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Mama Christie and the children of March

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March is the month of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. He was born on the 6th day of that month in 1909, a few years after the end of the Yoruba Civil Wars. He did not know that though he was born a member of the Remo clan of the Yoruba nation, a few years later, he would become officially a Nigerian. Not many Nigerians were involved in the ceremony on January 1, 1914, when Lord Frederick Lugard, a colonel in the British army, proclaimed the birth of a new country called Nigeria.

Awolowo was five years old. He was to spend most of his life in the service of the new estate. In the national consciousness, Awolowo remains the dominant son of March.

When Awolowo was the Premier of the defunct Western Region, another son of March was on the rise. By the time Awolowo was stepping down in 1959, Obasanjo was on the threshold of becoming a soldier, participating in a peace-keeping mission in the Congo and leading the 3rd Marine Commando Division to victory in the Nigerian Civil War that ended in January 1979. Though Obasanjo has since adopted March 5, as his official birthday, no one is really sure of that date. What Obasanjo was told by his late mother was that he was born on “Ifo market day.” Ifo is now a sprawling metropolis in Ogun State next to the industrial towns of Sango.

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From his humble beginning, he is today Africa’s best-known soldier, Nigeria’s longest-serving ruler and Abeokuta most famous resident. He is also Nigeria’s most famous farmer and a well-sought after international trouble-shooter. Despite his age, officially 83, he remains active on the national and international arena, pulling punches and taking punches without let. Among Nigerian statesmen and political leaders, his literary outputs can only be matched by those of Awolowo and perhaps the great journalist-statesman, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigerian last Governor-General and the first titular President.

In recent months Obasanjo has become a convert to the call for the political restructuring of Nigeria. This is a big shift for him and for Nigeria for it was Obasanjo, as military head of State, who bequeathed the presidential system of government to the country which made the Federal Government a lumbering Leviathan. We should remember however that both the Constitution Drafting Committee and the Constituent Assembly agreed that Nigeria needed a presidential system of government instead of the parliamentary system we inherited from the British.

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One original believer in the idea of a restructured federation was the late Professor Jacob Ade-Ajayi, Nigeria pre-eminent historian, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos and co-founder of the Ibadan School of African Historiography. Many times in the past, I and some of my colleagues have visited him in his home at Bodija, Ibadan, where his great wife, Mama Christie Ajayi was the tireless and enthusiastic hostess. One remarkable thing about that house was that the library extended from the ground floor, round the spiral staircase, into the first floor. The library fills one with awe.

It is not a surprise that Mama Ajayi too is a writer with considerable fecundity. Her genre is the children storybook and several generations of school children have benefited from her wisdom and creativity. Last Friday, Mrs Ajayi celebrated her 90th birthday anniversary where many of her old students and colleagues gathered to honour her. She is a spritely old woman, full of vitality and great humour. Among those present was Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State who described Mrs Ajayi as a great matriarch whom we owe a debt of gratitude.

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Mrs Ajayi is an Ibadan woman, despite her husband headship of Unilag, whom we honoured in Lagos. Honourable Wale Osun is a Lagos man who would be honoured in Ibadan this week. Osun was a member of the House of Representatives from Lagos in those days when Chief Moshood Abiola became our President-presumptive on the platform of the defunct Social Democratic Party, SDP. The annulment of Abiola’s historic victory at the June 12, 1993, presidential election, was to change the contour of Osun’s career and re-direct our ship of state.

Osun, who would mark his 70th birthday in Ibadan this week, was a frontline activist for Afenifere during the era of the cloak-and-dagger game that culminated in Babangida stepping aside from power in 1993. He was to find himself in the vortex of Afenifere politics during the hey-days when the two patriarchs, Chief Adekunle Ajasin and Senator Abraham Adesanya, ruled the roost. He is the author of Afenifere and the Kiss of Death, and Clapping with One Hand, the story of Abiola and June 12. The two books are controversial and they remain evergreen and invaluable resource materials for anyone who wants to relive the politics of those days.

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After victory was won with the restoration of democracy in 1999, the struggle within Afenifere continued even after the assassination of one of the protagonists, Chief Bola Ige, then the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice. Osun and many of our colleagues decided to form another organization called Afenifere Renewal Group, ARG. Though the ARG has made some remarkable progress, it has not been able to attain the muscularity of the old Afenifere. One of its most recent interventions is Amotekun Security Initiatives. The ARG continues to regards itself as one of the elite fighting forces of the Yoruba nation.

Osun has led the group from inception with clarity of thought, remarkable sure-footedness and éclat. He is reticent and deep. Despite his apparent self-effacement, his books advertise a man of iron who is ready to dare. The patriarch of the old Afenifere found it difficult to forgive Osun’s effrontery for daring to start another organization using the name Afenifere. During the obsequies of Sir Olaniwun Ajayi, one of the patriarchs struggled vainly to bar Osun from giving an oration.

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One man who would not succumb to any easy categorization is our National Poet, Odia Ofeimu, the fearless man of letters whose poetry and essays are filled with knowledge and patriotic fervor. In other lands and climes, people like Ofeimu would have been prevailed upon to offer national service. A few years ago, he wanted to be governor of his native Edo State. A party gave him its governorship ticket, but the era has not come when a man of ideas, using the strength of those ideas for the benefit of our people, would be offered the job of a governor.

About 15 years ago, I and Ofeimu had served on a panel at the University of Ibadan. Our duty was to interview prospective applicants for the post of Vice-Chancellor of the great university. It was my first-time opportunity to work at such a close range with the great poet. Ofeimu loves U.I, but it was Unilag that honoured him on Tuesday for his 70th birthday anniversary. A public lecture, delivered by Professor Biodun Jeyifo, was held at the Julius Berger Auditorium under the auspices of the Faculty of Arts.

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Ofeimu was the private secretary of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a position once held by the great Osibakoro, Chief Alfred Rewane. One day, a sensitive document in possession of Chief Awolowo, was leaked to the press. Chief Awolowo was seriously pained by this development and some fingers pointed at Ofeimu. He denied it and offered to resign. Awolowo accepted. It was later discovered that it was one of our senior colleagues working closely with Chief Awolowo who had leaked the document. Ofeimu declined to go back to his job.

Ofeimu was one of our great collaborators during the fight against the General Sani Abacha dictatorship. His contributions to THENEW and TEMPO magazines were informative, incisive and combative. He is totally fearless. He was one of the closest persons to Chief Bola Ige. In December 2001, I had gone to Ikoyi to meet Chief Ige at the official residence of his wife, Justice Atinuke Ige, who was then serving at the Appeal Court. It was after Ige was assaulted at the palace of the Ooni of Ife, the late Oba Okunade Sijuwade, by thugs suspected to be followers of Iyiola Omisore, former Deputy-Governor of Osun State, who had just them been impeached.

Ofeimu came in while I was reading the draft of a letter Ige had addressed to President Obasanjo. It was his letter of resignation from the government. I read it and gave my suggestions. I wanted to hand over to Ige, but he directed I should give it to Ofeimu. Ige regarded Ofeimu as totally honest, fearless, reliable, knowledgeable and wise. I agree with him.

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