Breaking Coconut With Your Head … periscoping Arogundade’s journey in unionism
Book: Breaking Coconut with your Head (Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism)
Author: Lanre Arogundade
Publisher: Great Tentacles Integrated Global Limited
Reviewer: Rotimi Olatunji, PhD
The choice of the title of Lanre’s autobiography- Breaking Coconut with your Head (Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism) is very intentional and most apt. Intentional in the sense that when you break the coconut with your head, it tells of the very hard choices that you deliberately make, for which of course, you are very well prepared to bare the consequences. Again, breaking the coconut with your head requires that you use your head (that is, your senses, or operating in wisdom) to carry out the task without getting consumed in the assignment. Even at that, when you break the coconut with your head, you are most likely to experience one degree of headache or the other.
The story of Breaking Coconut with your Head (Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism) is the story of a young man who deliberately stirred the hornet’s nest. (Omo ti o ba tu Ile Oyin, o gbodo ri ija Oyin- A child that tries to hurt the Bees in their hive will necessarily experience bee’s attack. The good thing about it all is that this Akowe did not act alone; he acted in concert with other equally revolutionary and progressive youths and patriots who, like the a gang or obstinacy of a Buffalo, took on a monstrous state apparatus, at one time civilian and the other time, the military, and came out, though bruised, but not killed.
Who is this personae who broke the Coconut with his Head?
The man who broke the Coconut with his head and lives to tell the story must truly be an enigma. The rider to the title of the autobiography, Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism gives us a clue.
The onomastic of AKOWE is found in chapters 1 and 12, while the ‘madness’ of the Secretary or Writer ( different meanings of the Yoruba word, AKOWE) for breaking the coconut with his head is scattered in the other different chapters of the book.
Right from his early days in the elementary school, the precocious boy called Lanre already made up his mind, so very early in life, and told whosoever cared to listen, including his peers in the classroom, “Akowe lemi o se, Akowe”, that is, “I will be a writer, a writer” (p.4). By the time the reader gets to the final chapter, this AKOWE has established himself as an accomplished secretary and writer, and an uncompromising student union leader, but not “Akowe Onijogbon”, (Troublesome Secretary) as Professor Wande Abimbola, then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ife, would want the reader to believe.
I now present to you Breaking Coconut with your Head (Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism , the autobiography of Lanre Arogundade, radical student union leader, former Secretary General, Student Union, University of Ife (UNIFE), legendary President of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) (1983/1984 session); human rights and free press advocate ; former Chairman, Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) House Chapel, The Republic newspaper and Chairman, NUJ, Lagos State Chapter, revolutionary, patriot and orator of the finest global standard; the phenomena Writer/Journalist who, in school and out of school, remains a Writer who is a thorn in the flesh of powers that be.
Traversing Breaking Coconut with your Head
The 241-paged autobiography is organised around 12 distinct but interrelated chapters, plus an extraordinary epilogue. The book is crafted around the following sub-themes:
Lanre’s Early Life (Chapter 1)
Baptism into Student Unionism (Chapter 2)
From Local to national Student Unionism (Chapter 3)
Battle for the Soul of NANS (Chapters 4-6)
Consolidation & NANS’ Leadership (Chapter 7)
The Jack Boot on NANS’ Neck. (Chapters 8 & 9)
Lanre: Swallowing the NSO Bait & becoming the most wanted student union leader (Chapters 10-11)
Unionism as a Way of Life (Chapter 12)
Author’s introspections and retrospections (Epilogue)
As with most other autobiographies, Breaking Coconut with your Head: Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism begins with the story of Lanre Arogundade’s birth, early life, growing up, the elementary and secondary education. It is one of a family genealogy rooted in the fluid South Western region cocoa-based economy; and one with early contact with Western education, along with its multi-religious compositions including the traditional as well as imported Christian and Islamic religions all of which had profound effects on the personality of the autobiographer. He was not born in any modern maternity home or hospital, but rather as one of the “Abagbedi Children” (p.1) , a sort of traditional birth attendant. As a result, Lanre’s belated access to orthodox immunisation meant that he successfully wrestled childhood killer diseases of his time. He “survived on local herbs” (p.2) and strong doses of prayers of the Aladura Church Movement of the famed Apostle Babalola’s Christ Apostolic Church (CAC) tradition. It is not surprising that Lanre’s head was not broken when he broke the coconut with his head, later in life.
His parentage was rooted in the Arogundade/Oginni/Osungbohun family of Ijebu-Jesa and Ilesa (present-day Osun State) who migrated to Osi-Ekiti (now Ekiti State), where Lanre was born. His father, Thomas Akinyemi Arogundade (Akin Onikoko), as a cocoa merchant, was a man of means, along with his mother, (Layoonu Hannah Arogundade) ever so dutiful, faithful, supporting, materially and spiritually, even as a prayer warrior, brough Lanre up with all care and love .
