Gbolabo Ogunsanwo: Passage of an idealist
Upon hearing the demise of Gbolabo Ogunsanwo recently, one of our friends and contemporaries described him as “one of the finest of our generation.” He could not have been more apt.
We met at the University of Lagos as freshmen in 1968. Gbolabo was physically, mentally and intellectually engaging. As a practising journalist with the Daily Times he already had an emergent name and was on the way to exposure to the privileges of fame. He was handsome, confident, mature and debonair. Financially, he was, endowed because by the grace of the forward looking Managing Director of Daily Times, the foremost media group of the time, the iconic Alhaji Babatunde Jose, Gbolabo was on his full salary even while he was a full time student in the university. Given our handicap, we didn’t dare to compete with Gbolabo on any score! He was ahead of us. Gbolabo was one of Jose’s blue eye boys and obviously, one of the budding stars on whom the old man hung the hope of the Daily Times of the future.
But Gbolabo was anything but spoilt. He plunged into his education with such severity that you would have thought he wanted to finish his three years of study in one year! Gbolabo walked three kilometres to the library and was there for the opening of the library at 6: 00am every morning. There was an obvious hunger and passion in the bones of the young man. By the policy of the library, the first person to arrive was entitled to make his choice of some facilities. Gbolabo was therefore able to secure the same carrel of study everyday for three years!
The jury of the boys was out asking whether this unusual fastidiousness was vice or virtue. The lazy students, whose hall of residence was barely 200 meters to the library but were still snoring when Gbolabo was already in the library thought it was a mark of greed! But if the proponents of this thought were not, obviously, so lazy, their jaundiced proposition could have been worthy of some thought. Whatever may be the merit or otherwise of their argument, the total commitment of Gbolabo to the cause, showed his character and his tenacity of purpose. It was clear that when Gbolabo wanted something there was no stopping him. He was competitive, fastidious, sacrificial and totally focused. He graduated on top of his class with a Second Class Upper Division specializing in Philosophy and English.
But whatever may be his shortcomings, Gbolabo had a large heart. I recall that he and I, individually, nursed the ambition of becoming the President of the University of Lagos Students Union. There was pressure among our mutual friends that we should reconcile our interests so that one ran for the presidency and the other the Secretaryship. And since I was the younger of the two there was pressure that I should run as Secretary.
I gave the counsel a serious thought. But after a deep introspection and sharing with my Henry Kissinger, Omoruyi Alonge, we came to the conclusion that Gbolabo and I may have inherent differences, which was likely to result in a conflict of style and philosophy in the running the student union government. I therefore decided that what I wanted was the presidency and nothing else.
By the time I came to that clear conclusion, Gbolabo was away in England on holidays. I decided that it would not be fair to him to hear of my decision from someone else. I had to await his return before launching out. On the day of his return from the UK, Omoruyi Alonge and I welcomed him at the airport, helped to clear his luggage at the international wing of the airport where MM2 stands today and then, as his taxi was about to take off, I handed over a note to him. It tersely announced my decision to run for the office of President of the Students Union. It also said that if he also decided to run I hoped we would have a clean, keen but impersonal contest.
I proceeded to assemble teams to handle various aspects of my campaign. From then onwards, our strategy focused on Gbolabo being the formidable opponent I would confront and how to deal with contesting against a friend. Up to this day, I do not know, and did not ask why, Gbolabo did not come out and launch his campaign. After waiting for quite some time, my strategy team and I conferred again at our strategy session on the opponent who has refused to show up. Meanwhile a strong opponent from the College of Medicine, Niran Adeniji, had, unexpectedly, come into the race. He was older than I, mature and articulate. We concluded that if somehow we could get Gbolabo’s support it could be crucial to my bid. I therefore sent my Henry Kissinger to go on a shuttle diplomacy with a view to coalescing our interests. He was to ask for the support of Gbolabo in return for my promise to sponsor him for the presidency of the National Union of Nigerian Students if he would support my candidacy and I won. Gbolabo accepted my offer and gave me his open blessing and support. It was a masterstroke. As it turned out, the support was more crucial than we had thought. Niran was a hard nut, an old fox. If Gbolabo had not been on my side, the split of the main campus would have enabled Niran Adeniji to win. In the end, I got the coveted prize handily.
As promised, I sponsored Gbolabo for the NUNS position despite some vocal opposition raised by some vested interests. They said I was sponsoring my friends- Ogunsanwo- President; Alonge-Secretary; Ayanlaja- Treasurer and Adegbola – Financial Secretary. But a promise is a promise and loyalty has its reward. Unfortunately for us, we lost that bid at the NUNS Convention held at the University of Ibadan by a single vote of 36:37 in December 1969 to Said Abubakar of Ahmadu Bello University. His team included Tom Ikimi who later became Abacha’s Foreign Minister and late Alex Adedipe who became the Leader of the House in Ondo State under Governor Ajasin. That was our first experience of realpolitik and defeat. In the end, we were betrayed by some of our dear friends. It was a crushing defeat and a very bitter pill to swallow. Gbolabo was in severe pain and I recall him swearing in agony that night that any one living on politics was cursed!
All through my Presidency I enjoyed Gbolabo’s support and we fought many battles together. But there was an interesting side to Gbolabo’s professional life which I should mention. As a pressman he had the attitude of a secret service undercover agent. He simply won’t talk on some situations. If you asked a direct question on such a matter, he would laugh hilariously and move on. Though we suspected it but he never owned up to being the writer of a weekly column in the Lagos Weekend under the pen name of Macaulay, which zeroed in on the happenings on the campus. It was Gbolabo’s edge to take students before the court of public opinion under the cover of anonymity. He enjoyed the power and mischief but never gave the secret away, close as we were supposed to be!
Gbolabo was as versatile in the sciences as he was in the arts. Initially he wanted to be a doctor. In his HSC class at the Ijebu Ode Grammar School his subjects were Chemistry, Biology, Physics. But he was soon to discover his real calling by winning two major national essay competitions, the John F Kennedy Essay Competition and the Milo National Essay Competition. These performances made him a star student at Ijebu Ode Grammar School.
These two celebrated essay competitions pointed Gbolabo at his real calling. He grew up to become a journalist’s journalist. It flowed in his veins. He was lively with the news. He was a remarkable wordsmith and a good dramatist whose column was a must read for many people across Nigeria. As Editor of Sunday Times he ignited public interest and took its readership from a modest 300,000 to nearly a million after taking over the mantle. He wrote several landmark essays like “The Babangida in All of Us”, a biting satire, which kept the nation engaged, guilty and sober. He said pointedly that Babangida, who we all decried with such relish, was an epitome of all of us! Gbolabo became a must read for hundreds of thousands of Nigerians every Sunday.
To be continued
Adefulu MFR, businessman, chairman of companies, chairman of Nigeria British Chamber of Commerce.