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Why unending controversy beclouds Obasanjo’s paternity

By Gbenga Akinfenwa
08 January 2023   |   4:22 am
The controversy about former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s non-Yoruba ancestry has been an endless debate over the years, especially in political circles and during critical electioneering periods when he also throws his weight around. While many consider such narrative as an affront on the man who commands so much respect within and outside the country, GBENGA…

Family house, where Obasanjo was born in Ibogun Olaogun. inset is his family house in Olusomi, Owu-Totoro, Abeokuta

The controversy about former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s non-Yoruba ancestry has been an endless debate over the years, especially in political circles and during critical electioneering periods when he also throws his weight around. While many consider such narrative as an affront on the man who commands so much respect within and outside the country, GBENGA AKINFENWA toured Adenrele, Arigbajo, Onihale, Onigbedu, Ibogun and Olusomi Compounds in Abeokuta to unravel some hidden facts.

Despite his influence, achievements and record as a two-time head of state and nationalist, former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s paternity has been an issue of endless debate over the years.

For nearly two decades, tales of Obasanjo’s non-Yoruba ancestry, which has gained traction with every passing year, have refused to fizzle out.
Born in Ibogun, Ifo local council of Ogun State in the 1930s, Obasanjo was a military leader who served as Nigeria’s head of state from 1976 to 1979 and later as civilian President between 1999 and 2007.
After his education in Abeokuta, Ogun State, he joined the Nigerian Army, where he specialised in engineering. He spent time on assignments in the Congo, Britain, and India, rising to the rank of Major.
In the latter part of the 1960s, he played a senior role in combating Biafran separatists during the Nigerian Civil War, accepting their surrender in 1970. In 1975, a military coup established a junta with Obasanjo as part of its ruling triumvirate.

After the triumvirate’s leader, Murtala Muhammed, was assassinated the following year, the Supreme Military Council appointed Obasanjo as head of state. Continuing with Murtala’s policies, Obasanjo oversaw budgetary cutbacks and an expansion in access to free school education.

Increasingly aligning Nigeria with the United States, he also emphasised support for groups opposing white minority rule in southern Africa. He was committed to restoring democracy; Obasanjo oversaw the 1979 election, after which he handed over power to the newly elected civilian president, Shehu Shagari.
In 1995, Obasanjo was arrested and convicted of being part of a planned coup, despite protesting his innocence. While in prison, he became a ‘born again’ Christian, with providentialism strongly influencing his subsequent worldview.

He was released following the death of the then head of state, Gen. Sani Abacha in 1998. In the months that heralded the transition programme to the Fourth Republic, a combination of factors saw Obasanjo becoming the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate for the 1999 presidential election. He later won the election and was sworn in as the President.
He was re-elected in the 2003 election. Influenced by Pan-Africanist ideas, he was a keen supporter of the formation of the African Union and served as its chair from 2004 to 2006. In retirement, he earned a PhD in Theology from the National Open University of Nigeria.

Notwithstanding his strides and feats in the country, the Balogun of Owuland in Abeokuta has remained at the centre of a paternity debate for close to two decades.

Though the debate actually started between 2006 and 2007 as a rumour, the media hype has persisted on and off. According to the former president’s critics, especially those who broke the tales of his non-Yoruba ancestry, Obasanjo is the product of a romantic liaison between an Igbo police officer who lived in the Abeokuta area in the 1930s, and Ashabi – his mother. That liaison supposedly led to his birth.

The tales had it that the police officer, who was an Onitsha prince, later became Igwe Joseph Okwudili Onyejekwe, the Obi Onitsha Ado N’Idu, Anambra State, who reigned between 1962 and 1970. It was alleged that the Onitsha prince jettisoned the idea of taking Ashabi as wife because doing so would hurt his chances of ascending the throne. Onyejekwe, it was further alleged, actually issued a recommendation that facilitated Obasanjo’s enlistment into the Nigerian Army in 1958.

In what seemed like corroboration, a Third Republic senator and chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Senator Anthony Adefuye re-echoed the saying that former President Obasanjo is not from the Southwest. He noted that Obasanjo is an Igbo man from Anambra state in Southeast Nigeria, adding that the elder statesman knows this himself.