The seed of religious tolerance in Lanre was sown by his father (Akin Onikoko) who tolerated Lanre’s “romance with the Islamic faith and did not object to Lamide (Lanre’s sister) becoming a full-fledged Muslim and getting married to a Muslim” (p.6). Here you will see Lanre growing up as a member of the Choir at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, but jumping the physical and religious fence “to partake in the (Muslim) prayers”.
Hence, he was hailed by his peers as “Aafa Lanre during the street-to-street Islamic evangelism” (p.6). But later in life when he became a Marxist, Lanre is one with a difference because he is a Theist Marxist, rather than an Atheist Marxist.
The reader is therefore introduced in chapter one “The Morning Illuminates the Day” to Lanre’s most impressionistic stage of life at the St. Paul’s Primary School, Osi-Ekiti, where he encountered the travelling theatrical traditions of Duro Ladipo, Akin Ogungbe, Jimoh Aliu, Fashola, Ayox Arisekola, Omilani theatre, and Funmilayo Ranco, to mention but a few. Much later in life, he actually scripted and acted out real drama at critical stages when the Akowe was breaking the coconut with his head.
Moreover, the author’s early encounter with ATOKA, the Yoruba News magazine provoked his interest in the writers’ world, or print journalism. It was not surprising that during a drama session in the elementary school, he powerfully rendered a song “Eyin egbe mi (my dear peers) Akowe lemi o se, Akowe ( I will be a Writer, a Writer)” (p.4).
Similarly, when the young Lanre proceeded to Ekiti Parapo College, Ido Ekiti for his Secondary education, his oratorical prowess was incubated when he was exposed to inter-collegiate, including school television debates . He was an avid reader of the best of the literature in the African Writers’ Series (AWS), and many more.
Life often turns out as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lanre is today living his prophecy. He is Akowe (Writer) of global repute and a powerful Secretary- General of the University of Ife Student Union. Breaking Coconut with your Head: Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism is therefore a testimony of self-prophecy fulfilled.
Infantile Students’ Protest during secondary Education- Water Baptism
Interestingly, it was during Lanre’s secondary school days, specifically in February 1978 that he was baptized into anti-government protests , during which time, school teachers in Ondo State were up in arms against the Ondo State Military Governor Ita David Ikpeme at the time. By whatever arrangement, students were drafted into the fray by protesting secondary school teachers. In Lanre’s confession, he joined other students to damage “government property to show that we were also a part of the action” says the auto- biographer (p.13). From here, we begin to see the meteoric rise of the Akowe from life at Ekiti Parapo College, Ijebu-Jesa Grammar School, through Federal School of Arts & Science Ondo, to getting admitted to the University of Ife (UNIFE, now Obafemi Awolowo University-OAU) Ile-Ife to pursue a degree of Bachelor of Science, Psychology. It was at UNIFE that Lanre got initiated into the entirely fascinating world of student unionism, a world that subsequently defines his true essence and life’s trajectory. Lanre reflects:
In retrospect, the early schools we attended, the books we read and the fledgling activism in which we engaged, prepared our generation for the kind of activities that marked our later years in higher institutions. The addition for me and my brother were the political adventures with Awo and the lyrics of Fela. They marked the beginning of the journey to the world of radical and revolutionary activism for the socio-economic transformation of Nigeria. (p.16).
Very few in society make things happen, some (a handful, perhaps) help others to make things happen, while thousands or millions watch and cheer the very few that make things happen. It was in the process of watching and cheering (at the sidelines) the great actors in UNIFE Student Unionism that Lanre was caught in the web of student unionism at the Great Ife. Hence, chapter two was titled “From Sidelines to Sec-Gen”. From this time on, the reader begins to encounter the numerous instances when the author took several steps to break the coconut with his head.
First Student Union Protest at Unife: A Baptism of Fire
Great Ife (University of Ife) arguably has the most progressive, dynamic, radical and most patriotic tradition of student unionism on the African continent. It was at UNIFE that Lanre had a date with destiny through his contact with the finest set of student union leaders, including but not limited to the Wole Olaoye-led radical executive with Femi Falana (now SAN) as the Public Relations Officer. During the electioneering campaign to herald in a new student union during the Executive Council 1980/1981 session, Lanre notes that “The singing, drumming and dancing (of students during electioneering period) was impressive and before long, I found myself in the crowd of Femi Kuku, a presidential candidate” (p. 18).
Lanre soon discovered that there was a more powerful underground force behind the progressive student union politics at Ife, with his contact with the Alliance of Progressive Students (ALPS). A few of the leading members of ALPS at the time were contesting for student union posts. This included Wale Olajire (now Ajao) contesting for the post of President and Owei Lakenfa was gunning for the post of Public Relations Officer. Definitely, Lanre gravitated towards and eventually enlisted with ALPS, the radical (Marxist) students group, which group was to define and shape the political trajectory of Lanre Arogundade , his interventions in student unionism and journalistic practices.
