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Flaming Flamingo: The life and times of Israel Adebajo – Part 3

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As earlier noted, Israel Adebajo was a polygamist, who had four wives and 14 children. As is typical in such cases once the patriarch departs, the feuding soon begins, as the glue that had kept the family together comes unstuck.

A 1971 landmark court case pitched two legal giants against each other in a Clash of the judicial Titans: Kehinde Sofola was Counsel for the defense, while Rotimi Williams was Counsel for the prosecution. Legendary Oxford-trained, Chief Justice of Lagos State, J.I.C. (John Idowu Conrad) Taylor added to the drama, delivering a magisterial judgment that has since been studied in legal classrooms across Nigeria.

The crux of the case revolved around Israel Adebajo’s wife Irene’s legal team arguing that her husband was not of sound mind when he made his will. They, therefore, requested that the document be declared null and void, arguing that Israel Adebajo had died intestate. Judge Taylor, however, in his final judgment, declared that the document was “the last will of a free and capable testator.” The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, before being dismissed by Chief Justice Taslim Elias. But the judicial process adversely affected the reputation of the company, scaring off potential foreign investors.

Israel Adebajo’s legacy is remarkable as a pre-independence entrepreneur and founder of one of the first privately-owned football clubs in Nigeria. None of the previous such clubs had the large following of Stationary Stores.

Even compared to the global level, his achievements were impressive. Though the Fiat-owning Agnelli family in Italy bought Juventus Football Club in 1923, television mogul, Silvio Berlusconi, took over AC Milan only in 1986. In the Nigerian context, it was only in the 1980s that business tycoons, Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu and Moshood Abiola, established successful football clubs with large followings.

But, both the company and the club fell on hard times following the death of their Founder. Many members of Stores’ double Challenge Cup-winning team left the club, as funding and bonuses dried up, and management became less efficient.

The club though still produced players like Yomi Peters; Haruna “Master Dribbler” Ilerika; Yakubu Mambo; Sanni Mohammed; Peter Rufai; Ike Shorounmu; Wakilu Oyenuga; Asudu Ibrahim; Taiwo Affinih; Daniel Ajibode; and Julius Akpele. Shooting Stars of Ibadan midfield maestro, Mudashiru Lawal, also joined Stores in the twilight of his career. The team continued to have the most fanatical supporters in Nigerian football, and won the Lagos State Challenge Cup in 1974 and 1976; the national FA Cup in 1982 and 1990; the Premier League in 1992; and narrowly lost to Cameroon’s Union Douala 2-1 in the two-legged final of the African Cup Winners’ Cup in 1981. The common refrain from the stands was: “Up Stores”; “Up Super”; “Triple Flaming”; and “Gbogbo wa l’ore Adebajo! Iyo!” (“Let us not out of malice, spoil a good thing since we are all friends of Israel Adebajo.”)

But Super Stores -widely known as “the darling club of Lagos”–would suffer many trials and tribulations, as other teams like Rangers, Shooting Stars, Bendel Insurance, Mighty Jets, Abiola Babes, Leventis, and Iwuanyanwu Internationale came to the fore. A bribery scandal in 1985 led to the exit of several players, accused of having taken money to throw a match. Stores were relegated from the Nigerian first division in 1993, a year after winning the league. Salaries and sign-on fees were irregularly paid. By this time, the club’s supporters consisted of businessmen, journalists, civil servants, politicians, professionals, taxi-drivers, touts, and “area boys.”

Stores’ fans acquired a fearsome reputation, and by the 1980s, were seen, in some quarters, as thuggish hooligans prepared to intimidate rival fans, as well as bully opposition players and referees. This image was reinforced by an incident in Ibadan during a Challenge Cup match against Rangers in September 1995, when Stores supporters invaded the pitch in the 87th minute after a controversial penalty was awarded to, and scored by, Rangers.

In the ensuing melee, the younger brother of Super Eagles legend Finidi George – Igeniwari – was shot in the team bus by what the Nigerian police often refer to as “a stray bullet” following the “accidental discharge” of a weapon. He later died of his wounds. Stores were thereafter banned for three years from playing in the Nigerian league.

At the end of the ban in 1998, the “Flaming Flamingos” were suspended from the second division following a legal dispute over the ownership of the club. Stores’ players, by this time, were playing without formal contracts, bonuses often went unpaid, and even some of their kit was not provided by the management. The club returned to the league in 2004, only to be relegated in the same season.

In one game against Nitel United, Stores notoriously arrived with only 11 players, and did not have a single substitute on the bench! Its fanatical Supporters Clubs – with 52 Nigerian chapters and 10 overseas branches by 2016 – mobilised funds and ensured that Stores returned to the league in 2014.

The following season, the “Adebajo Babes” did not play competitively in order to enable a restructuring of the club, before returning in 2017. Throughout these difficult times, fans remained fiercely loyal, raising money to pay players’ salaries and transfer fees; traveling with them across the country and the continent, and even supervising the training of the team and player conduct. A particularly important financier in the early 1990s was Sola Idowu, popularly known as “Mr. Anonymous.”

The demise of the football club was mirrored in the demise of the company. After the death of its Founder, the Nigerian Office Stationery Supply Stores became a shadow of its former self, barely functioning with a skeletal staff, as other companies like Onward Paper Mill took over the space occupied by Israel’s previous dominance of the sector.

NOSS Stores recovered somewhat in the 1970s but continued – like the football club – to limp from crisis to crisis, as successive post-1985 military governments in Nigeria devalued the naira, making it increasingly difficult for companies like NOSS to import parts and equipment from abroad. Fires to NOSS properties in 1982 and 2007 were further setbacks, even as the company struggled to build a new factory in Amuwo Odofin.

Israel Adebajo’s estate that should have been wound down by 1992 remains an area of contestation among family members. It was reported in the media in May 2019 that two of his children – Adeola and Adetilewa – were removed as executors of Israel’s will through a judgment of the Lagos High Court by Justice M.O. Obadina. This followed a complaint brought byone of Israel’s wives, Irene, and three children – Gloria, Adeleke, and Margaret -over non-remittance of proceeds from the estate. Fifty years after his death, the family patriarch’s soul has not been allowed to rest in peace, as family squabbles have continued. CONCLUDED.

Israel Adebajo was an enterprising, dedicated, and visionary pioneer who worked hard and played hard. He has left an enduring legacy on Nigerian commerce and sports. Israel, however, was full of paradoxes: he was from a poor background, but became a prosperous businessman; he had limited education, but used an acute intelligence to build a business empire; he was simultaneously polygamous and pious, and he was both an earnest entrepreneur and an extravagant entertainer. On this fiftieth anniversary and the golden jubilee of Israel’s passing, it is fitting to remember the life and times of the original “Flaming Flamingo” who left an indelible mark on the footprints of time. I was two years old when he died. He was my father.
Concluded

Professor Adebajo is Director, Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.


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