Speaking with a national Daily, Adefuye explained that Obasanjo is not a Yoruba man because his father is from Anambra while his mother is of Yoruba descent. 

“Have you ever heard of any other person bearing Obasanjo before except him? Have you seen a man in that category with a mark before? Only disputed children at that time were given marks so that they can know their son. It was when they wanted to come and take him by a force that they gave him marks.  

“Obasanjo himself knows what I’m talking about and he can’t dispute it because it is not new. A lot of people have written about it before and his father’s photograph was also published in the papers. Obasanjo is an Igbo man from Anambra state. And that was why, during his tenure for eight years, he completely ignored the Southwest.  

“Throughout his eight years, he did nothing on the Lagos-Ibadan expressway. But he did a lot for his people in the Southeast. He picked five Ministers from Anambra where his father comes from and even appointed the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) from Anambra,” he said.

Though the former President’s allies have debunked this narrative on several occasions, two issues have continued to crop-up whenever the debate comes up, which often lends credence to the narrative.

One of the issues is the representation of ministers from Igbo extraction during Obasanjo’s eight-year reign as Nigeria’s president. Some of the minister include Fabian Osuji; Chinwe Obaji; Obiageli Ezekwesili; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; Joy Ogwu; Frank Nweke II; Chukwuemeka Chikelu and a host of others, who allegedly got juicy portfolios during the period.

The second issue is about his surname – Obasanjo. Critics say, unlike other popular Yoruba names, which can easily be linked or traced to a particular ethnicity or state, the name Obasanjo seems to have no link to any zone or family in Abeokuta where he hails or the entire state.

Investigations by The Guardian, however, showed that the former president has a link to six different communities in the state – Ibogun; Adenrele; Onihale, all in Ifo local council; Onigbedu, Arigbajo – both in Ewekoro local council and Totoro (Olusomi compound) in Abeokuta.

Family sources disclosed that Adenrele; Onihale and Arigbajo are his maternal family side, while Onigbedu, Ibogun and Totoro are his paternal family’s abode.

When The Guardian visited Arigbajo, Mr. Kehinde Abati, a cousin to the former president, confirmed that though the family hailed from Olusomi compound in Owu-Totoro, Abeokuta, before travelling down to Ibogun Olaogun, their great grand parents, who bore the name Olaogun, gave birth to Obasanjo’s father – Bankole and his siblings in Ibogun.

Abati said: “Onihale, Adenrele and Arigbajo are his mother’s side, while Ibogun, Onigbedu and Totoro are his father’s side. Obasanjo’s mother is of the same parents with my father. The Olusomi compound is our father’s house; it was from there they migrated to Ibogun Olaogun. In the olden days, we usually take yams from Ibogun to Olusomi for the New Year festival. And because there was no means of transportation, we usually trekked the long distance.”

He noted that proponents of the false narrative are mischief-makers because Obasanjo’s ancestry is not disputable. “Obasanjo is a true son of Owu. The tribal marks, though failing, are still intact for all to see. Obasanjo is our father and his name should never be dragged into the mud.”

The Guardian also visited the house of late Pa Owolabi, the former president’s nephew, who was popularly known as Manager during his lifetime. His wife, Mrs Maria Owolabi, popularly called Iya Bolanle, corroborated Abati’s claim.

Obasanjo’s parents’ graves in his Ita-Eko’s home in Abeokuta. Inset is his father’s tombstone.

“My late husband’s mother was of the same parents with Obasanjo’s mother – Ashabi from Onihale village. His mother was married when she was staying at Adenrele and later started staying at Ibogun with her husband where she gave birth to Obasanjo.

She revealed that Obasanjo’s father died at Onigbedu after migrating from Ibogun and was buried there. “His mother too died at Onihale and was also buried there. It was later that the former president exhumed both corpses and moved them to Abeokuta where he reburied them. So, the rumour is actually ridiculous because his father was buried in Ogun State here.”

At Olusomi compound, Totoro, Alhaja Adijatu Adeyemi, a kinsman of the former president who resides at the family house, conducted the reporter round the family house. He showed the reporter the room occupied by the former president during his days at the Baptist Boys High School, Abeokuta.