As a 100 level undergraduate student, Lanre effectively participated in the popular June 7, 1981 Unife Students’ protest against the ritual murder of another student (Bukola Arogundade- not biologically related to Lanre). He tells the story:
On June 7, 1981 we trooped out with other students, with adventurous me among those in the frontline of the protest march because I wanted to see it all. Close to Mayfair Hotel (Ile-Ife), the police suddenly demanded a halt to the protest march, which the divisional police officer himself approved, and fired both tear gas and bullets. There was commotion. I was directly hit by the impact of the tear gas and ran blindly into the hotel and down one of the corridors, which unfortunately had no exit. Despite the fumes from the tear gas forming thick white smoke, I ran back to the road gasping for breath. About five armed policemen who were waiting ordered me to lie down with others who had been nabbed. As I did, one of them of violently hit the back of my shoulder with the stock of his gun. In that brief moment, we had some people shouting that some students had been killed. Too many students were actually running helter-skelter and as the policemen tried to make more arrests, I summoned the courage to bolt away with others. (p. 23).
If the first students demonstration at Ekiti Parapo in Ondo State in 1978 was a kind of water baptism into student protests, that of Ife in 1981 represented a baptism of Fire.
From Sidelines to Mainstream of UNIFE Student Unionism
By the time Lanre became a 200 level student, he had graduated from a mere observer to becoming an active participant in student union politics. He won the election into the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) as a parliamentarian. He recalls: “Because I had been used to speaking from my secondary school days, it was easy going round to canvass for votes. In the end I got elected” (p.29). He followed up in the 1982/1983 session with an attempt to contest for the office of Union’s PRO, but the Alliance for Progressive Students (ALPS) to which he belonged insisted that he should have a shot at the post of Secretary General . As a disciplined member of the group, he complied. The electioneering was as interesting as it was instructive. It was issue based. He recalls:
One of the benefits of membership of ALPS was exposure to national student politics and through that, I had knowledge of the NANS Charter of Demands. It became a selling point as most students were knowing about the document for the first time through me (p.29).
During the election, his oratorical skills were helpful and critical. But it was the progressive group of students, of which Lanre was one, that proved critical to the success at the poll. But the election itself was full of entertainment, which we choose to call Politainment at its best. There were campaign songs such as:
Lanre for Sec-Gen je ko wole (Lanre is running for Sec-Gen, let him win)
Lanre for Sec-Gen jeko wole (Lanre is running for Sec-Gen, let him win)
Lanre tee le o mo re ooo (Here is the Lanre you said you did not know)
Tee lee oomo (That you said you did not know)
Adumaradan tee lee oo mo ree oo (Here is the ebony black you said you did not know)
Tee lee o mo” (That you said you did not know)( p.28).
With his election into the Executive-Council of Unife Student Union as Secretary-General, the self-proclaimed prophecy of the Akowe (Secretary) has become a reality.
Notable battles were fought and won by the Student Union executive council during which time Lanre served as the Secretary- General. But they all came with great prices paid. For instance, he tells us of an incidence during the journey from Ile-Ife to Kaduna to invite Governor Balarabe Musa as a Guest Lecturer. The student union bus with which he was travelling along with the others was blown off the road by a powerful tornado between Kontagora and Kaduna. “It took the effort of some local folks to lift it back to the road”, he says (p.36).
During another trip from Ife, through Ibadan to Lagos to address a world press conference as union leaders, there was yet another accident with the Students’ Union old Peugeot 504 car, at a time EXCO had indicated its intention to purchase a new car (p.37). He speaks further:
I was on the wheels and few kilometers outside Ibadan, we suddenly sighted a corpse in the middle of the road. In an attempt to avoid running over it, I lost control of the vehicle, which made a dramatic turn towards the opposite direction and crashed into the railings. We had minor injuries, but MOJ who was asleep, was unscathed. (p.37)
This was a situation when, to avoid a overrunning the human remains (deadi bodi) Lanre, swerved but the move led to ‘Double Wahala’ (double trouble) as Fela Anikolapo Kuti (of blessed memory sang). Lanre had to face an impeachment threat by the UNIFE Students Representative Council (SRC) who seemed to have imputed that “Lanre and co were experimenting with their lives just to buy a new car”, as whimsically posed by Comrade Segun Sango (now late). With Segun’s intervention, Lanre concludes that “Everyone came to their senses, and we were let go” (p.39).
From Local to national Student Unionism
The prize of hard work is more work. Good performance in office as UNIFE Student Union Secretary- General earned Lanre Arogundade another endorsement to gun for the presidency of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), a decision that represents yet another attempt to break the coconut with his head.
The battle for the soul of NANS began with the contest at Unife’s SRC between Lanre and Mafo Ola John (MOJ). It was a ‘War between brothers’, as it were. In the end, Lanre carried the day. But the real NANS election at the University of Jos Convention was not a tea party. “However, it was a herculean battle before we got elected that memorable December evening in the cold harmattan that enveloped the University of Jos campus”(p.50). It was here that Lanre actually sweated (or nearly got frozen) in the cold on the Plateau both in the ordinary sense of the word and metaphorically during the hot contest for NANS presidency.
Nonetheless, victory came and Lanre assumed the Presidency of NANS. The author aptly captures the events that followed the NANS Jos election this way: “After the media fireworks, which tilted in our favour, we realised that the real victory lies in the acceptance our leadership by majority of the students’ unions, particularly those that were not at the Jos convention” (p.63).
Lanre Arogundade’-led NANS confronted both the civilian administration of the Shehu Shagari-led National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which government attempted to no avail to hijack NANS leadership during the Jos convention as well as the military junta of Major General Muhammadu Buhari/Brig. Tunde Idiagbon, which in December 1983 supplanted President Sheu Shagari. Later General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida pushed Buhari out of power. NANS under Lanre Arogundade was battle in arms against these three monstrous regimes. However, like similar other components of the struggle, Lanre only received big headaches for breaking the coconut with his head, but the head was not broken.
By the time the reader arrives Chapter 6, Lanre has effectively stamped his authority on the leadership of NANS, by which time it was an entirely different national political context. He won the election as NANS President in December 1983, but led NANS under the monstrous military regime that supplanted the Sheu Shagari (NPN) administration and the end of December 1983. By this time, Lanre’s head has become so hardened and toughened that he was in a better position to break more coconuts with his head. Indeed, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
The strategies adopted by NANS leadership to confront the military junta varied, depending on the issue at stake and the context of students’ challenges across the nation. Lanre and his EXCO undertook tours of tertiary institutions in the country after consolidating power, delivering “fiery speeches” everywhere he went.
When Cicero turned to the crowds in ancient Rome, people said, ‘great speech’. When Demosthenes spoke to the crowds in ancient Greece and people turned to each other, they said: ‘Let’s march.’ Let’s march for justice, dignity and fairness. That’s what we have all got to march for, and let’s march for it together.
The memory of the late Bola Ige, first Executive Governor of old Oyo State, called the Cicero of Esa Oke comes to mind here. Lanre is from Ipetu-Ijesha, which shares some affinity with the larger Ijesha kingdom. But Lanre’s speeches transcends the oratorical prowess of both the ancient Roman and the erstwhile Nigerian Cicero. He combines that with that of Demosthenes. Indeed when Lanre, speaks, the students not only say, how well has he spoke, they equally say “Let’s march’. Let us match against introduction of school fees, commercialisation of education. Let us march for a just and egalitarian Nigeria. For real, Nigerian students marched against introduction of fees in tertiary institutions under Lanre’s NANS leadership. The auto-biographer thereafter introduced us to numerous of his numerous fiery speeches, which speeches provoked several levels of successes for the NANS struggle.
During Lanre’s leadership of NANS, there was no one cap fits all approach to the struggle. At one instance, it was the Indira Gandhi’s passive resistance approach during which NANS championed lecture boycotts all over the country. The ‘sit at home’ strategy adopted led to the reinstatement of wrongfully dismissed Ngerevara Adumu, the University of Port Harcourt union President at the time.
At another instance, there were legal battles with anti-union university administrators, from the lowest court in the land up to the Apex Court- Supreme Court of Nigeria. A case in point that was captured in Breaking Coconut with your Head: Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism that of wrongfully dismissed University of Maiduguri students during the Vice-Chancellorship of Professor Jubril Aminu. With NANS backing, fully supported , pro bono by revolutionary lawyers in the country, Okon Ariba , a dismissed medical student of the University, who dared to fight battle up to the Supreme Court, won against the vindictive then Vice-Chancellor, later Federal Commissioner of Education and Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Prof Aminu.
At Ikere Ekiti College of Education, NANS’ struggle involved the mobilisation of the students against poor campus welfare issues. Lanre led a powerful delegation to the then Commissioner of Education in the State and in the end, the then Provost, Dr Oguntonade lost his job. It was at Ikere Ekiti that Lanre met a former female secondary school student, who marveled at how “the relatively gentle but playful EKPACO” (Ekitiparapo College student) had transformed into “the radical leader of Nigerian students” (p. 108).
NANS under Lanre and his EXCO traversed virtually all the states of the federation. On several of such journeys, there were several kisses with death as LANRE and his team were several times involved in motor accidents. At another occasion, Lanre nearly got frozen to death on the Plateau during which time Chris Abashi was quoted to have said that this Yoruba boy wanted to “come and die in the cold of Jos” (p. 112).
