. I served as the Chairperson of the Nigerian Optometric Association, Lagos Branch, for two consecutive terms and uplifted the profession to enviable heights. One of our achievements during my tenure was the establishment of our non-governmental organisation— Save a Sight and Vision Foundation. This afforded us the platform to train teachers in schools to recognise eye disorders in pupils and students generally. We also used that platform to develop ‘Vision Corridors’ in public spaces in Lagos. It is a self-testing wall to check the status of vision.
Did you face any form of discrimination in your career on account of your gender?
The truth is that I did not face any discrimination in my career. As a matter of fact, I believe there are more women in my profession.
How did you meet your husband?
I met my husband in church.
What informed your decision to join politics when the governor of your state, Ekiti, Dr Kayode Fayemi, appointed you as commissioner for Education, Science and Technology?
What informed my decision was just a call to serve. I saw it as an opportunity to contribute to the development of the average Ekiti child. The education of the Nigerian child is my life’s mission.
What would you identify as your feats as the Commissioner for Education, Sciences and Technology, and later as Commissioner for the Environment?
There were many things I achieved under the direction of my governor, Dr Kayode Fayemi, at the time. Some of them include restructuring for even enrollment of students across the state for more effective and manageable class sizes. We also put solar laptops on the desks of our secondary school students, as well as their teachers for more contemporary education. We successfully carried out ‘Operation Renovate All Schools’ in Ekiti at the time. We improved infrastructure in our schools as well as learning outcomes. We did not stop at primary and secondary schools; we also touched our tertiary institutions in every area. Following the successful merger of our three universities at the time into the current Ekiti State University with the attendant development, EKSU moved several positions on the webometric ranking scale within a year. As of today, the university is the third best state university in Nigeria and 38th among universities in Nigeria.
Why do you think you lost an election in 2015 to represent Ekiti Central 1 at the House of Representatives after serving the state at commissionership level?
I don’t think we should call it ‘losing an election’. As we all later found out, it was more like being rigged out of an election. My major opponent at the time did not even campaign. I wouldn’t recognise him if I came in contact with him on the street.
How have you been able to measure up in a male-dominated political landscape?
I have always measured up to my peers, whether male or female, by giving the best of myself in service and dedication. I deliver consistently on my mandate. It is interesting to note that I defeated four men to get my party’s ticket through a free and fair primary. I was the only one who campaigned in the 24 wards and seven local government areas/local council development areas within my constituency at the time.
You served as Nigerian Ambassador to Hungary with concurrent accreditation to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia, and you are currently the country’s ambassador to The Netherlands. What are the core priorities guiding you in the world of diplomacy?
My core priorities rest on four pillars which I call the Four-Is: Inclusion for Nigerians and host country; Investment drives going both ways; Image Building for Nigeria and Nigerians with Innovative ways of rendering service for maximum impact. You could call them citizens diplomacy, economic diplomacy and diplomatic rebranding of how Nigeria is perceived abroad.
What challenges are you facing in your current position?
The main challenge we are facing is lack of trust from the Nigerian community, especially regarding issues with our consular department. Many people come to the mission with the preconceived notion that they are not going to get good service, so they come spoiling for a fight. We therefore spend a lot of time explaining simple procedures. (However), we are gaining the trust and are building credibility to the glory of God. We recently commenced a new drive to register Nigerian citizens in The Netherlands. It has been an uphill task to get their cooperation.
In engaging with Nigerians in the Diaspora, what traits can you identify in their quest for success and inclusion?
The average Nigerian is very focused with dogged and rugged determination to succeed. It is gratifying to meet many of them working with many multinational and multilateral organisations in The Hague and across The Netherlands. You find them at the upper echelon of these organisations where they are usually making an impact. The other admirable quality is their patriotism. You will be surprised to know that the Nigerian Shell Community in Holland celebrates our Independence Day annually. They even organised a virtual celebration during the period of COVID-19 lockdown in 2021. It is truly heart-warming that nearly all the organised groups such as Nigerians in Diaspora Organisation in Europe –Netherlands, United Nigeria Platform, Nigerian Community in Heineken and many more have taken out time to pay me courtesy visits since I resumed my tour of duty in The Netherlands about one year ago. Nigerians can also be found excelling at the International Criminal Court, International Court of Justice, Permanent Court of Arbitration, Common Fund for Commodities and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. I also recently had the honour of chairing the 99th session of the OPCW Executive Council.
