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Ayo Olukotun (1954-2023) – genteel spirit, roaring intellect

By Alade Rotimi-John
31 January 2023   |   3:27 am
Samuel Ayodele Olukotun was descended from a long line of distinguished teachers who lived in the backwaters of Okun land and whose progenitor was probably born in the wake of the 18th century.

Samuel Ayodele Olukotun was descended from a long line of distinguished teachers who lived in the backwaters of Okun land and whose progenitor was probably born in the wake of the 18th century. The line was predominantly Egbe Yoruba. The family settled in a picturesquely sited village of a few hundred inhabitants some 150 kilometres south-west of Kabba. Okun leading citizens were always oriented outwards first, towards Kaduna the then capital of Northern Region of Nigeria and other leading towns of the Region; and then to Lagos or other South-west towns and cities.

They were as informed and cosmopolitan in outlook as most inhabitants of their new settlements. They were generally thrifty, ambitious and moralistic in the Calvinist tradition. Many people find them kind and hospitable and therefore think them naïve.

This is the background against which Ayo Olukotun was born in 1954. Like many men of strong passions, Olukotun inspired affection. Many people loved him for his genius, his philosophy, his camaraderie and his uncommon morality. In his interpersonal relationships, Olukotun’s driving compulsion was to make himself clear. He garnished his speeches with adverbs, adjectives, and sometimes, with obscure classical allusions. Olukotun’s logic flowed naturally clearly from fixed assumptions. Even his emotion-laden diatribes supported his main line of argument.

At Ife, where Ayo sauntered through many courses and thereby honed his art, he was unmatched for ease of delivery and flow of words even as he stammered in a staccato of adumbrated explanations. Olukotun shunned the style or devices of the prepared or studied speaker. He sustained his main point as soon as he reached it through force of conviction and an uncanny power of rhetoric.

In many a doubtful case as to which direction a conversation was headed, Olukotun’s vivid word pictures were the denouement or the unravelling of the plot. An un-haughty or un-assuming debater, Olukotun however paid no reverence to age and gave no quarter to contemporaries. More than once he reviled a cantankerous sophomore, a Miss Vicky Preye Yogha, in “Vicky Preye Yogha – a final rebuttal” even as poor Preye threatened him with an infinitely unsustainable charge of contempt of her person.

Vicky Preye may have infringed some of the rules of inter-personal relationships but she objected to the manner of her censure in a published school journal and held some persons including irrepressible Olukotun responsible. Olukotun fired back in a response that gave many students a great fund of knowledge respecting new vocabularies and a refreshing turn of the use of the English language.

Unlike most of his classmates, Olukotun did not fall into the regular pattern of studentship. Ordinarily, he spared an infinitesimal part of his time studying his course work. But his academic routine was gruelling such that he refused to join the social clubs or the burgeoning cocktail circuits camaraderie even as a nominal member.

Socially, Olukotun was a hermit of a kind – dwelling or buried amongst encyclopedias or other such resource fount. Formal and informal debates in which he excelled was his forte. It was also a refreshing diversion for him even as he led his class inexorably and without exertion. Worn down by a stint in Student Union politics, becoming President in the bid, he was jaded by sheer workload.

At some point, Olukotun gave up hope of continually leading his class. The handicap was too much. By the time examination result was published, he started doubting if a degree was worth his while. Olukotun was a denizen of the Ife campus as he stayed in school on end prompting inquiries as to whether he had parents to return to during vacation. As a “Federal Government Scholar” (a phenomenon that may be strange to today’s school goers) he had enough scholarship funds to keep himself respectably lonely and well-provisioned.

As President of the University of Ife Students Union, Olukotun revealed himself as a mild reformer on some matters and a staunch ideologue on others. He presented a petition for the reform of the campus press to allow freedom to investigate and publish reports of inquiries into departments and extra-departmental units of the University. More indicative of Olukotun’s real concern was his attitude towards appropriations respecting capitation fee. He supported the move disclaiming the University’s obligation to assume part of the student union’s debt profile. He put through a proposition to construct a student’s union building to house union activities even as he decried the extravagance of rented facilities or of dependence on a motley crowd of suppliers of ordinarily-available “crockeries”. Olukotun’s presidency at Ife was an opportunity to showcase his courage particularly as he put himself forward as the voice of the people. He was fearless and uncompromising in the fight against oppression.

Olukotun’s scholarship has remained a solid contribution to the requirement to enlarge the surface area of public consciousness. In many of his works and particularly in Authoritarian State, Crisis of Democratisation and the Underground Media in Nigeria, Olukotun’s goal was to awaken our consciousness to the nascent reality of democracy.

He explored and expanded the theme of the relationship between the media and the government of the day in Repressive State and Resurgent Media Under Nigeria’s Military Dictatorship 1988-1998. Olukotun, an expert on the inner workings of the media, understood the infinite possibilities of society’s access to information and the necessity to ensure that there is no obstruction in that regard. Olukotun carved new perspectives regarding the development of the media in Nigeria.

He was unarguably the media’s intellectual fore-runner interrogating that institution’s mores, culture and operational methodology in an emerging state. Olukotun told truth to power in his weekly Friday Musings imagining what would befall the country if counsel such as his were not heeded. All through his works, he lamented how Nigeria has fallen below expectations compared to her starry-eyed projected development against her peer groups in Asia as of the 1960s. Olukotun’s intellectual integrity foreshadows his objectivity regarding his views on national issues. Olukotun has brandished our tomorrow before our very eyes if we do the right thing.

Olukotun’s vision of a new Nigeria resonates with the clear-eyed ideological position of “devolution of power to the sub-national governments”. He had hoped that 2023 election will lead “to arresting our trust crunch” A former classmate and mutual friend of ours has stoically summed up our angst respecting Olukotun’s demise by suggesting that the Creator may have taken him away to avoid his entrapment in the impending doom or the wrath of the Almighty.

But Olukotun was never one to abandon friends and colleagues to face alone the consequences of our collective indiscretion.

Rotimi-John, a lawyer and public affairs commentator was a course-mate of Olukotun.