But the students struggle led by Lanre at the time was intellectually foregrounded. Through the intellectual inputs by the underground progressive forces at the different levels of the Patriotic Youth Movement of Nigeria (PYMN), including the comrades at the Alliance of Progressive Students (ALPS) at Ife, the NANS struggle was knowledge- driven, producing NANS Charter of Demands, along with the ingenious recommendations for the government to fund education through the setting up of Education Tax Fund (ETF), the precursor of the present Tertiary Education Fund (TETFund) now hijacked by the elite political class.
While all of these were going on, Lanre was at the most tender age of life. He could at the time be likened to a David who brought down the Goliath of the Bible fame. He was Secretary- General, UNIFE Student Union at about 21 years of age and led the NANS struggle at about 23 years. At that age, NANS under Lanre’s leadership fought the civilian administration of President Sheu Shagari to a standstill; along with the sadistic military regime of General Muhammadu Buhari/ Tunde Idiagbo , later General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, which regimes also capitulated.
Apparently, Lanre was leading an army of equally vibrant, radical and progressive youths who were not begging the gerontocratic oppressing elites to ‘empower’ the youth and give the youth opportunity to participate in the public sphere, or have a say in the affairs of the nation. Herein lies a great lesson for the Nigerian youth and students today. Lanre’s leadership of NANS has demonstrated that freedom is not free. Since Nigeria’s youth today are ‘Not too Young to Rule’, there is the need for intentional, progressive, radical and purposeful action on the part of the youth, if they must make a positive, yet progressive difference. Herein lies the significance of Breaking Coconut with your Head: Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism .
Describing NANS’ struggle during the time, Lanre recalls:
Our joy was that across the country from the north to the south and from the west to the east, the participation of students’ unions was massive and cut across all layers – radical, leftist, non-leftist, petit bourgeois and (the) religion (religious). With their encouragement, we continued with the action even as the government continued to reiterate that protests were not allowed on campuses (p. 134).
He speaks further:
Our strategy as we pressed on with the boycott was to discourage students from trooping to the streets to avoid being shot and killed as was the case during the Ali-must-go crisis of 1978. The calculation however was that the boycott of classes would lead to the closure of one institution of higher learning after the other since in those days, the convention was that if students boycotted classes for more than 48 hours, the concerned institution would automatically be shut down. (pp.135).
A few days into the boycott of classes, recalls that the Minister of Education, Yerima Abdullahi announced through the media that fees would no longer be introduced in the universities in the 1984/85 session. (p.136). Thus success was achieved, without any death recorded:
Truly, stopping school fees was a major victory for NANS. If anything, we were also proud of the fact that even though some schools were shut down and students’ union leaders expelled, we waged the struggle without incurring any loss of life (p. 137).
But victory came with great prices as Lanre tells. In chapter 9, the reader is served several unpalatable tales of arrest and detention of several students and leading members of the NANS team during the aborted NANS 14th Senate Meeting at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria. Here the author allows The Guardian newspaper to summarize the bitter experience in the hand of the state:
The Guardian report of Tuesday September 6, 1984, on the disruption of the Senate meeting written by Goddy Nnadi, one of the sympathetic journalists we invited to cover the event and Owei Lakemfa, also partly celebrated my escape. “An Inspector led the operation. The policemen rushed into the hall, to disperse delegates with batons and horsewhips. They eventually arrested 12 NANS members but missed their targets: Lanre Arogundade and Yau Yar’ Adua”. (p.147).