Your party, the All Progressives Congress, witnessed many aspirants, including your political mentor, Dr Kayode Fayemi, desiring to contest the 2023 presidency on its platform. Do you think this is a healthy development considering the widespread disenchantment regarding the party’s performance in the last seven years?
Initially, I was a bit surprised that many people were bold enough to aspire for the office of the presidency of the Federal Republic of Nigeria until I learnt from my Ambassador colleague that there are 45 aspirants contesting the position of President in the Republic of Kenya currently. It is normal and healthy that many people in company with other competent individuals can aspire to lead. Our prayer is that the best man for the job will emerge. The truth is that many Nigerians expected more from us and rightly so. The issue is that we are unrelenting in our quest to meet that expectation. The problems we face in Nigeria are hydra-headed and not as simplistic as people make it out to be. We don’t believe in giving excuses in the APC but I can assure you that Nigerians will be better off trusting the APC above any other alternative until we all see the Nigeria of our dreams. One prayer I say all the time is that Nigeria will be great in my lifetime. I will continue to contribute my own quota to that greatness. One candidate among others that I can vouch for is still Dr Kayode Fayemi. I know this because I worked with him and I know he loves Nigeria and he will do the best for her. He understands governance. He is a unifier, brave, creative, resourceful, humane, visionary, knowledgeable, detribalised, experienced, exposed and progressive. He will do that which is in the best interest of the male and female, old and young, vulnerable and able, Christian, Muslim or others from the East, West, North and South. This is one choice that Nigerians can never regret.
What inspires your unique fashion choice?
What drives my fashion sense is comfort, appropriateness for the occasion and good quality cut. I also love showcasing our culture, especially when I am outside Nigeria.
Do you have a favourite food?
My favourite food is dodo (fried plantain) and efo riro (vegetable soup) with goat meat.
What inspires your passion for youth empowerment and support for pregnant women and those waiting-to-conceive, including new mums?
My passion for youth empowerment is borne out of the desire to see them excel in future because they are more malleable when they are young. We cannot afford to neglect the younger generation if we sincerely want to see Nigeria prosper.
My support for those believing God for children and those already pregnant within the church setting is because I know that people perish for lack of knowledge. It is not enough to pray without understanding the difference between ovulation and anovulation. Knowledge is power. For example, many people have been barren for many years simply because they have a short menstrual cycle and could be ovulating while menstruating. On account of the fact that most women avoid copulating at this time, it would take a thorough understanding of each situation to take appropriate steps to resolve these issues. I also put together a manual to help women from conception up to delivery and child training based on biblical principles.
What other lofty achievements do you desire in service to the fatherland?
My dream is that Nigeria will be great in my lifetime. My life’s mission is the education of the Nigerian child. I would like to re-orientate our people to embrace lofty values and to be considerate of their fellow men in all their dealings and aspirations.
How have you been able to cope and stay strong in service to humanity after losing your 27-year-old daughter on the day you were burying your 98-year-old father in Ekiti in 2018?
I listen a lot to worship songs. It has not been easy at all. I just focus on my service to God, my other children, work and service to humanity. I am just coming to terms with the fact that she is not coming back. She led such a beautiful and impactful life that it is simply impossible to forget her. There is no day since April 20, 2018, that I don’t remember her. I take consolation in the fact that I will see her again but in the meantime, I will not whisper her name– Oluwadolapo Ajayi.
How do you spend your leisure time?
I play a lot of scrabble and I write when I can. I enjoy discovering new places also.
What type of songs do you enjoy?
I enjoy Jazz, Spanish and gospel worship music.
How do you combine your other engagements with the demands of your office?
I do this by prioritising and scheduling important events properly. I also delegate what I can because I cannot be in two places at the same time.
What are your low and high moments?
My lowest moment was losing my first daughter. My highest moments were those times when people believing God for a child got pregnant after many years of waiting. The more personal one is seeing the grandchildren of my father— a retired school teacher— graduate from different Ivy League universities around the world. It has also been very rewarding for me to see children that I sponsored in school graduate. The latest is the story of an orphan who just graduated from medical school and is currently doing his housemanship at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital.