A good life
There is a relentlessness about Chief Ayo Adebanjo’s life works that makes you feel it is not about to reach a denouement. His quick wit, his compelling logic, his fearless embrace of the truth, his perception of the world through the prism created by his political hero, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, still defines his persona and delineates his world view even in his old age.
Yes Papa Adebanjo is 90! That is old age; the evening of life, the winter years when man is visited with cracking bones and unsteady gaze and the eyes are misty and the teeth, the few of them that are still remaining, revolt against the succulence of even well-cooked and seasoned goat meat. But not Adebanjo! After a lifetime of struggles and accomplishments, he seems to be revolting against old-age itself! Meeting him, you have to continuously remind yourself that this man is almost 90!! On Tuesday, April 3, Nigerians from all walks of life joined members of the Adebanjo’s family to mark his 90th birthday anniversary and present his memoir, Telling it as It is.
Adebanjo’s stamina and intellectual alertness defy his age. At 90, he still travels across the country in the pursuit of his life-long agenda of restructuring the Federation. This year alone, he has been to different parts of the country, holding meetings and exhorting younger people to be steadfast and resolute in the pursuit of the constitutional reform project for Nigeria. At the height of the Benue crisis, he was at the head of a delegation of Afenifere leaders that visited Benue State to commiserate with Governor Samuel Ortom over the massacre by suspected Fulani herdsmen. Adebanjo is a lawyer by training, a politician by vocation, a Christian by religion and an Awoist by faith. If the Pope should preach to Adebanjo on anything that Adebanjo believes is against the tenet of Awoism, he would not hesitate to march on.
Indeed it is Awoism, that secular religion of believers that calibrates Adebanjo’s life struggles and politics. He was one of the millions of young people across Nigeria who got caught under the spell of Awolowo charisma. In their old age, these men and some few women, still discusses Awolowo as someone who indeed witnessed the Transfiguration. To men like Adebanjo and his life-long friend, the late Sir Olaniwun Ajayi, Awo’s thoughts on federalism are original and beneficial and unless Nigeria adheres to those thoughts, the future is bleak. Adebanjo is not ready to exercise any doubt about that.
Younger people nowadays may not understand the enormity of Awolowo magic and the mesmerizing impact of his turbulent and colourful career. I have had the privilege of listening to the late Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, the first elected governor of old Ondo State, who was there at the beginning when the Action Group was founded. To Ajasin and members of that inner core of leadership that did the magic of the old West, Awolowo was extraordinary. Once I had gone in the company of my friend, Funmiyi Afuye, to see Papa Alfred Rewane, former private secretary to Chief Awolowo. Whenever Papa Rewane mentions Awolowo’s name, he would lift up his cap as a sign of respect! This was in 1995, eight years after Awolowo’s death. To this group of believers, Awolowo is an eternal presence.His thoughts, his philosophy, his deeds as Premier of the defunct Western Region, his books and his spiritual essence made him immortal.They regard him as one of the irunmole, a member of the Yoruba pantheon, ageless and eternal, who inhabits Oke-Itase in the sacred land of Ile-Ife.
When Adebanjo met with Awolowo during the First Republic, Awolowo’s years of power was behind him and his years of trouble was before him. Adebanjo was to share part of that trouble. He was employed as the Organising Secretary of the party in Awolowo’s home base, Remo Division of the West. It was a daunting task, but Adebanjo had youth, energy and idealism on his side. But he could never have imagined the trouble he was in! Soon Awolowo was arrested for treasonable felony and Adebanjo was declared a wanted man. He fled to Ghana, along with Samuel Ikoku, to take refuge with Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the radical President of Ghana and a personal friend of Awolowo.
After Nkrumah was toppled by the military in 1966, the new military regime deported Adebanjo and on landing in Nigeria, he was put in prison for many months. By the time of the Second Republic when Awolowo was embarking on the last of his titanic struggle for power, Adebanjo was a member of the praetorian guard. For him, there was no need to run for office. He was always present at the Ikenne, Ogun State, country home of the Awolowo until they gave him a permanent room in the large compound. He regarded his closeness to Awolowo as a sacred duty and not even the occasional disagreements with some of Awolowo’s children would make him change his mind.
Historians would need to examine the impact of the corrosive bickering of Awolowo’s followers after his death. Chief Adebanjo, in his autobiography, tried to address this subject but not exhaustively. Would a different kind of leadership have reacted differently to the opportunities and challenges that came after the sudden death of the Nigerian dictator, General Sani Abacha and then Chief Moshood Abiola in 1998? After Abiola’s shocking death, the leadership could not even agree on whom they would present for the office of President. Chief Bola Ige, the deputy leader of Afenifere wanted a shot at the job. Some of his colleagues wanted Chief Olu Falae, a high-profile new entrant into the power-game who once served as the Secretary to the Government of the Federation in the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. The result was the De Rovan debacle whose impact is still with us till today.
However, Adebanjo’s contribution is of more immediate impact. When the Alliance for Democracy, AD, was formed in 1998, some of our colleagues in Idile Oodua, had complained to Chief Ige about the composition of its national executives. We believed that Afenifere was sidelined and that only Chief Adebanjo, who became the deputy National Chairman, was prominent among the Afenifere red-cap chiefs. Ige retorted: “Adebanjo is enough for all of them!”
Sure enough, Adebanjo was to occupy his office with competence and unapologetic aplomb. The test came with the governorship primary elections in the West and especially in Lagos State. Before the election, the Afenifere leadership may have decided that their members should not seek elective posts. A member of this leadership was the legendary Chief Ganiyu Olawale Dawudu, who after Alhaji Kayode Jakande left the group in the wake of his presidential ambition, became the Lord of Lagos politics and leader of Afenifere. It was an open secret that his ambition was to become the governor of Lagos, but in deference to the Leadership, he shelved his ambition and backed Engineer Funsho Williams for the post.
This was not acceptable to many of us for Williams had served in the cabinet of Brigadier Buba Marwa, the populist military governor of Lagos State appointed by General Sani Abacha. We preferred Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a new returnee from exile who was our colleague in the struggle against Abacha dictatorship. Tinubu, who was a senator during the Ibrahim Babangida era, was also a trusted lieutenant of the late Moshood Abiola.
But Williams showed himself to be truly formidable and when the battle was joined, with the support of Dawodu, he was set to topple the applecart. It was Chief Adebanjo who insisted that the process must be re-examined and Tinubu emerged victorious with a narrow merging. For us it was history’s turning-point. From that point on, Lagos politics became subject to new dynamics that is still unraveling till today. The late Oba of Lagos, Kabiyesi Adeyinka Oyekan, to show that he was happy about the way the issue was resolved, honoured Tinubu with the traditional title of Asiwaju of Lagos.
Of course, Papa Adebanjo’s influence and impact is beyond Lagos. His relentless campaign over the years that Nigeria should retrace its step back to the 1963 Republican Constitution is going to dominate the nearest future as Nigeria moves to the next General Elections. He has done us a great favour by reducing his experience into a book.
However, there is one secret you will not find in Papa Adebanjo’s intimate autobiography. He still keeps away from us the secret of his youthful energy, his cerebral alertness, his capacity for debate and his forthright passion and optimism. May be to know this we may have to wait for the memoir of Mama, Chief (Mrs) Adebanjo, the great woman who has been managing and enduring this turbulent patriarch for more than five decades.