Interestingly, another firebrand Akowe (Secretary- General) of the then University of Sokoto student union, Mahmood Yakubu was there at the disrupted NANS Senate meeting at ABU. Ladies and Gentlemen, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, current Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), then Sec-Gen of University of Sokoto, was among Lanre’s team that paid the price for NANS patriotic war against commercialisation of education in Nigeria. Lanre tells us on page 146 of his autobiography:
Now a Professor and current chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Yakubu often on a lighter note, is fond of saying that if we thought we were students’ union government, the illusion disappeared when the real government came and forcefully dispersed everyone in Zaria. He also used to say that he did not know how his contingent found their way to the motor park and returned to Sokoto (p. 146)
There were also other instances where Lanre as NANS President was solely targeted to atone for the collective sin of NANS. One example that comes to mind was well captured in chapter 10. Here, you will see how Lanre swallowed the NSO bait in a futile attempt to collect the mystery parcel from the General Post Office Enuwa, Ile-Ife. It was here, alone and without any trace of a student, that the theatricals in Lanre Arogundade were acted out severally, just so to alert UNIFE students of his arrest by the security operatives of the federal government. The actor in him came out trying to pass a message through a female student at the Post office “Please go to the campus, tell the students’ union I have been arrested” (p. 169). At another occasion during the journey with NSO operatives from Ile-Ife to Ibadan , Lanre popped out his head from a moving car to attract the attention of a UNIFE student at the roadside along Ibadan-Ife road, screaming, “Lanre Arogundade, NSO, Lanre Arogundade, NSO, Lanre Arogundade NSO” (p. 169). This was a coded message, alerting the student by-stander that Lanre has been arrested by the NSO. At yet another incidence, on the final phase of the journey from Ife, through Ibadan to Lagos, sandwiched between two hefty security operatives , Lanre saw the ‘Ife Cultours’ bus driving ahead of the Police vehicle and decided to stage another play:
My heart raced as I reasoned that if I positioned myself very well, those in the front seat of the bus might just catch a glimpse of me particularly as the bus was higher than our car. Therefore as we moved close to the bus preparatory to overtaking it, I gently shifted backwards and rested my head against the back seat as if I wanted to catch a nap but positioned myself in such a way that I could see a little bit of my behind. Shouting was out of it now and I was now fervently praying for mother-luck. As our car began overtaking, I started turning my head slightly towards the right so that it would be possible for the front seat occupants to catch a glimpse of me. As the car aligned in the front of the bus after overtaking it, one of the students who sat in the middle on the front seat suddenly saw me and started waving in excitement. Simultaneously, the driver started flashing thus arousing the suspicion of the security agent who sat to my right. “Do you know those people in the bus? Did they see you?” Pretending as if I had been woken from a nap, I told him I didn’t know anything about the bus. Joy, however, swelled within me, knowing that once again that a combination of pure luck and divine intervention had made it possible that information on my latest location would reach the campus (pp. 172-173).
“My journey to the ‘watch list’ of NSO and later DSS must have started with my NANS presidency in 1984 and my detention in 1985” (p193). Up until February 10, 2022, on his return from a conflict-sensitive journalism training in The Gambia, Lanre was still subjected to harassment by the nation’s DSS who later disclosed that he had been on the ‘watch list’ for 38 years due to his involvement in students’ unionism .
Lanre: Unionist and Rights’ Activist for Life
There is a popular joke in the revolutionary students’ movement back then at UNIFE that ‘You can take the peasant out of the farm, but you cannot take peasantry away from the peasant.’ This is what we see in the last chapter of the autobiography where, as Ex-NANS President, Lanre patriotically refuses to abandon student unionism. Even when admonished by Professor Wande Abimbola, UNIFE Vice-Chancellor during his belated graduation ceremony on December 11, 1985 “Akowe … Yee se jogbon mo” (“The Secretary, stop being troublesome”), Lanre went “back on the campus to join the students’ union delegation to the Kano convention” (p.195). At the Kano convention, Lanre was face-to-face again with Professor Jubril Aminu, then Minister of Education and avowed enemy of students’ unionism cum-NANS struggles, who after listening to Lanre’s fiery speech during the opening ceremony at the NANS Congress, whispered to Lanre “You this boy, you are still talking this your nonsense”(p.203).
Moreover, Lanre’s participation at that NANS Congress at BUK “… almost ended in tragedy” (p.204) with his capture by local vigilante operatives, along with his immediate successor as NANS President, Hilkiya Bubajoda. But none of these perils hindered Lanre from engaging in subsequent students struggles of the 1880s and 1990s, along with other strategic alliances with the Nigerian labour movement, human rights activists groups and other critical stakeholders in the onward match to creating a better Nigerian society.
Somebody once wrote: “Deciding what to do is as important as deciding what not to do”. Because of his life-long commitment to the struggle of Nigerian students, Lanre was on another solidarity visit to the UNIFE student union and comrades as a guest speaker in 1999. Lanre had addressed the students on July 7th , 1999 and was persuaded by Lanre Adeleke (Legacy) the then UNIFE student union president to stay an extra day or two. This time around, Lanre just decided to stay only one night as a guest of the student union president. He speaks further: “In line with the tradition, I not only slept on campus but in Room 271, Fajuyi Hall, the official room of the president.” But against further suggestion to extent his stay, , Lanre writes further “but I stood my ground and departed the campus. If I had stayed back it probably would have meant sleeping in his official room again” (p. 215). Happily, Lanre decided not to stay an additional day, but sadly:
In the early hours of July 10, 1999, tragedy struck when a group of cultists invaded the campus and stormed room 273, where they shot and killed George Iwilade (fondly called Afrika), the students’ union Secretary. They also stormed Legacy’s room 271, but he had luckily bolted after hearing gun shots. At the end of it all, five students lay dead. (p.216).
He ends the chapter with this rhetorical question: “Each time, I reflected on the macabre turn of events in that July, 1999, I always ponder: What could have happened if I was still around on the campus?” As the reader can now see, deciding what to do is as important as deciding what not to do (p.216).
In the Epilogue, we come across the author’s introspections and retrospections on the student union struggles of the 1980s and 1990s in Nigeria. Here, the reader will encounter lessons in patriotism, nation-building and way forward, compellingly presented by a matured rights activist.