Alhaja Adeyemi spoke on the name variation: “In this compound, we have Adebayo, Adebiyi, Adeyemi, Ajala, Adegboyega and Onatade, who are siblings of the same parents. In the family house, every one of them have their lineage. Obasanjo is an original son of this Olusomi family. The reason there are arguments is because his tribal marks are fading.

“The tribal marks are there for all to see, he’s not of Igbo extraction, and he is an original Owu son. The traditional stool zoned to this family from the Olowu stool is Balogun; they are not part of the ruling family. They are kingmakers.

“Adebiyi and Adebayo have their farms at Ibogun. The likes of Adeyemi and others had their farms at Idi-Ori and you know that in the olden days, when you farm somewhere, definitely you’ll be living there. That’s why they relocated finally to Ibogun. His father died at Onigbedu because that was where he was working as at the time of his death. He took his father’s body to his Ita-Eko residence when he completed the house. He did the same thing for his mother too.”

While noting that a lot of people have visited the compound to confirm the veracity of the narrative, she advised the proponents to stop the rumour, because “Obasanjo is not an Igbo man.”

Another family member living at the Olusomi compound, Alhaji Mohammed Ajasa Akinbowale, who described Obasanjo as his maternal uncle, said: “It was the former president’s father that started bearing Obasanjo. According to what we met, his grandfather was Bankole, while his father adopted the name Obasanjo. It was the same Bankole that gave birth to Adebiyi, Adebayo and others who are siblings.

“Currently, we have the Adebiyi extended family, the Adebayo family, likewise the Obasanjo extended family. Majority of them went in search of farmlands; the likes of Ogunpola settled at Ajegunle, some moved to Onigbedu, while others moved to Idi-Ori. When we are talking about Olusomi compound, we have some at home and others outside here.

“Sometimes, some parents do have preference for other surnames. Obasanjo is a unique name, which people seldom adopt. When you look at the meaning, you’ll discover that maybe his father passed through some hard times when he was conceived. Obasanjo means ‘God has compensated me.’ Whoever is knowledgeable and thirst for facts needs to do their findings and get the fact to buttress their claims. What they are saying is mere rumour, which has no basis.”

According to Madam Asabi Adebayo, the former president’s aunt, who spoke to The Guardian at Ibogun, Obasanjo’s mother lived in the family house and that was where Obasanjo himself was born.

“He was born and bred in this village. His father was a farmer. He is also related to Onigbedu. Obasanjo is not just related to Ibogun Olaogun, he is a son of the soil here. His father migrated from Abeokuta with his grandfather to this place to farm.

“The name Obasanjo cannot be far-fetched. It actually stems from his great grandfather who was challenged with the Abiku phenomenon (children who die at infancy). Obasanjo’s father (Bankole) was christened Obasanjo because he was the only surviving child of his mother.

“When he gave birth to the former president, they started calling him Baba Segun. So instead of continuing with the family surname – Bankole, he decided to combine his own name (Obasanjo) to call his son, giving rise to Olusegun Obasanjo, which the former president bears today. It was during old age that he moved to Onigbedu to join his family members and that is where he eventually died.”

The Guardian was shown the family house where the former president was born, which has been refurbished.

The Olu of Ibogun Olaogun, Oba Sunday Adebayo, who is a relative of the former president also weighed in on the controversy: “Obasanjo’s father is an indigene of Ibogun Olaogun and was born here. Obasanjo himself was born here. The former president is my close relation because Bankole that gave birth to Obasanjo is also the father of Adebayo, who is my grandfather.

“All the development projects here, including the road construction, were done through the connection of the former president because this community was not as developed as this before. Bankole, who is Obasanjo’s father chose the name himself and nobody can question him because he had that right. As a parent, you have the right to name your child any name you desire.”

Though it was a bit difficult getting a glimpse of the tomb where the father was buried at the former president’s home in Ita-Eko, The Guardian later had access to the graveside situated at the right side of the compound behind a two-storey building. Three different tombs were positioned at the well-paved arena. The first from the left is the tomb of Obasanjo’s father, followed by that of his mother and then, that of his late wife – Stella Obasanjo.