Role of virile and progressive political movement in shaping responsible student unionism
The significant difference between Breaking Coconut with your Head (Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism) and most other autobiographies I have read is that this Akowe Onijogbon did not portray himself as the hero of NANS’ stuggle. He situated the struggle within the context of the revolutionary ideological context and class dynamics of the period. He avers:
The political, ideological, intellectual, revolutionary and radical backbone of NANS in the 1980s was the PYMN (Patriotic Youth Movement of Nigeria), an umbrella body for socialist, Marxist, Black Nationalist, anti-apartheid, pan-Africanist and other radical or left leaning students’ groups in institutions of higher learning. The PYMN cadres were the main brainbox of the formation of NANS between 1979 and 1980 as successor to the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) which was banned by the Obasanjo military regime in 1978 following the ‘Ali-must-go’ nationwide protest against increase in feeding fees in the Universities (p. 40).
The PYMN comrades, Lanre says:
Believed that the new national students’ body must be knowledge-based and that its leaders need to be clear-headed while being politically, ideologically and intellectually oriented. They correctly envisaged that battles would subsequently be fought at the multi-levels of ideas, protests, demonstrations and alliance with the mass organisations of the working class, the peasants and the youths. They also envisaged that NANS must defend the welfare of students in the face of growing government attacks on education (p.41).
He draws our attention to the place of progressive and highly focused revolutionary underground movement in the success of a seemingly formidable mass movement. In this autobiography we see the roles played by the Alliance of Progressive Students (ALPS) and its subsequent successors in serving as the backbone of progressive unionism of the time. He lavishly sang the praises of unsung heroes and heroines of the students’ struggle beginning from Ife to the center-stage of national students’ movement.
Moreover, he eulogizes the mentorship roles of UNIFE predecessors in students’ unionism, including Comrade Femi Falana, (now SAN) Owei Lakenfa, Dapo Olorunyomi (now of Premium Times and others. He relishes with glee, significant contributions of contemporaries and or comrades in the struggle including Adeolu Ademoyo, Taye Abiodun, Bola Bolawole, Tunde Ademoyo, Wale Ajayi, Muyiwa Osunkoya, Peter Wanogho, Bola Babawale , Segun Aderemi (late Segun Sango ), Yinka Olumide-Fusika (now SAN) and others too numerous to mention here. Olumide Akanmu (Pharmacist, now CEO of O-Pay Nigeria), Biodun Owonikoko, (now SAN) Alfred Adegoke, (now Lawyer) Yinka Odumakin (late Journalist and Secretary, Afenifere Yoruba socio-Cultural group) and Niyi Adewunmi (now late lawyer) are also well celebrated.
The author sees his odyssey into student unionism not as one of ambition, but a call to patriotic service. He tells us of the processes of recruitment of student leadership put in place by ALPS and PYMN. He reflects further:
One of the traditions of the student revolutionary movement of that era was to discourage the idea of individuals unduly promoting themselves for union offices without prior discussion with the collective or the organisation. Those who toed the path of self-aggrandisement were considered potential opportunists who, should they succeed, might end up working against the collective interest, since ab initio they had put the self above the rest. It was, therefore, usually the duty of the leadership of the collective to analyse the objective situation and decide on who among the comrades would subjectively fit into particular positions. The approach also derived from the understanding that the right balance had to be maintained between the need to build the students’ unions and the need to build the PYMN branches politically and ideologically, a task for which the best of the cadres were equally needed (p.43).
In a nutshell, Breaking Coconut with your Head is a well told story of the revolutionary youth movement in Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s, with Lanre as one of the arrowheads
“Why are all the bad people doing well?” – Professor Jubril Aminu
In a chance encounter, Professor Jubril Aminu (later Senator ) expressed surprise that Lanre has made so much progress later in life after his years of NANS leadership and slyly asked Lanre: “Why are all the bad people doing well? I also saw Labaran Maku few days ago and he too is doing well. How come all you bad boys of yesteryears are doing well?” (p.204). If Professor Aminu reads Lanre Arogundade’s Breaking Coconut with your Head (Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism) , he would come into contact with other bad boys of yesteryears that are today doing excellently well. The list include, but not limited to:
Professor Mahmood Yakubu (Secretary General of the University of Sokoto Students Union; Comrade Femi Falana (SAN), Public Relations Officer (PRO); Festus Okoye, (Lawyer and currently National Commissioner for Information and Voter Education (INEC); Tunde Babawale (NANS Deputy Senate President and later Professor and former Director-General, Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC); Olu Oguibe (Secretary-General UNN Students’ Union (1983/84) (later Professor); Wole Iyamu from the Law faculty (now the Solicitor General and Permanent Secretary, Edo State Ministry of Justice); Yemi Akinseye-George (now SAN) of the Law Faculty, UNILAG; Dr. Kayode Fayemi (Now Governor of Ekiti State); Sola Olorunyomi of UNILORIN, (now Professor, University of Ibadan); Comrade Femi Aborisade (Labour activist and leader, now lawyer; Bunmi Oyewole, one of the coordinators of NANS in Zone D, now a Justice of the Federal Court of Appeal; Olumide-Fusika (SAN); Tunji Bello (formerly Secretary General University of Ibadan Students’ Union; Olumide-Akanmu (CEO, O-Pay Nigeria) and formerly Comrade (now Ogbeni) Rauf Aregbesola are all the bad boys of yesteryears who are now doing extremely well.
The list is indeed endless. If being one of the above personalities is what it is to be labelled “bad boys”, then it is great to be listed in that group. It is indeed arguable that if these ‘bad boys’ are still bonding in the Nigeria re-building project, possibly within a uniquely different political party framework, the positive change we seek would indeed have become a reality. These are patriots who sacrificed their yesteryears so as to build a just and egalitarian society.
Accordingly, Breaking Coconut with your Head (Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism) is not just about the heroism of Lanre Arogundade. It is a well-documented account of the collective sacrifices of a patriotic revolutionary and progressive generation of youths who dared to make a difference and positively re-write the story of Nigeria, our dear Fatherland.
The Missing gaps in that Breaking Coconut with your Head (Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism)
Although Breaking Coconut with your Head (Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism) is a story well told, there are a few missing gaps. From start to finish, the author had one goal in mind- bring to the knowledge of the reader the account of his involvement, along with other progressive youths, in the national student union movement of the 1980s and 1990s in Nigeria. That he succeeded in doing, excellently well too.
However, in his preoccupation with telling a compelling story, Lanre forgot to tell us about his exact date of birth, suggesting, wrongly that Thomas Akinyemi Arogundade (his biological Father) did not accurately document Lanre’s birth date. This would not have been true because Lanre proudly says this of the meticulous nature of his father “Being a super record keeper, my dad produced all my certificates and even primary school results within a short time” (p. 176). It was therefore possibly an omission that Lanre’s exact birth date was left out of his autobiography.
Moreover, the soft spoken, amiable Lanre Arokundade, with a good dress sense (he wore a three-piece suite during the speech night while contesting for UNIFE Secretary General) left out another important detail of his social life, apart from being a ‘Kegite’ (Palmwine Drinkers; Club) and an avid lover of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’ s music. The auto-biographer left out details such as how he found love, in-between the student struggle, or how love eventually found him, while trying to break the Coconut with his head. That again would have been another omission because his love of many years is sitting right here with him, along with the many beautiful products of love. Perhaps, also the reader has to wait for that part of Lanre’s interventions as Chairman, Lagos State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) (1995 to 1999) or similar other ones when will complete the remaining part of his Akowe story at another landmark age, having recently crossed the Diamond age.
By and large, Breaking Coconut with your Head (Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism) shows that when youths come together, imbued with a high sense of patriotism, dedication, determination, strong desire, disciple and selfless sacrifices to dare unjust status quo, victory is certain. Evidently, the hope of any nation lies in the positive and intentional intervention of daring youth determined to attain a just, fair, egalitarian society.
This Akowe is a Theist Marxist. Therefore, let me point to a similarity between Breaking Coconut with your Head and the testimonies of Apostle Paul of the New Testament fame. In 2 Corinthians (KJV) Chapter 11, verses 23-27, Paul summarised his own testimonies thus:
23 Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. 24 Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. 25 Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
Like Apostle Paul, through that Breaking Coconut with your Head (Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism), Lanre Arogundade seems to be telling the reader, ‘Are you a student unionist? I am more. In labours, I did that more abundantly; in stripes, above measure, in prison, more frequent; face to face with death, more often. … In journeys, often; in perils of water, in perils of robbers, in perils of fellow Nigerians … in the city; in the wilderness… in hunger and in thirsts ; in fasting often, in the cold of Jos and many more.
Today, I thank the almighty God for making the auto-biographer attain the Diamond age, after breaking coconut with his head several times, but came out without a broken skull. Congratulations, Mr and Mrs Lanre Arogundade and the children who have long endured the numerous missed attention of an itinerant husband and father; unionist, rights activist, Akowe and revolutionary patriot. I now welcome readers to the exciting world of Lanre Arogundade’s Breaking Coconut with your Head (Akowe’s Journey in Student Unionism).
The Chief presenter, Mr Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention.
Professor Rotimi Olatunji, PhD, arpa, MNIPR; MNAL,
Faculty of Communication & Media Studies,
Lagos State University, Ojo, Lagos
Voice: +234 8034716840; E-mail: email@example.com
Date: 10th October 2022.
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/charlottehigginsblog/2010/may/04/general-election-2010-classics (retrieved on 5th October, 2022